In this piece, Rebecca Gregson considers the negative impact that anti-veganism might be having on the vegan movement, highlighting issues of dietary lapse, self-silencing, and intra-movement conflict.
Feature photo credit: Chris Slupski
For as long as meat-free diets have existed, there have been people who denigrate vegetarians and vegans (or veg*ns) for their dietary choices. As far back as the 19th Century, there is documented evidence of veg*ns being ridiculed in popular press, regarded as cadaverous, feeble, and half-crazed. These same sentiments were later echoed in the discourse analysis of UK national newspapers, some 100 years later.
But, with the rise in veg*n popularity and the advent of social media, today anti-veg*nism is a somewhat different beast. Some have argued that veg*n antipathy is experiencing a recent wave in prevalence. According to a 2020 Times article, the UK police forces have recorded 172 instances of veg*n hate crimes between the years 2015-2020, just under a third of which took place in 2020. These changes have prompted academics and government bodies to recognise anti-veg*nism as a prejudice and to protect ‘ethical veganism’ under the Equality Act 2010.
Like a virus, this anti-veg*n hate has spread online. Online communities of self-identified “anti-vegans”, like Reddit’s r/AntiVegan and Facebook’s Anti Vegan League have sprung up right across the internet. If you have happened to stumble across online anti-veg*n discourse, then you will know that these groups revel in satirical humour and the sharing of taunting internet memes.
“How do you know if someone is vegan?…Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.” Or so the meme goes. This meme in particular uses satire and frivolity to disguise the stereotypical view that those who eschew meat are intolerably vocal about it. This view sits alongside the common perception of veg*ns as being militant and moralistic. It speaks to the idea that veg*ns push their views on people, uninvited and at the wrong time.
Consider the way in which vegan character Nora is presented in this scene from How I Met Your Mother. Note a number of things about how the vegan character is portrayed. There is an entire story to be told about the fact that Nora is a female protagonist, but a story for another blog piece, perhaps. More relevant here is the way in which Nora is seen discussing the moral motivations of her dietary preferences and casting judgment on those at the dinner table (wrong time, wrong place).
This depiction is typical of TV’s representation of veg*ns. And, whether popular discourse implicates public opinion, or vice versa, this representation perpetuates the common stereotype of veg*ns as overly moralistic, judgmental individuals. Ted’s later dismissal of Nora’s vegan spiel also feeds into this idea that the acceptance of veg*ns hinges on the unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule, as discussed by Iacobbo and Iacobbo (2006).
Lonely, Lapsing Veg*ns
Anti-veg*nism is so prevalent and insufferable that even the meat-eating majority anticipate veg*n stigma, which serves as a The title of this article, “If I went vegan, my friends and family would hate me” drawing on one of the participants own quotes. In this study, non-vegans reported socially distancing themselves from vegans in order to avoid any second-hand stigma.
Losing the support of family members and close friends, and experiencing co-ordination issues around food, are certainly common characteristics of the lived experiences of veg*ns and may be responsible for former veg*ns’ dietary exits. It has been estimated that approximately 84% of people who attempt a veg*n diet later abandon it, with 34% of lapses occurring within the first three-months. In the same research report, it was suggested that the negative social aspects of a vegan diet, including social awkwardness, a lack of social support and the experience of vegan stigma, explain a significant proportion of why meat refusers revert to their previous omnivorous diet.
The research discussed thus far suggests that anti-veg*nism can make veg*nism a lonely place and, unsurprisingly, hard to maintain. In self-report research with a sample of 371 veg*n participants, approximately 45% of vegetarians and 66% of vegans said that they had experienced some degree of discrimination because of their dietary choice.
For those who experience and withstand veg*n stigma, many may find themselves adopting strategies to manage difficult social interactions. In the above research, 56% of vegetarians and 77% of vegans said that they had engaged in at least some form of stigma-coping mechanism. These mechanisms include concealing the moral motivations underlying their lifestyle or remaining altogether silent.
The Vocal Veg*n?
The qualitative work by Jessica Greenebaum documents a number of these “face-saving” strategies that vegans employ to manage the tension that they face when communicating with meat eaters. These range from waiting for an appropriate time to discuss veg*nism, to avoiding confrontation all together. Further, when such conversations do arise, vegans may reframe their diet as a ‘personal choice’, motivated by self-focused concerns, like health, to dilute the moral tone of their veg*nism. This strategy appears to make veg*nism more palatable to onlookers. Recent research from Maike Weiper and Roos Vonk shows that personally motivated vegans (i.e., those who eschew animal-products for health reasons) are liked more than those who do so for ethical reasons.
Jan Willem Bolderdijk and Gert Cornelissen suggest that during encounters with meat-eaters, those who eschew meat often remain silent about such decision. In their adaptation of the classic conformity study by Solomon Asch, Bolderdijk and Cornelissen recruited meat abstaining participants to complete an experiment alongside meat eating confederates. In this study, all participants were given the opportunity to sign a petition in favour of supermarkets increasing their assortment of vegan food alternatives, thus, expressing their meat-free preferences. In the pilot testing phase of this experiment, the authors established a baseline rate of petition signing amongst a sample of veg*n participants that fell between 88-100%.
In the critical condition, the non-vegetarian confederates received the petition first and declined to sign. When veg*n participants were exposed to the non-veg*n confederates who declined to sign, just 52.3% of them decided to sign the petition themselves. The authors take this as evidence that meat avoiders are less inclined to support meat-free policies when exposed to the counter-views of a majority. The authors refer to this effect as self-silencing.
Recent research has suggested that despite sharing the same superordinate goal (the disavowel of meat consumption), there exist substantial tensions between vegans and vegetarians. It would seem that the topic of self-silencing veg*ns is one such source of tension between members of the animal rights movement.
Consider this post from r/vegan made four years ago. In this post, we hear from user ‘Jaybutts’ about their frustration towards self-silencing vegans. Jaybutts explains how vegans are under “social pressure” to remain silent about veganism and argue that submitting to such pressure is being “complacent”, conforming to the social norm which is to eat animals. Jaybutts concludes: “PLEASE do not let the flesh eaters silence you”.
While internal conflict is inevitable (some might argue natural) to progressive social movements, such conflicts can devolve to destructive patterns of avoidance, ostracism, and public humiliation, none of which maintain unity, encourage principled opposition, or demonstrate an ability to solve large-scale social problems. Thus, if left unmanaged, internal conflict has the potential to undermine the movements success.
Drawing Faulty Assumptions
While self-silencing might be a cause of frustration within the movement, psychological theory lends a hand in explaining why it’s to be expected and perhaps more common than we might have thought. The concept of pluralistic ignorance is the idea that individuals may, erroneously, hold the belief that one’s personal attitudes are different from the majority. This generally happens when people fail to communicate their personal attitudes for fear of deviating from the perceived normative view.
If we use this model to make predictions about veg*ns’ behaviour, then we might expect veg*ns to make erroneous judgments about the number of omnivores who hold anti-veg*n views. As work on minority influence attests, minority views are often held more widely in private than in public. Thus, there is likely more support for meat reduction among omnivores than veg*ns often infer. Ultimately, self-silencing might be based upon a faulty inference about what most omnivores actually think.
Using the same logic, it also follows that silent veg*ns perpetuate the view that veg*nism is a minority preference – a niche diet – and that eating animals is the norm. When veg*ns remain silent, omnivores assume there are fewer practicing veg*ns than there actually are. Thus, it’s possible that veg*n self-silencing may be slowing the momentum of the movement. How can we prevent this and break the silence?
“Come Together Right Now…”
Trawling the comment section of the aforementioned Reddit post, we learn that veg*ns may also self-silence because in such high-pressured discussions, they feel that they struggle to communicate effectively. While we may communicate with others in our everyday lives, communicating a message effectively is an art and something that takes practise to master. Recognising these issues, Melanie Joy and Tobias Leenaert founded the Centre for Effective Vegan Advocacy which has a whole host of freely accessible resources for veg*ns.
It can be difficult to feel empowered to speak about matters close to your heart when you are without a tribe, or community of people who support you in your choices. This issue was highlighted in recent work by Faunalytics, where it was found that a lack of social support was the principal reported reason for exiting a veg*n diet.
Perceiving the existence of allies can be a resource for overcoming self-silencing. In the study by Bolderdijk and Cornelissen, they included an additional condition where, across some trials, the group moderator endorsed the petition themselves, stating “I signed it, but don’t feel obliged to sign it as well”. In this condition, when the moderator endorsed the petition, thus, presenting themselves as a veg*n ally, a much larger proportion of meat-avoiding participants (84.4%) were willing to sign.
These finding speak to the important role that allies play in encouraging people to speak up about their own veg*nism. Those looking for veg*n allies might consider becoming affiliated with veg*n organisations, like our very own PHAIR Society, or the Vegan Society. You might take to social media, the likes of Facebook or Reddit, to find groups of like minded individuals, in your local area and with whom you can relate. In addition, if you are at an educational institute, a college or university you might find a veg*n society–a great place to meet fellow veg*ns and allies.
Internal conflict within a social movement can be self-defeating and thus practising acceptance toward other members of the movement is important. Experiencing prejudice can be hurtful and demotivating. In a movement that is concerned with compassion towards other living beings, we ought to practise this amongst ourselves; valuing the dignity and respecting the integrity of our peers.
Author: Rebecca Gregson.
Editorial Contributions: Jared Piazza