Flesh Eating and Right Wing Ideologies (Watch)
Updated: Apr 14
We take a look into an Aotearoa New Zealand study that investigates what views are most associated with vegans, vegetarians and omnivores. In the process, they look into a few other international studies and learn a bit about some of the biggest barriers to transitioning to a vegan diet.
Climate change, dwindling freshwater, animal exploitation, and other scary stuff- are major issues we’re all fighting against. Shifting the planet towards a plant-based lifestyle is being championed as a way to fight these existential threats. But in Aotearoa, based on this study, less than 6% of us identify as vegetarian or vegan. If shifting our diet is so important, what’s stopping people? Scientists have been on a quest to answer this question, and now we have our own Aotearoa analysis from the University of Waikato called... “to meat or not to meat: a longitudinal investigation of transitioning to and from plant-based diets.”
The authors looked at a range of characteristics they thought might be associated with diets, and most of their results were to be expected, but a few of them surprised us!
First, based on the study’s 45 thousand participants, they found that 94.1% of them were omnivores, 4.6% vegetarian and 1.2% were vegan. The participants were asked how much they agreed with a series of statements and questions on a scale of 1-7. Using this data, the authors analysed which characteristics are associated with each diet and if they play a role in transitioning between diets over a one-year period.
To figure out the participants’ political views, first they asked them how liberal versus conservative they see themselves as being. Next, they Looked at “right wing authoritarianism” which included the statement “It is always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubt in people’s minds”.
And they looked at people’s “Social dominance orientation”, which the internet tells us is “a measure of an individual’s support for group-based hierarchies”. They asked them whether it was OK if some groups had more of a chance in life than others, and whether we should have increased social equality.
The results for this were pretty much as you’d expect. Vegans were the most liberal, they had less faith in government and religious institutions, and were the strongest believers in social equality. On the other hand, those who scored highly on Right Wing Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Orientation were far more likely to be omnivores. As the writers say, this was in line with previous research which has consistently found flesh-eating to be associated with a preference for hierarchical relations, and tradition and convention.
This Belgian study looked at why it is that right wing adherents are more likely to accept animal exploitation and consume animals. They found two main psychological processes behind this: first, it was because of the perceived threat that animal-rights ideologies pose to the dominant ideology, and second, because of the belief in human superiority over animals. People who expressed strong attachments to their country’s identity, customs, and economy, were more accepting of animal exploitation.
The writers explain that those with more conservative or right wing values “hold prejudiced attitudes against “deviants” and outgroups (for example, immigrants) because they are seen as threatening the dominant culture and ideological system”.
In Another study looking at evidence of bias towards vegetarians and vegans, they found that vegetarians and especially vegans face extremely negative attitudes, equal or worse than commonly stigmatized groups. They found that “over 40% of vegetarian participants and over half of vegan participants reported experiencing at least some everyday discrimination, engaging in activities to prepare for potential discrimination, and engaging in discrimination coping mechanisms”, such as “accepting it as a part of life”
They also found that “vegetarians and vegans are evaluated negatively for their resistance to norms, especially by those higher in right-wing ideologies”, and the more you challenge these norms, the more bias you face. So vegans and vegetarians motivated by animal rights were viewed the most negatively, followed by those motivated by the environment, and then health.
To summarise all of that, People who are strongly attached to traditions, social norms and established authorities are more resistant towards change and those who want to bring about the change. And the more comfortable you are with seeing other groups as inferior, the more comfortable you are with dominating and eating other animals.
Next let’s look at gender. As expected, they found that men were less likely to be vegan or vegetarian. As the writers said, men are more likely to have conservative ideologies than women, and so it follows they’re less likely to be vegan and vegetarian.
In another study about ‘Gender Differences in Attitudes to Vegans and Vegetarians’, they said “Vegetarian diets are generally considered to be less masculine than meat-based diets, and omnivores exhibit more prejudice against vegetarian men than women.” They explored how women are socialized to show greater care for other animals and the environment. They suggested that men are less likely to do anything which they see as ‘feminine’, because they’re afraid to lose their masculinity, both in their own eyes and the eyes of others. Women, however, are less concerned with making gender-abiding choices. This is also referred to as ‘precarious masculinity’, a concept which describes the instability of masculinity and its constant need for reaffirmation. “Besides, (the writers said) it seems that men are under more social pressure when it comes to maintaining stereotypical social norms.”
One could argue that PETA using the objectification of women effectively targets men, by presenting the message in a way that aligns with popular masculinity. But if masculine traits lead to the subjugation of animals, wouldn’t reinforcing them perpetuate animal suffering? Wouldn’t it be better to dismantle the harmful constructs of masculinity altogether, and embrace feminine traits such as empathy? As many feminist writers have pointed out, the objectification of women and animals are related and work to reinforce one another.
Interestingly, this study found that vegan men were less conservative than omnivorous AND vegetarian women, second only to vegan women. This means veganism is a higher predictor of liberalism than gender, even when gender is combined with vegetarianism. It’s clear that veganism is one of the most powerful tools against toxic masculinity and discrimination - here’s hoping our feminist and anti-race allies take note.
They also looked at “environmental efficacy”, asking participants how much they believed in their own ability to positively impact the environment. Vegetarians scored more than omnivores but the vegans had by far the highest score. It’s clear vegans are well aware of the environmental benefits of veganism. This could be especially true for vegans of Aotearoa, given the impact of industrial dairy farming is common knowledge to us.
They also asked participants about their perception of their own health, how often they get sick, and how optimistic they are about the future of their health. Once again, vegans reported the highest rates of subjective health, followed by vegetarians. This association wasn’t as strong as the previous ones, but we thought we’d mention it anyway.
For religious (spiritual) beliefs, they asked people if they believe in some form of spirit or lifeforce. They found that beliefs in religion/spirituality didn’t have any associations with diet. The writers reckon it’s because NZ is largely secular, with a lot of people not identifying with any religion. This is interesting because both the questions about right wing authoritarianism included religious aspects.
While the first question was about faith in government and religious authorities, the second statement, which was reverse scored, was “Atheists and others who have rebelled against established religions are no doubt every bit as good and virtuous as those who attend church regularly.” Because the people who scored higher on these questions were more likely to be omnivores, it implies there IS a connection between religion and flesh-eating.
This result could be due to a badly phrased question; asking people whether they believe in a spirit or lifeforce may not accurately reflect people’s religious views, as it’s possible for people who are not religious in a traditional sense to also say they believe in a lifeforce. So we wonder if the questions were phrased differently in order to distinguish between spirituality and established religions, if they would have found more of an association.
And the last one we’re gonna look at today was about “protection of native species”. For this one, they asked people how much they agree with the statement “Protecting New Zealand’s native species should be a national priority”. This one surprised the writers the most, as they hypothesised it would be a predictor for veganism. And although vegetarians scored slightly higher than omnivores on this, vegans actually scored lower than both vegetarians and omnivores.
The researchers gave two possible explanations for this. They thought maybe it’s because the wording ‘native species’ suggests both animals AND plants... Their other suggestion was that “protecting New Zealand native species could be seen as a form of national pride and nationalism in general rather than a facet of support for animal protection.” Nationalism is often associated with conservatism, so we can understand that aspect of the question putting vegans off.
We’d like to add that native species “protection” is often associated with killing other animals. And because the statement asked if it should be a matter of national priority, it could be understood within the context of the state-enforced, militarized approach we currently undertake. So that might be why vegans are not so keen on this one. Ka rawe e hoa ma.
In terms of transitioning, only gender and conservatism affected the likelihood of transitioning over time. So, women, liberals (and liberal women) were the most likely people to transition to a vegetarian or vegan diet. There’s our target market folks.
It’s interesting they found environmental efficacy was not a transitional factor to becoming vegan or vegetarian, as we know environmental concern is a strong motivator for transitioning. Perhaps it’s because they asked people how much they believed in their abilities to make a difference, not simply their levels of environmental concern.
This indicates people’s belief in themselves grew after transitioning, which really speaks to the empowering nature of veganism, and how it’s capable of shifting our wider perspectives on the world, far beyond our diets.
Likewise, health was not a transitional factor, meaning people’s subjective health grew after transitioning. We already know that there are many health benefits associated with plant-based diets, but it’s nice to see that people can feel their health improving after only one year’s time. Unfortunately they didn’t get any indication of what makes people transition to an omnivorous diet, so this study doesn’t tell us how to keep people vegan.
Nonetheless this study gave us some really good initial insights into the perspectives of vegans, vegetarians and omnivores, and confirmed the international findings which link conservatism with flesh-eating. Anecdotally, most of us know this to be true, and it’s pretty well reflected in our political landscapes.
National and ACT, for example, tend to be more on the conservative end of the spectrum, and they’re always coming out in defense of animal farmers and celebrating the culture of flesh-eating. On the other hand, the Green Party have spoken at two animal rights marches in Aotearoa, they’ve given their support to animal focused campaigns led by animal rights advocates - and are definitely the bravest when it comes to calling out animal ag.
It’s clear that our diets aren’t just about what food we eat. They’re impacted, and impact, our perspectives of the world more widely. This study is yet another example of why vegan advocacy can’t be apolitical: fighting for animals means fighting against the ideologies that uphold their oppression. Clearly, animals are stuck within a hierarchical worldview which places some groups above others and naturalizes oppression on the basis of it being traditional or normal. So we have to fight against the normalization of animal farming: in Aotearoa, we can do that by highlighting the colonial construction of these industries, and explore the many unnatural processes these systems rely on. We have to challenge values of domination and hierarchy, and embrace liberal values of empathy and equality.
All of this SCIENCE works against the common accusation of veganism as an expression of privilege, or some sort of colonizing force. Vegans strongly believe in social and environmental equality, and are more comfortable behaving in countercultural and feminine ways. It’s time nonvegan leftists dropped their unscientific views about us, and embraced veganism, with all its anti-patriarchal and liberalizing beauty.