Vegaphobia: media eats veganism
- Published: 10 June 2011
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Vegans. Are they faddists? Sentimentalists? Or vitriolic extremists? According to a recent study, the UK media would have us believe all three, writes Tiffany Lowana.
11 June 2011
‘Vegaphobia: derogatory discourses of veganism and the reproduction of speciesism in UK national newsapapers’ is at once an arresting and insistent read. In a first of its kind report, researchers Matthew Cole and Karen Morgan canvass the discourses of veganism in UK national newspapers in 2007.
What they find is unhinging.
Not only do they realise that these newspapers reflect an insidious societal norm of speciesism, but that the media is the very machine feeding this norm.
What’s most disquieting about this? The media is maligning the experience of veganism. Vegans are variously moulded into kooky, tree-hugging ‘health freaks’ or hysterical, misinformed cult members.
The media’s relentless derogatory narrative of veganism whites out the impassioned reason most vegans become vegan: for nonhuman animals’ rights; to absolutely throttle speciesism.
LexisNexis – an online archive of text from printed sources – was used to search all UK national newspapers for the words ‘vegan’, ‘vegans’ and ‘veganism’ for the full 2007 year. A deft way to eliminate manual glitches, the only drawbacks were that visual images of vegans and veganism fell through the sieve, as did implicit references.
Cole and Morgan found 397 articles in which one or more of the keywords were used. Once articles were collated and thoroughly read, they were divided into three headings: ‘positive’, ‘neutral’ and ‘negative’. Of these articles, 22, or 5.5% were categorized as ‘positive’; 80, or 20.2% were categorized as ‘neutral’; 295, or 74.3%, were categorized as ‘negative’.
74.3%. These negative dialogues – in order of frequency of occurrence – were: ridiculing veganism; characterising veganism as asceticism; asserting that veganism is difficult or impossible to sustain; describing veganism as a fad; portraying vegans as oversensitive; characterising vegans as hostile.
These articles were many and varied. There were several examples when veganism sat side by side with other cultural oddities that were presented as completely absurd. One conspicuous example from a Guardian story about the web:
Among the bizarre personal lists of UFO sightings and vegan-friendly cafes…(The Guardian: The Guide 13 January 2007:31)
Others have veganism rubbing shoulders with the language of human oppression.
Take this homophobic excerpt on ‘council tax snoopers’:
…they will leave my home thinking I am a Devil-worshipping vegan naturist, hopelessly gay, with a much-kissed photo of John Prescott by my bed. (Mail on Sunday 18 March 2007:80)
In the face of such cavernous ridicule, animal rights – what makes veganism pulse – is lost. It is much harder to ridicule the uncomfortable black truth of slaughterhouses and factory farms, than it is to ridicule the ‘quirky’ health ramblings of vegans.
Characterising veganism as asceticism
‘Strict vegan’. ‘Staunch vegan’. ‘Fervent vegan’. Cole and Morgan found analogous prefixing in many articles, reminding readers of what extraordinary will and sacrifice is needed to become a vegan.
Such delineation ignores research that vegans aesthetically prefer their plant-based diets and find it no hassle at all. (P. Rozin, M.Markwith and C. Stoess, Psychological Science 8, 1997:67-73)
Forget about vegans flashing hedonism. Or rather, when they do, it’s followed by exclamation or disbelief:
No matter how rock’n’roll you become, how f***ed up you get, people still think you are Buddhist vegans. (The Times: The Knowledge 3 February 2007:28)
This asceticism fortifies the normality of the meat-eating reader’s diet. These robust, ‘healthy’ readers are reassured they are nothing like vegans: ‘scrawny hippies…vegan bones’. (The Daily Telegraph: Art 2007:16)
Describing veganism as difficult or impossible to sustain
Typically, vegan food is presented as a tamed – sometimes unpalatable – alternative. Even when admitting to the richness and colour to be found in vegan food, journalists still persisted to the contrary:
Suitable for vegans – though you’d never guess it from the taste. (The Guardian: G2 6 April 2007:23)
As such, there is a pervading tone of pity for vegans:
The Labour MSP admits to supporting Kilmarnock FC, but she can’t have a pie at Rugby Park because she is a vegan. (Daily Mail 26 February 2007:13)
Nonhuman animal flesh and their bodily secretions, on the other hand, are presented as unquestionably enticing:
She loves cheese too much to become a vegan. (Daily Mail: Weekend 24 March 2007:49)
And a more grandiose spectacle of speciesism:
If the choice is between swapping a balanced diet of food stuffs I can get at my local supermarket, for a faddish, fanatical diet cult (veganism, as promoted in the book Skinny Bitch), I’d rather be a fat pig. (Daily Mail 24 May 2007:57)
Finally, there’s the inference that if celebrity vegans cannot stick to veganism, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Liv Tyler went vegan for love when she met Joaquin Phoenix, but returned to beef when the relationship went sour. (The Observer Food Monthly 2007b:27)
There is a message simmering close to the surface in these articles. It goes something like this: don’t even bother trying to go vegan and certainly don’t feel guilty for doing so. Any attempt you make is bound to fail.
Describing veganism as a fad
The vegan faddist pin-up girl for 2007 was Gwyneth Paltrow. Not only is her veganism reduced to a ‘lifestyle’ choice, she also provided fuel for yet another stereotype: the hypocritical vegan:
One wonders whether strict vegan Gwynnie has thought this madcap foodie adventure through. Although she insists: ‘I won’t be eating meat on this trip – I’ll get by on fish and rice’. (Sunday Express 2007:13)
The newspapers crowned Heather Mills the other quintessential vegan faddist. She is accused of becoming a vegan purely out of jealousy:
Why can’t Heather Mills see that she will not endear herself to the public by copying Paul McCartney’s former wife Linda by going vegan and producing beauty products to rival former step-daughter Stella? (Sunday Mirror 14 January 2007:43)
It is not surprising that the vegans attacked for faddism in these articles are women. Cole and Morgan neatly explain, ‘Faddism is frequently associated with women’s subculture as a trivialization strategy’.
Characterising vegans as oversensitive
The thin-skinned vegan: too sentimental and too emotional to deal with biting cold reality. These vegan ‘animal lovers’ are portrayed as too delicate to confront animal predation and the ‘naturalness’ of eating nonhuman animal flesh:
…looks about as comfortable as a vegan in an abattoir. (The Guardian: Sport 2007:20)
They will spit him out like veal at a vegan dinner party. (The Sunday Times: Culture 10 June 2007:14)
Once again, anti-speciesism does not even make it onto the page. Veganism is belittled as blind-folded frailty, while meat-eating is lauded as brawny realism. The readers are told that only humans who eat nonhuman animals are shining examples of those who aren’t ‘too sensitive’.
Sexism is also at play here. The media’s prey is usually female – extensive research shows that vegans are approximately twice as likely to be female as male. (Cole and Stewart 2010).
The gendered stereotype of the irrational woman precedes the tacit ‘oversensitivity’ argument. Cole and Morgan maintain, “Objecting to violence against other animals gives ‘evidence’ of women’s irrationality. They are therefore unsuited to rational debate on human relationships with other animals…and should be excluded from such debates”.
Characterising vegans as hostile
Vacillating from the ‘outspoken vegan’ (The Sun ‘A ‘Joint’ Project, 14 May 2007) to the spectacular ‘vegan terrorists’, (The Times 21 July 2007:12) snapshots of the hostile vegan were still rare.
The stellar example of vegan hostility in 2007 was quite atypical. An unsettling number of newspapers gave lacerating reports on the trial of ‘vegan parents’ for the murder of their baby in the US. ‘Vegan Killers’; (The Sun 2007d) ‘Vegan diet kills baby’; (The Mirror 2007c:23) ‘Strict vegans guilty of murder’. (The Times 2007c:43) All this, regardless of the prosecutor’s enunciation that “the child died because he was not fed. The vegan diet is fine”. (The Guardian 2007b:17)
Why is the hostile vegan rhetoric so quiet? The derogatory discourses of veganism as a whole serve one overarching purpose: to smother anti-speciesism, to breathe some words of relief into the hearts of meat-eaters: “It’s okay. You are guilt-free”.
Neutral and positive discourses
The ‘neutral’ articles were almost entirely examples of (mostly travel) products and services indulging the needs of vegans. For instance:
Like most places in Cuba, it is not ideal for vegans, considering most dishes contain meat (usually pork), but Liz is a vegetarian and she coped okay. (The People 2007a:44).
These apparently well-intentioned pieces to help the vegan traveller navigate unknown territories are somewhat deceptive. By singling out vegans, stressing they must usually be catered for, the idea that veganism is difficult is only reinforced.
Another snowball effect of neutral discourse is that the reader is implicitly told – once again – that veganism is a ‘lifestyle’ or consumer choice. This is particularly the case when ‘vegan foods’ are advertised alongside meat:
Bestsellers include the Beet Burger (Cornish beefburger with beetroot, watercress and horseradish and roast garlic mayo) or the vegan Sunflower Burger (ginger, coriander and chilli tofu burger with tahini sauce, sweet roast peppers and salad sprouts). (The Sunday Times 2007a:33)
As for positive discourses? Even in this smattering of articles, anti-speciesism hardly gets a mention. There was a single lengthy report vindicating veganism. However, this report on Edward Batha’s ‘challenge’ to ‘live vegan for a month’ was markedly weakened by his cavalier assertion, ‘I’m a devoted carnivore’. His pledge to veto meat and dairy was followed by statements revealing his own and others’ vegaphobic bias:
My decision to go vegan elicited a variety of responses, but not one was enthusiastic. Meat-eaters thought it was ludicrous, even vegetarians weren’t convinced it was possible, and one person told me he’d rather eat his arm. With ill-disguised glee they ran through lists of things I wouldn’t be able to eat. The doctor was deeply sceptical…and said he wouldn’t recommend veganism as the body needed meat to function. (Daily Mail 2007b:38)
Batha ends his vegan stint with an anti-climactic, ‘It’s not so bad, this vegan thing’.
An uneasy conclusion
Media: potential mirror, monster, martyr. Truth-teller.
Cole and Morgan remind us of its power:
In terms of broader societal dispositions against veganism, the mass media are arguably of far greater significance than academia in that they represent a key site of contestation for the meaning of veganism. There is probably no other discursive practice, besides everyday conversation, that is engaged in so frequently and by so many people as news in the press and on the television.
Vegaphobic discourse normalises the concept that animals are ours to silence, imprison, torture, wear and eat. The zealous effort to tear down veganism lends credibility to Brian Lukes’ view that human violence towards nonhuman animals actually disturbs most humans. (B. Lukes, ‘Justice, Caring and Animal Liberation’ in J. Donovan and C.J. Adams (eds) The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics 2007)
Since the majority of journalists (and the general population) are not vegan, animal rights activists always need to be looking for new ways to up the ante for animal liberation.
Cole and Morgan suggest vegan academics and NGOs approach newspaper editors and journalists as ‘experts’ on veganism.
To simply stand by and watch mainstream media run rampant with vegan stereotypes, is nothing short of dangerous.
Tiffany Lowana is associate editor at The Scavenger.