When we think of oppression, should we be including non-human animals?

This article originally appeared in Therapy Den on February 3, 2019

Oppression is the act of using power over another for control or unjust treatment.  Humans have a long history of oppressing others, whether the oppressed be handicapped or disabled people, Native Americans, African Americans, women, the poor, LGTBQ, or Jews, to name a few.  We recognize oppression because victims experience feelings like sadness, fear, or joy, are aware of their own lives and the lives of others, want to live, and feel pain.  We wouldn’t say we are oppressing a rock when we sit on it or use it to make cement (although we would support a position regarding our oppression of the earth and its resources).  

A systemic oppression that not many people, including therapists, are familiar with is called “speciesism.”  Richard Ryder, a psychologist, coined the term speciesism in 1970 to refer to the prejudicial belief that humans are so superior, so exceptional to animals that we can use them as we wish.  Humans “forget” that we are animals too.  Like us, cats, dogs, cows and chickens all feel pain.  Lambs, ducks and pigs all have consciousness and want to live.  Similar to other forms of oppression, like racism or sexism, the treatment of an individual is determined by their membership within a particular group. Katrina Fox writes, “Just as less value is placed on certain people based on their sex, gender, race, sexual orientation or other defining characteristic, so too are animals afforded even less consideration and moral worth based on the fact they are a species other than human”.  

Drawing a line between Blacks and White, Jews and non-Jews, LGBTQs and heterosexuals, is the same process as drawing a line between human animals and non-human animals.  The dominant group arbitrarily draws a line, privileging themselves and subordinating the other.  The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all injustice.  

When they realize that their behavior is not consistent with their values, people typically get defensive.  The defensive position is often a part of our speciesist culture.  An easy way to assess whether something is speciesist is to replace the nonhuman animal idea with a human word or concept.  For example, people often say veganism is a process.  Would it be okay if murderers said that giving up murdering people is a process?  Another example is the position that we’ve always eaten animals.  Would it be acceptable if someone defended their right to kill people because the human species has always killed?  Some people say veganism is a personal choice.  It is a personal choice, like murder is a personal choice.

Veganism is the commitment to not use our power over another, including species other than our own.  Vegans are conscientious objectors to participating in violence toward another, no exceptions or caveats.  Therapists are on the front-line of understanding and dealing with defense mechanisms and play a pivotal role in helping society heal, whether ourselves, our clients or our culture. Working towards a vegan world is not only a step toward peace, but also of mental health, as we become more fully integrated and compassionate, make conscious choices, and honor the interconnectedness of all life.

The following authors authors contributed to this article:

Alexandra Arbogast, LICSW, LCSW-C, C-IAYT
Susan Costello, MA, LMHC, CPCC
Christine Jackson, LICSW
Rima Daniellle Jomaa, LMFT
Beth Levine, LCSW-C
Kimberly Spanjol, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LMHC
Valerie Martin, LCSW, RYT, CSAT
Vicki Seglin, Ph.D.
Jean Shirkoff, LCSW
Sarah B. Stewart, Psy.D., PLLC
Krista Verrastro, MA, RDT
Sherry Zitter, LICSW

(Professional Website: www.BethLevineCounseling.com)

Food For Thought

This article was originally published in Greater Washington Society for Clinical Social Work’s New & Views, June 2016.


When Freud was writing something that he anticipated would get a lot of push back from colleagues, he would address potential reservations at the beginning of his essay. Freud would soften the blow. It was a way of getting beyond defenses which could prevent people from being open to information that was in some way contrary to their current beliefs and that they didn’t want to hear.

I am going to write about something I foresee most therapists will want to dismiss. Before you stop reading, I hope you will remember that perhaps the most common defense mechanism people use to disconnect from the cognitive dissonance that arises between how they perceive themselves and their actual actions is to avoid the topic altogether.

We live in a society that teaches us that it is permissible to treat other living beings as inanimate objects, as “property,” and that other living beings are here for our use. It is also deemed acceptable to grant ourselves greater moral worth because we call ourselves human and just because, as the dominant group, we can.

The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all injustices. This process of oppression is the same whether it is toward African Americans, homosexuals, women, or nonhuman animals. As Derald Wing Sue, PhD, and David Rivera, M.S., summarize from Sue’s book Microagressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation, “Many scholars and humanists have argued that being an oppressor requires a dimming of perceptual awareness and accuracy that is associated with self-deception.” They note that few oppressors are completely unaware of their roles in the oppression and degradation of others. To continue in their oppressive ways means they must engage in denial and live a false reality that allows them to function in good conscience. Although the term “oppressor” used by Sue and Rivera refers to people whose maltreatment is toward another human, there is no reason to believe these cognitive costs do not also apply to humans oppressing other animals. Human beings want to see themselves as good and people will go through all sorts of cognitive distortions to make it so.

Since part of our job as therapists is to help people become more fully themselves, it is important for us to be aware of and thoughtful about the power of our prejudice toward nonhuman animals in our lives, our work with clients, and society at large. The cultural norm of oppressing nonhuman animals and of devaluing their lives, keeps us from making conscious choices about our relationship with animals, taking responsibility for our actions towards them, having our values and behaviors towards other sentient beings aligned, and causes us to disown parts of ourselves.

When we hear (or say to ourselves):

• But we need animal protein to survive

• I’d go vegan in a second, but I can’t give up cheese

• Veganism is so extreme

• We’ve been eating animals forever

• I love the feel of fur

• Leather is so fancy

• I only eat organic eggs

• I buy humanely raised meat

we need to step up to the plate (pun intended) and recognize rationalizations, intellectualizations, compartmentalizations, and denial for what they are. These are all defenses against the cognitive dissonance that arises between seeing ourselves as a kind, compassionate and just person and the reality of our role as oppressor.

An integral component of our professional work is recognizing defense mechanisms and getting under, through or joining with these defenses to help people become more fully integrated and make conscious choices. And yet, in regards to our relationship to other animals, as a community, we are not getting beyond our own defenses and helping others and society do the same.

It turns out that some have gotten beyond their defense mechanisms in regards to our treatment of other sentient beings and recognize the intersectionality of oppression. Ethical vegans acknowledge that an individual’s life has inherent value, regardless of species membership and that denying their participation in violence towards another does not make them less responsible for that violence. They therefore make conscious moral choices of inclusion, regardless of differences, including species membership.

Both vegans and non-vegans live in a state of disconnect. Non-vegans disconnect from the fact that a billion (Caesar was assassinated a billion minutes ago) of nonhuman animals are enslaved, tortured, confined and violently murdered each week for their pleasure, preferences and entertainment. Vegans live in a state of disconnect so that their hearts don’t shatter into a million pieces moment by moment due to the fact that billions of non-humans are being exploited and the people they love continue to participate. Vegans have to disconnect just to be able to get through the day. (Paragraph adapted from a quote from the blog, The Thinking Vegan, thethinkingvegan.com)

Therapists play a pivotal role in helping society heal, whether ourselves, our clients or our culture. Working towards a vegan world is not only a step toward peace, but also of mental health, as we become more fully integrated and compassionate, make conscious choices, and as we honor the interconnectedness of all life.



(professional website:  www.bethlevinecounseling.com)

Enhancing Therapeutic Effectiveness When Working with Vegan Clients

This article was published in The Greater Washington Society for Clinical Social Work, News & Views, September 2017

As clinicians, we see all kinds of people who present with a myriad of problems. Some of the presenting problems will be familiar to us, issues we have confronted in our own lives, but some issues will be new to us, and the question arises, how will we deal with these in a clinically effective way? This could include transgender issues, sexual orientation, or political beliefs or religious practices far removed from our own. Included in this category for most clinicians would be ethical veganism.

Ethical vegans see veganism as a moral baseline of nonviolence and nonuse for all beings, without restriction or caveat. Over the years, the word has also come to be used by people when they follow a plant-based diet, but do not adhere to the moral consideration of nonhuman animals. In this piece, I use the term vegan to connote someone with an ethical concern with our treatment of animals, human and nonhuman, and who has deep convictions that run counter to conventional thinking.

Being vegan is a profoundly different experience than not being vegan in our current non-vegan world. Often, vegans experience PTSD symptoms from bearing witness to our treatment of nonhuman animals. Where non-vegans see a bucket of chicken wings, vegans see images of tortured beings. Non-vegan friends talk about enjoying dairy ice cream, ethical vegans imagine the heartbreak of forced separation between mother and child and their violent deaths. Ethical vegans see the hypocrisy in a local Humane Society raising money for dogs and cats in their care by holding a barbecue.

The social work profession is concerned with treating all clients and their needs. The vegan population in the USA comprises 1.5 percent of adults aged 18 and older (3.7 million adults). This figure does not distinguish between those who see themselves as ethical vegans and those eating a plant-based diet. By comparison, there are 1.4 million Americans, around 0.6 percent of the U.S. population, who identify as transgender and yet there are many training programs to help therapists work with transgender clients. In my experience, there is a lack of trainings to help therapists work with the relatively larger potential population of vegan clients. The purpose of this article is to start to address this need.

We may want to ask ourselves the following:

• How do we face this moral difference in a way that keeps the therapeutic alliance safe?

• Can we be open to our own sensitivities and prejudices so that we can help the vegan client feel safe and understood?

By considering these questions, we can better manage our countertransference and talk with our clients about our interactions when we feel it would be therapeutic to do so.

I will briefly discuss three areas for non-vegan therapists to be tuned into when working with a vegan client:

• The therapist may have some office decorations or other products that are animal-based. The therapist’s office might have leather chairs or a leather couch. Maybe there is a hunting picture on the wall or milk chocolate candy in the waiting room. Perhaps the therapist just finished a hamburger before the session and the client smells the food in the room. Vegans perceive unfairness and violence in animalbased products.

• Another reason for a vegan client to not feel safe may be reactions on the part of the therapist. The therapist might become defensive because of what is called “do-gooder derogation,” the putting down of morally motivated others. Research by Julia Minson and Benoit Monin of non-vegetarians’ reactions to vegetarians indicates a “kneejerk defensive reaction to the threat of being morally judged and found wanting” (p. 205, Do-Gooder Derogation: Disparaging Morally Motivated Minorities to Defuse Anticipated Reproach). The therapist might also become defensive because he or she is uncomfortable with this topic of conversation. Perhaps the vegan client is heartbroken over our treatment of our fellow earthlings and is vividly describing the violence and torture to which she bears witness. Defensive reactions can be statements, non-verbal cues, steering the conversation away from a topic, or silence. Examples of statements from therapists that vegans in therapy have shared with me include: “That’s an extreme diet,” “By being vegan, you’re limiting the people you can date,” “Would you consider being a little less rigid with your veganism?” and “You’re being judgmental.” Vegans are likely to experience do-gooder derogation and other defensive reactions in their daily lives so it is especially important that therapists be aware of the possibility of this trigger reaction within themselves to prevent defensiveness from happening or to be able to process it if it does.

• An additional barrier for vegans to forge a safe relationship with non-vegan therapists is that vegans are profoundly aware of a point of disconnect. Non-vegans disconnect from the fact that by consuming or using animal products, whether for food, entertainment, clothing, etc., they are participating in what vegans see as the daily use, torture and killing of billions of nonhuman animals. By disconnecting from the violence in animal-based products, they cannot access the experience of what it is like to be vegan. As was told to me by a vegan who has been to non-vegan therapists: “In my experience, my therapists have been very careful not to offend too much. It is more that they really do not get what I am saying when I talk about the feelings caused by the constant and eternal holocaust. I can see that they do not get it. They just cannot comprehend the magnitude of it and its crushing weight. When they respond, I do not think that they really understand that what they are saying will not help.”

Even if a vegan client is not talking to a therapist about what it is like to be vegan in a not-yet-vegan world, e.g., the client is talking about their relationships or work stress, this aspect of their life is, almost assuredly, always with them. In either case, it is important for therapists to understand the barriers that could keep a client from feeling safe and understood so that these issues can be addressed in therapy. By doing so, the safety and connection between a non-vegan therapist and vegan client will increase and, therefore, improve the help the client receives.

(professional website:  www.bethlevinecounseling.com)

Open Letter to Organizations that Research and Promote Empathy and Compassion

This Open Letter to organizations that promote empathy and compassion and signed by social scientists, which includes signatures from several luminaries in the animal advocacy movement, highlights ways in which cultural norms position nonhuman animals either as commodities to be exploited for our pleasure, or as having interests ‘less than’ those of humans. It also points out that these social norms negatively impact not only nonhuman animals, but ourselves and our societies.

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Six Ways Becoming Vegan Can Increase Your Self-Esteem

Self-esteem allows us to enjoy our lives more through better psychological health, personal achievements and relationships.

As a psychotherapist, I am interested in understanding: Could there be a connection between self-esteem and choosing to live in a way that values all life?

To answer this question, I turned to the work of Nathaniel Branden, an expert on self-esteem. 

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Is Raising Children to Be Vegan Bad for Their Mental Health?

Parents who raise their children vegan often get a lot of flak about whether their children are getting proper nutrition or missing out on food choices.  

As a psychotherapist, I am interested in understanding what impact raising a child with the values of ethical veganism has on a child’s mental health and wellbeing. So I did my own research and interviewed 15 parents with children of a variety of ages. I also interviewed two young adults.

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