Tag Archives: Veganism

The Social Psychology of Veganism – Socioemotional Selectivity Theory

Age (and Time Perception) Matters

According to socioemotional selectivity theory, as people age, their social goals shift considerably. For younger people who have a perception that there is much time ahead, they focus on knowledge-related goals. For older people with a perception that time is short, they tend to focus on emotional goals.

In other words, if your whole life is ahead of you, you may want to focus on personal growth, but if your life is coming to a close, you probably want to revel in ties with friends, family, and community with your remaining time. Presumably, connections with other animals would be included among these emotional goals.

These differing motivations require differing persuasion strategies. Although the Western vegan movement is dominated by younger demographics, movement actors could be unnecessarily restricting their reach by overlooking older constituents. Vegan campaigning could be more effective in targeting younger demographics with educational initiatives while targeting older demographics with compassion-based, emotional appeals.

However, time perception is relative. Younger persons could be primed to perceive that life is short, while older people could be primed to consider that there is much life yet to live. Thus, vegan activists can retain some ability to manipulate their audiences to suit a chosen campaign.

Overcoming Ageism in Vegan Campaigns

This research demonstrates that intersectional awareness is essential to the manufacture of effective vegan outreach. A one-size-fits-all campaign is unlikely to fully capitalize on a diversity of social and psychological positions that folks occupy according to their age, status, and health.

Social psychologists have noted that older people tend to be more ingrained in their ways and are less likely to pursue attitudinal and behavioral shifts (this is why social movements target college-age students). If social movements are not tailoring their strategies to accommodate diversity in life course positionality, the likelihood of persuading olders is even less. As the researchers argue, “[…] time perception is integral to human motivation […]” (Carstensen et al. 1999). Olders should not be excluded from campaigning, but activists do have a responsibility to acknowledge variations in social psychological responsiveness.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Target people who feel they have a lot of living to do with educational campaigns
  • Target people who feel they have limited time left on earth with emotional campaigns
  • Prime audiences, regardless of age, to perceive time as limited or abundant as appropriate to improve efficacy

References

Carstensen, L, D. Isaacowitz, and S. Charles. 1999. “Taking Time Seriously: A Theory of Socioemotional Selectivity.” American Psychologist 54 (3): 165-181.


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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 – Conformity

Why Conform?

Humans are social animals, and social animals, for the sake of survival, have an innate and sometimes unconscious appreciation for conformity. In early human societies, failure to comply with the group could endanger both the individual and the group. Conformity had an evolutionary advantage. When it comes to changing behavior, then, especially at the individual level, social movements have a major hurdle to overcome regarding culture and social norms that are decidedly discriminatory.

Research on vegan recidivism highlights a number of challenges. These include product availability, convenience, and so forth. Yet, one of the strongest predictors for the abandonment of veganism is a desire to conform to societal norms. This effect is heightened since most new vegans are young people, and young people are especially sensitive to fitting in because their identity and sense of belonging are still under construction.

Conformity and Social Injustice

Sadly, conformity can coerce well-meaning people to participate in truly horrific, violent acts. Challenging these cultural norms leaves the individual at risk of ostracization regardless if they are in the wrong or right. Humans opt for paths of least resistance, meaning that they are likely to laugh at racist jokes, eat animal flesh, or remain bystanders at accidents if that is what others around them are doing.

Conformity and Self-Sabotage

If all of your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump, too? The social psychology of conformity suggests that you might. Humans not only engage in behaviors that are morally problematic due to conformity, but they can also work against their own self-interest.

One study found that, when participants in a study detected smoke seeping into the research facility, they looked to see how others reacted before reacting themselves. In this study, the researchers placed confederates in the facility who were told to ignore the smoke. Even as smoke billowed around them, participants failed to raise an alarm or leave the room simply because others in the room failed to do the same (Latane and Darley 1968).

Likewise, this is why youths take up smoking. They do so not because burning, chemical-laced tobacco tastes and smells good, but because all the “cool kids” are doing it (Harakeh and Vollebergh 2012). This is why vegan activists are not likely to convince their constituents to go vegan by touting veganism’s ability to prevent heart disease and cancer. People look to see what other people are doing before deciding what to do. If everyone around them is eating animal protein and animal protein is what dominates in grocery store aisles, restaurant menus, and television commercials, they will more than likely choose to conform to speciesism.

The Importance of Networks and Cultural Influence

Social movements often default to individualism when designing tactics by appealing to self-interest, but humans are social creatures. Peer pressure is extremely strong among human beings and should not be underestimated. The challenge for vegan activists, then, is to nurture a new societal culture for folks to conform to. Indeed, research finds that the strongest predictor for long-term adherence to veganism is a strong vegan network. Having friends and family members who are vegan, too, means that a new vegan will not feel so alienated. Celebrity vegan representation also helps, since opinion leaders and influencers can create new social norms.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Peer pressure and the desire to conform is a major impediment to vegan adherence
  • Nurturing strong vegan networks reduces recidivism
  • Vegan celebrities create new cultural norms for constituents to conform to

References

Harakeh, Z. and W. Vollebergh. 2012. “The Impact of Active and Passive Peer Influence on Young Adult Smoking: An Experimental Study.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence 121 (3): 220-223.

Latane, B. and J. Darley. 1968. “Bystander Intervention in Emergencies.” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 10 (3): 215-221.


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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 – Scripting

Effective persuasion necessitates that activists carefully direct desired behavior change. For vegans, what this means is that telling people to “Go Vegan!” is not sufficient, because it is not self-evident what going vegan entails. Veganism still appears a daunting task to most.

There are many reasons for this. First, veganism is still deviant and statistically uncommon in the West, and mainstream media represents it negatively (Cole and Morgan 2011). Second, professionalized animal welfare organizations (such as Vegan Outreach) dedicate a significant portion of their efforts painting veganism as difficult and unrealistic. As a result, individuals are getting negative messages about veganism from both sides, making the transition to veganism a confusing one and persuasion unlikely.

Simply demanding people go vegan is not enough, but scripting veganism can definitely improve results. According to social psychological research, the critical moves of behavior change should be clearly laid out and unambiguous (Heath and Heath 2010). The many changes necessitated to go vegan should be broken down into small changes so that it does not appear daunting and undermine motivation.

Meatless Mondays and vegetarianism are not recommended for inclusion in vegan scripts. The key is to script one big change into smaller changes, and this does not necessitate compromising ethics. It is common for professionalized nonprofits to employ flexitarian models with the justification that small steps are necessary, however, these organizations rarely promote veganism as an end goal. Their decision to promote small changes is based on their requirement to secure large grants and donations from elites, many of whom are threatened by veganism or anti-speciesism.

Activists can employ scripting to promote veganism without having to compromise. Consider the following script, which assumes moderate levels of accessibility. This would need to be tailored to low-income communities, cultural enclaves, or communities living in food deserts. Scripting should be tailored to suit the socioeconomic status and structural opportunities available to a given audience.

  1. State clearly to your family and friends you that you will be going vegan. Making a clear commitment will motivate and sustain your decision. It will also alert your support system, encouraging them to be respectful and helpful.
  2. Buy or borrow a few books on vegan ethics, vegan health, and vegan cooking.
  3. Locate a list of common animal ingredients to avoid and keep it handy.
  4. If you have a smartphone, download vegan apps to help with ingredient checking.
  5. Remove all nonvegan food items (flesh, milk, eggs, cheese, butter, honey, and all processed foods that contain these ingredients or other ingredients like gelatin, whey, datum, etc.) from your home and workstation.
  6. Create a grocery list and replace pantry with staples (use beginner’s vegan cookbooks to guide this process). Consider buying vegan analogs like veggie burgers to ease the transition. They are especially useful for busy lifestyles or for people with limited cooking skills.
  7. Get familiar with vegan fast food options in your area for times when you don’t have time to cook (websites and smartphone apps are available to help with this). While you’re at it, look up vegan-catering restaurants and natural grocers in your area. Keep your pantry stocked with vegan snacks for times when you’re in a rush.
  8. Devise a plan for parties, holiday dinners, and other social gatherings that are not likely to have vegan options (bring your own food or make a special request ahead of time, the same goes for air travel).
  9. Purchase new shoes, belts, jackets, and wallets to replace any nonvegan items you may have that are made of leather, wool, silk, fur, down, or suede (hard to find items can be found in online vegan shops).
  10. Replace your soap, shampoo, toothpaste, laundry detergent, cleaning supplies, and other bath and body products with vegan alternatives.
  11. Join a local vegan group and/or an online community for support.
  12. Subscribe to some vegan food blogs for inspiration.
  13. Try one new vegan recipe each week.
  14. Purchase a vegan multivitamin (with B12), vegan Vitamin D3, and vegan Omega-3s (all available from natural grocers, online vegan stores, or online discount vitamin suppliers)
  15. Donate or trash any remaining products made from nonhuman animal products.

For those with the means to do so, this list can be tackled in a few days. For others who might be overwhelmed with the transition or who may have limited income, this script can be staggered over a few weeks or months.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Provide very clear steps for going vegan
  • Make sure steps towards veganism are manageable
  • Tailor script for each community

References

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

Heath, C. and D. Heath. 2010. Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

 

This essay was originally published with The Examiner in 2012.


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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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Are Vegans too Open to Free-Riders?

In an interview with The Atlantic, I present the compelling findings from my publication, “Free-Riders in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex: The Problem of Flexitarianism.” In a meta-analysis of over 40 peer-reviewed journal articles on vegan motivation and consumer persuasion, I find that the pragmatic “reducitarian” approach to veganism and animal liberation that is promoted by nonprofits in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement lacks empirical support.

The Atlantic also interviewed Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary to gauge the nonprofit perspective on the utility of flexitarian campaigning. Baur insists that incrementalism works, yet, typical of animal charities, offers no compelling evidence to support such a claim. Given the overall increase in “meat” consumption and persistent stagnancy in vegan numbers, his claim is especially suspect. Indeed, Baur points to the 2008 dip in “meat” consumption as an example of successful incrementalism, making the unscientific leap that this temporary decline was due to a Farm Sanctuary campaign and not the historic economic recession. “Meat” consumption in 2018, incidentally, hit a record high in 2018.

Other vegan activists interviewed in the article insist that flexitarianism remains an important tool for reaching a public uninterested in animal liberation who may be swayed instead by appeals to health and environmental sustainability. However, as I emphasize in my research, this “common sense” perspective lacks evidence. Most vegans go vegan out of altruistic concern for other animals, not health or environmental concerns. And more importantly, for those who are not interested in veganism at all, the research indicates that flexitarians, in general, do not substantially cut back on their consumption of animal products. Some even consume more animal products than someone who does not identify as a flexitarian.

In other words, folks are being encouraged by the Nonhuman Animal rights movement (Farm Sanctuary included) to adopt the flexitarian identity, even though this approach has not been proven to convert new vegans or significantly reduce consumption of animal products.

I emphasize that this free-riding (adopting the prosocial identity without changing behavior) is intentionally cultivated by movement elites such as Baur. This is because disinvested pseudo-members provide an illusion of mass support without charities having to share movement power democratically. Why do nonprofits do this? They are beholden to the state and elite-run foundations, both of which have a vested interest in the maintenance of speciesism.

 

Read my interview with The Atlantic here.
Read the original article, “Free-Riders in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex,” here.
Read a summary of the article here.


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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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Can Flexitarianism Facilitate a Vegan World? Research Suggests Another Agenda

Can flexitarianism build a vegan world? In a meta-analysis of dozens of articles on vegan motivation, flexitarian dietary patterns, and consumer psychology, I conclude that the ideology of semi-vegetarianism promoted by the vegan/Nonhuman Animal rights movement is not supported by evidence.

Research does not support that flexitarianism facilitates meaningful change, but it does support a conservative movement culture that is conducive to industry, state, and elite interests. Activists frequently default to “common sense” mantras of “pragmatism” promoted by movement elites when deliberating strategy, but movement success will ultimately rely on objective analysis of social change processes independent of bureaucratic, institutional, ideological, or celebrity hearsay.

Research supports that most people who go vegan and stay vegan do so out of concern for Nonhuman Animals. Nonprofits, however, often focus on the health benefits of veganism. This is not supported by the research as a major motivator for behavior change. Nonprofits focus on health because it is less political and threatening than the idea of animal liberation.

Nonprofits mask this rationale by claiming that folks operate on self-interest and are more likely to be swayed by appeals to their own health. Research does not support this. Humans are more likely to be motivated by compassion and altruism when it comes to relations with other animals. Therefore, by promoting veganism as a moral obligation, nonprofits would be far more likely to affect change.

The Free-Rider Problem

In my body of research, I have suggested that nonprofits intentionally engage strategic blunders because nonprofit goals are generally distinct from radical social change goals. Could the vegan/Nonhuman Animal rights movement also be intentionally alienating the public from veganism even though veganism is an unavoidable necessity to end speciesism? I think so.

Historically, social movements have had to grapple with the problem of motivating people to participate. This is a problem because, theoretically, a rationally acting individual is more likely to want to sit on the sidelines and let someone else do the risky and costly work of activism. Activism can entail social stigma, risk of arrest, and career damage. It could even simply turn off folks who do not want to be bothered with crowds, bad weather, walking, calling up politicians, etc. If someone else is willing to do that work, why not just leave it up to them?

As one means of overcoming free-riding, collectives have begun to professionalize to ensure a dedicated cadre of activists working full time on a given social problem. Since the late 20th century, movements have taken on a bureaucratic, corporate form which allows them more stability and state support at the cost of their radical politics. Industries working in tandem with the state now funnel money into nonprofits as a means of soft control. Radical politics, as a result, are simply starved while moderates are glutted. What I suspect is that social movements today are actually encouraging free-riding in order to maintain control over movement organizations and the social movement arena itself. In effect, they are helping industries and the state to neutralize and deradicalize politics.

If a movement can facilitate a public that supports its cause but is not encouraged to actually participate beyond donating intermittently, this manufactured free-riding strips the democratic essence of a movement and ultimately weakens it. Movement organizations that use this strategy can expect institutional longevity, but the ability to create meaningful social change with power centralized in this way is stifled.

Why Unstructured Incrementalism is Less Effective 

These structural influences shape a social movement’s claimsmaking. The Nonhuman Animal rights movement’s leading nonprofits mask their allegiance to conservative cash flow by making appeals to common sense notions of behavior change. Rather than asking someone to make the big leap to veganism, nonprofits insist, ask them instead to make a few changes and ease their way into it. However, social psychological research has demonstrated time and time again that “common sense” explanations are frequently misleading. Humans are far less rational than we think we are.

Although the United States is a country with major economic, political, and social ties to exploiting Nonhuman Animals, values of freedom, fairness, and compassion mean that few Americans want to see themselves as someone who is cruel to other animals. Flexitarianism, then, is a form of incrementalism that allows people to keep participating in exploitative behaviors as the system encourages them to do, while also enacting deeply held values about compassion. America is a country of animal lovers who want to keep eating animals—charities can appeal to this cognitive dissonance by promising folks that they can identify as an animal lover without having to make any real behavior changes. This is the very definition of a free-rider.

In “Free-Riders in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex: The Problem of Flexitarianism” published in Society & Animals, I have explored dozens of studies on vegan motivation and consumption change. In many cases, those eating flexitarian are not really eating any less animal products and they are less committed, more likely to exhibit characteristics of eating disorders, and sometimes actually eat more animals than people who did not identify as flexitarian.

Other research finds that participants asked to eat prescribed diets of omnivorism, flexitarianism, and veganism experienced similar levels of satisfaction and adherence to the diet—so why not go for the gold and ask folks to go vegan? After all, veganism has a bigger impact on the well-being of both Nonhuman Animals and humans.

The research, in short, does not support that asking folks to go vegan repels them, but the movement repeatedly assures activists that it will. Something else is fueling this rationalization since the evidence explored in my meta-analysis is not lining up.

Evidence to the Utility of Vegan Campaigning

Some research from tobacco cessation programs supports the importance of being straightforward and honest about the desired change. Participants in some studies, for instance, who were asked to quit immediately were more successful than those asked only to cut back. Furthermore, participants who were given a scheduled means of reducing toward cessation were successful, too, since behavior change can be cognitively straining. Vegan organizations, however, are more likely to promote vague ideas about cutting back and never mention the word veganism.

Tobacco cessation research supports that either asking folks to quit altogether or providing them a clear plan towards a clear goal is effective, but Nonhuman Animal charities do neither. The reason for this is that nonprofits—as businesses–are ultimately more interested in financial stability and institutional survival than they are interested in actual social change. This is a basic sociological observation found across many industry sectors.

So long as nonprofits are beholden to foundations and the state for support, it is unlikely that vegan programming will ever be designed according to evidence-based scientific research. This is because the nonprofit goal is to promote generic, promotable social services for the purpose of ensuring its survival, not to promote radical social change which would threaten the elite-run foundations, the state, and the nonprofits themselves. Promoting flexitarianism allows the charity to appear to be doing good works without really mobilizing any radical change.

The Imperative of Critical Thinking and Scientific Accountability

Nonprofits with a genuine interest in creating a vegan world will need to reconsider the role of the public in pushing for change. Relying on foundations and the state for financial support creates an inherent conflict of interest. These organizations will also need to engage with scientific evidence to support their proscription for social change.

This research must be objective. Increasingly, nonprofits produce their own in-house research to draw on the legitimacy of science to lend credibility to tactics and strategies that, when studied objectively by outside parties, would not demonstrate effectiveness. In other words, nonprofits recognize that science helps sell their strategy as effective, but, since science cannot support their ineffective tactics, they simply create their own science.

A new movement culture that genuinely wishes to address the crisis of speciesism should, therefore, nurture unbiased, replicable research that is designed to benefit effective Nonhuman Animal liberation. Research manufactured by nonprofit staff with little to no scientific training with aims of improving the institution’s appeal to elite-run foundations is not the sort of research that will achieve a vegan world.

Ultimately, nonprofits present a serious conundrum for effective activism. Nonprofits have essentially become an extension of the state, making their long-term utility to the movement questionable. Large sums of money are too frequently thought necessary to enact social change, but this economic logic of growth has protected the nonprofit industry from necessary scrutiny. Sociological theory has demonstrated that capitalist structures both create and aggravate inequality. Grassroots mobilization that challenges hierarchical movement structures, the hegemony of capitalist interests, and concentrated decision-making could allow for an openness to strategies supported by the science.

 

Readers can access the entire article here.
A condensed version of this research in the context of wider vegan movement studies was covered by The Atlantic.

 


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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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How Effective is the Vegan Lecture? Exam Scores Tell a Horrifying Story

How Many Animals Killed?

Can you estimate how many animals are killed for food in the United States each year?

In 2015, I added this innocuous extra credit question at the end of an exam in my Introduction to Sociology course. Since we had discussed violence against animals in class, students had been assigned readings on the topic, and it was explicitly listed in the study guide, I expected that most students would guess in the ballpark of several billion. Instead, many were reporting numbers in the several millions, or even several thousands. The lowest guess was just 2,000.

I was so utterly astonished by the exam results, I was compelled to repeat the question on future exams. I have shared my findings in an open-access article with the International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food. Over the course of seven semesters, I eventually presented the question to nearly 200 students. All students (presuming they did not skip class) had been exposed to an 80 minute lecture on human/nonhuman relationships. This lecture clearly stated the FAO statistics on the numbers of animals killed in the United States (about 10 billion). I even made sure to linger on the sheer magnitude of individuals killed.

Results

Sixty-six percent of the class significantly underestimated the number of animals killed, and only 29% offered a reasonable estimate of between several billion and trillion (I clarified in lecture that FAO statistics do not include aquatic life). About 1 in 5 students were not even confident enough to hazard even a guess. Because 2% of students grossly overestimated the number of animals killed, the class average was skewed. However, the median response was in the millions. The bottom 10% of student responses averaged just 24,667. About that many chickens are killed every one and a half minutes in the United States (or 9 billion annually).

Predictably, students who scored A’s and B’s were more likely to guess an appropriate number. This suggests that students with good classroom behavior and study hygiene are more likely to retain information (at least up to the exam date). There was no significant correlation with gender.

Low Food Literacy

Low food literacy is well-documented across developing countries by food justice organizations, states, and industries which work to manipulate consumer decisions and public nutrition. Sociologically speaking, the systematic killing of other animals has been effectively removed from our social sensibility. Most consumers only relate to other animals as packaged products and menu items. Psychologically speaking, people employ a number of cognitive barriers to avoid uncomfortable knowledge.

The reasons for low food literacy are many, but the results presented here are especially sobering. Afterall, these are college-educated adults who have been trained to think critically and are exposed to current events, global trends, and multiculturalism. These are also college students who had been specifically exposed to information about nonhuman experiences in the food system. This suggests to me an inherent limitation to lecture as a means of lasting knowledge transmission.

Are Lectures Effective?

My suspicion is that, as Sociology 101 is a survey course, I am obligated to cover a large variety of sociological theories, concepts, and trends. I am not able to frequently return to each and every concept to aid with retention–that privilege is granted to key theories and paradigms. For vegan lecturers outside of academia, these results suggest that one-off lectures may not be sufficient to persuade. However, in research I conducted in 2017, I did find that a significant number of respondents became vegan after having watched a film or read a book on the topic.

There are a number of methodological shortcomings to this research. For one, my Introduction to Sociology course is aimed at first-year students, meaning that many respondents were still finding their academic footing. Second, I offered no control group. The estimates provided by my experimental group were so very low, however, I would find it hard to believe that a control group would have done much worse in having not been exposed to lecture.

I also did not conduct a post-test to measure if the knowledge was retained beyond the exam. After the exam, I went over the extra credit results with the class. When I explained how numbers so low could not possibly be accurate given that several thousand nonhumans are killed just to sustain the university cafeteria each semester, many students laughed and nodded. I would be curious to know if this debriefing had any effect on knowledge retention.

Readers can access the entire article here.

 


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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 “Deserted Island” Vegan Scenario is a Reality for Millions

What’s in a Meme?

When presented with veganism, nonvegans may be understandably curious about the limitations of vegan principles in real-world scenarios and conflicts (“Would you swat a mosquito?”). Sometimes, however, nonvegans present fantastical scenarios to truly test these limits. Perhaps one of the most frequent scenarios employed by nonvegans asks vegans how they might survive if they found themselves on a deserted island.

Top half of meme pictures an island in the ocean and reads, "Next time someone asks you...'What if you were stranded on a desert island, and all there was to eat was animals, would you eat them?"; Bottom half of meme pictures a bounty of fruits and vegetables in a market stall and reads, "Ask them...'What if you lived in civilization where there is an abundance of food of all kinds, would you choose to kill animals for no reason?'"

This particular thought activity makes little sense on its surface. After all, how many of us are likely to find ourselves on a deserted island adrift in the ocean? For that matter, folks in real-world survival situations have been known to engage in all manner of morally questionable behaviors. This includes everything from killing and eating dogs to killing and eating humans. The point is that we may understandably make exceptions to our ethics when we are under extreme circumstances.

Being presented with this variant of the “what if” scenario is something of a rite of passage for many vegans. Accordingly, the vegan community has reclaimed the trope for a laugh.

Picture of a man and a pig on an island; reads: "Then the inevitable happened to Paul"Image from Vegan Chowhound

Real-life Deserted Islands

Although these memes are well-meaning, they provide an interesting example of white and middle-class privilege in vegan claimsmaking. As has been argued by Dr. Breeze Harper, mainstream vegan discourse too often defaults to a post-racial, “colorblind,” or classless approach to outreach efforts. This approach overlooks important demographic differences regarding the applicability or appropriateness of vegan proscriptions for change.

Picture of a distressed woman; reads "I want to go vegan but I keep getting stranded on deserted islands"

In a world still bound by a legacy of colonialism and racism, “deserted islands” of oppressed communities abound. It is a fact that millions of folks in developed and developing countries do live in emergency situations. Food deserts, which disproportionately impact poor persons and people of color, are real-life “deserted island” scenarios. Those living in food deserts experience structural inequalities that make healthy and ethical food choices nearly impossible.

The hypothetical “deserted island” scenario is meant to test the limits of veganism. If one was to find themselves so isolated and limited in resources, would one, lacking any alternative, consider eating something (or someone) that compromised one’s scruples? Yet, for a large section of the human population, this is no thought experiment. Food security is a real-life, on-going, unrelenting emergency.

Subsequently, in order to realize a vegan world, activists must contend with capitalist exploitation, structural inequality, and environmental racism. Those living in society’s”desert islands” do not have the same access and resources as privileged folks living on the “mainland.” Rather than interrogate those who are trapped on figurative islands, activists should support efforts to increase access and affordability.

 

A version of this essay was originally published on December 7, 2013 on The Academic Activist Vegan.


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Readers can learn more about the politics of overpopulation in vegan rhetoric 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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Solving Moral Conflicts in a Non-Vegan World

In “How to Help When It Hurts?” my friend and colleague Cheryl Abbate considers an ethical conundrum often facing vegan activists, advocates, and rescuers who feel responsible for the well-being of Nonhuman Animals in adverse conditions with conflicting needs. In cases of genuine moral conflict, she suggests an application of the guardianship principle to assist with decisionmaking.

By way of an example, obligate carnivores like lions who are rescued from circuses and zoos deserve a chance to thrive in sanctuaries, but their ability to thrive is predicated upon harm inflicted against other animals who must be killed for their food. Rather than support systematic violence against cows, chickens, pigs, and other animals whose bodies are purchased as food for sanctuary inmates, Abbate suggests that sanctuaries, as guardians, might take up “hunting” (a euphemism for the killing of free-living animals).

There are a number of key flaws with this application of the guardianship principle. First, although Abbate frames a sanctuary’s decision to “hunt” as a case-by-case decision, that free-living animals (specifically deers) are considered a tappable resource indicates that their status is not much higher than that of traditionally farmed animals. Abbate counters that deers, unlike rescued carnivores and farmed animals, have a higher quality of life having lived free from human oppression. Their being slated for death suggests otherwise. Worse, they are being made to pay the dearest price for humanity’s moral wrongs. If humans are responsible for the injustice suffered by carnivorous refugees, why would human flesh not be offered in retribution?

Deer communities, incidentally, are regularly harmed by humans, too. Humans “manage” their populations, constrict their movements and migrations with boundaries and barriers, and terrorize them with automobiles and pollution. Although this life is pitted as superior given the relative freedom that deers experience, Abbate contradictorily banks on the difficulties of life in the wild (poor weather, hunger, disease, and overpopulation) as justification for sacrificing deers. This justification, however, brings up some troubling assumptions about right-to-life for ill or disabled bodies. It also harkens on a colonialist politic in assuming that demographics coded as inferior must be “managed” by “guardians.”

Obviously, solving moral conflicts such as these is no easy task, but complicating the issue is the tendency for advocates, philosophers, and consumers to constrain themselves to individual-level thinking. Sociology recognizes that oppression stems from a society’s economic mode of production. In this case, it is capitalism’s reliance on animal bodies that has created the oppressive behaviors and attitudes facing circus refugees, farmed animals, and free-living species. The problem, in other words, is much bigger than unethical or irresponsible individual choices. Only through a vegan restructuring of society will painful moral conflicts be eliminated. Whether or not sanctuaries rely on farmed animals as foodstuffs is beside the point; as long as human society is built on speciesism, farmed animals will continue to be killed en masse.

The assumption that consumers control the path of production is a misleading, if predominant, belief that has its roots in the nonprofit logic of the animal rights movement. It is actually industry and the state which control production such that sanctuaries turning to hunting are not likely to reduce the number of animals killed in slaughterhouses. Great quantities of animal products are now produced, and these quantities only increase by the year as markets deepen and expand. Consumer boycott has not been shown to be an effective means of reducing animal fatalities given state and industry control. Veganism’s political power lies in its ability to shift public consciousness and challenge the legitimacy of industries and the state, not in actually reducing the number of individuals killed in production. There must be cultural support for veganism and a political reconfiguring before the numbers begin to drop.

Little Tyke

So how to manage the conflict in lieu of a vegan world? Given the limited capability of consumer boycott in a society in which consumers have very little control, using the bodies of farmed animals who are being killed at high volumes regardless of vegan protest may be an acceptable short-term solution. The vast quantity of edible animal products which go to waste might be repurposed for sanctuaries as well. Universities, for instance, often host food recovery programs to systematize the redistribution of leftover food to the needy. Sanctuaries might also develop such a program.

That said, efforts should be invested in obtaining (or even developing) healthful and tasty plant-based or at least partially-plant based menus for carnivorous refugees. Indeed, veterinary research supports that large cats (such as the hypothetical lion used in Abbate’s thought experiment) can survive healthfully on a vegan diet. There is also the famous case of Little Tyke, a lioness raised on a farm who refused to eat flesh. She lived the whole of her life on a plant-based diet by her own choosing.

Whatever the short-term solution, it is necessary that change-makers begin to conceptualize social problems as systemic. This will entail a move away from individualized solutions that wrongfully pit sanctuaries and consumers as responsible for violence against animals. Individualistic thinking renders invisible the state, industries, and the structures the two have created to normalize and reproduce speciesism.

My full response was published with the Animal Studies Journal and may be read here.

 


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

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

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Trump Veganism? Research Finds a Highly Intersectional American Vegan Movement

Following the explosion of identity politics that culminated in the shocking 2016 presidential win for Donald Trump, I was curious as to whether these wider cultural trends could be related to the vocal resistance to intersectionality and feminist theory in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, a phenomenon I have dubbed “Trump veganism.” In my article, “Trump Veganism: A Political Survey of American Vegans in the Era of Identity Politics,” published with the peer-reviewed, open-access sociological journal Societies, I surveyed almost 300 American vegans to ascertain their political attitudes and propensity for intersectional awareness and behavior. 

Previous research conducted of vegetarians and animal rights activists from the 1990s and 2000s found this demographic to be particularly left-leaning, and my survey results supported this trend. In fact, this was a very liberal group. The majority were atheist or agnostic, most voted for Hillary, quite a few identified as socialist or anarchist, almost half chose not to report their gender, and about 40% were non-heterosexual. Most respondents were white, under 35, and female-identified.

Yet, there was a streak of conservativism that did give pause. For instance, 14% of respondents either supported Trump or were neutral to his campaign. These conservative vegans participated in slightly fewer social justice movements other than veganism. They were also more likely to be vegan for reasons of personal health, not out of concern for other animals. Even liberal voters demonstrated some level of conservativism when it came to vegan ethics. When asked if they supported the concept of “Nonhumans first,” about half of all respondents agreed.

The Nonhuman Animal rights movement has a bit of a bum rap given its historical legacy of exploiting racist and colonialist tensions to advance its interests. My research supports that, while activists are eager to prioritize the interests of Nonhuman Animals in their campaigning, they are certainly not ignorant of human oppression. Respondents believed that other social justice movements were relevant to speciesism. They were involved with four other social justice movements on average. Respondents also indicated that they did not believe the vegan movement did enough to prioritize diversity, especially women and people of color.

Presuming this sample to be generalizable, Trump veganism can be said to be a marginal position in the American vegan movement. Instead, this demographic is politically intelligent and heavily involved in a variety of social justice efforts. These respondents are certainly not ignorant to the suffering of marginalized humans and its relationship to speciesism.

 


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

Readers can learn more about intersectional politics in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Forewarning

Forewarning creates resistance (Freedman and Sears 1965). If an audience is warned ahead of time that they are about to be exposed to a persuasion attempt, it is less likely that they will be persuaded. In the courtroom, for instance, if a defense attorney warns the jury of the prosecution’s upcoming evidence, potential attitude change can be mitigated (Dolnik et al. 2003).

What this means for vegan activism is that a “surprise attack” should be more effective. Vegan Outreach successfully employs this tactic by hiring unassuming college-aged advocates to quietly hand out booklets to students during the rush between classes. Students usually accept the booklets without any interaction with the Vegan Outreach employee. It is only as they flip through the material en route to class that they are presented with the case for vegetarianism. Other groups prevent forewarning by offering free vegan cookies or cupcakes to passerby. It is only after the treat is tasted that activists divulge that it was actually vegan and offer them animal liberation literature.

Sneaky advocacy is sometimes the more effective approach. If people know that a persuasion attempt is imminent, they will fortify their mental defenses so as not to budge. While there is something to be said for being straightforward (recall that the mere-exposure effect illustrates that familiarity with a message increases positive association), forewarning may not be helpful when giving a one-time presentation

In general, avoiding forewarning is advised when activists know they will be dealing with a stubborn audience. In the Freedman and Sears (1965) study, the title of the presentation was all it took to dissuade the audience. Thus, activists might avoid titles such as, “Why You Should Be Vegan.”

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Do not forewarn audience that a persuasion attempt is imminent
  • For outreach events, do not use titles that suggest a persuasion attempt

References

Dolnik, L., T. Case, and K. Williams.  2003.  “Stealing Thunder as a Courtroom Tactic Revisted:  Processes and Boundaries.”  Law and Human Behavior 27:  265-285.

Freedman, J. and D. Sears.  1965.  “Warning, Distraction, and Resistance to Influence.”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1:  262-266.

 

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.


This essay was originally published with The Examiner in 2012.

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