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 Monin).
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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).