Most vegans and vegetarians have had the experience of mentioning their dietary choices, only to be met with a tide of hostility. As soon as we bring up the v-word, suddenly everyone seems to have a health condition that would make it impossible for them to go vegan. Or they become a nutrition expert who is convinced that vegans are deficient in vital nutrients – in fact, they know someone who went vegan and got really ill! And besides, God put animals here for us to eat. Otherwise, why would they be made of meat? What makes vegans think they’re entitled to push their views on others anyway? Why are they so militant? Can’t they just respect other people’s choices?
And so on, ad nauseam. You can even play game of defensive omnivore bingo!
I’m not saying that all meat-eaters are like this. But virtually all vegans have experienced this sort of defensiveness, often from friends or family. And at times, it can seem totally unprovoked, as if those around us are taking offence at our choice to eat plants.
Clearly, there’s something deeper going on here. But what is it?
Many people – men especially – identify strongly with their meat-eating habits. I have a whole post on the perceived link between meat and manliness. For some people, meat-eating may be linked to their identity as someone who is strong, tough and provides for their family.
Meat-eating is also part of many people’s social and cultural identities. They may be surrounded by people who glorify steak, bacon and barbecues. Identifying as a meat-eater helps them to feel like they belong. If they were to stop eating meat, there would likely be social repercussions, ranging from feeling excluded to being mocked and pressured to go back to their old ways.
Tradition falls into this category too. Eating meat is deeply ingrained in many cultures, so avoiding it may be seen as a rejection of the culture.
So what does identity have to do with defensiveness? It can make people very resistant to the idea of change, because they feel they would lose part of their identity if they were to give up meat. So they must quickly manufacture a reason why they can’t go vegan, or lash out at vegans (or veganism in general).
It can be confusing to have someone lash out at you for what seems like no reason. When you go vegan, you’re sending out a message that eating and using animal products is not acceptable. And so when you politely turn down your friend’s non-vegan cupcakes, she may interpret it as an implicit criticism of her choices, which is likely to put her on the defensive.
When people in our lives make decisions which we know deep down to be correct, it can be uncomfortable. Maybe you’ve felt this yourself – when one of your friends gives up single-use plastic, for example, or takes up a healthy habit like running. A voice in your head says, “Should I be doing that too?” But you don’t want to, so you quickly come up with a reason why you can’t. You may even feel somewhat resentful towards your friend for bringing up these uncomfortable emotions.
Especially in Western culture, many of us feel that if we want something, we should be able to have it. We are dimly aware of animal suffering, environmental destruction, sweatshops and so on, but we put it out of our minds – though there is likely still some residual guilt there. Why should anyone have the right to tell us we can’t do something that we enjoy?
So our hackles tend to go up if we feel we are being preached at or told what to do, no matter how well-intentioned the ‘preacher’ may be.
I’ve been pretty hard on meat-eaters so far. But I do want to acknowledge that vegans don’t always communicate their messages in the best way. Calling meat-eaters ‘murderers’ and using inflammatory language like ‘slavery’, ‘rape’ and ‘Holocaust’ to describe animal agriculture is rarely productive. Actions like these come from a place of frustration and helplessness, but that doesn’t make them okay. Worse, they are likely to be harmful to the vegan movement rather than beneficial.
Unfortunately, some people have encountered vegans who are very angry and confrontational, and this has lead them to believe that all vegans are like this. This can instantly put them on the defensive, which clearly is not what we want.
If you are vegan, think back to when you first transitioned. Chances are, it felt like a daunting task. What were you going to eat? What would your family think? How would you handle eating out? Why did there seem to be milk in everything?!
For many meat-eaters, going vegan seems like an extremely difficult – if not impossible – task. So even if they do believe deep down that it’s the right thing to do, the thought is so overwhelming that they push it down. Again, the excuses and justifications rise up, manifesting as defensiveness.
And some people may genuinely believe they can’t get the nutrients they need as a vegan, or that going vegan is impossible for them for some other reason.
So that’s an overview of why veganism can sometimes make people so defensive. But how does that help us?
If we understand what’s going on in people’s heads, it can help us to relate to them, which makes us less likely to retaliate with anger and defensiveness of our own. As vegans, we have to remember that we’re not better than meat-eaters – we’re just at a different stage in our journey.
It’s so important to remain calm and collected when faced with others’ defensiveness, rather than rising to the bait. We also need to be able to communicate in a non-confrontational manner, and again, this is easier when we understand the people we’re communicating with.
I want to leave you with this video, taken at a demo I went to a couple of years back. A very defensive man approached us, seeming quite aggressive. But Tom, one of the activists, completely turned the situation around by communicating with him calmly and effectively. It’s well worth a watch.
Unfortunately, some people are so defensive that you’re highly unlikely to get through to them. These people make me think of this Vegan Sidekick comic! Leave those people be, if possible. They’re not ready to hear your message.