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Against the ‘Cult’ of Veganism: Unpacking the social psychology and ideology of anti-vegans

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With the growing popularity of veganism, anti-vegan sentiments have become increasingly apparent. Social media has provided a platform for those who stand against veganism to connect and identify with others who share in their opposition. Anti-vegan communities have begun to spring-up across the internet, from Reddit's r/AntiVegan to Facebook's Anti-Vegan Club and Flickr's Anti-Vegan League. There is evidence that Vegan-related hate crimes may be on the rise. In the UK, there were 172 instances of vegan hate crimes between the years 2015–2020, one-third of which occurred in 2020 alone. This has led scholars and legal bodies to recognize anti-veganism as a prejudice, resulting in the protection of 'ethical veganism'.

REBECCA GREGSON: Despite the established health and ecological benefits of a plant-based diet, the decision to eschew meat and other animal-derived food products remains controversial. So polarising is this topic that anti-vegan communities, groups of individuals who stand vehemently against veganism, have sprung up across the internet. To date, very little is known about these communities and the individuals who join them. Accordingly, in this study, we take a close look at the r/AntiVegan community on the popular platform, Reddit, and the social psychology of its members publicly identifying as anti-vegan. We use anti-vegans’ own words to understand their beliefs and motives and establish some implications for vegan-nonvegan relations…

Recent western history offers abundant evidence that people strongly dislike those who eschew meat. In the 19th century, people who refrained from meat were ridiculed and ostracized from mainstream culture for being ‘odd’, ‘eccentric’ and ‘half-crazed’. In the counterculture era, spanning the 1960–70s, vegetarians were readily viewed as an absurd and socially problematic movement, synonymous with the views that the mainstream public held for hippies. Such sentiments which we see documented throughout Western history have since been echoed in the discourse analyses of news outlets in Australia and the United Kingdom.

Today, with the growing popularity of meat-free diets, anti-vegan sentiments have become increasingly apparent. This has led scholars and legal bodies to recognise anti-veganism as a prejudice, resulting in the protection of “ethical veganism” under the UK Equality Act 2010. Some evidence, reported by The Times, even suggests that vegan-related hate crimes may be on the rise in the UK. According to the article, there were 172 instances of vegan hate crimes between the years 2015–2020, one-third of which occurred in 2020 alone…

Social media has provided a platform for those who stand against veganism to connect and identify with others who share in their opposition. Since early 2000, pockets of anti-vegan communities have begun to spring up across the internet, from Reddit’s r/AntiVegan to Facebook’s Anti-Vegan Club and Flickr’s Anti-Vegan League. It is possible that these communities have become intertwined with alt-right ideology and discourse. For example, the slang term “soy boy” which is said to have originated from alt-right online discourse on 4 chan, is used to describe men who lack traditionally masculine qualities. Alt-right community members have also been active in organising anti-vegan demonstrations at vegan food festivals and privately owned vegan cafes, which involve activities such as performatively consuming raw meat on the premises…

In the current study, we sought to move away from traditional methods of study and adopt a novel approach to understanding anti-vegan sentiment. Accordingly, we take a “big picture” look at the social psychology of those publicly identifying as anti-vegan. We use the public discourse of anti-vegans to better understand why they believe what they believe, and to try to establish some implications for vegan-nonvegan relations. We apply methods of computerized text analysis to language data derived from a social media community of self-identified anti-vegans. Specifically, we analyse social media data from Reddit, a popular, anonymous online discussion forum comprised of sub-forums (“subreddits”) within which users communicate through submissions and comments…

This research offers rich insights into anti-vegan thinking, motives and behaviour, which has important implications for vegan-nonvegan relations. While we have predominantly highlighted the ways in which anti-vegan and vegan ideology diverge, it would seem that the two are connected in their shared belief that humans have a responsibility to minimize the harmful impacts that their choices have on animals and the environment. How the two groups seek to achieve this goal is where they diverge. While anti-vegans believe it their role to shop responsibly (i.e., for high-welfare, environmentally sustainable products), vegans believe they should not shop for animal-derived products at all. All things considered, there may be more common ground to harness between vegans and anti-vegans than one might otherwise assume outside of the present investigation.

Further, many r/AntiVegan users confine their antipathy towards vegans to “militants” or the overly zealous (“I don’t hate/dislike vegans”; “But militant veganism makes me want to dig my heels in”). In fact, some avow “respect” for the “admirable” work that vegans do and even enjoy eating vegan or meatless food themselves (“I love a good vegan meal and I’m really open to eating less meat”). We see this specialised hatred toward so-called militant vegans as meaningful in explaining much of the hatred directed towards vegans. Importantly, one of the extreme consequences of militant veganism that we observed from these data is the perception of vegans as misanthropists and veganism as a cult (recall the r/AntiVegan strapline “against the cult of veganism”). We conducted further exploratory qualitative analyses of the anti-vegan perception of veganism as a cult, which can be viewed in Supplementary Materials C. We recommend that future research examines the underpinnings and accuracy of these judgments, particularly claims about vegans as misanthropes.

Our analysis suggests that r/AntiVegans define militant vegans as those who are inflexible and particularly aggressive in their moral thinking. The literature of psychological reactance might help to explain these findings. Spelt et al. (2019) have found that highly controlling language in meat reduction appeals is associated with increased psychological reactance, as measured by scales of anger and perceived threat to freedom, relative to low controlling language. Thus, vegan advocacy that is extreme and unforgiving may be damaging to the progression of the movement insofar as reactance may a barrier to message receptivity… The views of r/AntiVegans represent a stiff challenge to vegan advocacy, but also, we expect, a useful battlefield of operation for helping vegan advocates creatively refine their arguments and strategies. SOURCE…

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