Nonperfectionist Activism

Note: Below is my new article on The Rise of Nonperfectionist Veganism. Its purpose is to:

  • Introduce a new helpful set of vocabulary and concepts into activism (veganism below, and hopefully other activist causes to come);
  • Combat the counterproductive voices (some prominent) who say that there’s only one right way to do activism, be vegan, etc. And, of course,
  • Help activists become more effective and happier in their work.

Another important goal is to start creating a body of work on nonperfectionist progressive and radical activism of all sorts. If you like the article’s message and would like to adapt it for your cause, please email me. I would love to collaborate on that project with you.
Best, Hillary

The Rise of Nonperfectionist Veganism

by Hillary Rettig

This article is licensed under under a Creative Commons NonCommercial Sharealike License (CC BY-NC-SA). You may copy, distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon it non-commercially, however please make sure your distributions and new works acknowledge me and are licensed under the same terms.

After my book The Lifelong Activist was published by Lantern Books in 2006, I gave a lot of talks to vegan groups, and also spoke with many individual vegans and vegan activists. Whenever I’d mention what I’d considered the self-evident fact that some meat-eaters were turned off to veganism after encounters with judgmental or pushy vegans, I would inevitably get corrected. Meat-eaters react hostilely because they’re ashamed of their choices, I was told, and the shame causes them to lash out. And while I’m sure there’s some validity to this–you tell me you choose to collude on a daily basis with what you know to be massive cruelty just because some vegan pissed you off five years ago?–it never made complete sense because many meat eaters do, in fact, have real stories to tell about obnoxious vegan behavior.

Since as vegans and vegan activists our goals are to, (1) convert as many people to veganism as quickly as possible, and (2) get them to stay vegan, it pays to look at judgmentalism and other counterproductive behaviors and figure out how we can minimize them, as individuals and a movement. A useful starting point for this work is perfectionism, a harsh and punishing constellation of attitudes and behaviors that is many people’s major barrier to productivity, success and happiness. This article offers an overview of perfectionism, with examples illustrating how it plays out in veganism and vegan activism. And of course I offer techniques for overcoming it.

The Symptoms of Perfectionist Veganism and Vegan Activism

Here are the four major symptoms of perfectionism, with vegan and vegan-activism examples:

1. Defining success narrowly and unrealistically and failure broadly, and punishing self harshly for failure. For example: “If I’m not vegan 100% of the time without fail, I’m a rotten person and a sell-out!” Please note that we’re not talking about having high standards–high standards are fine!–but impossible standards. No one is vegan “without fail,” not just because of the pervasiveness of animal-derived products and the fact that even most plant-based agriculture harms wildlife, but because we’re human and sometimes screw up.

And don’t forget the “harsh punishment” side of the equation: “rotten person and a sell-out.” When your good intentions become painful and/or self-abusive you’ve crossed the line into perfectionism.

2. Grandiosity, or thinking things that are difficult for other people should be easy for you. Example: “Even though I spend my days and nights working to fight animal suffering, I shouldn’t need any healing or self-care. And I shouldn’t need to take any breaks. Those are all just self-indulgences, and I’m tough enough to handle it all.” Grandiosity also comes into play when we think we can take on big challenges, like activism or a profound dietary change, by ourselves, with little or no help—and because perfectionists tend to feel ashamed of their many perceived failings, they already have a tendency to isolate themselves, which the grandiosity only supports.

3. Overidentification with your “work” (in this case, veganism). For instance, basing your self–worth on how good a vegan you were today. (Note that “today” and see Symptom #5, shortsightedness, below.) Example: “I just ate a nonvegan candy bar; that makes me a terrible person.” It’s the overidentification, combined with the unreasonable standards mentioned explicitly in Symptom #1 and implicit in most of the other symptoms, that creates the perfectionist’s terror of failure. And, by the way, it also isn’t good to overidentify in a positive way–i.e., “I had a perfect vegan day today–I rule!” While it’s okay to be proud of one’s veganism, basing your self-worth on it is risky, and probably will lead to an emotional crash the next time the day doesn’t go so well

4. Overemphasizing product over process; deprecating the true process of success. Examples include: (a) going vegan, or doing vegan activism, without requisite information or planning, and (b) expecting success without having made the necessary investments or sacrifices. People who say to others, “It’s easy to go vegan! Just do it!” are making mistake A (more on this one below), while “pastaterians” and other vegans who don’t eat a balanced vegan diet are making mistake B.

And some minor symptoms:

5. Shortsightedness. Perfectionists tend to elevate the current moment above all others. For instance, “So what if you’ve been vegan for years, and are very careful with your diet? If you bought that pair of leather shoes you can’t care much about the animals.”

6. Labeling, such as “bad vegan,” “sell out,” “not committed,” etc. Even positive labels such as “good vegan” or “compassionate” can be a problem if they put pressure on you. Labels are basically bad; it’s okay to objectively describe an action or attitude as compassionate but avoid labeling yourself. (And, yes, I do realize I use the word “perfectionist” in this article as a label. I sometimes do that when writing for convenience, but try to avoid it in conversation.)

7. Hyperbole, such as, “I’m a terrible person.” Or, “This was the worst day ever.”

8. Fetishes, or relentless, repetitive self-criticism. Obsessing about the cheese you can’t seem to give up would be one example. Sure, it would be better to refrain, but bashing yourself constantly for not doing so isn’t helpful. (Ditto for the cheese someone else isn’t refraining from.) In fact, the shortest route to giving it up, as you’ll see, is to be compassionate about your choices, since that empowers you to make change.

9. Negativity, such as, “So you’re meatless on Mondays. Big deal. What about the rest of the week?” Or, “So you’re vegan. Big deal. Nothing you do is going to make a difference; we’re all doomed anyway.” There’s a short step from sentiments such as these to futility, a hugely demotivating and disempowering mindset.

10. Invidious comparisons. Comparisons can be valid analytical tools, but when a perfectionist makes a comparison, the primary purpose is invariably not analysis, but self-punishment. An example is, “Why can’t I do as much activism as Joe? And why can’t I do direct action like he does? All I do is send out letters and donate money. I’m so weak…” This is yet another case where a useful thought (“I could do better”) crosses the line into perfectionism by becoming a vehicle for shame and self-abuse.

11. Reductiveness. Perfectionist narratives tend to be oversimplified and dramatic, which is why we constantly see them in the media. Classic examples include “overnight success” stories; “lone success” stories that elide the role a person’s community played in their success; and stories that glamorize deprivation and suffering (many “rags to riches” stories). Many or most stories of “instant conversion” to veganism are probably similarly reductive. I myself became vegan immediately after seeing Peaceable Kingdom at a FARM Animal Rights National Conference, for instance, but to call my conversion instant is to ignore a lifelong commitment to social justice and a lifelong deep love of animals. These factors got me to the conference to start with, and primed me for my so-called instant conversion by that fantastic movie.
Believing any of the perfectionist narratives is going to give you unrealistic expectations of success for your veganism, vegan activism, and other endeavors.

12. Rigidity, as evinced by repeatedly trying the same solution to a difficult problem despite evidence that it doesn’t work. For instance, continuing to lecture your family on the evils of meat eating, despite the fact that prior lectures haven’t gotten them to change their diet. A nonperfectionist vegan activist would try some new strategies, including cooking some delicious vegan meals; or she might even decide to give up, at least temporarily, on trying to influence her family and focus her advocacy elsewhere.

13. Dichotomized thinking, also known as black-or-white or polarized thinking. Examples include, “You’re either 100% vegan or you’re not. There’s no middle ground.” Or, “If you’re not willing to look at this picture of a suffering animal, you’re a bad, uncaring person. Or, “Whole Foods Market, despite all the humane things they do, is still vile because they sell meat.” (I love this last one when spoken by people who shop at Target or other stores that don’t do a fraction of what Whole Foods does for animal and human rights.)

Another type of dichotomization is making strong distinctions between those who go vegan for the “right” reasons (e.g., ethical concerns for animals and/or the environment) and those who do it for the “wrong” reasons (e.g., their health). Vegans who do this often cite research showing that people who go vegan for “selfish” reasons often revert back to eating meat, or simply switch from beef to chicken or fish. Even if that’s true, however, it makes sense to celebrate any reason someone starts to get more conscious and empowered about their food. From that foundation, you can encourage them to take more steps, and also to develop more of an understanding of the ethics involved.

Moreover, the reality is more complex than the ethics-vs.-selfishness dichotomy would lead you to believe. Obviously, people can have multiple motives for changing their diets. And the fact is that many people have permanently given up at least some animal products solely due to health reasons. As a result of growing awareness about the health risks associated with eggs’ high cholesterol levels, for instance, U.S. per capita egg consumption plummeted 37% from 1950 to 1990. (Then it bounced back up a few points, and is now dropping again, perhaps due to vegan outreach.) And the recent Earth Policy Institute report Peak Meat: U.S. Meat Consumption Falling attributes sustained drops in U.S. beef and pork consumption to consumer health and price concerns. (And don’t you just love that phrase “peak meat!”) In Europe, where egg prices have risen mainly due to tougher humane regulations, egg sales are declining: “The European Egg Processors Association says that EU-wide production of eggs since the Jan. 1 legislative change has dropped by 10 to 15 percent, or about 200 million eggs a week.”

Questions of why people attempt veganism may, in the end, be far less important than why they attempt and fail, i.e., dietary recidivism. Erik Marcus discussed one tiny study on vegan recidivism on his late, great blog, but recidivism is a huge problem for all kinds of dieters. Search on “dietary recidivism” and you’ll find that most experts believe it happens when people don’t have a good plan, or enough support, or when the diet itself is rigid or extreme or deprivational. In other words: when they get perfectionist about it.

14. Pathologizing ordinary events and setbacks. “I ate some cheese yesterday, so I’m a horrible person and a horrible vegan.” We all have setbacks, but a perfectionist will interpret his setback to mean he’s fundamentally unfit to reach his goal. A nonperfectionist will, in contrast, learn from the mistake and make a plan to avoid repeating it–and move on.

As you can see, perfectionism is quite a complex and nasty brew! It also spawns other barriers to success, notably shame, overwhelm, and a sense of futility, all of which may be why the opposition often uses perfectionist arguments to try to undermine us. Here’s a telling comment from the recent New York Times essay contest on the ethics of meat eating: “Vegans claim to be more ethical, but why can’t they be the most ethical and eat only rocks and gravel?” Unachievable standard of success, anyone?

So, the next time someone questions your commitment because you took an animal-tested painkiller, or mentions that, “wildlife died to grow all those soybeans, you know,” you’ll know what they’re up to. If you want to know how to respond, you could do worse than learning from Jacqueline Frasca, author of the Vegpocalypse Now blog, who responded thusly to another blogger who accused vegan photographers of being hypocritical when they use film, which contains gelatin: “Get off your high fucking horse–I’m a photographer and I use film, but as a vegan I actively save lives that you destroy every day as a non-vegan.” (F-bomb optional.) I also like her blog’s tagline, “I do my best, but that’s all.”

Perfectionism, Procrastination, and Disempowerment

Procrastination, or the inability to do one’s work or other important tasks (e.g., eat vegan) is largely a response to perfectionism. (There are other causes, including resource deficiencies and ambivalence, but perfectionism is usually the biggest barrier.) Because perfectionists so harshly judge themselves, they dread failure, which is unfortunately inevitable since they define success so unrealistically. When a perfectionist senses she’s about to fail, she struggles to self-correct, but since perfectionist psychology is fundamentally harsh and rigid, the only “fix” she can come up with is a self-abusive litany that runs something like this:

“What’s wrong with you? This is easy! Why are you so weak? You’ve had all this help, and you still   can’t get your act together. Animals are dying because you don’t give a shit. Etc. Etc.”

The litany is a desperate attempt to coerce herself back on track, but it actually makes the problem worse since it only adds fear on top of fear, and shame on top of shame. The terrorized, shamed self wants only to escape those awful feelings, and eventually does so via procrastination. There are other ways to cope with such a crisis, of course―you can problem-solve, ask someone for help, or make a plan so you avoid its reoccurrence―but in her fear the perfectionist loses access to many of her skills, talents, and capacities, and thus can’t take those more productive steps. She’s disempowered, in other words. So procrastination, it turns out, isn’t caused by weakness, lack of discipline, lack of commitment or any other “lack,” but the disempowerment caused by fear.

Now, think about someone who loves animals and wants to live more compassionately. He checks out veganism, but is bewildered and discouraged by what seems to him to be a lot of rules, and a lot of deprivation. He turns to a vegan for help and is told that, “veganism is easy.”

Not only is that statement pure perfectionism (emphasis on product over process), it is callous and irresponsible — that last because someone hearing it in mid-struggle is likely to become ashamed and demoralized and simply quit. (And probably resent vegans.) As vegan nutritionist and Vegan for Life co-author Ginny Messina writes:

People who perceive barriers to going vegan need to have their concerns acknowledged, not dismissed. Here’s the thing: Giving up whole categories of food that you love and that are familiar and that you know how to prepare and that have always been a part of your family and social celebrations is not necessarily easy … The idea isn’t to reinforce concerns and pre-conceived ideas about veganism, but to recognize them, and then help people find ways to work through them … Sharing our own struggles in going — and staying — vegan can actually be reassuring to others.

A few moments of reflection should tell any vegan that if changing one’s diet were easy for most people, there wouldn’t be an obesity problem in the United States or a $65 billion global diet industry.

Compassionate Objectivity: The Antidote to Perfectionist Veganism

Perfectionism will sometimes seem like a good motivational tool, especially if you confuse it with having high standards (see Symptom #1), but it is always a dead end, both for individuals and movements. It constricts your sense of yourself and what you’re capable of and, oftentimes, your view of others and what they are capable of. The opposite of perfectionism is what I call compassionate objectivity. In place of perfectionism’s rigid, reductive, and punishing worldview, it offers flexibility, nuance, empathy, compassion, and true love and respect. And, instead of constriction, it offers abundance and expansive possibilities.

Compassionately-objective vegans and vegan activists tend to:

Define success broadly and realistically. They know that every vegan meal or ingredient is a triumph and a foundation for future progress.

Non-grandiose. They don’t expect to succeed without adequate planning and preparation, and without occasional challenges. Or alone.

Separate their veganism from themselves. Their veganism is important to them, but they don’t let it fully define them or determine their self-esteem.

Prioritize process over product. They focus on just living their life as compassionately as they can, moment by moment and day by day.

They also:

  • Take the long view / broad view.
  • Favor accurate, objective, compassionate descriptions over labeling.
  • Avoid hyperbole.
  • Avoid fetishes.
  • Avoid comparisons.
  • See things non-dichotomously in shades of gray.
  • Are flexible.
  • Anticipate setbacks and don’t pathologize them. A compassionately-objective person, when she slips up, is not likely to say, “What a horrible jerk I am. Etc. Etc.” But:

“Okay, I wish I hadn’t had that cheese at the party. I was standing near the buffet and couldn’t resist it, especially when everyone else was saying how great it was. Oh well, I won’t dwell on it. I hadn’t had cheese for a month before that, and I’ll try to go for another month — or more! — without having it again. Parties seem to be my downfall, however, so let’s see what I can do to help myself. Well, I won’t stand near the buffet, for one thing. And maybe I’ll eat something ahead of time so I don’t arrive hungry. And maybe I’ll bring some faux-cheese treats for myself and to share with others. But if I do that, I should be prepared for some people saying they’re not exactly like real cheese.”

As this example illustrates, compassionate objectivity is not about giving yourself a “pass.” Compassionately-objective people take full responsibility. They simply skip the shame and blame, which enables them to move much more quickly and easily to problem solving.

In my classes, people describe the compassionately-objective voice as that of the “good grandparent” or “wise teacher.” Because of their empathy, expansiveness, kindness, and other qualities, compassionately-objective people often make terrific advocates for veganism and their other important values.

How to Build Your Compassionate Objectivity

You can overcome your perfectionism, and build your own compassionate objectivity, using these techniques:

1) Work consciously to replace perfectionist thinking and speaking with compassionate objectivity. As per the cheese example noted above. The first few times you consciously interrupt a perfectionist thought and replace it with a compassionately objective one, it might feel weird and artificial, but keep at it. Eventually it will become automatic–and you’ll also see that it’s self-reinforcing, since compassionate objectivity doesn’t just lead to better outcomes, it feels way better than harsh, self-abusive perfectionism.

2) Journal to Uncover Root Causes / Develop a Problem Solving Mentality. Write out your fears, confusions, questions, and concerns about your veganism or vegan activism in as much detail as possible, and also write out potential solutions. These can include the challenges you face within yourself, as well as those involving your family, workplace, and friends. The list should also include constraints on your information, time, and other resources, as well as any ambivalence you feel around the goal. (For instance, if you’re afraid that your becoming more activist is going to alienate friends or family members.)

This is a private exercise, and you don’t have to, and probably shouldn’t, show it to anyone. The key is to be thorough, recording as much of the nuances of each topic as possible and censoring nothing. Especially don’t censor your “small,” “fleeting,” or “trivial” fears because those are often much bigger than we initially realize.

What you’ll probably discover is that: (a) you have many more fears, constraints and ambivalences than you realize (most people come up with a list of between two and three dozen); and (b) many will be small and easily dealt with (refer again to the cheese example). This leaves the harder ones (such as, for instance, those involving an unsupportive family or community): but better to characterize them sooner rather than later so you can get started problem solving. The great news is that, the more barriers you identify and overcome, the easier it will become to deal with the rest.

3) Community. Compassionate objectivity will come much more easily if you hang around people who live and practice it. There are plenty of compassionately objective vegans out there: look for them online and offline, in veg groups and elsewhere. And don’t limit your interactions to other vegans: carnists can also be compassionately objective, even if they haven’t yet woken up to the vegan imperative. Let them model compassionate objectivity for you, while you model the joys of vegan compassion and nonviolence for them.

Nonperfectionist Veganism is the Path to Abolition

Nonperfectionist veganism isn’t opposed to abolition; it’s the quickest way to get there. By acknowledging the reality of our human needs and challenges vis a vis veganism, it provides a realistic route to creating and sustaining change. Of course we want everyone to go as close to 100% vegan as quickly as possible. But perfectionist judgment and coercion don’t work, and are immoral anyway.

There’s a method and a science to persuasion, and it doesn’t involve shaming or guilting your audience. McDonald’s, Coke, Nike, etc., didn’t build their enormous customer bases by conveying, “You’re an uncool jerk if you don’t buy our product,” but rather the more inspiring and motivational statement that “you’ll be cool if you do buy it.” Another reason these companies don’t coerce is that coercion usually achieves only short-term compliance, not long-term commitment and behavioral change. As Nick Cooney writes in his book on the psychology of activism, Change of Heart: “As a general human characteristic, people accept inner responsibility for a choice only in the absence of a strong external pressure to make that choice.”

The only time it might make sense to use coercive tactics is when you’re dealing with members of a corporate or government power structure. Even then, however, you need to tread lightly. In his book Ethics Into Action, Peter Singer quotes journalist Nicholas Wade on renowned animal activist Henry Spira:

I think he was effective because he was such a friendly, outgoing moderate sort of person. He wasn’t strident. He didn’t expect you necessarily to agree with everything he said. But he was very bubbly and full of ideas, and just interesting to listen to. So I found him an engaging character to cover. I thought he had lots of good points, so I was ready to run with them and bounce them off his adversaries.

And Cooney writes, “The Humane League has experienced many occasions where our street protests led to an angry response from the target company; but when I afterwards met with company representatives and was very polite, a policy change was made.”

Vegans who vent their anger unstrategically at individuals or organizations are probably achieving very little, and may very well be helping the opposition, who are all too happy to paint all vegans as being angry fringe types.

In The Lifelong Activist, I quote activist and sales experts on the importance of forming a bond with your audience, often based on common language and ideas. Here’s Dale Carnegie in the classic How to Win Friends and Influence People: “Begin by emphasizing–and keep on emphasizing–the things on which you agree. Keep emphasizing, if possible, that you are both striving for the same end and that your only difference is one of method and not of purpose.”

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant!, discusses the “frames” of information and associations we all carry around in our heads, and that are often automatically invoked when we hear a word like, say, “vegan.” Some people will hear that word and immediately think of concepts like compassionate, healthy, delicious, and ecological, while others will think of concepts like weird, unhealthy, boring, and un-American. (A major purpose of meat industry advertising is to reinforce that latter frame.) Lakoff says the first step in helping someone embrace a new frame is to build a “bridge” encompassing both his frame and your own. Health could be one such frame, and the fact that your listener is a self-professed “animal lover” could be another.

The vital importance of developing a common language is why, when I hear someone describe themselves as 80% vegan, or 50%, or 30%, I don’t despair but celebrate. They’re using the vegan frame! The hard work is done. Instead of bashing them for the steps they haven’t taken, let’s work with them to take one of those steps. And then another. And another….

The Rise of Nonperfectionist Veganism

Fortunately, there are many strong advocates for nonperfectionist veganism, including:

Popular vegan cookbook author and advocate for joyful veganism Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, who in her writing and speeches reminds her audiences that, “Veganism isn’t about getting it perfect; it’s about doing your best.”

Animal rights media blogger Karen Dawn, who writes in her fun book Thanking the Monkey: “I have met people who tell me they went vegan for a while and then gave up because it was too hard. Now they eat absolutely anything–even bacon double cheeseburgers made with factory-farmed pork. That’s crazy! It comes from the rigid idea that if one isn’t totally vegan, one isn’t helping at all, so one might as well do nothing–and that just isn’t true.”

Former blogger, Erik Marcus, who routinely advocated for pragmatic, nonperfectionist approaches to veganism and vegan activism that work in the real world.

And vegan dietitian Ginny Messina and blogger Jacqueline Frasca, whom I quoted earlier.

Of course, there are also countless less famous examples.

I myself am not a perfect vegan. (I lapse once in a while with a candy bar, usually during times of emotional or physical stress.) Nor am I a perfect vegan activist (whatever that means)–far from it. But I will always seek to do better, both in my personal veganism and as an activist. And I have to tell you that each time I encounter a vegan or vegan activist my heart swells. There is plenty to condemn humans over, as a species and (often) as individuals; however, so much of our predicament is due to nature, which created us to live at others’ expense. In this context, I think veganism is one of our species’ most glorious accomplishments. I hope more full and partial vegans realize this as well, and take pride and joy in what they have wrought in their own lives, and for the animals and planet.

And I hope that pride inspires them to try to do better.

One step at a time, we’ll all get there–and probably faster than we all realize.