Tag Archives: Veganism

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.


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

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

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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.

 


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

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

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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.

 


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

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

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The “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.

 


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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.


This essay was originally published with The Examiner in 2012.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Age

Diversity in the activist’s audience means that there will be no one-size-fits-all tactic. This essay examines how changes in an individual’s lifespan can shape their receptiveness to a vegan message.

For the most part, attitudes are generational (Sears 1976). Belief systems formed in youth tend to hold constant throughout an individual’s life. Research supports that attitudes are most malleable in one’s teens and early twenties (Krosnick, J. and D. Alwin 1989). Older individuals are certainly not immune to cultural shifts and can experience liberal attitude change as well (Danigelis and Cutler 1991), but it will be a trickier task.

This explains why many vegan outreach organizations target college students. Given that resources are so limited, it makes sense to focus efforts on a younger audience. This is not to say that efforts would be lost on other audiences, but if the choice must be made between leafleting on a college campus and a community center, the college campus would probably extract a greater return.

The fact that cultural shifts can influence those who are more resistant to attitude change is also promising. For instance, research finds that those who were already past their twenties during the civil rights era were still measurably less conservative. In other words, older people may have missed the wave, but the societal changes that resulted had at least some impact on most everyone. Focusing on the younger population will therefore have a direct impact on that younger audience, but it should have an indirect impact on older individuals as well.

Finally, to completely exclude older persons would be problematic given that such a strategy relies on inaccurate stereotypes of older persons as set in their ways and close-minded. Because veganism entails a healthful plant-based diet, older persons could benefit greatly from vegan outreach. The mental health gains associated with a more just relationship with other animals would also be a positive asset. Outreach strategies that are too exclusive risk replicating inequality. Veganism should be made available to everyone.

 

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Target teens and young adults
  • Be mindful of ageism and do not stereotype or exclude older audiences

References

Danigelis, N. and S. Cutler.  1991.  “An Inter-Cohort Comparison of Changes in Racial Attitudes.”  Research on Aging 13 (3):  383-404.

Krosnick, J. and D. Alwin.  1989.  “Aging and Susceptibility to Attitude Change.”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57:  416-425.

Sears, D.  Life Stage Effects Upon Attitude Change, Especially Among the Elderly.  Manuscript prepared for Workshop on the Elderly of the Future, Committee on Aging, National Research Council, Annapolis, MD, May 3-5.

This essay was originally published with The Examiner in 2012.


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

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

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Vegan Ethics and the Case for Black Widow Spiders

The ethical conundrum created by human interactions with poisonous species is one that tests the limits of vegan ethics. What is the correct path of action if one should come across a potentially deadly black widow spider, for instance? Can veganism’s commitment to nonviolence resist the intense social pressure to kill these beings on sight?

As with many questions about the practicality of veganism, speciesism interferes with clear decision-making. Humans harbor implicit biases about other animals which puts them at a disadvantage in perceived conflicts of interest. The stigma surrounding black widow spiders, for instance, is built on a certain amount of ignorance (unfamiliarity with the species) and stereotyping (loosely-fitting generalizations). Mass media, which frequently portrays spiders as villainous, lurking, and evil, also inhibits rational consideration.

The  true nature of black widows contradicts common conceptions.  First, they are quite clumsy outside of their web. This means that they are homebodies, rarely out on the prowl and not likely to give chase. Neither are they very brave.  If their foe is formidable (as would be a large human), they prefer escape over attack. Most importantly, statistically few humans are bitten, and very few of these will actually die.

Of course, these facts do little to mitigate the fear of pain and death that black widows exact. It is hard to remain rational when suddenly encountering them.  I have personally seen a few black widows over the years, but only one of these instances I could consider a close call. I was home alone preparing for a tubing trip on the river. I dragged out a bunch of old inner tubes that had been stacked in the backyard, attempted to hose some of the mud off, then started cramming them into the trunk of my car. I probably spent a good five minutes jamming them in, repositioning them, and smashing them with my bare hands.

My friend met me at the gas station a few minutes later to fill the tubes up with air.  As I handed him the second tube, he recoiled and let out a yell:  there was a black widow amidst the rubber.  He was shaken; he could have been bitten. Acutely remembering my sloppy packing job, I realized that I could have been bitten as well.

My friend, who knew me to be a vegan, said to me: “You know we can’t let that spider live.”  I considered the fact that he may be right as we were in a busy public space.  But he didn’t kill her, and neither did I.  She clung to the air pumping station while we worked, and when we were done, we loaded up and left.  I didn’t see her anymore, and presumed she had scuttled away.

Of course, not everyone’s choices are so simple.  Sometimes deadly spiders take up residence with families that have children or elderly persons. Some people live in geographic hot spots that attract far too many black widows to safely live side by side with. Complicating this is that medical treatment for bites are not vegan. The antivenin (for those lucky enough to receive it) is produced by hurting other spiders.  Horses and other animals are also used in testing the product.

The case for black widow spiders challenges the core of the vegan ethic: is it ever acceptable to kill another in a situation of potential danger? Unfortunately, these ethical catch-22s are too frequently used to dismiss veganism altogether under the faulty deductive logic that, because moral purity is impossible, veganism is also impossible. While black widows do present a murky ethical situation,  most of our relationships and encounters with Nonhuman Animals are not life or death situations and do not require killings of necessity. The uncertainty of how to handle the chance encounter with a black widow holds little relevance to the certainty of systematic exploitation of Nonhuman Animals killed for food, clothing, and entertainment. Unlike black widows, these species do not pose any threat to humans; indeed, they suffer and die only to meet production quotas and consumer demands.

Being vegan is a guiding practice, not a dogma. It encourages striving for perfection only as far as is reasonable.  Just because some vegans may resort to killing insects in rare and regrettable situations (and it is not something that vegans take likely or enjoy doing), this is not cause to toss veganism out the window as useless or unrealistic. Vegan ethics advise compromise and life-affirming, creative solutions. In many instances, the best solution to problems is to avoid them in the first place and take preventative measures.  Keeping a tidy, clean home, applying insect repellent, and checking your shoes before putting them on are some easy ways to nurture coexistence with insects, be they biting, stinging, or deadly.

 

 

An earlier version of this essay first appeared on the Academic Activist Vegan on September 17, 2013.


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

Readers can learn more about vegan ethics and Nonhuman Animal rights in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

 

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The Politics of the Pure Vegan Myth

Veganism as a Symbol

Social movements are not only concerned with identifying a social problem and prescribing solutions, but also with maintaining boundaries. Movements must delineate themselves from the mainstream that has been identified as problematic, but they must avoid constructing boundaries that are so rigid that they deter potential recruits and allies. Social movement theorist James Jasper refers to this balancing act as the “Janus Dilemma” as movements must be simultaneously inwardly and outwardly oriented. As a movement grows, differences inevitably arise in how problems should be defined and how best to solve them. Factions emerge as a result, and bring with them a new set of boundaries that activists must negotiate.

In my research of factionalism in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, I have identified a number of symbols that are heavily politicized and contested in the social movement space. Symbols are ammunition in the crossfire between competing groups as they seek to define, protect, and breach boundaries. Veganism is one of the most vulnerable concepts in this intramovement battle for jurisdiction. What does it mean to be vegan? How important is veganism? Who is really a vegan, and who is not?

“Pure” Veganism

What I have found is that professionalized organizations expend considerable effort in denouncing veganism, what they generally refer to as a practice of “purity.” Oftentimes, they will frame this in individualist and ableist terms, describing “pure vegans” as “obsessive,” “angry,” or “self-absorbed.” Out of tune with reality, these “pure vegans” are alien from the more “practical” activist majority. As an alternative, large nonprofits advocate a variety of carnivorous diets that arbitrarily omit various animal bodies or products (vegeterianism, pescatarianism, veg*anism, plant-based, veggie, etc.).

Radical collectives are thus portrayed as unrealistic and self-righteous by contrast. Their relative powerlessness in the social movement space inhibits their ability to challenge the denigration of veganism or to defend their continued promotion of it.

Sociological thought acknowledges that social meanings do not necessarily correlate with objective reality. Instead, meaning is political in that it is constructed to serve particular interests. In this particular case, “vegan purity” is a a myth. It is not grounded in the daily reality of vegan life. The Vegan Society defines veganism as:

A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

Notice that this definition emphasizes exclusion of animal products as far as is possible and practicable. No practicing vegan actually believes that purity is achievable. Most vegans take medicine, drive cars, use computers, eat vegetables grown in animal waste, or shop in nonvegan grocery stores. Because speciesism is systemic, a human cannot exist in this society without indirectly benefiting from nonhuman oppression (this is the same reason why all whites who live in a white supremacy are “racist” even if they actively reject racism).

Nonprofit and Radical Applications

If real-world vegans recognize these common sense limitations, then where does the pure vegan myth come from? My research supports that the myth is constructed to invisibilize radical discourse that threatens hegemonic power structures in the movement. As an organization abandons the grassroots model in favor of professionalization, it turns on veganism by reframing it as impractical. In short, veganism interferes with access to grants. Even organizations that avidly touted the importance of veganism as a grassroots group would come to view it as a matter of “personal purity” after incorporating as a nonprofit and becoming dependent on fundraising.

Nonprofits are not the only players. I have sometimes observed radical activists feign an adherence to impossibly pure veganism. Among radicals, the pure vegan myth is employed most frequently to advance one’s own status or to undermine that of others. Purity is employed not to advocate for the interests of animals, but to protect boundaries and subdue contenders.

For instance, an American vegan society not long ago recommended Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in its vegan starter guide, innocently unaware that most commercial cereal products are fortified with vitamins sourced from animal bodies. A fact of vegan life is that “going vegan” is a lifelong process. Nonhuman oppression is so thoroughly saturated in our social worlds, we must be diligent in checking ingredients and challenging habitual consumer trust. It was an honest mistake and a real a shame, too, since corn flakes were invented in the 19th century to transition flesh-eaters into vegetarianism. The offending organization was roundly criticized for the accident by other radical collectives, but the assault had nothing to do with Nonhuman Animals, and everything to do with destroying the organization’s legitimacy as a contender in the radical space.

Veganism is not just a strategy for the emancipation of other animals, but a means of protecting jurisdiction. Professionalized organizations engage myths of vegan purity with hopes of appealing to elite-run foundations that are obviously less likely to award grants to nonprofits determined to undermine elite-run speciesist industries. Nonprofits thus distance themselves from radical collectives and their vegan agenda. As nonprofits trade ideals for resources, their power grows and reduces resources available for others. As a result, radicals disingenuously double down on the vegan myth in their struggle for survival in a movement that is increasingly dominated by large nonprofits.

 


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 the Nonhuman Animal rights movement in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

 

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