I read an NPR article recently that explained:
“In a study of [do-gooder derogation] phenomenon, omnivores again judged vegetarians more moral than their omnivorous peers, but expected that vegetarians would perceive this gap as nearly 10 times as big — that is, that vegetarians would rate the difference in morality between meat-eaters and vegetarians as nearly 10 times greater than the omnivorous participants believed it actually to be. A follow-up study confirmed that omnivores inaccurately overestimated how harshly vegetarians truly judged them.”
Explained further in the original study documentation:
Two studies document do-gooder derogation (the putting down of morally motivated others), by studying the reactions of meat eaters to vegetarians. In Study 1, 47% of participants freely associated negative terms with vegetarians and the valence of the words was negatively related to how much participants expected vegetarians to see themselves as morally superior to nonvegetarians. In Study 2, we manipulated the salience of anticipated moral reproach by varying whether participants reported these expectations before or after rating vegetarians. As predicted, participants rated vegetarians less positively after imagining their moral judgment of meat eaters. These studies empirically document the backlash reported by moral minorities and trace it back to resentment by the mainstream against feeling morally judged.
In otherwords, nonvegans are more likely to hate on vegans if/because they think the vegans may judge them, even if the vegans don’t or won’t actually judge them. Nonvegans believe they are much more harshly judged by vegans than they actually are.
Similarly, if nonvegans expect to be judged by vegans more harshly than they actually are, doesn’t it follow that any judgments we make of nonvegans may be received at least 10 times more harshly than they actually are?
Likewise, if nonvegans perceive judgments as 10 times harsher than they are, if they retaliate against the judgments doesn’t it stand to reason that the retaliation from nonvegans to vegans may also be at least 10 times as harsh?
That’s a lot of inferences. They may not all be true and it requires further study. But doesn’t it seem likely? If you’re an advocate of veganism, doesn’t your personal experience support these conclusions? So what do we do about it? How can we advocate for animals effectively with all this backlash? If each step forward may represent backlash ten times as great, how do we move forward? Should we just be extra nice?
There are lots of articles by animal advocates that urge us to “be nice.” Growing up in this movement I took that advice to mean what the nonvegans wanted it to mean: don’t rock the boat, don’t challenge the status-quo. The obvious way to “be nice” is don’t become an activist. Although it’s usually clear the actual advice is NOT “don’t be an activist” and rather IS “be a nice activist”, the advice is still difficult to use because it’s vague. It’s the kind of advice that easily erodes into “don’t be an activist” because it’s not specific enough about HOW to be nice. After reading articles like those, I would think to myself “I am nice” but the problem is they don’t react like I’m nice, they react like I’m mean. I am always quite skeptical of the advice to “be nice.”
Making things more tricky is the fact that because of this do-gooder derogation the mere presense of a vegan is perceived by nonvegans as “not nice” (judgy). So the slightest hint that the vegan isn’t nice becomes evidence that the vegan is mean. “Being nice” according mainstream standards requires an over-the-top level of cheerfulness, humility, and kindness when coupled with actual animal advocacy. For many advocates, that’s a difficult (if not impossible) task that quickly becomes tiring and may lead to activist burnout.
Moreover, there is a dearth of evidence that proves exactly which method of animal advocacy will be most effective. Just because nonvegans’ immediate reactions to “nice” activism appears positive doesn’t mean it is. For example, some recent studies about veg advocacy highlight the fact that many people perceive themselves to be more virtuous than they actually are. Recent research about animal advocacy presented at The Humane Research Council found:
“A recent study attempted to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables by increasing people’s awareness that meat symbolises human dominance and power over nature. Participants were informed that research has found that people who endorse values of dominance and social power eat more meat, while people who endorse equality eat more fruits and vegetables. Attitudes towards meat, fruits and vegetables were measured before and after the presentation of this information. For participants who rejected dominance and valued equality, this information resulted in meat being seen more negatively. In a follow-up to the study three weeks later, some of these participants reported they had reduced their meat consumption (though when their actual meat consumption was measured there was no apparent decrease).” (emphasis added)
Luckily for us, nonvegans don’t just think that vegans judge them harshly. Nonvegans also think nonvegans deserve judgment. The aforementioned NPR article explains:
“In one study, vegetarians did rate a fictional person who most often ate ‘tofu, vegetable tempura, salad, whole-wheat bread and lentils’ as more virtuous (i.e., more tolerant of others, kind-hearted, considerate, concerned and virtuous) than a fictional person who most often ate ‘lamb, lean beef, salad, whole-wheat bread and chicken burgers.’ But omnivores also judged the tofu-eater more virtuous than the lamb-eater”
So the issue is really, how do we get nonvegans to transform their knowlege about what constiutes virtuous behavior into actual virtuous behavior? How do we get them to act on their own existing moral knowledge? I for one am open to suggestions.