17 Ways Our Privilege Causes Us to Act Against Our Own Interests and the Interests of Others

Essay 2 of 4

Dr. Melanie Joy

First Published on: 

This is the second installment in a series of essays designed to raise awareness of unexamined privilege in the vegan movement and to encourage productive dialogue so that the movement becomes more unified and empowered. This essay builds on the previous one, so if you haven't yet read that one, please do so here.

In this essay, I describe some of the ways our unexamined privilege affects our perceptions and drives our behaviors, as well as how it can affect those around us. When we become aware of our privilege and its impacts, we're less influenced by it and are better able to make choices that reflect what we authentically think and feel, rather than what our privilege has caused us to think and feel.  

Many of the issues listed here are well-documented phenomena in the social sciences. Others are based on my own conclusions drawn from my own research, my analyses of other research, and my experience doing social justice work over the past 20 years, including my work as a university lecturer on feminism and socialization. Most of the examples I've used reflect gender privilege, since I'm a White, able-bodied (and otherwise privileged) woman and it's not appropriate for me to write comprehensively about privileges I haven't been on the other side of. Plus, many brilliant and articulate people who are members of various disadvantaged groups have written powerfully about other forms of privilege. I've also used a number of personal examples in this essay, based on my extensive experience in the vegan movement. However, I've only used personal examples which I know – from observing and speaking with thousands of others – apply well beyond my own experience.

Following are some of the ways our privilege impacts ourselves and others. This list is by no means comprehensive. It simply highlights what I believe are some of the most important features of privilege for us to be aware of.

●      Our privilege causes us to feel like we're more literate than we actually are about the oppression it defends. For example, consider how many times you, a vegan who may have read numerous books and watched countless films about the consequences of eating animals, have been told by non-vegans who've never learned about the issue that "humane meat” isn't as violent as you make it out to be, or that animal protein is necessary for healthy development, and so on.

A similar phenomenon can happen when, for example, women discuss sexism with men. For instance, after speaking as the only woman on an otherwise all-male panel, I commented to my two male hosts that the panel discussion reflected a classic gender dynamic: the men interrupted and talked over me every time I spoke. My hosts immediately told me that I was "wrong," and that communication between men and women "doesn't work that way." I asked them how they came to such a conclusion, and they admitted that they knew virtually nothing about patriarchy, feminism, or research on gendered communication, but that they just "didn't believe in feminist arguments." Despite the fact that I had nearly half a century of experience living as a female, that I'd been a professor of feminist psychology, and that I specialized in communication, my hosts felt that their understanding of the issue trumped my own.

●      Our privilege causes us to perceive facts as opinions and opinions as facts. Opinions are subjective and are open for debate, while facts are objective and are therefore not disputable. But our privilege causes us to confound these two factors. Consider, for example, how non-vegans often treat the facts you share as opinions and present their own opinions as indisputable facts ("Lobsters don't feel pain; it's just instinct causing them to scramble to get out of the pot they're being boiled alive in").

Similarly, I was speaking with a group of vegans when the subject of domestic violence came up and one of the men in the group, who had no experience with domestic violence, insisted that the statistics I was sharing were flawed (I was speaking about how women in heterosexual relationships were significantly more likely to be victims of domestic abuse than were their male counterparts). He insisted that my understanding was wrong, even though I used to teach college courses on the subject and he admittedly had no experience with the issue, except for having watched a documentary that briefly touched on it.

●      Our privilege makes us feel defensive whenever it's highlighted. Our privilege feeds on ignorance, on unawareness – especially on unawareness of its existence within us. So it causes us to feel defensive, and to act accordingly, whenever light is shed on it. The irony is that the very thing that would help us change our relationship with our privilege – awareness – is that which our privilege is designed to prevent us from obtaining. Social justice scholars and activists have referred to the phenomenon of being highly defensive against challenges to our privilege as "fragility." Male fragility, for example, causes men to be especially sensitive to challenges to male privilege, and what we can call "carnistic fragility" causes non-vegans to be hypersensitive to challenges to carnistic privilege.

Most vegans are all too familiar with the fact that simply saying they're vegan can elicit a defensive/fragile response from non-vegans, who may immediately start tossing out all sorts of arguments as to why veganism is wrong and eating animals is justified. Indeed, non-vegans may have an allergic reaction even to just hearing to the term "vegan." Similarly, if a woman risks admitting that she's a feminist, she can easily end up on the receiving end of a barrage of unsolicited arguments against feminism by some men (and sometimes by women who have bought into the sexist myths about feminism), who have an allergic reaction to the term "feminist."

●      Our privilege makes us less rational. Defensiveness is a reaction to a threat, real or perceived. When we feel defensive, we are in a state of "heightened arousal," meaning that our autonomic nervous system, which controls our fight-or-flight response, is activated, to a greater or lesser degree. In such a state, we have less access to our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that's responsible for rational thinking. This automatic response helps keep us alive; it's an instinctive reaction to danger that enables us to immediately deal with a threat. However, it doesn't serve us when what is needed is rational self-reflection.

For example, when confronted with their carnistic privilege, some of the most rational non-vegans may construct elaborate arguments for why eating animals is sensible, by framing veganism as irrational (suggesting that, for instance, veganism is based on subjective emotion rather than rational analyses, or that vegans are biased, or that veganism isn't viable on a global scale, etc.) – arguments which, when analyzed, are themselves irrational.

Further, I once was hired as a consultant by a male leader of a wildlife sanctuary and rehabilitation center, who was concerned with infighting among his team. It turned out that the majority of the conflicts involved women he'd had sexual relationships with, most of whom were much younger than he was and who were distressed because their relationship hadn't ended well. I pointed out the various reasons why having sex with his staff was problematic, not the least of which was due to the imbalance of power between him and them. He replied that he didn't agree with my assessment, because "I didn't ask for this power. I never wanted it." This kind of magical thinking – that simply wishing things were different would make them so – was in stark contrast to the measured rationality that normally guided this leader's decisions.

●      Our privilege makes us feel that learning about privilege is not important. Oppression – the unjust use of power that privileges some at the expense of others – is arguably the single greatest cause of human and nonhuman suffering on the planet. (1) There is a substantial, scientific body of literature on how oppressive systems operate and on the specific beliefs and behaviors that help maintain the privilege that sustains these systems. Yet, very few people opt to become literate about this vitally important phenomenon, even though they are inevitably active participants in it (we all are). Consider how, despite the fact that universities offer courses on gender and race, and often on oppression in general, most students choose to fill their electives learning, for instance, an ancient language they never intend to use or an instrument they aren't even interested in. And later on, when they're exposed to conversations about privilege, they may argue that it doesn't exist, or that it isn't as problematic as it's made out to be.

A common assumption among vegans is that they don't have to worry about becoming more privilege-literate because, out of all privileges, human privilege is the final frontier, and they've already crossed it. This assumption reflects the inaccurate belief that empathy and, by extension, concerns about justice, develop in a linear and predictable pattern: first, we develop empathy for humans, then for certain animals, then for all animals. It also reflects the assumption that becoming informed about one form of privilege automatically makes us informed about all forms of privilege, which is not the case.

      Similarly, our privilege makes us feel that something is only a problem if we think that it's a problem. The irony, of course, is that our privilege is designed to prevent us from seeing the problems it causes in the first place. For example, a non-vegan can spend their entire life in denial about the extent of the violence inherent in carnism, even though they may have been exposed to graphic footage of slaughterhouses. Usually, it takes multiple (and often formidable) exposures to the problem to break through the denial caused by carnistic privilege, if the veil of carnistic privilege is pierced at all.

Similarly, it took numerous public allegations of sexual harassment among vegan leaders for vegan women's concerns about pervasive sexist attitudes and behaviors in the movement to finally be taken seriously. Vegan women had been trying to raise awareness of male privilege and the problems it causes for decades, but they remained largely ignored or otherwise invalidated.

●      Our privilege makes us give more weight to the opinions of those who support it than to those who challenge it. In fact, members of both privileged and oppressed groups all learn to overvalue the opinions of members of privileged groups. For example, studies have shown that both men and women are more likely to believe men's opinions over women's. (2) Even vegans, who have critically examined carnism and veganism, can find themselves struggling to hold onto their truth and not second-guess their own opinion when faced with non-vegans who argue that they are overly sensitive, extreme, and so on.

●      Our privilege makes us feel entitled to never be inconvenienced, and to perceive minor inconveniences as major burdens. For example, consider the non-vegan who claims that the only thing stopping them from becoming vegan is that they can detect a slight difference between a veggie burger and a hamburger. Or consider how people in general, including vegans, often react defensively to being asked to use more respectful language – to avoid, for example, using ableist words such as "deaf" or to capitalize "Black" when referring to someone's ethnicity. Often, the simple request to change a few words to reflect a growing awareness of, and sensitivity to, oppressive language is met with resistance and offense. Our privilege causes us to perceive such requests as censorship and to therefore feel unfairly burdened.

Indeed, language offers us a useful window into the dynamics of privilege, since language is a key component in both maintaining and transforming oppression. Words have the power to shape our thoughts, feelings, and consequently, our behaviors. For example, consider how different a non-vegan diner's experience might be if they referred to the chicken on their plate as "someone" rather than "something." And consider how much easier it is to disregard the opinion of an adult when they're referred to as a child, such as when a grown woman is called a girl.

Language evolves as consciousness evolves, and it is therefore dynamic, or ever- changing. Yet many people resist making changes to language – especially changes that limit the power their privilege affords them. Indeed, our privilege causes us to see any limits on our own control as controlling. (3) People who insist on continuing to use oppressive language often claim that the changes they're being asked to make are "going too far" (as though there should be some cutoff point where a language stops evolving, and as though deciding what's "too far" or, rather, "far enough," should be determined by anyone other than the group being harmed by the language), because it "sounds awkward," or because it's "just a word" (and if it is truly "just" a word, then changing it shouldn't matter).

●      Our privilege makes us myopic. When our privilege is challenged, it causes us to zoom in on our own immediate experience and to fail to see the bigger picture. For example, upon hearing about veganism, some non-vegans focus entirely on how they would feel deprived if they stopped eating animals, disregarding the global catastrophe caused by carnism. And, although discussions about White privilege only began in 1988 when the phrase was coined, while racism has existed for millennia, many (White) people complain that talking about White privilege – which makes up just over one percent of the collective conversation – has been going on for too long.

●      In a similar vein, our privilege can make us feel victimized when we hear about the victimization it causes. For example, when a vegan informs a non-vegan about the violence endured by billions of nonhuman beings in the name of animal agriculture, the non-vegan may respond with anger at the injustice of potentially not being able to exercise their "freedom of choice" when it comes to eating meat, eggs, and dairy.

Likewise, when confronted with their privilege and the suffering it causes, many people feel victimized by not being able to exercise their "freedom of expression." For example, I once had a discussion about sexism in the vegan movement with several male colleagues. After explaining some of the horrific ways patriarchy harms girls and women around the world, often through sexually objectifying and violating them, I brought up my concern about an older male director at an animal rights organization I had recently visited, who had commented in front of a group of staff members about how sexy an 18-year-old intern's legs looked in her short skirt. (That visit, and the subsequent conversation with my colleagues, took place before #metoo, when most of the vegan men I spoke with, including many of the movement's leaders, didn't believe me when I pointed out that there were inappropriate sexual boundary crossings.) My dinner colleagues responded by saying that the leader's comment didn't seem problematic, and that the intern might have been flattered and appreciated the attention. After I explained why the power imbalance and the sexually objectifying nature of the comment made it inappropriate, my colleagues began complaining angrily about how hard it is to be a man these days, never knowing what the right thing to do is, and saying how unfair it was that they have to be so careful with everything they say. They told me that they found it "infuriating" not to be able to talk about issues without worrying about offending someone.

While there's no doubt that shifting gender roles is creating confusion and frustration, it's striking that these feelings would trump empathy for the victims of oppression. My colleagues' outrage was directed not at the widespread oppression of girls and women our conversation started out about, but toward the expectation that they try to be more considerate in conversations. Their privilege caused them to feel entitled to say whatever they want, whenever and however they want to, and to perceive requests to try to communicate more respectfully as an injustice. Moreover, despite the fact that they had apparently been feeling such confusion and frustration around how to relate to women appropriately, none of them had actually tried to get informed in order to make the necessary changes. Even when women, such as myself, had tried to raise their awareness of problematic gendered attitudes and behaviors, rather than listen and learn, they would debate, play devil's advocate, and argue that our supposed gender bias made our points less credible.

●      Our privilege causes us to see our needs as more important than the needs of those it disadvantages. For example, some non-vegans will argue that their need to have a traditional meal is more important than a vegan's need to actually be able to eat the meal, so the non-vegan won't, for instance, swap the butter for margarine in the mashed potatoes they're preparing. Similarly, some vegans who have been criticized in a less-than-ideal manner for using oppressive language or insensitive outreach strategies refuse to become privilege-literate and change such behaviors because they don't want to "give in to pressure" or because learning about the issue has become "too triggering." These vegans feel that their need not to feel uncomfortable trumps the need of the group their communications and outreach are impacting not to be harmed.

●      Our privilege makes us feel entitled to dismiss or ignore an entire movement, issue, or concept, based simply on our personal, anecdotal experience. For example, consider the non-vegan who rejects all things vegan because they'd been confronted by aggressive vegans who turned them off to the cause. Or consider the vegan who refuses to examine their White privilege because they'd been confronted by aggressive anti-racism advocates who turned them off to the issue. Or, perhaps, consider the man who says he doesn't believe women have less social power because he comes from a family of strong women or because he's been unsuccessful in the dating world so, according to his analysis, women have more power than men.

●      Our privilege distorts our perceptions of anger. Because anger, which is the emotional reaction to unjust attitudes and behaviors, drives people to challenge injustice, it is a threat to systems that are based on injustice. So when someone who challenges a system of oppression or the privilege that it upholds expresses anger, those of us with privilege often perceive this anger as more intense than it actually is. Furthermore, we tend to perceive the individual as "an angry person," rather than as "a person who is angry," which distracts us from the real issue by causing us to focus on a supposed internal personal problem with the individual, rather than on the external problem they're angry about.

Consider how vegan advocates are often perceived as angry, even when they're communicating calmly and compassionately. Or how, when women discuss sexism, the slightest hint of anger is often seen as an aggressive attack and the women are labeled "bitches" or worse, making their anger seem like it's a problematic aspect of their character rather than a legitimate emotional response to the injustice of patriarchy.

●      Similarly, our privilege makes us feel that attempts to limit its harm are more extreme than they actually are. For example, non-vegans often claim that vegans are extreme merely for not eating animals, and they even question how far a vegan is going to take their veganism each time the vegan extends it to a new practice, such as not wearing leather. Similarly, when members of the LGBTQ community ask for something as simple yet powerful as changing some of the terminology used in vegan outreach, some vegans complain about "language police" and argue that linguistic changes are being taken too far. In both instances, those with privilege react defensively against practices that reflect evolving consciousness.

●      Our unexamined privilege reflects badly on us. Regardless of how conscientious a person we know ourselves to be, when we haven't examined our privilege, there is a good chance that we will interact and communicate in ways that cause others to see us as ignorant at best, and bigoted and uncaring at worst. Just think about how your non-vegan uncle comes across when he's arguing with you at the dinner table, insisting that humans would become stupid if they didn't eat animals (since eating animals is supposedly what made our brains grow larger). And consider how a vegan may come across when they when they promote vegan products as "cruelty-free" even though the manufacturing of such products may have included the exploitation of economically disadvantaged people, or when they claim that becoming literate about "isms" other than carnism and speciesism is a distraction from the "real issue" of helping animals.

●      Our privilege harms our relationships. Privilege is non-relational, in that it causes us to think and act in ways that distance us from our empathy, therefore increasing the likelihood we'll say and do things that hurt others and cause them to feel disconnected from us. For example, how often have you been at a group dinner when someone started teasing you about your veganism, perhaps making "moo" sounds over a steak, or claiming that pigs are meant to be killed since bacon tastes so good? Chances are, the non-vegan has no idea of the extent of shame and anger you feel; their carnistic privilege prevents them from being tuned into your experience. Nevertheless, you feel disconnected from them; you feel less safe in their presence and perhaps also find it difficult to maintain respect for them. Unexamined privilege can chip away at our relationships, until they die the death of a thousand cuts.

Other forms of privilege can damage relationships similarly. For example, I recently had dinner with a group of vegan friends, one of whom was a man who shared with us how "impressed" he was that a mutual male friend had begun a relationship with a "hot, much younger woman," and he went into some detail as to why "winning" such a woman was an admirable accomplishment. The women at the table inevitably felt uncomfortable, as they – like virtually all women – had experienced a lifetime of deep and painful conditioning to think of themselves as sexual objects, believing that a central part of their value came from their appearance, their physical beauty and youth. And they were not immune to the epidemic of female self-objectification, which women often struggle for years to undo, typically without total success. So many women in the vegan movement (and beyond) have talked to me about the sadness and disappointment and sense of demoralization that gets triggered when they look at themselves through the eyes of men who prize beauty and youth the way they might prize a new car. Our friend was also unaware that his celebration of such female sexuality reflected precisely the kind of thinking that helps drive what sociologists refer to as "rape culture," a culture in which women's (hetero)sexual attractiveness is conflated with their worth and is a key contributor to the fact that women are at high risk of sexual violation.

●      Our privilege enables trauma. Oppressive systems, from which privilege stems, often cause atrocities, which are mass traumatic events. Those who are oppressed or who witness the oppression often end up traumatized. Just consider the atrocity of carnism and the traumatization of vegans who have witnessed the horrors of the system. Or consider the atrocities committed against women, from legalized sexual slavery to the epidemic of sexual assault in many places in the world, and the traumatization caused by such realities. When trauma is present, normal ways of relating and communicating are often not appropriate or even possible (which is one reason why the #ARmetoo dialogue became so difficult to navigate), and I discuss this issue more fully in Essay 4.

When we understand the ways our unexamined privilege affects ourselves and others, we can appreciate how our privilege not only maintains oppressive social dynamics, but also causes interpersonal problems. Vegans of different social groups – White people and people of color; men, women, and people of other genders; heterosexual and LGBTQ people; and so on – can unknowingly end up engaged in the dysfunctional dynamics of privilege and oppression, dynamics which ultimately disconnect us from one another, diminish morale, and drain energy from the movement. Indeed, because privilege is non-relational, our unexamined privilege reduces the chances that we will form strong connections within our movement and between our movement and other movements, and it also diminishes our collective integrity, as it causes us to act against our values of justice and compassion. Our unexamined privilege and the oppression it enables create the very opposite conditions necessary for a unified and empowered movement – a movement that is able to be a true force for animals.

The good news is that our privilege loses much of its power over us once we become aware of it. With awareness, we can change the way we relate within systems of oppression. We can shift from being passive bystanders who help enable oppression to becoming active allies in social transformation. In so doing, we can unify and empower our movement to bring about powerful and lasting change for all beings.

This essay is part of a four-part series Continue reading -- see Essay 3 here.

Notes 

1. There is, of course, also significant suffering inherent in nature, such as that of wild animals populations that are not impacted by humans.

2. Kenton, Sherron B. "Speaker Credibility in Persuasive Business Communication: A Model Which Explains Gender Differences" International Journal of Business Communication, Vol 26, Issue 2, 1989, pp. 143-157.

3. This concept is explained by Lundy Bancroft in Why Does He Do That? Inside The Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. (New York: Berkley Books, 2003).

Dr. Melanie Joy is a Harvard-educated psychologist, international speaker, organizational consultant, trainer, and relationship coach. She is the author of the award-winning book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, as well as Strategic Action for Animals and Beyond Beliefs: A Guide to Improving Relationships and Communication for Vegans, Vegetarians, and Meat Eaters. Dr. Joy has developed and implemented vegan advocacy trainings for more than a decade, and she specializes in effective communication, organizational leadership, the psychology of social change, interpersonal relationships, and preventing and treating burnout. She has trained vegan advocates and given her acclaimed carnism presentation on six continents and her work has been featured in major media outlets around the world. Dr. Joy is the eighth recipient of the Ahimsa Award – previously given to the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela – for her work on global nonviolence, as well as the Empty Cages Prize – previously given to Tom Regan – for her contribution to furthering the cause of animal rights, and the Peter Singer Prize for strategies to reduce the suffering of animals, and the video of her recent TEDx talk on carnism is in the top one percent of the most-viewed TEDx talks of all time. Dr. Joy is also the founding president of the charitable organization, Beyond Carnism, a co-founder of ProVeg International, and the co-director of the Center for Effective Vegan Advocacy (CEVA).

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