The Scott Pilgrim Parable for Vegan Activists

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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?”

Poster for the event in question

Poster for the event in question

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.

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From Animal People Forum’s Flickr account

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.

Vegan versions of traditional Indonesian dishes

Vegan versions of traditional Indonesian dishes, at the Dharma Kitchen restaurant in Jakarta, Indonesia

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About Author

Profile photo of Wolf Gordon Clifton

Born and raised within the animal rights movement, Wolf Gordon Clifton has always felt strongly connected to other creatures and concerned for their well-being. Beginning in childhood he contributed drawings of animals for publication in Animal People News, and traveled with his parents to attend conferences and visit animal projects all over the world. During high school he began writing for the newspaper and contributing in various additional ways around the Animal People office. His first solo trip overseas, to film a promotional video for the Bali Street Dog Foundation in Indonesia, led him to create the animated film Yudisthira's Dog, retelling the story of an ancient Hindu king famed for his loyalty to a street dog. It also inspired lifelong interests in animation and world religion, which he went on to study for college at Vanderbilt University. Wolf graduated in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and minors in Film Studies and Astronomy. In 2015, he received a Master of Arts in Museology and Graduate Certificate in Astrobiology from the University of Washington. His thesis project, the online exhibit Beyond Human: Animals, Aliens, and Artificial Intelligence, brings together animal rights, astrobiology, and AI research to explore the ethics of humans' relationships with other sentient beings, and can be viewed on the Animal People Forum. His diverse training and life experiences enable him to research and write about a wide variety of animal-related issues, in a global context and across the humanities, arts, and sciences. In his spare time, he does paleontological work for the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, and writes for the community blog Neon Observatory. Click to see author's profile.

2 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Anita Mayangpuspa

    In my personal experience in diet transition I come to face the challenges that are, from the easiest to the hardest ( arguably) :

    Firstly comes from my internal self, as in the process to internally accepting the new diet requirement and appetite management. In my experience, including welcoming new tastes and numb out the taste I am used to consider as appetising, including getting the body used to operate with the new type of food.

    Secondly from the external environment a.k.a the people. The new diet brings challenges as it affects one’s social dynamic. Having a different diet than most people means we require others that we interact with to comply with our diet requirement. To note that food plays a highly important role on how we socialise ( business lunch, dinner date, family dinner, etc.) – For almost all people, food plays three times a day and it is often shared, is considered an enjoyable experience and is a together type of activity, making it a perfect tool to bond. By having different type of diet we are putting a strain on the group dynamics. Most people are not happy and this may lead to different type of social issue as shaming and bullying, for instance.

    The third challenge comes from the system in the society we live in that is often not accommodating to a vegan/vegetarian diet. This might be easier in a country like India where vegetarianism is recognised, is widely accepted and become an element of consideration, and thus vegetarianism is accommodated within the system in the Indian society. The challenge occurs when the different type of diet is required within a society where the concept of vegan/vegetarianism is alien. To practice the alien diet means the absence of common privilege that comes along with the practicality value within the already established system. To swim against the current means daily (!) extra effort for an often overlooked simple act and this is a special kind of daily (!) strain by itself. As an illustration that it is comparable to a requirement upon a task completion for being mobile on the road but the person is sitting in a wheelchair and thus needing a customised car to ride, but the widely available commercial car had not taken the wheel chair situation into consideration and thus the particular need is not accommodated. The options is not having the task completed or the car is required to be customised, and in this case its a daily customisation.

    By understanding the layers of challenges; and in accordance with the conclusion in the article above.

    Firstly, it is important to keep in mind that the impact for the animals comes with the volume thus it is less on the personal purity and to remember that it is the positive reinforcement that works ( I know this is frustrating but unfortunately human being – good or bad – are protected by the law and to win their commitment, we need them to agree with the proposal so we cant afford to make them upset as not everyone is able to differentiate between the ethics value and the person behind it) .

    Secondly, it is not realistic to put all the pressure on the aspiring individual in the expectation to convert and retain with the movement, but rather it is important to encourage the environment ( people) and the society ( system ) to be more accepting and accommodating ( respectively ) to vegetarian/ vegan diet, which these would establish a more vegetarian/vegan friendly environment that eventually would attract , win and retain more followers for an impactful result by the volume.

    I find this interesting article in accordance to the proposal making here : Which Proposal Is The Most Effective To Change A Diet: Veganism, Vegetarianism, Eating Less Meat, Or Cutting Out Or Cutting Back On The Consumption Of Animal Products?
    http://www.animalequality.net/node/750

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