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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Reality Politics

What is Real?

In the 1970s, Pringles Newfangled Potato Chips was ordered by the US Food and Drug Administration to call itself by another name. Pringles are fried crisps comprised of compressed potato flakes rather than the typical thin slice of potato. Since their launch in 1967, have been a huge hit. Incumbent snack barons were threatened by this success and pressured the US government to order the name change. Pringles were still chips of deep-fried potato, of course, but Big Food hoped to convince the public that Pringles was something other. They weren’t real chips.

Real hellmans mayonnaise reality politics

Big Food, like other institutions with government backing and elite funding, has the power to manipulate reality. As vegan products and analogs become popular, they have faced the same resistance. For example, Hampton Creek, maker of the vegan Just Mayo product, found itself the target of government-funded attempts to undermine the company at the behest of the American Egg Board (a branch of the US Agricultural Department that is supported by taxpayer dollars). Major mayo companies based in animal bodies also began to label their products as “Real Mayo.”

Meanwhile, in France, the popularity of vegan products of all sort has prompted the government to ban all “meat” and “dairy” related words from plant-based products.

Language Politics

All of this political wrangling points to the sociological importance of language. For humans, language not only reflects their social reality but helps to shape it. In the realm of vegan activism, this language politicization is seen in the language change of the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorist Act. Politicians, pressured by animal industries, strategically inserted “terrorist” terminology into the act. In an instant, Americans practicing their fundamental right to protest as part of a long tradition of American resistance and critical discourse were reframed as anti-American and criminal.

Language is political given its sway over psychological processes; it can be leveraged to maintain the status quo or to disrupt it. It is generally those entities in power who retain the privilege of determining social meaning vis-a-vis language, but social movements are effective agents in disrupting social meaning. Movements can manipulate meaning, too.

Language cues individuals about how they should relate with a person, thing, or circumstance. Just Mayo, labeled and packaged as a fat-based sandwich spread, makes more sense to the uninitiated customer. Tofu, by contrast, makes many folks scratch their heads. Activists must find the right balance in working within the existent reality of non-vegans while pushing them to incorporate new attitudes and behaviors.

Pringles may not be an official “chip,” but they have consistently reigned as one of America’s (and Europe’s) best-selling potato products for over fifty years. Can vegan products expect similar success despite restrictions on their product labeling? While I hesitate to dismiss the potency of label language, I think there is reason to be hopeful.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Language matters
  • Present vegan products as similar to already popular foods

 


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.

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A Month of Vegan Research: Veganphobia

scared-peppers

The following literature review is part of a series for World Vegan Month. Other essays can be accessed by visiting the essays catalog.


 

Cole, M. and K. Morgan.  2011.  “Veganphobia:  Derogatory Discourses of Veganism and the Reproduction of Speciesism in UK National Newspapers.”  The British Journal of Sociology 62 (1):  134-153.

This paper critically examines discourses of veganism in UK national newspapers in 2007. In setting parameters for what can and cannot easily be discussed, dominant discourses also help frame understanding. Discourses relating to veganism are therefore presented as contravening commonsense, because they fall outside readily understood meat-eating discourses. Newspapers tend to discredit veganism through ridicule, or as being difficult or impossible to maintain in practice.Vegans are variously stereotyped as ascetics, faddists, sentimentalists, or in some cases, hostile extremists. The overall effect is of a derogatory portrayal of vegans and veganism that we interpret as ‘vegaphobia’. We interpret derogatory discourses of veganism in UK national newspapers as evidence of the cultural reproduction of speciesism, through which veganism is dissociated from its connection with debates concerning nonhuman animals’ rights or liberation.This is problematic in three, interrelated, respects. First, it empirically misrepresents the experience of veganism, and thereby marginalizes vegans. Second, it perpetuates a moral injury to omnivorous readers who are not presented with the opportunity to understand veganism and the challenge to speciesism that it contains. Third, and most seriously, it obscures and thereby reproduces exploitative and violent relations between human and nonhuman animals.

veganphobia

 

This article lends important evidence to how hegemony protects its privileged interests and marginalizes those who pose a threat to that power. This is partially due to the elite ownership of an increasingly consolidated media industry, but also due to the interests of those elites who purchase advertising. Society’s most privileged are creating the media that the rest of us are expected to absorb.  And absorb it we do. The media is a powerful agent of socialization, so elites have a vested interest in making sure that socialization is one that normalizes oppressive conditions.

 

 

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

 

Readers can learn more about the challenges posed by state and industry institutions in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.


This essay was originally published on The Academic Activist Vegan on November 2, 2013.

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Derren Does Dairy: When Skepticism Fails Veganism

Milk ad showing Derren Brown with a milk mustache; reads, "Unlock the power within"

Derren Brown is a British illusionist, mentalist, and skeptic known for divulging the secrets of magicians, psychics, and new age charlatans.  Folks in Brown’s line of work spend a great deal of effort debunking bogus scientific and medical claims in particular.  In one program, for instance, Brown trained an actor to play a faith healer and effectively tricked a community into believing the man had special divine powers to cure ill and disabled persons.  The danger with faith healers is that children and adults alike are encouraged to forgo medical treatments and medication in the expectation that a god or gods will cure them. As a result, faith-healing has been responsible for the premature or unnecessary death of many vulnerable persons.  Brown’s intentions, in this sense, are fundamentally humanitarian. This is more than putting on a good show; he seeks to put skepticism in the service of social justice.

Unfortunately, many skeptics seem to be unable to see through similarly unfounded health claims when it comes to nonvegan diets.  In the mid-2000s, Brown appeared in a “Healthy Living” dairy campaign, joining the ranks of countless other musicians, athletes, and other non-nutritionists whose celebrity is used to persuade consumers in lieu of scientific evidence. Bathed in the warm glow of celebrity endorsement, these advertisements state that cows’ milk is good for skin, teeth, hair, bones, and energy (“facts” as they are called). With our trusted celebrities telling us so, who are we to question it?

Hardly facts at all, these statements are promulgated by a dairy industry that pushes unhealthy, dangerous products onto unsuspecting and trusting consumers.  As with other Nonhuman Animal products, dairy is linked to obesity, atherosclerosis, cancer, diabetes, resistance to antibiotics, and even osteoporosis.  These dubious claims to healthfulness earn legitimacy when promoted by state, medical, and educational institutions that are regularly bombarded with political pressure, free “educational” material, donations, and funding from immensely wealthy speciesist corporations.  Brown may as well sport a Coca-Cola mustache while touting the health benefits of soda. That wouldn’t be much of a stretch. Coca-Cola attempts to health-wash its products as well.  At the turn of the century, this carbonated sugar product was originally marketed as a wellness product.  Even today, boxes of canned soda proudly state that Coke is good for hydration!

 

Milk ad showing Derren Brown with a milk mustache; reads: "Powerful stuff"

Worryingly, Brown is not the only skeptic overlooking the industry’s misrepresentation of Nonhuman Animal products as “health food.”  In one interview with atheism advocate Sam Harris, Harris states that he is certainly supportive of extending moral consideration to other animals.  In fact, he claims to have been a vegetarian once, but gave it up because he felt he “wasn’t getting enough protein.”

I not only find this response to be disheartening, but also rather suspicious. The ubiquitousness of protein is no medical mystery. Protein is present in just about anything that is edible, from popcorn to kale, mushrooms to pumpkin.  For that matter, protein is especially plentiful in the beans, lentils, pasta, grains, and tofu that comprise much of the vegan diet.  In fact, one would have to work quite hard to become protein-deficient on the typical American vegan diet. Indeed, most Americans consume double or more the recommended amount of protein, which leads to a number of health problems such as gout and renal complications.

It is strange that leaders in the skeptic community can’t see through nonveganism as one of the greatest scams to date, endangering both human and nonhuman lives alike.  What becomes painfully clear is that science and rationality are products of cultural norms in much the same way as religion, spiritualism, and mysticism are. Skeptics are susceptible to the blinders of privilege, too. Subsequently, until the skeptic community begins to take seriously the injustice of speciesism and the health risks of nonveganism, I suggest we maintain a healthy skepticism about skeptics.

 

A version of this essay first appeared on The Academic Activist Vegan on January 3, 2013.


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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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