Where To Go From Here: Thoughts On Preventing Veg*n Recidivism
Now that we have explored what recidivism can look like and offered some social factors that may inhibit veganism, what does this mean for our movement at large? How can movement leaders and individual activists take this information to encourage people to try veganism and offer the right support to keep them from backsliding?
By Jaime Hecht (guest blogger)
|Other posts in this blog series:
Returning to Meat: Who is Doing It, How it Happens, and What This Means for the Veg*n Movement
–Veg*n Recidivism: Why is it Happening?
You Are Reading: Where To Go From Here: Thoughts on Preventing Veg*n Recidivism
The stories my participants shared with me were humbling as they offered the opportunity to step down from my vision of a black and white world and realize that reality is stubborn. Many activists view eating animals as an ethical issue and I would guess that many of the participants inherently agree that it is a bad idea. However, the day to day lives of many make exercising certain beliefs difficult and the social factors I have outlined are very powerful barriers.
As a movement we should seek to garner an understanding of human limitations. With the percentage of vegans now being reported as 1.5%, (Vegetarian Resource Group 2009) although growing, we are at a time where this type of commitment is a rarity. We should continue to strive for veganism, however, we can start with small steps, celebrate incremental change and focus on creating healthier, animal-friendly options that can be integrated into our fast paced nation.
My research found six main barriers to maintaining vegetarianism: family relationships, identity issues, gender roles, labels, peer influence, and trend participation. For each barrier I found, I will offer suggestions for overcoming the problem of veg recidivism and backsliding. These are just a start and I encourage you to add your suggestions in the comments.
Family Relationships: The institution of family has its own rules that are deeply ingrained into many individuals. Perhaps tolerance and encouragement to build new, kinder traditions can help families to avoid dietary conflicts. I recommend reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer as he touches on this idea nicely. Vegetarian communities in most cities are doing a great job of offering vegetarians and vegans options during the major holidays. However, those not involved with activist groups may feel isolated during the holidays and cave into their families’ demands. As a movement we need to reach out to all families and individual veg*ns to help build cohesive and cruelty-free traditions in their homes.
So many of the individuals I spoke with repeated the worry of being impolite or rude at a family dinner or social function. However, I think the stigma that may have occurred at one time with vegans and vegetarians is diminishing. Vegans should be encouraged to feel pride for remaining active for animals during these events. Also, the health crisis in our country has created a cultural shift and a new dialogue when it comes to food. The popularity and awareness behind plant based diets is becoming mainstream, so there may not be as much pressure as once thought.
Identity: I suggest taking significant time to reach an understanding of the history and traditions involved in cultural eating norms. Groups should develop education and literature that discusses the role of veganism in different cultural contexts. For example, Claudia Serrato’s work identifies meat-eating within the Latino community as a vestige of colonization.
To build a strong vegan movement will require members prioritizing the vegan identity. As I have pointed out this is often difficult when the identity is competing with others such as wife, mother, or a cultural identity such as “Mexican” or “Italian.” When these cultural identities are strong, they tend to construct a narrative of consumption that almost always centers on animal foods. We can offer those who hold cultural traditions to a high standard the tools to embrace their cultural traditions while still leading a vegan lifestyle. This is done often with leaders of religious institutions who show that the religious scripts often favor the vegetarian lifestyle.
Gender Roles: Many of the women in my study admit they felt the burden of meal preparation for their families. We need to break down the stereotype and encourage more equality in the kitchen. Continuing to shed light on the outdated gender roles regarding food and meat is paramount. Hopefully more academic institutions will include the work of Carol J. Adams and other ecofeminmist scholars into their curriculum.
Perhaps vegans who have non-vegan members of their family can speak out and help others in the vegan community encountering similar issues. Showing how they deal with differing tastes without bailing on the lifestyle could perhaps help troubleshoot this problem.
Labels: What to do about the somewhat ambiguous definition of vegan is a little tricky. Some call for us to embrace any and all forms of vegetarianism while others say that we must clearly spell out what it means to be vegan and accept nothing less. Some of my participants chose to go veg within a context that suited their lifestyle. Sometimes that meant occasionally eating fish, or going on a “vegan vacation” when home on spring break. After sitting and talking with all of the people I did, I have softened my hard lined stance on what it means to be vegan. I think that yes, we should encourage everyone to avoid all animal products, and encourage effective activism. However, I do not believe that condemning anyone, criticizing choices, or making a complex lifestyle and cultural choices a black and white issue is a realistic endeavor.
We should try to not define veganism as a pass/fail, exclusive ideology. It can be forgiving and flexible. Yes, committed members are vital to our progress, and we should continue to allocate resources toward cultivating a strong core of activists. However, we should be mindful of how we frame veganism. If we define failing at veganism as one small lapse, then we run the risk of alienating the majority of those inclined to reduce meat to make further reductions.
To quote a friend, “it’s a numbers game.” We must focus our efforts on those who have the capacity to make the big change. That is why I agree with all those out there on college campuses leafleting and speaking to young people. I can spend an hour trying to convince my mother that she really should stop eating fish once a week, or I can use that hour in a more productive way.
Peer Influence: Groups should promote potlucks and other social events such as happy hours, so people can have a peer group where veganism is normalized. Having “bring a friend” events at vegan potlucks can expose nonveg friends to veganism which may help, develop more tolerance for their choices within their nonveg friendship networks.
Trend Participation: Thanks to Ellen and Bill Clinton, veganism is taking off in trendy circles. With restaurants like Candle 79 in NYC and Sublime in Ft. Lauderdale, people have the chance to see veganism in a more fancy light. However, we must be weary when relying on celebrities to promote veganism as we’ve seen some prominent figures fall off the wagon (read: Natalie Portman).
In both social movement studies and vegetarian work, scholars have all too often focused their attention on the committed activists within a movement. Future research should include not only committed members but those who engage in social movements in a less committed fashion.
Lichbach (1994) noted that many individuals support movements but fail to get actively involved. Yet, continually within the literature most attention is paid to those active in large scale movement organizations. I hope my research can help spark the need to look at all aspects of social movement participation, including non-activists, as they too account for a large part of social change.
When my thesis project originally began I felt that there was a lack of attention on those who struggle with vegetarianism. Research tends to have a fascination with how and why people initially engage with the practice. However, I hope I have encouraged activists and researchers to devote more resources to the individuals who have the inclination to avoid meat, but for one reason or another struggle with prioritizing or persevering when faced with obstacles.
Lichbach, Mark. 1994.“Rethinking Rationality and Rebellion: Theories of Collective Action and Problems of Collective Dissent.” Rationality and Society (6):8-39.
Vegetarian Resource Group. 2009. “How Many Vegetarians Are There?”
Jaime Hecht has a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Central Florida where her studies focused on social movement theory and the vegan social movement. She is currently the Outreach Coordinator at A Well-Fed World, a food justice and global hunger nonprofit based in Washington DC.