Fork bracelets inscribed with Liberation, photo courtesy EnvisionPositive
This blog is part of a three-part series. To learn more about the Pledge, start with Part 1.
In 2015, I told my family that I couldn’t come to Christmas dinner if they were eating an animal. This was my first act in taking the Liberation Pledge, a public oath to live vegan, refuse to sit at tables where animals are being eaten, and encourage others to do the same. Along with many others, mostly in affiliation with the grassroots animal liberation network Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), I took the Pledge as an honest expression of my own integrity and believed it to be a potent strategy for social change. In hindsight, the Pledge did not have the strategic value we imagined it would, but I’m hopeful that its essence can be expressed constructively- to allow animal advocates to energize their social networks to create change. In this post, I’ll make a proposal to do just that.
In contrast with a pledge that we promise to follow in every situation, with every person, the new Liberation Pledge is a promise to have brave conversations with people we’re close to, where a solution is found in collaboration with the other.
To this day, I don’t want to sit at tables while animals are being eaten. If I do, I face a difficult choice. I have the option to emotionally disengage from what’s happening, not to think of who is being eaten and what their presence means. If I choose this, then to some extent I disengage emotionally from the people around me. In this case, I’m not bringing my whole self to the table. In some situations, this option surely makes the most sense.
Practitioners of the Pledge generally understood this. We might have “broken” the Pledge or simply not practiced it in certain situations. For example, while I took the Pledge around family and friends, I never made such demands at work. Instead, I chose to prioritize the work itself and engage on more of a surface level with my colleagues.
But in other situations, I don’t want to attend and disengage. Then, to fully include myself, I need to ask others to accommodate my emotional needs by refraining from eating animals.
That's where the request comes in, our update to the second tenet of the Liberation Pledge. This is our proposed strategy to achieve the original goal of the Pledge, which was to change the norms around eating animals using the strength of our closest social relationships, while at the same time deepening those relationships.
Nonviolence ain’t easy
Of course you’re angry about what’s happening to animals. I’m angry too. It breaks my heart to know that people who know and love me continue to eat animals’ bodies. Of course we sometimes want to yell or blame or threaten that we aren’t coming to Christmas if they can’t have one goddamn vegan meal in their lives. But nonviolence asks us to accept sacrifice, for the sake of the cause, to achieve a goal. Sometimes that sacrifice looks like a glamorous photo of civil disobedience, but more often, it’s about building the discipline we need to win people over. It means dealing with our own emotions first, so that when we show up to try to do the work the world needs, we’re intentional, emotionally generous, and unflinchingly nonviolent.
What if the most important struggle for animal activists takes place not outside factory farms or in politicians’ offices, but at their family’s dinner table? How would we approach our strongest relationships if we truly believed they were the most valuable resource we have to create social change? Our answer is the request.
Steps of the Request
Understand that conflict is a vehicle for connection.
The request can have a political effect, but that’s not why you’re doing it. It’s about your personal comfort in connection with others, and that’s okay. When you make the request, you’re inviting someone into your world and asking to be understood. When you engage with directness and empathy about the ways that you aren’t currently meeting each other’s needs, you open a door to greater honesty and closeness.
Let’s consider a more radical abandonment of the political framing: Your family doesn’t have to accept any part of your worldview for this to work so long as they can empathize with your experience. Here’s an extreme example. In the TV show Better Call Saul, an attorney named Chuck believed that he had a condition called Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EMS), causing him to live without electricity and often wrapped in a foil blanket. While his condition is portrayed as psychosomatic, his law firm turned off everything electric so that Chuck could come to a meeting for an important case. That decision had nothing to do with the existence of EMS as a condition outside of Chuck’s mind and everything to do with their respect for the founding partner of their firm. They only needed to accept his experience of the world, not any objective truth about it, to, quite literally, meet him at the table.
Similarly, for this request, your family only needs to accept that in your reality, animals are sentient and what’s happening to them is terrifying and heartbreaking. They don’t have to accept that this is objectively true. By explicitly putting aside who’s right, you can allow the request to live in your connection without it requiring the examination of psychological defense mechanisms around eating animals. You can talk to the person themselves, the one who cares about you and doesn’t want to cause you unnecessary suffering, without talking to the part of them that needs to defend itself.
While the early framing of the Liberation Pledge talked about using your social capital to create a cultural stigma around eating animals, it missed the mechanism by which this can happen- empathic connection, where our loved ones feel generously enough towards us to consider our world and feel pain on our behalf. By accepting that their realities may differ from ours and not, in this conversation, asking that they feel empathic pain on behalf of animals themselves, we have a chance at making the request from a place of real connection. This is a great strategy to help them eventually empathize with animals, but it will work better if you focus on the connection, not the strategy.
Consider what level of conflict the relationship can hold at this point.
Back to the example of EMS in Better Call Saul, it’s important to the example that Chuck was a respected partner of the firm. With such a high need for accommodations for the most basic of participation, he was generally only shown interacting with those who respected him greatly.
Consider, who are you to the people you’re making this request of? If they asked you to accommodate them in a way that might be emotionally difficult for you, would you be likely to challenge yourself to serve the relationship? If not, it might make more sense to take care of yourself in a way that doesn’t rely on strength the relationship doesn’t have right now, and save the difficult conversation of the request for people you’re more invested in.
A paradoxical mantra of Nonviolent Communication is that it’s hard to listen if you haven’t been heard. The paradox lies in the fact that it’s true for both parties, but only one person gets to be heard first, often leading to an emotional standoff where people in conflict talk past each other. If we, as practitioners of nonviolence, can offer to do the hearing first and frequently, we can break that vicious cycle and be more likely to have a connective conversation.
In the first part of the conversation, be prepared to communicate the following messages, in words that are as natural to you and your relationship as possible.
- I hear you. I understand what you’re saying and how you’re feeling. I’ve confirmed with you that I’m getting it, and you’ve agreed that I am. I’m patient and curious to understand more.
- I accept you. I don’t blame you for what’s happening to animals. I understand that the problem lies in a system that’s much bigger than both of us. If you say that you care about it, I believe you, even if your behavior isn’t what I wish it were.
- I care about you. I want to have this conversation to deepen our relationship by letting you know what’s going on for me, not for me to win or for you to lose.
- We’re in this together. I want to hear what’s important to you and find a solution that meets everyone’s needs.
The practical difference between the original Liberation Pledge and our update is that the original Pledge was delivered in a static state, “I don’t sit at tables where animals are being eaten” where the outcome of the updated Pledge is determined through conversation in collaboration with the other. “I’m thinking about Thanksgiving and feeling pretty worried about how I’ll feel with a turkey there. What’s coming up for you hearing that much? I think I understand, am I getting it? Are you open to hearing more about what’s coming up for me? How is that to hear? How would it be for you to… go without the turkey? Let me prepare a main dish instead? Have me visit after dinner? What ideas do you have for how we can work this out?”
Another difference in this proposal is to rethink our request as specific to a relationship, not a table or event. This can set us up for more realistic positive outcomes and help us invest our energy in productive ways. You might choose to attend a large family reunion where animals are being eaten and only make the request to those you most know and trust, letting their show of solidarity be a signal to others.
The more we can accept that this conversation is pretty difficult for the people we’re talking to, and stay in it with patience, the more likely we’ll have a connecting outcome. While the framing presented here is meant to reduce defensiveness, your loved ones will likely be carrying some messages from their own discomfort with eating animals, from what they’ve heard from others, and maybe even from what they’ve heard from you in the past.
Expect to continuously return to empathy- letting them know what you’re hearing is important to them, and checking to see if you got it right- as long as it takes.
What about relationships that we’re willing to end over this?
Conflict is extremely hard, and working through it in relationships usually takes much more time and energy than we expect. Practicing nonviolence doesn’t mean investing fully in every relationship or every conflict. Sometimes, you might not be willing to sit at a table or attend an event without the request being met fully and immediately, and you may not have the kind of relationship where you want to be so vulnerable as to share the pain of living in a world with the awareness of animals that you have.
In these cases, you might not decide to have a conversation about it. You might suggest a vegan restaurant or a walk in the park instead of lunch, or you might just decline an invitation. If you do decide to have a conversation, I recommend the same steps as above, with only as much investment in empathy as you’re willing to give, and with a blameless acceptance of the possibility that you might not be compatible dining companions.
What the Original Pledge Got Right
There are certainly elements of the Pledge that we’re preserving. Firstly, the Pledge asked us to be willing to make ourselves uncomfortable to act in accordance with our values. The bravery that Pledgers developed, and their willingness to withstand social pressure for a cause, is an undeniable positive outcome, and a central tenant of the updated Liberation Pledge.
Interactions that are awkward or clunky are not a sign of failure- they’re a necessary part of developing a new skill. While this model doesn’t demand a public commitment to have a conversation at every opportunity, it does contain the request that we push ourselves to show up authentically in these conversations, even when it’s hard. In fact, a display of nervousness or anxiety around the conversation can be another way to show how much your loved ones matter to you.
And let’s keep using the fork bracelet as a symbol, a reminder to ourselves, and a conversation starter. Like turning swords into plowshares, bend a fork that was an instrument of violence, and make it into a symbol of peace. I invite you to dust off your fork bracelet or bend a new one if you like, and wear it as a reminder to yourself to be brave, honest, and kind. Then, when someone compliments it, you have the option to offer, “Thanks. I wear it to remind myself of an intention I have- can I tell you about it?”