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by: Owen Gunden
Ok, if you look at some of these online debates, the pro-vegan side doesn't typically lose (though it's possible that the audience planted themselves to create that result). Nevertheless, they still make mistakes. Here are some of them:
Claiming that the only solution to factory farming is to go vegan. We can make the argument till the cows come home that factory farms are awful, toxic, environmentally damaging and cruel. Few will argue with us. But many will disagree that the only possible solution is animal rights or veganism.
That's not to say that factory farming practices have no place in a debate about veganism. For one thing, veganism certainly offers a neat solution to the factory farming problem. We can also make the argument that without factory farms, there would necessarily be much less meat and dairy and it would be more expensive.
Defending or promoting vegetarianism. Lacto-vegetarianism still has all the ethical, environmental, and health issues that non-vegetarians have, though perhaps to lesser degree. If we promote vegetarianism as a solution, we expose ourselves to being called out on one of these inconsistencies. Promote vegan as the standard, and we are on much firmer ground. We can still applaud and encourage the ideals that compel people to go vegetarian, and even promote vegetarianism as a natural step towards veganism.
Overstating the position. Overstatement hurts the cause and loses debates, because it destroys credibility. Here are some things not to say:
100% vegan is the only way for the environment. It's true that the planet can't sustain the level of meat/dairy/fish/eggs that we currently consume. The facts are starkly on the side of veganism. A great example is the proposition that a sustainable amount of animal food per person is about 2 ounces of animal foods per week. That's almost nothing. But it's not nothing! It may be true that ultimately a vegan solution is the best way forward for the environment, but in a debate, we'll get much further by arguing with well established facts -- for example, that consumption of meat/dairy/etc products must be drastically cut in order to reach a sustainable level. Similar to the factory farming issue, veganism offers a neat solution for our environmental problems, but the facts do leave a little bit of wiggle room between about 98% and 100% vegan.
100% vegan is best for physical health. John Mackey makes a good move by backing away from this claim in this debate. There is ample scientific evidence for the health benefits of a mostly plant-based, whole foods diet (see here. There is not, however, anything conclusive that says when you go from a 99% vegan diet to a 100% vegan diet, you're doing yourself a favor. So when we argue that 100% vegans are nutritionally healthier than 99% vegans, we are destroying our credibility.
Veganism is ethically pure. Even for vegans there are murky ethical issues. We act with compassion towards the animal kingdom, but what about plants? By some accounts, plants may have the capacity to suffer to some degree. Even a plant-based diet has some impact on the environment, ecosystems for animals, and insects. We aren't perfect, and it's crucial that we admit that. This forces us to give the ethical debate a little bit of fuzziness. Eventually it leads us to the fact that just because some harms aren't avoidable, doesn't mean we just throw up our hands and toss morality out the window. This point is rarely argued with, and really strengthens the vegan position.
One nice tactic for winning a debate is to reduce the claim. By pointing out the ways in which being mostly vegan is beneficial, we get to present all of our best arguments without having the burden of them being 100% black and white. Here are some suggestions:
(ethics/science/evolution) Paint the picture of the evolution of human perspective. Gallileo showed that the earth wasn't the center of the universe. We are continuing this trend by discovering that humans aren't the center of the ethical universe. Science can't dictate ethics, but it can certainly show that animals are capable of much of what we consider worthy of ethical consideration; including intelligence, emotion, communication, and perhaps most important, suffering. We know animals suffer, and we know that humans have the choice and ability to reduce this suffering.
(environment) The environmental facts are good enough without being overstated. Just make sure the facts are correct before repeating them. If a hamburger takes as much water as 6 months worth of showers, saying that his impressive enough that there's no reason to exaggerate it to 12 months.
(health) Point out what studies have shown, namely that a diet consisting of primarily whole, plant-based foods dramatically reduces the incidences of many of our nastiest diseases. Acknowledge that the jury is still out on the space between "mostly vegan" and "all the way vegan", but it's also fair to point out that there are many "all the way vegans" who have excellent health.
(personal) Few people actually want to harm animals, given the choice. Most people see themselves as kind, compassionate beings; yet their plates would indicate otherwise. Just point this out, and demonstrate that there is a choice by being a healthy vegan.