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“Vegaphobia” – Discrimination against vegans as a cultural minority


**Post written by contributor Shiri Raz, PhD Candidate, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

“I consider myself a strong woman; I grew up in a very liberal family, worked and studied hard all my life to become an independent woman with a successful career. And I’ve succeeded in those aspirations. I never imagined this scenario. I never thought I could feel ostracized, misunderstood and discriminated against,” are the painful words spoken by Ruth, a young and very ambitious and successful 28-year-old patient of mine who has been vegan for the last 7 years. “I often find myself at work lunches with my colleagues, ordering the one single vegan option on the menu or sometimes just a salad, while trying to battle the feelings of sadness, frustration and even anger as I watch them eat animals right before my eyes, before my heart. They often tease me and make fun of my veganism: “You eat what my food eats”, “Don’t call this mushroom loaf a ‘hamburger’ – it’s not real food!”, “you’re too sensitive, animals are meant to be our food”.

 

They simply don’t care. They don’t care about the suffering of animals, and they most certainly don’t care about my feelings as a vegan.” 

 

Vegans are a cultural and statistical minority in the Western world. Regardless of increasing awareness of ethical issues entailed in the consumption of animal products, in many ways vegans are marginalized. Their educational values are not taught in schools. Animal-related consumerism – particularly in the food industry – goes against their belief system, and these beliefs often make them the subjects of ridicule and ostracism. 

 

In 1945, the sociologist Louis Wirth defined a minority as “…any group of people who, because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from the others in the society in which they live, for differential and unequal treatment, and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination.” 

 

The term ‘minority’, as per this definition, involves a specific perception of identity, of belonging to a group which is discriminated against due to its values, customs, etc.   The British Vegan Society, which coined the term “vegan” in 1944, defines veganism as “a way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” 

 

In other words, and perhaps contrary to popular belief, veganism is not all about nutrition. In fact, in most cases the vegan diet is merely one behavioral expression of a broad, ideological, ethical and emotional outlook of an individual who belongs to a minority group. 

 

Veganism is a worldview which constitutes, for the individual adopting it, a dramatic change in their experience of the world, leading to the disassembly of their identity and the construction of a new one, placing them in a group: a cultural minority with unique characteristics and a complicated relationship with the majority. 

 

The process of transition to veganism stems from a dramatic change in the perception of the suffering of animals. They which were once perceived as food, as a product, as a “what”, are now recognized as a subject – a “who”. The world remains the same world, the reality unchanged – yet everything is different. 

 

This process is reminiscent of the shifting paradigm process described by Kuhn or the change of aspects described in the past by Wittgenstein in the rabbit-duck illusion.  This change in perception that occurs is perhaps similar in some ways to falling in love. Throughout the process there are many elements of choice, such as the choice to watch a talk about the animal food industries. Still, once the change occurs, the possibility of choice no longer exists. 

 

Vegans do not choose to see suffering in the world – it is forced upon them. This is an important point when trying to understand and acknowledge vegans as a minority. Vegans weren’t born with a specific skin color, gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. The reason they are part of a minority is their shared inevitable experience of animal suffering in our world. 

 

In Western society today, the rate of consumption of animal products is at an all-time high. Over 56 billion farmed animals are killed by humans every year. These numbers, even if overwhelming to conceive, reflect a reality which is a conceptual, cultural, emotional and political “rabbit-duck”. While one may perceive them as a natural norm, they are seen by the other as the number of victims of a cruel genocide. This rabbit-duck exists everywhere in our Western reality of abundance, where animal products are a key part of the daily menu. In a way, one might say that in their perception of reality, vegans are constant witnesses to the pain and suffering caused directly by the majority group. 

 

This experience is transparent and usually misunderstood. Attempts to describe this horrible experience or to talk about it with the majority group are often blocked by feelings of anger, or perceived violation of one’s liberty to freely choose what (or whom) to eat, as described by 29-year old Avi, another vegan patient of mine: 

“From a social standpoint, being vegan is a terrible situation. It’s like walking through a minefield of everyday dilemmas with relatives, colleagues, anyone with whom we interact.” 

 

This experience is often even a cause of ridicule and social ostracism, as Ruth so painfully described. In 2011, Cole and Morgan coined the term “Vegaphobia” to describe this phenomenon in the media: 

“Newspapers tend to discredit veganism through ridicule, or as being difficult or impossible to maintain in practice. Vegans are variously stereotyped as ascetics, faddists, sentimentalists, or in some cases, hostile extremists. The overall effect is of a derogatory portrayal of vegans and veganism that we interpret as ‘vegaphobia’.”

 

In his article “Discrimination against Vegans” (2019), Horta suggested that the “…discrimination against vegans can be characterized as a form of second-order discrimination, that is, discrimination against those who oppose another (first-order) form of discrimination”. He also points out that “Vegans, however, often recognize this as a form of discrimination against them. But they seldom campaign against it, as they regard it as a consequence of another and more important discrimination, i.e. speciesist discrimination against nonhuman animals.” 

 

And he writes about it. Many vegans suffer discrimination on a daily basis, without ever voicing their pain. Whenever offered an opportunity to talk about veganism, they will naturally seize the chance to speak for those who cannot speak. But that doesn’t mean that their pain of ostracism and inequality isn’t there. It is, and like any other pain resulting from discrimination, it is unjustified and agonizing.

 

**Post written by contributor Shiri Raz, PhD Candidate, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Shiri Raz – PhD Candidate, psychoanalysis and hermeneutics program at Bar-Ilan University, Israel.

Shiri focuses her research on the psychoanalytic and linguistic aspects of people’s mental attitudes toward the consumption and use of animal-based products.

Shiri serves as a therapist for couples and individuals, specializing in work with vegans and mixed couples (vegans and non-vegans) in Israel and worldwide (through video chats). She is an animal rights activist, academic lecturer, resident lecturer for the Vegan Friendly association’s educational program and for the Animals Now (non-profit) organization, and a public speaker.

“Vegaphobia” – Discrimination against vegans as a cultural minority


Liz Hirky, PhD

Liz Hirky, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with specialty training in clinical health psychology and interpersonal psychodynamic psychotherapy and over 25 years clinical practice experience in hospital, academic, and private practice settings. Currently, she is the Director of Clinical Training for the Clinical Psychology PhD Program, Health Emphasis, at Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. Dr. Hirky’s private practice is based in NYC; for additional information, click here. Liz is currently Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of the Animals and Society Institute, an independent non-profit think tank, whose mission is to advance human knowledge to improve animal lives, in order to create a compassionate world where animals flourish.


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APA Reference
Hirky, L. (2020). “Vegaphobia” – Discrimination against vegans as a cultural minority. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/veganism/2020/01/vegaphobia-discrimination-against-vegans-as-a-cultural-minority/

 

Last updated: 7 Jan 2020
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