The Invisible Force that Divides Vegans and Weakens the Vegan Movement

Essay 1 of 4

Dr. Melanie Joy

First Published on: 
Dr. Melanie Joy

More farmed animals are slaughtered in a single week than the total number of people killed in all wars throughout human history.(1)(2) And the main hope for the animals, at this point in time, is the vegan movement. So the animals depend on us, vegan advocates and, by extension, our organizations, to ensure that the movement is as powerful – as empowered – as possible, to lessen and prevent the bloodshed.

Social justice movements such as the vegan movement are only as empowered as they are unified. Unification is not the same as uniformity, which is similarity or sameness, of opinions, behaviors, etc. Unification is the sense of connectedness and solidarity that comes, in large part, from trusting that members of the group are committed to acting in the best interest of one and another and of their shared mission – that they are committed to integrity, which is the integration of values (e.g., compassion and justice) and practices. We simply can't feel unified when we don't trust the integrity of those we're interacting with. When a movement is more internally unified, there is less infighting and more cooperation among advocates, and when it's more externally unified, there's less opposition and more cooperation between the movement and other social justice movements. A unified movement is an empowered movement.

Despite the fact that the vegan movement is arguably one of the fastest-growing social justice movements today, and that vegan advocates have been doing commendable work, since #ARmetoo, the vegan movement has seemed to be decreasing in unity, to be fracturing. Several prominent leaders were charged with sexual harassment, which opened the floodgates to an outpouring of survivors' stories. The dialogue became increasingly heated, especially on social media, and vegans who'd previously assumed that the ground between them was unbroken – that they shared the same values and beliefs – started to think they were standing on different sides of a chasm. And vegans worried what this divide would mean for themselves, since vegan groups no longer felt like a safe haven from the stressors of the dominant, animal-eating culture, and for the animals whose lives depend on the movement to be unified and empowered. #ARmetoo also worsened the vegan movement's image to those outside the movement who were proponents of other social justice causes.

When we look more closely at the situation, though, we can see that #ARmetoo has not caused the movement to fracture. Rather, it's simply made visible the cracks through which the movement's power had already been leaking, cracks that some vegan advocates have been trying to illuminate for years.(3) So #ARmetoo has provided an opportunity to finally engage with this vital conversation – a conversation that goes well beyond sexual harassment or even sexism – so that we can repair the fractures in our movement and evolve toward greater empowerment and integrity.

This series of essays is designed to raise awareness of a primary cause of the fracturing in the vegan movement – a problem which is slowing the progress of the movement in a rapidly-evolving world – and of ways to transcend this problem. With awareness, we can embrace a new veganism, whose approach to understanding and advancing justice for animals is in alignment with the evolving values of a new world. In so doing, we can more swiftly and effectively work toward the transformation of carnism, while at the same time helping create a better world for all animals, nonhuman and human alike.

Do You Have an Allergic Reaction to the Term "Privilege"?

A central cause of the fracturing of the vegan movement is the high level of unexamined privilege among vegans. Unexamined privilege is privilege we are unaware of and which therefore causes us to relate in ways that fragment our own movement and that disconnect us from other social justice movements.

But raising awareness of privilege, which is precisely what's necessary to transform the problem, is tricky at best. Not only is the concept of privilege widely misunderstood, but our privilege causes us to feel defensive whenever it's discussed. Indeed, many people have an allergic reaction to just hearing the term, and are therefore resistant to exploring it further. This is not terribly different from the reasons veganism is tricky to talk about: people are often defended against the idea of not eating animals, they have misconceptions about what veganism actually is, and they can have an allergic reaction to the word "vegan." So, to help explain privilege, I've used a specific form of privilege that most vegans can relate to – carnistic privilege – as an analogy.

Carnistic Privilege: An Analogy

Many vegans can relate to the frustration, bewilderment, and despair that often accompany discussing veganism with non-vegans. You start out innocently sharing facts about the impact of eating meat, eggs, and dairy on animals, the environment, and human health – facts you're certain the non-vegan will respond to just as you did, just as any rational, compassionate person would. Somehow, though, your words don't land right. The non-vegan isn't getting it, and they're even becoming defensive. And rather than listening openly to you, the expert, they're countering every fact you raise: Their grandfather ate steak every day of his life and lived to the ripe old age of 90. Their neighbor has always had chickens and those animals have good lives, so what's wrong with eating eggs? Only rich people can afford to be vegan. And so on. Frustrated, but knowing how important it is for the animals that you get people to stop eating them, you press on, calmly rephrasing your points in order to be clearer and providing evidence to support them. But no matter how you present the facts, they're perceived as simply your subjective opinion. Bewildered by the irrationality you're witnessing and desperate for your message to be heard, you amp up your claims, highlighting the worst of the abuses, the catastrophic consequences of animal agribusiness. To which the non-vegan responds that you're too emotional and you're overreacting; you're exaggerating in order to push a vegan agenda. You're at a stalemate, and you despair, realizing the futility of continuing the conversation.

Most vegans realize, on some level, that the non-vegan is behaving in such a way because they're looking at the situation through a distorted lens. The non-vegan has been conditioned by carnism, an oppressive system that, like all oppressive systems (e.g., racism, classism), creates a particular mentality in those who enable the system. Carnism causes non-vegans to think in ways that support the worldview that eating animals is the right thing to do, so that otherwise rational and compassionate people end up thinking irrationally and acting uncompassionately. This mentality exists in order to keep carnism alive – to defend the practice of eating animals. So it causes non-vegans to feel defensive and to act accordingly whenever they believe their right to eat animals – their "carnistic privilege" – is being challenged.

Vegans know how vitally important it is to be able to raise awareness in order to transform the oppressive system of carnism. And yet, carnistic privilege – which is designed specifically to prevent the non-vegan from becoming aware so that they can maintain the status quo – makes productive conversation virtually impossible. Carnistic privilege keeps us trapped in a gridlock of defensive debates that fuel our anger, drain our energy, and sap our morale while preventing non-vegans from experiencing the kind of learning and growth necessary for transforming oppression. Non-vegans and vegans end up pitted against one another rather than uniting to work toward the common goal everyone wants: a more just and compassionate world. In the end, we all lose, not the least of whom are the animals.

Beyond Carnistic Privilege

A privilege is an advantage, practical or psychological, that one person or group has and that is denied to others. Some advantages are earned, such as getting a driver's license when we're old enough and we pass a test. But the kinds of advantages that make up what's commonly referred to as "privilege" are those which are unearned. They are advantages we did nothing to deserve and were simply given to us because we're members of a dominant social group – the mainstream, or the group that holds the majority of social power. We can, for example, belong to racial, gender, or ideological (e.g., Christian or carnistic) powerholding groups, and we are privileged accordingly. Some people debate which groups are, in fact, powerholding – some White people, for example, argue that they experience "reverse racism" and are socially disadvantaged because of their race. However, social scientists can easily determine who holds social power by looking at readily available data sets, and the groups they have labeled as "majority" are indeed powerholding.

A sign saying privilege

One reason privilege is so important to understand is because of its impact on others. Privilege only exists in relation to others: we can't have an advantage if there's nobody who is at a disadvantage. In other words, if everyone had the same advantage, then, by definition, it wouldn't be an advantage. For example, if all competitors in a race are given the same advantage – starting further along the path – then it's no longer an advantage. (Here is an excellent video depicting this analogy.)

The flip side of privilege is oppression. Oppression is the experience of being denied advantages that are granted to others. So, just as privileged groups have unfair advantages, oppressed groups have unfair disadvantages. Going back to the example of the race, if some runners are made to start further back in the race due to no fault of their own, they're at an unfair disadvantage. (Of course, the extent and type of disadvantaging is not identical across groups; a person of color, for example, experiences far more problematic disadvantaging than does a vegan.)

The advantages and disadvantages we're granted or denied are not random; they serve a specific purpose. Privileging some people is a key way that systems of oppression – social systems that are built on power imbalances between groups, such as racism, sexism, and carnism – remain intact. For example, making some runners start farther back and allowing the others to start farther ahead makes it easier for the privileged runners to win. A system of oppression is like a recurring race that's unfairly rigged: the very same runners keep winning (or losing) and, over time, as the winners are both less fatigued and more confident, the gap between winners and losers grows.

Privilege is a key element that keeps systems of oppression alive. And privilege is the primary reason why the very people who would normally work to transform such systems end up supporting them. Privilege is one of the central factors that prevents logical discussion and maintains widespread injustice and yet, because it's invisible, many of the people most committed to rational thinking and to practicing justice and compassion end up doing just the opposite. In other words, without our realizing it, our privilege causes us to defend, rather than challenge, oppression.

Four people race in the park

The Psychology of Privilege

Think of privilege as an entity that's taken up residence in your psyche, where it needs to remain in order to exist. And it has a survival instinct; your privilege keeps itself alive by keeping you – its host – from recognizing it so it can remain your tenant. This entity has built a fortress in your mind – indeed, it is a fortress – that you can't see but which blocks your true awareness. So, unbeknownst to you, you end up looking at the world through the lens of your privilege, which causes you to think, feel, and act in ways that are irrational, unfair, and unkind. But you, being a person who values rational thinking and just, compassionate action, would never willingly nurture such an entity. And so your privilege has to trick you into continuing to host it, which it does by distorting your perceptions so that you don't see how it's causing you to make irrational claims, and to act against your moral values and the interests of others.

Also, because you can't see your privilege for what it is, you mistake it for yourself, and its feelings become your feelings. So, whenever someone shines a light on your privilege to help you recognize it, you feel defensive, as if you're personally under attack. The result is that you end up defending the very thing that needs to be evicted from your psyche in order for you to reclaim your authentic thoughts and feelings and be an active agent of social transformation.

All forms of privilege – male, White, carnistic, etc. – share the same defensive psychological structure. The difference is simply the content of the privilege, or which oppression it's constructed to defend. So, for vegans, the main difference between carnistic privilege and other forms of privilege is simply that vegans can see carnistic privilege, while they may not see some of the other privileges they continue to possess. Privilege is invisible to those who have it; we can only see the fortress of privilege when we're standing on the other side of it.


When talking about oppressions such as sexism or carnism, we often get stuck in defensive arguments that end in a stalemate, thus preventing learning, growth, and positive change. People often assume the reason for such an outcome is because of a difference in values – that, for example, people who eat animals or who oppose developing policies to protect women from sexual harassment have a different value system than do vegans or feminists. Although differing values may contribute to the problem, for some people and to some degree, more often the problem is caused not by a difference in values but by a difference in literacy.

Linguistic literacy is the ability to recognize letters as well as the ability to understand the meaning of the words they create, and "privilege-literacy" is knowing the facts about privilege (about the oppression the privilege defends and about the structure of the privilege itself), as well as understanding the meaning of those facts. In other words, privilege-literacy is awareness, which is an intellectual as well as an emotional state. When we are privilege-literate, we are informed about the nature and structure of our privilege and we empathize with those who are impacted by it.

Privilege-literacy exists on two levels: the "meta-level," where we understand the structure and nature of privilege (and of oppressive systems) in general, and the specific level, where we understand the facts about a specific form of privilege (and the oppressive system it defends). For example, when we are privilege-literate in general, we understand the ways that all forms of privilege and systems of oppression operate; we are aware of the common structures and features of oppressions, just as an auto mechanic understands the general structure and features of car engines. And when we are literate about a specific form of privilege, we understand the ways that particular privilege gets expressed and the oppressive system it stems from, just as the mechanic understands the unique features of a Volkswagen engine.

The sun shines through a tree.

The Privilege-Literacy Gap

The irony is that although privilege-literacy – awareness – is precisely what's needed in order to break the conversational stalemate we so often end up in when trying to talk about oppression, the nature of privilege is such that it prevents those who have it from becoming literate. By its very design, privilege keeps out information that challenges the system the privilege exists to protect, and one key way it does this is by making its "host" believe they are more literate than they actually are.

For example, most non-vegans are far less literate about veganism than vegans are, and yet non-vegans often act as though they're experts on the subject, debating vegans who have spent months, perhaps years, becoming educated about – and experiencing firsthand – their ideology and lifestyle. Similarly, having never taken a single course in the psychosocial dynamics of gender and the structure and impact of patriarchy (the ideology that enables sexism), and without any real understanding of the essential philosophy and orientation of feminism, some men authoritatively argue that feminism is unnecessary, and is even bad for males.

In both cases, the literacy gap is invisible to the individual with privilege, and it is largely their lack of literacy that prevents the conversation from moving forward. Were non-vegans to truly understand the horrific impact of carnism – how their minds and hearts have been hijacked by that system, and how their carnistic privilege causes them to act against their core moral values and the interests of others – they would no doubt see vegans as allies rather than opponents. And were men to truly understand the devastating consequences of patriarchy on girls and women – how they have been conditioned to act in ways that harm men and women and that cause tremendous damage to relationships, and how their male privilege prevents them from becoming aware of the fact that feminism is, by design, structured to free people of all genders from the violent stranglehold of patriarchy – they would no doubt become allies of, rather than opponents to, feminism.

Often, people believe they are more privilege-literate than they actually are because they don't realize that oppression is a bona fide, well-documented phenomenon in the social sciences and they therefore assume that the issue is merely theoretical. There is a vast body of literature, based on extensive empirical research carried out over the course of decades and across cultures and demographics, that describes the key structures of oppressive systems as well as the specific psychological and social mechanisms that reflect and reinforce privilege. In the social sciences, the existence and expressions of these phenomena are not up for debate, just as the existence and properties of gravity are not up for debate. Privilege and oppression are factual realities, not simply matters of opinion that we can choose to agree with, or believe in, or not.(4)

Mistaking Facts for Opinions and Opinions for Facts

Another reason why discussions about privilege and oppression turn into debates and we end up in a stalemate is that our privilege causes us to perceive facts as opinions and opinions as facts. Opinions are subjective, and are therefore subject to debate. Facts, on the other hand, are objective and are therefore not debatable. Without a foundation of facts on which to stand – without an agreement on the basic reality of a situation – a conversation simply cannot move forward.

Consider, for example, how non-vegans often treat the facts you're sharing as "vegan propaganda" and the opinions they're sharing (e.g., "Humane farming doesn't harm animals") as facts. Similarly, I recently spoke with a (White) vegan advocate who had been told their outreach reflected a lack of awareness of racism by a vegan who identified as an "intersectionalist" (5) -- a person who believed that, because all oppressions are interconnected and mutually reinforcing, it's important to become informed about as many of them as possible. However, the first vegan told me that they simply "don't believe in or accept intersectionality."

Changing Our Relationship with Our Privilege

One of the most important things we can do to empower the vegan movement (and to help create a more just and compassionate world) is to change our relationship with our privilege. We can't "get rid" of our privilege, because our privilege is usually not something we choose. Those of us who are White can't just make ourselves Black or Brown, and given that we live in a system that advantages those with lighter skin over those with darker skin, we will continue to be granted unfair advantages, whether we want them or not. But we can choose to become literate, so that we can become allies in the transformation of oppression rather than defenders of an oppressive status quo. As long as we are not literate, we are likely to stand on the side of oppression, by default. Such is the nature of our resident privilege: we will do its bidding as long as we don't see it for what it is.

People make a heart shape with their hands.

How Literate is Literate Enough?

How do we know if we have a sufficient level of literacy to be able to discuss our privilege productively and relate to it healthfully – so that we're helping offset, rather than reinforce, oppression? How do we know when requests to increase our literacy are valid needs, rather than elitist arguments or otherwise defensive attempts to shut down communication? How do we know what sources of information to trust, when there seem to be so many conflicting "facts" about the issue?

When discussing privilege, it's most important that the privileged person is privilege-literate, since privilege-literacy is usually necessary to offset the defensive distortions caused by privilege. For example, a transgender person doesn't need to have as much privilege-literacy around genderism as a cisgender person does in order to discuss genderism effectively, since their perceptions and feelings have not been as distorted by cisgender privilege. The times when a disadvantaged person does need to develop privilege-literacy is when they feel compelled to defend privilege that harms them – when, for example, a woman defends male privilege. This kind of defensive behavior typically reflects a psychological phenomenon known as "internalized oppression," which distorts perceptions in much the same way that privilege does, except the perceptions are those of the person negatively impacted by the privilege.

To be privilege-literate, you should have the equivalent of a college 101 course on systems of oppression, and on the particular form of privilege you intend to explore. For example, if you want to change your relationship with your heterosexual privilege, you should understand the basic structure of oppressive systems and the psychology of privilege, and you should also understand the basic tenets of feminism (the system that challenges heterosexism) as well as the specific ways heterosexist privilege is expressed. And remember, literacy means intellectual and emotional awareness – it includes truly understanding and empathizing with those who are impacted by our privilege.

You also need to determine which sources of information are credible. There are several ways to do this. First, look for sources by social scientists whose research is peer-reviewed, meaning it's been reviewed and validated by others in academia. Also, look for sources based on research conducted by an established research institute, which can be academic or governmental, such as the census bureau or the United Nations. And look for sources whose motivation, or even simply whose effect, is to decrease, rather than maintain or increase, social power imbalances that enable privilege and oppression. In other words, you should be wary of any source about privilege and oppression that doesn't aim to rectify these problems. Be skeptical of sources which seek to deny, minimize, or justify privilege – by claiming, for example, that there is no oppression, or that the situation isn't as harmful as it seems, or that the privileged behavior is normal, natural, or necessary.

A cup of coffee and a book

One indicator that you are privilege-literate enough is that you no longer feel highly defensive when your privilege is justly highlighted – and if you do feel defensive, you realize that it's your privilege being activated. Instead, you feel receptive to information about your privilege and are open to modifying your attitudes and behaviors in order to be more of an ally. Another indicator is that you give the person or persons impacted by your privilege the benefit of the doubt when they share their experience; knowing how systems of oppression operate and understanding the psychology of privilege, you realize that the perspective of those without privilege is likely to be more accurate than your own.

Here is a list of resources that I believe are both accurate and accessible to all readers. Also, in the next essay, I give an overview of some of the specific ways our privilege affects our perceptions and drives our behaviors, as well as the impacts it can have on those to whom we are relating, affecting our interactions both within and outside the vegan movement. This understanding can provide a useful next step toward increasing privilege-literacy.

My hope is that these essays will encourage mainstream vegans – vegans who haven't yet committed to developing privilege-literacy – to consider that it's time for a different approach to how we relate to our ideology and to other vegans and non-vegans. Of course, some vegans have been pointing out for decades that true veganism necessarily includes such understanding, and the ideas I share here build on this important existing body of work. In these essays, I build on this work and also include an appreciation of and commitment to transforming the dynamics of privilege and oppression through compassionate awareness-raising, respectful dialogue, and honoring dignity, issues we'll discuss in the following essays in this series.

This essay is part of a four-part series  Continue reading -- see Essay 2 here.


1. Hedges, Chris. What Every Person Should Know About War. Free Press, 2003.


3. See, for example, Harper, Dr. A. Breeze. Sistah Vegan Project Website. (Accessed April 3 2018) and Adams, Carol J. Carol J. Adam’s Blog (accessed April 3 2018).

4. See, for example, E.J.R. David and Annie O. Derthick, "The Psychology of Oppression", Springer Publishing Company (2017)  and Maurianne Adams Ed. et al. "Readings for Diversity and Social Justice", Routledge (2013).

5. I used the term "intersectionalist" because it's part of a direct quote. However, this term is often used incorrectly, as it was by the vegan who identified with it. "Inclusiveness" is actually a more accurate term.

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).

Join the Conversation