David Cain is the author of a blog called Raptitude, “a street-level look at the human experience.” Last month, in an entry called “Giving up the V-Card,” he explained why he’d stopped calling himself vegan, even though he still doesn’t purchase animal products. The main reason was alienation; veganism had erected a psychological barrier between himself and meat eaters, and he wanted to tear down that wall.  

DSC_0110

Some meat eaters think that people are attracted to veganism because they want to be “morally superior.” I don’t think there is much truth to this. However, vegans with a deep concern for animals do often find themselves in the uncomfortable position of thinking that most of the people around them are doing something really terrible, and are maybe even morally deplorable.

A Christian once wrote to me that he felt sorry for vegans and the psychological torment they must feel from constantly having to witness the behavior they abhor. While he had a religious objection to homosexuality, his objection was that he felt gay people were doing spiritual harm to themselves, not that they were hurting others, so for him it was more a matter of being concerned rather than angered. Religious people with various objections to sex are often confronted with sexual images in the media, but at least people aren’t having sex next to them at restaurants. And pro-lifers can at least feel happy that almost no women regularly have abortions, and abortion doctors are a tiny minority of the population.

Vegans, however, see cruelty everywhere they go and know that most people regularly do what they oppose — exploit animals. Books with titles like Vegan Freak: Being Vegan in a Non-Vegan World, Living Among Meat Eaters: The Vegetarian’s Survival Handbook and Raising Children in a Non-Vegan World suggest that vegans do feel tormented from the animal product use that is all around them. It’s not surprising, then, that veganism sometimes inflames misanthropic tendencies. You wrote about this divide in “Giving up the V-card.” Is there something about veganism that makes it even more alienating than other strong beliefs?

The biggest revelation I had as a result of going vegan is that humans generally don’t act out of morality. We act of out of conditioning and emotions. We do what we’re used to doing and what we can get away with. Even if you believe you are against say, sweatshops, your conscience isn’t necessarily going to stop you from buying some new shoes without properly sourcing them. We can quite easily rationalize away guilt about certain behaviors. As long as the people around us do something freely, we feel pretty free to do it too.

Vegans, for the most part, are people who have challenged a certain aspect of their conditioning — that it’s okay to use animals for our purposes — in spite of what others do and in spite of what they were probably taught. They delve into the issues, learn what they’re creating with their dollars, and decide to change how they live. This is relatively rare. Very little of human behavior comes as a result of sitting down and thinking about what’s right, beyond our conditioning, what our parents or friends or churches say is right. Sitting down and analyzing something philosophically is boring and scary and few people will find any reason to do it. So we do what is normal, whether it’s eating products we suspect came from abused animals, or buying clothes we know may have been produced in a sweatshop. It’s normal, we don’t see many others stressing about it, our consciences don’t eat us alive over it, so we just do it and feel pretty much okay about it.

This is not morality, but it’s the way almost all of us live. I now see morality as something quite new to human beings, and for the most part, our conditioning and animal drives win out over rational thinking about what’s right. We have to acknowledge that if we want to know the best way to get others to move away from exploiting animals.

So to answer your question, I think you hit the main reason on the head: veganism is particularly alienating because vegans are an extremely small minority, and so as a vegan, if you feel any level of contempt for the other camp, you essentially feel it for humanity at large. Everyone around you not only disagrees with you but constantly, visibly, happily does exactly what you think is atrocious.

How does vegan alienation manifest itself?

For me it was a two-way sentiment — how I felt about non-vegans and how they appeared to feel about me. Calling yourself a vegan is taking that stance as a big part of your identity. Obviously it’s not all you are, but that aspect of your identity becomes conspicuous to you and to the people around you every time you sit down to eat with non-vegans. Just living in a world where nearly everyone is so casually doing precisely what you identify as “the thing you don’t do” is alienating in itself.

For me I also noticed feeling a touch of ambivalence toward people whose worldviews I used to wholly respect — because they weren’t vegan, I felt like they were missing something that every thoughtful person ought to realize.

Even worse, I felt a hint of disappointment or annoyance with people in my life who were inspired to go mostly vegan, yet would restrict it to diet alone, or would make the odd concession. I felt like they didn’t really get it and were a part of the problem. I encountered that mindset a lot in abolitionist blogs.

I think all this alienation has to do with the basic drive for self-defense. Just by living the way they live, both sides are presenting implicit threats to the integrity of the other, and it’s natural to feel a need to assert that your way of life is indeed defensible, and the only way to do that is to reject opposing worldviews and the people who advocate them.

How much of this alienation is on meat eaters? If meat eaters were totally accepting of vegans and didn’t harass them with the usual questions about protein and how vegans can give up something as delicious as steak, would this alienation mostly go away?

I think questions about protein intake and how one can give up steak are pretty natural questions to ask. There is a ton of misinformation about nutrition, as we all know, and people associate meat with protein, and no meat with no protein. They also epitomize steak as the delectible food, and their first thought is that veganism would mean no more steak. It’s annoying because so many people say the same things, but I don’t think they’re necessarily trying to alienate anyone.

People might just find it bizarre to give up something so normal as cheese over something they don’t really see as a issue. (Cows being milked too hard or something?) Humans often mistrust people who are different from them, people whose motives they don’t understand. It’s normal.

However, I think people take stabs at veganism primarily as a self-defense reaction. First and foremost, omnivores know that vegans are people who think the way they live is wrong. So the natural thing to do is try to dismantle the threat to their feeling of integrity, by taking pot shots, pointing out inconsistencies, berating with jokes or going on about how boring their food must be.

We attack things that make us feel bad. I know I have felt resentful to people driving expensive cars or wearing expensive clothes, even if I know nothing about them. The reason is that they make me feel bad because I don’t have as much money, or that I am not as successful. I feel like maybe I’ve been lazy or disorganized with my life, or that I’m not very talented. These thoughts are painful. So to defend myself from those bad feelings my brain comes up with thoughts like “Rich people don’t value anything but money,” or “Rich people cheat and walk all over others.” I have no evidence that the people driving by in the Lincoln are anything like that, but those thoughts make me feel a little better about myself.

Much of the alienation is due to the inevitable moral standoff between the two groups. If vegans were spared the jokes and obnoxious questions, one aspect of the alienation would go away, but it would mostly remain. And that’s because the definition of those groups alone is an implicit indictment of each other’s morals. Omnivores will always regard vegans as a group of people who thinks the way they live is morally wrong. Vegans will always regard omnivores as a group of people who are perpetuating mass abuse, no matter how they feel about them as individuals. The only way I was able to completely eliminate this was to refuse to identify with either group, and challenge any feelings I had that the person I was speaking to was on the “other side” of anything. We’re all human, all trying to figure out how to live.

Abolitionist vegans are often the most strident and dogmatic of vegans, probably since many of them seem to think the abolitionist argument against animal use (typified by Gary Francione’s writings) is airtight and only selfish fools or the ignorant wouldn’t agree with it. Do you think abolitionist veganism is a bad road to go down? Is it possible to be abolitionist without angrily obsessing about every once-vegan celebrity who goes back to eating eggs?

I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad road. It works for some, I guess. Of course it’s possible to be an abolitionist and not indulge in sniping, but I think it does lend itself to a “with us or against us” mentality. Francione’s refrain is that “veganism is the moral baseline,” which is clearly a line to be crossed or not crossed, a moral standard for being good or not. It implies that if you don’t reach the “baseline” you are a part of the problem.

Logically, the abolitionist argument makes sense. Certain products cannot be created without causing unnecessary harm. Causing unnecessary harm is wrong. Therefore, it is wrong to consume them. Therefore I should not consume them under any circumstances, and anybody who does is acting immorally, and the best thing I can do is live that way and try to convince others to do so.

But that doesn’t matter, even if it is philosophically airtight, because philosophical analysis is not what drives normal people in their lifestyles. It’s emotions and conditioning — mostly irrational thinking. Abolitionists don’t seem to realize how few people are ever going to see it their way and make a dramatic lifestyle change, and so they think the only progress to be made is to get people to plunge into strict veganism.

Veganism turns way more people off than on, I don’t know who can deny that, and once someone hates veganism or vegans, they find it far easier to rationalize all forms of animal exploitation, because they know which side of the dichotomy they aren’t on, and that’s the side with those obnoxious vegans who want to make ice cream extinct.

Why do you think labels and the all-or-nothing approach are so popular in veganism?

It’s intrinsic. It is a label. Veganism has a definition, and in vegan forums you’ll have it cited to you repeatedly. If you eat honey or buy bread with stearoyl-2-lactylate in it, you’re not a vegan, and that’s just a fact.

Now, I completely understand excluding the 98-percenters from appropriating the term “vegan.” Even if the only concession I make is to eat fish once a year, it’s inaccurate to call myself a vegan, and few vegans would want me to use that word to describe myself, because then outsiders think, “Oh, vegans eat fish sometimes.”

But that creates a problem: the protectiveness surrounding this label and the ideology behind it is what has kept the vegan population small. It can’t accept exceptions, because then the word loses its meaning. There are far fewer people willing to be 100-percenters than there are people willing 98- or 95-percenters. And a so if a vegan-curious person doesn’t reach the bar, the uncompromising nature of veganism often drives them back to unabashed, self-justified omnivorism, because from the perspective of many vegans they are still on the other side, still part of the problem. How many times have you heard someone say they tried the vegan thing but it was too hard? What if we encouraged them to hang out at 90% animal-free, instead of discouraging anything but veganism?

That’s why I say forget the word and remember what we’re after: a world without this insane amount of exploitation. The V-label stifles people from taking partway measures, and clearly at this time only a tiny proportion of the population is willing to go strictly vegan. The ideology of veganism poses an “all-or-nothing” ultimatum to the omnivore majority (which is the 99 out of 100 people whom they would like to change) — and invariably, the members of that majority respond, “Okay, it’ll be nothing then.”

Once vegans associate animal products with suffering, death and heart attacks, it’s often hard for them not to find animal products revolting. Why do you think this disgust is harmful for veganism, and how can vegans avoid becoming disgusted with non-vegan food?

Some degree of disgust can be positive, because it reminds you of the injustice involved in creating many of the products we buy. But when we are unable to get past harboring disgust for the food 99% of people eat, when we’re unable to admit that it is actually food, then the non-vegans (who we’re supposed to be trying to convince) inevitably feel like they are being judged morally, and that’s where anti-vegan sentiment begins. Anti-vegan (or anti-veganish) sentiment is bad for animals.

It is a moral issue, yes, but that doesn’t mean making implicit or explicit moral judgments is an effective way of changing people’s minds. People dig in when they feel judged, and if they know their food and their lifestyle disgusts you, there is no way they’re going to consider reducing their consumption. They will do anything but.

Creating a defensive reaction in someone makes it easy for them to dismiss your point of view, and it’s something I think all vegans should be extremely careful to avoid. Vegans often forget that by alienating someone to veganism, they are pushing people to justify their animal use, and seriously harming the chances that they will ever consider moving away from it.

It’s a lot more effective to avoid presenting yourself as being on a different side. Think about it — when someone is implying that you’re disgusting and immoral, what are the chances you’ll agree with them? The reasoning doesn’t matter, it’s all emotional self-defense at this level. Real communication and mind-changing can only happen when there are no defensive reactions going on. That bears repeating: real communication and mind-changing can only happen when there are no defensive reactions going on. That’s why we have to be so delicate in presenting animal-free notions to omnivores. As soon as we create that defensive reaction, we’ve lost them, maybe forever.

Vegans can temper their disgust by remembering that it is indeed food, that animals do eat other animals, even though it does create a moral conundrum for us humans. By refraining from judgment, it allows others to give up their defensive reaction and consider taking some partway measures, without their feeling like you resent anything but strict veganism. That represents a lot of animal suffering prevented.

In “Giving up the V Card,” you offered suggestions for vegans who want to stop feeling alienated without going back to animal products, including abandoning the vegan label. Do you think contemplating flaws or limitations in vegan ideology is helpful for vegans who want to feel better about the world?

The way I see it, the biggest flaw in the general vegan mindset is that it doesn’t acknowledge that vast majority people are light years away from giving up animal products. Most people will never ever do it, because it is so, so different from what is normal to them.

But many, many people are very close to finding reasons to begin reducing animal product use. Other incentives besides ethics must help drive the movement away from animal exploitation — incentives like health, environmental concern, even trendiness. We have to appeal to people with the incentives that do drive their lives, which for most simply does not include an earnest reflection on ethics. We can make it normal to eat meals without meat, we’re really getting there, but setting the bar at “Go vegan or go home” is only going to stir up sentiment against the idea of animal-free alternatives.

What I’m trying to do is dismantle the vegan/non-vegan dichotomy, so that it ceases to be a for/against debate. So instead of trying to get the odd person to jump onto the vegan side, I’d rather encourage people en masse to move toward the animal-free end, by making animal-free meals and clothes something that you don’t have to be an “extremist” to try out.

When large numbers of people begin to incorporate animal-free alternatives into their lives, that’s when the markets really get behind it. When say, 3 out of 10 American moms prepare a vegan meal for their families at least once a week, producers will be tripping over themselves to market animal-free products to them. That’s a much bigger market force than all the vegans combined.

There are so many incentives for people to move away from animal use, even if they’re not related to morality or philosophy, and once economic momentum gets behind it, it will be unstoppable. That’s what global changes are going to look like — partway measures en masse, not a steady accumulation of strict abolitionists over time.

The market force exerted by non-vegans is over a hundred times the market force exerted by vegans. If we’re going to see animal-free products become a normal thing, it’s going to depend on how the omnivorous population perceives tempeh and pleather, not on how many vegans there are. Even if vegans doubled their proportion of the population, they’d still make up (at most) one fiftieth of the markets that drive what is normal to eat, wear and do for entertainment.

This is why it is so, so crucial that we don’t alienate omnivores to animal-free products by creating this us-and-them dichotomy. We have to encourage partway measures in the general population, because frankly it accomplishes more (in terms of animals spared and dollars averted from animal exploitation) than all of the all-the-way measures taken by the very small population of vegans.

Has your life noticeably changed since you stopped calling yourself “vegan”? Do the meat eaters you know see any difference?

Yes. I don’t feel like I’m a secret opponent of society anymore. I don’t have that mild contempt for regular people as an everyday part of my consciousness. I know now that aligning myself emotionally against omnivores wasn’t really changing their behavior, and I no longer feel like somebody else’s omnivore status is any kind of hindrance to respecting or loving them.

I can’t say for sure how others see me differently, but it seems like they do. I’ve noticed the awkwardness disappear, such as when someone accidentally raves about some non-vegan food and realizes mid-sentence that I “can’t” eat that. I no longer feel like I am a different category of person than my omnivore friends, and I feel like they no longer feel like I am.

People also seem to be more receptive to hear about why I don’t eat this or that, because I don’t let the V-word serve as an explanation. I found that before, once I said I was a vegan people would kind of tune out and nod politely until the topic changed, because they probably already feel like they know what that crowd is all about and they’ve already decided that it’s not for them. In other words, people seem more interested in hearing why I as an individual live the way I live, rather than why “we vegans” live the way we live. I also think people are more likely to make personal changes in their lives that make sense to them (like quitting dairy as a health experiment) than they are to adopt an established party line.