Why animal activists and vegans don’t feel understood by other people
by Clare Mann
As a psychologist with over twenty years experience, I admit that I have a mental health disorder. Some professionals might say I have an eating disorder because I am vegan. Others would show concern that I regularly feel anxious, depressed, experience panic attacks and even post-traumatic stress symptoms at what I have and continue to see in society’s abuse of animals. I say this because, In the past year I have seen an increase in GPs referring people they believe are suffering from mental illness, particularly eating disorders. However, upon meeting them, I find that these preliminary diagnoses follow these patients explaining that they are vegan. What if their associated symptoms were not signs of mental illness at all, instead signs of extreme anguish, grief, betrayal and the madness of Speciesism?
So if you are reading this and are actively involved in animal advocacy and consider yourself to be an ethical vegan, then perhaps you should be issued with a health warning? Not a physical health warning because with the proper nutritional advice, your health will positively improve by adopting a plant based diet, but with a mental health warning. Once you lift the veil on what is going on behind our speciesism, you will most likely reach the same conclusion – that it is a form of madness but not your madness. The madness of how our society thinks speciesism – our unspoken superiority over the animal kingdom and differing treatment of different species – is ok.
So why is it so painful to be an animal advocate or adopt a vegan lifestyle? Most importantly what can you do to alleviate your pain and help animals? Throughout this discussion, I will use the phrase Vegan to refer to a person whose values and lifestyle choices are unpinned by the ethical belief in the non-exploitation and use of animals. In addition they are those who take action to end the suffering of animals.
Feeling alone with your knowledge of speciesism
Many advocates say that since discovering the truth about institutionalised cruelty towards animals, they experience enormous symptoms of grief, trauma, depression and loneliness. This is only alleviated when they speak to other people who report similar emotions. However, when talking to people who resist, disbelieve, criticise or are indifferent to hearing about their findings, they feel isolated, angry and despairing.
Of the advocates I have talked to, the vast majority say that they no longer have non-vegan friends because they simply don’t feel understood by them. This is particularly the case when they want to talk about the trauma they feel in relation to animal cruelty. But does someone need to be traumatised by animal cruelty themselves in order to support or understand your suffering? If this assumption is correct, it has implications for the basis of understanding others generally. Does it mean that people can only understand experiences like, e.g. abuse, depression or divorce, if they have been through these experiences themselves?
An activist is someone who cannot help but fight for something. That person is not usually motivated by a need for power or money or fame, but in fact driven slightly made by some injustice, some cruelty, some unfairness – so much so that he or she is compelled by some internal moral engine to act to make it better.Vegans typically report the following about talking to non-vegan friends. They advise the person of the trauma and anger they feel in relation to the extent of animal abuse in society, e.g. in factory farming, retail or manufacturing. If the friend is a good listener, they are encouraged to share more and are offered support and strategies to alleviate their related anxiety and trauma. Having told the friend of the extent of animal cruelty and that if a person doesn’t choose veganism their daily choices involve using products and services that abuse animals, they expect the other person to also make the vegan choice. They say things like ‘If my friend or family really understood my pain, they would be vegan. How could they not be’?
There can be a lot of differences between friends on many issues and deep friendships can develop despite life experiences being very different. We don’t just be friends with divorcees if we have gone through this ourselves. However, there seems that there might be a difference regarding the subject of veganism. Veganism is a philosophy of the non-use and non-exploitation of animals. The vegan has learnt that animal cruelty is institutionalised through industrial processes related to food production, clothing, furniture, product testing and other uses. A person may disagree with animal cruelty yet not choose to be vegan, not considering that animal cruelty is inherent in production of goods and services they buy. Thus the non-vegan is not knowingly colluding with animal cruelty. They are unwittingly colluding with it, until the vegan advises them of it. The vegan who then talks to their friend about these issues, who then doesn’t become vegan, believes that their friend either agrees with the cruelty, disbelieves what goes on or is indifferent to it. Either way, the vegan knows that the non-vegan now has the knowledge but chooses to continue with the collusion. This is why they say that their friends or family don’t understand them. They might believe the non-vegan friend is demonstrating that:
- Cruelty and animal exploitation is acceptable.
- They do not wish or are unable to empathise with the vegan’s trauma or
- They do not believe that animal cruelty is as far-reaching as the vegan reports.
To examine whether a non-vegan friend is required to experience something of what the vegan presents in order to understand them, let’s consider other issues, for example issues like divorce, infidelity, and child abuse. In hearing of a friend’s pain, would a person who had experienced these things be more understanding of the friend? Maybe. If they hadn’t, would it mean they were less understanding? Maybe. What if they hadn’t experienced an issue and yet continued to be friends helping the other person to come to terms with what is going on for them? The knowledge of the issue would not necessarily be calling upon the person (who had not experienced the specific pain being discussed) to change anything about their personal behaviour. This is because their non-experience of the issue isn’t directly or indirectly saying that the contributors to the pain are acceptable. They don’t automatically collude with the issues underpinning the pain unless they champion the actions that contributed – and in any case, the friend would be unlikely to know about it if they did.
Non-veganism is different. Because of the extent of animal exploitation in the industrial process, the non-vegan is unwittingly colluding with the cruelty every time they put milk in their coffee, eat meat, use cosmetics or household cleaning products that have not been labelled as cruelty free, sit on a leather couch or wear a wool jumper. It is impossible for them not to collude with the industrial cruelty unless they specifically choose the vegan option. This is why the vegan is challenged and says that their non-vegan friends or family don’t understand them.
It is probably only fundamental religious belief that would result in a similar dynamic and yet this too is subtly different. For example a fundamental Christian might say that their non-Christian friend doesn’t understand the imperative of their belief because if they did, they too would become Christian. Here we have a similar dynamic. However, it is different from the vegan issue. The friend or family member who chooses not to become a Christian might still act in accordance with Christian values of e.g. not deliberately causing harm to others. Their actions to be non-Christian only affect themselves for if the belief was so rewarding, they are surely missing out. However the friend who chooses not to become vegan is, by their daily lifestyle choices, colluding with harm to others. It doesn’t just affect them. It affects the millions of animals who are part of a production system that exists because of consumer demand.
So can a vegan only receive support and help from another vegan? Not necessarily. It is up to the individual to decide. They might remember a time when they too didn’t know about the industrial cover-up and the extent to which societal norms and culture keep in place behaviours and actions that collude with animal use i.e. speciesism. Our family or friends, like other human beings, have the capacity to empathise with another’s pain. Some people are better at helping someone else than others to develop strategies to cope with the challenges of life. To some extent it depends on the extent to which they have experienced grief or trauma in their own lives. However, when a person’s beliefs that are so great that they enter a minority called Vegan, who modify their entire everyday choices to avoid colluding with animal cruelty, they are more likely to feel truly understood by others whose hearts have been similarly opened.
How does the vegan avoid marginalising non-vegans and losing out on connecting with people who don’t share their lifestyle choice but who truly care for them e.g. like their families? Dr Will Tuttle offers us a solution to help us on this journey. He says that each of us are born vegan and is on the path to returning to this place. If you are an animal activist or vegan reading this, you will most likely remember a time before your eyes were opened to the institutionalised superiority humans hold over animals i.e. speciesism. Draw on that experience to ‘leap ahead’ for other people who have yet to have their eyes opened, holding the vision of a more compassionate world, one in which humans do not exercise superiority over non-human species and where animals live their own lives for their own sakes – not ours.
Will Tuttle’s World Peace Diet is an inspiring read for vegans to become examples to non-vegans of returning to a place from which they originated i.e. their own veganism. http://worldpeacediet.org/
For specific help on how to manage your own emotions regarding animal cruelty and communicate veganism more effectively, join the Sydney Vegan Club’s 30 Day Go Vegan Challenge. Whether you are a vegan or not, you will find thirty practical techniques and strategies to cope with challenging conversations as well as advice from Vegan Naturopath Robyn Chuter and 30 exquisite vegan recipes from Vegan Food Blogger Angela Thompson. http://www.sydneyveganclub.com.au/30daychallenge/