This is a guest post by Dr. Melanie Joy, who is the author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism and is a Harvard-educated psychologist. In this article she talks about what she sees as a major problem in our movement: the shaming of vegans by other vegans. This is a longread, so sit back and take your time to digest the many important points she brings to the table.
(read this article in French or in Spanish)
At a recent conference for animal rights activists, an incident took place which left me disturbed, and concerned for our movement. A speaker and longtime vegan activist was giving a presentation on effective activism to an audience of approximately 300 when suddenly, two activists rushed onto the stage. One was carrying a dead chicken; the other was holding a sign claiming that the speaker’s organization was corrupt. The chicken activist then grabbed a microphone and proceeded to announce why he thought the speaker was a hypocrite who is responsible for extensive animal suffering and why he believed the speaker’s (vegan) organization actually benefits from animal exploitation. (Despite the fact that the organization in question has an outstanding track record of promoting veganism, their mainstream approach sometimes draws criticism from more radical groups.*) The next forty minutes or so were spent in an impromptu “debate” whereby the speaker — a passionate vegan who has dedicated his life to reducing animal suffering — was forced to spend his time explaining that he does, in fact, care about animals, instead of finishing his presentation that was designed to help activists more effectively save animals.
All the while, audience members cheered and hooted after each impassioned demand of the accusing activist; or, they cheered after the speaker successfully defended himself and his organization. At one point, audience members were offered the opportunity to participate, and, though plenty of them supported the speaker’s position, a number of them took up the torch and carried on something that rather resembled an inquisition. And this dynamic continued the following day, when the debate was again picked up. Nobody seemed the least bit concerned that an individual who had spent extensive time and energy preparing and delivering a talk had his presentation sabotaged — or that a human being, and committed vegan, was the subject of what I could only perceive as an attempted public shaming.
Shaming is, unfortunately, a widespread social behavior whose destruction remains unchecked largely because it is so normal as to be unremarkable. And public shaming is an increasingly popular spectacle, reminiscent of the Roman Games and arguably even more damaging. Thus, accepting and celebrating shaming behaviors is not unique to the vegan movement. However, the vegan movement is supposed to act as a counterpoint to those prevailing attitudes that cause, rather than alleviate, suffering. Clearly, the fact that an unjust behavior is socially acceptable is not an excuse for us to uncritically adopt it.
We shame others whenever we judge or degrade them, when we communicate that they are somehow inferior to ourselves or others. Shaming behaviors can be anything from a subtle eye roll when our non-vegan friend chooses a hamburger over a veggie burger to a verbal assault when a fellow vegan expresses an opinion we disagree with.
Shame is the emotion that results from bullying, abusive, or otherwise demeaning behavior. Shame is the feeling of being “less-than” others. We may feel less powerful, less moral, less attractive, less intelligent, etc. Ultimately, however, shame is the feeling of being less worthy than others. When we derive our sense of worth from our activism, attractiveness, intelligence, etc. — as most of us have learned to do — we inevitably feel shame when we are put down. And virtually all of us carry around a good deal of shame; it’s just a matter of how much shame each of us contends with. We have inherited a deeply problematic world with less-than-perfect role models; even those few of us who had emotionally healthy caregivers have been impacted by a popular culture in which competition, violence, and degradation — fear-inducing and shaming phenomena — are both normal and celebrated.
The flip side of shame is grandiosity, the feeling of being superior to, or “better than,” others. The inflated feeling of grandiosity, no matter how mild, can be seductive. When we are in a state of grandiosity, we are on a high that keeps us (largely) oblivious to the shame most of us spend our lives trying to deny, avoid, or otherwise cover up. So shaming others can be tempting, since making others inferior automatically props us up to a position of superiority. A common example of this dynamic among vegans is intellectual moral shaming – communicating that the other is less intelligent and less moral, often because she or he does not agree with one’s own views. The goal of intellectual moral shaming is to prove one’s position as “right” and the other as “wrong,” rather than to examine and objectively discuss differing perspectives.
Intellectual moral shaming can be particularly damaging, as it may be difficult to recognize and thus to respond to; shouts are far easier to identify than sneers. Often, intellectual moral shaming is obscured by cleverly articulated argumentation and eloquent prose. And when the beauty of well-chosen words is combined with zealous passion and steadfast self-righteousness, the result can be intoxicating. Well-intentioned vegans can become bedazzled by the brilliance of intellectual charisma, and unknowingly join in the stone-throwing at those whose ideas have been deemed “wrong,” and thus “immoral.” No matter how well educated, impassioned, or morally convinced one is, her or his ideas are not necessarily logical or accurate, and her or his manner is not necessarily ethical. We must always take a step back and ask, “Is this person referring to empirical data, or is she or he simply expressing an opinion? Is the argument logically sound?” And, “How would I feel if I were on the receiving end of such comments?”
Of course, not all shaming behaviors are attempts to boost our own egos; sometimes we shame others simply because we are attempting to get them to do something we want them to do – and we don’t realize that what we are doing is harmful.
Grandiosity and Entitlement
Entitlement is the belief that we deserve special privileges that are denied to others, and it is a natural consequence of being in a state of grandiosity. When we feel entitled, we feel we have the right to do to others what would be unacceptable for them to do to us.
For example, recently a (vegan) colleague of mine was questioned by another vegan about his approach to animal liberation. My colleague replied that he was a staunch proponent of the abolition of animal exploitation. Yet when my colleague added that he supported a different strategy toward abolition than did the questioner, the other vegan – who was a veritable stranger to my colleague – insisted that my colleague didn’t “really care” about ending animal suffering and that he was not, in fact, a proponent of the abolition of animal exploitation. The vegan felt entitled to define my colleague’s identity for him. He felt entitled to claim that my colleague’s self-assessment was wrong — that he knew better than my colleague what my colleague’s own personal philosophy and goals were.
Moral Might Makes Right
At the conference, though I was disturbed by the the accusing activist’s behavior, I was far more concerned by the fact that he was able to carry out his acts of sabotage and shaming because others gave him the platform on which to do so — because so many activists apparently shared his belief that “moral might makes right.” In other words, they believed that it is acceptable to bully, shame, or otherwise violate another as long as the attack stems from a sense of moral righteousness. When I asked the activist, for example, why he felt entitled to violate a speaker’s space, and potentially traumatize him (and onlookers) by forcibly exposing him to someone’s corpse – behaviors that are frighteningly reminiscent of animal abusers – he replied that it was because “the speaker crossed an ethical line,” a statement to which the crowd cheered.
Psychotherapist Terrence Real, who specializes in abusive relationships, calls this kind of behavior “offending from the victim position.” All abusers, Real points out, feel a sense of righteousness and believe they are defending themselves (or, in the case of animal rights activists, that they are defending others) when they are carrying out abusive behaviors. A batterer, for example, almost always says he hit his partner because she did something to hurt him: “She knows I can’t stand it when she complains about the way I treat the kids, but she just couldn’t keep her mouth shut.” In the abuser’s mind, his partner crossed a line – a subjective line that he constructed and that he decided would mark the boundary of justifiable violence toward her.
In the moral might-makes-right paradigm, abuse is not abuse if the behavior stems from a valid moral grievance. And of course, the person who decides whether the grievance is valid is the one acting out the behavior. Just consider the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the many American school shootings, violent acts committed in the name of moral righteousness. While these examples are obviously far more violent than the vegan who publicly shames other vegans (or non-vegans), the underlying mentality is similar; the difference is simply a matter of degree.
Shaming Vegans is Unstrategic
Most people would agree that practicing integrity precludes shaming. Integrity is the integration of values (such as compassion and justice) and practices, and when we shame others, we violate such values. So, shaming others — vegans and non-vegans alike — is simply unethical.
But even if we care little for the ethical consequences of shaming, such behavior has practical consequences as well. Shaming among vegans is inherently unstrategic; it turns off non-vegans whose support we need if our movement is to succeed, it disempowers vegans, and it causes a tremendous waste of time and energy that could be directed instead toward effective vegan activism.
When we shame another, we increase the likelihood that she or he will withdraw or attack in self-defense. Shamed people may fail to act on their own or others’ behalf because they don’t feel they have the power to bring about change. Consider the young woman who witnesses the horrors of factory farming, wants to stop eating animals, but cannot withstand the peer pressure to conform to the carnistic norm when she is called “radical” by her peers. Sometimes shamed people attack rather than withdraw, and they shame others as a way of (temporarily) building themselves up. Consider the boy who falls and scrapes his knee on the playground, starts crying, and is immediately teased by his peers for being a “girl” (unfortunately, calling one a female is among the most offensive of slurs). He pulls himself up, puffs out his chest in an “I’ll show you!” stance, and attempts to bully and shame the others.
Psychologists have long known that shaming behaviors are inherently abusive, and that shaming others is the best way to bring about the very opposite of what we desire (unless we are cult leaders, guards of political prisoners, or otherwise seek to disempower and “break” the other).
Because shame is so personally and socially debilitating, it is the emotion the dominant culture instills in those who challenge its oppressive practices, effectively silencing dissident voices (how many times have those of us who are vegans bitten our tongues for fear of being told we are “overly sensitive,” “extreme,” “irrational,” or “morally misguided”?). Vegans are no strangers to shame; we must struggle against it every day as we swim against the tide of the dominant culture.
Vegan Shaming in the Dominant Culture: Vegans as Too Visible or Invisible
Often, vegan shaming in the dominant culture is expressed in two ways: vegans are either too visible, or invisible. When we are too visible, our attitudes and behaviors are scrutinized and cross-examined, leaving us little room to be the fallible humans that we are and causing us to adopt a sort of “toxic perfectionism.” When we are invisible, our efforts are denied, invalidated, or otherwise obscured. When vegans shame each other, they reinforce these shaming, extremely damaging attitudes.
Too-Visible Vegans: Toxic Perfectionism
Vegans are often held to impossible standards by the dominant culture: we are expected to be paragons of virtue (we’re hypocrites if we wear silk, extremists if we don’t), models of health (if we should happen to fall ill, our entire ideology comes into question), and experts on everything (we aren’t allowed to advocate veganism unless we have all the answers to the problem of carnism – which, of course, we cannot).
Also, many vegans are highly sensitized to the idea that they could cause harm, be immoral, or not be “good enough,” and they have internalized the dominant culture’s message that they need to be perfect in order to be worthy. They struggle to accept that their efforts are sufficient, and often do not succeed. So toxic perfectionism is, not surprisingly, a common cause of depression and burnout among vegans. When other vegans reinforce toxic perfectionism, then, the results can be devastating. A common example is insisting that if one ingests even a trace of an animal product, such as drinking “non-vegan” wine or eating soy cheese that contains casein, she or he is “not a real vegan,” and is by extension an animal exploiter (an attitude that no doubt also scares many new vegans and potential vegans off).
Toxic perfectionism also causes us to reduce the individual we are judging to nothing more than the “shameful” behaviors for which we are judging her or him. We fail to appreciate the other as a whole individual, as we erase any parts or her or his activism or life that contradict our judgment. For example, one controversial campaign of an organization that’s done tremendous good for animals can lead to it being criticized as a “sell-out” or a colluder with the oppressor. Even when the numbers objectively don’t add up — when the individual or organization has statistically done far more “good” than potential “harm” — toxic perfectionism causes us to mentally invalidate such data.
When vegans promote toxic perfectionism, they can create an excessive fear in other vegans (and themselves) of making mistakes. One slipup, one admittance of not being “pure” enough, can lead to being shamed. People who fear making mistakes are often people who end up doing nothing.
Invisible Vegans: Ingratitude
Ours is a thankless job. As vegan activists, we often work tirelessly, for no money or for far less than we would otherwise earn, and we do so for no reason other than that we care. The animals cannot thank us, and never will. Our efforts are frequently invisible, ridiculed, or even fought against by the dominant culture, sometimes even by those with whom we are in the closest relationships.
So when our fellow activists, the only people in the world who truly “get” what it means to be a vegan in an animal-eating world, do to us the very things the dominant culture does — calling us hypocrites, ridiculing us, and attacking us — we can become demoralized. Clearly, we feel assaulted by attacks. But perhaps an even more insidious feeling is that of being deeply unappreciated, a feeling that can lead to despair. A desire for appreciation is not selfish or egotistical. It is a basic human need which, when not met, saps us of our motivation and inspiration. If you doubt this just think of how you feel when your partner fails to acknowledge that you’ve been the one cleaning the house since you moved in together.
From Shame to Empowerment
It would be tragic if vegans agreed on everything. Our diversity is our beauty, and our strength. However, the the way we disagree matters. It matters very much. When we come together to discuss, rather than dispute, our differing ideas, we can enrich ourselves and our movement. In such a situation, we approach our disagreements with curiosity and compassion. We are open to learning from one another, and, even when we feel strongly about an issue, we don’t shame or violate the other. We empower, rather than disempower, ourselves and our movement. Empowerment is the opposite of shame.
Communicating with Empathy
We can reduce the likelihood that we will shame another if, before we communicate, we stop and ask ourselves, “Am I connected to my empathy right now? Am I truly considering how the world looks through the other’s eyes — how my words or actions will feel to her or him?” Or, “How would I feel and how would I react if someone said this to me?” These questions are particularly important if we feel angry or morally righteous, and/or if the other is a leader or organization, whereby it’s easier to view them as simply a symbol, rather than as a human being or an institution made up of human beings. Often we forget that underneath the role of CEO, author, speaker, etc. there is a person with feelings, wants, and needs, a person who will be impacted by our words. And we forget that our organizations are made up of activists who are people who care very much about the cause and the impact of the work they are doing.
And before we communicate we can also ask ourselves, “What is the goal of my communication? What impact on animals do I hope this communication will have?” Many of the vegans who shame other vegans do so from a place of genuine concern, believing that the other’s approach to reducing animal suffering actually harms animals. Some strategic approaches are no doubt better than others, and without solid data (which, when it comes to broad strategies for animal liberation, we simply do not have) it’s difficult if not impossible to know what approach is most effective. So we need to continue talking, discussing, analyzing, and learning. But one thing is for sure: shaming or bullying other vegans does not help the animals, as it erodes morale, disempowers activists, and weakens the entire movement. If you want to do what’s best for the animals, stop shaming.
Creating Shame-Free Zones
The most important way we can create a shame-free culture is to do everything in our power to take away the platform of those who shame. Shamers would not have the impact they do if they didn’t have an audience.
It is my hope that vegans will choose to become allies in creating a more compassionate and thus more powerful movement — to commit to creating a culture that is inoculated against shaming (of non-vegans and vegans alike). To do this, we can create shame-free zones everywhere in our power: in our conversations and organizations, at our conferences and gatherings, and perhaps most importantly, on our social media pages, since social media is often the most prevalent source of widespread shaming.
Rather than “call out” shamers, which would reinforce the reactive mentality of call-out culture, I suggest that we “call for” compassion — that we take an active role in ensuring that we do not ignore or pass along shaming comments. We can make a statement on our social media pages that we are committed to shame-free communicating, and then, non-judgmentally, if someone shares a hostile or demeaning remark, we can request that they share their concerns more compassionately and, if they do not, we can delete the post. We can also speak to our conference organizers, meetup hosts, or organizational leaders when we notice shaming behavior being tolerated or encouraged. Most important is that we are not a bystander to harm. As Edmund Burke so aptly stated, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”
The majority of vegans are highly conscious, compassionate individuals who are deeply committed to personal integrity and social transformation. It is likely that our movement has gotten to the point where shaming is a problem partly because we have uncritically accepted the “moral might makes right” myth, and largely because those of us who do not shame have not paid the phenomenon much attention. So we have ended up as inadvertent bystanders, enabling a problem simply by not addressing it.
Shaming damages our movement. As vegans, we do not have the luxury of oblivion; we cannot afford to simply gloss over hostile statements or ignore demeaning comments. We must do what we do best: act as critical consumers and encourage others to do the same. We must examine not only that which we put into or on our bodies, but that which we take into our hearts and minds, and promote compassion over cruelty.
*Of course, different ideological approaches can raise legitimate questions, from both sides. However, the focus of this article is on the way we approach such questions, not the questions themselves.