Excerpted from a speech delivered at the 35th World Vegetarian Congress, Edinburgh, Scotland, 9 July 2002.
During his 1998 Plenary speech at the North American Vegetarian Society’s Annual Conference, the noted vegan philosopher Stanley M. Sapon addressed perhaps the most important question facing the movement today: What is the most effective way of encouraging people to embrace a vegan lifestyle? For Dr. Sapon, the answer is clear:
“We have had little success in getting people to make major changes in their lives purely on the basis of ‘facts’…it takes more than ‘reason’…It takes the added power of emotion…of feeling…of compassion…Without the spark of emotion, it is almost impossible to ignite people’s passions.”
The genesis of my own understanding of this fundamental truth can be traced to my first humane education presentation, nearly ten years ago, at a small elementary school in Connecticut.
The night before the class I wrote nearly a dozen pages of notes containing facts about the health and environmental aspects of vegetarianism. The next morning, I walked into the classroom and carefully placed my notes on the desk beside me. I began the class by asking: “How do you feel about the way animals are treated in our society?”
It was only after the bell rang, marking the end of the period, that I realized I had never once looked at those notes.
Throughout the class, students described how they felt about the killing of animals for food. They also discussed their feelings about hunting, fishing, circuses, zoos, and animal experimentation. And although the research I had done prior to the class enabled me to provide factual answers to some their questions, I slowly began to recognize the true heart of my presentation.
Toward the end of the period, we discussed ways of addressing some of the concerns they had raised. Yet even as we identified many of the choices that both children and adults could make to positively affect the lives of animals, it became apparent to me that they needed something more. They needed a sense of hope. They needed to believe it was possible for them to make a difference in the world.
So I spoke about changes that had been made in our society, initiated by everyday people such as themselves, that had resulted in the betterment of animals’ lives. I also described some of the experiences that led to my decision to embrace a lifestyle guided by the principles of ahimsa, defined by Gandhi as the expression of compassion toward all beings – in thought, word, and deed. In doing so, I was struck by the intensity of their interest. And I remember thinking at that moment: Each one of us has a unique and compelling story to tell about the person we’ve become. And even the most persuasive factual information pales in comparison to the power of those stories.
These days, when people ask me for the “reason” why I’ve chosen to live a vegan lifestyle, I tell them: “I don’t have one.” Because for me, it’s not about “reason”- it’s about what I feel inside my heart.
Information about science and health has its place. But if we truly are going to succeed in creating a more compassionate society, then the core of our message must be geared toward reaching people’s hearts. In the words of Jan Phillips of the Syracuse Cultural Workers:
“No matter what our attempts to inform, it is our ability to inspire that will turn the tides.”
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Copyright 2002 John J. Morlino, Jr. All rights reserved.
May be reprinted with written permission from the author.
This article originally appeared in the July 2002 edition of VegNews and was subsequently published in European Vegetarian, Issue 3/2002 (Belgium) and Vegi Info, Winter 4/2002 (Switzerland).