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The Vegan Winter 2010:The Vegan Winter 2004 03/11/2010 12:41 Page 13

Q: What is ‘witnessing’ – what does it mean, and what do you believe it can achieve for the vegan movement? A: I define witnessing as being willing to see the truth, with our hearts as well as with our eyes. “Bearing witness” is an active process in which we are not simply detached, impassive observers, but are emotionally and psychologically engaged with that which we are witnessing. When we bear witness to another, we do our best to put ourselves in his or her shoes, to connect with the truth of his or her experience. We empathize. When it comes to farmed animals, such empathy is typically what compels us to act on their behalf. Witnessing is the kryptonite of carnism; the whole system is organized to block witnessing. Thus, the goal of the vegan movement is to help others to bear witness - not only to the truth about farmed animals but also to the truth about carnism.

“Witnessing is the kryptonite of carnism; the whole system is organized to block witnessing. Thus, the goal of the vegan movement is to help others to bear witness - not only to the truth about farmed animals but also to the truth about carnism.”

I have so often heard activists saying they “have to,” for instance, watch a graphic film about meat production because they “owe it” to the animals, and the suffering they’ll endure from witnessing “is nothing compared to what the animals go through.” This is irrational and counterproductive thinking; over-witnessing does nothing to help the animals and actually increases the likelihood that the activist will burn out. We each need to work for veganism in a way that also works for us as individuals. Some people can witness far more than others; some can no longer witness at all. Find a way to help the cause that works for you. Q: How can I talk to my loved ones about veganism without them getting upset and defensive? A: First, expect that the very issue of eating animals will cause some defensiveness, since the carnistic mentality is built on defences. If you understand carnism, you are less likely to get pulled into a defensive argument. Also, make it your goal not to convert the other but to have an authentic conversation in which you come to a greater understanding of each other. Moreover, I always recommend sharing your own story, using “I” statements, rather than simply listing all the reasons people shouldn’t eat animals. For instance, whenever people ask me if I’m vegan, I say, “I am now, but for much of my life I wasn’t….” This immediately creates a sense of connection, where the carnist knows I understand what it’s like not to be vegan. And finally, if you model the qualities you’re asking for (empathy, open-mindedness, etc.), you’re much more likely to encourage such qualities in the other and cultivate a productive, meaningful conversation. Understanding carnism is vital for the vegan movement and vegan advocates; since carnism is the reason why animals are turned into food in the first place. Indeed, the goal of the vegan movement isn’t simply the abolition of the production of animal products, but the transformation of carnism. As advocates, we are ambassadors for the movement and if we understand carnism, we are much better able to avoid the frustration and embitterment that can lead to burnout, and to communicate our message effectively. Understanding carnism, in my opinion, is fundamental to the empowerment of our movement, and ourselves.

Understanding witnessing can help us understand why carnists often don’t change their behaviours even after being exposed to information about the reality of animal agribusiness; many carnists witness with their eyes but not with their hearts. Q: How can I be a positive active ‘witness’, without becoming traumatized by all the suffering involved in animal exploitation? A: As vegans, it is essential that we bear witness to ourselves. We must pay attention to our thoughts and feelings, and notice when we are starting to become distressed.

Dr Melanie Joy is the author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism (reviewed in The Vegan Summer 2010).

Those of us who are vegan tend to overcompensate for the lack of witnessing among carnists; we often over-witness.

The Vegan l Winter 2010

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Profile for The Vegan Society

Why isn't everyone vegan yet?  

Carnism is made possible by the broader ideology of speciesism, which creates the belief that other species are less worthy of consideration...

Why isn't everyone vegan yet?  

Carnism is made possible by the broader ideology of speciesism, which creates the belief that other species are less worthy of consideration...