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BACKSLIDING: Exiting veganism; Identity residue, reaction or ambivalence?

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It's estimated that there are approximately 5 times as many former vegans than there are practising vegans. What happens when a person abandons their vegan identity? Does the ethical framework that underpins their veganism also loosen?

REBECCA GREGSON: Veganism is a dietary lifestyle that boasts of benefits to the planet and personal health, underpinned by a moral philosophy. More than a fad, for many, veganism is a part of who they are. Indeed, studies have found that, relative to vegetarians, self-identified vegans report that their diet is highly central to their identity. Vegans also tend to attribute high-levels of sentience to animals, identify with animals, and strongly support animal rights.

Nonetheless, maintaining a vegan lifestyle represents a significant challenge for many people. A Fauntalytics study estimated that there are approximately 5 times as many former vegans than there are practising vegans. This begs the question: what happens when a person abandons their vegan identity? Does the ethical framework that underpins their veganism also loosen?…

Might certain representative behaviours persist – for example, might ex-vegans continue to reject speciesist beliefs or remain environmentally conscientious? Or are they pulled in the opposite direction in reaction to their previous identity?…

One possibility is that individuals react strongly to their pre-existing identity and put effort into distancing themselves from it… Clean-breakers, if they exist, would likely harbour negative attitudes toward their former identity and perhaps even regret their involvement.

A more likely scenario is that individuals continue to exemplify aspects of the identity as they shed it. Sociologists call this “role hangover” – the residual beliefs or behaviours carried over from a former identity as a person transitions away from it. Research on exiting a religious identity offers a useful insight into the process of role hangover…

If ex-vegans were to exhibit identity residue, we might expect them to continue expressing some of the behaviours and attitudes central to veganism. Most central to the vegan philosophy is the aim to avoid causing animals suffering. One way this core value might persist regards consumer habits. Relative to the average consumer, ex-vegans might prioritise products thought to have higher welfare standards, for example, shopping for local, pasture-raised meat…

But might some former vegans exhibit a more extreme reaction to their past lifestyle? A recent study by Aguilera-Carnerero and Carretero-González (2021) of online “anti-vegan” communities show that many of these groups have ex-vegans in their ranks, who can be observed acting as “implacable anti-vegan activists” that share their experiences to warn and admonish others of the seductive misinformation of vegans… Other ex-vegans may be better characterised as occupying a state of ambivalence about their dietary practices…

Though the process of shedding a vegan identity has parallels with that of a religious identity, it is clear that there also exists some important differences… Religious identities are often inherited – transmitted within families – and adherents may leave because of a change in their worldview, for example, shifting from a belief in supernaturalism to empiricism. The shift away from veganism is probably less epistemological. Some beliefs might motivate an exit – for example, believing that vegan diets are nutritionally inadequate – but such beliefs do not appear to be the principal reasons for exiting.

Moreover, we must consider that some social identities are “soft” identities, with permeable boundaries, whereas other identities have more rigid boundaries. Veganism may better qualify as a “soft” identity that shares many underlying values with neighbouring dietary identities, such as vegetarianism and pescetarianism.

If the “role hangover” model best characterises the bulk of ex-vegan experiences, then perhaps exiting veganism should be viewed less like exiting a particular religious identity (e.g., ex-Methodist or ex-Hindu) and more like moving from being highly religious to being less so. One does not completely throw off the ideological underpinnings, but applies them with less stringency or fervour. SOURCE…

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