The 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World stands out as an exceptional action comedy, with a perfect mix of exhilarating, self-consciously overblown battle scenes, wacky humor, and a nuanced, surprisingly relatable story of teenage love and angst. It also stands out as one of pop culture’s most visible portrayals of veganism.
That said, Scott Pilgrim‘s depiction of vegans is not particularly flattering. The movie centers on the title character’s love for a girl, Ramona Flowers, whom he can’t date until after defeating all seven of her “evil exes” in combat. Ramona’s third ex, Todd Ingram, happens to be vegan… which, by the laws of the film’s fantasy universe, grants him incredible psychic powers such as mind-reading and telekinesis. As he and his minions explain,
“You know how you only use 10% of your brain? That’s because the other 90% is filled with curds and whey… short answer: being vegan just makes you better than most people.”
However, after nearly being destroyed by Todd, Scott Pilgrim comes up with a last-ditch plan to foil his enemy: he tricks him into drinking coffee with half-and-half. This accidental consumption of dairy immediately summons the Vegan Police. As it turns out, this wasn’t Todd’s first dietary lapse: on two previous occasions since becoming vegan, he had consumed gelato and chicken parmesan. As punishment, the Vegan Police use a “de-veganizing ray” to strip Todd of his psychic powers, then depart cheering with satisfaction as Scott finishes off his now-helpless opponent.
You can watch the scene here:
Some vegans may take offense at being shown as villains in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Others may laugh it off as a harmless jest. But what if we regard Scott and Todd’s battle as a metaphor for real-world activism? Is there any useful lesson to be learned?
While most real-life vegans don’t wield psychokinetic powers, a small but vocal minority do behave much like the Vegan Police, targeting imperfections in the lifestyles of fellow vegans, vegetarians, and aspiring converts for merciless criticism. And much as the Vegan Police’s intercession enables Scott, an unrepentant meat-eater, to defeat the errant but still mostly meatless Todd, such behavior can often inadvertently support the meat industry by helping marginalize the vegan cause.
I’ve experienced this effect myself. While I am a lifelong vegetarian and have never knowingly eaten meat, I have sometimes struggled to commit to fully vegan eating. While I was a student at Vanderbilt University, where I served as an officer in the campus vegetarian group, VIVA (Vanderbilt Initiative for Vegetarian Awareness), I began trying to maintain a strict vegan diet. During this time, while planning an all-vegan BBQ, I wrote to an organization that funds vegan activism to request support for the event. One of the questions in the application asked whether or not I myself was vegan, so I replied that I was currently in the process of giving up animal products. The reply came back:
“Thank you for your application. We are always happy to see individuals who are eager to educate others about veganism. However, our guidelines require that the person applying is vegan. Would one of the vegan volunteers listed in your application be willing to take the lead on this event?”
I was incensed and insulted. The event itself was all-vegan and meant to promote veganism! What difference should it make whether the individual requesting funding is personally vegan or not, unless it’s simply a matter of purity: that the funders dare not defile themselves by interacting with such a depraved, unclean creature as myself? I didn’t give up on trying to reduce my dairy consumption (I hadn’t eaten eggs or honey for years), because I was mature enough to realize that individuals’ rude behavior doesn’t automatically discredit the ethics they espouse. Nonetheless, it put a heavy damper on my enthusiasm and desire to associate with other vegans.
Since then, I’ve seen many similar instances of Vegan Policing: the chef and founder of a vegan restaurant excoriated on social media after revealing that she herself ate animal products, with many commenters vowing to boycott her restaurant. Non-vegan vegetarianism condemned as a “gateway to meat-eating” on vegan message boards (as if veganism was the norm and meat-eating the counterculture minority diet). Major vegan advocacy organizations such as Vegan Outreach accused of being sell-outs to the meat industry, because they advocate lacto-ovo vegetarianism and reduced meat consumption for those unable or unwilling to cut out all animal products from their lifestyle.
(it should be noted that in each of the above instances I’ve observed, an equal or greater number of vegans chose to defend the people or groups under attack; the Vegan Police are, fortunately, only one faction of the vegan community)
Real-world Vegan Police may reason that by calling out perceived hypocrisy, and refusing to settle for anything less than perfection in others’ lifestyles, they are maintaining the integrity of what it means to be vegan. Perhaps, but such vehemence also makes the vegan lifestyle seem profoundly unwelcoming to newcomers, greatly limiting the number of people who will ever adopt veganism or any other diet on the vegetarian spectrum. The end result is that countless animals who might have been spared by converts to such diets are instead tortured and killed to feed people alienated from the entire cause.
According to a 2014 study by Faunalytics, formerly the Humane Research Council, 84% of all vegetarians, and 70% of strict vegans, eventually return to eating meat. Breaking down the study reveals some important insights as to why this may be:
- 43% of former vegetarians and vegans cite difficulty staying “pure” in their diet as a reason for giving it up.
- 84% of former vegetarians and vegans were never part of a veg community, and 49% state having had insufficient interactions with other vegetarians and vegans.
- 65% of former vegetarians and vegans initially gave up meat very quickly, in a manner of days or weeks, before returning to it. By contrast, only 53% of current vegetarians and vegans transitioned quickly.
- 53% of former vegetarians and vegans maintained their diet for less than a year before lapsing, and 34% less than three months. 88% of current veg eaters have maintained their diet for more than a year, and 95% more than three months.
What can vegan activists learn from the above statistics? Based on their findings, the study authors recommend “incrementalism,” the advocacy of diets in-between omnivory and veganism, as an activist strategy. That way, newcomers can adjust their lifestyles at a pace they’re comfortable sustaining; individuals who have trouble staying “pure” in their diets don’t give up on the cause entirely; and people too attached to animal products to consider full veganism are still encouraged to lessen the harm they cause to animals.
For Vegan Police, this means letting go of the derision for lacto-ovo vegetarians and reduced meat consumers. Such diets may still cause unnecessary harm toward animals, but certainly much less than standard omnivory, and are considerably easier for most people to adopt than strict veganism. And while the eventual goal for animal activists should always be the end of all human exploitation of animals, the fact is that billions of animals are suffering now and will continue to do so well into the future. Accepting people who choose to eat fewer animal products, while acknowledging veganism as the ideal, brings us closer to our end goal, and lessens current animal suffering, far more than belittling all efforts short of a standard that few people will rise to meet.
According to the Faunalytics study, those who return to meat-eating generally do so after a short time, and are widely lacking in connections to other vegetarians and vegans or a veg community. This highlights the importance of early experiences and community support for newcomers to the cause. Converting to any new lifestyle is typically a challenging process, difficult to sustain all by oneself. This is why most religions emphasize community worship and study, and why support groups are so essential for recovering addicts. Having other people who will encourage you, share advice, and forgive you when you trip up can make all the difference in sticking to one’s resolve.
In order to win and retain converts, vegan activists need to work at creating a warm and accepting community friendly to newcomers. Doing so requires, among other things, a more forgiving attitude toward impurity. To an extent, vegans’ emphasis on purity is perfectly reasonable, given the ubiquity of animal products in so many foods and other goods, and other forms of exploitation in their manufacture (such as animal testing). One needs to be highly diligent to avoid accidentally funding the very abuses one condemns. However, vegans must also be careful not to over-emphasize personal purity to the point that it becomes narrow-mindedness or intolerance.
It is important to remember that one helps or harms animals not only directly, but through one’s effects on other people’s moral decisions. So in dealing with non-veggies, vegan activists must be careful that in their desire for personal purity, they don’t place such undue demands on others as to engender negative feelings toward the cause. Demanding that a chef change a complex recipe to eliminate some trace amount of animal ingredient, or use an entire separate grill for one’s veggie burger, will result in little if any tangible reduction in animal suffering. However, it may leave a strongly negative impression on the people inconvenienced, who will be far less likely to ever consider veganism or vegetarianism as a result of their experience.
If it seems petty that anyone would dismiss a code of ethics over an irritating personal experience, it is nonetheless a reality that all activists must adapt to if they hope to effect widespread change.
Within the vegan community, activists need to strike a better balance between holding peers to their own standards, and harping on minor transgressions out of all proportion to their actual impact. For a self-professed vegan to occasionally sneak a tiny amount of dairy, egg, or even meat may be hypocritical, but will have only a relatively small net impact in terms of animal suffering. However, punishing that person to the extent that they give up entirely or, even worse, interfering with support they may provide the vegan cause (such as boycotting a chef’s vegan restaurant because she herself eats animal products) will have a very strong negative impact on animals raised and killed for food.
In summary, it is one thing to hold oneself to the high standards of veganism, and to promote the diet as a powerful means of reducing animal suffering. It is quite another to waste one’s time and energy on policing others within the cause, losing sight of the big picture: saving as many animals from horrible lives and painful deaths in the here and now as possible, while working toward the distant goal of a vegan future one step at a time. The animal rights cause needs vegan educators, role models, and supporters. It doesn’t need the Vegan Police.