It is a curious phenomenon that animal rights activists are almost universally accused of “guilt tripping,” so much so that it has become entrenched in stereotypes and common ideas of what it means to be vegan.
This is strange for several reasons, not least among them is the fact that this accusation is seldom levelled at advocates of any other kind. Feminists are accused of many unfair things, but “guilt-tripping” is not one that is repeated often, especially not in social justice communities, and the same can certainly be said of civil rights and LGBT advocates. This inconsistency is even more striking when we consider the fact that animal rights advocates are not significantly different to advocates of other kinds in respect to the type of activism they engage in. Animal rights advocates are engaged in trying to change the behaviour of people who are behaving and thinking in a way that we believe to be harmful, and to do so we use a variety of tactics including appeals to emotion, philosophical arguments and reasoning, as well statistics, facts and studies. This exact description can be applied to any other social justice or rights based advocacy, though our tactics may differ, the methods, arguments and appeals have more similarities than differences.
What then, is especially guilt inducing about what animal rights advocates do? It could be that this accusation is simply the result of the fact that animal rights advocates call into question behaviour which the majority engages in. It can easily be argued that the majority of people also engage in sexism and racism, but it is relatively easy for a sexist or a racist to deny they are such, whereas it is much more difficult to deny that you support the killing of animals when you are eating or wearing dead animals. Every movement in its infancy has been accused of guilt tripping, but it is animal rights advocates who are arguably most accused of it now, perhaps due to the fact that we are challenging the status quo and campaigning against a socially accepted wrong.
An animal rights advocate does not even need to be vocal about their veganism to be accused of guilt tripping those around them. Any vegan who has ever sat down to dinner with those who eat animals will attest to the fact that the mere presence of a vegan at the dinner table can often be enough to make meat eaters defensive and guilty. Carol J. Adams explains this phenomenon like this: “Until a vegetarian or vegan enters the room, people don’t see themselves at meat-eaters. They are merely “eaters,” and it is we vegans who have made them aware of what they are doing. Often this is discomforting.“ This does not just go for eating, often as soon as a vegan tells a meat eater that they don’t eat animals, they are greeted by unasked for justifications about why they eat animals, why they could never go vegan and how local and humane their meat is. These are responses to imagined judgements and are unique to meat eating; after all, few people will feel the need to launch into a monologue about why they don’t cycle if you tell them that you do.
Regardless of whether or not vegans really do aim to make people feel guilty, would doing so really be such a bad thing? If we live a lifestyle which we consider to be a moral, should anyone be able to make us feel guilty about our choices? It seems logical that guilt about behaviour we consistently engage in should only be present if there is some part of us which knows that what we are doing is wrong. If a vegan is capable of making a meat eater feel guilty about eating animals, then perhaps that has more to do with them and their conscience than it does with us and our advocacy. “Don’t show me that video, it makes me feel guilty” is a common assertion when offering to show people precisely where their meal came from. If there is nothing morally wrong with eating animals, then surely this process should be as guilt free to watch as vegetable harvesting is for vegans.
Furthermore, this discussion of animal rights advocates “guilt tripping” those who eat animals makes the assumption that guilt is a bad thing, but this is not always the case. Guilt, after all, is a moral emotion. Guilt stemming from self-acknowledged wrongdoing is a key indicator of immoral behaviour under normal circumstances, and can be highly constructive in determining moral actions and correcting immoral ones. It is certainly true that guilt can be misplaced, but it would be hard to argue that guilt is not an appropriate emotion when witnessing an animal who is being slaughtered because the person experiencing the guilt wants to eat their flesh and what comes out of them. It seems that people are angrier with vegans for pointing out animal cruelty than they are with those perpetuating it.
The claim that vegans “guilt trip” people into being vegan is more a complaint about how people feel about their own moral choices in relation to ours than anything inherent in what the majority of vegans are doing. It must be acknowledged that some vegans absolutely do try to wield guilt as a tool, as many advocates of all stripes do. However, if a vegan is even capable of making you feel guilty about your choices, then perhaps it is time to examine those choices and how they align with your own moral values.