Vegans have never had it better.
In recent years, the movement has spread like wild samphire.
But, much like the sea vegetable, vegans have a reputation for being salty.
So what’s got their hackles up? Why are they so negative about other people’s lifestyle choices? What’s got them so invested in this whole thing, anyway?
Cards on the table: I’m one of them.
And, my omnivorous readers, if I’m honest, I can’t really blame you if you picture us like zealous Scientologists to your rational and well-mannered Louis Theroux.
In fact, I can already sense the ire of my fellow vegans mounting as I threaten to betray the movement with such comparisons (sorry).
But I want to test the length of the vegan fuse here and ask: what is the psychology of the ‘angry vegan’?
Well, it seems there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Us and them
A great deal of the harsh criticism hurled from either side of the rhetorical fence may be attributable to the unfortunate but inevitable us-and-themdynamic.
That is, as soon as you pick a side, regardless of the merit of your argument, your opinions and beliefs become suspect to those on the opposing side.
This warped perspective is a well-known psychological phenomenon known as ‘ingroup-outgroup bias’.
Essentially, those we relate to (the in-group) we are pre-disposed to view favourably, while those to whom we do not relate (the out-group) are seen in a negative light.
It’s the stuff of football team rivalries and warring families, geopolitical impasses and religious standoffs.
It’s the reason ‘cat people’ are suspicious of ‘dog people’, and why Shelbyvillians hate Springfieldians and vice versa.
Both sides know they’re right.
The Out-group Homogeneity Effect
Another effect of this mental quirk of oversimplification is that we perceive our in-group to be comprised of complex and diverse individuals, but view the out-group as one homogeneous mass; they’re all alike.
This bias even informs our involuntary responses, such as empathy¹.
We unconsciously express greater empathy towards those familiar to us, and less towards outsiders².
Needless to say, this makes it incredibly difficult for vegans and non-vegans to see eye to eye.
Rather than acknowledging the huge diversity of opinions and approaches held by the vegan movement’s many proponents, it’s easier to label vegans as angry zealots or mawkish weirdos and be done with the discussion.
I’m certainly guilty of that; that’s how I used to view vegans? – ?even as a vegetarian of many years? – ?before I became one myself.
Likewise, the same psychological quirk that inclines vegans to be seen by non-vegans as fringe-dwelling freaks is what often compels us vegans to see non-vegans as one monolithic slab of indifference.
This depersonalisation of the Other leads vegans and non-vegans alike to sometimes neglect the diplomacy we would usually extend to our fellow Earth citizens.
So before we’ve even spoken to a member of the opposing party, we already know, deep inside, where our allegiances lie.
Very often it seems that when we pick out certain topics to argue about, we are simply looking for ways to justify the feelings we already have.
This unwitting prejudice on both sides, combined with the often overwhelming adversity faced by the vegan movement? – ?the disapproval of family and peers, the might of trillion-dollar industries, negative media coverage, the huge disparity in numbers between the vegan and non-vegan populations? – goes a long way to explaining how we developed a reputation for being prickly.
It can often feel like we’re on the back foot, in spite of all the ground gained in recent years. The result: an impassioned defence of our ideals and identity, sans délicatesse.
A compounding factor is perhaps the ‘natural pre-selection’ of the vegan population; it seems likely that, in a world where vegans are the suspicious minority, it takes a certain kind of person to voluntarily join the ranks.
I suspect? – ?if we are going to generalize anyway? – ?that the kind of person to go vegan is usually idealistic and stubborn as hell.
Undaunted by peer pressure when they believe that what they are doing is right.
How else could you go so merrily against the grain of society?
How else could you watch yourself go down in the estimation of your peers? – from intelligent, critically-minded person to naive do-gooder? – and do nothing to apologize, to balance your social books?
Hang on, that doesn’t sound very merry.
Indeed, it’s not all prize-winning bowel movements, healthy waistbands and enviable lifespans. There is a darker side to plant-based living that’s not mentioned in the brochure.
It turns out there’s a price to pay for indulging in all that idealism, stubbornness and deviancy: the us-and-them division and the alienation it creates.
A lot of the time we’re only dealing with minor grievances, like having to stomach well-meaning but unsolicited pity (‘Oh, I forgot, you can’t eat that. I’m sorry’) or putting up with the guilt of others (people literally apologize to me when they eat cheese in my vicinity? – ?what is that, some kind of preemptive guilt-trip?).
Or there’s the Pavlovian flinch when we reveal our lifestyle choice; someone is bound to make the time-honoured ‘how do you know someone’s vegan?’ gag, even if the confession was dragged out of you.
But it’s mainly the social burden that comes with championing an unpopular belief.
With being the kind of person who finds it nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged Others than to give up on a beautiful ideal.
Because now you’ve had your epiphany, now you’ve found the empathy required to face the issue of animal rights, you can’t consciously ignore it? – ?that would be much worse than the unconscious way you used to ignore it.
Please hand in your badge and don’t make a scene
The this us-and-them dynamic has further implications for the ‘pre-selection’ of the vegan population.
It seems that the main reservation people have about going vegan? – ?perhaps second only to the issue of cheese? – is the backlash they anticipate from those close to them; they intuitively sense that by becoming a herbivore they will be endangering the fully-fledged membership of their current in-group.
They fear that they will be scorned by Grandma, who will feel affronted by the refusal of her once-loved shortbread cookies.
Resented at Christmas dinner for taking up precious oven-space with their nut roast.
Mocked at work when they whip out their chickpea salad for lunch (again).
Teased by their partner.
Naturally vegans don’t publicly complain about this kind of social strife too often; we don’t want to discourage people from what is ultimately a positive revelation that outweighs the negatives.
In the end, it’s about developing compassion for all animals, including our fellow human beings.
But, if it’s such an energy-drain to swim against the current, how do we remain so indefatigable?
Many omnivores can only imagine that the thing that keeps us going must be the smug thought that we’re saving the planet. But, look, we’re hopeful, not delusional.
Vive la résistance!
Honestly, the rewarding aspects of a vegan lifestyle are too many to mention in detail without going off-topic.
For idealists like us, though, having as little as possible to do with something personally objectionable (animal abuse) is practically enough in itself.
There’s also the heartening health benefits (a whole-foods, plant-based diet is the only diet proven to reverse heart disease, the number one killer in the West), the environmental benefits (the leading cause of environmental destruction being animal agriculture), and the positive influence veganism can have in raising awareness of other kinds of abuse and discrimination.
If all else fails, plant-based ice cream is excellent these days.
For me, though, what keeps the anger and disillusionment at bay most of all is that I’ve had a taste of what’s to come if we persist; in the vegan community, both on- and offline, I’ve caught a glimpse of a compassionate world in microcosm.
In these polarising political times, to share such a positive common goal with others is a balm for the soul.
Amid all the heartfelt discussions and the inevitable bickering, amid the shared stories of workplace woe and the excited reports of plant-based Ben & Jerry’s, you think: so this is what it feels like when people work together! We don’t have to abandon what we feel is right! We just need to support each other and get organized!
And, bless the internet, it seems to be working. In the past 10 years the world vegan population has exploded.
Happily, animosity towards the out-group tends to decrease as one’s sense of group security increases³ .
Oh, and, for the record, we can eat that. We choose not to. (Ooh, sassy!)
This article was originally published on Medium
Jonathan William Beaton is the co-author of the soon-to-be-published comicbook-cookbook Lovely’s.
¹ Campbell, M. W., & Waal, F. B. M. D. (2011). Ingroup-Outgroup Bias in Contagious Yawning by Chimpanzees Supports Link to Empathy.PLoS ONE, 6/4.
² Norscia, I., & Palagi, E. (2011). Yawn Contagion and Empathy in Homo sapiens.PLoS ONE, 6/12.
³ Nadler, A., Malloy, T. E., & Fisher, J. D. (2008). The social psychology of intergroup reconciliation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.