Is Nonviolent Communication Effective Vegan Advocacy?

There seem to be two distinct categories of vegan advocacy methods, one logical and the other more intuitive. The first is a direct Q&A, emphasizing critical thinking, clarifying arguments and identifying logical fallacies. The second is more discursive, nonjudgmental, and personal. The first is transactional and the second is relational; in the first, persuasive argument is paramount, and the second, the relationship is more important.

Books like Eat like you Care, and comics like Vegan Sidekick are very much of the first type. Prof. Francione’s book is a series of short chapters intended to provide answers to each of the many questions and objections raised by non-vegans. Vegan Sidekick, much beloved by his fans, is also a prolific series of cartoons about non-vegan fallacies, logical inconsistencies and hypocrisies.

The other method, the intuitive type, is demonstrated by psychologist Melanie Joy. Dr. Joy talks about explanatory constructs and attempts to reveal deep psychological structures in thinking. Never does she talk about logical fallacies. Another author who might also fall in this category is Will Tuttle. Less science, and more spiritual and anthropological than Joy, Dr. Tuttle’s approach traces our human inheritance of violent social structures and guides us towards a more peaceful way of being.

Although I have set these up as two different types of advocacy, radically opposed, there are approaches that merge the two. For example, Prof. Sherry Colb’s book Mind if I order the Cheeseburger takes 13 non-vegan objections at face value and answers them with patience and empathy. Colleen Patrick-Goodreau’s approach is also very similar to Sherry Colb’s. The difference between the first argumentative method and the second explanatory method is not one of content but the delivery of the message, and perhaps more important, how the message is perceived by the audience.

But even gentler approaches like Colb’s are not as radical as the framework of nonviolent communication as described by Marshall Rosenberg. As Rosenberg’s method is essentially based on communications experience and scholarship, it has much in common with Joy’s approach. But looking at Joy’s sources for presentation linked above, I can see that NVC is more radical still.

Here are some examples of the ways in which the teachings of nonviolent communication (NVC) are radically different from the way many advocate for veganism.

1. Do not judge non-vegans as wrong

Even at the very outset I find myself baffled. How often have we said that it veganism is the right way? That it is wrong to be a non-vegan? How on earth can we do vegan advocacy without making non-veganism ‘wrong’? 
 There are a whole slew of internet memes for judging animal use as morally wrong. For example:

Aside from that there are the ubiquitous virulent judgments on social media. For example, this one on the people who attend or take part in the rodeo:

Avoiding judgments is an essential feature of NVC. Our judgments of non-vegans are apparent when we diagnose their resistance to going vegan. Not just obvious judgments as in the screenshot, but even subtle judgments, like saying that a non-vegan is ‘making excuses’ when they might say they have health concerns about going vegan.

So why is wrong to judge non-vegans? Is there a difference between judging the doer vs. the deed? As in, loving the person but hating that they contribute to animal cruelty or use? Actually NVC does not seem to differentiate between the person and the action when it comes to judgment and evaluation. According to NVC, it is not useful to judge either one. When we judge, evaluate, diagnose, label or criticize, we are not connecting with the other person at that moment, what they are feeling or thinking. So judgments are things that interrupt the connection between people. Note that according to NVC, it is not only the negative judgments that are blocks to connection and empathy, positive judgments also act in a similar way. 
 It’s not that Marshall was against discernment, but he advised specifically against moralistic judgments, which is what we tend to do in vegan advocacy.

“I’m all for judgments. I don’t think we could survive very long without them. We judge which foods will give us what our bodies need. We judge which actions are going to get our needs met. But I differentiate between life-serving judgments, which are about meeting our needs, and moralistic judgments that imply rightness or wrongness.”

So how do we talk to someone, a non-vegan, without judging them or what they do? Marshall says that we begin by empathically connecting with the person to find their feelings and needs for doing what they do. Then we talk about how the actions are making us feel (afraid, angry, sad) and how they are not meeting our needs for justice and safety.

It is important here not to confuse value judgments and moralistic judgments. All of us make value judgments as to the qualities we value in life; for example, we might value honesty, freedom, or peace. Value judgments reflect our beliefs of how life can best be served. We make moralistic judgments of people and behaviors that fail to support our value judgments; for example, “Violence is bad. People who kill others are evil.” Had we been raised speaking a language that facilitated the expression of compassion, we would have learned to articulate our needs and values directly, rather than to insinuate wrongness when they have not been met. For example, instead of “Violence is bad,” we might say instead, “I am fearful of the use of violence to resolve conflicts; I value the resolution of human conflicts through other means.” (Nonviolent Communication, p 17)

Does this sound too far-fetched to be accomplished? When Marshall recounts NVC conversations with felons incarcerated for repeated child molestation, and understands their feelings and needs, then I have to say that it is not too far-fetched to empathically connect with a non-vegan. (Speak Peace page 101–102; see below, #5).

Judgments are said to be a reflection of unmet needs of one’s own.

“All moralistic judgments, whether positive or negative, are tragic expressions of unmet needs.”

When we have a judgment of a non-vegan, what might the unmet need be? Perhaps we need to be understood or to understand, or maybe we need to be effective in our advocacy. An important and relevant need is shared-world or shared-reality. Our feelings of dread, outrage, and profound disappointment are signals that we do not share the same reality as the rest of the world.

NVC’s critical point is that the judgments get in the way of effective advocacy and getting in touch with our own feelings and needs is conducive to effective communication.

2. Do not focus on winning the argument, or having non-vegans lose the argument

I have to admit that despite extensive education in the sciences and other areas I did not know all my logical fallacies until I came to vegan advocacy. I have now begun to think that the core of vegan advocacy is identifying and exposing logical fallacies.

Note the screenshots talk about identifying logical fallacies and consistently applying logic, which does not seem problematic. But often, the ultimate point of such logical argument is to put the non-vegans in the wrong, which is precisely what NVC says is not effective. It isn’t answering the question that creates the block in communication, but the goal to win the argument; the treatment of the non-vegan as the opponent who needs to beaten or subjugated.

3. Have empathy for non-vegans

I see many people say how they just can’t understand what goes on in the minds of non-vegans, how they can consider themselves loving or compassionate or even ‘animal lovers.’

Yes, it makes no sense at all! But it was only a few short years ago when I was doing the very same thing, and a variety of other irrational behaviors with respect to other animals.

According to NVC, we empathize by trying to figure out the needs of the non-vegan are when they eat or otherwise use animals, and why they persist. We don’t have to “right” in understanding those needs but just the process of trying to understand grows empathy. At some point there will be some resonance with the needs we have identified, and at that point we have a reached some level of empathy.

4. Do not build enemy images, or find ways of dissolving enemy images

Enemy images are the thinking that that says there is something wrong with the people whose actions or values we do not agree with.

“To create the world that exemplifies our values, we need to liberate ourselves from enemy images — the thinking that says there is something wrong with the people whose actions or values we don’t agree with. Whether our enemy images are with politicians, individuals with religions convictions different from our own, leaders of the corporate world, or our neighbors next door, lasting social change isn’t possible until we learn how to transform these enemy images.”

Thoughts such as “they are jerks,” or “they are being willfully ignorant,” end up being self-fulfilling prophecies. Instead of envisioning a whole person, we reduce the non-vegan to a static characteristic. Just thinking that someone is hostile will cause us to act or speak in way that tends to generate a hostile response.

While we just love Vegan Sidekick, it is actually a great source for constructing enemy images if we so wish. We know before they even say it, that non-vegans will refer to their Native American heritage, and that they only eat ‘local’ meat. We know they will trot out imaginary allergies or nutrient deficiencies. We are annoyed even before they formulate the thoughts themselves. We know what is in THEIR minds. This is the enemy image.

Enemy images might hinder effective advocacy, but it is almost certain that they affect us negatively. If we think non-vegans are jerks, or making excuses, then we act in ways that perpetuate that characterization. These are uncomfortable and troubling thoughts to be carrying around; they poison our minds and prevent us from being peaceful.

According to NVC, the process of dissolving the enemy image involves a great of self-empathy, and a gentle search for the need that is behind the enemy image. For example, let’s say that I have a friend who insists that vegans get sick from malnutrition sooner or later. Say this person is intelligent, and has already watched documentaries like Forks over Knives, which leads to a fierce static judgment of her as being willfully ignorant. The way to dissolve the enemy image is imagine a scenario where there is no blame for her words or actions.

For example, I could imagine that this person was very close to someone who suffered from malnutrition. Perhaps she has illnesses or allergies that restrict what she can freely eat. Maybe she is worried that she cannot afford to buy all the foods that she would need to be healthy as a vegan. Or maybe she is afraid to become different from practically everyone around her. Ultimately there seems to be an underlying fear in going vegan, and that is something I can empathize with. These thoughts engender understanding and an opening up to empathy that dissolves the enemy image.

5. Even rapists and child molesters get empathy

In vegan advocacy, I know to expect that analogies to rape, murder, human slavery and the Holocaust are apt to appear at the slightest provocation. I know we do this not merely to shock but to convey to non-vegans the extent of injustice we are inflicting upon the animals. We want the non-vegans to be as outraged as we are, as no-one could excuse rape, murder, or child molestation.

The funny thing is, with NVC, even rapists and child molesters get a hearing. Marshall has a conversation with a convicted felon to understand which needs that were being met by molesting children.

“He (the child molester) realized that his need for doing that (raping children) was for understanding. From the terror in their eyes, he felt they understood what he felt when he was a child, and his father did this to him. See. He didn’t realize that was his need. He didn’t know other ways of meeting that need, but once we got it clear, obviously there are many other ways to get that need met than to tyrannize people.”

Also see here for another description of mediation between rapist and the survivor using NVC.

6. Needs of all humans are fundamentally benign

The critical difference, it seems to me, between the argumentative approach and the conversational approach is whether or not we believe human needs are fundamentally harmless, but that we might differ in our strategies for meeting those needs.

“In order to put aside our thoughts of right and wrong — if only for the space of one conversation — we must be able to find in ourselves a deep well of trust in the abundance of the and the fundamentally benign nature of human needs. The spiritual premise which gives rise to this trust is that human needs, as opposed to human strategies, are universal and shared by all: tenderness, closeness, understanding, safety, the need to be understood, to contribute, to matter to others, to be valued.” (No Enemies, No Demands by Miki Kashtan).

In case anyone thinks that I am exempting myself from scrutiny here is a screenshot of my own post where I pretty much assume that non-vegans just need to have privilege over others.

Is this even advocacy?

I suspect that to some of us, the NVC method of advocacy doesn’t look like advocacy at all. If we do not judge, or argue to win, or compare with rape and slavery, it feels like we are not doing advocacy. I think it comes down to whether we can actually believe that humans needs are fundamentally benign; that once people begin to make the connection they will see that there are other ways to meet their needs rather than to kill animals.

Much of the negativity in vegan advocacy seems to be tied to social media as the communication tool. Perhaps winning and losing arguments are all that we are capable of online. Online advocacy deals in cartoons; it is a place where other people are reduced to one or two main characteristics. It lacks the complexity and warmth of the fuzzy multidimensional world.

I am not sure if I have convinced anyone else, and I certainly haven’t convinced myself yet. This is merely the start in trying to understand if NVC can help me in carrying out more effective advocacy. I still half believe that NVC will end being a form of moral relativism and “your truth” versus “my truth.” It is inauthentic for me to deny that I want the rest of the world to change, and that my fervent hope is that everyone, including the non-vegan I am talking to, will go vegan. But at the same time, I have found that no amount of community among vegans, both online and IRL combined, will ever compensate for being uneasy with the rest of humanity. Perhaps NVC will address that.

Main References

Marshall Rosenberg’s books Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life, and Speak Peace in a World of Conflict.


“ If we do not judge, or argue to win, or compare with rape and slavery, it feels like we are not doing advocacy.”

I have had some animal rights advocates object to this statement, saying that what is happening to ‘livestock’ animals is indeed rape and enslavement. In fact I agree with this objection, so I want to clarify and elaborate.

If we are comparing animal use to human rape or slavery in order to shock, appall, blame, verbally bludgeon or otherwise intimidate non-vegans, then that would not be NVC. From my own experience I know I have done this in order to judge and blame non-vegans. Even fairly gentle statements like, “I feel sad because I think what we do to animals is rape and slavery,” while being generally aligned with NVC principles, could be misconstrued by non-vegans as being an attack.

Rather, the better tactic is to allow the non-vegans to generate such words themselves. It doesn’t always work of course, so I am open to suggestions. But the following conversation has actually happened to me.

Rama: The dairy industry forcibly impregnates female cows.

Non-vegan: But that’s rape!

Rama: Yes.

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