More About Essentialism


I’ve brought this up a few times, mostly in episodes of the podcast, and you’ll have to forgive me for bringing it up again. I feel that I haven’t been clear enough about the consequences of essentialism. I also haven’t explained what exactly essentialism is, at least not in a particularly coherent way.

Wikipedia defines essentialism as “the view that every entity has a set of attributes that are necessary to its identity and function.” But that’s not very clear either.

Essentialism is the result of the brain’s reflex to categorize. We have to filter information that comes at us and place things into categories, otherwise we would be incapable of deciding what to pay attention to. It would also make it really difficult to stop thinking about something. But if we are too eager place things in buckets, to label them as “good” or “bad,” or “vegan” or “not vegan,” we can fall victim to a lazy pattern of thinking. We may not even notice that we aren’t evaluating the world critically.

We categorize things based on signs — even subtle ones — that they fit into a folder in our mind. You may presume that the car in front of you with an American flag bumper sticker is being driven by a Republican. If that car is a Prius, you may have to think about it a little longer before you find the right bucket. And if you see something completely unfamiliar, well, you might just have to create a whole new cognitive category. But that takes work, and the brain avoids expending energy when it feels it to be unnecessary.

This is particularly relevant to veganism. Essentialism is a habit that is closely related to stereotyping, and us vegans are constantly stereotyped. We are seen as anti-science, overly-emotional hippies. To be aware of the essentialist tendency is to be aware that others can be relied upon to scrutinize our behaviors and beliefs to find an appropriate category. And chances are it’s not a positive category — otherwise they’d probably be vegan, too.

To put it more bluntly: to be essentialized is to be dismissed. People don’t have to think about you or veganism any more once you’re put in a bucket.

So we have to do some work. We are more effective when we force others to create new categories in their minds. This means we have to change how others conceive of vegans and veganism. We are less effective when we fit the stereotypes — being up in people’s faces, tears in our eyes, calling them murderers.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t eat tofu, drink soymilk, and have emotions. But we should be aware that others are looking for ways to dismiss our cause, to think of veganism as “for vegans” in the same way that the law is for lawyers — exclusively for those that fit the personality type (more on that here).

So let’s make it a little more difficult for people to stop thinking about veganism almost as soon as they remember it: let’s deliberately demolish the stereotype that we are weak, emotional, and anti-science at every available opportunity.

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  1. Ironically veganism is a classic form of essentialism. Plant food category = good, Animal food category = bad. Food stereotyping with the mental traps that all essentialism entails.

    1. This isn’t necessarily so, but I agree that that is the tendency among vegans. Part of this project is updating what it means to be vegan to include foods which are animal products but which do not involve suffering. We as vegans need to overcome our own essentialism, and that was the impetus behind my previous post entitled “The Spirit of Veganism,” if you want to check that out. Thanks for reading!

      1. Clean meat, for example, can be made without any animal suffering. JUST made a video showing how they crafted meat from cells harvested from a chicken feather. It’s on Vimeo if you want to look it up.

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