Interview with Richard Watts, the creator of Vegan SideKick
VeganOrigo: Why are you Vegan? When did you start it? What was your motivation?
Richard Watts: I became vegetarian when I was about 5 or 6 years old, when I was told by my older brother what meat was. That was a simple decision, as I'd always liked animals and my parents had companion animals; so when I realized what I was eating, I just stopped there and then. As a vegetarian, I never understood what the problem was with milk and eggs - although I had cut out leather, animal tested products, etc. When I was a teenager, I began to think about animal USE in general, not just killing of animals, and it became clear to me that the idea of breeding an animal into captivity, for any use, was wrong. So I became vegan at 18 on that basis. It wasn't until a few years later that I learned what happens to male chicks and male calves in the egg/dairy industries, which would have made me go vegan immediately as a child too, I think.
V: How did your family react, that you, as a child stopped eating meat? As many people still think, it’s unhealthy…
R: My mother was pescetarian at the time, and so she was pleased. She fed us fish when we were children, but we were not "forced" to follow her, and I would eat meat at school or at friend’s houses, etc. In fact, once my brother and I became vegetarian, we convinced our mother to become vegetarian and drop the fish too, as it made no sense to eat anymore.
V: That sounds really awesome!
R: Yeah! A lot of people have terrible stories about their parents not understanding them.
V: What has changed your life after going vegan?
R: I used to suffer from asthma quite severely, and had to use a nebulizer. If I got a cold / virus, I would often need the nebulizer to breathe easily, but since going vegan, I have never needed it again. I think that milk is bad for asthmatics, but nobody ever told me that.
Mentally, well... You come into even more arguments and disagreements, than if you are vegetarian and it is also depressing when you make a positive change, and basically nobody else changes and the world just goes on.
V: How do you handle the arguments?
R: Most of the time, non-vegans phrase things in such a way, that makes what they are saying, SEEM reasonable, but it's really not; so it just takes a rephrasing for them to see it. If someone says "But that's what they are bred for" - what they are ACTUALLY saying is: „If you purchase a female, and purchase some semen, force it into her, and while she is pregnant, you have to say or even just think "I am going to kill your children when they are born" then it justifies the whole thing”, that's what it is meant. If you ask them if that's okay, then suddenly they think "errrrrrmmm" and have to say something else basically. I ask questions about their actions and opinions, which is known as the Socratic Method.
V: Do you see a change in people in the last couple of years? Maybe the world is more opened for veganism?
R: Yes, in a way. Where I work, there are a lot of people going vegan, whether it is because I am there, on some level, I don't know. But, day to day, running Vegan Sidekick, I still have the same nonsensical arguments every day, so it's hard for me sometimes to see what reasonable people are thinking, because I always end up talking to those who are unreasonable.
V: Do you handle excuses face to face the same way you do in your comics?
R: Generally not, no! I see the comics as a way to "kick people up the ass", in a way. They are straight to the point. The difference is, that with a comic, people are CHOOSING to read it, and so if they don't like it, they can't really complain. But if I am face to face with someone, as much as I'd like to be in that blunt, well we still have to maintain relationships with people and real life isn't a comic.
V: How does it feel, that you are the most well known vegan comic writer? I think, there is no vegan who never met your work in some way.
R: Hah, well you say that, but I don't know if it's true, it's hard to judge that. I am humble and I can't even imagine that being the case. I see it as my own little project that I began, and it appeals to some people, and not others. But I know that at least I have a following of 137k, and people share my stuff a lot. So, it does put pressure on me to behave a certain way. In the beginning I was less careful and I have done things I regret. People see me as a kind of representative, and I have to put a good image out there for veganism, and it is stressful.
V: You can Google any vegan related thing, searching for pictures, and your work are always there! Where do you get the answers from? They are always so on point! You really say in your comics what many of the vegans would love to say out loud.
R: Well, it's kind of like what I was saying earlier about the arguments. I think about what non-vegans are saying, and then apply it in reality. If what they said was REALLY true, then it would mean XYZ. And then I draw XYZ to show how ridiculous it would be. Or I think about a way to make veganism seem sensible or simple to people. Like I have the one with the cupcakes and the vegan says "Hey you want a cupcake? But I should let you know that I avoided harming animals, and I know you prefer for animals to be harmed..." and the non-vegan says "Hey, I don't want animals to be harmed..." etc etc… which is all, veganism is, but beyond that, I can't really explain. I have always been a creative person and my mind is always racing with ideas, not just relating to veganism.
V: Do you still make new pieces or you have answered all the excuses by now?
R: I believe I have not posted an image about "Animals are not moral agents, therefore we don't need to apply morality to them" besides that, I can't think of a specific argument that I haven't covered. So it's really comics to cover the same arguments in a new interesting way now.
V: How many books do you have? Do they have a storyline?
R: So far I have 4 Vegan Sidekick books. They are just a collection of the comics posted online, with one or two extra ones, so there's no story line. The 5th book will be released in a few weeks, hopefully.
V: Where can people get them? From you?
R: They are published on a website called Lulu, but the direct links are on my website in the books section.
V: And do you have a clothing line as well?
R: people can find the link to the books and the clothing on the website otherwise.
V: How did you choose the drawings for the clothes?
R: I made a bunch of designs and then showed them to the followers of the page, and read their feedback. Based on that, I modified the selection so that there was something for everybody. But then after that, I have made the „Requests section” on the store, and I've tried to do literally everything people are asking for, no matter how silly or specific.
V: What are the feedbacks?
R: Everybody who has bought anything and contacted me, has been happy with it. And people love having the requests section, because they can have exactly what they want. Although the designs I have chosen to be in the main store are still more popular in general. Of course people are also glad that I waited to find an ethical company, no sweatshops, etc.
V: So not just animal - friendly, but conscious in other ways as well.
R: Absolutely. Years ago I was speaking to my cousin, and it was the first time I heard the sweatshops excuse. He was vegetarian and said that he understood veganism, but was saying "Where do you draw the line, people do unethical things all the time, you buy things involved sweatshops". I am not the type to make excuses, so when he said that, I said "You are right, I should avoid things coming from sweatshops where I can", and I began buying second hand mainly, or from ethical companies for things like underwear and shoes, etc. We should be held accountable for what we do.
V: Veganism has changed my way of seeing the world as well. My motto is not to take what is not mine: life, body parts and liquids, others time and life, etc. With veganism, it has a deeper meaning now.
R: Those kinds of values are common in most people, or at least they say so, and veganism is within that. It's just that people aren't doing it with their own hands, so they can dismiss it.
V: Yes, they don’t see. If there is a cow escaping, everyone cheers for the cow. She has a name and a face.
V: Then they have a burger for dinner with a milkshake.
R: Don't kill THAT one! Kill her sister tho…
R: Then nobody gets harmed that way.
V: Why did you begin Vegan Sidekick?
R: I had been vegan since the end of 2000 / beginning of 2001, and in that time, I was more and more saddened that the world wasn't changing, and although I was vegan, and avoiding harm to animals, I wasn't actually helping anything. My life seemed pretty pointless to be honest. What was I doing? Watching TV, playing video games... Just trying to have fun, while animals are being killed by the billion. I tried to be a positive example and I just assumed that people would ask questions, find out about animal agriculture, and then go vegan..., but basically nobody did that. After 12 years or so of doing that, I decided that I should try to do something more. I had seen vegan YouTubers, but they were mainly talking about nutrition and meals, etc. I have always been a thinker / debater in life, and I thought I could make something, that focused on the debates and the logic, the things that people say when arguing against veganism. So I tried to offer a new kind of thing on my page, to make the best of what I can do - to think rationally and cover all areas of debate. So the page really came from a desire to want to make a change, to do something positive, rather than just neutrality, which is what veganism is, ultimately.
V: Are you happy with what Vegan Sidekick has become?
R: It has made a big difference in the world, and I know it has altered how a lot of people discuss animal rights. I have made it clear, especially with my Medals, that non-vegan arguments are just a list of excuses, there is nothing valid (besides of course, obligations: like homelessness or living in barren wilderness, etc). I am very pleased with it, and I feel that I can reflect back on my life and think that I did something useful. One problem is that I feel, that with the success of it, people expect it to be a certain way, more of the same and I wonder how many years I can do it. If I adapt anything, people will say "this isn't how it used to be" etc., so I feel kind of trapped with it to an extent, but it is still fun and a good release of frustration.
V: What you mean? You can’t change the style?
R: Yeah, I did Vegan NiceKick for ONE WEEK and people unfollowed :D
"I DEMAND YOU CHANGE BACK"
V: What if you start it with a different name? And you link from your main account to there as well, so those who are interested can follow the other one also?
R: I could do that, but it's hard enough getting people to see my own posts, let along doing that. (Although I do have a separate account for Vegan NiceKick, mainly as a way for people to find those if they want them)
V: It seems people need their daily dose of Vegan Sidekick. Maybe you help them release their frustration, what they face in a non-vegan world.
V: And in what way Vegan NiceKick is different?
R: Well in Vegan Sidekick, most of the comics end with the non-vegan remaining non-vegan, and ignoring the vegan. In Vegan NiceKick, it's as though the world is a good place, and most people are willing to listen, so in most comics end with people saying "Yay I will go vegan! Because I am logical" etc., but it's phrased in such a way that it's clear to the reader that it is sarcastic and it rarely happens that way.
V: People are more emotional maybe, than logical.
R: Yeah, that is a problem for me. People often say I am like a robot. I even had someone say in a conversation with me "But I'm not a logical person Richard!!!", “Like what??? You admit that you make no sense...” A lot of people, whether they admit to it or not, are perhaps affected by emotions more than they would admit. Probably even me, but I don't know how to sway people emotionally, besides putting an animal under their nose.
V: Yes that can be the way, to explain how they feel, hopeless, lonely and don’t even understand why this is happening with them. When they have a baby (even non-wanted), and it is taken way for the humans being able to drink the mother’s milk.
R: But typically people won't watch the videos :/ so, I think that is why the comics work well. So many people don't want to read a long article, or watch a gruesome video. The comics are very quick, and they just slap you, "Stop saying this stuff!” over and done in 5 seconds.
I have seen a video of a cow having her child taken... it just breaks my heart, I can't handle it.
V: Do you have any book recommendation for people who are interested in veganism?
R: That's a tricky one, because I tend not to read anything at all. I can recommend a book by Vanessa Espinoza and Robert Cheeke called "Plant Based Muscle", for people who are interested in bodybuilding / fitness, and think you can't do it as a vegan. I also have heard that "How Not To Die" by Dr Greger is good, but I haven't read it YET!
From my perspective, I am just another vegan person. Once I went vegan I found no need to read more on the subject, I just continued being vegan... then when I made Vegan Sidekick it was to spread veganism, and I still don't really do any reading. Anything I read would be about nutrition more than anything else.
Google is so good though, like if you are a new vegan and you're like "but I want to eat X", then just type in “Vegan X” into Google and you will find it more than likely.
„Cheap, easy vegan meals” - 211,000,000 results. Nobody has an excuse in modern society.
V: Do you have any favorite thing; you haven’t had before going Vegan?
R: Nutritional Yeast Flakes all day. Would never have tried those probably, but they are just so good, so versatile.
V: I am the same! On everything now and never heard before.
R: I was always suspicious of hummus for some reason as a vegetarian..., but I love it now; and then just brands of stuff which is an alternative, like ice creams etc... but they're just the same! Fried tofu is great, with chili sauce. Never had tofu before, I went vegan. People trash tofu... but I swear they just eat it raw and then complain. You don't put a spoon into a packet of flour and say "GROSS HOW CAN PEOPLE EAT BREAD", cakes, so grrross made with flour…
V: There is a Hungarian Facebook page: Hungarian Vegan Sidekick. They translate your work, to make sure the message gets to people, who don’t speak English, and they say hi to you :)
R: Hello! And thanks to them for doing it! There are people around the world in different languages taking the time to translate, it's something I can't do, as I am a typical Englishman, I can't speak another language.
V: It is a good type of activism for people.
V: Do you have any advice for people debating online?
R: If you see someone in an argument, then don't just post and jump in. I know that you want to help, but if the conversation is already progressing logically, and the vegan has the answers, then all you will do is make the non-vegan feel ganged-up on. I know that I don't like it, when a non-vegan gets 5 friends to join... and it just becomes a mess, so try to let conversations be 1 on 1. I have a guide on my website for arguments which people may find useful, and lastly - know when to quit. If someone is clearly being stubborn, then from that point on, they will NOT listen, so draw a line. I have a few lines that if they cross, I just end the conversation 99% of the time:
"Plants have feelings"
"Yeah, I'd watch my neighbor kill their dog, so what?"
"Yeah, you can kill me if you want lol, I'd be dead, so why would I care?"
Things like that. Don't just keep going with an idiot.
V: What if they just pick on a vegan?
R: Well there's the block button. Don't be afraid to block people, I do it all the time, constantly every day. You can offer support to someone else who is being insulted etc., but I think probably it's best to send THEM a private message, rather than join the conversation; as it will probably be a mess and not constructive. Send the vegan a message and say "Yeah, people are dumb right" etc.
Try to make the conversation you're having worthwhile. So if there is a conversation where a non-vegan is saying "Fuckin’ vegans blah blah, go eat grass, you suck" etc., then really that's not a positive conversation anyway, and it needs to end, rather than have more people in it.
V: It’s a very good point, as many vegans wants to help the other and they make a bigger mess with a troll.
R: Once someone is identified as a troll / time waster, then just block them. They want the attention. Sometimes it's not easy to tell who is a troll of course, but I mean if they're insulting people etc. then just call it a day.
V: When I started, I was eager to make sense and answer all the questions, but after years I just stay out.
R: I know, I argue with the wrong people too... it's too tempting to do it to try to correct them, but it is much nicer once you meet someone who is actually asking positive questions about veganism and listens.
Face to face, people are less likely to start shit, but the internet has taught me what is going through people’s heads, whether they say it or not.
V: Social media has good parts, like bringing together like minded people; but also people covered with a fake profile and put all their frustration there and get attention. You may give attention to people you would not in real life.
R: Social media has been key to the spread of veganism and advertising new vegan products. If a supermarket chain has 1 new vegan item, then suddenly everyone knows. It wasn't like that before Facebook. I knew no vegans for years.
V: How do you see the vegan movement? Will it reach a culmination point anytime soon? Critical mass?
R: It seems faster than ever. I don't know what numbers to trust, but seems like especially the younger generation (16-24 year olds) are especially gaining in numbers, which is promising. I don't know about when the tipping point will be, but I just keep seeing more and more positive changes.
V: Searching trends about veganism on Google are also increasing; drop in cow’s milk demand; fake meats in fashion. Just to name a few.
Picture credit: Richard Watts
Riporter: Edit Horvath
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