How Disgust Kills the Vegan Martyr

A lot of new vegans tend to think of themselves as a martyr to a cause. They want to eat cheese and eggs and maybe even meat, but they have been convinced by the logic of adopting a “cruelty free” diet. Cheese holds a power over them, but like any good ascetic, they dutifully look away. Their friends tell them “I don’t know how you do it!” and though they feign modesty pretty convincingly, inside they feel a small glow of self-satisfaction. At no time is this glow felt more intensely than when our brave young vegan martyr goes hungry for lack of vegan food.

Flash forward about six months to a year and what do we find? Probably a vegan that no longer believes that veganism is martyrdom. What happened? Who killed the Vegan Martyr?

Well, the longer you’re vegan, the more you find out about all the horrible things that happen for animals to produce and become food. And the more you adapt to a vegan lifestyle, the more you realize that veganism really isn’t that hard for the most part, and no one should be given a medal for it.  This is all very logical.

But where it starts to get illogical, probably the most significant change in our young vegan is self-imposed disgust. The last time our young vegan ate a piece of cheese, he probably liked it. Same with meat. But the longer you stay vegan, and the more you read vegan blogs and listen to vegan podcasts, the more you start to think of non-vegan food as disgusting. Why is that? You used to like it, young vegan!

Once you convince yourself that cheese tastes disgusting, it no longer takes any will power to avoid eating it. You can easily get to a point where eating some cheese becomes way harder than avoiding it. So if it involves no will power, then how can you be a martyr? This is probably right around the time you start to think that “vegan is the moral baseline” totally makes sense. Because if it really takes no will power to be vegan (once you’re properly programmed), then aren’t all these people eating meat and cheese just doing things that they know are wrong and that they could easily stop? If they’re below the moral baseline, doesn’t that make them immoral? Doesn’t that make them sinners?!

Yes! Now you’ve crossed the line! Now you get it! Veganism is not martyrdom. NON-veganism is SIN!!! Now you get it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

You see, this is why so many vegans will tell you that veganism is not hard at all and that it never involves any sense of deprivation. If you can get to the point where you’re so disgusted by non-vegan food that the thought of eating it makes you want to retch, it really doesn’t take will power to avoid it.

But how real is this disgust if it has to be learned? Is relying on a self-cultivated sense of disgust kind of like “cheating?” If you don’t think that you could avoid eating something if you didn’t teach yourself to find it disgusting, do you really find it ethically unacceptable? If you really, truly find it ethically unacceptable, why do you have to force yourself to find it disgusting? Why do you have to say patently nonsensical things like non-vegan food just ISN’T food (here)?

I think a lot of vegans, especially new vegans that are in the phase of veganism when they’re still trying to cultivate disgust, are really conflicted by certain smells that their animal brain finds enticing but their enlightened “vegan brain” finds repugnant. Which brain wins? Well, the vegan brain, obviously. You MUST subjugate your natural feelings to your new-found ideas of decency. You can’t admit that some broiling meat smells good because then you’d have to admit that veganism requires feelings of deprivation, that you’re denying yourself something that you would find enjoyable. Nope, you have to pretend that 1) what is immoral and 2) what is tasty forms a Venn diagram with no overlap.

Absolutism helps breed disgust and disgust helps breed absolutism. If a thing or act has absolutely no justification and it’s unequivocally wrong, then your disgust for it is warranted. If you see someone eating a cheeseburger, be sure to wrinkle your nose and generally make a face that says “I may have just shat myself.”

You can extend this disgust to non-food items, such as friends. This way, your disgust for certain types of food can start to dictate who you hang around with. You know that friend you’ve had forever who is really fun and hilarious, but who stubbornly refuses to see the light and stop eating hamburgers? Well, you probably shouldn’t hang out with him anymore. You wouldn’t want to have to deal with the cognitive dissonance of watching a great person eat something that you want to convince yourself is disgusting. Imagine if he gave some sort of indication that he was enjoying it! Gasp!

But just remember – all of this disgust enhancement is for a good purpose. You’re doing this so that you can continue to NOT eat something that you already stopped eating because of logical arguments. You’re doing this so that you can get to a point where it interferes with your ability to interact socially with 99% of humanity. You’re doing it so that you can avoid eating non-vegan food that would otherwise go to waste (waste is good as long as it’s wasted on principle, right?).

Martyr? Yeah, right! Everyone else is just sinners!

I don’t know what’s worse, a vegan that thinks his veganism makes him a martyr, or a vegan that forces himself to think of all non-vegans as sinners. For my part, I’m trying to be somewhere in the middle. I’m trying to get over my disgust for non-vegan food because it’s something that I had to learn anyway, and for bad reasons. I’m just trying to focus on the reasons why I initially went vegan and try to forget all the crap that I put in my head after that point. Disgust is a big part of that. I need to unlearn it.

– – thanks for reading – –


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19 Responses to How Disgust Kills the Vegan Martyr

  1. Will says:

    Hi, your post taught me a few things about the psychology of going vegan, but at the same time I think you make a couple of not-quite-fair assertions.
    For example, disgust for animal foods is not all or even mostly artificially cultivated, a big part of it also arises naturally from your new feelings and awareness. For instance, think of the Melanie Joy example, where a “hypothetical omnivorous you” is invited to dinner with the neighbours, and they serve you up a meat casserole. You ask your host how they made such a delicious meal, and they say that it is made from golden retriever meat! Suddenly the meal that you have just been enjoying eating becomes disgusting and inedible in your eyes. Did you have to “cultivate” that disgust yourself? No, it arose naturally from your feelings and attitudes toward dogs and toward food. I think that analogy describes very well how vegans’ attitude to animal foods develop.
    I think there must also be a lot of people who do not fit into your “vegan martyr or omnivores are sinners” dichotomy. I don’t believe I or many of my vegan friends do. Yes, I find the thought of eating animal food disgusting now. I acknowledge that the smell of animal foods has a tempting aspect that I think is analogous to the prospect of heroin or cigarettes to a former addict, but that aspect is mixed with the aspect of disgust.
    I feel that way and yet do NOT think nonvegans are “sinners”. They are just different people who are at a different stage in their life journey, which may take them in a similar direction to me, or it may take them somewhere different. I hang out with nonvegan family and friends all the time. Yes, it is good to see other people become vegan, and I share eye-opening information with others when there’s a good opportunity and when they ask for it (i.e. the sort of activism that provides people with new choices rather than shutting down or intimidating). But ultimately it’s their choice. To say that vegans are martyrs or some sort of absolutist is not accurate IMHO. Thanks for the interesting blog!

    • Will, I can’t say I disagree very much with anything you wrote. You sound like you have a really cool attitude about all this, so you’re not really my target audience for this post (but I’m glad you read it anyway).

      But, I don’t know – my experience is that the longer I went on as a vegan without critically examining these kinds of issues, the more I realized that I was just so far off in my thinking than the “average person” i.e. a non-vegan. At first I think I welcomed that, but then it started to get to me. I don’t WANT to feel different because of what is or isn’t on my plate. I’m already weird enough. I want to connect with people on issues that I care about, and make them laugh about things that we both find humor in etc.

      In short, I jut want to go back to the way of thinking that I had when I became vegan, when I was still pretty “normal.” I started to not like the “four-years-in vegan me.”

      So, if I succeeded in making you wrestle with this issue at all, then yeeaahhh! for me.

      Thanks for reading.

  2. TaVe says:

    As a child I didn’t eat meat cause I found it disgusting (along with most things… I’m was extremely picky eater- probably to the point that could be classified as an eating disorder)- I didn’t even think about the animals till at least around junior. high. At that point, I kinda felt ashamed of my vegetarianism. Living with meat eaters, I’ve always avoided being in the kitchen when they were cooking and wouldn’t take meat out of grocery bags to be put up.

    So my original disgust with meat is actually disgust. Although I have found myself saying things like I didn’t really like milk/cheese sometimes, and have question if how legitimate my claims are. And I have to wonder if my disgust with meat has been intensified by my acquired views- especially sense when I see meat, I see another being, not a food as I once did.

    Thanks for the articles, and I’ll try to keep it in mind. Happy I started reading this about the same time I started reading stuff by Gary Francione, who seems to be big into the “vegan = moral baseline”.

    • > I have to wonder if my disgust with meat has been intensified by my acquired views

      For me, I definitely found this to be true. I’m just trying to put my experience out there to see if it resonates with any other veg*ans.

      > Happy I started reading this about the same time I started reading stuff by Gary Francione, who seems to be big into the “vegan = moral baseline”.

      Yes, he’s definitely into “vegan = moral baseline.” I’ve said before that I find that I am very much in agreement with Francione on a lot of things. There are just other certain things where I disagree. Since Francione is so influential in the vegan world (specifically the abolitionist vegan world), I feel compelled to express my dissenting view. I hope it can be of service to other people. Considering a multiplicity of views is always good.

      thanks for reading

  3. Barbara Vickers says:

    I don’t think of meat-eaters as sinners. I think of them as what I think they are – cannibals.

    • Well, you’re playing pretty fast and loose with the definition of the word cannibal then! You’ve essentially drained the word of all usefulness by doing that.

      If you need to equate eating/killing an animal with eating/killing a human to maintain your avoidance of animal flesh, well, I guess do what you need to do. I don’t. I think there are many, many convincing reasons to avoid eating animals, and they don’t require me to think of my fellow (non-vegan) humans as bloody-thirsty, murdering psychopaths.

  4. smulizzle says:

    Meh… is it not possible to just be grossed out at the thought of meat? Why does it have to be due to warped sin-oriented shame or lying to one’s self? It seems pretty obvious that the sight and smell of meat reminds the average vegan of the endless videos they’ve probably been exposed to as they learned about what takes place at factory farms. It simply reminds them of something they dislike. They still admit that meat tasted great when they liked it, i.e. when they could consciously avoid thinking about the realities of the meat industry every time they were exposed to it, but that window of ignorant bliss is now gone.

    It sounds like you’re trying to rationalize some sort of internal conflict related to your feelings about being around meat (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but I wouldn’t feel obligated to project on to the rest of us, let alone prescribe that we should actively work to change our autonomous responses.

    • Of course it’s possible to just be grossed out at the thought of meat. Some people are. But most veg*ans really never were before they went veg*an. People like that are the subject of this post. I’m talking about people that went from eating meat, cheese etc. to flinching at the sight or smell of the same.

      I’m not trying to rationalize some sort of internal conflict (whatever “rationalize” would mean in that context, I don’t know) and I’m not projecting anything onto anyone. Vegans are a diverse lot. I’ve had numerous vegans tell me that they identify with this post. If you don’t, that’s fine. If you don’t like my “prescription,” ignore it.

      But I ask, what is the alternative? To actively make oneself feel even more disgusted? To take no time for self-reflection on the topic? The thing is, so-called “ethical” vegans have already rejected animal foods for ethical reasons, so what is the point of intentionally inculcating disgust in oneself? (if indeed it is intentional, and I think many vegans, upon reflection, will see that there is a certain volition to it). To make it even harder to be a vegan socially? For added resolve? What end does is serve?

      • Pego says:

        My aunt in-law was one of those that chose vegan by general disgust for meat, unfortunately it was also a general disinterest in food altogether so she never troubled herself to learn how to cook or ballance her meals. This lead to her having acquired some permanent health issues and a suddenly badly shortened life expectancy.

        My own family, all great cooks if not chefs, were far more pro-active about learning a new way of cooking. Tho we mostly ran into the wall of genetic anemia and went back to omnivore-typical, just changing up our sourcing for more humane-conscious, at least one or two of my sisters (one in particular) got really aggressive about it, hired a vegan dietitian and even a nutritionist to get the best out of new cooking styles. In the end our genetic tendency toward anemia and malabsorption issues were intractable and my sister’s insistence on clinging to veganism cost her a permanent health toll as well.

        It is the cost of leaning on our acquired disgusts, and yes Ol’ Yaller is also an acquired disgust, there are many canine-consuming communities around the world. Disgust is one of the easiest and strongest emotions to create. It is an emotion that all propagandists and cultists use to indoctrinate, but is not actually useful for people trying to live an ethical and well-considered life. What kind of example is my aunt for the people around her life? Basically one of warning, My sister, once so militant, now pretends that it never mattered all that much to her, and then just doesn’t want to talk about it, which is kinda sad, and doesn’t have any of her old friends either, which is even worse.. Leaning on disgust leads to a lot of emotional battery, and can actively impair our ability to monitor our own health and diet

  5. Sabrina says:

    I would venture to say that the “meat is disgusting” viewpoint may be less learned behavior for some people than the “meat is yummy” viewpoint. I was always disgusted by meat, even as a young child. It had to be pretty much charred/sauced/whatever beyond recognition for me to eat it (no rare steak for me). I recognize that I may not have been the average meat-eater, but going vegan just felt so….*right* for me. Just accepting that I no longer had to eat something that was repulsive if I actually thought about what it was was liberating.

    Also to Will above: I couldn’t have said it better! Totally agree. I really think there are a lot of vegans that aren’t either martyrs or believe omnivores are sinners; I know quite a few of them. Of course, we’re probably not the ones making all of the noise, so we may fade into the background 😉

    • I think the “meat is disgusting”/“meat is yummy” thing really depends on the individual. As a child, I never had disgust reactions, but my brother did. I became vegetarian, then vegan (at which point I basically made myself feel disgust toward meat), and he eats meat to this day, seemingly without disgust or compunction. Go figure.

      If you felt some kind of psychic relief upon going vegan, that’s great. I’m not trying to argue that one shouldn’t be veg*an.

  6. Diana says:

    Yeah, I totally see where you are coming from. Because I’m not disgusted by animal products (just the way they come to be) and initially started out my vegan life as semi freegan and ostrovegan (eating bivalves) I had vegans tell me that I might not be really vegan, just studying vegans and had nonvegan friends tell me they thought it wouldn’t last. Recently we did a little survey on lab meat on “the vegan option” and I was really struck by how vegans refused to eat lab meat even when I spelled out that it caused no more animal harm than vegetable foods, our guest even said that he would prefer a vegan world to a lab meat world even if no animals were harmed in the making of the lab meat. A friend of mine said “it seems like vegans aren’t motivated by reducing harm” and I think that’s not a true thing to infer given that vegans begin by being disgusted by meat but, as you say, must develop a robust disgust reaction in order to engage the willpower to stay vegan. Of course, there are a lot of people who begin by being disgusted by meat and then happen to find themselves in social circles where veganism is encouraged and only later adopt the ethical case. Anyway, this paper might interest you

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  8. Sy says:

    Wow!! I cannot believe how astutely you articulated what I have observed (and personally experienced) in the journey of becoming a vegan! I love how you’ve managed to so very insightfully self-reflect on the transitional process that seems to occur, and the paradigm shift that I always refer to, but can never really articulate as accurately and as comprehensively as you have done here. Thanks so much for this!! I’ve thankfully never ventured into the “angry-crazy-vegan” realm that I’ve witnessed many (unfortunately) enter, when they become vegans.. and I can objectively admit that the typical stereotype of vegans is not necessarily unfounded (as a result of those who cannot remove themselves from their resentful state-of-mind and hence project it to the world (resentment at the world of non-vegans, that is)… I always mention to my non-vegan or my vegetarian friends that they must excuse vegans for their tendency to be outspoken about veganism (not that I’m not myself, though as a vet student I’m predominantly outspoken about animal welfare/rights issues which have an intimate connection with veganism), because when one becomes vegan, and remains one up to “about 6 months to a year” period (as you so perfectly described!), you realise how friking easy it is to BE a vegan, and wish that you’d made the switch much earlier, and you are offended that the rest of the world cannot follow such a simple and evidentially morally superior requisite path (and of course, as you alluded to, so many seem to forget how difficult it was for them to even initially make the change themselves!)….

    Anyway, it’s hard to really write anything more, since you’ve described it all so perfectly already! (Though I suppose my belief that you describe a common vegan experience is completely subjective and conversely you and I may indeed be the few that have actually experienced this!!..but I really do suspect it is a common occurrence)… Thank you again for the excellent elucidation on this moral dilemma that may perhaps help some struggling vegans to see the light!!! =] …

  9. Eva says:

    See, I wonder if it’s really a process of ‘making yourself’ feel disgust (at least for some), or if that’s just a natural process resulting from a period of not consuming animal products. I recently did some long-distance traveling for the first time as a vegan, & decided I wasn’t going to try too hard to “be vegan” during the trip. When I could control it, sure, but I didn’t even tell my hosts that I was vegan. I felt horrible. Not ethically, because I don’t think a handful of non-vegan meals is the worst thing I could do, but physically & psychologically. I didn’t *want* to eat animal products, and although I enjoyed those meals I couldn’t wait to get home & “be vegan” again. I was also craving fresh fruits & vegetables & all the delicious healthy things which I’ve gotten used to as a vegan, & realized how startlingly absent they are in most American diets (not that people couldn’t eat meat AND fruits/vegetables!)

    On the martyrhood note, that too will differ based on whether a person is more prone to find animal products as food “gross.” My partner & I went vegan at the same time, ‘cold turkey.’ From the very beginning, it was easy for me & hard for him. I still love cheese & don’t like any of the vegan cheese substitutes, but fundamentally that just *wasn’t hard* for me. Even when I didn’t take steps to avoid meat & didn’t consider myself veg. I just *didn’t* eat meat because eh, it’s kind of gross.

  10. Jane says:

    Thankyou so much, I needed this article!

    I do also wonder if there’s something possibly chemical/neurological here rather than just psychological. It’s been about a year since I first read this post and slapped myself on the wrist for basically faking retching noises and dry-heaving at the supermarket’s fish and meat counters. Now, I still do it a bit over the cat’s tuna, but part of my mind is tongue-in-cheek and knows it’s a bit of a self-imposed mechanism. A prop. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to turn it off to completely and just be logical about why it goes in the cat’s bowl and not mine.

    HOWEVER I’m currently doing some internet research on nutrients for mental health. I keep finding sources saying things often deficienct on the vegan diet can lead to poor mental health. B12, DHA, EPA, and a few others I’m still looking into, and in particular these lead to depression, anxiety and OCD or eating disorder type problems. I keep finding ex-vegan sources (yes, I’m a heretic and read these, because I’m not afraid of reading something I may disagree with on points, and because it’s important not to rely on one one news source) where people report drastic improvements in mental health from nutrients they had trouble getting enough of in their previous diets. Not 2 or 3 reports. Hundreds. And peer-reviewed data illustrating the above-average prevalence of mental ailments in the veggie population. I’m trying to be open-minded as I read and neither run howling towards the Paleo camp nor condemn any exvegan for ‘not trying hard enough’. If nutrients don’t physically exist for some (or even many) in obtainable plant form, they don’t. Period. That’s nobody’s fault. Nobody is going to bloody well hear me blaming them for daring to possess sub-par intestines.

    Personally, right now I’m having problems because a totally anxiety-based, illogical, emotional knee-jerk response is happening in my skull whenever I see anything unethical in any way. T-shirt probably made in a sweatshop? Fall to my knees in the middle of the clothing store, SOBBING uncontrollably! Leather seats on a vintage car in a museum? O GOD EVIL SEAT! SEAT OF DOOM! Run, run from this antiquated symbol of flagrant sadistic speciesism! Do not stand near it, lest it CONTAMINATE me! Slightly racist comment accidentally witnessed on Tumblr? AHHHHH MY EYES ARE BEFOULED, quickly, dive out of the window and flee the scene of this appalling crime!

    This is making it very hard to a) actually help with the world’s troubles (which I’m very keen to do) and b) function in an imperfect world or c) not be suicidal. Logically, what would be a hell of a lot more helpful, is an intellectual response of ‘O, that’s sad, let’s try and get onto fixing that!’. Instead, I’m increasingly unable to leave the house without panic attacks, frightened by my own shadow and getting increasingly rigid and hysterical in my worldview. BUT…when I try to explain WHAT scares me, I have no logical explanation for the terror response. It’s like having nonveganophobia. Hippy communes look increasingly enticing, where I never have to handle the mental stress of ever meeting someone who might possibly disagree with me on a point. That’s not who I want to be, and it’s wildly unhelpful for actually aiding social progress.

    I suspect B12, omega-3, iodine, possibly others are not in my brain like they should be. Supplements, further research and dietary knowledge is needed. I know about being mentally ill. Most of my friends and family have been or are. This isn’t it. I’m increasingly certain there’s something chemical not working properly. And though I’m not saying this is true for everyone, vegangelicals are such a known phenomenon that it’s not implausible it’s true for certain others.

    (sorry for the mile-long comment. I love this blog. Even if you’re not updating regularly anymore I’m very grateful for the excellent sense you’ve written. Hopefully if I sort out my melting brain I’ll be able to express a point with more concise clarity in future and less get-it-all-off-my-chest-ness!)

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  12. Joshua Matthews says:

    I felt immediate disgust about meat the instant I knew what it was. There was no ‘cultivation time’.


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