Roar writer Amiya Johar on the social and psychological causes for anti-vegan, anti-vegetarian vilification, bias, and discrimination.
Food is identity; it conceives the individual, cultural and religious self. Aside from its role as a capitalistic conduit for profit generation, it moulds culture. Gastronomic choices and food-centric rituals both bridge and distinguish our identities, relationships and lives. From pescatarianism to non-vegetarianism, dietary preferences are abundant. Yet, no gastronomic sub-group has faced the same vilification and bias as vegan culture.
As an ideology, veganism is scientifically supported. The repercussions of meat consumption on the environment and our health are grave. Livestock farming for meat and dairy accounts for nearly 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions- a deceptively hefty figure. Livestock rearing is responsible for rampant deforestation as acres of tropical jungles are cleared to create pastures and collect animal feed. The climatic impact of plant-based food can be nearly 50 times smaller than that of animal products.
Due to this, meat-eating is an uncontested catalyst of global warming. Furthermore, the health detriments of red meat consumption coupled with the antibiotic-infested poultry sold commercially render veganism an attractive choice. Another tenet of veganism (arguably the most controversial) is the denouncement of animal oppression and slaughter. This ideology is not unfounded as the scale of commercial animal exploitation is rather dismaying. Only 4% of animal life on earth is wild. The rest consists of humans and livestock.
Why does anti-vegan bias exist in spite of these compelling figures?
In one study, vegans and vegetarians were found to face similar stigmatisation from a sample group of omnivores as other traditionally marginalised groups. I would like to clarify, however, that while I do believe in the existence of anti-vegan bias, the implications of it are incomparable to the prejudice experienced by such minorities. Unlike for vegans, the discrimination they are subjected to can be grievously life-altering.
Anyhow, veganism has consistently been slandered. Vegan men face the most bias out of the vegan and vegetarian subgroup. Online slang has coined the pejorative term “soy-boy”, used to describe men lacking conventionally masculine characteristics. This tremendously misogynistic phrase is employed against leftist men, but it also illustrates the repeated emasculating associations with vegan culture. More alarmingly, vegan food markets in London have seen pro-meat, anti-vegan protesters skin and devour raw squirrels and pig heads in protest of the vegan lifestyle. Vegan activists in Toronto have witnessed the butchering of deer legs by defiant anti-vegan restauranteurs. Why is veganism so provocative?
The defamation of vegan culture is rooted in the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. Generally, omnivores and carnivores are aware of the environmental impacts of meat consumption and experience remorse in response to animal slaughter. When their human sentiments towards animals collide with their dietary choices and mass carnivory, they experience this moral dissonance. The clash of these incompatible views enkindles feelings of discomfort and distress. However, we naturally tend to circumvent implementing personal change by maneuvering our mental narrative to reduce the appeal of the rejected alternative. This can be done by actively denying or ignoring the actuality of meat and diary’s origin from animals. The presence of vegans and vegetarians disrupts this psychological evasion, reigniting feelings of agitation that are subsequently associated with the group itself.
The mysticism surrounding veganism has rapidly eroded as science continues to corroborate its benefits. The capitalist food industry mass-produces and imposes inexpensive antibiotic-ridden meats upon consumers, so adopting veganism still requires greater financial security. Nonetheless, the diet has been largely stripped of its infamous bourgeois associations and has grown more accessible. Social media and popular culture have been fundamental in endorsing veganism, especially by revealing how appetizing plant-based food can be. The media, however, cannot be accredited with the same. Congruous with their treatment of other minorities, the media disparages veganism by perpetuating the stereotype of “annoying vegans”. A study of UK newspapers found that 74.3% of articles published about veganism perpetuated negative discourse, even characterizing vegans as hostile and oversensitive. Too often, incendiary anti-vegan claims headline articles rife with convenient omissions, misinformation and bias.
In my view, the lack of awareness and often wilful ignorance shrouding the food on our plates is to blame. When we purchase pristine, pre-sliced packages of pink meat from grocery store aisles, we naturally detach ourselves from its origin. The dissociation of product from source and the commercialisation of animal products has normalised widespread apathy stemming from unawareness.
This conditioning is ubiquitous; we are taught songs about jovial farm animals during our childhoods, trained to selectively love our pets but contribute to the self-interested butchering of other sentient fauna. Cow, pig and sheep carcasses intended for ingestion are referred to as “beef”, “pork” and “mutton”- a convenient linguistic detachment that dispels the discomfort and moral conflict arising from our knowledge of their origin. Industrialised mass animal slaughter is the true evil, rather than the mere act of meat-eating. The war is against the consequences of the institutionalisation of mass animal oppression by exploitative corporate giants. The monstrous scale of livestock rearing is the crux of the issue.
That is why, as an omnivore-turned-vegetarian and an aspiring vegan, I urge you to shed your preconceived notions of vegan culture. Do not feel pressured to be a perfect vegan or vegetarian if it is outside your personal or financial capacity. Simply reducing your meat and diary consumption and adopting a predominantly plant-based diet can be remarkably impactful. Even if you do not partake in it, please attempt to empathise with the vegan choice. However, it is imperative that every individual, regardless of their dietary preferences and personal values, is aware of their food’s origin. If you are an omnivore, strive to source your meat from ethical local sellers. While it is implausible to expect the world’s population to boycott meat and diary, plant-based consumption is the future. The planet will be better for it.