Why do people hate vegans? A behavioural scientist and a food author explain
Food and Drink find out that The first week of January should have been one of celebration for the small but mighty army of British vegans. After all, Greggs and McDonald’s have each kicked off 2019 with unexpected meat-free additions to their menus.
The introduction of a vegan sausage roll at Greggs immediately became a national talking point, garnering praise from those unable or unwilling to tuck into the buttery, pork-based version.
But the occasion was marred by the vociferous response from hardened meat lovers who denounced the baker over its new plant-based fare.
Vegan sausage roll blasted
“Nobody was waiting for a vegan bloody sausage, you PC-ravaged clowns,” Good Morning Britain presenter and professional provocateur Piers Morgan fumed.
A new vegetarian Happy Meal unveiled by McDonald’s just a day later also left the nation’s more strident carnivores spitting feathers. “It’s supposed to be a HAPPY Meal”, Morgan, their unofficial spokesperson, huffed. A Channel 4 programme, Dispatches: The Truth About Vegans, showcased the rantings of some of those at the more extreme end of the spectrum leaving the nation’s mostly moderate vegans feeling embarrassed. And to top it off, William Sitwell, who last year stepped down as the editor of Waitrose Food magazine after he joked about “killing vegans”, was announced as a new restaurant critic for The Telegraph newspaper.
Abuse and jibes After a week like this even the most affable vegan could be forgiven for having a chip on their shoulder – though not one fried in animal fat, of course. Their lifestyle choices rarely impinge on anyone else’s wellbeing but vegans routinely find themselves as targets for jibes, sneers and even abuse. That’s just among their immediate family. So why does veganism provoke such strong reactions? To understand the tensions that surround veganism, we need to see the consumption of food not as purely fulfilling a physiological need but in the context of cultural and social norms, explains Dr Ben Voyer, a behavioural scientist who lectures at the London School of Economics. ‘Us’ and ‘them’ mentality A person’s social identity is derived from the groups she belongs to – the football team she supports, the political party she votes for and, in many cases, the foods they do or do not eat, says Dr Voyer. A positive social identity plays a large part in who we are and gives us a sense of belonging to a group of people. “Deriving a positive identity from the groups you belong to is critical for your wellbeing,” Dr Voyer says. “What we know about social identity is that you define yourself against another group.” So, if you’re a vegan you’ll reinforce your identity as a member of a the vegan community (the “in-group”) both by following this diet and lifestyle and by defining yourself as “different” from those who do not (members of the “out-group”).
Sense of belonging What’s more, says Dr Voyer, is that whichever camp you fall into, vegan or meat-eater, once this has been integrated into your social identity, discriminating against the out-group helps reaffirm your sense of belonging in the in-group and therefore your sense of identity. This could certainly go some way to explaining why some UK carnivores appear to revel in ribbing their non-meat eating counterparts. A person’s rationale for adopting a vegan lifestyle also tends to affect how accepting others are of their decision. In fact, when their veganism is a result of allergies or other health reasons, they often escape criticism entirely, unlike those who cite animal welfare concerns. This is because depending on the motivation behind your veganism you may either challenge or pose no threat to social norms, says Dr Voyer.
Implied judgement If your motivation for being a vegan is animal welfare, you may be seen to be implicitly or explicitly criticising how members of society who adhere to cultural norms (which in the UK predominantly comprises meat eaters) treat animals. Innocently wandering into Greggs and ordering a vegan sausage roll could leave the customer in the queue behind you about to gobble up a steak bake feeling personally judged and criticised without a word being exchanged between you. Antagonism “From a social identity point of view as soon as you start challenging the norm it elicits a strong reaction from people who disagree with you…that’s when you cultivate that antagonism,” Dr Voyer says. ”You are making an individual preference that has implications for the social norms [regarding] how we should treat animals, how we should eat, food in schools…you are challenging the norm and implying perhaps that you have made a shift that other people should consider.” When a vegan’s preferences are guided by what Dr Voyer calls “idiosyncratic” preferences such as lactose intolerance, there is no judgement – real or imagined – to be perceived.
Disturbing changes Something odd about the animosity directed toward Greggs and McDonald’s this week is that neither removed any of their meat-based options from the menu to make way for the new veggie alternatives. Again, though, the issue goes deeper than just what’s written on the menu. “The time period we’re living in is characterised by the fact that we are looking for stable aspects in our environment. For some, the idea that a minority – which is what vegan people are – could significantly shift the norm is disturbing,” Dr Voyer says. Feeling threatened “Deep down it’s a matter of ‘Why are you making me feel that your norm…should be imposed on me?’ It’s really about feeling threatened. “People have a tendency to feel questioned even when they are not being questioned,” he adds. Food author and presenter Stefan Gates agrees that meat eaters feel that their lifestyle is under threat and likens tensions in the UK surrounding veganism to the issue of gun control in the US. “It’s a case of, ‘You’ll take this ham sandwich out of my cold, dead hand’”, says Gates, who will appear on a new “ethical reality” series, Travel with a Goat, later this month. “Food isn’t just fuel, it’s a whole reflection of life and how you view your position in it.”
Credit to Food and Drink