Unless you’ve been hiding under a particularly mossy rock, sound-proofed from all social media, you probably noticed last week’s top vegan news. That ended with William Sitwell, editor of Waitrose magazine, leaving his job and Twitter almost caving in on itself with people shouting at each other about whose side they were on.
Within minutes of Sitwell’s email leaking – it suggested that vegans should be killed – people were making their views heard. And still, days later, the battle rages on. “If we can’t make an attempted joke about people who eat vegetables, we might as well all pack up, head home, and never engage in conversation again,” one columnist wrote on Friday.
“This is about our right to free speech,” others insisted in what has been a soya-based feast for the media and trolls. One Twitter wit coined the term “Tofu Taliban”. But why, in a nation that sees itself as tolerant and upholds the right to personal choice, does veganism prompt so much fury?
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“Sometimes our very existence is enough to invoke aggressive, irrational, flailing behaviour from some meat eaters. Like we threaten their worldview,” explains one vegan, 28-year-old Lucy Futcher from Leicester.
“When your lifelong beliefs and deeply held values are challenged, people get defensive – because having to admit that your habits cause immense suffering and environmental devastation goes against the fact that most people believe they are good people,” she says.
Alice, whose name we have changed at her request, was given ‘vegetable soup’ at her grandmother’s house. When she noticed it contained meat and pulled it out of her mouth, she was told: “Oh, it’s only a little bit, it’s not going to kill you.”
She told HuffPost UK: “Abuse from non-vegans is just a constant thing. Whether it’s online and someone posts some hilariously unoriginal joke about bacon or in real life. Once you’ve heard the same old jokes at your expense, over and over again for years, they lose their edge. It’s not funny anymore, it’s just boring.”
It’s not just meat eaters hurling their opinions around. Alice has also received offensive messages from other vegans. She left one Facebook group after a person said that her then relationship with a meat-eater, was akin to her being in a relationship with a child molester.
She argues that the responses of some of these strict vegans “lead to people having preconceived ideas about vegans being pushy and self-righteous.”
Veganism is on the rise in the UK – many consumer reports go so far as to call it a boom – and awkwardly, the day after Sitwell left his post, Waitrose issued its annual Food & Drink Report. In it, was the statistic that one in eight Brits now identify as vegan or vegetarian. Since 2012, analysis shows, Google searches for the word vegan have increased eight fold.
Has this led to degrees of infighting in the vegan community? While some vegans follow a very strict diet and won’t use any animal products in day to day life at all – that includes avoiding honey-based beauty products, leather shoes and clothes, and sometimes wool for example – other people omit animal products only from their diet. Which, some critics argue, makes veganism look faddy.
One man, writing on Facebook, said while it was much easier to be a vegan now than decades ago, there’s been a “misappropriation of vegan by people who eat a plant based diet but don’t cut out animal products from their clothing or still use non-vegan toiletries, cosmetics etc.”
Kate Stewart is a vegan and principal lecturer at Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences, where she studies human behaviour and how we interpret information about food. She thinks the narrative has now shifted because long-standing vegans are trying to “protect” the meaning of traditional veganism. The word, she says, typically describes not “just a dietary practice but a deeply held set of principles”, which can be seen to have been diluted by the rise in casual veganism adopted for reasons primarily to do with health.
Vegans have always been stigmatised, Stewart says, but social media has created both a direct channel and screen of anonymity for people looking to air their views on veganism. This goes for both meat eaters attacking vegans and vegans challenging each other, and gets to the heart of what makes us human: our sense of identity.
But why does veganism seem to prompt such a hostile response? “A lot of it is to do with how our food practices are a really important part of how we construct our social identity, and how they’re a really important part of our home and family lives – and how we contextualise who we are and what we’re about,” she explains.
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Different lifestyle choices can sometimes feel like a personal attack, she adds, especially when someone implies that what you are doing – in this case eating meat – is wrong. “I think sometimes, as well, it pricks people’s conscience. It’s a shoot the messenger response. Sometimes it’s about feeling your own personal identity has been criticised by someone else.”
Anti-vegan jokes and trolling may not be the meat-eater’s last stand so much as a defence mechanism. “I don’t think it’s about guilt for everyone,” says Stewart. “There are many people who are perfectly comfortable with that they eat and [in those cases] the hostility is about somebody suggesting these things that make them who they are are morally bad.”