Friday, December 3, 2010

a response to ex-vegans, with minimal claims to the contrary and an appeal for conscious consonance

(note: this is a response to andrea’s post, “Say what? Does a vegan diet make you sick?” which disputes certain claims made by a former-vegan-turned-omnivore blogger.)

i'm not familiar with the particular blogger you’re talking about, or her new stance and reasoning, but there's another militant ex-vegan blogger i came across months ago who makes many of the same claims. i believe that from a health standpoint every body is different, everyone can benefit from really listening to their body and figuring out the right diet for them, whether it's plant-based or meat-based or whatever. and really, not everyone is *good* at being vegan--there are plenty of unhealthy foods we can eat, and plenty of ways to miss out on a balanced diet. this post isn’t going to be about refuting individual claims, but i do have to say, i reject the argument that an omnivorous diet is in any way more ethical or environmentally friendly than veganism. and the idea that veganism is anti-feminist is just a complete load.

i have a theory that some of these vocal ex-vegans possess a certain personality type that basically needs to stir up shit to be comfortable with themselves. i remember reading a post on the other ex-vegan's blog where she described how "influential" she was as a vegan. she described organizing protests, really getting into the activism side of things, telling omnivores that their diets are evil and bad...the kind of vegan extremism that makes vegans like me uncomfortable, gives us a bad name, i think...and i got the impression that maybe part of the appeal of veganism was the social role of outspoken agitator that she could fit into while still having a base of like-minded support in the vegan community.

now she's switched sides, and she still needs to position herself as an activist leader--after all, how would she know that her position is right if she didn't experience that familiar feeling of being a radical crusader against wrongness, while at the same time enjoying a base of enthusiastic support (now comprised of other ex-vegans and “People Eating Tasty Animals”)? beneath her actions lies a deep insecurity, i imagine, and some intense denial.

our brains are well-adapted toward self-preservation, equipped with very effective defense mechanisms. when we make choices that go against our own conscience, for most of us, the mind goes into justification mode. it's a healthy response that keeps some of us from completely hating ourselves and going batshit insane; but it can also make us believe some pretty irrational things.

i think, in order to repress former beliefs and rectify cognitive dissonance, some ex-vegans need reassurance that their choices are correct, and said reassurance only needs to come from one group--in other words, they probably won't hear or internalize any arguments from their former vegan cohorts, they'll only absorb information that reinforces what they're trying to make themselves believe. (to be really clinical you could say it falls under “the belief disconfirmation paradigm” of cognitive dissonance: “if the dissonance is not reduced by changing one's belief, the dissonance can result in misperception or rejection or refutation of the information, seeking support from others who share the beliefs, and attempting to persuade others to restore consonance.”)

the more we argue, the more they'll entrench. i reckon it would actually be more effective to leave ex-vegans alone--without the noise and attention they might begin to question themselves. and given the self-identification as “activist,” perhaps if they only had support, without opposition, they’d become pretty uneasy. but that’s total speculation.

here’s a basic restatement of my theory that applies more generally, rather than specifically to the aforementioned ex-vegan activist: if someone reversed a belief they’d held for years, one that they held so very deeply it became part of their basic identity, that reversal would be an extremely painful shift. the reasonable approach would be to labor over the reversal, to feel ambivalent and conflicted and recognize that they’ve found themselves in an unfortunate situation where some of their needs conflict with other needs, then gradually try to work it out while recognizing they’ll probably never feel 100% confident in their actions. but the more immediately adaptive approach would be (for “non-activist” personalities) straight-up denial, or (for “activist” personalities) a rapid about-face with a sudden leap from one comfortable, rehearsed role (also an important element of the person’s identity) to a corresponding (though opposite) role. it’s a good short-term strategy but ultimately they’ll either have to work very hard to keep things buried or they’ll eventually gain self-awareness and be forced to confront their own issues--and the longer they wait, most likely, the more difficult it will be.


Andrea said...

You've done a good job of analyzing the situation, Emily. She is indeed a passionate, deeply involved person, and I think changing from vegan to omnivore was painful and wrenching. As I said in one of my other responses, "When faced with changing something she was so invested in, she needed to dig deep and prove to herself that the change was necessary and justified."

I agree that one diet (or one attitude) doesn't fit all, and she is correct to choose what's right for her. But I wanted to say that it's not so great to act like her new truths are universally applicable. She believes her new diet is more environmentally sustainable than her old, and I don't buy that. Etc.

GoneferalinID said...

That sounds like someone I used to know but had to "unfriend" due to high drama levels. I quit smoking, but I don't ever preach about it. Some people have too much time on their hands.

Seglare said...

A very good post, Emily (and Adrea, whose post I just read as well).

Emily said...

andrea--i agree. i'm highly skeptical of anyone who says (or even seems to think) they know the ultimate truth about anything.

goneferal--yeah, and some people just like to control what everyone else does. it's so annoying.

selgare--thank you!