Most of us say we prefer to avoid confrontation. And that’s even after we learn that confrontation is beneficial for relationships, and makes for more productive workplaces (up to a point – and when the confrontations are calm and constructive).
Above all else, most people prefer to avoid confrontation with strangers. Which makes sense for humans as social creatures. When conflicts do arise, most are settled by what’s known as the ‘host-guest norm’ – you’re at someone’s house and, as the guest, you get the last vegan mince pie. This is, in fact, paradoxical behavior, out of step with the evolutionary ideas of resource ownership and territoriality – but which shows that humans can evolve (something we vegans already know).
Are vegans confrontational?
But vegans, even non-activists, are being accused of being confrontational like at no other time. For farmers, meat eaters, even some Conservative MPs, the ideas that vegan lifestyles are now mainstream, that processed red meats might be killing you, and that it’s perfectly possible to be healthy without animal products, are ‘confrontational’ in themselves.
And they are confrontations – to a status quo that is killing animals, people, and the planet. So maybe it’s time to address just what’s going on when farmers and meat-eaters feel ‘confronted’ by our vegan lifestyles, practices, social media, and street activism.
Bitter and twisted?
There are two main hypotheses that psychologists have explored in studying the reasons why some people feel able to ‘speak up’ and confront perpetrators of what they see as wrongs being carried out.
The first is the ‘bitter complainer’ hypothesis. This is based on the idea that individuals who feel that they are not a person of worth (i.e. have low self-esteem) will, writes psychologist Alexandrina Moisuc and colleagues, ‘be hostile towards others as a means to feel better about themselves. When the opportunity presents itself, the hostility will take the form of ‘confronting’ the perpetrator of an uncivil or immoral behavior’.
As Moisuc and colleagues add, empirical evidence for this idea is abundant. There are plenty of studies that show how those who are badly adjusted to society and social norms are quick to pounce on the questionable behavior of others.
This is exactly the kind of impression that meat-eaters, many farmers, and defenders of the Carnist status quo, would like everyone else to believe. For them, animal activists who ‘stand up’ and ‘openly express their disapproval’ when witnessing ‘immoral behaviors’ are no more than vegan killjoys unhappy and bitter with their own joyless lives.
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Courageous and well-adjusted?
But research from Moisuc and colleagues provides insight to a different answer.
The second hypothesis is the ‘well-adjusted leader hypothesis’. This concept is based on the idea that ‘confronting another person about their undesirable behaviour requires character strength, social responsibility, and the knowledge that one is well accepted by the social environment’.
And in fact, the research continues, individuals who ‘speak up’ are ‘like caring team leaders who try to promote a positive work environment in which team members treat each other fairly and respectfully’.
As with the bitter complainer hypothesis, there are ample examples of the central roles of leaders in creating and maintaining social norms.
This is exactly the image of vegans and animal activists that diehard meat-eaters and animal agriculture don’t want you to see. That as bystanders to moral crimes, vegan activists who ‘confront incivility/immorality feel connected to and care about the community/society they live in [and] are driven by the desire to ‘make this world a better place”.
So which is right?
This major piece of research published this year, which conducted four separate studies, measured personality traits, individual differences and demographic variables, to look at minor, major, and discriminatory behaviors against which people ‘stood up’ and ‘intervened’. And the results suggest…
That people who do stand up to be heard and confront others about their uncivil, immoral or discriminatory behaviors (and acts of speciesism can count as all three) are well-adjusted leaders. ‘Despite its theoretical plausibility’, the authors conclude, ‘the bitter complainer hypothesis received no empirical support’.
Instead, the results showed that individuals who confront perpetrators of uncivil and immoral behaviors tend to score high on altruism and social responsibility. As bystanders, they feel morally outraged and personally implicated. They are extroverted, are well accepted by their peers, and effectively regulate their emotions.
These are far from the militant stereotypes that the media love to promote. They are, indeed, far more like the behaviors of Anita Krajnc at the famous Pig Trial, or Earthling Ed on Good Morning. And it is exactly the opposite of what the National Farmers’ Union suggest is true of vegan activists confronting their farmers.
But most vegans and vegan activists who speak out are, following the authors, ‘more likely to be well-adjusted leaders who use their psychological resources and social capital to enforce social norms, rather than bitter complainers who vent their frustrations by verbally aggressing others’.
And in fact…
Classic research by Teresa Amabile and Ann Glazebrook suggests that when people are made to feel insecure, they judge others more harshly. In current conflicts between Carnists and vegans, it is the Carnists who feel their way of life is being threatened. So maybe farmers need to consider if, feeling insecure, they are judging vegans more harshly than they deserve?
And what should we make of the fact that chronically aggressive individuals, such as those who shoot bolts into the heads of animals or are prosecuted for animal cruelty, have been found to be especially likely to perceive hostile intent on the part of others?
But let’s not dwell on the unconstructive side of fear, aggression, and bitterness. Instead, let’s celebrate what most of us know to be true. That vegans and vegan activists are leaders in their friendships, networks, and communities, who stand up and speak up because of what they know to be morally wrong, and direct us toward a better way of conducting social life.
We know that constructive confrontation is essential for harmonious relationships. Confronting perpetrators is essential when individuals threaten or harm innocent victims. Perhaps when the meat-eating majority in society recognizes this truth, and stops labeling vegans as confrontational as if it were a bad thing, we can have more open, transformative and beneficial conversations that might just lead to happier lives for everyone.