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You don’t have to be embarrassed to be vegan

The more welcoming and accessible veganism becomes, the closer we’ll get to our goal: a world free of cruelty.

BLTA Sandwich at Moncai Vegan, San Diego. Credit: Flickr/Tony Webster. CC BY 2.0.

It’s February 5th 2018, and Veganuary has come and gone with record success. The number of vegans in the UK has increased by 360 per cent in the last ten years, and even Tesco, the low-budget supermarket chain, has launched a range of vegan ready-meals from the Wicked Kitchen company.

Despite the fact that veganism has existed for centuries and was originally rooted in the global South, it’s finally made it to the Western mainstream. But this isn’t a surprise—it’s due to a recent change in the tactics of vegan campaigning that have replaced sanctimony and shaming with recipes and room to try new things.  

For too long, vegan campaigns have given us the ‘why’ of veganism but rarely the ‘how’. They have banged on and on about how veganism is a moral imperative and how we’re all complicit in animal cruelty. They’ve created disturbing films about animal abuse and pushed a very clear message that if you eat animal products, you’re a bad person—and left it at that.

I say ‘they’ but I’m vegan myself (and have been for the past six years), but I’ve deliberately disconnected myself from the vegan lobby because frankly, it’s embarrassing.

I became vegan as a result of my beliefs in labour rights and feminism more than anything else. After all, it’s the female animals that are violently exploited for their reproductive functions. Cows are repeatedly and forcibly impregnated in order to produce milk, and their calves are immediately torn away to be sold as veal whilst we steal the milk to sell.  

Veganism is faultlessly logical. Avoiding animal products makes sense on ethical, environmental and health grounds, and in terms of nonviolence and social justice too. It’s easy to see how it connects to human struggles. Aph Ko, co-founder of Aphro-ism recently told the New York Times, “The black vegan movement is one of the most diverse, decolonial, complex and creative movements.”

The ‘why’ is absolute and compelling, so why has veganism historically struggled to attract more people? Because much less has been said about how to make the leap to plant-based life—or how delicious it is once you make it. There is simply not enough information on how to put a vegan diet into practice given the realities of the food industry and the structure of the economy, which squeeze most people’s incomes and options.

But the one can’t be done without the other: both ‘how’ and ‘why’ must go hand in hand.

Why vegan campaigners need to understand human psychology.

Let’s start at one of the biggest challenges to behaviour change: humans are not logical. We’re highly emotional, and food is one of the most emotional and central parts of living. We comfort eat, we get food guilt, and we treat ourselves to expensive meals out. Food is more than just sustenance; it’s part of our identity. It punctuates our daily life, defines our cultures and underpins our family traditions and gatherings.

Demanding that someone radically changes what they eat on a daily basis for the rest of their lives is one of the most disruptive demands you could make. And it doesn’t help that vegan campaign tactics tend to go against human psychology: the truth is, we’re hypocritical, we’re loss averse and we react badly to shame.

Human beings can be awful hypocrites, and will perform any amount of mental gymnastics to justify their contradictions. Cognitive dissonance describes the discomfort we often feel when our beliefs and behaviours come into conflict. This is what enables us to pet our cat or dog, identify as an ‘animal lover,’ and then tuck into a steak. Ironically it’s also what enables some vegans to do cocaine on the weekend.

The truth about animal cruelty is terrible and overwhelming, so it’s not a surprise that most people want to block it out. I have friends who became vegan after watching the powerful vegan documentary ‘Earthlings’, but many more refuse to watch it because “it means we won’t be able to eat meat again” and their fear of loss takes over.

Giving things up is tough—ask any smoker. When it comes to veganism, lots of people will first weigh up the losses: “how can I live without cheese?” “Won’t I just be hungry all the time?” As the Guardian’s restaurant critic Grace Dent stated on BBC Newsnight recently, meat, eggs, cheese and cream are “the very cornerstones of the British diet”.

Demanding that someone gives all of this up without advising them on how to replace it isn’t going to be met with much of a welcome. And that’s why, without more education, easily-accessible alternatives and compassion towards those who currently eat meat, all attempts to make people join the dots between animal welfare and their individual responsibilities will fail.

Veganism is a social justice issue.

The lack of tools and education about veganism goes well beyond individual dietary choices—it’s also a structural problem of terrible food literacy and a lack of affordable options, with the food industry lobbyists operating the key controls.

The battle for veganism is a battle for nutritional education and access to different options, and those things usually fall along class lines. Many people already have too much on their plates (literally and metaphorically) to dedicate sufficient headspace to overhauling their diet.

I grew up on oven food: chicken nuggets, Billy Bear ham, turkey dinosaurs and hot dogs. That’s not my fault and it doesn’t make me or my mum bad people: it’s what was available to us at the time, and we would have struggled to know what else we should eat, let alone how to cook it. My mum didn’t have time to soak lentils.

My personal transition away from cheap meats and ready meals was a slow, twofold process: first, realising that I no longer wanted to be part of the cycle of violence that underpins an animal-based diet; and second, being exposed to different foods and plant-based recipes. This is what Wicked Kitchen have done, with their founder chef Derek Sarno aiming to “celebrate everything that’s ‘wicked’ and tasty about plants.”

Shame doesn’t help people change—compassion does.

If PETA (the largest animal rights organisation in the world) is the parent who shouts at you, Veganuary is the one who kneels next to you and gently explains what’s wrong and how to fix it. The founders of Veganuary are wise to what psychologists have already proven: that shame doesn’t help people change. It’s more likely to make them hide their behaviour and resort to virtue-signalling in order to keep up appearances.

Matthew Glover, its co-founder, has said that “Veganuary is in the business of making vegans...Everyone who registers to take part for the month will find a welcoming, supportive, non-judgmental community waiting for them.” The campaign is making its mark because it ‘shows’ rather than ‘tells’; it’s concerned with providing encouragement and information about concrete alternatives as opposed to simply telling people what to do.

There’s plenty of research to prove this works. The British Nutrition Foundation has found that when getting someone to change their diet, learning to deal positively with failure is essential to support healthy behaviour change.

Making veganism accessible. 

The staggering violence of the food industry is structural, but individual behaviour change is an essential part in dismantling it. If we are to succeed in achieving the goal of a cruelty-free world, we’ll need as many people on side as possible.

Shock tactics are good for grabbing attention and making people aware of animal cruelty, so they are imperative. However, we also need to extend the compassion and support we have for animals to our fellow humans—the people of whom we’re making ethical demands and who might be reticent to commit to veganism.

Making sure that education about veganism and opportunities to buy, cook and eat vegan food are as accessible as possible can only work in our favour. This will help people to see that taking charge of their own nutrition, discovering amazing tastes and becoming a better cook is not just about ethics and morality, but is also aspirational and exciting. We need to get away from the dull, self-flagellating mire of diet shaming that has characterised much of the movement to date.

The more welcoming and accessible veganism becomes, the closer we’ll get to our goal: a world free of cruelty.

 

About the author

Janey Stephenson is a campaigner and filmmaker who is interested in feminism, gender, social justice and human rights. She is passionate about ending violence against women and tweets @rebeljelly.


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