Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another, either in the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this. (Merriam-Webster, “Empathy”)
Compassion: sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. (Merriam-Webster, “Compassion”)
After thirty years of being a vegetarian, my eyes were opened to the inherent cruelty in animal-use industries. I became vegan and spoke out on these issues at animal rights events, rallies and ethical leadership forums. My private psychology practice attracted a significant number of vegans who presented with symptoms of anxiety and depression. However, unlike many of my non-vegan clients who were unclear as to what caused their symptoms, vegans reported it as being directly related to their discovery of systematised animal misuse in society. It was as if they had extended their compassion beyond their own species.
Despite these issues being increasingly discussed in open circles, this extension of compassion seems to be limited to veganism. Why is veganism increasing as a compassionate centre, with animal social justice being at its core? Drawing on key emotional experiences of vegans, based on a survey conducted in 2018 and observational data from a private psychology practice, this article explores the experiences of compassion and empathy of vegans, and the impact such experiences can have on social change.
The Increase in Veganism
Veganism has noticeably increased over the past decade, with greater public debate in the media. A 2016 Roy Morgan poll indicated that the number of strict vegetarian adults in Australia was 2.1 million; an increase of nearly half a million people over four years, and likely to grow (Roy Morgan). Internationally, veganism was the biggest trend of 2018, with over three times the level of interest online as “vegetarian” or “gluten-free” (The Vegan Society).
I believe there are a number of reasons for this, including greater awareness through social media, increased social mobility, and people becoming aware of international practices (Oberst). Photos and videos of animal suffering are more easily accessible via mobile devices, and can be shared at a faster rate than mainstream media could traditionally share news (Forgrieve). Small budget Indie films have also shared unknown information with the public, such as Earthlings, Dominion, Cowspiracy, and Kangaroo. In addition to this, I believe there is a greater propensity for people to challenge authority and previous direction from doctors or politicians in what is known as “the era of respect” (Mowat, Corrigan, and Long).
These circumstances and more have led to an increase in people making more informed, kinder choices with regard to veganism; suggesting the opening of a new era of compassion beyond one’s own species. However, living in a world where the majority of people’s consumer choices facilitates animal abuse behind closed doors, the vegan is left struggling with “the burden of knowing”; knowledge of the facts of animal mistreatment and the inability to change it or successfully induce others to acknowledge it (Mann, Vystopia).
Case Study Research
Between 2013 and 2018 I held individual psychological counselling sessions with over 100 self-selected vegans. For these case studies, the definition of “vegan” means someone who has chosen to live their life underpinned by the philosophy of the non-use and non-exploitation of animals and informs what they eat, wear, use and are involved in. These individuals reached out to me because of the trauma they reported experiencing since learning of the ubiquitous nature of animal cruelty in society. They claimed to feel more comfortable with a vegan professional who they felt understood their anguish.
From these sessions, using the qualitative research methodology of hermeneutics (Rennie), I began to notice a pattern relating to the nature and enormity of the typical vegan’s distress. Almost every vegan who came to see me presented with symptoms related to their awareness of the systemised cruelty towards animals. Their distress was compounded when they shared this information with their friends and family, whom they were sure would be equally upset by it. Instead, many people responded with indifference, criticism, and anger, saying that everyone has a right to choose what to eat. These feelings of frustration and powerlessness left them unable to reconcile competing beliefs; that the people they loved were capable of turning their eyes away from the suffering their consumer choices were financing. The typical symptoms they reported included (fig. 1):
Fig. 1: Typical symptoms reported by vegans in individual counselling sessions, 2013–2018.
After over 1,300 hours of one-to-one sessions with vegans around the world, plus anecdotal stories from vegans I met at numerous events, I came to believe that the vegan’s pain is unique to being vegan and warrants a specific definition.
It is imperative to me that vegans do not become labelled as mentally ill or chronically dysfunctional, for which the only solution is medication. As a fellow sufferer of the “burden of knowing”, I wanted to create a term to validate our experience and avoid medicalising our plight. Only then can the vegan’s experience be examined from a humane perspective and solutions be found to help us. Then, we can become part of the rising tide of social action that says human superiority and animal abuse is unacceptable. Because I believe that this experience and associated symptoms are existential in nature, I called this “Vystopia” (Mann, Vystopia).
The Existential crisis experienced by vegans, arising out of an awareness of the trance-like collusion with a dystopian world and the awareness of the greed, ubiquitous animal exploitation, and speciesism in a modern dystopia. (Mann, “Suffer”)
Vystopia is the anguish a vegan feels, knowing about the systematised cruelty towards animals in society, and the further distress they experience with the unconscious collusion of non-vegans, and their resistance or criticism of this information. Many of my clients experienced a range of symptoms of vystopia (fig. 2):
Fig. 2: Symptoms of Vystopia
Misdiagnosis of the Vegan’s Condition
Many doctors have referred patients to me for mental health symptoms of eating disorders, social adjustment disorder, and self-harm. It is my opinion that vegans referred to me with these symptoms do not suffer from traditional eating or self-harm disorders.
As I learned from working in a psychiatric teaching hospital in the UK, clients with these conditions are often deeply unaware of the reasons influencing their symptoms. Their symptoms become an outward sign of hidden or unconscious distress which is too painful to confront directly. The vegans sent to me are deeply distressed due to the horror they’ve witnessed or now know about in the animal industries.
I discovered that regularly viewing graphic videos of animal abuse was linked with vegan clients diagnosed as having self-harm tendencies (Klonsky). They view these as they feel guilty if they don’t know about all aspects of the animal’s suffering. It’s only by knowing all the details that they can be informed and act to change it.
Vegan clients who have told their doctors they “can’t eat around people who are consuming animals” are often diagnosed as having eating disorders, although they lack the typical medical symptoms of eating disorders. While it is possible for vegans, like anyone else, to suffer from these conditions, I believe that many clients have been misdiagnosed. For many, their symptoms are indicative of a normal, feeling human’s way of dealing with vystopia:
The truth is that it is not a pathology, but the distress a vegan feels when they look at the state of the world and the cruelty and suffering and it’s an absolutely rational response any feeling human being should feel; a dystopian reaction to what they are seeing. (Klaper)
Between February and July 2018, I conducted an anonymous online survey of 820 vegans. The survey comprised 26 multiple-choice questions covering 7 main areas:
How long someone has been vegan
Length they have experienced vystopia
When vystopia was most experienced
Where people seek help for vystopia
What they do to reduce symptoms
Family and relationships where significant others are not vegan
What support is most needed to help vystopians
Whilst an in-depth analysis of the results is outside the scope of this article, some of the key responses are as follows (figs. 3–6):
|How long have you been vegan?|
|Less than 6 months||16%|
|10 years plus||10%|
Fig. 3: Length of time as vegan.
|How long have you suffered from vystopia?|
|Less than 6 months||13%|
|10 years plus||12%|
Fig. 4: Length of time suffering from vystopia.
|When do you most experience vystopia?|
|Others around you eat animals||79%|
|Seeing images of animal cruelty||78%|
|Other people refuse to hear about animal cruelty||78%|
|People laugh at you for being vegan||56%|
|At work events||39%|
|All the time||37%|
|When away from vegan friends||30%|
|NB: Participants invited to tick all that apply|
Fig. 5: When vystopia is experienced.
|What do you do to reduce your vystopia?|
|Remove yourself from the world||58%|
|Increase animal advocacy||55%|
|Talk to friends||34%|
|Self-medicate (e.g. alcohol, drugs, food)||24%|
|See a doctor||2%|
Fig. 6: Actions taken to reduce vystopia.
Explaining the Differences in Adoption of Veganism
Why do some people extend their compassion towards animals whilst others are unaware of the need to do so, or believe it is anthropomorphic or sentimental? Research is needed to examine this more, but my own research and anecdotal experience suggests some factors:
Many people are strongly influenced by what they perceive as socially normal (Mallinson and Hatemi). Cultural and family traditions, media, and community behaviour all influence the food and lifestyle choices of society. Most people are unaware that their consumer choices play a role in the mistreatment and abuse of animals.
Social conditioning influences whether people choose to investigate new information further or continue with the status quo for the sake of fitting in. The need to fit in creates a social trance whereby people continue to collude with animal cruelty through their inaction, and in fact their willful ignorance means they are not likely to change their actions, as they don’t know any differently.
The vegan is one who has chosen to find out the truth about animal exploitation and extend their compassion towards other species by abstaining from anything related to animal abuse.
Personal and Social Defense Mechanisms
Similar to social conformity, the concept of being “different” from the perceived norm is enough for many people to continue with their actions, regardless of the consequence for animals. Similarly, those who are suddenly privy to new information may feel judged by the messenger, and resistance is easier than change.
The vegan is one who chooses to adjust their actions, despite the judgement or ridicule which may accompany it.
On the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Myers and Myers), my anecdotal experience suggests that individuals with preferences for “feeling” over “thinking” are more likely to become vegan. The vegan community consists of many different personality types, with those who are strong “feeling” types more inclined to display empathy and empathetic action.
Avoidance of Existential Anxiety
When a person’s understanding of the world is challenged, this can create anxiety, where one is compelled to ask, “What else don’t I know?” If animal cruelty can occur at such a widespread rate—with most of society oblivious to it—what else is going on behind closed doors?
For some, the reality of facing the truth can create enough angst that they will resist knowing and changing. The vegan may still experience such angst, but is compelled to change for the sake of the animals.
Differing Capacity to Encompass Novel Ideas
Ideas which vary from a widely believed ideology are often rejected, simply because the new idea is too radical to believe or comprehend. Consider the Law of Gravity or the concept of germs, both initially shunned by experts.
Some people are more willing to delve into a new concept and explore the possibilities which come with it. Others are firmly tied to conformist ideology and will only jump on the bandwagon once others are driving it.
Differing Levels of Consciousness
In the original book on Spiral Dynamics, Beck and Cowan talk about the magnetic forces that attract and repel individuals, the webs that connect people within organisations, and influence the rise and fall of nations and cultures. The book tracks our historic emergence from clans and tribes to networks and inter-connected networks. It identifies seven variations on how change occurs in individuals, society and leadership.
Its relevance for veganism is in appreciating that there are different levels of consciousness in society. For example, a vegan passionate about the ethical treatment of animals would be faced with resistance from a hunter with a more tribal level of consciousness, according to the Spiral Dynamics model. It would be like two people from different planets communicating. Another example would be a community outraged by the influence of veganism on local employment, as demand for dairy reduces. By understanding where other people or groups are coming from, we can adapt the way in which we communicate. If vegans talk ethics and non-speciesism to people focused primarily on job security, they will face resistance.
In marketing, the uptake of products and services follows a certain pattern. For example, in the 1990s, few people believed that the mobile phone market would explode to such a point. The same goes for changes in collective beliefs and ideas in society, such as the early protagonists for the Abolition of Slavery. These early innovators and adopters faced enormous resistance by those who benefited from the trade. As the movement gathered momentum, it reached what Gladwell has called the “Tipping Point”, “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point” (12). As Gladwell stresses here, “ideas, products, messages and behaviours spread like viruses do” (7).
In The Empathetic Civilization, Rifkin discusses society being wired for empathy. This occurs when the neurons in the brain mirror those of people around them, and can be likened to the psychological concept of “entrainment”. This phenomenon suggests that vegans have the ability to influence others through showing empathy and compassion.
Increasingly, teenage vegans are referred to me who say, “I just had this awareness and know it is wrong to eat animals”. Many of them hadn’t seen anything on veganism or spoken to anyone about animal exploitation. I believe that this is an example of what Jung has called the “Collective Unconscious”; the structures of the unconscious mind which are shared among beings of the same species. This is encouraging for vegans who often feel helpless and cannot see how a vegan world will happen in their lifetime.
Those who are vegan for ethical reasons appear to feel compelled to take action to end animals’ plight. This may be because of the ubiquitous nature of the problem, but also because other people’s non-veganism is contributing to their vystopia.
The extended compassion of vegans leaves them feeling depressed, wondering how enough people are going to change in order for veganism to become the new norm. The concept of entrainment is an encouraging one for vegans, reminding us of the importance of playing our part in being the example we want others to “entrain” to.
It is my experience that empathy alone will not alleviate vystopia for these ethically-driven vegans. Vystopia can only be alleviated through action. A person may feel compelled to take action to end the suffering of refugees, children, the homeless and when they tell people, their efforts are applauded. The vegan who changes their everyday consumer choices to end animal suffering is often met with resistance, derision or criticism, as the non-vegan insists they have choice or that animals are inferior to humans. Another person may disagree with animal cruelty and yet refuse to change their consumer habits which finance the cruelty. One’s food choices are powerful political actions, and disagreeing with animal cruelty yet eating animals fuels the vegan’s vystopia.
By shifting our focus from how awful the world is to taking action every day to mirror the vegan world we seek, we are creating a new norm to which others will entrain.
With the increase in veganism trending upwards, the changes we are seeing across the world might mirror our compulsion to act. While the depth of animal empathy and vystopia is full of real anguish, I believe it also provides what we need to propel the world towards a vegan norm.
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———. Vystopia: The Anguish of Being Vegan in a Non-Vegan World. Sydney: Communicate31, 2018.
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