Norm Phelps, Changing The Game


Norman Phelps, Changing The Game
A frequent speaker at animal rights conferences, Norm Phelps is the author of Changing the Game: Why the Battle for Animal Liberation Is So Hard And How We Can Win It, The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA, The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights, and The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible (all published by Lantern Books). He has contributed numerous articles to journals and anthologies, including Call to Compassion, and Earth, Animal and Disability Liberation: The Rise of the Eco-Ability Movement, and is a regular contributor to the Dharma Voices for Animals website. Norm is a member of the Institute for Critical Animal Studies, a regular contributor to the website Dharma Voices for Animals, and a founding member of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians. A practicing Tibetan Buddhist and Unitarian-Universalist, he lives in Funkstown, Maryland (USA) with his wife, Patti Rogers, and their family of rescued cats.


Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody, we’re back, I’m Caryn Hartglass, this is It’s All About Food, July 23, 2013, and this is the second part of our show, I want to remind you that you can send questions/comments during the show or any time during the week, I never get enough e-mails, I love to have conservations with all of you. So let’s talk, okay, now, onto the next part of the show, Norm Phelps, a frequent speaker at animal rights conferences, he is the author of Changing the Game: Why the Battle for Animal Liberation is so Hard, and How we can Win It, also the Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA, The Great Passion: Buddhism to Animal Rights, and the Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible, and they were all published by Lantern Books. He has contributed numerous articles to journals and anthologies including Call to Compassion and Earth, Animal, and Disability Liberation: Rise of the Eco-ability Movement, and he’s a regular contributor to the DARMA Voices for Animals website, enormous member of the Institute for Critical Animal Studies, a regular contributor to the website DARMA Voices for Animals, and a founding member of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians. He’s a practicing Tibetan Buddhist and Unitarian Universalist, he lives in Funkstown, Maryland, with his wife Patty Rogers, and their family of rescued cats. Norm, thank you so much for joining me today.

Norm Phelps: Thank you for having me Caryn, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, I just finished reading Changing the Game: Why the Battle for Animal Liberation is so Hard, and How we can Win It, and let’s talk a bit about it shall we.

Norm Phelps: Love to.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so I want you to know my listeners may know this, I became a vegan over 25 years ago, I was already vegetarian, and the motivating factor for me was not wanting to kill animals, that’s how I came to the scene, I’ve become very passionate about the health benefits of a Vegan plant based diet and the powerful gentle effects it has on the environment, it’s a win-win-win all around. Okay, I’m back, I’m sorry about that, that’s technology for you, Norm, are you with me.

Norm Phelps: I’m here.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, that was fun. Okay, I was saying that I got into this whole movement because I didn’t want to kill animals and then I found about all the other benefits to eating a plant based diet and how good it was for the environment, but you know, I focus on so many different things in trying to get the message, I spend the last hour with Dr. Pam Popper talking about the power of plant foods on health because I’m looking for any angle I can to attract people to not killing animals. But it’s very hard to sell and I want to win it.

Norm Phelps: I could not agree more, as you say, different messages appeal to different people, and different messages appeal to the same people at different times. I think we have to use every tool in our toolkit.

Caryn Hartglass: I want to believe, and I have this feeling from your book, we will win, and it’s just going to take time.

Norm Phelps: It is going to take a very long time.

Caryn Hartglass: I’ve spoken with lots of different people on the show, some of them have been hardcore animal rights activists, others have been believers in the animal welfare process, and you talk about how both are actually necessary.

Norm Phelps: I think that’s right. Animal abuse is the most deeply entrenched form of oppression in history, ever, anywhere. It’s eeply embedded in our individual psychology and in our culture, and we’re not going to overcome that in a matter of a few years or probably even a few decades. Just as the struggles for the abolition of human slavery and the liberation of women were carried on for centuries, I think the animal liberation struggle is too, and we just have to be prepared for the long haul.

Caryn Hartglass: You bring up some interesting points and one is that all of these other social moments, the people that were moving them forward had self-interest at stake, women pushed forward in the women movement to improve their life situation, people in the civil rights movement, the same thing, but animal don’t have a voice.

Norm Phelps: Try to imagine a movement for the abolition of human slavery that depended entirely on converting the slave owners to the cause, and that is precisely the situation that the animal rights movement is in. About 3% of the population is vegan, the adult American population is vegan, 2-3%. And that means 98-97% feel that they benefit personally from animal slavery and slaughter, and that’s the population that we have to convert.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, you know, when you put it that way, and unfortunately people don’t put it that way enough, people benefit from animal slavery and slaughter.

Norm Phelps: Yes, we do.

Caryn Hartglass: You know, we need to hear more of that language telling it like it is.

Norm Phelps: Some of the benefits are imaginary, fanciful, but deeply believed, which is all that matters, and some are real, but they are there, and they are what keep people oppressing animals. We oppress animals because we like the benefits of it, we benefit from it, we enjoy it, it satisfies our appetites, it’s convenient, we make money off of it, and we can get away with it. There are no adverse consequences to oppressing animals, and that is basically why we do it.

Caryn Hartglass: You give some brief history, well it’s not even that brief, you give some pretty comprehensive history on social movements to improve people’s lots and how humans have engaged since we began and our history isn’t very nice.

Norm Phelps: It is a very long, very slow, and very indirect path, that social justice movements have always had to take. There is a very deep strain of selfishness embedded in the human psyche, and it is very difficult to overcome, but there is also a very deep strain of empathy and compassion embedded in the human psyche, and that is what we have to appeal to, and I believe we can successfully, although as you say it will not be a quick or easy process.

Caryn Hartglass: It’s that embedded word, you know, how do we bring out what we want and not the rest, it’s a big challenge. All right, there’s a number of different things, I’m looking for them in your book, that I highlighted that I wanted to talk about. The animal rights movement is exploring uncharted territory; we are attempting to be the first social justice movement in history to succeed without the organized conscious participation of the victims, kind of alluded to that a moment ago.

Norm Phelps: It does have another aspect that we didn’t talk about, and that is this. Try to imagine a women’s movement that was staffed if you will, made up entirely and led entirely by men. There’s no mechanism to get feedback from women on whether the tactics were working, whether it was succeeding, even whether the goals were what they really wanted. Or try to imagine a civil rights movement made up entirely of whites with no mechanism to get feedback from African Americans. That’s what we’re trying to do in the Animal Rights Movement, and it’s the first time in history that anything of that sort has been undertaken.

Caryn Hartglass: Which is, rather exciting.

Norm Phelps: Yes, it is, we’re pioneers and, we might have wished we weren’t.

Caryn Hartglass: Alright, you have a section called “The Shock of Recognition: The Realization that We are all mass murderers who have lived our entire lives off of the fruits of the most gruesome and widespread slavery and murder every practiced by human beings generates intense, often unbearable emotional distress.”

Norm Phelps: Yes

Caryn Hartglass: And that some people, if they realize it consciously or subconsciously, rather than face that truth, will continue doing the same thing and finding justifications for it.

Norm Phelps: The enormity of our crime against not-human animals is such that when you recognize that it is a crime, that they are sentient, sensitive beings like us, who long for happiness and have an aversion to pain, who long for continued life and dread death just as we do, then that is an extraordinarily painful recognition. And, rather than face it, most people simply lash out at the messenger, deny the message without really listening to it, and continue to commit the crime because if they stop committing the crime, they have to admit that it was a crime to themselves, and they just can’t bear the pain of that.

Caryn Hartglass: I never thought of it that way and it was very interesting reading it, it takes a lot of courage.

Norm Phelps: It takes a lot of courage, yes it does, a lot of ability to be forgiving of yourself and of others.

Caryn Hartglass: Be forgiving of yourself, be forgiving of your parents who raised you a certain way, and all the people that have nurtured you.

Norm Phelps: Indeed it does, and all our political and philosophical and entertainment heroes, it takes a lot of forgiveness and forgiveness take courage.

Caryn Hartglass: Talk about creating a universal rights movement, and the argument you say in parts 1 and 2 of your book, has been that “animal rights has made such slow progress during its first 35 years because of the inherent difficulty of the challenge and the ascendancy of a conservative political philosophy that is hostile to all social justice movement.”

Norm Phelps: Absolutely, I think the importance of this fact, in fact, there’s this historical thing, is very much overlooked within the animal rights movement. Nearly all of the social progress for human beings that was made in this country was made during a very short period, one generation really, one and a half generations. Between the 1930s, the New Deal, and the 1960s, the Civil Rights era and the Great Society with the exceptions of the abolition of human slavery, the extension of voting rights to women, and the American With Disabilities Act which was passed in 1990, that era, just all about all of our social programs, from social security, and laws supporting unions, to Medicare, Medicaid, head start.

Caryn Hartglass: All the things conservatives are trying to repeal and turn around at this point.

Norm Phelps: They’re trying to repeal everything that took place during that one remarkable period between 1930, 32, 33, ending somewhere in the early to mid 1970s, and with the 1970s and especially with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the atmosphere in this country changed. And we became a nation that was very hostile to the concept of social welfare, social justice, very hostile to the concept that government can be an instrument for good and looking after the welfare of everyone who is subject to its power. The animal rights movement was created by the impulse of the 1960s, that period between the 30s and the 60s. It was the spirit of that movement that created and still infuses the animal rights movement, but we came into being, say, with the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation in 1975, we came into being just as that era was dying. And we have had to grow up in an environment that is extremely hostile to animal rights movements. You might say that animal rights is the orphan child of the 1960s, it’s having to scratch out its own living on the streets in a very hostile environment.

Caryn Hartglass: So our timing wasn’t good, but it’s also a much bigger challenge, we’re not talking about humans, and we’re not even nice to humans still, we still do horrible things all over the world. And to ourselves, we’re talking about how the conservatives are taking away so many of the benefits of poor people, disadvantaged people. We’re bringing out all that bad stuff that’s embedded in our psyche.

Norm Phelps: That’s true; it’s truly an appalling situation.

Caryn Hartglass: So, we need to do some educating, and you recommend educating the left on the importance of showing that all of the oppressed get equal value regardless of species.

Norm Phelps: Exactly so, because animal rights is consistent with the fundamental philosophy of the left, it is inconsistent with the fundamental philosophy of the right. The fundamental philosophy of the left is mutual existence, co-operation, mutual caring. The fundamental philosophy of the right is competitiveness, mutual warfare if you will, social Darwinism, it’s sort of as (Herbert) Spencer put it, “root hog or die,” without any help from your neighbor, is the fundamental philosophy of conservatism, and that philosophy is hostile to the human rights and animal rights, the left is halfway there, the left understands the need for mutual caring and mutual concern, and collective responsibility for one another. The left understands the true meaning of community in a way that the right does not. The left for example understands the evils of racism, what they don’t understand is that speciesism is simply the most extreme version of racism. The left understands the evils of sexism, they don’t understand that laying hens and dairy cows for instancw, are victims of the worst kind of sexism, they suffer and die, because they’re female, the left is halfway there, and has a fundamental orientation that is compatible with animal rights, it’s friendly towards animal rights, it should be, but the right does not, and therefore, I think it is very important as we consider ourselves a social justice movement among other social justice movements, and that we work very hard to form a unified front with the political left.

Caryn Hartglass: You are a Tibetan Buddhist, how did that happen, how did that fit with your philosophy of animals.

Norm Phelps: I don’t really know how it happened, I was raised a southern Baptist and Methodist, and I just did not personally find that a satisfying spiritual practice for me, I understand that there are many people for whom it is and I certainly respect that, but it just wasn’t for me, and I just started looking around, and I came to Tibetan Buddhism, and it worked for me. I studied for 12 years with a Tibetan Lama and found it very satisfying, both intellectually and spiritually. It works for me because the fundamental ethical value of Buddhism is compassion for all sentient beings based upon empathy, and I think that is also the basis for the animal rights movement. Compassion for all sentient beings based upon empathy. I think the two dovetail perfectly for me.

Caryn Hartglass: Now are Tibetan Buddhists normally vegetarian or they’re not?

Norm Phelps: Sadly enough they’re not.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, you’ve mentioned the different religions and how many of them had elements that would encourage vegetarianism and how some have kind of gotten off the path.

Norm Phelps: Yeah among Buddhists worldwide all schools of Buddhism, an educated guess, there are no real statistics, but an educated guess would be that about half are vegetarians. Among Tibetan Buddhists the number is far lower, but there are Tibetan Buddhists and important teachers among Tibetan Buddhists who are vegetarian, and the number of young Lamas who are growing up in India and Nepal and in the west who are vegetarian is growing, and I think that’s a very hopeful sign.

Caryn Hartglass: And yes, well unfortunately, there’s a lot of human rights issues too, in Tibet, and many other places.

Norm Phelps: There are, it’s a very tragic situation.

Caryn Hartglass: Very tragic, thank you human beings.

Norm Phelps: We strike again.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, let’s see, we just have, just a handful of minutes left, so, I remember a long time ago when I was becoming an activist that I was thinking about the world as like a timeline and that some of this had to be super super extreme in order to move the mainstream a little bit over in the middle, and that’s what I was thinking of when you were talking about these people who really believe in only approving things that will benefit animals wholly, rather than marginal steps to get them to a better place, and I like to side, I’m an idealist, and I think I like to stick with the idealist, but I do realize that we do need to have this middle ground where we take small steps to ultimately achieve the goal, we need to move people over more in the middle and we need to have those that are more extreme in order to find a safe place in the middle that people will agree to.

Norm Phelps: Yes, we absolutely need both camps. I have no argument with the folks who argue and campaign exclusively for veganism and exclusively for the abolition of all animal exploitation. I myself believe absolutely and whole-heartedly that a vegan world and the abolition of all animal exploitation are the only morally adequate solution to the problem, but, I also believe at the same time that in addition to vegan advocacy and abolitionist advocacy, we need to push partial steps, indirect steps, we need to push things like flexitarianism, we need to push things like cage free facilities for laying hens, things that move us, just nudge us a little bit towards the goal, I think the two strategies complement one another, I think they support one another, and where the wheels fall off for me is where people say we should only pursue abolitionist vegan advocacy, and not the other. We need to pursue both equally.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, I think what’s sad is that there’s a little bit too much energy that goes towards the disagreement between the two groups, and I’d really like to see just everyone say, “ok, that’s what you want to do, fine, it’s all part of the fight and I’m going to work over here and work on my project”.

Norm Phelps: Could not agree more, we waste entirely too many resources, too much time, too much energy, criticizing people that we disagree with on points of strategies.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay, well, I think we’ve come to the end of the half hour, and I want to thank you for the work that you do and for writing Changing the Game: Why the battle for animal liberation is so hard and how we can win it, another wonderful Lantern Book publication, we had Martin Rowe on the show last week.

Norm Phelps: Lantern’s a great publisher, and I love them.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, some of my favorite books are from Lantern, the books that no one else will publish.

Norm Phelps: They’re performing a tremendous service.

Caryn Hartglass: Well thank you Norm, enjoys the hot weather, and stay cool, and keep fighting the good fight.

Norm Phelps: Thank you so much for having me.

Caryn Hartglass: Ok, thank you Norm, I’m Caryn Hartglass you’ve been listening to It’s All About Food, join me at, we’re going to have a brand new food show up very soon, I’m real excited about it with some great barbecue recipes and we’ll be introducing the Swing in Gourmets which I know you’ve heard about, so please look out for that, and have a delicious week.

Transcribed by Brandon Chung, 7/30/2013

  1 comment for “Norm Phelps, Changing The Game

  1. Norm Phelps is an apt successor to Mahatma Gandhi who so notable said: You can judge a country by how a country treats animals.
    What Phelps has done is articulated how much more is left to be done for animals in the USA

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