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Matt Ball Interview

February 12, 2011

Matt Ball

12 February 2011

Matt is co-founder (along with Jack Norris) and Executive Director of Vegan Outreach. Matt co-founded Vegan Outreach in 1993, to fill a void he and Jack saw in animal activism at the time.

Vegan Outreach activists have since distributed millions of detailed animal advocacy booklets around the world, with distribution growing every year.

Before working full-time as the Executive Director of Vegan Outreach, Matt was a Department of Energy Global Change Fellow, and attained degrees in the Department of Forest Ecology at the University of Illinois, and the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

Matt co-authored THE ANIMAL ACTIVIST’S HANDBOOK, with Bruce Friedrich in March 2009.

Matt was elected into the Animal Rights Hall of Fame in 2005.

ARZone: Welcome to ARZone, Matt. You and your wife have raised your child as a vegan from birth. Could you tell us some of the hurdles you found difficult to get over, and offer any advice to those of us trying to accomplish the same now?

Matt Ball: Hi, from Tucson!


I would like to hope that the situation is different and easier today than it was in 1994! Raising Ellen really didn’t have a lot of hurdles, regarding veganism. People asked us questions, and we answered. We had done our research and knew more about nutrition than our interrogators. And the people who were belligerent, we just ignored.

Oddly, the main question we got, over and over and over, was, “But what about birthday parties??” It seemed as though everyone’s only memories of childhood was eating cake and ice cream. It was crazy. The main pieces of advice I’d give are:

1.         Know your nutrition. Not from propaganda that seeks to glorify a certain diet, but from legitimate sources whose main goal is an honest and thorough evaluation. (Here’s another recent reason to get honest and thorough info:

2.        Take advantage of the community – there were no vegan parenting boards on the web in 1993-94.

3.         Don’t let the haters get to you.

I think the last part is key, pretty much for any vegan in any situation. I understand taking attacks / ignorance personally – it is so hard not to, especially when it comes to the welfare of your child. And I sure identify with the desire to be able to “win an argument” with a meat eater. But the reality is that there are some people who will be belligerent regardless of what we say.

I think we will all be happier – and thus better examples, and thus better advocates for the animals – if we accept that some people will just be jerks. (And let’s be honest – that’s true about vegans, too – there are vegans who will be loudly belligerent with anyone whose thoughts deviate ever-so-slightly from theirs.)

On the other hand, loads of people are initially hostile, but come around when treated with respect. Bruce and I talk about that a lot in The Animal Activist’s Handbook.

If a member of the public asked you whether veganism was easy or hard, how would you respond?

I would say that, if you are currently following the standard American diet and don’t have close vegan friends, the idea of being vegan / going vegan immediately will almost certainly seem hard. If the situation was right, I would go on to say, if you are committed and resourceful, it will definitely get easier and easier.

For us now, after being vegan for decades, it is second nature, so much so that when people say, “Veganism is so hard,” our involuntary initial reaction is “What the heck are you talking about??” That isn’t the right response, obviously. It took me a long time to get to this point (and I still sometimes forget), but questions from the public aren’t for me. They’re for the animals. I’m answering for the animals. Of course, I, like nearly everyone, like to talk about myself. It is nearly irresistible! But the animals have no voice but ours. So every question we get is an opportunity to answer for the animals.

In this case, the issue isn’t my opinion of veganism. Rather, I think about where the other person is coming from. If I say veganism is easy, and they think, “Well, maybe for you, but it seems hard to me!”  they’re lost to making changes for the animals. So the point isn’t to show how into veganism I am, how much I know, how easy it is for me, or even, necessarily, what it will be like for them in X months. Rather, our goal should be to engage the person from where they are at the moment.

Veganism is getting lots of media attention lately. Oprah just did a big Vegan Challenge and Kathy Freston’s Veganist is #1 at Amazon. With the “v-word” finally gaining mainstream recognition, why is it that some activists and organizations are choosing this point in time to shy away from using it?

For example one advocate has said:

“My long experience shows the word vegan scares many people, but the word vegetarian interests them (we also see this overwhelmingly when leafleting – people want vegetarian information far more than vegan information). Ironically, I’ll bet we get far fewer vegans by using the word vegan, since many vegetarians do go vegan, once they see how easy it is and start down the path of compassionate eating.”

Thanks for this important question – it brings up a key aspect of Vegan Outreach. I understand the personal pride that many vegans feel when “vegan” gets mentioned in the media, and when famous people endorse it. But VO doesn’t exist to promote the word “vegan,” to celebrate veganism, or to get media attention. Rather, our goal is to reduce as much suffering as possible. As we write here:

“[W]e must honestly evaluate the world as it currently is, and then do our very best to reduce as much suffering as possible. “We must reach and influence the people who might be willing to go vegan; reach and influence people who might be willing to go vegetarian; reach and influence the people who won’t (now) go veg, but who might stop buying meat from factory farms “and help support all of these people as they continue to evolve as consumers.

Outreach efforts to all of these people are necessary if we are to help a large and diverse society evolve to a new ethical norm.” So we don’t want to limit ourselves only to the small first audience that is currently receptive to veganism. We want to maximize the impact we have for the animals everywhere possible.

In addition to the quote from Bruce’s personal experience you have above, Nick Cooney discusses the relevant research here:

And two last things.

  1. I think we might be making a mistake if we make too much of rich and powerful people talking about veganism; e.g.

So many vegans went ga-ga when Oprah first talked about veganism, but then she was back eating chickens soon thereafter.

  1. Tangentially related: overall, “the health argument” has probably caused more animals to suffer and be slaughtered than anything since the advent of factory farming:

Vegan Outreach advocates for “less suffering”. Could you please explain what is meant by less suffering, and if it were possible to commodify other animals for our purposes without causing too much suffering, would Vegan Outreach approve of this?

These are either really easy or really difficult questions. We could spend the rest of the day debating the neurology and philosophy of suffering, but that really wouldn’t be a good use of our limited time – relative to what else we could do, it just wouldn’t accomplish anything useful. So let me just say that most people know suffering when they see it. They don’t need a PhD to call what happens in Meet Your Meat “suffering.” They don’t need to be a neurologist to be repulsed by the footage in Farm to Fridge. And obviously, Vegan Outreach doesn’t approve of unnecessary suffering, even if someone says it isn’t “too much.”

Vegan Outreach wisely advises activists to focus their efforts on strangers who might be reached, rather than fixate on loved ones who refuse to change. But then, what are we to do with our “loved ones”?

In your experience, is it possible to maintain healthy, loving relationships with people who know what we are doing to animals but simply don’t care?  What advice would you give to vegans who feel that they can no longer care for or respect “loved ones” who insist on continuing to participate in needless animal abuse?

Oh, how I hate this question.  Not because it is unkind or unfair or unconstructive, but because it is both utterly imperative and utterly unanswerable – at least to my feeble mind.

I wish I had some answer, but I don’t. The only thing I can leave you with is that there have been a number of people whose loved ones changed over time – sometimes, a very long time. But I’ve known others who have left / turned away from relationships such as you describe, and they were ultimately much happier for doing so. As Ellen would say: Answer: FAIL. Sadly:

In the first entry under “Ethics and Religion” in the FAQ’s to Vegan Outreach’s “Starter Guide” it says this: “Why is it wrong to eat meat? It’s not a question of being ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ If one wants fewer animals to suffer and die, then one can stop supporting such practices by not eating animal products.” Why wouldn’t Vegan Outreach state what one can only hope they think is obvious??  It IS wrong to eat other animals.

I sympathize with that demand. On the other hand (and, again, this is something that took me many years to realize), what you or I think or claim or “know” is irrelevant. The only people in a position to save animals in the future are people currently eating meat. So the question isn’t if we vegans think something is “right” or “wrong.” The only question is: what can we do / say that will lead meat eaters to start making positive changes for the animals?

As experience shows (and Nick Cooney lays out the actual research behind this in his book Change of Heart), telling people that what they are doing is “wrong” isn’t the best way to open their hearts and minds.

Erik Marcus has pointed out that agribusiness has hidden behind elaborate illusions; their entire industry is based on lying to consumers. People are basing their decisions after having been deceived their entire lives. So instead of telling meat eaters that what they are doing is “wrong,” it is both honest and more constructive to point out that they have been lied to their entire lives.

People don’t like being lied to!

A similar line of reasoning applies to philosophy. Obviously, the vast majority of people believe humans are “superior” to / distinct from (other) animals. But they don’t immediately need to accept the idea that other animals have rights, or fully internalize a utilitarian worldview, to start taking steps that help animals. Joe Espinosa has clearly articulated this when dealing with people, telling them they can believe whatever they want about animals and still find factory farms repulsive and not something they want to support.

Not to harp on all my mistakes, but my prior attitude of “Just tell everyone the whole truth! They need to know!” was very harmful to the animals. It was psychologically at odds with creating change. But moreso, it was just downright stupid, as this attitude ignored how my views and choices had evolved over time!

How does Vegan Outreach measure the effectiveness of your outreach campaigns? Is it based on X number of booklets handed out so therefore it is X number of people ‘reached’ regardless of whether they read it or not?

This is another complicated question. We know that giving someone a booklet in passing has a much lower chance of changing them than sitting them down, befriending them, getting them to watch Meet Your Meat answering all their questions personally, teaching them how to shop and cook, etc. But obviously, the latter is not an option.

As Jack Norris points out, spreading veganism is, in the end, a numbers game. We can do what we can to tweak this – focusing on younger people, using a specific booklet for a certain crowd, etc. – but in the end, to change our society, we need to get this information to as many people as quickly as possible.

Can you explain why Vegan Outreach uses graphic photos in its booklets?

The short answer is that, based on the experience we’ve had in the past two decades, using images that show animals suffering is the most effective means of reducing as much suffering as possible.

There are many factors playing into this. Perhaps the most important is that, while most people are speciesist and think it is OK to kill animals, the vast, vast majority of people oppose cruelty to animals. Showing people the hidden cruelty that goes on in factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses starts where people are, rather than where we want them to be. Or, as Jonathan Safran Foer said: We focus on the first step, not the last. (This is a pretty incomplete answer. For a longer answer, see Nick Cooney’s book, Change of Heart.)

Our impact on the environment is at the forefront of all our minds in the age of climate change. V. Outreach say that they give away millions of pamphlets. These are full color, 20 pages, have to be transported around the country, and we assume most will be thrown away, isn’t there a better way now using the internet and thereby reducing V. Outreach’s carbon footprint?

You’re right  – the internet is becoming a hugely important advocacy tool for us to use! And it is amazing – when I met Jack and Anne, email was a complete novelty, and the web didn’t even exist yet.

But if we want to prevent as much suffering as possible, we need to change society as quickly as possible. To do so, we can’t limit ourselves to those who will happen to be online, come across a link, click on the link, and spend the time on the site. We must go beyond this and directly reach out to millions of people – people who wouldn’t ever otherwise learn of the animals’ urgent plight.

I see your point but your main audience is students I think and all students are online aren’t they?

Being online doesn’t mean they’ll ever come across and then be willing to sit and watch Meet Your Meat, read about vegan foods, etc., etc. If we could get MYM embedded in all beer websites, that would be a different story!

In my experience, the typical response to the horrors of factory farming is to pursue Reform (happy meat) rather than Elimination (veganism). Companies are capitalizing on this and the “humane” sector is rapidly growing. Does VO have plans to modify its booklets to more aggressively address so-called “humane” animal products?

The first aspect of this is “happy meat.” Obviously, there are people who do stop supporting factory farms and eat “sustainable” meat. But many vegans read too much into this.

We suffer from “availability bias*.” “Happy meat” is an absolutely miniscule market for rich, over-educated folks. Sadly, rich, over-educated people are vastly, vastly overrepresented in the media! And people who excuse eating animals, at any level, are given even more endless media coverage by their fellow elites.

I understand the extreme frustration of seeing all this glorification of eating animals. In general, though, we vegans vastly overreact to it, spending an extremely disproportionate amount of our limited time and our limited emotional resources arguing with and being angry at people eating / promoting “happy meat.” There are better uses of our limited time and resources.

Of course it is disappointing when people stop being vegetarian and eat animals again. But let me tell you from long experience – this isn’t because of the presence of “happy meat.” There have been failed vegetarians ever since there have been vegetarians. One survey showed more former vegetarians in the UK than actual vegetarians.

Similarly, when he spent two years leafleting across the country nearly 20 years ago, Jack felt like he met more former vegetarians than current vegetarians. It wasn’t because of Pollan or Bittman or Polyface or Whole Foods. It was because they didn’t feel healthy as a vegetarian. This trend continues today – just Google “failed vegetarian” or “failed vegan.” The internet gives these people a loud megaphone, and meat-eaters give them endless attention. So we again suffer from availability bias regarding the prevalence of failed vegetarians.

But it is a real problem: that many buy into the vegan propaganda and don’t learn honest and thorough nutrition. That’s why Jack went back to school to be an RD, and why he created – we can do better. (*Availability bias also occurs in the vegan community, too, where the loudest, most outspoken (or obnoxious) person seems to represent all vegans. And, of course, the meat-eating media love to promote the angriest, most extreme vegan as the community’s voice.

We should be aware of this, and try to counter it as we can.) The other aspect of your question, Ben, is the nature of change, in both an individual and in society. Real change is rarely quick or linear. Or, to paraphrase MLK, the arc of history is long and jagged, but ultimately bends towards justice. We should, I think, spend more of our limited time doing the work of bending, rather than despairing over the hiccups.

PayPal have been accused of acting against freedom and free speech and there is a global boycott – has VO plans to join it, and help in the resistance against the bullying of the US government?

I’m not familiar with this. But I’ll be honest with you, Tim – if Vegan Outreach spent our time following everyone’s boycott of everything, we’d never get any actual vegan outreach done. People have wanted us to boycott everything from banks to staples. Not the company Staples, but the actual metal staples in our booklets. I kid you not.

In 2009 in Chicago, you presented a talk, parts of which many ARZone members may find a little bizarre. I wonder if you still stand by that position. For example, you imagined yourself talking to your former self and you said, when you were 21, that you were self-righteous, angry, and obsessive. Since then, you say, you have learnt that “what matters is suffering,”  something your younger self was supposedly ignorant about having not personally suffered. You say you were worried about “abstractions and words and principles” and “argued about exploitation, oppression, liberation, etc.”  You suggest this means you “didn’t take suffering seriously.” You said: “Now, knowing what suffering really is, and knowing how much there is in the world, all my previous concerns seem –well, to put it kindly, ridiculous.” Why is talking about exploitation, oppression and liberation (putting it kindly) “ridiculous,” and is it not the case that such concerns are ALL about suffering?

I agree! All the words are, ultimately, about suffering. So no more debates about words, and more actual work reducing actual suffering!

Two essays on ethics posted at Vegan Outreach, Beyond Might Makes Right and Theory of Ethics appear to be in some tension with each other. The first is quite close to a traditional rights-based view, while the second is decidedly utilitarian in nature.  Is this deliberate?

Great catch. I think you’re one of only two people to ever mention this.

BMMR is more for the general public. ToE is a more formal treatment. These are, of course, minor, peripheral reference pieces for the site. For me at this point, philosophizing can be a sub-optimal use of time. One of my most frustrating experiences ever was attending an “applied ethics” conference at Columbia. Even being generous and saying no actual harm was done in the sessions, I’m sure far more actual good would have been done in 30 minutes of leafleting.

In your VO Enewsletter of August 17 2001,

[], you speak about a birthday party with a 4 yr old child eating a piece of birthday cake.

You say: “Our opinion is – what does a piece of cake at a 4-year-old’s birthday matter? Are the consequences of her eating it (as opposed to it being thrown out) worse than the impression it makes on 20 other children (and parents) if the Vegan Police grill everyone about the nature of everything with which Ellen comes into contact? In short, we aren’t out to raise an ideologue”. Do you think that by showing your position isn’t consistent, and being a “flexible vegan”, you could be confusing others? If the 4 yr old was allergic to dairy, would you be as flexible? If not, why not.

Good question! I’ve never met anyone who, honestly, continued to eat animals because they were confused by a vegan’s supposedly lack of “consistency.” What I have seen (and sadly been the cause of) are vegans whose self-righteousness and obsessiveness gave others an excuse to ignore the animals’ plight. I only hope that I’m able to undo the damage I did in the past when I made veganism about me, rather than about the animals.

I assume most people reading this believe what they do with their choices is important. And as Roger pointed out, our choices aren’t important because they conform to a certain philosophy or because they meet a certain human definition. Rather, the importance comes from our choices’ consequences: the actual impact we can have on reducing the animals’ suffering.

If I could leave you with only one thought to consider, it would be this:

The importance of our individual personal choices is nothing – absolutely *nothing* – compared to the impact we *can* have if we live for more than ourselves, dedicated to optimal advocacy. Each of us truly can be extraordinary, if we are dedicated to having the greatest constructive influence possible on others.

I see the truth of this every day (e.g.

This question is in context to VO’s financial relationship with PETA. I feel it goes without saying it’s only beneficial for pro-animal and Vegan Advocacy groups to work together, and it’s no surprise many do. Besides the (not so) subtle nuances, such as your co-authoring a book with Friedrich at PETA, and Jack Norris of VO being married to Alex Bury at PETA, as a fellow animal-friendly non-profit, does PETA contribute to VO’s finances? If so, could you please give a ballpark of contributions? (not asking for exact figures)

Many years ago Over 5 at least, I don’t remember, PETA co-sponsored the very first printing of our Spanish-language booklet. That was probably a few thousand dollars (They didn’t sponsor future printings; we’re actually about to do a fundraiser this Wednesday to try to raise money for another printing of it.)

Before that, PETA did send us grants of like $500, I think. But nothing in recent years, as far as my memory serves. Bruce has been a VO donor. As has Ingrid, and other folks at PETA. We’ve also done printings over time with groups ranging from Farm Sanctuary to APRL in San Diego I think that covers it.

Would you explain what “vegan” means to you?

An answer from a few years ago is here:

Along with others. What the word has meant to me has changed over time. But to be honest, I haven’t thought about it in years. As I mentioned in reply to, I think, one of your questions, my opinions / definitions are irrelevant. I will never eat animals again

So I’m not in a position to save any animals. Only current meat-eaters are. So I spend my time studying psychology, sociology, etc. I’ve been working on Nick Cooney’s book for two months now! I wish I had more time for reading.

I get really exhausted explaining my choice of being vegan and trying to get my loved ones to understand why I  do it. How do you get people into trying vegan without getting annoyed with their attitude?

This is related to question 5  Which was, by far, my worst answer. Let me share a story, though: From Stewart Solomon, one of VO’s top leafleters: You can see it as the last bit here:

But the punch line is: ” I remember when one person asked how he could convince his brother to go vegan — he’d been at it for years and years to no avail and basically felt like a failure. If he couldn’t convert his own brother, he thought, how could he affect anyone else?

Matt told him to forget about his brother, that his brother wouldn’t turn vegan to spite him, if for no other reason. Matt told him to go to a college campus, a concert, a record store, and hand out literature: “Some of them will read it, become vegetarian or vegan, and you will have saved thousands of lives.”

I took great comfort in that remark — it was as if a huge burden was suddenly lifted from my shoulders.

I remembered that talk earlier today. I was very tired and my back hurt, but I was able to distribute 750 EIs at Pasadena City College. On the drive home I started thinking about an old riddle: How many physicists does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to hold the bulb and one to rotate the universe. I think that holding the light bulb is easy, and rotating the universe is sometimes difficult. However, that light bulb must be changed.” [end of Stewart’s story]

Despite a full-time job, wife, and three kids, Stewart has reached tens of thousands of people with VO booklets. And there are countless vegetarians out there because he focused on being constructive, rather than giving into potential, righteous, and understandable anger.

As a follow-up to question 3 about animal advocates shying away from veganism,… your answer seems to represent something of a betrayal of Donald Watson’s vision for vegan advocacy, first articulated in 1944 –

Here Watson understands that new ideas have to be presented and expounded in society – that people need to be “ripened up” to new ideas.

Much social movement activity is about challenging rather than pandering to societal norms and values Surely this means we have to keep plugging away at the vegan message and not reduce things to the half-way measure of vegetarianism?

Thanks for the follow-up. I’ve read Mr. Watson’s writings, and have debated these questions with numerous people. I can only tell you that our goal isn’t advocating “veganism,” but reducing as much suffering as possible. To that end, we evaluate our world as it is today, learn from experience, read the latest psychology and sociology, and do our best in today’s world to reduce as much suffering as possible.

How has Ellen grown up to veganism? Has there been any kind of rebellion or questioning or is she a vegan activist herself?

You can see a short, 10-year-old interview here:

And I can tell you, she hasn’t changed much!

No rebellion, no wavering under peer pressure (And while much easier today than years ago, it isn’t always easy, given the travelling she does for track and cross country.) As for the future, we don’t know if she’ll be an activist. We’ve always told her that things change … a lot … over time. Anne started out pre-med, moved to German, and now works for VO. I started in Aerospace engineering!

So our goal for her, as of now, is to have as many options as possible, learn as much as possible, develop as a human being and not be on a “career path.”

Who knows? She’s great at math and science and interested in biology. She might help with an in vitro meat! Or further perfect Boca Burgers. But we don’t want her to feel like she has to follow in our footsteps. Who knows what the future will bring?

You have been emphasizing ending suffering and meat eating, but have not mentioned anything about the suffering of animals used for dairy, eggs, entertainment, products, clothing and numerous other trades. t would seem that the core work is to enlighten people about animals and our relationships with them inherent in the vegan philosophy, not just getting people to quit eating meat. In short: to increase respect for animals. How can we do this without teaching about veganism?

We want to reach out to as many different people as possible, Not just those who are intrigued by / willing to consider veganism. Or, to quote Jonathan Safran Foer again: We focus on the first step, Not the last one.

We recognize that people evolve over time and we want to get them to start. The psychology of this is, as discussed in the “formal” interview, pretty clear. I’d again recommend Nick Cooney’s “Change of Heart.”

Matt, if you had it to do all over again, would you still call it “Vegan Outreach”?

Good question. We actually had a serious question about this about six years ago. For a variety of reasons, we didn’t change the name. But I know having “vegan” in our name hurts us in different ways, most clearly on fundraising. Foundations and rich non-vegans give to groups with similar philosophies / approaches, but won’t give to “Vegan” Outreach.

Could you clear up what seems to be a possibly confusing part of your stance. Vegan Outreach’s main issue is factory farming. Are we to take it that, given the organization’s name, there are zero systems of “farm animal” use that you regard as acceptable, and so non-factory farm opposition is latent and not emphasized in your work, or is it actually the case that there are use systems that you would accept?

I try to lay that out here:

Esp the “Why Vegan Outreach” section. And at the end here:

But in short, as far as I know, it isn’t possible to raise and kill animals for meat with respect and without causing “harm.” (Not to get into the definition of “harm” in the 2 minutes that remain!) See those links for more.

Vegan Outreach was one of the organisations that sent a letter to John Mackey of Whole Foods in relation to their “farm animal compassionate standards.” The short text reads:

“The undersigned animal welfare, animal protection and animal rights organizations would like to express their appreciation and support for the pioneering initiative being taken by Whole Foods Market in setting Farm Animal Compassionate Standards. We hope and expect that these standards will improve the lives of millions of animals.”

Compared to the real benefits to nonhuman animals of people living as ethical vegans, aren’t such animal welfare standards often meaningless and extremely difficult to monitor and enforce – vivisectors break their operational rules, hunters do, farmers do, slaughterhouse staff do. Why bother getting involved in initiatives that are likely to be problematic at best, and that may mislead many to believe they are consuming parts of “humanely-used” animals?

I’ll leave you with two links. 1 that indicates we understand your point:

And 1 that tries to keep a bigger perspective

I know that neither are a real answer, And I’m sorry to have to leave it that way. But thanks everyone! Gotta run!

Thanks, Matt. You’ve been very generous with your time today, and we sincerely appreciate your time and insight. On behalf of ARZone, thank you!

Thanks again — over and out.


Animal Rights Zone (ARZone) is a voluntary, grassroots, abolitionist animal rights social network created in December 2009 with the aim of encouraging rational dialogue in the animal protection movement.



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