Category Archives: Essays

Save the Lambs! Why I Reject Antioch College’s Lethal Lamb-killing Classroom ‘Experiment’

To the Editor of Yellow Springs News:

I am writing to express my strong disapproval of the Antioch College lamb-killing project. I have read the president’s response to the campaign to end this antiquated and violent “educational” “experiment.” As a citizen and a sociologist, I find the university’s rationale to be deeply problematic and, frankly, uninformed.

The sociological (and psychological) research on projects of this kind indicates that they foster attitudes of denial, dehumanization, in-group bias, domination, and oppression–the exact sorts of attitudes which run counter to American values. Lambs are not things, they are not tools, and they are not food. They are persons who care about what happens to them, just like us.

For that matter, with climate change at crisis levels, it is frankly laughable that the university would suggest that animal agriculture is in any way compatible with goals of sustainability. The science simply does not support such a claim. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change.

As an alumnus of an agricultural school myself (go Hokies!) and proudly hailing from an agricultural community in southwestern Virginia, I am also critical of the blatant miseducation of rural communities who are misdirected into unsustainable, violent, polluting, and precarious animal agricultural initiatives. Lower class, working class, and rural communities have been exploited for the profits of Big Ag for generations, such that this is not just a matter of animal oppression, but also human oppression. The longer the community is forced into economic dependence on animal agriculture, the more suffering and vulnerability is imposed on already struggling farming communities. We need to support agricultural initiatives that are in line with the long-term needs of humans, animals, and global systems–plant-based farming is the only way forward.

Students would be better served by lessons in compassion, coexistence, and truly sustainable plant-based alternatives in agriculture. This is the way of the future.
 
 

– Dr. Corey L. Wrenn, Chair of the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association
 
 

This campaign to end the lamb-killing “experiment” at Antioch College is led by Dr. David Nibert, founder of the Animals & Society Section of the American Sociological Association. Read Dr. Nibert’s response here.  SIGN THE PETITION HERE; write your own letter to the editor of The Yellow Springs News here.


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Readers can learn more about the politics of Nonhuman Animal rights in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Is It Ethical to Keep Pets?

According to the UK veterinary charity The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), half of Britons own a pet. In the US, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reports the same. Many of these owners view the millions of birds, cats, dogs, rabbits and other Nonhuman Animals sharing their homes as family members. Although we love them, care for them, celebrate their birthdays and mourn them when they pass, is it ethical to keep pets in the first place? Some activists and ethicists, myself included, would argue that it is not.

Pet-keeping as a Social Injustice

The institution of pet-keeping is fundamentally unjust as it involves the manipulation of Nonhuman Animals’ bodies, behaviours, and emotional lives. For centuries, companion animal bodies (particularly that of dogs, horses and rabbits) have been shaped to suit human fashions and fancies, often causing these animals considerable physical harm. Particular breeds, for instance, are highly susceptible to painful and frequently fatal genetic defects, while highly prized physical features (such as small stature or pushed-in noses) can cause discomfort and difficulty in breathing, birthing, and other normal functions.

Even those Nonhuman Animals who are not purpose-bred often face bodily manipulations which impede on their comfort and safety, such as confining clothing, painful leashes which pull at the throat, docked tails and ears, and declawing (which entails the severing of the first digit of each toe in cats). Nonhuman Animals confined as pets are also constrained in their daily movements, sometimes crated or caged, oftentimes restricted indoors, and always at the whims of human desires.

Pets also symbolically reinforce the notion that vulnerable groups can be owned and fully controlled for the pleasure and convenience of more privileged powerful groups. This has implications for vulnerable human groups as well. For instance, sexism is partially maintained by treating women linguistically as pets (‘kitten’, ‘bunny’) and physically by confining them to the home to please and serve the family patriarch. Social workers also recognize the powerful link between pet abuse and the abuse of children and women in domestic settings. The notion that it is acceptable to manipulate the bodies and minds of a vulnerable group to suit the interests of more privileged groups, in other words, is consistent with the cultural logic of oppression.

Companion Animals Cannot Consent

Through the forced dependency of domestication and pet-keeping, the lives of companion animals are almost completely controlled by humans. They can be terminated at any time for the most trivial of reasons including behavioural ‘problems’, simply belonging to a stereotyped breed or the owner’s inability (or unwillingness) to pay for veterinary treatment.
In the mid-20th century, sociologist Erving Goffman introduced the concept of a total institution as one in which inhabitants are cut off from wider society under a single authority in an enclosed social space in which natural barriers between social spheres artificially eliminated and an intense socialization process takes place to ensure that inmates conform.

Sociologists typically study prisons, asylums, and other physical spaces as examples, but I argue that pet-keeping constitutes a sort of dispersed total institution whereby Nonhuman Animals are unnaturally forced under human authority, restrained, and resocialized. True consent is not possible under such conditions; Nonhuman Animals are groomed to participate and those who are likely to be punished (sometimes fatally).

This is not in any way to suggest that dogs, cats, and other species cannot express love and happiness as ‘pets’, but it is important to recognize that their complacency within the institution of pet-keeping is entirely manufactured (sometimes quite cruelly) by humans through behaviour ‘corrections’ and through the manipulative process of domestication itself.

A World without Pets?

Some companion animal advocates, such as Nathan Winograd, the director of the US based No Kill Advocacy Center, argue that to stop keeping pets altogether would be a violation of Nonhuman Animals’ right to exist. Winograd believes the widespread killing of healthy companion animals can be curbed through a restructuring of the sheltering industry. He rejects the need to end pet-keeping given the abundance of humanity’s capacity for compassion and adoption.

To his credit, Winograd’s pro-pet position reflects the No Kill movement’s strong disapproval of Nonhuman Animal rights organizations such as PETA which frequently support ‘euthanasia’ policies to curb pet populations. If a no kill society is reached, however, many of the ethical violations previously discussed (bodily manipulation, non-consensual confinement, enforced dependency, and vulnerability to human abuse) would remain even if, as Winograd supposes, increasing legal protections could be obtained to improve their standard of living.

In short, companion animals, by their very position in the social order, are not and cannot be equals. The institution of pet-keeping maintains a social hierarchy which privileges humans and positions all others as objects of lower importance whose right to existence depends wholly on their potential to benefit humans. That said, the population of dogs, cats, rabbits, and other domesticated ‘pet’ animals currently rivals that of humans such that they are likely to remain a consistent feature of human social life.

Although I suggest that it may not be ethical to pursue the future breeding of Nonhuman Animals for human comfort, humans do have a duty to serve, protect, and care for them. Recognizing the inherent inequality in human/nonhuman relations will be vital in making the best of an imperfect situation.
This essay originally appeared in The Conversation on April 25, 2019.


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Readers can learn more about the politics of Nonhuman Animal rights in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Why I’m Giving Beyoncé’s Vegan Campaign a Chance

Beyoncé and Jay-Z shocked mainstream news and vegan activists alike when they announced that fans who pledge to go plant-based have a chance to win free tickets to their concerts for life.

Some vegans have not been so enthusiastic about the campaign, citing that veganism “for the health” is not the same as veganism “for the animals,” and that veganism is not something that can be “forced” on others.

Whose Veganism is It Anyway?

To this I would counter that, although some (myself included) may understand veganism to be a matter of anti-speciesism, vegans should hesitate to insist that the Eurocentric interpretation of veganism is the only valid approach.

As a practical matter, a “master frame” of veganism is not especially useful in the context of a diverse audience. Personally, I critique the hegemonic vegan frame which is highly bureaucratized and prioritizes capitalist interests over the interests of effective social change (which I argue inevitably undermines veganism). To be able to criticize hegemonic veganism from this angle, however, is a reflection of my white privilege.

As a white person, I have to concede that other ethnicities will have other priorities. These include the deadly consequences of food deserts and food insecurity as well as the role that “animality” as a social construct has played in the oppression of people of color. These are priorities which have been beautifully outlined by activist scholars such as Dr. Breeze Harper and Aph & Syl Ko.

I concede that “my” veganism will not be the veganism that other folk feel compelled to adopt.

The Vegan Society defines veganism as:

a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

Beyoncé definitely does not count as a “vegan” according to this definition. She claims to eat animals’ flesh occasionally since it’s “all about moderation.” I assume her stage outfits make use of real birds’ feathers and cows’ skin as well. Her makeup is probably produced from slaughterhouse renderings and tested on other animals. She could exclude these things quite “possibly” and “practicably.”

But is The Vegan Society’s definition the only definition that matters? More specifically, is it the only definition which should apply to everyone? What about people of color living in a racialized society?

I suggest that the vegan identity is multifaceted and that the terms of engagement must be contextualized.

Cultural Force

In any case, I think it is a stretch to claim that Bey (who is not even a vegan herself) is “forcing” veganism on others. Fans who claim to go vegan (how can their veganism even be verified?) only have a chance to win free tickets, they are not guaranteed free tickets. Attending expensive music concerts is not a requirement, it is only recreational. Nor do Bey or Jay-Z require a complete transition since they also promote reducetarianism or “meatless Mondays.”

As I have uncovered in my research on flexitarian campaigns of this kind, many people already identify as someone who does not eat “that much” meat or dairy, since reducing animal product consumption is seen as a social good (unlike veganism which is interpreted as “extreme”). Importantly, the flexitarian identity does not often correlate with actual behavior change. In some cases, those who identify as flexitarian actually consume more animal products than their non-flexitarian-identifying counterparts.

That said, Bey is using her cultural clout to promote a social good. This is no different from the efforts of white celebrities like Moby, Morrissey, and, if you stretch it, Miley Cyrus. Morrissey reportedly bans all sale of animal flesh at his concerts–is he forcing his fans to be vegetarian?

True, celebrities are rarely trained in social justice activism, and their politics are not always perfect. I also find it uncomfortable that society should rely on celebrities to promote social goods since celebrities, given their extreme wealth, are the very embodiment of social inequality. Yet, Bey is putting her money where her mouth is–she is using her celebrity and privilege to make the world a better place through the channels available to her.

As this essay goes to print, Senator Cory Booker (also a person of color) has just announced his bid for presidency. He is a fierce social justice advocate and a longtime vegan. But he, too, promotes veganism for a wide variety of reasons which do not always center other animals. Would the movement be so quick (and foolhardy) to write off Cory Booker if he were to become our first vegan president? Need the vegan movement even have to wait for a vegan president? Beyoncé is practically American royalty, after all. Her clout arguably exceeds that of Booker’s.

Whether white activists like it or not, celebrity influencers shape the cultural landscape. The vegan identity (unlike the flexitarian identity) is a highly stigmatized one, and social movements will need to normalize its goals before they can be widely adopted. If Queen Bey makes vegan cool, it might not be “for the right reasons” (that is, it might not seek to advance the interests of Nonhuman Animals), but it can have a significant impact on the community she serves.

The Master Frame

Social movement scholars acknowledge that collectives strategically design frames which are hoped to resonate with their audiences. Multiple frames can be at work, but it is sometimes the case that a “master frame” will come to dominate in the movement’s repertoire. The utility of a master frame is its ability to present a strong, united front to the public and policy-makers. The downside is that a “one-size-fits-all” approach can be unrealistic given that audiences (and activists themselves) are not necessarily homogenous. Persuasion is a complicated matter and it sometimes takes many approaches to push a social justice agenda.

The Vegan Society, which formed in 1944 Britain and officially launched the political concept of “veganism” in the West following a protracted debate with The Vegetarian Society, may have prioritized veganism as a matter of anti-speciesism, but, from its very conception, it drew on a diverse framework relating to human health, poverty and famine, war, and individual autonomy. Indeed, The Vegan Society, today, continues a multipronged approach.

As the society moved into the 21st century, it continued to promote veganism, not necessarily as an endeavor to liberate other animals, but as something “normal” and achievable. Its vegan labeling scheme, for instance, was a major campaign in this effort. I have my issues with such an approach given its pro-capitalist leanings and its watering down of the anti-speciesist radical politic, but it is the case nonetheless that the expansion of commercially available vegan products has made veganism easier to perform.

Beyoncé has been dragged before for not meeting the expectations of white activist frames. White feminists, for instance, have criticized her brand of feminism as sexually objectifying and complicit with patriarchy, if not ignored it altogether. Black feminists have responded by reminding the community that there is no one “Feminism” (capital F) but rather many feminisms, and the failure to embrace Black women’s activism reflects white supremacy in the public space.

Because inequality does not stop at the door of social justice movements, activists must consider how inequality can sometimes shape strategy. Who is the “master” in developing the “master frame”? What I am suggesting is that the “master frame” is too frequently racialized in its construction.

Likewise, the need to control the vegan discourse and the very definition of veganism itself is rooted in colonial politics. As European countries pushed their culture onto “inferior” and “ignorant” subjects, they expected full assimilation. There was little patience for adaptation or nuance; it was simply presumed that European cultural values were universal and should be adopted unquestioningly. This is the very definition of cultural domination.

In this vein, it must be remembered that, while non-Western countries have their own histories of plant-based resistance, “Veganism” (capital V) as it is understood and politicized today, is a deeply European concept. White activists must tread carefully when attempting to impose “their” veganism on “others.” Indeed, the vegan movement, dominated as it is by white activists, has been less than welcoming to the veganisms of other cultures. This is problematic if the goal is to expand veganism beyond middle-class white spaces.

Most people go vegan and stay vegan because of their concern for other animals. Bey’s health-centric, flexitarian approach does not alter this research-supported fact. But Bey also has a wider cultural influence and represents a nonwhite consumer base that has been traditionally overlooked by the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. I am interested to see if her efforts will contribute to the larger discourse. I am also deeply supportive of women of color who have the “audacity” to be political in a white-dominated cultural landscape. Celebrity persuasion is far from perfect, but it can contribute to the destigmitization of veganism. This cultural normalcy was The Vegan Society’s aim all along.

 


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Readers can learn more about the racial politics of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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How Dawn Saves Wildlife While Killing Other Animals En Masse

Soap and Species Solidarity

Under the banner, “Dawn Saves Wildlife,” Dawn dish soap has for decades been advertised as the weapon of choice for those working to assist free-living animals who have harmed by oil spills.  Commercials which promote this project frequently depict precious little ducklings and squat penguins wiggling clean and free out of a foamy Dawn bath back into nature.

The scheme has become foundational to Dawn’s brand image over the decades.  For instance, these nonhuman survivors are often featured on dish soap bottles, and Dawn also hosts a website specifically designed to promote its work with free-living animals.  In the past, it has donated at least a million dollars toward wildlife rescue efforts.

Dawn soap saves animals in removing deadly oil and chemicals from industrial accidents, the Dawn company saves animals by funding conservation, and the warm-hearted customer saves animals in purchasing Dawn products.

But a critical vegan analysis unravels this corporate greenwashing for what it is: a scheme to increase sales which is based on the systematic oppression of many species, both domesticated and free-living.

What’s in a Bottle?

Most mainstream detergents are based in slaughterhouse renderings. Commercial soaps, Dawn included, are produced from the fat of pigs, cows, chickens, or other species who meet gruesome ends in abattoirs.

Dawn is also a product of Procter & Gamble, a corporation which has maintained its commitment to outdated and violent Nonhuman Animal testing in the face of decades of protest from the Nonhuman Animal rights movement.

Furthermore, commercial detergents like Dawn which are flushed down millions of drains across the United States pose a direct risk to free-living species whose habitats are disrupted by algae blooms, fragrances, anti-bacterial agents, and other additives.

Veganism vs. Greenwashing

Thus, Dawn products are predicated on the torture and killing of all manner of Nonhuman Animals, while the suffering of free-living animals harmed by industrial disasters is cruelly exploited to promote the brand. Dawn’s approach is typical of corporate greenwashing in its attempt to add marketable value by appealing to societal interest sustainability and species solidarity. Ultimately, however, Dawn’s effort is vacuous.

Products that are not vegan and do not work harmoniously with the environment undermine the wellbeing of Nonhuman Animals. Fortunately, vegan alternatives are becoming increasingly easy to find and comparable in cost.  Some folks even make their own washing up liquid to reduce their consumption of plastic. A variety of recipes to accomplish this are freely available online.


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Readers can learn more about critical veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Vegan Sausage Rolls are Resisting the Brexit

In the United Kingdom, a number of grocery chains ranging from Aldi’s to Sainsbury’s unveiled a new line of vegan options for the start of 2019. One such chain rolled out a rather unassuming vegan sausage roll, just one cruelty-free option amid a sea of animal products. But this one little veggie roll seemed to represent all that the conservative right had come to loathe. Right-wing news journalists are lashing out on social media, and an off-shoot of France’s yellow vest movement materialized in Manchester to protest the roll as a threat to the nation itself. “We Want Our Country Back” the vest slogans read.

In her 2015 publication The Vegan Studies Project, Laura Wright forwards the idea of anti-vegan animal nationalism, a concept positing that veganism upsets notions of national identity. Veganism is frequently associated with liberalism gone wild, a marker of snowflake privilege. More insidiously, however, since many vegan dishes hail from non-Western countries (especially mock-meats), it is also disparagingly associated with the “other,” the “east,” and uncivilized, unevolved barbary. In that respect, the resistance to veganism is often highly racialized.

The United Kingdom makes for an especially interesting case study in anti-vegan animal nationalism. Across the many centuries of British colonialism, Britain’s “beefeater” culture was heralded as factual evidence as to the superiority of Great Britain. It became a marker of civilization itself. Furthermore, it became a justification for the violent oppression of the potato-eating Irish, rice-eating Indians, and other colonial conquests in Africa, Asia, and the Carribean where plant-based eating was the norm. Political discourse of the era pointed to vegan eating as a marker of weakness and a veritable plea for Britain’s paternalistic, merciful rule.

In the era of Brexit, the Greggs protest demonstrates that these same food-based cultural tropes about the “other” persist as the slight majority of the country’s voters chose to remove themselves from the European Union to “protect their borders” and clamp down on immigration from regions deemed undesirable. Food politics, it would seem, feed ethnocentrism.

But Britain is today a very multicultural and diverse country, with, for the purposes of our discussion, restaurants and food shops serving the culinary needs and nostalgias of its former colonies as well as those regions never colonized by Britain at all but woven into the culture through processes of globalization. Food is so integral to culture and belonging, it is no wonder that these shifts on the high street are causing discomfort for some. For a population of conservatives harkening to an age of imperialism in which whites predominated in the “home country” and freely enjoyed the wealth extracted from colonized peoples of color (who were kept at a distance across oceans and continents), this modern multiculturalism disrupts this legacy of guiltless privilege and effortless oppression.

And so, when Greggs launched its simple vegan sausage roll, literally inserting the otherized, liberalized, orientalized plant-based fodder into the most cherished of all British meaty fare, conservatives were forced into a reckoning. For me, a vegan of nearly two decades, Greggs vegan sausage rolls offer me a chance to explore British cuisine in all its multicultural glory without imposing violence on other animals. But they also celebrate Britain’s resistance to the right-wing backlash that has temporarily thrown the country asunder. Dare I say, Greggs veggie rolls represent our beautifully persistent march toward a more equitable and diverse society.

Yum.


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Readers can learn more about the politics of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Cognitive Priming

Cognitive Priming for Positive Outcomes

Cognitive priming refers to the process of manipulating an audience’s interpretation of information. Professors, for instance, might make subtle hints to their students about positive experiences in the classroom hoping that students will score them higher on end-of-term evaluations. Realtors may bake cookies in a home for sale for a nostalgic, lived-in atmosphere, hoping to encourage would-be buyers to imagine themselves buying and living in the home. Comedians and musicians rely on opening acts to get audiences jazzed about the main event.

With cognitive priming, agents not only allow for the manipulation of new information. Priming can also improve the recollection of memories (Rholes et al. 1987). Vegan activists can, therefore, manipulate the interpretation of campaigns by cognitively priming audiences beforehand. Facilitating good moods can assist with this. Vegans can even prime others to experience and remember vegan food more positively by priming beforehand.

Cognitive Priming for Negative Outcomes

Unfortunately, priming works both ways. People can be primed toward the negative, too. For instance, researchers in one study exposed an experimental group to aggressive media (Bushman 1998). After the exposure, researchers asked participants to come up with word associations in a seemingly unrelated lexicon task. The participants exposed to the violent media were more likely to come up with violent word associations than those in the control group.

The priming effect acts as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Persons primed to enter a mindset of positivity or negativity are more likely to experience an event or information respectively.

For vegan campaigners, then, their success may be limited should they organize protests or tablings in spaces where audiences have been primed with aggression. For instance, anti-hunt disruptions may be important for aiding wounded Nonhuman Animals and drawing attention to their oppression, but they are less likely to persuade audiences to respond positively to veganism having already been aggressively primed by the festivities.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Prime audiences to interpret and remember vegan ideas and food positively
  • Avoid campaigning in spaces where audiences have already been primed with aggression

References

Bushman, B. 1998. “Priming Effects of Media Violence on the Accessibility of Aggressive Constructs in Memory.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 24 (5): 537-545.

Rholes, W., J. Riskind, and J. Lane. 1987. “Emotional states and memory biases: Effects of cognitive priming and mood.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52 (1): 91-99.

 


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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – The Illusion of Transparency

What is the Illusion of Transparency?

The illusion of transparency refers to the mistaken assumption that others can read our internal states quite easily. Humans, as social animals, are quite good at reading the body language and facial expressions of others. However, there are limitations to this ability.

Perhaps the tendency to assume that our inner state is quite visible to the outside world can be traced to self-centered individualism of Western culture. Indeed, this inhibiting tendency among humans is picked up in the best-selling self-help book, The Four Agreements (Ruiz 1997). For instance, the book’s advice not to take things personally or make assumptions speaks to the illusion of transparency.

How Can This Illusion Hinder?

Because empathy and identification are so important for encouraging helping and other prosocial behaviors, this illusion of transparency can be prohibitive (Gilovich et al. 1998). Vegan activists, for instance, may bemoan why so many humans who witness the oppression of other animals can remain unmoved. This could be a case of activists falling for the illusion of transparency. Specifically, they may be assuming that the inner states of Nonhuman Animals are blatant to audiences. By actively encouraging identification and prosocial responses, activists may be more successful than by simply relying on the process of bearing witness to motivate behavior change.

How Can This Illusion Help?

Although this illusion can be prohibitive, it can also be encouraging. For instance, activists can harness awareness to this illusion to increase self-confidence when advocating for other animals. Researchers find that the illusion of transparency, if acknowledged, can be overcome. Indeed, this can be especially helpful for those challenged with social anxiety (Savitsky and Gilovich 2003). By keeping in mind that any nervousness or discomfort that is internally felt is not likely to be externally observed, activists might find themselves more willing to engage the public.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Do not rely on the assumption that nonhuman suffering is apparent to audiences
  • Gain confidence with the knowledge that tumultuous internal states experienced when speaking publicly are not so readily apparent

References

Gilovich, T., K. Savitsky, V. Medvec. 1998. “The Illusion of Transparency: Biased Assessments of Others’ Ability to Read One’s Emotional States.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75 (2): 332-346.

Ruiz, D. 1997. The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom. San Rafael, CA: Amber Allen Publishing.

Savitsky, K. and T. Gilovich. 2003. “The Illusion of Transparency and the Alleviation of Speech Anxiety.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 39 (6): 618-625.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Prosocial Media Modeling

Social psychological research conducted in the 1970s finds that children exposed to prosocial programs like Sesame Street significantly increased their prosocial behaviors. This was especially true of those children with low baseline prosocial tendencies (Coates et al. 1976). Researchers have also uncovered this relationship between prosocial media and prosocial behavior among college students who had played prosocial video games (Anderson et al. 2009). Music can tap into this effect as well (Greitemeyer 2009).

Vegan activists have long relied on media to morally shock audiences or guilt them into action with graphic depictions of suffering. Social psychological research, however, suggests that focusing on happy feelings and prosociality may be the key to persuasion. The development of positive vegan media that more cheerfully encourages prosociality toward other animals may be a fruitful strategy.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Develop and promote film, video games, and other mediums which model prosocial behaviors toward other animals

References

Anderson, C., S. Yukawa, N. Ihori, M. Saleem, L. Ming, A. Shibuya, A. Liau, A. Khoo, B. Bushman, L. Huesmann, and A. Sakamoto. 2009. “The Effects of Prosocial Video Games on Prosocial Behaviors: International Evidence From Correlational, Longitudinal, and Experimental Studies.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 35 (6): 752-763.

Coates, B., H. Pusser, and I. Goodman. 1976. “The Influence of ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ on Children’s Social Behavior in the Preschool.” Child Development 47 (1): 138-144.

Greitemeyer, T. 2009. “Effects of Songs with Prosocial Lyrics on Prosocial Thoughts, Affect, and Behavior.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45 (1): 186-190.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Vividness Doesn’t Persuade

Frequently, social psychological research refutes what we take to be common sense when it comes to behavioral motivation and attitude formation. This is certainly the case with presentation vividness. Although it is easy to assume that creating a vivid presentation will better persuade audiences, research does not especially support the idea (Collins and Taylor 1986).

Why? Too much vividness can actually distract from the message (Guadagno et al. 2011). If there is a lot of glitz and glamour in a PowerPoint presentation, for instance, viewers are more likely to hone in on the slideshow imagery and tune out the speaker.

Graphic images can fall into this trap as well. The vegan movement particularly relies on vivid imagery to persuade viewers to support nonhuman liberation, but, given that the focus on suffering can be off-putting to potential supporters, it would perhaps be more prudent to utilize less vivid approaches.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Opt for substance over vividness
  • Employ graphic images and glitzy presentations with caution
  • Pallid persuasion efforts are only slightly less persuasive than vivid ones

References

Collins, R. and S. Taylor. 1986. “The Vividness Effect: Elusive or Illusory?Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 24: 1-18.

Guadagno, R., K. Rhoads, and B. Sagarin. 2011. “Figural Vividness and Persuasion: Capturing the ‘Elusive’ Vividness Effect.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 37 (5): 626-638.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Identification Leads to Empathy

What is Empathy?

Empathy is a psychological concern for with others made possible by a vicarious experience of others’ experiences. It is most easily achieved when a person can identify with those in need. Identification leads to empathy when the persons being empathized with are more “real” to the observer. This is why, for instance, one might feel more empathetic to a neighbor whose home is destroyed by fire than to a person on the other side of the world who experienced the same tragedy. Large numbers of persons suffering can also create a collapse of compassion since the magnitude of empathy required to accommodate mass suffering can appear too unrealistic or bearable (Camerson and Payne 2011).

Manipulating Empathy

Neuroscientists have actually been able to measure empathy in the brains of research participants. When a person imagines themselves suffering and when they imagine someone else suffering, the same areas of the brain are activated. Researchers have also found that sharing the context of the suffering with participants allows the participants to regulate their experience of empathy (Lamm et al. 2007). That is, by letting participants know that everything was okay in the end, their empathetic concern for the other was lessened. Alternatively, by indicating that the suffering of the other continues, participants’ empathetic concern was greater. Furthermore, when researchers actively encouraged participants to really focus on the suffering of others, empathy increased.

Empathizing with Other Animals

This need for identification can complicate vegan activism given that speciesism creates a cultural emphasis on human distinction from other animals. Campaigns can encourage empathy by pointing to the individual Nonhuman Animals in the lives of audience members, as individuals are easier to identify with. What about other species? If this theory is correct, virtual reality campaigns that allow audiences to take the perspective of Nonhuman Animals in factory farms should also encourage identification.

Lastly, regardless of the campaign tactic, activists can trigger empathy by actively encouraging it and by contextualizing the experiences of other animals. It would be easy for audiences to manage their empathetic concern by rationalizing that the Nonhuman Animals depicted in the images they bear witness to are no longer suffering. Reminding audiences that this suffering is systemic and ongoing may undercut their ability to manage their empathy in such a way that is not conducive to behavior change.

Although empathy can easily be manipulated in audiences, other social psychological research has suggested that unhappy feelings and negativity can reduce the propensity to help. Therefore, empathy manipulation should be used with caution.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Highlight individual connections to Nonhuman Animals
  • Allow audience members to experience what it is like to be a Nonhuman Animal
  • Actively encourage audiences to empathize
  • Emphasize the context of nonhuman suffering and its ongoing, unrelenting nature

References

Cameron, C. and B. Payne. 2011. “Escaping Affect: How Motivated Emotion Regulation Creates Insensitivity to Mass Suffering.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100 (1): 1-15.

Lamm, C., C. Batson, and J. Decety. 2007. “The Neural Substrate of Human Empathy: Effects of Perspective-taking and Cognitive Appraisal.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 19 (1): 42-58.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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