The Social Psychology of Veganism – Whataboutism

Trumping the Truth

The presidency of Donald Trump has been, for better or worse, highly enlightening for the vegan community. Trump and his campaigners have been particularly infamous for their ability to undermine the credibility of media coverage, scientific evidence, truth, and reality itself. This, in a way, is the same sort of business for vegans.

However, vegans do have to contend with media, science, and “facts” that are anything but truthful. Countermovements that find truth contentious can pull on a number of psychological tricks to stack the deck in their favor. Years after her defeat, for instance, Trump continued to raise the specter of “crooked” Senator Hillary Clinton in response to any complaints of his own failed policy or problematic behavior.

Trump’s Crooked Hillary trope is a classic example of what political pundits and social psychologists refer to as “whataboutism.” Whataboutism is a logical fallacy that works by deflecting criticism with charges of hypocrisy. Trump is certainly not the originator of this strategy. Political scientists have observed it as foundational to the Russian propaganda machine as well.

What About Animals?

As this series has examined, vegans must contend with a wide variety of deflecting techniques by animal consumers made uneasy by the cognitive dissonance. Whataboutism is perhaps one of the more readily available strategies to engage for this purpose. When confronted with a vegan message, many animal consumers retort, “What about mosquitos?” or “What about bacteria?” Other favorites include, “What about yeast?”, “What about animals killed to collect grain?”, and “What about the medicine you take?” In other words, nonvegans frequently deflect the vegan message with attempts to identify inconsistencies in vegan practice.

Although some activists have argued that these sorts of questions constitute genuine inquiries as to the limits of vegan ethics, social psychology suggests them to be classic examples of whataboutism. Whataboutism is a powerful means of resisting fact, truth, and reality. The election of Donald Trump stands as one telling example of this strategy’s effectiveness. The mass killing of animals in a world that claims to care about animal welfare is another.

Reflexivity

The good news is that whataboutism is not impervious. Sociologists suggest that practicing reflexivity can encourage meta-cognitive consideration of how one’s identity shapes one’s political positioning (Dean 2017). Pointing out logical fallacies and mechanisms of bias can thwart whataboutism.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Recognize the difference between genuine ethical inquiries and psychological dissonance-dodging
  • Encourage reflexiveness

References

Dean, J. 2017. Doing Reflexivity. Chicago, IL: The Chicago University Press.

 


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.

Comments Off on The Social Psychology of Veganism – Whataboutism

Filed under Essays