Vegans who engage in debates online can experience personal attacks ranging from ridicule of their appearance to threats about being chopped up and raped. This is not where every debate ends up, but there is no doubt, that the polarization in the debate is huge, and the parties are not afraid of playing dirty.
You can even unintentionally get caught up in the discussion, as it happened to Claus Solhøj last year. He is a journalist at Landbrugs Avisen, a Danish newspaper dedicated to agriculture, and also the editor of the cattle section. He wrote a column about the changes vegans are pushing for, and how farmers should make sure, that they don't get caught by surprise if the demand for livestock goes down.
An Unexpected Shitstorm
It was meant as a noncontroversial heads up, but the online editor tightened the title by adding "Warning against vegans" and sent Claus Solhøj into a shitstorm. "I received phone calls at all hours of the day. Most of them were just very rude, but some were telling me how me and my family should suffer. All that over a column they only read the headline on," tells Claus Solhøj.
The experience has made Claus Solhøj more hesitant in joining into the debate, though he emphasizes that he will always be willing to write news stories related to vegans. "When I have to write columns again I will probably stir away from this topic, I don't want to go through this again. But as a journalist I would never hesitate to report on news related to vegans," says Claus Solhøj.
The Identity of Food
If you're not a part of this debate, it can seem strange how a dispute on food choice triggers people into behavior that is so hostile. One of the keys in understanding this is the identity, that is put into the food we eat.
This is something Hannibal Hoff knows a lot about. He has a PhD in the identity of food cultures and is a consultant for MadKulturen, which translates to The Food Culture, an institution that works to make the Danes more engaged in the food they eat and the choices they take.
He argues, that being vegan is very much a general perspective on life. This is different from what you see with people who for instance choose a paleolithic diet, where the choice is more based on individual goals than moral and ethical ideals.
A Sense of Belonging
"If you just sit at home with your vegan friends and eat vegan food it might end up feeling a bit unfulfilled. But when you can mobilize yourself and go out to fight for the cause that made you vegan it creates a sense of togetherness," Hannibal Hoff says.
This strong sense of belonging and having an opinion, that needs to be shared, is, of course, a driving factor that makes vegans very interested in ways to spread their message. As the norm has been to eat meat, the need for justifying your choices for carnivores has been non-existent or at least very small.
The more vegans push their opinions out there, it forces people to justify what has always been implicitly accepted. Even though they have always been counterpoints, the carnivores will experience it as something new, that they need to defend themselves.
Challenging the Norms
"You're used to being the norm, but it creates a movement, when someone challenges your ideals. Even though they (carnivores, ed.) don't think of it as their identity the same way as vegans do, but the strong reactions tell us, that unconsciously it is," explains Hannibal Hoff.
A person who has a lot of identity in being a vegan is Thomas Erex. He moderates several vegan Facebook pages and sees firsthand how the debate is very fast of spinning out of control. "People go nuts! No matter where the debate starts both vegans and carnivores often make it spin out of control. It becomes very apparent how emotional this is," Thomas Erex explains. Thomas Erex is also the vice chairman of MedMedMedfølelse, which translates to Food With Compassion, that tries a different approach than the confrontation.
"We try inspiring people by showing them, that a vegan lifestyle is possible and you can easily make all the dishes you like without using animals," says Thomas Erex. Though Thomas Erex believes in a constructive dialog, he still doesn't underestimate the power of taking up issues that can cause strong reactions.
"If you become too diplomatic in the way you communicate you won't get any interactions. So I do sometimes post things to my Facebook pages that I know will provoke people, because that's the only way of effectively spreading the message."
Getting into the Media
Knud Holt Nielsen from Aarhus University has a PhD in communication and has looked into protest movements, and how they make themselves heard in the media. He believes, a successful protest movement is about the right timing, knowing when people are ready for what kind of actions. If the actions are very radical, it can push the public away.
"There is a duality in this. On the one hand, very radical actions can help you move closer within the group, but if you're too radical you push others away. So it's about deciding whether you want to do what makes the most sense for the long term target or for the group dynamics right now," says Knud Holst Nielsen.
A 2012 study from Warsaw University of Technology in Poland backs up the idea that polarization can lead to more polarization. Over a two-year period they looked into how polarized online discussions developed, and they found that people are not getting closer to each other from these debates.
The conclusion was, that in general people ignore opposing views and simply promote their own. However, when they do look at opposing views, they do so only to create counterarguments. This is because it's very hard to find a common ground when you disagree fundamentally.
It makes sense, that you don't change your point of view, because someone has the complete opposite view. Thomas Erex from Food with Compassion also agrees, that he uses the carnivore-inputs to make his own points stronger.
"I have learned, that when I make a post I should always add sources to confirm my point of view, and these sources need to be independent and not, for example, vegan websites. Otherwise, my arguments are too easy to counter as propaganda," Thomas Erex argues.
But when there's a polarization of the debate, it actually reinforces itself as well. A 2016 study from The University of Colorado showed, that if you make people with opposing views discuss an issue of dispute, they will position themselves further from each other — and they don't even know it.
Before engaging in a discussion, people were asked to place their own opinion on an issue on a chart. After the discussion, they were asked to do this again, but also recall where they placed themselves before the discussion.
What happened was, that people placed themselves further from the middle — they had become more polarized. At the same, they recalled themselves to be further away from the middle before the discussion, than how they actually placed themselves.
The method of this study is relatively transparent to the participants, making it very interesting, that meeting opposing views not only makes you move away from those views, but you actually forget, that you weren't that polarized to begin with. In a sense, it creates a vicious circle of polarization.
The End is Near
Another important factor of this debate, is understanding why vegans in recent years have become a serious contestant to the norm of eating meat. One of the keys is that the way humans see nature seems to have entered a new era.
That is one of the observations made by Professor Johs. Nørregaard Frandsen from The Institut of Cultural Sciences at The University of Southern Denmark. He is advocating that we live in the first period ever, where humans actually see nature as something that can end humanity.
"Humans have seen nature in many ways, basically it has changed between being something we should benefit from aesthetically or financially. But it has always been seen as a limitless and constant source. Like we see with economy, where more people don't believe in infinitive growth, the same is true for nature," Johs. Nørregaard Frandsen explains.
He calls this the eschatological nature view. Eschatology is a biblical term referring to the end of the world as we know it. The idea that the world is coming to an end because of our sins is not new amongst religious groups or humans in general — what is new is that nature itself will bring the apocalypse.
This is particularly true when we talk about the climate change, where this has become a widespread view. At the same time, there's a strong evidence, that one of the things that contribute to our changing climate is our eating habits, where especially meat is the big sinner.
"There is a belief that you can reach a breaking point, that will ultimately end all of us. It's not like saying that the world will come to an end on a specific date, but it's an awareness that we can't just do anything to nature without consequences," tells Johs. Nørregaard Frandsen.
But these arguments are not taken in by anyone. Like many other countries, Denmark has an ongoing debate between the rural and urban Denmark. A debate that Johs. Nørregaard Frandsen is very engaged in and has used a lot of time analyzing.
The patterns of the rural-urban-debate is also present in the vegan-carnivore-debate, though it's not necessarily the same people in the debates you can see similarities.
"On the one hand, you have people who use factual knowledge and look into statistics and research to shape their opinions. On the other, you have those with practical knowledge. They rather base their opinions on their own experiences and personal anecdotes, and there are strong value in both kinds of knowledge," says Johs. Nørregaard Frandsen.
This difference in the construction of arguments makes it hard to come to an agreement. Essentially, these are two different things being discussed, so even though the debate is all centered about what you should or shouldn't eat, there is not a general agreement on the premise.
Can We Get Along?
The debate seems to have gone into a deadlock, where the two parts have been digging holes too deep to get up. As we can see, a lot of factors play into this. From how we need identity, consciously or unconsciously, how we communicate with each other, and also the premises we discuss from.
We need to recognize, that there will probably always be disagreements, but it's not impossible to make a constructive debate. One of the ways is to think more about how we can inspire each other, and what we can agree on, like we see in Food with Compassion, where the focus is not to exclude but include.
At the same time, media also has a responsibility to make the debate more nuanced. If the focus is always on conflicts and problems, it will seem like you can only take counterpoints, or as George W. Bush famously put it: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."
If we also become aware, that there are reasons for the division, and what the reasons are, it will become easier to bridge the gap. Understanding your own and others behavior makes it possible to change it, because it can be rationalized and explained.