In July 2016, an Italian baby was hospitalized due to severe malnourishment. According to reports, the one-year-old baby had a critically low level of calcium and a congenital heart disease that was worsened because of negligence – which the reports repeatedly associated with the vegan diet in which the child was raised. The parents lost custody of the child and became internationally popular, owing to the story. Soon after the publication of the terrible news, a plethora of responses appeared online. Among them, there were a surprisingly large amount of hate messages against the parents and vegans in general. The articles and commentaries in evidence show that discrimination and prejudice assume various forms, many of which the public might lack awareness of.
The representation of vegans in the media is often problematic. For instance, the Huffington Post Canada article on the case wrote that there were four other cases of vegan children hospitalized in Italy in the last 18 months. Despite not providing the reasons for hospitalization, the media assumes that veganism must be related to it. It is common for newspapers to associate bad health with veganism rather than with negligence, especially regarding children. Similarly, The Washington Post article mentions a story about “a vegan couple […] given life sentences after their 6-week-old baby boy died of starvation in 2004.” Again, veganism does not result in starvation but the word “vegan” is central to the meaning of the sentence. Gladly, The Washington Post goes on to say that veganism is not a synonym for undernourishment, providing some counter-arguments. The perhaps unfortunate and incomplete ways in which newspapers presented the case of the “vegan child” aggravated the negative opinion of those who feel endangered or offended by the restrictive diets of others.
To understand the possible negative impact of the reporting on the case, I have analyzed 200 commentaries on newspapers web-pages. Firstly, I have analyzed one hundred commentaries made on The Washington Post article page. Of the one hundred posts, there were twenty-four aggressive messages. By aggression, I mean verbal violence against the parents of the baby, personal violence directed at other people on the forum, aggression against vegans in general, and the use of sarcasm and irony in order to humiliate others. Apart from these twenty-four cases of aggression, there were at least eight arguments that claimed veganism as scientifically impossible or unnatural. Moreover, at least four times veganism was called “a religion”, two others it was called “a hobby”, and at least three times it was called “a fad”. On the Huffington Post Canada, the results were similar. Of another hundred analyzed comments, twenty five were aggressive, ironic, or depreciating. At least three other times, veganism was associated with religion and once it was called “a cult”.
Some forms of prejudice are more widely known than others. Religion, race, and gender-based discrimination is becoming more well-known every day. On the other hand, prejudice against obesity, chemical abuse, and veganism is rarely explored in depth. While the motif for discrimination is different for each of these cases, their form is often similar. The use of language to diminish others is a common form of aggression, especially under the veil of anonymity allowed by virtual environments. For instance, calling veganism “a cult”, or “harmful propaganda” are not ways to express an opinion, but rather ways to attempt to put “what is different” in an inferior position. Both the Huffington Post Canada and the Washington Post commentary sections show examples of hate through language.
The most unique types of commentaries involve the comparison between veganism and religion. While veganism can hardly be considered a religion, the forms of prejudice experienced by vegans and people of religion are similar. It is not uncommon to hear jokes about dietary restrictions of religions such as Judaism or Hinduism. While perhaps not as serious as other forms of prejudice, jokes still compose a depreciative form of stigmatization.
Perhaps more serious than that, both religion and veganism suffer from the generalization of others, in which the entire group is judged for the actions of some. In short, just as not all Muslims are responsible for terrorism, all vegans are not responsible for negligence and misconduct. Generalization is a form to take away the individuality of a person, often aiming to blame them for the actions of others. This generalizing feature, especially in the media, is one of the causes for veganism’s stigmatized reputation.
Many may consider the existence of prejudice against vegans something unreal. There are some who still deny the existence of even stronger and more negative forms of prejudice, such as racism and xenophobia. Those who are not convinced or satisfied by the small sample presented are invited to look deeper. There are 375 million vegetarians and vegans worldwide who can inform much more about their daily struggles than this article could possibly explain. A look at news relating to vegans shows a highlighted salad image over the headline: “vegan baby is hospitalized,” despite not acknowledging the cause for hospitalization. The result is the erroneous interpretation of veganism as “a fad,” “a cult,” or “harmful propaganda,” rather than consumption choices and free will.