If you struggle to understand the negative reactions of omnivores to your vegan diet, you’re not alone. Georgia Bamber investigates…
You would think that choosing to go vegan, whether it be to improve your health, tread more lightly on the planet or desist from doing harm to animals, would only elicit exclamations of praise and interest. Those are all good things to be striving for? No-one could get upset about something like that, right?
People’s reactions to veganism are often anything but uplifting. Sometimes they can be downright aggressive and nasty.
Of course you do come across people who think what you are doing is fantastic. And you do speak to others who are interested about veganism and would like to know more. But what happens a surprising amount is that people react with hostility, defensiveness and even anger when they find out you are vegan.
Every time it happens to me, it takes my breath away. Sometimes I am left so stunned by people’s reactions that I am (almost) left speechless. The strength of people’s aggression makes no sense and it is out of all proportion to the ‘offence’ I have committed: choosing to eat compassionately and healthily.
So where is all this defensiveness coming from?
OK, a non-vegan might argue that vegans are annoying – always checking labels, making special requests at restaurants, bringing their own food to dinner parties. That could be a little irritating, I suppose, but something more has to be going on for the idea of being vegan to elicit the outright hostility and ridicule that it often does. The level of defensiveness and vitriol that can come from, otherwise lovely, people can’t be explained by minor inconveniences like these.
It is impossible to say why any particular person reacts the way they do, but there are a number of theories as to why veganism causes such adverse reactions in non-vegans.
The fear factor
In general, we humans are afraid of what we don’t understand. We are wired that way. If we don’t understand something, our automatic instinct is one of fear and avoidance. We like to maintain our safety by sticking to what is familiar and staying within our comfort zones.
Veganism can be seen as a threat to the status quo, as rocking the boat in our traditionally meat-eating society. And as people generally don’t like change, the result is that they lash out and become resistant to anyone who is doing something different from the accepted norm.
Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort that people feel when they hold two conflicting values. Nobody likes this feeling. We like our beliefs and our behaviours to be in harmony. So when non-vegans are presented with arguments that make them question their values such as, “if you love animals, why do you eat them?” or “if you value your health, why wouldn’t you want to eat the healthiest way possible?”, they need to take swift action to relieve the discomfort that inevitably arises.
The easiest way for them to do this is to justify their own actions. If that means automatically putting a vegan in the box of annoying, or preachy, or even fanatical, or coming up with a tenuous argument to back up their choices, then that is what they will do. The arguments don’t even need to be that sensible or convincing. They just need to be enough to keep them feeling good about their choices.
Most people don’t want to face the fact that there is a disparity in their beliefs. They would rather keep their heads in the sand. If you ask them to pull them out, they are likely not going to be very happy about that.
Nobody likes a do-gooder
Do-gooder derogation is a term coined for the tendency for people to get annoyed, rather than inspired, by people who are trying to do good. It doesn’t only happen to vegans. It also happens to those who are trying to do anything good or out of the ordinary, like get super fit or make lots of money, or outperform at work. People don’t like being out done, they don’t like the feeling of being left behind. So they pick on the ‘do-gooder’.
When people learn you are vegan there is a good chance they will feel that your behaviour is somehow a condemnation of their own. They won’t like this. People are particularly sensitive about their moral identity and if they feel that your vegan choices reflect badly on their choices, they will find a way to take you down a peg or two to keep their self-concept intact. Mockery and ridicule is a winning tactic that is often employed in these cases.
So what do I do in the face of unwanted and unmerited negativity?
There is no point flying off the handle if someone criticises you or mocks you. This will only add fuel to the fire and perpetuate the silly myth that all vegans are fanatical crazies. Having a few planned responses can be very helpful. One of my favourites to use is “Is that so?” Try it, it really works.
The only person that you can control… is yourself.
As much as we would like to think that we have sway over other people’s thoughts and behaviour, the truth of the matter is – we don’t. It doesn’t matter what you say or what you do, people will always think whatever they want to think. There is not a lot you can do about it. So it is best not to worry about what other people are thinking or doing, as only they have the power to change that. What you have the power over is in deciding what kind of person you want to be, and then going out there to be that person.
Don’t let anyone’s bad behaviour and crazy arguments stop you. Don’t let another person’s discomfort or fear get in your way. You know what you want. You know what you are doing. Keep doing it.
Be the lighthouse, shine your light, and show the world what a boon it is to be vegan – for yourself, for the planet and for the animals.
Georgia Bamber is a success coach, helping people to reach their goals. With a background in psychology, coaching and plant-based nutrition, she has the perfect blend of skills to help people successfully embrace a vegan lifestyle.