Why vegans get angry at non vegan business owners (and ex-vegans)

In the course of one hour today, two people told me an anecdote about vegans being angry at the owners of a vegan business for not being vegan themselves. Let’s examine if this makes sense.

Let’s first turn to another example of this: a high profile case that was in the media recently. The owners of the famous vegan Cafe Gratitude in Los Angeles turned out to be non vegans, and got quite some heat/hate for that from vegans (although we can assume that the media added their bit of sensationalism to it).

cafe gratitude
Cafe Gratitude

I believe it’s not very productive or sensible to blame owners of vegan businesses for not being vegan, for the simple fact that with a vegan business in most cases you can achieve a lot more good for the animals than by merely being vegan (see The fetish of being vegan). The Gratitude restaurants serve thousands of vegan meals a day. The impact of your average vegan critic’s consumption pales in comparison.

A case could be made regarding sincerity. Some vegans would believe that it’s hypocritical to have a vegan business (and to make money from the vegan cause) while not being vegan yourself. I can understand the sentiment, but I don’t share it. What matters to me is the impact.

But what I mainly wanted to talk about is this: expectations and betrayal, because that’s what I think this is about.

Imagine you are hearing these two pieces of information:

1. Two meat eaters are opening a vegan restaurant in your town.
2. A vegan restaurant opens in your town. Later, you find out the owners are meat eaters

Can you see a difference in your reaction to these two descriptions? In case it’s not clear, let me explain. In the first, it was clear right away that we’re talking about non-vegans. In the second, because you are reading about a vegan restaurant, the expectation is created that it is owned by vegans. When it turns out not to be, you might be (or certainly, many vegans would be) disappointed. In the first case, you might actually say: oh my god, that’s so cool of these meat eaters that they are opening a vegan restaurant.

I see the same dynamic at play all the time. We (or at least most of us) appreciate non-vegans or non-vegan companies doing something vegan. Like Ben & Jerry’s offering vegan flavors of ice cream. But it seems that, when the person or business is very close to being vegan or is vegan, then doing something unvegan (which the non-vegan business or person was doing all the time) is very uncool.

What seems to be happening is that whatever non vegan things are tolerated for non vegans, but as soon as we imagine that people are on our side, they are no longer tolerated. This in a way seems entirely logical (non vegans can do vegan things but vegans can not do non vegan things) but does it make sense, and is it a productive attitude?

Another case where this attitude comes to the fore is in the case of ex vegans. Before these people were vegan, we applauded their efforts in going vegan (well, some of us don’t like “steps”, but most would encourage them). When this person became vegan, we accept them as one of “ours”. But then when he or she gives up on veganism… all hell breaks lose. Few people can incite the vegan movement’s ire like an ex-vegan, especially when they’re celebrities.

I think for the vegans getting angry about these kinds of things, a lot has to do with feeling betrayed and being disillusioned in their expectations. Here are some people of whom we thought they had figured it out, but it turns out they don’t.

I think this quote by James Pinkerton sums it up very well (it was requoted in this article, where I found it):

“An infidel is someone who never believed what you believe; an infidel is a stranger, and so there’s not much point in investing emotions in him. But a heretic is someone you know well, someone who once believed what you believe, but now has a different faith — that’s much more threatening. You fight wars against infidels, and in those wars you seek to defeat, even destroy. But with heretics, even tougher measures are needed, because the threat is so much more insidious, threatening to eat away the true faith. So you launch inquisitions against heretics, to eliminate even the thought of heresy.”

It is human nature, but it’s not a very productive attitude, and we would do well to be on the lookout for and aware of irrational feelings of betrayal, causing us to be angry and alienate people from our movement.

22 thoughts on “Why vegans get angry at non vegan business owners (and ex-vegans)

  1. Thanks for this, Tobias. I think the best thing you could do with your advocacy is convince more people to be concerned with helping as many animals as possible, as opposed to worrying about “vegan.”

  2. In areas controlled by the “Islamic State” many non-Muslims are forced to pay fines, but ex-Muslims are killed as apostates. Apostasy is an existential threat because if it spreads, a movement loses power.

  3. In the case of Cafe Gratitude, the owners used to be vegan, but at some point they admitted on their blog that they were raising animals for food on their property, so there’s a sense of betrayal, I imagine.

    1. yeah, i didn’t want to complicate matters in this post by distinguishing between eating non vegan food and raising animals yourself, also because in the eyes of many angry vegans there wouldn’t be any, i suppose 🙂

  4. Capitalism is by definition amoral. The fact that an animal eater would find it profitable to open a vegan restaurant is an indication of the strength of the movement. That these owners don’t have the moral depth to go vegan is not surprising. Its all about the $$$$. Glad people like me have forced their hand.

    A celebrity going non-vegan, is again, just an example of the shallowness of pop culture. The movement happens at home, among friends and relatives and the individuals who have the courage to walk the walk despite the social pressures around them.

    1. hmm, i disagree with most of these assumptions. first of all we can’t know the intentions of the business owners. it is definitely not necessarily always “all about the $$$$”
      And i don’t believe the movement (only) happens at home. Myabe it does not happen there at all.

      1. OK – not sure what other intentions you feel are more likely. Clearly they are running a business that runs counter to their own beliefs (killing animals is OK). I didn’t say the movement happens “only” at home but, come on, Tobias – you are just being contrary. Going vegan is an individual personal choice – where else do movements occur except from the ground up? Do you want veganism to be imposed from above?

        1. i’m never contrary for the sake of being contrary 🙂
          Depends on what you mean with happening at home and individual choices. I can perfectly imagine that the whole thing would change thanks to just or mainly some tech invention like labmeat. so when people start eating that, it would still be there own “individual personal choice”, but it would definitely be because of some major breakthrough that happend out of their home.
          As for running a business that runs counter to their own beliefs: how do you know? Let me just fantasize: they may have the idea that some meat, where the animals are reared in a very specific way, is okay, but they can’t find enough of that to offer it in their restaurants and find it easier to serve just vegan food.
          Any in any case, suppose their business DID run counter to their own beliefs, would you rather they DID offer meat in their restaurants, so that there was consistency?

          1. By “movement” I meant a growing consciousness of and revulsion at the unjust exploitation of animals. Movements start from the ground up. Bernie Sanders is a clear example. He is tapping into an existing social phenomenon.

            Lab meat may make going vegan easier for some, but there would have to be a reason to choose lab meat over the real thing. Why bother if you feel eating animals is OK? I’m sure one could come up with some minor counter examples.

            I’m not bothered by a non-vegan running a vegan business. Again, the fact that capitalism is recognizing the societal pressures of vegans is a good sign.

            I don’t think your fantasy is very convincing. They could always serve this happy meat as a special menu item. The fact that they are exclusively vegan (I assume they are) means they are catering to the sensitivity of their customer base and they are happy to exploit that.

            On the other hand, I have a much tougher time dealing with vegans who run non-vegan businesses (John Mackey of Whole Foods Market)

  5. Interesting analysis. Just by way of amendment, in keeping with what PacNW, the author you quoted mislabeled apostates with “heretics”. A heretic is someone who departs from the orthodox belief, generally someone who is still in the same general belief space, but departs on a particular point. Like vegans who think it is fine to eat honey or crustaceans. (cue: “What do you mean vegans??! If they eat those then….” I assume people still bicker about such matters.)

    The cross-perspective from where I spend a lot of my energy might be interesting: With the emergence of e-cigarettes, some people who have been adamant antagonists of people who use cigarettes and smokeless tobacco (the latter of which is better studied and probably lower risk than e-cigarettes) have leapt on the bandwagon of endorse e-cigarettes as a “cure” for smoking. Yet even as they complain about how there are junk science attacks on e-cigarettes (if you have not made a study of the topic, chances are most of what you “know” is junk science) and unfair treatment of e-cigarette users, they continue to endorse exactly that for the other tobacco products. Now as someone who has long worked in support of tobacco harm reduction — encouraging the substitution of lower risk products, but also ending the abuses heaped upon people who make either choice — I face a interesting question: Am I more bothered by the legions of people who are anti-tobacco extremists and hate all the products and everyone who uses them or defends their use? Or by the relatively few who support one corner of the harm reduction agenda, but hypocritically complain about their pet product being subject to such abuse while remaining part of the (same) problem elsewhere?

    My gut and a bit of analysis tell me that there is a good reason to be more bothered by the latter. On the analytic side, people taking the hypocritical position become perfect poster children for the opposition’s cause, either voluntarily or by cooptation: “Look, even these people who write op-eds supporting e-cigarettes agree that….”, as with “Look, even people who make a living selling vegan products and know everything there is to know about it agree that it is a bad choice.” I suspect that most people are not reacting based on such analysis, but there is definitely something to it. In my world, there is also their implicit endorsement of exactly the bad thinking that is a threat to the cause’s good thinking. I am not sure there is a perfect analogy there in the vegan case, but there might be.

    The more generic version of this is half-gut and half-analytic, which is that “moderates” in any cause where one side must be almost entirely right (we may disagree on which side, but it is pretty clear that it is one or the other) are often dishonest opportunists. Consider most any political pundit in the USA who insists on staking out moderate positions on the Affordable Care Act (“it has been moderately successful” — no, it has been overwhelmingly successful, more so than its backers expected; you might oppose its goals but there is no room to be moderate) or on government finance policy (“moderate rational Republican leaders” — no, even the supposed moderates are trafficking in what Bush famously called voodoo economics). In such cases, the “moderates” are endorsing some utterly junk claims by the other side to maintain their position as nice respectable moderates. If a vegan believes there is simply no room for genuine moderation, then this might trigger what is a generically reasonable reaction.

    I happen to not think that is valid in this case, but I can see why it happens. Like those who might discuss nuances of public finance, and argue about details, but all agree that Paul Ryan’s and John Kasich’s views are every bit as much radical voodoo as their non-“moderate” brethren, the vegan community could generally embrace anyone who opposes factory farming and other excesses and wants to do something about it (or at least avoid supporting it). With that position, it would be reasonable to disdain the “moderates” you might find in university ag departments who try to promote “larger cages” type faux-moderate policies. However, since banner-waving vegans draw the line around the miniscule minority who almost completely agree with their views and approach, they end up treating those at the 98th percentile of being on their side as the faux-moderates who deserve even greater contempt than honest enemies.

    (Much of which was exactly your point, here and elsewhere, of course.)

  6. how do you know how many vegan meals Cafe Gratitude serves? And how do you know that consumers of their Cafe Gratitude meal reduced their consumption of animals and animal secretions in any way?

    1. in the linked article it says they serve 28.000 meals a week.
      i think it’s a pretty safe asumtpion that people who get to try good vegan food will be more likely to eat more of it.

      1. “Thirty seven percent of the population always or sometimes eats vegetarian meals when eating out. About three percent of the population is vegetarian (including vegans) all the time, and about five percent always eat vegetarian or vegan meals when eating out.” from 5) WHY DO PEOPLE EAT VEGETARIAN AND VEGAN MEALS WHEN EATING OUT? http://www.vrg.org/vrgnews/2016june.php#s5

  7. I think part of it is the concern that “the lifestyle” is too hard to keep up permanently. They were vegans who owned a restaurant in LA. So, they had access to yummy food and lots of community support. If they couldn’t manage it that’s got to feel hopeless for a 20 year old in Cedar Rapids or wherever they don’t even have one vegan restaurant.

    You’ve got to stand for your brand. However I feel about this situation, it was a bad marketing move.

    I don’t have a lot of restaurant choices, I’m thrilled when there are vegan choices at omni places. But, if Cafe Gratitude was near me I would probably stop going.

  8. Hi Tobias!

    I appreciate your logical approach and your commitment to a balanced assessment of what will help the most animals (or cause the least harm). What I think you have missed in your analysis is the importance of relationship. The owners of Café Gratitude were not only business owners who happened to have a vegan business but were not vegan themselves. They were icons in a community, leaders who previously had been aligned with the cause and even taught ethical business practices. The restaurants were supposedly run on spiritual principles; all the names of the dishes are spiritual affirmations. Over the years patrons developed relationships with the restaurants. The sense of betrayal that you mention is due to the fact that these relationships were meaningful and they were built on trust.

    I am one of the people who had big emotions come up in response to the revelation that the owners of Café Gratitude had begun to raise animals for human consumption. For me, part of what provoked strong emotions was the misinformation that was provided in response to consumer queries to the manager of our local Santa Cruz Café Gratitude. The owners’ choice to begin slaughtering and eating their animals was compounded by the lack of transparency when the news came out. For me and many others in my network, the justification for slaughtering and eating meat provided by the owners on their blog was also emotionally charged. It was a combination of pseudoscience and pseudoreligion that essentially claimed that they were making the choice as an even higher act of compassion and environmental protection than a choice of veganism.

    Again, I go back to the importance of relationship. I have never met the Engelharts, but I have developed a relationship with them through their restaurant. Their claim that it is somehow divinely ordered that animals should give up their lives and that humans are supposed to eat them as a way to help the earth struck me as truly bizarre. That frightens me, given that these are people who used to be in my tribe.I have not made a decision to boycott, but I do feel differently about the restaurant than I did previously.

    The day has not yet arrived when I can survive in the world if I only do business with vegans. I cannot completely explain why my former favorite restaurant should be held to a different standard that other businesses with which I trade. I think you are right about betrayed expectations, and I think the power of betrayal is greatest when we experience it in relationship.

    1. hi beth,
      first of all, i understand your feeling and it’s quite possible i’d feel exactly the same myself in your situation. of the examples i mentioned, the cafe gratitude one is probably the one where i really can understand the sense of betrayal. but that doesn’t mean i would go all loud about it and protest and send hate mail etc (though i understand you were not among the ones who did that 🙂 )

      Some questions though:

      – if they explain their way of life/eating spiritually/religiously/pseudoscientifically (my forward slashes don’t mean that i see these as synonymous), wouldn’t that go both ways? i mean, it seems there are many people who seem to be able to find a spiritual explanation for eating and/or killing animals. i’m not sure if we can say that their religious/spiritual explanation is fine if it leads them to the same conclusions we have made (vegan) and that it’s not if it doesn…?

      – to what extent did the restaurant communicate about things like live and let live and that we shouldn’t kill animals/souls, whatever? or was it just an assumption by the public?

      – do you have the blogpost where they announced they were no longer veg?

      – did the communication in the restaurant change when after they had announced it?

      thanks 🙂

  9. I think the irritation with ex-vegans though is their sometimes very loud and public denouncement of veganism itself. Having been vegan for eight years myself I can’t imagine at any time deciding not to be vegan anymore, but if that were to happen I think I’d feel bad about having failed at something that was so important to me. I’d like to think that I would still try to be as vegan as possible, and would still encourage others to do the same. And I really don’t think I’d dismiss what veganism stands for — the reduction/elimination of suffering — unless I was truly convinced that another way (although not one that involves consuming other animals) would achieve the same goal. I would most definitely not go into a trance-like state salivating at the mere sight of meat and be convinced that my health (which has actually never been better) has instantly improved within minutes of animal consumption.

    Or would I? Maybe I couldn’t handle feeling that I had failed, couldn’t handle the disconnect between my values and behaviour, and in a classic turnaround blame veganism for failing me. I would like to think that I could handle no longer being vegan without loudly proclaiming that veganism doesn’t work (or publishing a by now familiar template-like this-is-why-I’m-no-longer-vegan post on my blog), but who knows.

    No, it’s the complete turnaround that’s offensive, and which evokes those feelings of betrayal. Not sure I’d label that feeling as irrational though. Because in a sense it IS a betrayal. Of principles, and the commitment to reduce suffering and oppression.

    1. it’s obviously very irritating and damaging when they are loud about it, but i’m not sure how many people we’re talking about here. given the number of exvegs (4 times or so the number of vegs) i think all in all it’s not too bad…

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