This post was co-authored by Jared Piazza, Ph.D.
Society faces the reality that many of our human activities and modes of consumption threaten to derail environmental sustainability. It’s of paramount importance to adopt new ways of living to ensure that the needs of current and future generations are met. In response to the ecological crisis, small minorities of people are changing their behaviour in dramatic ways—avoiding air travel, eschewing the consumption of animal products, or cycling to work. While these individuals are inspiring to some, they are met with resentment and criticism from others. Why does this happen? And what can we learn from studying these reactions?
Resenting Moralised Minorities
Vegans and sustainable commuters are examples of “moralised minority practice identities” (or “moral-identity minorities” for short): small segments of the population who engage in or abstain from practices for ethical reasons.
In western societies, these moral-identity minorities are sometimes met with resentment. They often represent a challenge or threat to the majority view. Indeed, research suggests vegetarians and vegans are disliked more by people who endorse traditional values, including submission, aggression, and conventionalism.
Additionally, moral-identity minorities may make for thorny allies because minority practices cast a critical light on the practices of those who might be sympathetic to their cause. For example, the personal dietary choices of those who abstain from animal foods are often taken as public condemnation of others’ behaviour.
While some moral-identity minorities find increasing support in niches where their actions are fast becoming the norm (e.g., cyclist commuters in Amsterdam), vegans appear to be one class of moral-identity minorities that face ongoing resistance.
The Particular Case of Resentment Toward Vegans
Vegans, even more than vegetarians, have been the target of antipathy due to their more extreme practices. For example, between 2015 and 2022, The Times reported a total of 172 vegan hate crimes in the United Kingdom alone. Influential figures publicly add fuel to the anti-vegan fire, with threats ranging from Piers Morgan’s “vegan resistance” to William Sitwell’s desire to kill vegans “one by one.”
As a response to increasing anti-veganism, in 2020, legal protections were put in place in the U.K. to protect ethical vegans from discrimination in the workplace (see Costa v the League Against Cruel Sports).
The push-back against vegans is theorised to come from their status as moral-identity minorities. In the psychological literature, this concept is known as “do-gooder derogation”–those who are seen doing good for humanity can be admired for their personal sacrifice but can also be derogated if perceived as “holier than thou.” Indeed, vegans have been commonly stereotyped as pushy and judgmental, and their actions criticised as puritanical and impossible to uphold.
Studying Anti-Vegan Sentiment Online
To date, most of what we know about the form and content of anti-veganism comes from questionnaires where people are asked what they think of vegans. We sought to examine vegan prejudice as it unfolds in the real world. To do this, we turned to the popular social media platform Reddit.
We chose to focus on the subreddit group r/AntiVegan, given their explicit, public stance on veganism. r/AntiVegan is a growing community of 21,200 Reddit users—the largest, self-proclaimed “anti-vegan” community on the internet. Our subsequent dataset was comprised of a sample of 48,909 posts made between 2014 and 2019 by 3,819 r/AntiVegan users.
There were three questions guiding our research:
- What does r/AntiVegan user behaviour on Reddit reveal about who they are?
- What do r/AntiVegan users talk about?
- How do r/AntiVegan users change as they participate in the subreddit?
Who are anti-vegans, and what do they talk about?
To better understand r/AntiVegan users’ wider interests, we gathered information on the subreddits they frequented. To draw comparisons between r/AntiVegan users and the wider population who use Reddit, we acquired a control sample of r/askreddit users (N=9,500). r/askreddit is generally regarded as the closest approximation to a general population or control group in research of this kind because of the neutrality of its content and general popularity.
Our analysis revealed that r/AntiVegan users exhibit interest in dark humour. This style of humour is considered by some an outlet for people to express prejudicial attitudes, and it may be indicative of a broader ideological root to vegan prejudice, which may connect to other forms of prejudice.
To explore what r/AntiVegans talk about, we employed the Meaning Extraction Method (MEM) to identify words that occurred frequently in r/AntiVegan discussions. Our analysis revealed three common content themes: health, animal death, and morality, and two argumentation styles: rationalism and experiential accounts.
- Health. r/AntiVegan users were preoccupied with the negative health consequences of vegan diets. They saw veganism as nutritionally inadequate, a disguise for disordered eating (e.g., anorexia nervosa), and unnatural due to the need to supplement key vitamins like B12. We noted a large population of ex-vegans who were both sharing and seeking advice about the negative health consequences of their former diet.
- Animal death. r/AntiVegan users took a very matter-of-fact approach to animal death, arguing that regardless of an individual’s dietary choices, animal suffering and death are inevitable. However, they actively denounced the suffering that occurs in factory farms, believing that humans have a duty to do what they can to prevent animal suffering.
- Morality. r/AntiVegan users were clear in their rejection of the absolutist moral claims that can underpin veganism. Many r/AntiVegans saw vegans as being dogmatic in their condemnation of animal-product consumption. They also expressed contempt for vegan arguments that compare or equate humans and non-human animals. Importantly, these observations foster the perception that vegans are militant, misanthropic, and cult-like.
- Argumentation style. r/AntiVegan users presented their ideas using both rational arguments, informed by scientific evidence and critical examination of research, and experiential or anecdotal evidence, informed by stories of personal experiences with vegans or past attempts at practicing a vegan lifestyle.
Changes Brought About by Participating in R/Antivegan
We examined longitudinal changes in language use amongst r/AntiVegans by employing Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) software, which identifies linguistic markers indicative of underlying psychological processes.
This analysis revealed that r/AntiVegan users increased their use of group-focused (“we”) language and reduced their use of self-focused (“I”) language over time, indicating an increasing identification with the group. Second, users’ language became more confident and certain, suggesting that participation in the forum solidified users’ critical stance towards veganism.
Key Takeaway Messages
Our study of anti-vegan sentiment revealed many illuminating and even surprising findings that may help improve vegan and non-vegan relations. We found that those who oppose veganism:
- Have often previously attempted veganism and struggled with it. This might suggest that a more inclusive approach to veganism, one that encourages diversity of practice and imperfection, could benefit the movement.
- May, at times, express prejudices in other domains, which speaks to the need to address the deeper roots of intolerance more broadly.
- May have legitimate concerns about the nutritional value of a vegan diet, which may suggest that vegan diet education remains an important obstacle to the movement’s growth and acceptance.
- May see animal death as a natural part of life and like vegans, concern themselves with how factory-farmed animals are treated. This may be some common moral ground for vegans and non-vegans to build upon.
- May participate in online anti-vegan forums that can solidify group identities and perspectives, creating echo chambers that potentially damage efforts to move toward a more diverse and tolerant world
This post was co-authored with Jared Piazza, Ph.D. Jared is a senior lecturer in social psychology at Lancaster University, U.K. He studies moral decision-making as it pertains to humans, food, and animals.
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