I’ve been lately dipping into one of my all-time favorite books, Simple Food For The Good Life by Helen Nearing. She and her husband Scott were back-to-the landers, pacifists, and simple lifestyle pioneers in the 1930s through 1970s. They were vegetarian—almost vegan.

I love this cookbook not so much (or really at all) for its recipes, but for the amusing snippets throughout, as well as some delightfully radical ideas (for 1980) about animal rights. But be forewarned: Helen’s thoughts were not in sync with some of the absolutist positions that some activists take today. She was a straight talker and pulled no punches when it came to her disdain for inflexible perspectives.

In her chapter on vegetarianism she says:

“We knew one self-righteous vegetarian who, entertaining us for dinner, ignominiously relegated his wife and daughter, still flesh-eaters, to the kitchen to eat while we were served with our host in the dining room. This hardhearted purist had much to learn about right living, although he was on the track to right diet.”

I saw a couple of items this week that made me wonder what Helen would think about some current animal rights controversies. The first was the new billboard funded by Mercy For Animals. It stands on a highway in Michigan where it is seen daily by more than 50,000 commuters. With a picture of an adorable puppy and even more adorable piglet it asks “Why love one and eat the other?” and offers the punch line: “Go Vegetarian.”

To me, it’s a brilliant piece of activism. But some complained that it was vegetarian education as opposed to vegan education. Well, maybe so. But what do you do when people are zooming down the highway, and you’d like to talk to them about factory farming? If you’re smart, you craft a message that makes a quick point followed by a strong and instantly logical statement.

The Mercy for Animals billboard did just that. They are a pro-vegan group, but they know that you can’t easily capture the argument for veganism in a simple graphic and a few words. So instead of doing nothing, they did something that is actually bound to cause people—lots of people—to think about where their food comes from.

Early this week I also heard objections to an excerpt from the Animal Activist’s Handbook that appeared on the website of United Poultry Concerns. Authors Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich talked about the myth of humane meat production, saying:

“If we insist that we must consume actual animal flesh instead of a vegetarian option, it’s naïve, at best, to believe any system will really take good care of the animals we pay them to slaughter.”

This provoked some criticisms, again, about the use of the word vegetarian. I think that misses the point entirely. If people have made a commitment to eat only “humanely-produced” meat, it makes sense to talk to them about why humane meat is a myth and why they should think about giving up all meat. That message has immediate relevance to the specific situation at hand and opens the door to further conversation.

Some would say we should talk only about veganism and animal rights philosophy. My own experience, based on years of providing dietary and lifestyle education, tells me that this type of approach is dead wrong. But I emailed a friend to get a little reality check about it. She’s an educational psychologist with both academic and real life experience in her field; she’s also a vegan and animal rights proponent. Her long reply to my questions explained the futility of narrow and inflexible positions, and ended with this:

“It’s simply idiocy to think that you can more effectively address this issue with absolutism. Trying to get to the end point by flat refusal to consider anything but your own absolutist position (however morally right) is simply not going to open the necessary “mind doors” to begin to alter values.”

By no means is any of this saying that we should never talk about veganism. And it is certainly not about promoting vegetarianism as a “gateway” to veganism. More often than not, we can indeed find a way to talk about vegan lifestyle or at least plant a little seed. I always seek out those opportunities. But I also know that sometimes, it is more appropriate and more meaningful and more effective to use the word “vegetarian” in order to get people’s attention. If we miss those opportunities—either by ignoring them or choosing the wrong language—we are missing a chance to make a difference for animals.