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Book Reviews

Accidental Activist by Matt Ball

Book Review:
The Accidental Activist – Stories, Speeches, Articles and Interviews by Vegan Outreach's Cofounder
by Matt Ball
review by Marla Rose

Many years ago when I first went vegan, there was one organization that seemed to really be putting out effective, persuasive and well-researched materials that gave people a lens into the horrors of industrial animal agriculture before there was an Internet to do it. Vegan Outreach, with co-founder Matt Ball as Executive Director, offered a compelling alternative to much of the animal advocacy of 1990s, then over-dependent on silly shock value tactics or hyper-focused on only “cute, lovable” animals, and steadfastly employed a utilitarian theory as their guiding compass: given the almost incomprehensible number of animals who suffer in industrial agriculture and the depth and scope of their very real suffering, these animals are the ones most in need of our focused advocacy and the relief of their suffering would also create the most net good. Ever pragmatic, the organization also put the power of outreach into the hands of the most devoted advocates, creating the materials activists would hand out at college campuses and other gathering spots around the globe every day. It was really a smart strategy and Vegan Outreach remains one of the biggest and most tireless allies for farmed animals today, distributing millions of persuasive booklets around the world since 1993. 

Matt, who is now is now Senior Advisor at VegFund, expands on his evolving beliefs about advocacy, effectiveness, priorities, ego-based activism and more in this collection of short pieces published this year by Lantern Books, The Accidental Activist: Stories, Speeches, Articles and Interviews by Vegan Outreach’s Cofounder. While I am not fully in the utilitarian camp myself, Matt certainly presents a compelling case for it, and he also tackles subjects like personal purity, earnestness, divisiveness, and the kind of rigid moral perfectionism that contributes to the really unfortunate burnout of so many activists in this collection. Writing “Desperately and immediately, the animals need us to be pragmatic, optimally effective advocates in our imperfect, inconsistent world,” in his essay, More on Being Vegan, Matt reminds us to remain focused on doing our best despite living in a very flawed world, not getting hung up on purity. The expression, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” comes to mind here. As someone who has seen many well-intentioned people become derailed over the years – even quitting veganism altogether because they could never be perfect enough – this is an incredibly important life lesson to internalize if we are going to be in it for the long haul, and if also we are going to be positive, compelling role models to others.

His writing is often plainspoken but powerful, cutting away superfluous chatter and getting straight to the core of his message. In a way, this collection calls to mind a less-folksy Atticus Finch in the courtroom of his peers, presenting his argument with straight-forward, common sense terms and letting the reader, presumably an animal advocate, decide his or her approach based on the evidence presented. For example, In Letter to a Young Matt, he describes his own physical anguish due to a debilitating chronic illness and how this deeply personal yet universal understanding of suffering compelled him to shift his focus as an advocate. Matt writes, “The single most important lesson I’ve learned in the past twenty years is that the irreducible heart of what matters is suffering.” Bringing the personal into it, whether you agree with this statement or not, cuts straight to the essence of what drives one of our most successful and influential activists.

I think this collection is an invaluable resource for new or seasoned activists, an opportunity to learn from what Matt perceives as his early mistakes as well as plug into his wisdom. As someone who has consistently rejected the siren’s call of easy victories and attention-getting alliances in favor of the decidedly less-sexy workmanlike life of a nose-to-the-grindstone, fair-and-foul weather leafletter with the drumbeat of “this isn’t about us, it’s about them,” guiding every decision as an advocate, Matt’s leadership is certain to have helped to create more vegans and less suffering in the world.

Even if you don’t agree with every point, they are all thoughtfully presented and some, I will admit, made me challenge some of my own less than well-articulated beliefs as well as work toward improving my habits. I also appreciate that it is written with humility, with humor and understanding. In short, this is the collection to give someone new to the movement, someone who is burned out and feeling ineffective, someone who has been at this a long time or basically anyone who cares about other living beings: with wisdom, grace, straightforwardness, and an almost disconcerting lack of pretension, Matt Ball cuts to the heart of the matter. I highly recommend this collection. It will make you a better person.

2013, 2014, Vegan Street

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