Deep canvassing for animal rights

Deep canvassing is a new, evidence-based effective persuasion strategy (for more information, you can listen to this interesting podcast episode). It was developed by the LGBT-community in the US. The effectiveness was demonstrated in a randomized controlled trial, published in the journal Science in 2016 (Durably reducing transphobia: A field experiment on door-to-door canvassing). A 10 minute conversation substantially and persistently reduces transphobia. A very similar technique, known as street epistemology which uses a Socratic method of asking questions, is successfully applied by atheists to the subject of religious faith and critical thinking.

I personally apply this deep persuasion canvassing method to the topic of animal rights, antispeciesism and veganism, having mind-changing 10 minute conversations with people on the streets. I feel confident that it is a very effective method, because compared to my previous, more classical vegan outreach actions and conversations, the deep canvassing conversations have a very different, positive flow that I’ve never experienced before. In terms of cost-effectiveness (where a time investment of one hour has a monetary equivalent cost of 10 euro and the attitude and behaviour change is measured in terms of eating less animal products), my rough estimate is that it can be as cost effective as vegan leafleting, but I intend to do research on this in the future. For the moment I strongly pursue this deep canvassing strategy because it is more neglected compared to leafleting or online vegan ads, and it doesn’t require much preparation or financial costs. You can do it basically anytime.

Deep canvassing consists largely of active listening: a deep canvasser poses leading questions and shows genuine interest in the interlocutor, focussing on the experiences and beliefs of the interlocutor. The questions make the interlocutor think more deeply and in a new way about the issue. The deep canvasser gives the interlocutor the chance to look for answers and makes clear that he or she doesn’t intend to persuade the interlocutor. The interlocutor needs to think that it is not about persuasion, but about exploration and collaboration to look for answers, allowing the interlocutors to come to their own conclusions. Discussions and judgments are avoided. Instead of merely stating facts or giving counterarguments, the deep canvasser presents new facts of arguments by sharing them in personal stories or experiences, showing his or her own vulnerability. Deep canvassers limit what they say to neutral or positive responses, or critical questions.

Below I present a fictitious but still very realistic deep canvassing dialog to clarify the method. Of course body language matters as well, which I’m not able to demonstrate in the dialog below. A deep canvasser should mirror the interlocutor with smiles and nods, and avoid crossing arms, shifting weight, or frowning. Here we go.

I [approaching someone on the street]: “Excuse me, can I ask you a question? I am interested in what people think about animal rights, so your opinion about animal rights. Do you have a few minutes for an interview?”

Interlocutor: “Sure. I care about animals a lot.”

I: “I’m glad to hear that. I’m Stijn, by the way. Nice to meet you.” [handshake]

Interlocutor: “I’m Tom.”

I: “As a first question: on a scale from 0 to 10, where zero means animals do not have rights, you can do with them what you want, and 10 means animals deserve strong rights, to life, freedom,… like humans do, how important are animal rights to you?” [I think this is a good question to start the conversation.]

Tom: “It is not easy to give a number. An 8, perhaps?” [In my experience so far, most people give numbers higher than 7.]

I: “Fine, and which animals are you thinking about?”

Tom: “All animals: dogs, birds,…”

I: “And why would you give an 8 and not for example a 0?” [By asking why not lower, instead of why not a higher number, you make the interlocutor reflect on the positive values of animals and become more aware of the positive qualities of animals instead of the negative qualities, the things that the animals lack.]

Tom: “Well, they are living beings, you know. They shouldn’t suffer unnecessarily.”

I: “Can you give a specific example, a personal experience or moment when you saw a serious animal rights violation that affected you?”

Tom: “Sure: foie gras, for example. Fur. Or bull fighting in Spain.”

I: “So you saw it on TV? How did that make you feel?” [Focus on feelings and experiences of the interlocutor.]

Tom: “I felt angry. It’s disgusting.”

I: “You mentioned foie gras. What about other animals used for food: chickens, pigs?”

Tom: “You mean the way these animals are treated in slaughterhouses?”

I: “For example. Do you think breeding and slaughtering animals is ok?”

Tom: “I see where you’re heading. I still eat meat, but not so much. When a pig has had a good life, it is ok to slaughter it humanely. We have to eat something, you know.”

I: “I don’t want to rebuke you or persuade you of anything. But you made me curious. Would it be ok to slaughter and eat dogs?”

Tom: “Oh no. Dogs are not food. We see dogs as pets.”

I: “So suppose hypothetically: if I were to breed dogs, not to keep them as pets but to slaughter them and eat them, would you condemn me? Would you morally disapprove it? And suppose the slaughter is as humane as the slaughter of pigs.”

Tom: “Hmmm. I would not allow it. But perhaps I should, I don’t know.”

I: “Do you see a difference between a dog and a pig, in terms of rights? Would you give pigs a lower value than 8?”

Tom: “Ok, you got me there. I haven’t thought about it. No, pigs and dogs deserve equal rights.”

I: “The reason why I ask this, is because I’ve been asked the same question. My spontaneous answer was that dogs are pets and pigs are food. But then I saw videos of people who have pigs as pets. I didn’t realize that pigs also wag their tails when they are happy, that they like to play with the ball. That was surprising to me. So it got me confused when people asked me the question why we eat pigs and love dogs.” [Here I share my personal story or experience, and I show some vulnerability by acknowledging my confusion.]

Tom: “But people have dogs as pets because dogs are more loyal and intelligent. That’s why we love them.”

I: “On youtube I saw a video of a pig playing a computer game, which a dog couldn’t solve. Just google “pig plays video game.” It was funny to see how the pig immediately understood the connection between the joystick and the cursor on the screen, whereas the dog couldn’t figure it out. So some scientists believe that pigs are more intelligent than dogs. For me that changed the way I looked at pigs. How about you? Does that change your opinion?”

Tom: “So you are a vegetarian?”

I: “To be honest, I am a vegan, I don’t eat animal products. But again, I don’t want to force you or convince you about what to eat. That is up to you. I’m just curious about how you think about those issues. So I try to pose deeper questions. Digging to the roots of your beliefs, so to speak.”

Tom: “Well, I will not be easily convinced of vegetarianism anyway, so… But I understand your point. It is kind of inconsistent. But that’s what we are. I accept my inconsistencies.”

I: “Anyway, I appreciate your honesty and openness.” [Give a compliment from time to time.]

Tom: “Yeah, well…” [Give the interlocutor time to reflect. Use pauses.]

I: “So you think it is inconsistent to eat pigs when you would condemn someone who eats dogs, knowing that pigs deserve the same rights as dogs? Is that correct?”

Tom: “Yes. Well, I know in China they eat dogs… I never thought about it, actually.”

I: “I’m curious: how do you feel about that inconsistency? When I was confronted with that same inconsistency, I felt uncomfortable…”

Tom: “Yeah… I can live with it. Everyone is inconsistent… But we need to eat meat, you know.” [This is perhaps the most common argument for meat consumption. It refers to one of the four ‘N’s of a carnist ideology: meat is necessary. The other three will be dealt with below: meat is nice (tasty), natural and normal.]

I: “You mean for health reasons?”

Tom: “Yeah. Not everyone can eat vegetarian.”

I: “I thought so too. I eat a plant-based diet now, and what convinced me personally to become a vegan, was the position of the largest organization of nutritionists, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. They literally say that well-planned completely vegan diets are nutritionally adequate for everyone, including pregnant women, athletes,…”

Tom: “But you risk shortages in vitamins and iron, isn’t it?”

I: “Well, the thing is: we have learned more about healthy foods and essential nutrients, so the new vegan alternatives in the supermarket now have all those essential nutrients. With what we find nowadays in the supermarket, it is possible to live healthy, or even healthier, because we have all the essential nutrients, but in plant-based products they are wrapped in healthy fibres, whereas in meat they are wrapped in unhealthy saturated fats. That explains why nowadays it is easier to eat a healthy vegan diet, compared to the situation of our parents or grandparents. But again, it is not my intention to convince of anything.” [Here I use an important strategy of filling the hole. When someone has an incorrect belief, such as the belief that meat is necessary, it is not sufficient to simply give a counterargument or debunk that belief. Debunking it leaves behind a hole, something that is left unexplained, like why they believed it in the first place. The uncomfortable presence of this hole can lead to a backfire effect where people prefer believing incorrect stories above incomplete stories. People can become more convinced that meat is necessary. Filling this hole is important to avoid this backfire effect. For more information, listen to this podcast episode.]

Tom: “Ok, I didn’t know that. But don’t you have to take vitamin supplements?”

I: “Yes, some vegan products in the supermarket, like breakfast cereals or plant-based milk, are enriched with vitamin B12, but if you don’t eat those products much, you need a vitamin B12 supplement such as a chewing tablet that you can add to your meal. Are you reluctant about that?”

Tom: “Yes, that doesn’t seem a natural healthy diet to me. You become dependent on the industry.”

I: “Interesting. I feel totally different about it. For me it is like toothpaste. You know: our modern diets are not healthy for our teeth, so we need a supplement: toothpaste. Our ancestors didn’t brush their teeth. I would say this makes our modern diet unnatural, but still I don’t have a problem with using toothpaste, even if it is produced by an industry. So I acknowledge that we need B12 supplements or fortified food. But the good thing is: with the supplements, the B12 is packed in calcium, which is healthy. In meat, the B12 is packed in unhealthy things like saturated fats.” [Acknowledging a weakness may be a virtue that makes you more trustworthy. It becomes even better if you can turn the weakness in a strength.]

Tom: “But still I’m sceptical about what you say. I know vegetarians who went ill and the doctors said they have to eat meat again and then they got better.”

I: “Yeah, I’m a bit worried now. [Express your feelings.] I’m relying on this position statement by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, as well as on some dieticians I know and systematic overview studies of the scientific literature about health effects of different diets. And then I saw the website Great Vegan Athletes. So, that is my evidence that convinces me. That is how I look at it. Of course a vegan diet, like any diet, needs to be well-planned. Although my doctor said my vegan diet is healthy for me, I also heard people say that they know doctors who are sceptical, who give the advice to eat meat. Now I’m worried, do you think my approach, listening to the biggest organisation of nutritionists, is less reliable than listening to those sceptical doctors? Is what I do imprudent of me?” [Merely stating what is the most reliable scientific knowledge might be ineffective and even result in a backfire effect. Asking the interlocutor why that sceptical doctor would be more reliable, might be ineffective as well as it puts the interlocutor in a defensive mode where he has to protect his own beliefs. So instead, we can use another strategy: show the interlocutor what we belief and ask them what could be the problem with our own belief. Something like: “Here is my map of the world, I see it is different from the map that you use. What could be wrong with my map?”]

Tom: “Nah, you’re probably right.”

I: “So let us suppose that eating a vegan diet is not unhealthy. Suppose you believe that is true. Would you become vegetarian or vegan if you knew meat was not necessary?”

Tom: “No, meat is too tasty.” [This is the second N in a carnist idealogy: meat is nice]

I: “You said foie gras is a violation of animal rights. Does that mean you are against the consumption of foie gras?”

Tom: “Yeah, that causes unnecessary suffering.”

I: “But what if I think foie gras is very tasty? So I love to eat foie gras. Am I allowed to eat it?”

Tom: “I would be against it. I wouldn’t eat it.”

I: “So, it seems like we are not allowed to eat some things, like foie gras or dog meat, even when they would be very tasty. How can I know which tasty things we are not supposed to eat?”

Tom: “When it causes unnecessary suffering.”

I: “Ok, I agree with that. Killing a dog in order to eat that dog, that causes suffering, and we don’t need to eat dogs, so it is unnecessary suffering. The same goes for foie gras. Or fur: we don’t need that.”

Tom: “Exactly.”

I: “But now I’m confused again, because killing a pig also causes unnecessary suffering. Well, at least I belief that I don’t need to eat a pig. So I belief keeping pigs in factory farms and slaughtering them so I can eat them, causes unnecessary suffering. Do you belief that I cannot eat a pig, like I cannot eat foie gras or dogs?” [It can sometimes be interesting to frame the situation in a personal way, what I belief and do and what the interlocutor things about my choices.]

Tom: “I see your point… [Leave a pause to reflect.] But still we are omnivores. That is our nature.” [This is the third N: meat is natural.]

I: “I hear that argument often, but it remains unclear to me. Can you tell me more about it?” [Always good to ask to tell more about something.]

Tom: “We are predators. If animals can hunt and eat other animals, why can’t we?”

I: “But what do you mean with being an omnivore or a predator? I don’t eat animals. Does that mean I am not an omnivore?”

Tom: “You are still on top of the food chain.”

I: “In what sense? In the sense that no other animal is eating me?”

Tom: “Yes.”

I: “And that gives me the right to eat other animals?”

Tom: ”Yes.”

I: “I’m sorry, that seems weird to me. I spontaneously thought of the argument: no human is killing me, so I am allowed to kill a human. But I guess that is not what you meant?”

Tom: “Well no. Look at the lions. They are allowed to eat meat. You’re not saying that they should become vegan.”

I: “Ok, lions eat primates, primates don’t hunt lions, so lions are on top of the food chain. Does that mean that lions are allowed to eat humans?”

Tom: “Humans are allowed to defend themselves and kill the lion if necessary.”

I: “I see… But still… [by reflecting on an issue, you show that you put yourself on the same level as the interlocutor.] Lions don’t care about animal welfare laws. They don’t care about humane slaughter rules. Does that mean we shouldn’t care either?”

Tom: “Lions are not able to morally reflect on their behaviour. We can.”

I: “I see. Interesting.”

Tom: “Ok, again I see it may be inconsistent of me. But as I said, everyone is inconsistent. That is why everyone eats meat.” [Here we arrive at the fourth N: meat is normal.]

I: “I really appreciate your effort to explain your view. But I’m interested in how people like you justify eating meat. Are you saying now something like: if everyone else eats meat, then it is allowed to eat meat?”

Tom: “I don’t know. It is just a fact that everyone eats meat. Well, not you. Almost everyone.”

I: “So I’m looking for a kind of rule that I can follow, to know what I am allowed to do. It seems reasonable that if everyone does something, it gives me a clue that I am allowed to do that as well. But then, what if everyone did something immoral. Like slavery: there was a time where everyone, or at least a majority of white people, believed we could keep black people as slaves. Or what if everyone believed that women do not have rights? It seems dangerous to look at what the majority does.”

Tom: “But with meat consumption it is different. You eat plants, but plants can feel pain as well. They only can’t scream.” [Let’s give a final carnist argument as an example. In most conversations, interlocutors don’t give many carnist arguments one after the other. They start doubting after one or two arguments, and then it is time to move on in the conversation.]

I: “Are you referring to those scientific experiments, that plants can respond to their environments and communicate with other plants when they are in danger?”

Tom: “Yeah, I don’t know the details, but I’ve heard about those experiments. It is like plants are warning other plants when a giraffe comes along.”

I: “I personally remain sceptical about the conclusions that we can draw from those experiments. Some robots or computers are also able to respond to their environment and communicate with other computers. The anti-virus software of my computer is pretty smart as well. But that doesn’t mean my computer has a consciousness and is suffering when it is infected with a computer virus. Would it be unwise of me to conclude that those communication and self-defence mechanisms of computers or plants not necessarily indicate consciousness?”

Tom: “But perhaps pigs do not have a consciousness either.”

I: “Or dogs. Or other humans… Now, we are concerned about animal rights, we support animal welfare laws. Kicking a dog or a chicken just for fun is not permissible. If we believe that plants are equally sentient, shouldn’t we propose plant welfare laws as well? Would it become illegal to kick a tree just for fun?”

Tom: “Ok, but what if plants were really sentient. Would you starve to death, or kill sentient beings?”

I: “I have thought about that possibility. I’m not sure what we should do then. I probably still would eat plants. And condone eating animals, especially animals that eat sentient plants. And I would look for animal free and plant free food, produced in the lab or something. I don’t know. I guess there are different consistent ethical systems, some of them lead to condoning eating plants and animals, some lead to starvation and suicide, some lead to doing more research. I’m not confident to say which ethical system is the most correct one in such hypothetical situations. What would you do?” [Sometimes it is good to acknowledge that you don’t know an answer. Demonstrating such vulnerability or openness may make you more credible.]

Tom: “I don’t know. The same as you, I guess.”

I: “Anyway, suppose you know that plants are not sentient. Would you then eat vegan?”

Tom: “Probably not. I would miss the taste of meat.”

I: “So that means plant sentience is not the crucial reason for you to eat meat?”

Tom: “Probably not.” [A useful, general question that we can ask when confronted with a fallacy or rationalization to eat meat, is the question: would you become vegan if you knew X was not the case? If not, then X was not the real reason to eat meat and you can look for other reasons.]

I: “Another question I had: imagine in the future, over 100 years or so, people would all eat healthy vegan food, no animal products anymore. Would you consider that as an improvement, as a moral progress of our society?” [This is another of my favourite questions in deep canvassing. Most people respond affirmatively. It avoids a kind of moral relativism.]

Tom: “Yeah. I would have no problem with that. But that wouldn’t happen.”

I: “I used to think that as well, but personally, I’m not so sure about that anymore. More and more people reduce their meat consumption. We see a strong growing trend where people try new vegan products. That means more meat substitutes are sold in the supermarkets. We see the arrival of a new generation of meat substitutes, that are almost identical to animal meat. If that trend continues, it can become a growing snowball effect. Have you already tried meat substitutes?”

Tom: “Some. They were ok, but not as tasty as meat.”

I: “But you are willing to explore new animal free alternatives, try new vegan products or recipes?”

Tom: “Sure, why not?”

I: “And what would be your major motivation to try new vegan products?”

Tom: “For the environment. But now also for the animals I guess.”

I: “The reason why I ask these questions, is because of a kind of worry. I asked these questions to many people, and they all have something in common. On the question how important animal rights are according to them, most people would give high numbers on this scale from 0 to 10: they would give values 7, 8, 9 and often 10. But still most of them eat meat. And most of them can’t explain why we love dogs but eat pigs or chickens. Most say a vegan future would be a moral improvement. It seems like we are collectively doing something that violates our own moral values, without us realizing it. Now I am a vegan, but I used to eat a lot of meat. I didn’t make the connection between the meat on my plate and the animal. Would you agree that it is possible that our meat consumption violates our own moral values and that we are so to speak morally blind about it?”

Tom: “Yes, perhaps. I’ve never thought about it before.”

I: “That is what I hear most people saying. And also interestingly, like your response, when asked whether they eat meat, most people say “yes, but not so much anymore.” Why did you add that you don’t eat much meat?”

Tom: “I don’t know…”

I: “For me it seemed like you somehow knew that eating meat is morally problematic, that you felt uncomfortable with your answer that you eat meat, and therefore add that you don’t eat it so much. But that’s just a guess.”

Tom: “You could be right.”

I: “One final question perhaps. On a scale from 0 to 10, where zero means our consumption of animal products is fine and I absolutely do not want to decrease my consumption of animal products, and 10 means we should all avoid animal products and move towards a vegan world as soon as possible, where would you place yourself?”

Tom: “A 7.”

I: “Would your answer to this question have been different if we didn’t have this conversation?”

Tom: “Probably lower, yeah.”

I: “So, if I understand you correctly, becoming vegan would be ideal, but it may be difficult at this moment, so you prefer to take smaller steps. You already avoid foie gras as a first step, and you are willing to try new vegan recipes or products, or introduce something like meat free days, is that correct?” [Here I use the combination of the door in the face strategy (start with the big ask to become vegan), followed by a foot in the door strategy (a smaller ask to reduce meat consumption).]

Tom: “Yeah, that’s how I would do it.”

I: “I appreciate your honesty. It was a nice conversation. I enjoyed it.”

Tom: “Yeah, me to. I’ll think about it.” [Handshake]


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