In this interview Australian born activist James Apsey – one of the vegan movement’s most promising rising public speakers – talks to L.Mira about his personal brand of activism. Including going voiceless for a year and getting tattooed for 24 hours straight, how he truly feels when he visits slaughterhouses, and if he prefers the Scottish or English accent.
Interviewing James Aspey over the phone after he had just completed a week’s worth of talks, press commitments and education in schools and colleges on veganism, whilst traveling at speeds of 125mph on a Virgin train from Scotland to England; via a DIY recording method that left little to the imagination, naturally had its potential drawbacks.
Yet James remained the ever patient interviewee and spoke in a disarmingly polite, calm and naturally enquiring manner. Part of me wishes that I could have been as relaxed as he seemed, but no chance considering that I was up against a time-restraint and in ‘work mode’. Also, Mr Aspey is now more than a little bit of a celebrity to vegans (and non-vegans) everywhere. Having previously watched his back catalogue of videos on his popular YouTube channel, it’s safe to say that I was more than a little bit in awe.
It became apparent to me, via his answers, that James is a man of impressive emotional self-mastery and honesty, who chooses his words carefully.
His naturally altruistic and benevolent nature impacted me greatly.
Hi James, so after you became – in your own words – an ‘educated activist’ you took a vow of silence. Can you briefly explain why you went voiceless for the animals for 365 days?
I thought that it would be a good campaign to get attention because it was something that hadn’t really been done before and it also fitted in well with animals, who at the time I didn’t think had a voice. I used this as a way to draw attention to myself and also to the message that I was advocating.
How did it feel during that year to live without using a main channel of communication?
I found that it became more and more challenging over time, which I wasn’t expecting because I was keeping more and more inside and I was having to learn new ways to express myself. It was very challenging and there was a lot of frustration throughout the year; it was exhausting trying to communicate without words. I did notice that it made me listen more and become a bit more observant of my surroundings.
When you filmed and uploaded the interview exchange with Freelee on your YouTube channel in 2015, did you also see this as a conscious step to promote your message?
I had only just started speaking again and this is why she [Freelee] invited me onto her channel to do an interview; because it was a fresh campaign that had just finished and she wanted to have a chat about it. I didn’t even know a lot about her at the time so I didn’t see it as a conscious move. I was basically saying yes to any person who wanted to ask me questions and she was one of them.
You have been very honest online, recounting your many struggles with cancer, addictions and a serious eating disorder. Do you think that showing yourself at your most vulnerable and ‘human’ has worked in your favour?
It has, but I didn’t do it for that reason. I mainly did it because I thought that by sharing my own struggles it might help people in worse situations. I was already connecting with a lot of people, but this helped people realise that I was just a ‘normal guy’ with my own problems. I put those stories out there in the hopes that someone going through a similar situation would get some benefit from hearing about someone who had come through the other side.
In terms of promoting veganism you have demonstrated a variety of inventive methods of activism: from being voiceless for the voiceless, to getting perhaps more vegan body art than most! What have you found to be some of the most effective ways of spreading the vegan message?
The most effective way is education with an encouraging, positive and patient attitude. The vow of silence was especially good because it got on the media and it was an action that anyone could be interested in, even if you didn’t care about animals or weren’t vegan. Tattooing (live over a 24 hour period) was intriguing to a different kind of audience. The thing that has probably been best though is giving speeches and when my speech went viral earlier this year, there was so much education in that forty minute speech that it crossed off a lot of peoples objections and it moved people so much further towards making a change.
Do you feel that honesty and having an empathetic and compassionate nature (for people as well as animals) is what aided in driving your message home?
For sure, because people feel attacked when they are told that something that they are doing is causing harm. It is not about attacking anybody, it is about lifting each other up and learning how we can do better. I do feel that having this attitude towards people is why that speech was particularly popular. In saying that there are speeches that don’t have this approach and reach other people because it is a different type of style and there is room for it all. However, in my experience, the best way to make our enemies our friends is by advocating with love and compassion.
You have been vegan for just over three years now. What changes have occurred during this time, both personally and professionally speaking?
My whole life has changed really….I feel more peace inside of myself, I feel healthier, I have more energy, I’m stronger in the gym. I just feel that I am finally living my purpose and living in alignment with the kind of person that I always wanted to be, which is a kind, respectful person.
Professionally speaking I am on a totally different path now as I give speeches and it is more rewarding than what I was doing before (personal training). I feel that I am reaching more people with a vital message that actually saves lives, is improving the health of the planet, as well as the health of all the people that I speak to.
What have been some of your personal highlights and accomplishments so far?
An amazing moment was having the very first article against dairy appearing in an Indian newspaper, and also my speech going viral and being seen by over five million people in a month. Also, speaking for the first time on TV with a well thought out, clear, direct message that advocates for veganism; and that message being spread around the world to millions of people.
Highlights for me are also when I receive messages, emails, or meet people in person and they give me feedback and tell me that something that I have done has made a difference to them and improved their life in some way. I know that if it is improving their lives and that people are going vegan then it is improving the lives of the animals, and they are the ones that really need it desperately.
Since bearing witness at slaughterhouse based vigils in Australia and the UK, how has this impacted you as an activist?
Bearing witness is one of the most powerful ways to connect the general public with the reality of where animal products come from. By showing the animals in their final moments it makes the horrific reality undeniable – that innocent animals suffer and die in order for someone to eat their flesh, drink their milk, or eat their eggs. For that reason, I love the vigils. On the other hand, it is greatly upsetting to not be able to save these animals. To look them in the eyes and then hear their screams, it can haunt you for some time. Still, it is nothing compared to what they go through.
Alongside campaigning comes a risk of emotional burnout. Can you talk briefly on the dangers of not sharing the responsibility of witnessing and as a result potentially becoming over-burdened?
It is important that we all look after ourselves, this situation is not going away in two or three years. We need to learn how to be sustainable activists and continue on for however long it takes. That means taking time out for ourselves and looking after our health, meditating and keeping a balance of having a normal life and having fun. Not letting the guilt get to you. I know that a lot of people – myself included – felt a lot of guilt for a long time about enjoying life. Really we should be grateful that we have an opportunity to do this and the more positive feelings that we feel; such as having gratitude instead of guilt for our lives, the more positive and inviting it will be for other people. It isn’t just important for us but for the movement as well.
In my personal opinion I feel the most effective way to promote veganism is to take a ‘reduce-a-share-ian’ approach. Do you feel that there is something to be said for the art of subtlety?
I think that is one way to do it and I personally think that is a better way if the balance is there and you are still getting a lot of work done, then it’s ideal. Also, I think it is important that some people don’t share much at all and they are a quiet vegan, and it is important that some people are sharing every single day. I do think though that there is a lot of room for more positivity, more patience and more understanding of where people are at and we can definitely grow in that way in this movement.
With that said what are your hobbies and passions outside of promoting veganism?
I love to run, cycle, skate, surf, snowboard, going to the gym, hanging with mates, watching movies, reading books, listening to music, just everything normal.
Lastly, bonus question, whose accent do you prefer: Scottish or English?
I have been living with English people my whole life, my Mum and Dad are from England, so it’s nice to hear a change from the Scots.
James Aspey can be found online at the following places: