“Until a vegan or vegetarian enters the room, people don’t see themselves as meat-eaters. They are merely ‘eaters’ and it is we vegans who have made them aware of what they are doing. Often this is discomforting” – Carol J. Adams
If I had a dollar for every time I was asked this question, I’d have made about $4 but nonetheless, there’s no denying that vegans are portrayed and perceived pretty badly in Australian culture. Did you see the Australia Day vegan-bashing commercial of 2016 or the various viral YouTube videos depicting vegans as weird hippies?
Last year a few of my clients who were genuinely interested in veganism shared with me an ABC News article they had read about vegans being hated and bullied in Australia. Interestingly, even despite knowing of this social hatred they were “converted” after watching Forks over Knives (being recovering, health-conscious young people). They shared with me a few weeks into their transition that the only hardship they experienced was a lack of understanding and respect for their choices by their family and friends. I have listened to most of the Knowing Animals podcasts now and one of my favourites was called Vegan Killjoy at the Table with Richard Twine, whom has researched this phenomena. He suggests after interviewing many people transitioning into veganism that the negative social response of family and friends was the only reported difficultly in transitioning to veganism. In his research, Richard refers to these negative response (even insults) by family and friends as a “social norm protecting itself”. However, he found that overtime this gives way to understanding and family and friends often realise that veganism “is not just a phase” the individual is going through, that it is something much more than that.
The author in the article my client’s read was Richard Cornish, Australian author of My Year without Meat, who has written about discovering he had “problem” with meat and went vegetarian for one year;
“I learnt what it’s like to be a vegetarian. Most people hate vegetarians and they loathe vegans” – Richard Cornish
Richard discusses fellow Australia’s not respecting his right to not eat meat and even people trying to trick him into eating meat. When I saw his book for sale in a boutique bookshop in Queenscliff – I bought it despite it being a non-vegan book. I respect any Australian man for speaking up about the negative social responses associated with choosing plant-based or vegan foods. What got me was, if he felt bullied (as a middle aged man) then maybe myself (a young women) need not feel so socially outcast. Yet, at the register when paying for the book, the girl making the transaction proceeded to tell me about how she had been vegetarian but had never felt full enough so had started eating meat again – I was totally dumbfounded. There was so many thoughts racing through my head; why don’t you say that plant based foods occupy more space in the stomach than flesh or oil products and why don’t you brag about how great you’ve felt since going vegan and why don’t you say that there are somethings, like justice, that are more important than taste or fullness and is this girl a vegan hater or should I write up a meal plan for her, and so nothing came out. To fill the awkward silence I had created she rescued the social space by saying “they must eat lots of legumes and stuff but that’s just boring”. I still couldn’t say anything and walked out feeling totally humiliated, complaining to my partner of the injustice of being vegan in a meat eating culture. Oh, the irony of that situation.
Carol J. Adams is the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat and Living among Meat Eaters. She says she wrote Living among Meat Eaters after she realised she had been “doing it wrong” for fifteen years. She advises that it is not a vegans job to take on the non-vegans’ anxiety, anger, guilt, or fear about what they are doing. As long as we allow ourselves to be the targets, they can blame us for those feelings rather than directing their attention where it needs to be – within themselves. I am currently reading Living among Meat Eaters and wish I had known of it years ago when I became vegan and was incredibly passive and closeted in my approach to coping with the negative social response my food choices generated – it has helped me to find my voice.
“When we are meat eaters living among meat eaters, our world is reflected back to us, confirming our choices. When we become vegetarians, we stop being reflections; we may even be accused of breaking the mirror” – Carol J Adams, Living Among Meat Eaters
In addition to individual “carnistic defence mechanisms” Melanie Joy has also written about “secondary carnistic defences” which have helped me to make sense of what is going on at a cultural level, which victimises not only vegan individuals but the vegan movement as a whole. Carnism, like other oppressive systems, maintains itself by both strengthening itself and weakening the system that challenges it (that is, veganism). Carnistic defences serve both these purposes by validating carnism by making it seem normal, natural and necessary and they invalidate veganism by making it seen abnormal, unnatural or unnecessary. This is obviously so powerful, initially I regularly went to my doctor after first transitioning, only to be told my bloods were better than ever before. Secondary carnistic defences are the special defences that exist to invalidate veganism by invalidating vegans, the vegan ideology and the vegan movement as a whole. Secondary defences hide or distort the truth about veganism so that we remain unaware of important facts and we don’t trust the facts we are aware of. For example, most people are unaware of the health benefits of a vegan diet, believing incorrectly that a vegan diet is nutritionally insufficient or we know that plant-foods are good for us but don’t trust that we could survive on them alone. Carnistic culture often portrays vegans as biased (ignoring the fact that carnistic bias is deeply ingrained, like the McDonalds or Coles meat ads being played over and over and over…), so that we tend to distrust the information that vegans share. Vegans are also often portrayed as overly emotional and therefore irrational, moralistic or radical – all stereotypes that serve to discredit the vegan message. By discrediting the messenger, the message which directly challenges the validity of carnism is muted. But when we recognise carnism, we can acknowledge that eating animals is in fact the result of a widespread, oppressive system. Consider, for example, how believing that women did not deserve the right to vote had less to do with “personal choice” than it did with the widespread sexism that conditioned people to believe in the inferiority of women. While the experience of each victimised group of oppressive systems throughout history will always be unique, the systems are similar because the mentality that enables the oppression is the same. To bring about a more compassionate and just society, we must strive to include all forms of oppression in our individual and collective awareness, including carnism and the unspeakable injustice we inflict on nonhuman animals.
“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident” – Arthur Schopenhauer
References and Resources
Vegetarians, vegans “hated and bullied” in Australia, author says: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-08-02/vegetarians-vegans-hated-bullied-australia-richard-cornish/7680900
Australia Day Vegan Bashing commercial: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/operation-boomerang-antivegan-australia-day-lamb-ad-featuring-lee-lin-chin-gets-the-allclear-20160120-gm9yqm.html
Vegan Killjoys at the Table with Richard Twine: http://knowinganimals.libsyn.com/episode-19-vegan-killjoys-at-the-table-with-richard-twine
Vegan Killjoys at the Table—Contesting Happiness and Negotiating Relationships with Food Practices: www.mdpi.com/2075-4698/4/4/623/pdf
Dear Vegans: Can’t You Take a Joke? http://www.eatplantsdrinkbeer.com/readup/2016/5/28/dear-vegans-cant-you-take-a-joke
Information on secondary defences sourced from: https://www.carnism.org/carnism