Veganism: Why food choice can spark rage

Vegetarianism and veganism are growing in popularity. In this Spotlight, we ask why these dietary choices can ignite rage in some meat eaters. The answer, it seems, is complex.

Currently, vegetarianism and veganism only account for 5% and 3% of the United States population, respectively.

However, as the public profiles of these diets increase, negative reactions are becoming more visible.

The question we are asking today is, "why should one person's dietary choice make anyone else angry?"

This question is complicated, and because it involves human emotions, the answer is likely to be multifaceted and vary wildly from case to case.

On the surface, anti-vegan outbursts are counterintuitive — by deciding to harm as few living creatures as possible, vegans become a focal point of anger.

Although I am a meat eater, I have often wondered why a more gentle approach to food appears to ruffle so many feathers.

The fault of zealots?

As with any subsection of humanity, some vegans and vegetarians are outspoken and, sometimes, militant. As the old joke goes: "How do you know if someone is a vegan? They'll tell you."

Of course, there are people like this in every section of society. The loudest voices grab a disproportionately large slice of public attention, while the vast majority of vegans simply eat their dinner in silence, not negatively affecting anyone at all.

Although the underbelly of vocal vegans certainly plays a part in some people's negativity toward vegans at large, this is not the whole story.

Tobias Leenaert, the author of "How to create a vegan world: A pragmatic approach," writes:

"Sure, at times we can be a little annoying. [...] But, this doesn't really explain the hostility and ridicule that we may encounter at times."

In this feature, we will try to unwrap some of the reasons why people may respond to vegans and vegetarians so negatively. Of course, there are no hard and fast answers, but we will cover some leading theories.

The role of the media

For better or worse, the media can shape society's opinions at large. Understanding whether the media is fueling a behavior or whether a behavior is fueling the media is another issue, but knowing how the media responds to vegans is informative.

A 2011 study looked at how the print media in the United Kingdom reported on veganism. Of the 397 articles that mentioned veganism, the researchers deemed 20.2% to be neutral and 5.5% to be positive, while they considered the remaining 74.3% to be negative.

The media's take on veganism is often unfavorable.

The negativity in these articles came in a variety of different forms. Most commonly, the stories mocked veganism as being "self-evidently ridiculous" or characterized it as asceticism — a lifestyle practice that involves abstaining from pleasure to pursue spiritual goals.

The authors of the paper believe that this unbalanced representation of veganism demonstrates a "cultural reproduction of speciesism."

They believe that this unfair attack helps humans justify a subliminal, almost inherent, uncaring attitude toward animals whose destiny it is to become our food.

A 2015 study looked at attitudes toward vegans and vegetarians compared with those toward other groups of people who experience prejudice, such as gay people, immigrants, atheists, and black people. According to the authors:

"Only drug addicts were evaluated more negatively than vegetarians and vegans."

They found that across the board, people viewed vegetarians and vegans more negatively, especially those "motivated by animal rights or environmental concerns." The researchers also showed that individuals with more right-wing leanings had the least favorable opinion of vegans and vegetarians.

A subliminal attack

Part of the issue, some argue, is that nonvegans feel that their identity is under attack. When a vegan mentions their dietary choice, a meat eater might infer, perhaps subliminally, that the vegan must consider them a supporter of animal cruelty.

People give up meat for a wide range of reasons, with health and environmental concerns being two significant motivations. However, the primary reason is animal cruelty.

People perceive the act of being a vegan as a moral stance, and often, of course, it is. Vegans and vegetarians are generally against harming animals to provide food. As a meat eater, it is easy to consider that a vegan person — without saying a word — defines you as morally wrong.

In short, we are aware that this group of people has chosen to show more care toward animals and that, by extension, we have chosen to continue not caring for animals. Acknowledging this can feel unpleasant.

Challenging norms

Some researchers believe that malice toward people who follow a plant-based diet might hinge on "symbolic threats" to the status quo.

Intergroup threat theory, also called integrated threat theory, attempts to explain how a perceived threat — as opposed to a real threat — can lead to prejudice between social groups.

Proponents of this theory think that meat eaters who respond negatively to vegans believe that a vegan's dietary choices pose a symbolic threat to their beliefs, attitudes, or morals. The authors of the 2015 study that we mentioned above write:

"[V]egetarians' and vegans' voluntary abstention from meat eating, which conflicts with the omnivore majority's values, represents a symbolic threat in ways that contribute to negative attitudes toward these targets."

Also, vegetarians and vegans are resisting cultural norms, which people might subliminally consider to be an existential threat. People may see vegetarians and vegans as undermining the current way of life, even if this current way of life exploits animals.

For instance, Medical News Today spoke with a vegan who grew up in a relatively small community, and they said that "food figures heavily in culture and tradition, so rejecting food comes across as insulting or rebellious."

A study from 2018 looked at the attitudes toward vegans and vegetarians in New Zealand. The authors found that "attitudes toward vegans were significantly less positive than attitudes toward vegetarians, and male participants expressed significantly less positive attitudes toward both outgroups than female participants."

The authors write that "vegans could be viewed as threatening social stability by challenging social norms regarding dietary practices and also challenging normative moral beliefs about the status of nonhuman animals."

The authors believe that society prizes meat for more than its nutritional value, arguing that it has "symbolic associations with human dominance over nature."

When they dug into the psychological profiles of those who were most prone to have negative feelings toward veganism, the researchers found that these individuals were more likely to view the world as a dangerous place. As a result, they theorize that vegans represent "a perceived symbolic threat to social and cultural norms."

Right-wing authoritarians

The New Zealand study above also found that individuals with more right-wing political leanings had the highest tendency to view vegans unfavorably. This finding crops up in other similar studies.

People who are more left-leaning are more likely to look favorably or neutrally on vegans. At the same time, people who follow a plant-based diet are more likely to be left-leaning.

Vegans and vegetarians are also more likely to be middle-class, atheist or agnostic, white, educated, and female.

A 2018 Gallup poll found that self-proclaimed liberals were more than five times as likely to be vegetarian as those who identified as conservative. Similarly, liberals were more than twice as likely as conservatives to be vegan.

This finding implies that, at least in part, more right-wing people may see veganism as a sign that someone is ideologically different beyond their dietary choices, which could certainly play a role in the generation of negative feelings.

A paper in the journal Personality and Individual Differences used two questionnaires to examine the relationship between right-wing adherents, meat consumption, and the treatment of animals.

They concluded that "right-wing ideology predicts acceptance of animal exploitation and meat consumption."

Negativity toward vegetarians and vegans might extend far beyond dietary choice. Someone's meal choice paints a picture of their likely political outlook and ideology. As the authors of one paper conclude:

"Eating animals is not only a gustatory behavior, as widely believed, but also an ideological one."

Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance describes our ability to hold two conflicting ideas, attitudes, or behaviors in our mind at once. When we encounter information that shines a light on these mismatches, it can cause mental stress and discomfort.

In this case, our love of eating meat nestles deep inside our brain right next to our love of animals and a dislike of killing them.

Could cognitive dissonance help explain why veganism attracts aggression?

Some experts refer to this conflict as the "meat paradox" — people class certain animals as pets, some as wild animals, and others as farmed animals.

Our whole society has become trapped in a paradox. On the one hand, we kill billions of animals each year, but, on the other, if someone mistreats a dog, they can face jail time.

To rid ourselves of this mental suffering, we use cognitive tricks that help ease the tension. One way to relieve cognitive dissonance is to change our behavior and stop eating meat. If we cannot do that, we must change how we view animals.

For instance, omnivores downplay the range of thoughts and emotions that certain animals can experience. We may view a cat or dog as intelligent, but see a pig or sheep as little more than a robotic lump of sandwich filling. In reality, some farmyard animals are as sharp as a tack, while some dogs can be as dense as mutton.

As omnivores, when we encounter someone who follows a plant-based diet, we might, subconsciously, sense the pinpricks of cognitive dissonance. There may be an urge to defend the categories that we have built to protect ourselves from the ugly truth.

This subconscious need to defend our cognitive sandcastles can lead to flimsy arguments, such as "plants have feelings too."

We try to avoid the breakdown using a range of techniques, one of which is an attempt to minimize our involvement.

For instance, one vegan whom MNT recently spoke with explains, "when it comes up that I'm vegan, people will start telling me how often they eat meat, like a preemptive defense."

This example probably sounds familiar to many of us. We feel judged, even though no one is outwardly judging us, and we feel that there is a requirement to justify ourselves. For some of us, deep down, we know that what we are doing is not ideal, and we feel a need to minimize our role — both to ourselves and others.

Meeting a vegan or vegetarian pokes holes in many of our subconscious attempts to keep the negative feelings of cognitive dissonance under wraps. Vegans burst the bubble and remind us that we kill animals to put food on our table. They also show us that we can be responsible and make our own choices, and they remind us that the victim is worthy of saving.

They also force us to question deeply held beliefs that animals do not feel pain or fear. And, by being healthy and very much alive, vegans demonstrate that animal products are not an essential component of the human diet.

As people are not necessarily aware of this breakdown in their usually fail-safe cognitive mechanisms, vegans can invoke a fearful rage in otherwise friendly, well-measured individuals.

Of course, each person who feels negatively toward veganism is likely to have a unique set of drivers behind their emotions. Understanding why veganism attracts these emotions is a complex issue but one worthy of study.

As an increasing number of people decide to follow a more plant-based diet, getting to the bottom of the discontent is more important than ever.

When you consider that the World Health Organization (WHO) class processed meat as a group 1 carcinogen, perhaps it is high time that we all take a stroll down vegan lane.