straight edge

No Straight Answer

We dig into the origins of the straight edge lifestyle and its links to veganism

When a 19-year-old Ian Mackaye sung about being disaffected with drink and drugs, he didn’t mean to birth an entire subculture. Frustrated by the way that various intoxicants seemed to be transforming his peers in the hardcore punk scene into either thugs or babbling zombies, Mackaye penned the rather self-righteous lyrics to a song he titled Straight Edge. “I’m a person just like you / but I’ve got better things to do,” it went, “than sit around and fuck my head / Hang out with the living dead”.

The song, which he recorded with the seminal Washington D.C. hardcore outfit Minor Threat, unwittingly gave a name to a mindset of abstinence that had already been brewing in America’s East Coast punk community. Punk prides itself on its nonconformity, and being “straight edge” was another way for punk kids to thumb their nose at the status quo. For many young people living in America in the 80’s, who grew up in the midst of crack epidemic and the gleeful deregulation of the Reagan administration, some of whom likely came from households torn apart by booze and narcotics, abstaining from stimulants was as much a radical political act as it was one of self-preservation.

Though there is no explicit connection between veganism and the straight edge lifestyle, which holds to a strict abstinence of alcohol, tobacco, and recreational drugs, the two have often intersected, especially in the punk rock and hardcore music communities, and remain a natural pairing for many today. Ian Mackaye himself went vegan four years after recording Straight Edge, and a number of bands have since advocated the notion of a combined “vegan straight edge”, including Vegan Reich, Earth Crisis and Sect.

The prevalence of this crossover isn’t all that surprising given their similarities. To be vegan or straight edge is an act of self-discipline driven by a sense of individual responsibility, whether it’s a desire to approach the world with a sober sense of clarity or to treat all living things equally. Both stem from a shared conviction that moderating one’s consumption habits is a valid means of reducing harm, be that violence enacted upon other beings or the perceived damaged inflicted upon one’s self. Both, too, are seen as somewhat radical stances given that they reject behaviours considered the norm by wider society (i.e. the consumption of alcohol and animal products). And inevitably, both have been similarly stigmatised in mainstream discourse as a result.

They’re also intuitively compatible. For those who see being straight edge as an anti-capitalist gesture, with alcohol and tobacco being two of the world’s most profitable industries as well as magnets for unethical conduct, veganism can offer a similar appeal. By choosing to boycott the agriculture industry and many of the biggest food manufacturers, many vegans see their dietary choice and consumption habits as a means of divesting from businesses that routinely abuse animals, contribute to global warming and profit from poverty. The health benefits of veganism,

on the other hand, can be an attraction for those who already forgo drink and drugs for the sake of their well-being, and vice versa.

Certainly vegans and straight edgers are common amongst progressive and activist communities, but it would be too easy and incorrect to lump veganism and straight edge together under the banner of quirky inclinations mostly enjoyed by peace-and-love lefties. In reality, both share a propensity for being adopted by groups with, to say the least, questionable ideals. While skinhead hooligan element of the 80’s straight edge scene is unquestionably exaggerated (in part because its leaders enjoyed playing up to the mythology – “Slapping the beers out of people’s hands – I liken that to Method acting, or being a professional wrestler”, Jonathan Anastas of the bands Slapshot and DYS admits in Tony Rettman’s straight edge aural history) straight edge has often found itself associated with a culture of militancy and intolerance. Take the “straight edge gangs” of Utah, for instance, who in the late 90’s were known to carry weapons, light up fast-food joints and generally terrorise the streets of Salt Lake City. Or the Dynamo Kiev ultras – violent football fans sworn to abstinence with a penchant for national socialism and white supremacy.

Then there’s Vegan Reich, the band credited with popularising vegan straight edge as an all-encompassing doctrine. Their moronically tasteless name was chosen as joke at least, a spiteful retort to other bands in the hardcore scene who repeatedly and mockingly accused them of being “vegan fascists”. But despite generally identifying with leftist politics, the band nevertheless held some dubious views, their veganism informing a belief in the sacredness of all life that didn’t look very kindly on abortion or homosexuality.

What this all goes to show is that perhaps what veganism and straight edge have most in common is that they are broad labels taken up by all sorts of people for different reasons. There’s certainly an affinity between the two, but that instinctive pairing can just as easily promote an anti-capitalist lifestyle as it can fuel fascistic notions of moral superiority. From a historical point of view though, it’s important to note the extent to which the straight edge community, as very vocal early adopters of veganism, helped lay the groundwork for what the movement has become today. In an interview with DIY Conspiracy, Rat of the vegan straight edge band Statement claimed that “people that aren’t even into punk or hardcore may very well not be vegan if it wasn’t the way punk spoke out against animal abuse”, and he might well be right.