Although McDonald is critical of Jack Mezirow’s "transformation theory," ideas embedded within it seem relevant to a study of how people become vegans, especially when certain critical elements on, for example, power relations are added to the original formulation. Mezirow's perspective is certainly overly psychological and in need of sociological elements for balance and context. McDonald is undoubtedly an expert on Mezirow since her doctoral thesis was about his work. She states that the transformation theory “does not explain the process of learning to become vegan.”
However, some of her discussion in this paper seems to contradict that conclusion, at least to the extent to which McDonald claims the theory has no explanatory value. For example, in a 2000 book, Mezirow builds on 20 years of his theory and outlines the basic ideas about how people change in a 10-point process of "transformative learning"
1. Experience a disorienting dilemma
2. Undergo self-examination
3. Conduct a deep assessment of personal role assumptions and alienation created by new roles
4. Share and analyze personal discontent and similar experiences with others
5. Explore options for new ways of acting
6. Build competence and self-confidence in new roles
7. Plan a course of action
8. Acquire knowledge and skills for action
9. Try new roles and assess feedback
10. Reintegrate into society with a new perspective
One of the main thrusts in the theory, borrowing heavily from Habermas, is the power of rational discourse and a level of cognitive functioning which critics of Mezirow say most adults never achieve. For her part, McDonald focuses on the theory’s need for individuals to be critically reflexive about assumptions. She says her study of vegans failed to identify such critical reflection in their talk. Again, other parts of her piece seems to contradict that claim too.
However, let’s stick with Mezirow a little longer, and via Nancy Franz’s discussion of Stephan Brookfield’s definition of "critical reflection theory," which may well serve to correct some of the shortcomings in Mezirow’s approach. Critical reflection requires persons being self-aware, making sense of experiences, deconstructing and reconstructing meanings , the critiquing of premises and ideologies, and "principled thinking," all of which can be defined, according to Brookfield, as "reflecting on the assumptions underlying ours and other’s ideas and actions, and contemplating alternative ways of thinking and living."
These ideas may be expressed in this way - and by means of the following "phases"
1. Trigger event
2. Appraisal of assumptions
3. Exploration of alternatives to current assumptions
4. Developing alternative perspectives
5. Integration of new perspectives into daily life
At this point we have a basic understanding of some of the ideas that interest McDonald in her study of vegans. Perhaps we can see how these 10 points and 5 phases inform an appreciation of the changes people go through when they become vegan?
McDonald works with a process which begins with the notion of "Who was I?" (meaning, who was the person before learning about veganism and animal cruelty). This is followed by what some have called "a moral shock" but McDonald uses the term "catalytic experience" instead (meaning a person’s learning of some aspect of cruelty). At this point, two things are likely to occur. The information about animal cruelty can be acted upon, and therefore the person "becomes oriented" towards learning more and maybe making a decision (for example, to stop eating other animals' flesh), or there can be repression of the information (when people put what they know to the back of their minds). In the latter case, another catalytic experience or event may be required to, in some sense, re-engage a recall of the repressed knowledge of animal cruelty.
After this there is a process of learning about animal abuse and how to be a vegan (i.e., start reading the damn labels!! ) A decision is made to live as a vegan (or a vegetarian). Finally, the person’s general world view has changed. With a new perspective she or he begins to face the world as a vegan. This process can take a long time: some of McDonald’s interviewees took years to become vegan.
We can now follow some of the study’s participants through some of these stages. The first thing that would register with animal rights abolitionists is the number of McDonald’s respondents who acknowledged being in a state of what Francione unfortunately characterises as "moral schizophrenia." McDonald writes that the majority of those in the study had a prior love for nature and of pets. However, they did not see the connection between their pets and "food animals." McDonald says they had "compartmentalised their compassion." Moreover, many of them "expressed amazement that they had not seen the connection."
This notion of prior "love" for pets is interesting from an abolitionist point of view. I think it is fair to say that the "pet issue" is one reason why many animal advocates reject the rights view of human-nonhuman relations. Just like the pet breeders and pet lovers in countermovements, they cannot imagine a future with no living ornaments/toys, or a future without their child substitute "fur babies."
Many animal advocates suggest, then, that pet keeping is a necessary or at least widespread means by which humans come to have some ethical regard for nonhuman animals. Without their "prior love" for pets, they believe, they may never have seriously considered being an animal advocate. McDonald’s findings seem to support this view – but not fully by any means. For example, not every respondent had a strong affection for nonhuman animals when young and, as one person pointed out, most kids are dotty about their pets; most are upset when pets die, but that does not prompt further thinking about human-nonhuman relations. Most, it seems, can be quite comfortable in their "morally schizophrenic" state and no amount of "companion animals" pegging out on them seems to cure them.
When it comes to the catalytic experiences, one respondent seems to have had a "Paul and Linda McCartney moment." The McCartney's are said that have awoken to reality looking out of their Scottish farmyard window at gambolling lambs when cooking "lamb," while this respondent looked up "and exchanged a long and pensive gaze with a buck standing on the hill above him." At that moment, he decided to not eat meat again. Others in the study went vegan after watching videos.
At this point, McDonald discusses the issues of emotions and cognition. McDonald reports that her respondents’ catalytic experience was often but not necessarily emotional and often, it seems, a blend of emotion and rational thought goes into the process by which people turn vegan. If anything, there is a hint that going vegetarian is an emotional reaction while the decision to go vegan is based on a cognitive interpretation of learning. Often the one followed the other.
Thus, while people spoke of videos "breaking their hearts" and their reaction being, "My God, I just didn’t realise what things went on," McDonald says that, "Emotions seem to have been one of the major defining characteristics of the more memorable catalytic experiences. The decision to become vegan following a period of vegetarianism was more often rational." McDonald says it was typical that the decision to go vegan followed a period of learning, particular about the issue of "being in favour of animal rights" while "continuing to eat animal products."
Here the logical inconsistencies of vegetarianism often finally sunk in. By thinking, talking, reading and becoming active, people realised their actions may not match their beliefs. McDonald cites one respondent who admits that he had drawn the line in the wrong place by being a vegetarian. Through reflection he realised that "using milk and putting cheese in stuff" was not good enough.
Following catalytic experiences, respondents were "becoming oriented" to learning and then they learned about animal abuse. They learned about cruelty and how to be vegetarian or vegan. McDonald says that, at this stage, people are "guided by an ethical praxis of compassion." They learned by thinking, talking, becoming involved in activities and, most importantly, by reading. Reading "was the primary way of learning for every participant." All at once, they were trying to learn, teach and cope - but often their families proved to be a problem. Many respondents reported that family members argued with them, or trivialised their beliefs, and some even rejected them. Understandably, they found these experiences hurtful. One said she lost a friend of 20 years standing by going vegan.
What’s interesting at this point in McDonald’s paper is that, although she talks of the vegans’ new "transformed world views," it is not entirely vegan and it certainly is not all about animal rights. Therefore, even at the end of this process, vegetarianism and animal welfarism are mentioned. It is as though the paper echoes "the movement at this point." While there is talk of recognising the "moral rightness of veganism," there is also talk of "experiencing the world as a vegetarian and vegan," along with the advocacy of both animal welfare and animal rights. McDonald states that a central part of the new worldview is a generalised agreement that "animals were no longer viewed as food," which is hardly true of vegetarians.
I think what’s being reflected in McDonald’s work is the apparently widely-held view that veganism is rather difficult and we should expect a period of vegetarianism beforehand, despite the fact that it makes little sense. This may explain the current habit in animal advocacy literature of using the terms"'vegetarian" and "vegan" interchangeably as though they mean the same thing, often expressed by the horrible word, "veg*n."
I recently had recourse to revisit Victoria Moran’s 1997 book, Compassion the Ultimate Ethic: An Exploration of Veganism, in which she notes (p. 53) that some people turned vegan overnight, but most were vegetarian for a year or two first. This appears to be the expected pattern: it "makes sense" that people will drop one thing at a time. Moran cites Singer’s Animal Liberation in which the author quite reasonably is concerned about the firm grip speciesism has on the social agent. He writes, "In our present speciesist world, it is not easy to keep so strictly to what is morally right."
Perhaps, thinks Singer, since people have difficulty just giving up meat, the thought of eschewing milk and cheese as well may ultimately prevent them doing anything at all. It seems to me that this perspective is fairly reasonable since it was originally written in the early to mid 1970s. However, it seems that Singer’s views on this issue remain largely the same in the 21st century.
This marks a real difference for the abolitionist approach to animal rights. In an age when being vegan is very much easier in many places and for many people and groups than it was in the 1970s, our new movement should not expect – and certainly need not encourage – this pattern of "vegetarian first." What it means is that the young animal rights movement must prioritise making veganism as easy as possible, something that Neil Lea was a pioneer in with his "Is It Vegan?" and "Vegan Buddies" initiatives.
Since veganism is direct action for nonhuman animals, getting people to embrace ethical veganism is the best thing advocates can do at the present time: this activity also has the advantage over some others in that, presently at least, vegan advocacy and vegan education does not lead to anyone being chucked in jail for a decade or more.
 Joking apart, this was another interesting aspect of the research. Via both Mezirow and Habermas, McDonald looks at communicative and instrumental learning in vegans. The former ‘has to do with ideas, such as the idea of instrumentalised animal cruelty, animal rights, and veganism,’ while the latter "concerns the skills needed to live a vegan lifestyle, such as how to cook, order food in restaurants, and read ingredient labels."
 Peter Singer and John Robbins' texts were cited in this context.