Tag Archives: Food

Veganism and Alternative Facts

The Role of Scientific Claimsmaking in a Rationalized Movementscape

One of the defining features of the 21st-century Nonhuman Animal rights movement is its move to increase rationalization. This is a process that prioritizes efficacy, control, and calculability of operations (Wrenn 2016). It is also especially concerned with fundraising and bureaucratic growth.

The social movement arena is a crowded one, however, and taking this predictable path makes it difficult for organizations to stand out in their effort to attract large grants and donations. One increasingly utilized strategy to get an edge on the competition is to demonstrate the efficacy of that organization’s chosen tactic.

With the lives of so many Nonhuman Animals on the line, investing more resources into learning what tactics are more or less effective is vital. However, social movement organizations often evoke scientific research to support their preexisting strategies and ideologies. Research that demonstrates contrary results may be ignored; research that provides weak results may be overly hyped.

As we know to be true of political debates transpiring in mainstream media, “alternative facts” and “fake news” can easily dominate in the social movement discourse as well. Few activists will be bothered to investigate the truthfulness of the claims being made. Even fewer have the skills necessary to determine the validity or reliability of scientific results. This essay is designed to highlight some issues for activists to consider when determining the usefulness of tactical research.

The Importance of Significance

A widely circulated and celebrated Faunalytics study, “Reduce” Or “Go Veg”? Effects On Meal Choice, exposed diners at a university cafe to two videos. One promoted a flexitarian solution, the other vegetarianism. Afterward, researchers tracked participant meal choices to ascertain if exposure to either film was influential. The findings?

After a reduction advocacy video, 25.8% of participants ordered a meatless meal, versus 18.9% after a vegetarian advocacy video (a marginally significant difference). (p.4)

Significance is key. It is the difference between a measurable correlation between variables (x influencing y) and random occurance (x just happens to actify when y does). The more significant the statistical result, the more confidence we can have in a correlational relationship existing between two variables. In this case, we are interested in the relationship between exposure to a particular message (x) and subsequent meal choice (y).

If the difference between the two messages is “marginally significant,” why not go with the morally consistent one? I believe the findings were misinterpreted in an effort to lend scientific support to outreach behaviors already engaged by nonprofits. These behaviors tend to be individualistic, one-off, and, given their avoidance of animal liberation and vegan language, more appealing to potential funders.

The professionalized movement has a propensity for aggravating vegan stigma, a persistent trend I have uncovered in an extensive content analysis of movement publications. Other researchers have noted blatant underreporting on existing vegan numbers as well.

The Faunalytics study also found that more people reported that they would be willing to reduce their consumption of “meat” than those who indicated they would be willing to eliminate it altogether. But what does this flexitarian claim really mean? The professionalized Nonhuman Animal rights movement has for many years now adopted the “meet people where they are” approach which does little, if anything, to push people past their existing dietary habits. Although vegan and vegetarian consumption is stigmatized behavior, it is also recognized as a social good (a paradox explained by do-gooder derogation). In other words, folks are more likely to report in such a way that puts them in a positive light, even if it is not an accurate representation of their behavior.

What about the actual “marginally significant” behavior change? Having folks immediately order a single meatless meal is not necessarily any better than successfully recruiting fewer vegetarians. Vegetarians and vegans (who, by the way, are more likely to commit when it their consumption is not viewed as a diet but instead becomes part of their identity) will order infinite meatless meals over their lifetime. Theoretically, they will far surpass their flexitarian counterparts in their capacity to reduce harm to other animals.

Spuriousness

It is also important to consider other things that might be influencing behavior (y). Crime rates tend to go up in the summer at the same time ice cream sales rise. Does this mean that ice cream consumption (x) causes crime (y)? No, of course not. There is a spurious relationship between the two which can be pinned on the warm weather which makes ice cream more palatable and crime more enticing (stealing cars, for instance, is less appealing when it is freezing outside). Social science researchers shy away from causation language for this reason (ie. “x causes y“).

There are so many confounding variables in social science research, it can be difficult to assign weight to the results. With regard to the study in question, we might first consider social psychological barriers. Asking people to go vegetarian on the spot is unrealistic; many people need time to process and consider (McDonald 2000). Caught off guard on the way to eat a meal already planned in their head, how many more would change their choice if given more time to contemplate?

For most of us, when we go to a local restaurant for lunch, we are taking time out of the busiest part of our day to visit a place (and a menu) already well known to us. That is, we have made our meal choice before we even arrived. Many folks (myself included) go out to eat with a general idea of what they will be ordering when they arrive to the restaurant. Perhaps you can recall the feeling of arriving a favorite restaurant and your preferred meal choice is sold out, or, you visit a new restaurant for the first time and cannot decide. It can be flustering! Indeed, having to make a choice can sometimes be taxing or anxiety-inducing. This is one reason why people are creatures of habit. It is less cognitively taxing.

Furthermore, a coffee shop is a strange place to conduct a study of this kind, as this is not a typical sort of place one might go for a regular meal. Many of the veg options (such as those offered by the experiment location: eggplant, tofu, etc.) are likely to be unfamiliar to the average pizza, burger, and taco eating university student. Here, the confounding variable might be consumer familiarity with non-flesh foods.

The percieved  accusatory approach may also be problematic. Social psychologist Hank Rothgerber finds, for instance, that participants may double down in their commitment to speciesism when they suspect that they are being expected to abstain. These folks brazenly reported that they planned to eat more Nonhuman Animals.

Sociology would further suggest that group dynamics are relevant here. The Faunalytics study focuses on individual patrons, but the presence of others (or lack thereof) influences how individuals process information and behave. The presentation of veganism as something that is trendy and socially normative is also important for recruitment. This study, in utilizing an experimental design, attempts to isolate action and reaction, but the social world is not so simplistic. 

The Problem of Generalizability

Another recent study on vegan motivation by Trent Grassian (A New Way of Eating: Creating Meat Reducers, Vegetarians and Vegans) is a bit more realistic in capturing real-world behaviors. It did not demonstrate very positive result for the flexitarian approach. The main finding?

Those with the strictest goals (i.e. vegans) were the most likely to be meeting their reduction goals (78%), while meat reducers were the least likely (39%).

While meat reducers were more likely to reduce than not in the first month, the reverse was true afterward, with 54% being temporary reducers at six months, 36% long-term reducers and 10% no longer consuming meat.

Flexitarians also reported that they planned on eating more animal products (such as fish flesh or birds’ eggs) to compensate.

Grassian’s study surveyed participants in various veg pledges hosted by Nonhuman Animal advocacy and veg organizations. He also employed focus groups to allow participants to share  more in-depth explanations.

Triangulation is important in order to account for inevitable shortcomings in various approaches. Interviewees may  not be entirely clear when engaging with a researcher for instance, but additional surveys may improve the study’s validity. Triangulating in this way also improves generalizability, that is, how applicable the results from a study’s sample will be to the general population.

A random sample is also important for achieving generalizability, but this was not accomplished with the Grassian study which studied people who had already signed up for a veg pledge. His respondents were disproportionately white, female, and middle-class, a demographic that is consistent with the larger Nonhuman Animal rights movement, but not very representative of the population.

The Faunalytics study was stronger in this regard as it targeted random cafe customers, but this cafe is located on a Canadian university campus. University students are over-represented in vegan motivational research. They are easily accessible to academics for obvious reasons, but also to activist researchers since university campuses are open to the public, have heavy footfall, and are populated with young people who are more willing to respond to requests for interviews and experimental participation for little or no cost. However, the average university student in the West is not representative of the general population. University students are disproportionately white, middle- and upper-class, urban, and well educated.

Because many vegan organizations actively target university students as their primary audience, this may not be a serious issue. If, however, they wish to reach out to underserved demographics (such as older persons, communities of color, lower income communities, and so on), they will want to be wary. What motivates a white middle-class university student is not necessarily what will motivate the average person.

Given these issues, researchers have an ethical obligation to refrain from making sweeping claims about what works based on one precarious study. This research (and their claims) will influence countless organizations, activists, and Nonhuman Animals.

What to Believe?

Science is notoriously politial. Everyone has an agenda, and funding (or lack thereof) can influence the types of questions asked, the findings, and the interpretation of the findings. In the Trump era, the malleability of science is repeatedly bombasted in an effort to confuse the population and erode its trust in social institutions. We should resist the temptation to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to vegan science.

Instead, activists should be mindful and practice critical thinking. Know where the research is coming from, who conducted it, and what motivates them. Certainly, before any research is put into practical action, social movement actors should investigate the research for themselves.

Works Cited

Anderson, J. 2020. “‘Reduce’ or ‘Go Veg’? Effects on Meal Choice. Faunalytics.

Grassian, T. 2019. A New Way of Eating: Creating Meat Reducers, Vegetarians
and Vegans
. University of Kent.

McDonald, B. 2000. “‘Once You Know Something, You Can’t Not Know It.’ An Empirical Look at Becoming Vegan.Society & Animals 8 (1): 1-23.

Wrenn, C. 2016. A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. London: Palgrave.

Wrenn, C. 2018. Free-Riders in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex: The Problem of Flexitarianism. Society & Animals 26 (4). Online first. DOI: 10.1163/15685306-12341544.


Readers can learn more about the social movement politics of Nonhuman Animal rights and veganism in my 2019 publication, Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits. The beautiful cover art for this text was created by vegan artist Lynda Bell and prints are available on her website, artbylyndabell.com.

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

Readers can learn more about the politics of vegan research in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Is Honey Vegan?

Is honey vegan? In short, no. It is an animal product produced by Nonhuman Animals for human consumption. Honey consumed by humans is taken nonconsensually from exploited bees.

However, many nonvegans (and those who identify as vegan and continue to eat and use honey) defend the practice based on a romanticized idea of beekeeping. This is not unlike the fantasy that is perpetuated by producers (and believed by consumers) that “meat” and dairy come from happy animals in green, rolling pastures. Such narratives are entirely false but are highly effective in manipulating consumer trust and stifling industry criticism.

A 2019 publication in Sociologia Ruralis illuminates the inherent violence humans impose on bee communities in the production of honey and through pollination services. Sociologist Laurent Cilia conducted 45 interviews with beekeepers and observed dozens of bee farms across the United States. Some of the findings are truly abysmal, indicating a widespread disregard for bee welfare as a result of capitalist pressures.

Cilia summarizes, “to remain on the treadmill of production… beekeepers have entered the ‘grow-or-die economy.’” As Critical Animal Studies scholars have long argued, commodification is the primary assault on nonhumans, lending to their social devaluation and disposability. Cilia continues:

“I found something troubling in their detachment from the bees. For instance, it is common practice to ‘pinch’ the queen to replace her by one more to the taste or the expectations of the beekeeper. In that regard, one successful beekeeper from Colorado told me: ‘Don’t want to kill a queen? Well, then you gonna have to get another job because that’s what we do’.”

Indeed, extreme violence is routine in bee industries. Cilia reports that entire colonies used to be killed off in the autumn in order to extract every drop of the honey they produced, only to start over with a fresh hive in the spring. More recently, they are kept alive with sugar syrup, protein supplements, and mite treatments, a scenario eerily similar to the experience of dairy calves deprived of their mother’s milk in unhealthful agricultural facilities. Likewise, queen bees are regularly culled as their fertility wanes, not unlike “spent” dairy cows who are sent to slaughter at the young age of just 4 or 5.

As in slaughterhouses, beekeepers are strained by the high expectations for speed and efficiency. Cilia observes them: “repeating tasks with little regard for individual bees crushed in the process.”

This research makes it clear that the industrial exploitation of Nonhuman Animals not only imposes great suffering on animal commodities but swiftly resocializes human workers in such a way as to undermine their empathy and reorient them toward a capitalist ethic:

“In the face of challenging circumstances, beekeepers have adapted to survive in order to preserve their livelihoods, to protect the family legacy, and finally because they feel responsible for the essential role the bees have in food production. In the process, they have normalised practices that they know to not be ethically or environmentally ideal and have gotten used to chronically high loss rates, despite their discomfort and feel of personal failure.”

Society’s reliance on bees for pollinating fruit, vegetable, and nut products is murky ethical territory for vegans who wish to avoid harming other animals. However,  it is, at least, an easy switch from honey to alternative sweeteners. A variety of fruit-based syrups are now available which mimic the flavor of honey. There’s also date syrup, maple syrup, agave nectar, and countless other natural syrups which sweeten our food (not to mention simple syrups from cane or beet sugar). Most of these are equally accessible and similarly priced.

Keep violence off your plate and give the honey a pass.

Work Cited
Cilia, P. 2019. “The Plight of the Honeybee: A Socioecological Analysis of large-scale Beekeeping in the United States.Sociologia Ruralis 59 (4): 831-849.


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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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Can a Meat Tax Advance Animal Rights?

Vegan activists typically position speciesism as a matter of supply and demand, yet elite control over both our food supply and our government makes “voting with your dollar” a relatively impotent tactic. The problem is considerably more structural. In Meatonomics (2013), author David Simon illustrates how “meat” and dairy industries have become hugely subsidized by the American government, and how these industries flex their strength to manifest increasing demands for their products while simultaneously stifling alternatives to them. This distortion is such that, for each dollar a consumer spends on Nonhuman Animal products, an additional $1.70 in external cost is placed on society. In addition to subsidies supported by tax dollars, consumers also absorb the consequences of skyrocketing healthcare costs, environmental damage, and inefficient food production. Nonhuman Animals pay the dearest price of all, as their lives are commodified for corporate gain under the ideological guise of human necessity. Society spends, or rather, industries save, over $400 billion each year in outsourced costs as a result.

It is thus problematic to presume that nonvegan consumption is simply a matter of preference, taste, or desire. Sociologists who research food systems support this premise: industry works to create desire where there was none before and eliminate the convenience or availability of alternatives. Consumption is coerced. It is not simply low prices that force “meat” and milk on America, but also a sophisticated utilization of government monies and influence to successfully manipulate knowledge production. This is accomplished by infiltrating academic journals and exploiting the USDA’s control over nutritional advice. This relationship with the government also helps industries to stave off regulations, mask disease and health crises (think “swine flu” turned “H1N1”), and criminalize critics, all of which might otherwise threaten profit.

Meatonomics documents what Marxian sociologists have argued for decades: the state exists to support the economy, not public welfare. Federal support not only boosts industry through subsidies and tax breaks, but also by granting it precious credibility and legitimacy.

Meatonomics published in 2013 with little fanfare in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. This is unfortunate given its novel and sophisticated contributions. First, as explored above, it challenges the movement’s traditional approach of attacking the demand side of speciesism. This demand, Simon emphasizes, is artificially created by industry with the assistance of the state, not necessarily by consumer preference. Desires and tastes are socially constructed and catered to by superficially depressed prices and heavy advertising. Under America’s food regime, healthier and ethical foods are simply not given a fair chance.

Second, Simon presents a fourth dimension to the movement’s time-honored three-pronged attack by espousing the gravity of this cost analysis. Speciesism is not only an ethical, environmental, and health problem, but also an economic one. In the post-recession era, this fourth argument is well positioned to resonate.

Third, Meatonomics entreats the reader to consider the plight of fishes, both free-living and factory farmed. Two of its ten chapters, in fact, spotlight the suffering of fish species. In a surprising move, fishes, generally ignored in anti-speciesist treatises given popular perception that they are the lowest denominator in human systems of violence, are granted primary coverage over that of the classically highlighted species killed for food, namely cows, pigs, and chickens. It is possible that Simon strategizes that a reader persuaded to empathize with fish will easily empathize with more familiar species. Perhaps there is also the hope of preventing a pescetarian reader’s response to the meatonomics crisis.

The limited reach of Meatonomics in the activist community is not just bad luck. In all likelihood, this relates to its direct challenge to status quo tactics that, first, target the “low hanging fruit” of unnecessary or especially heinous welfare violations, and, second, blame individuals for their consumer support. The traditional focus on violations and individuals absconds industry and state from responsibility. This favored framework dictates that business may continue as usual so long as it is done within the law and consumers continue to support the practice through their purchasing. What constitutes a “violation” is contestable, however, and is often trivial in the grand scheme of systematic mass killing. “Humane” regulations work within the government system and do not interfere with speciesist industries as they are almost always framed as a means of economic efficiency and increased productivity. They also rely on the state and industries for enforcement.

As Meatonomics makes clear in its coverage of failed “humane” legislation over the centuries, the state serves industry and industry serves itself. There is an element of futility in relying on inherently oppressive structures to self-regulate. Likewise, the rise of “organic”-style labeling as a means of regulation is shown to be largely impractical. Labels are, in general, void in meaning as industries predictably push for loopholes. The state is not in a position to enforce rigor in its duty to corporate interests. Well-meaning consumers, therefore, simply pay a premium for an essentially similar product. Indeed, industries now embrace the language of welfare as added value to increase sales.

Simon’s proposed solution of a “meat” tax challenges traditional welfare approaches that have been the mainstay of anti-speciesist activism since its inception:

[ . . . ] the proposed tax: (1) does not support the status quo–rather, it seeks to dismantle and repurpose nearly half of the animal food production system to plant-based foods; (2) would cause a massive change in consumer behavior, namely, a 44 percent drop in consumption of animal foods; (3) would significantly reduce animal food producers’ viability, forcing many to exit the business; and (4) would have a major, measurable effect on animal welfare by saving the lives of 26 billion land and marine animals yearly. [ . . . ] this proposal will achieve major changes to the existing system and tangible, significant benefits for animals. (178-179)

Simon suggests a tax of least 50% which would “[ . . . ] give consumers more accurate price signals and lead to an important shift in consumption patterns” (166). Such a substantial tax may elicit skepticism as to its potentially classist impact in a society where taxes are known to escape the wealthy. Meatonomics does not suppose that such a heavy penalty would penalize persons of lower socioeconomic status, however. Simon optimistically hopes that it would instead benefit those in need given that Nonhuman Animal agriculture’s outsourced expenses disproportionately hurt poor communities. The “meat” tax proposal thus holds within it an element of human justice. Eliminating animal products from welfare programs would predictably improve the health of America’s most vulnerable, while simultaneously freeing up government funds to better support them. As further precaution, he advocates a tax credit to lessen the blow and government funding to support farmers transitioning to new industries as was done for tobacco farmers.

Meatonomics insists that, if a meat tax were instilled in tandem with some reconfiguring of governmental duties (such as stripping the USDA of its nutritional advising role and bringing an end to the government checkoff program), speciesism may finally be disrupted as prices rise to reflect their true cost and false advertising and false nutritional information diminishes. For Simon, becoming vegan is important, but it will not be sufficient. From a sociological perspective, this proposed solution reflects the age-old tension between top-down and bottom-up social change. Relying on elites to accomplish this is a risky tactic for activists given elite allegiances to profit and other elites. The structural shift necessary to alleviate Nonhuman Animal oppression may have to begin from the ground up, but there is no reason to presume that an individual-level shift in consumer behavior is the only means of realizing grassroots activism. Power is held in the hands of industry and state, and only by dismantling this power nexus will change be forthcoming. Social change cannot sustain without the support of political structures, but political structures cannot reconfigure without public pressure. To absolve this paradox, lobbying for a “meat” tax will be necessary, but the movement’s first point of action must be the assembly of a critical mass of vegans to undertake this critical systemic work.

Read the full article here.


Readers can learn more about the social movement politics of Nonhuman Animal rights and veganism in my 2019 publication, Piecemeal Protest: Animal Rights in the Age of Nonprofits. The beautiful cover art for this text was created by vegan artist Lynda Bell and prints are available on her website, artbylyndabell.com.

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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.


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

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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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.


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

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 – Moral Licensing

What is Moral Licensing?

In one fascinating psychological study, researchers found that doing a bit of good gives folks the license to do something naughty (Sachdeva et al. 2009). So, for instance, a person may go for a jog and then feel they can reward themselves with a box of donuts. Maybe that person participates in Walk a Mile in Her Shoes to raise awareness to domestic violence and later feel licensed to use pornography later.

When it comes to human relationships with other animals, this moral licensing could have implications for vegan activism. If someone donates to an animal charity, for instance, perhaps they feel they can “treat” themselves to some chickens’ wings later. Researchers would refer to this as a sort of moral self-regulation or licensing.

Limited Evidence

Although it is often the case that consumers will try to suppress any guilt they may feel for complacency in animal suffering by buying cage-free or donating to an animal welfare group, it is not necessarily the case that they will feel compelled to hurt Nonhuman Animals more as a result of acting prosocially.  Indeed, replication studies on moral licensing have not supported the existence of this psychological effect (Blanken et al. 2015).

Instead, cognitive dissonance is more likely at play. Cognitive dissonance occurs when folks become uneasy when confronted with a disconnect between their values and behaviors and then attempt to alleviate that conflict. Nonvegans can either tweak their values or behaviors to achieve psychological equilibrium. It is often the case that consumer values and behaviors shift toward the speciesist. In other words, when confronted with their empathy for other animals, some nonvegans double-down on their nonveganism to ease cognitive dissonance, not to engage in moral self-regulation.

Although moral licensing has little scientific support, it does remind us of the importance of scientific rigor. To be reliable, evidence should be supported by multiple studies. Activists, meanwhile, should investigate the source of scientific findings and determine their veracity before applying them to social movement efforts.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Moral licensing is not strongly supported by research
  • Individuals who practice prosocial behavior toward animals are not likely to “treat” themselves to speciesist practices in exchange

References

Blanken, I., N. van de Ven, and M. Zeelenberg. 2015. “A Meta-Analytic Review of Moral Licensing.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 41 (4): 540-558.

Sachdeva, S., R. Iliev, and D. Medin. 2009. “Sinning Saints and Saintly Sinners: The Paradox of Moral Self-Regulation.” Psychological Science 20: 523-528.

 


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Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Segregation

Sociologists understand segregation to be one of the most potent and fundamental processes of oppression. Creating separation entails highlighting difference. This, in turn, justifies inequality. Segregation literally marginalizes vulnerable groups.

Segregation can happen by race, impacting housing. It can also happen by gender, impacting education. Vegan activists also recognize how segregation aggravates the human-animal divide. Since the industrial revolution, Nonhuman Animals have been increasingly segregated in remote agricultural spaces in feedlots, barns, and other intensive operations. This physical disconnect leads to a social disconnect. Even policies that ban dogs from public spaces or require the abandonment of companion animals during disasters help reinforce this physical othering.

Interestingly, social psychologists have noticed that segregation can also lead to the formation of negative attitudes about food. In a study of a restaurant’s menu design, reseachers discovered that lumping all plant-based options together in a separate section reduced their appeal. They were seen as marginal, out of the ordinary, and foreign. Alternatively, by integrating plant-based meals into the main menu space, nonvegan diners gave these dishes equal consideration. Diners were much more likely to choose vegan plates from the integrated menu than from the segregated menu.

Although lumping plant-based options together can make it easier for vegan diners to determine if the restaurant caters to their political and dietary needs, this is not a tactic that is likely to increase the popularity of veganism. After all, lots of nonvegans eat vegan meals regularly without thinking anything of it. It is only when these meals are labeled and segregated as “vegan” that nonvegan consumers disparage them as bland, unwholesome, or unfulfilling, claiming that they “could never be vegan.” This happens because the segregation elicits negative connotations of an otherized and stigmatized out-group.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Avoid segregating vegan choices
  • Integrate vegan choices with nonvegan choices if nonvegan choices are provided

References

Holzer, J. 2017. “Don’t Put Vegetables in the Corner.” World Resources Institute.


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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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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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Variety

Unfamiliarity with new foods can be a major barrier to successfully promoting veganism, but this is an easy enough fix. One study found that non-vegans who were repeatedly exposed to vegan alternatives to “meat” began to view them more favorably (Hoek et al. 2013). This is consistent with the mere exposure effect, a psychological response that surfaces when an audience is exposed to something many times over. Eventually, the audience will grow more comfortable with that something and form positive associations with it.

However, participants in this study also reported boredom with the three products repeatedly used by researchers, indicating the importance of variety. Indeed, the human brain is programmed to respond to novelty (Gallagher 2011). Activists could, therefore, increase persuasion by emphasizing the variety of vegan foods and recipes available. Stereotypes about tofu, twigs, and leaves will need to be challenged. Activists might also cue novelty by introducing provocative anti-speciesist theory, as this is not something many have had a chance to consider before.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Expose audiences to vegan foods to increase familiarity and liking
  • Try to include a variety of vegan foods to peak interest and avoid boredom

References

Gallagher, W. New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change. New York, NY: The Penguin Press.

Hoek, A. et al. 2013. “Are Meat Substitutes Liked Better Over Time? A Repeated In-home Use Test with Meat Substitutes or Meat in Meals.” Food Quality and Preference 28(1): 253-263.

 


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.

Part of this essay was originally published by VegFund on May 7, 2013.

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New Package, Same Old Problem: Animal Crackers and Veganism

In a 2016 blog post, I tackled the cheeky but oft-espressed question as to whether or not animal crackers are vegan.  Technically, the ingredients are vegan, but what do these cookies symbolically represent in a society that is deeply speciesist?

In 2018, Nabisco revamped their packaging design to remove the old circus car cages at the bequest of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Although this marketing tactic suggests a greater respect for Nonhuman Animal autonomy than the old packaging which had featured them as inmates, there are a number of fundamental issues that remain unaddressed.

Are Animal Crackers Vegan?

Animal crackers (comprised primarily of wheat flour, sugar, salt, and leavening agents) usually do not contain actual animal ingredients. They are designed for a long shelf-life, and, since animal corpses and fluids are quick to putrify, plant-based cookies preserve better.

Common cookie additives like milk derivatives and eggs add nothing to the flavor but are used instead for binding purposes. These additives are utilized instead of plant-based binders due to their availability; meat and dairy industries sustain themselves and remain profitable through the repurposing of waste products like whey and gelatin. Animal byproducts glut the market and are simply cheaper ingredients for cookie manufacturers.

Although Nabisco’s animal crackers are technically vegan, they certainly capitalize on this glut of cheap animal ingredients for a large variety of other products. Nabisco animal crackers may be vegan, but Nabisco itself is not.

What Do Animal Crackers Mean Symbolically?

Ingredients are only part of the story. When it comes to food, processes of intentional invisibility serve the cultural reproduction of speciesism. Vegan sociologists note that processing, packaging, and labeling are applied to effectively remove any reference to the nonhuman persons killed to provide animal products for human consumption. Furthermore, ag-gag laws in many states in tandem with the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorist Act now make it exceedingly difficult for the public to access information about the exploitation and killing of animals. This manufactured and institutionalized invisibility is unique to the animal sector of the food industry.

In the case of animal crackers, however, Nonhuman Animals are intentionally visible. Animal crackers are, as a result, functional in their ability to socialize children with ideologies of human dominance. The consumption of animal crackers reiterates to children their privileged access to the natural world and any subordinates who live within it. By being able to “collect” animals, pick them up, handle them, and eventually eat them, notions of human supremacy are underscored.

Wait, What about Gingerbread Men?

Of course, bakeries manufacture human-shaped cookies, too, but these products usually take on generic forms. If they were designed to specifically resemble persons of African descent and were marketed to white children, for instance, the symbolic inequality manifest in the product and its consumption would be evident. In a white supremacist society within which people of African descent are systematically underemployed, victimized, and incarcerated, it would be morally problematic to objectify and infantilize this marginalized group even further by turning them into cookies for white kids.

In fact, this practice does take place in the Netherlands during the Christmas holidays. African colonial subjects known as “Black Petes,” who are cartoonized as St. Nicholas’s “little helpers” are fashioned into cookies and chocolates for white children to consume. Not surprisingly, this tradition is highly controversial.

The cultural context of animal crackers must be considered. Animal crackers are marked to human children in an anthropocentric society that engages in widescale, systematic violence against animals. As such, animal crackers are symbolically potent.

Is Nabisco’s New Packaging Vegan?

In the new Nabisco packaging, the depicted Nonhuman Animals are no longer categorically separated, stacked, and placed on display for the human gaze. They are now grouped together in solidarity moving toward the viewer with a commanding presence.

Nabisco’s decision reflects a larger trend in American industry. Companies that rely on all sorts of horrible animal exploitations have taken a cue from the Nonhuman Animal rights movement and increasingly frame their exploitation as “happy.” So, while animal crackers still symbolically represent human control over other animals, human consumers can avoid any feelings of guilt and are less likely to question their entitlement since the animals appear to be consenting, happy, and free. This same framing is engaged by zoos, circuses, and meat, dairy, and egg enterprises that oppress actual Nonhuman Animals.

Dropping the imagery of the circus indicates cultural progress since Nabisco’s classic cookies have played a part in the romanticization of an inherently inhumane industry. Yet, Nabisco’s focus on freeliving species in the context of the circus imagery it employed for decades could actually aggravate symbolic inequality. There is an element of thrill associated with the control of persons who are culturally understood to be uncontrollable. It is entirely possible that children will experience even greater feelings of supremacy and entitlement through repeated consumption of Nabisco’s now wild but capturable animal crackers.

This post was updated on August 31, 2019 to include mention of “Black Petes” with compliments to Geertrui Cazaux for the suggestion.


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Readers can learn more about the sociology 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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