Veganism, despite an ethos based on ethics, is connected in the public mind with aggression. This is partly due to outspoken vegan spokespeople, such as youtubers and celebrities, but is also something that happens in everyday life too. This is shown in recent studies, with one claiming that 25% of people have experienced lectures about their diets from vegans and vegetarians. Contrary to the intention, 26% of people said that they were put off considering the diet based on these attitudes. Not only does the public perception of the vegan and vegetarian community suffer as a result, but also shame-based arguments have the capacity to be dangerous to those they influence.
It is reckless to use aggressive forms of persuasion when it comes to advising people about something which has such an effect on health. Spokespeople who equate meat eating with selfishness may on occasion have success, but it is hard to believe that this tactic could result in responsible decisions. British and American diets heavily feature meat, from holiday traditions such as Christmas dinners to most restaurant menus, and thus, the conversion to a diet that excludes meat or dairy is one that requires adaptation and work. When I first became a vegetarian, despite careful meal planning and a gradual conversion into the lifestyle, I still consumed far more cheese toasties than advisable. It is worrying, therefore, to think of how poor the diet of someone less prepared could become. Furthermore, energy levels and weight issues are just some of the potential side effects which can mean a diet change like this is not for everyone. People encouraging veganism and vegetarianism have a responsibility over those they influence to properly educate them about the health benefits and drawbacks rather than simply forcing a lifestyle change which can be difficult to maintain and hard on the body.
This kind of aggressive pushing of the vegan diet can also have a poor effect on the mental health. Associating food with guilt in any form is very dangerous. Cutting out meat and dairy is no less extreme than cutting out gluten or carbs, but because of the different reasons for doing so, it is assumed that it is okay to pressure people to do one and not the other. Making such a huge change to your diet can have effects on our individual relationship with food, especially if shame is one of the key motivators behind this lifestyle change. Notable figures like youtuber Melanie Murphy and the Blonde Vegan blogger have linked their personal experiences of orthorexia, a disorder where people get obsessed with clean eating, with the aggressive rhetoric that some vegans have used. This underlies the dangerous potential consequences on guilt-tripping anyone into a change of diet.
On a more basic level, food has the ability to provide us with great joy and comfort. If someone truly loves milk in their tea, or a cheese-burger, or tuna pasta, then who are vegans or vegetarians to deny them that pleasure? Life is short and if food brings people comfort, regardless of whether it is meat or dairy or anything else, then that should be something to be respected.
Promoting vegetarianism and veganism and sharing information about the lifestyle is a worthwhile endeavour, as long as the focus is always on informing rather than shaming. The environmental and ethical benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets may be strong, but they do not outweigh the importance of the individual’s health. The sooner all vegetarians and vegans prioritise respect of the individual’s right to make a choice about their own diet, the sooner that this respect will be returned and interest in the lifestyle will increase.