One reason why people may not like vegans: no one likes to feel that they are immoral

To many vegetarians and vegans it’s a mystery: we’re doing our best to be caring and compassionate towards all sentient life, and therefore choose to boycott eating animal products. Isn’t that something commendable? But then why do so many people seem to mock, criticize or even attack vegans and veganism?

Sure, at times we can be a little annoying. We may inconvenience omnivores by making them wait while we inspect labels, or by vetoing their choice of restaurant when we go out for dinner. But this doesn’t really explain the hostility and ridicule that we may encounter at times.

Part of what’s happening here is a phenomenon called do-gooder derogation, or the putting down of morally motivated others.

You may have experienced it yourself as a vegetarian or vegan: without even having said anything at all, meat eaters at the table may get defensive by making fun of you and your “diet”.

Why does this do-gooder derogation happen? The problem is that people will often feel that your behavior (i.e., your eating or being vegan) is an implicit condemnation of theirs (their eating meat). Morally good behavior seems to often come with an implicit moral reproach towards others.

According to researchers who have studied do-gooder derogation, “moral reproach, even implicit, stings because people are particularly sensitive to criticism about their moral standing (…). Because of this concern with retaining a moral identity, morally-motivated minorities may be particularly troubling to the mainstream, and trigger resentment.” The response to this threat to our moral identity, then, is to put down the source of the threat (Minson and Morin).

Merely thinking about how vegetarians see the morality of non-vegetarians can trigger the derogation effect. When meat eaters anticipate moral reproach by vegetarians – i.e., when meat eaters think that vegetarians would morally condemn them – they will tend to increase their derogation.

Now, the biggest problem that should concern us here is not that the ethical consumers (in this case, the vegans) are offended, ridiculed or treated badly, but that the denigrators themselves will be less committed to ethical values in the future. In other words, the negative comparison doesn’t just offend the vegans, but prevents the meat eaters – out of some kind of self protection – from taking steps towards veganism themselves (Zane).

So, to summarize, this is what may happen (worst case scenario).


This is obviously problematic for the spread of vegan values and behavior. So, here are my suggestions to avoid causing non-vegans to feel morally reproached, and thus to derogate vegans and veganism, and thus become more alienated from us and our message.

  1. Don’t “rub it in”. If people often feel guilty already, and experiencing moral reproach alienates them from us and our message, don’t add to their feeling of guilt or moral reproach by further guilt-tripping them. It won’t help (even though sometimes it might be fun or satisfying to us).
  2. Don’t only use moral messages and arguments. These can be problematic in the sense that they bring forth more do-gooder derogation than non-moral messages. Non-vegans feel less threatened by people who eat a plant-based diet for health reasons than by ethical vegans. This doesn’t mean you have to stop using ethical arguments; just that also talking about health (or taste) can be strategic and productive.
  3. Talk about your own imperfections. We can tell others some of the things we do while we know we shouldn’t. Maybe we talk about how we didn’t change overnight and needed some convincing ourselves. Or we can talk about other domains in which we’re doing less great. It’s important to show others that we’re not different from them, not some kind of alien species with a level of morality or discipline they could never attain.
  4. You may want to make explicit the distinction between the act and the person. Choosing to not eat animal products is a morally better choice, but that doesn’t mean that people who are still eating animal products are bad people.

Rather than adding to derogation, alienation and disempowerment, we can do our own part in creating connection and rapport with others.

(Read much more on effective communication in my new book, How to Create a Vegan World).

References

The vegan handicap & the art of vegan conversation

If you’re vegan or vegetarian: you may have experienced it more than once: you are at the dinner table with other people, and the conversation turns to not eating meat. Some people at the table may be able to have a rational conversation about this, but others get a bit (or quite) angry, defensive, or sometimes downright nasty.

For some of your table partners to turn defensive, you probably actually didn’t even have to start to talk. Your mere presence as someone who doesn’t eat meat/animal products, is enough to make them uncomfortable. And this discomfort may impact the whole ensuing discussion. This is what I call the vegan handicap.uncomfortable (1)

My guess (and I think it’s a pretty reasonable one), is that at the basis of the discomfort lies guilt. Most people in their right mind will know there’s something wrong with what’s on their plate. They may believe that it is ok to kill animals for food, but most of them also believe that when we choose to do that, we should give the animals “a good life” and make sure they “don’t suffer” (whatever those words mean to us). They believe there exists something like “humane meat” and that there is no problem with that. At the same time, however, most of them are buying meat from just any source: at the supermarket, in restaurants, in the cafetaria at their work… They are quite aware that they could at least get meat in organic stores, which they might think meets their criteria for “humaneness”, but almost none of them do that. Apart from all this, there may be a voice inside them that tells them that killing animals for food is unfair.

So the people at your table, looking at you, feel guilty – at a conscious or less conscious level – about the discrepancy between what’s on their plate and what they believe they should do. You confront them with that guilt, and they get defensive. They get the feeling that you are or are going to attack them, while your opinion merely represents that dissenting opinion within themselves: that gnawing little voice inside them, that they actually don’t want to hear.

It is very important to be aware of this dynamic. Assuming this attitude of guilt and defensiveness is not a good basis to work on, I suggest that the vegan at the table needs to go a certain extra length to put the omnivore at ease, and not put oil on the fire. All of this means that things you say may sound accusing and guilt-inducing much easier and faster than you expect or intended. It means that – pardon the expression – you should walk on eggshells.

There’s a lot of points you can give attention to in order to put others at ease and make the conversation go better. Here are some of them: behave very pleasantly, have a sense of humor, make it clear that you’re not accusing them, avoid charged words like “murder”, talk in terms of “we/society” and not “you”, explain how you have eaten meat yourself before (and how it possibly took you a while to see things clearly). Avoid sounding holier-than-thou. Don’t tell them things like they are complicit in humanity’s biggest crime ever (even though you may believe they are).  Admit that you are not perfect and that you don’t have the answer to everything. Above all, don’t talk all the time but listen and ask smart questions.
I would summarize this as: be nice. Being nice not just makes the world a better place for everyone (so I’m not talking about faking stuff), but it is crucial if you want to be effective at helping animals. 

This whole attitude of yours is, in my view, a lot more important than the content of the actual arguments you will bring to the table. Your conversation is first of all about the relation between you and the others, not about the content. When you have established a good relationship, when there is the trust that you are not accusing or attacking the other, then you can give more attention to the arguments themselves.

Vegan conversation is an art that we all need to master.