Should Vegans Be Extra Nice?

Should Vegans Be Extra Nice?

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.

7 Responses to Should Vegans Be Extra Nice?

  1. This article: doesn’t argue that you shouldn’t rock the boat, but:
    1. We shouldn’t distract from the animals’ message (e.g., don’t make our beliefs or anger or actions the issue, but keep the focus on the animals), and
    2. We should live a life that others would want to emulate, rather than being an angry vegan.

  2. I disagree with keeping the focus on animals. It’ll be different with everyone. If someone’s concerned about health issues, talk about that. If they’re concerned about the environment or food quality, talk about the effects of factory farms on neighboring spinach, not to mention greenhouse gasses. If it’s worker’s rights… You see where I’m going. There are hundreds of reasons to go vegan coming from every angle. We must keep informed and most IMPORTANTLY don’t be an angry vegan. Keep a sense of humor about things and don’t act disgusted at the piece of meat your coworker is eating, that’ll just perpetuate the stereotype. Don’t even mention it until they ask you questions, and they will. Being unapproachable and pissed off will get you and the message nowhere. As a side note, I don’t thing we would even be having this conversation if PETA weren’t as ridiculous as it is…

  3. I don’t see the point in trying to be “extra-nice”. I’ll be as nice and respectful as I am in talking about any other matter.

    Here’s the thing: I would be nicer about it if I thought it made one iota of a difference. But it doesn’t. You say “I’m vegan” and people hear “I think you’re a bad person”. It may or may not be true that I think that way, but it isn’t what I said. They’re just trying to find a red herring in order to not have to think about the arguments.

  4. Here’s the POV from a recent meat and dairy eater (gave it up a year and a half ago and haven’t turned back :D)…I think the argument could be made that Vegans/Vegetarians inversely feel a judgment from their omnivorous peers because of perpetuation of that judgey vegan stigma they believe are being felt about them by the those in social settings. Okay that was a mouthful.

    It’s quite possible that I just have a remarkable group of friends, mixed with vegans, vegetarians and omnivores but I feel like there is a consideration and respect felt by all of us. When I was a meat-eater and had holiday parties I was damn sure to include everyone and often ended up making everything vegan and vegetarian anyway (including making vegan jello shots hehe). I never felt that an opinion was being jammed down my throat nor that vegans/vegetarians felt that they were “above it all” and therefore came off mean. Grew up in a tiny town in the Midwest by the way with lack of exposure to a vegan/vegetarian way of life.

    Sure these are just my experiences but I think they need to be said here for some diversity and I don’t think they are as minority as some may believe. Even in new settings I really haven’t experienced what has been described above as a need to compensate in geniality bc I am veg. In fact, I think there is a general admiration and willingness to dialogue about it from the new people I meet (I know you mentioned in an earlier post that you are bugged by the Q&A portion of being a vegan but I quite relish it). My intent is not to minimize these feelings but I think it is entirely possible that Vegans/Vegetarians feel this judgment maybe a little too much and its time for some inward reflection from everyone.

    We should strive to create an alternative ethos amongst Vegans, Vegetarians and Omnivores alike that our eating habits/lifestyle doesn’t dictate everything about our character or who we are as people. Respectuflly it is possible that for those who are activists that it does, but IMHO I just don’t think we should make ourselves one-dimensional.

    totally agree with Matt above…power to #2.

    What is great is that we have immense choice and privilege in being vegans in that we are informed that this is a socially responsible and kick ass lifestyle. Nothing should hold us back from sharing it including the insecurities that maybe being vegan in foreign settings brings.

  5. I shared this post with my blog readers because of the great questions you bring to the table.

    I have been a vegetarian for years and am in the process of going vegan. I have dealt with criticism and attitudes as a vegetarian, but I have felt it at a different level since getting involved in the vegan community. It is definitely a more extreme reaction.

    Angela, you are very lucky. I have said nothing about Veganism and gave only mentioned that i don’t eat meat (only saying that i don’t like it when asked why) to the children in my family yet, at Thanksgiving dinner I had to listen to my 9 year old nephew spout some pretty negative beliefs about vegans. I live in an area where most people have no idea what vegan is. So, where did this 9 year old get his ideas? I’ve not had the conversation about my choice to be vegan with his parents interesting that a 9 years old would have a biased attitude about it already, isn’t it?

    My husband was very unhappy when I began talking about Veganism. Before I could get more than two sentences in, he was already upset and defensive. Why is that? He only had previous experience with vegans that happen to be more forceful and angry in their approach. In some ways, some vegans have perpetuated the beliefs in the study making it harder on the rest to be accepted and heard.

    I believe that Veganism challenges the core beliefs of who a person thinks they are and how they fit in this world. Like religion and politics, the issue is very much connected to a persons sense of self. With this in mind, I think it, like an opposing religious point of view, challenges a person in a way they may not be able to hear. It rocks their foundation if you will. It’s easier, like Nicole stated, to consider vegans as thinking that they are better than them than to really think about the issue and challenge their long held belief system.

    Sorry this turned out so long. :-|
    Thanks for reading it all!

  6. I’ve found over the years that soft persuasion works better.

    In conversation, I won’t bring it up unless the conversation veers into the topic of animals.
    In a debate on any subject, most people won’t accept that they are wrong, even if every point of theirs is refuted.

    When an acquaintance asks a dumb question about veganism, or even makes a little joke about it at my expense, my experiences have shown me that these are the people most likely to make the change because something in their head has made them curious.

    Just avoid aggression. Smile, laugh (without compromising your viewpoints) and describe your diet in a positive context.


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