Veganism, Year Nine: Why Do Hipsters Mock Vegans?

by Neil H. Buchanan

In July 2008, I became a vegan.  Every year since then, I have celebrated my "veganniversary" by writing a column specifically on the subject of veganism.  Here are links to previous years' columns: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, and my two original posts from 2008 (here and here).

Because Professors Colb and Dorf have covered the scholarly aspects of ethical veganism so well -- most importantly with their masterful 2016 book Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights -- I have generally (not always, but usually) used my posts to focus on the day-to-day experiences of being a vegan, in particular analyzing the way that vegans are treated and portrayed in popular culture.

Today, I will focus on the way that hipsters treat vegans.  Why hipsters?  The simple fact is that they are the group that is most comfortable with veganism, in part because there are so many hipster vegans.

I am not basing that statement on survey data but on something much more practical and personal.  The website is a searchable global database of vegan, vegetarian, and veg-friendly restaurants and food stores.  When I visit a new city, I search HappyCow and almost inevitably find that the desired restaurants are clustered in one or two areas of town.

For example, the first time I visited Louisville, Kentucky, I assumed that it would be a wasteland for vegans, but it turned out that there was a very vegan friendly brewpub across the street from my hotel in a redeveloping area of downtown.  There were also two other neighborhoods not far away that were home to clumps of entries on the Happy Cow map.

What does one find in those neighborhoods?  Hipsters, of course.  In Louisville and elsewhere, there is a nearly perfect correlation between vegan-friendly neighborhoods and hipsters.  (I have not, of course, tested the possibility that there are vegan-unfriendly hipster neighborhoods, but I will simply say that I view this as unlikely.  Even if I am wrong about that, however, nothing here hangs on that empirical question.)

This is also an international phenomenon.  For example, in June I was in Mexico City to attend a conference, and some friends and I found a dinner cafe that would have fit easily into Brooklyn, Seattle, or San Francisco.  The name of the vegan burrito on the menu?  "La Hipster"!

I am not a hipster, in part because of advanced age and in part because I would not have been able to pull it off even when I was the right age, but I do find that it is very comfortable to hang out in hipster areas.  There are a lot of coffee houses, bars offer plenty of craft beer choices, and there is a very anti-corporate vibe (other than the ubiquitous Apple products, of course).  The denizens treat me like a harmless, likable enough old guy, which is apparently what I have become.

Speaking of old guys and hipsters who like them, Stephen Colbert provides an interesting window into what these millennials care about.  Although Colbert and I are both in our fifties, Colbert hires writers to aim at the young, hip demographic, and he knows what gets laughs.

Unfortunately, Colbert still loves to make fun of vegans, and his audiences seem to love it.  There are signs that he is evolving a bit, however.  Shortly after he moved to CBS to take over David Letterman's show in late 2015, he ran segments on two consecutive nights that were downright nasty about vegans, one of which drew applause when he said that he was happy that vegans were becoming ill from tainted food.

During one episode this month, however, one of Colbert's guests was Woody Harrelson, who is a vegan.  Colbert told Harrelson that "I lost a bet, and now I have to be vegan for 17 days."  Colbert's tone, however, was not nasty this time.  Even though someone in the audience loudly groaned, Colbert seemed genuinely interested in learning about veganism.  It is a shame that Harrelson was almost completely incoherent, but I will take optimism wherever I can find it.

When I was in Sydney earlier this year, I went to a restaurant in a section of the city called Darlinghurst, which appears to be the equivalent of Greenwich Village.  (There is a bar called the Stonewall Inn, for example.)  Naturally, there were many, many vegan-friendly places.

I went into one place that advertised itself as an American-style burger joint, but I was still comfortable in the belief that every restaurant in that neighborhood would have at least one thing on the menu that I could eat.  Much to my surprise, I saw this:
Veggie Burger -- For all you whining hippies, here it is.  Homemade black bean and sweet potato patty served with lettuce, tomato, red onion and sauce.  Sorry, not Vegan friendly!
This is standard-issue hipster derision of the sort that I described in my 2011 veganniversary post.  One of my examples in that post was the movie "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" (directed by Edgar Wright, of "Shaun of the Dead" and "Baby Driver" fame), which was practically an anthropological study of hipsterism in Toronto circa 2010.

The idea in all of these situations is to mock vegans for being self-important, whining, annoying prigs.  Which raises the question that I posed in the title of this post: Why do hipsters mock vegans?

One answer is easy and obvious: Because hipsters mock everything.  The whole hipster ethos is built around suspicion of sincerity and fear of being caught caring too much about anything.

As one self-described hipster put it, "the definition of hipster [when he moved to San Francisco in 2009] was pretty simple: a certain type of fashion (skinny jeans, Converse sneakers), a lot of bike-riding, laconic and/or dismissive attitudes, and a need to not only have an opinion on art, but also to stay on top of any scene as it blossomed."

That author goes on to point out that hipsterism (very much like hippie culture in the 1960's, I would point out) has now to a large degree been co-opted by capitalism, such that by now the "definition of what a hipster is has been sold to the highest bidder."  But it is the "laconic and/or dismissive attitudes" part of the definition that matters here.

In that mindset, it is dangerous to be seen as being excited, and even though everyone is trying to find the next big thing, they are simultaneously trying to gauge when to declare that that big thing has become passe and pathetically uncool.  A standard comment: "I was into that band before anyone had ever heard of them, but now they suck."

But is it really as simple as that?  Vegans seem to care about something, and hipsters disrespect moral commitments?  That seems difficult to square with what we know about the political views of hipsters (and millennials more generally), which are very much built around moral commitments that are not faddish.

It is not as if support for gay rights is suddenly going to be "so five minutes ago," to be followed by a wave of homophobia.  Similarly, environmentalism and feminism are unquestioned values in these urban enclaves.  And the almost cult-like popularity of Senator Bernie Sanders in this demographic is not showing signs of becoming uncool.  Even if Sanders fades or retires, his FDR-like political views are still popular and will surely remain so.

I suspect that the anti-vegan hipster attitude ultimately derives from a combination of two things.  The first is the fact that veganism is now common enough among hipsters that it is worth ridiculing and no longer so fragile that ridicule will do it real damage.  It is not exactly "familiarity breeds contempt" as much as a sense that a sizable enough group of people are around who can take some social heat.

The second part of the explanation arises from the fact that this crowd tends to be more highly educated than average, which means that they know bad arguments when they see them.  Because they are exposed to veganism much more than most other groups, this means that non-vegan hipsters are much more likely to have been put in a position where they have had to think about veganism, and they have come to the uncomfortable realization that they do not have a good reason not to be vegan.

So you are not going to hear hipsters saying, "God gave man dominion over all the animals."  Similarly, most of them will also have discovered that the question, "But how do you get your protein?" is a non-issue.  They will be able to see through arguments like, "But we raised them to be killed and eaten, so it's OK."  (Since I am mentioning movies, I strongly recommend "Never Let Me Go," which is an allegory about the concept of raising beings specifically to be used and ultimately killed, as applied to humans.)

As I wrote above, I am in my fifties but have only been a vegan for nine years.  That means that I am very familiar with what it is like to be in the position of hearing arguments for veganism and saying, "Yeah, well, um, that's all true, but I still don't want to change how I eat."

What is an uncomfortable person to do?  Mock the people who have followed their consciences, suggesting that it is all too precious and a mere attempt to be cool.  Vegans notice this attitude, of course.  (This blog post is proof of that.)  But it frankly does not matter, because this is a transitional period.

It is not as if the world is going vegan anytime soon, unfortunately, but the familiarity of veganism among hipsters is changing how non-vegan hipsters think.  Nine years in, what I am seeing is a group of young people who are more open to veganism than their predecessors, and their mockery is merely part of the process of normalizing that which had been abnormal.