Eyes Wide Open


goat rescue
(“Lamb with Igualdad Animal Activist” –photo by Jo-Anne McArthur)

Why am I vegan and an animal rights activist? Because I abhor violence. Because I am sickened by suffering, appalled by cruelty, horrified by killing–and I don’t want to contribute to it.  It is really that simple. And yet the moral imperative that is at the core of my veganism is not easily understood by many; perhaps they think that acknowledging their own culpability in supporting violence towards animals, in their food (as well as clothing, entertainment and medical) choices–and then doing something about it by going vegan– is too complicated, too much of an effort.

I feel that there is something  else at play, however; something larger that is left unspoken and yet at some level is recognized by many people when they refuse to open their eyes to the plight of farmed animals.  When we  open our eyes to the violence humans do to these animals, we also open a door that leads to actively opposing that violence and influencing others to do the same. And that door leads to more and more doors. And all those open doors, while affording a vision of social justice for all beings, also offer a view of the world that is often bleak and troubling and confusing and overwhelming.

And there is so much that overwhelms us, so many images of suffering with which we are confronted, so much violence over which we have no control. One image in particular has, in the past few day, elicited feelings of  grief and outrage worldwide: the image of little Omran of Aleppo, Syria. How can you not view that image of a soot and blood covered little boy looking so small and dazed as he sits in the back of the ambulance, and not gasp at  what has just happened to him and his hometown? How can you not decry the ravages of a conflict which has caused so much suffering and death and has destroyed the childhood of children like Omran? How can anyone remain indifferent to such horrors?

When I saw that picture and then the video of Omran’s rescue from the rubble of his house, tears came to my eyes. Of course. But what to do with that feeling of grief? We see these images, we react as any caring human being should react but what then? I am outraged that such violence exists. But what to do with that outrage? Do I write a letter to the president? Do I take to the street in protest?  I confess, I do not have enough understanding of the Syrian conflict and I certainly don’t know what I personally could do to help bring it to an end. And so I cry tears of impotent rage.

Another captivating image graces my living room wall: a framed 30″ x 40″ print of an amazing photo by the Canadian photographer and animal right’s activist Jo-Anne McArthur; a lamb is cradled in the arms of a member of Igualdad Animal (Animal Equalityduring an open rescue of farmed animals destined for slaughter. What drew me inexorably to this photo and compelled me to purchase it at a showing of some of McArthur’s photos benefitting The National Museum of Animals and Society (now under the name of simply The Animal Museum in downtown Los Angeles) was that lamb’s eye staring out at us; unlike Omran’s stunned and hollow-eyed gaze, we can read in this lamb’s face hopeful anticipation, curiosity, relief. It’s an image that fills me with delight and also a sense of urgency. That lamb’s gaze never fails to remind me why I chose to become a vegan and why I  became an animal rights activist.

Those of us who care, those of us whose eyes and hearts are open to the suffering of others, we cry. But we also cry out — we cry out against domination; we cry out against social injustice;  we cry out against the exploitation and brutalization of sentient beings. We decry violence and we especially decry the violence of the powerful over the powerless. We come together to publicly denounce that violence, we do not cry out alone.

Sometimes we know exactly what to do, such as choosing to go vegan as a personal rejection of violence to farmed animals, or by rescuing animals from suffering and slaughter. Other times we are not so sure of what to do, especially when the problem seems far beyond our ability to solve it.

But we choose to keep our eyes open. We choose to not only be aggrieved  by the violence we see but also to be outraged. So outraged that we look for ways to turn that feeling into action. We choose to see and we choose to hope and we choose to act. We don’t always know what to do, that’s true. But we know that as painful as it is, we must keep our eyes wide open, always looking for that glimmer of hope on the horizon.

Vegan Is Not The Answer

For several months, fully cognizant  of the fact that I have  long neglected this, my poor pet project, I have tried to write a new blog post. Several times I’ve generated in my head essays that have promised so much but failed to fully evolve. Nothing seemed right. All seemed superfluous and inconsequential. Why? What was the answer? I didn’t know. I don’t often have the answer.  I often struggle with doubt, usually doubting my own abilities. The older I get, the more I find that much of the meaning that might be gleaned from my life eludes me. Don’t get me wrong,  I am guided by some strong principles and ethics. Though I will go to my grave with many unanswered questions and many doubts, I feel confident that I will go to my grave staunchly believing in veganism and animal rights.

Asking the Important Questions

So why do I say that “vegan is not the answer?” Because I believe that for veganism to be not just a dietary option but a vital force for social change, a paradigm shifting, revolutionary, world changing state of being, it must, above all else, pose the important questions. Veganism asks, Why do we eat animals?  Why must we view animals as commodities? Do we really need to consume animal flesh and animal secretions to be healthy, or is there a better way? In identifying ourselves as vegan, we ask the rest of the world, Can you see the violence inherent in animal agriculture? Can you imagine a world free of that violence? Won’t you join with us in realizing that world?

But we vegans need to ask much more — of the world and of ourselves. Questions that don’t necessarily have easy answers. Questions which may necessarily lead to other questions. We might begin by asking the following:

Is veganism informed by the concept of social justice?  Can social justice be informed by the concept of veganism? And . . . How can vegans/animal rights activists build alliances with other social justice movements?


Can you be a vegan and yet not advocate for veganism? Can you be vegan and not advocate for animal rights? Should we concentrate on creating more vegans or more animal rights activists? Is a focus on vegan consumerism counterproductive to advancing animal liberation?  And. . . Is veganism necessarily a critique of capitalism?

One Struggle

One question I’ve struggled with for some time is, How do we counter the image of veganism as the bastion of  white privilege? How do we get more non-whites (African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, etc.) involved in vegan activism?  I now realize that the better question isHow can we connect with those folks in non-white communities who are already vegan and are already advocating for veganism and even animal rights in their own ways in their own communities? How can we start truly listening to others all around the world who have their own particular reasons for being vegan and have their own particular stories to tell?  And how can we better tie our vegan activism to food empowerment? Concomitantly, should we stop telling everyone that it is “easy” to go vegan? Are we making this statement from a place of privilege which  fails to recognize that many people in low income areas live in “food deserts” without easy access to healthy plant-based food?

I do believe that veganism, particularly as an essential component of animal liberation, must be viewed in the context of — to use the academic word du jour — “intersectionalism,” which describes interconnections of oppression, domination and discrimination. Racism, sexism, speciesism — they should not be examined separate from one another. As the chant goes, it’s “one struggle, one fight: human freedom and animal rights!” Informed by this intersectionalism and within the contexts of liberation, non-violence and social justice,  racists, sexists, anti-semites, Islamaphobes, homophobes, transphobes, etc. would, de facto, have no place at the vegan table; their words and deeds would be antithetical to veganism.

I would hope that everyone reading this would agree that racism is morally repugnant and should never be tolerated.  But if a white supremacist were to take up the cudgel of animal liberation and work tirelessly to promote a vegan world, should that person’s efforts, though morally inconsistent, be completely discounted?  Should we excommunicate the vegan activist whose religious convictions tells him that gays will burn in hell? Even if his work is successfully bringing people to veganism? And what about the relationship between religion and our treatment of non-human animals? Should interpretations of religious texts which seem to support compassionate treatment of  animals, if not liberation, be used? Here’s what professor Kim Socha has to say in her powerful (and very readable!) book, Animal Liberation and Atheism: Dismantling the Procrustean Bed:

Just because positive change has occurred due to the hearts and minds of religious activists  does not mean there is a divine force at play and that the same spirit of progress cannot exist without religious belief [. . .] My point here is that the divine is not necessary– and often counterproductive — when seeking the end of oppression and hierarchy because the divine is part of the problem to begin with.

There are some who would argue that we must welcome any and all who promote veganism/animal rights, whether from a secular or from a religious world-view. But should we  try to force fit religious texts into arguments for veganism when those religions perpetuate oppression through patriarchal  hierarchy?

Outreach or Confrontation?

My preferred form of vegan activism has been vegan outreach leafleting. I am one of the few people who have eagerly participated in this; first, because I truly believe  that vegan outreach is the best way to promote veganism and to ultimately facilitate an end to the suffering of our sentient non-human fellow earthlings. I have also relished the opportunity to challenge myself, to push past my comfort zone and connect with other human beings openly and non-judgmentally. And many a time I’ve been surprised when someone I initially saw as potentially unreceptive to my offer of information on “helping animals” proved quite open and ready to make a change in their life. Of course, there have always been many more who are either unresponsive, defensive or actively hostile to the vegan message. They may or may not someday be receptive to veganism; I have heard time and again about stalwart vegans who once mercilessly ridiculed veganism. Also, I always welcome those people who are full of questions. Those questions, though challenging, are often genuine and a way for “pre-vegans” to sort things out so that they can proceed to veganism.

But I have recently wondered, Are “X” number of animals indeed “saved” because someone has decided to become vegan? Is this form of vegan advocacy, which focuses primarily on factory farmed animals, the best way to help animals?  And I ask myself, Do I support the “utilitarian” philosophical position inherent in Vegan Outreach that sees, as Jeremy Bentham put it, the measure of right and wrong as the “greatest happiness of the greatest number?”

Outreach or confrontation? I have not given up on trying to bring others into the vegan camp through outreach efforts but I have also participated in numerous Direct Action Everywhere actions designed not to win people over to veganism, per se, but to disrupt business as usual at places which normalize the killing and consumption of sentient beings, especially at Chipotle restaurants and Wholefoods stores, corporations which cloak themselves in a mantle of “humanely raised meat” and lie about the actual treatment of the animals they use. These DxE campaigns are based on a model of non-violent direct action which has historical precedence–i.e during the American civil rights movement especially as influenced by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King wrote, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”  If this is true, shouldn’t it behoove us to “dramatize the issue” the way DxE has been doing with it’s store disruptions and subsequent video dissemination? Or could it be that these actions are perceived by most people as off-putting and strident and turn people away from veganism rather than toward it, as some have suggested? I am not convinced at this time that this is the case and I find employing the DxE direct action model worthwhile. But for me, at least, this is not a matter of unquestioning faith, unswerving adherence to dogma. At least I hope it is not.

Must Veganism Be the Non-Negotiable Moral Baseline?

I’ve written elsewhere about the moral imperative of veganism.  Gary Francione sees veganism as the  unequivocal moral baseline of  “anything that deserves to be called an ‘animal rights’ movement.”  But is the fundamentalist abolitionist approach practiced by Francione and his (ahem) avid followers too dogmatic?

David Sztybel, in a post, “Veganism as a Moral Baseline for Animal Rights: Two Different Senses” on his On the Road to Liberation  blog agrees that veganism must be the baseline but thinks that “the form that baseline should take is crucial. Some conceptions of veganism as the moral baseline of animal rights are better and more accurate than others.”

Ian Erik Smith in a post to his Uncivilized Animals, which led to heated discussion in the comments section, entitled “Is There No Room for Rod Coronado in the Animal Rights Movement? The Problem with Veganism as the Moral Baseline” says that “‘veganism as the moral baseline’ dogma effectively eliminates the possibility of the animal rights movement building meaningful alliances with other social justice movements even ones as closely related to its aims as earth liberation and indigenous resistance.”  He questions the wisdom of discounting the legendary accomplishments of Rod Coronado merely because he is no longer vegan (it seems he has consumed road kill and non-vegan food from dumpster dives).

While I would question why Coronado felt it necessary to engage in such practices and there is the “yuck factor” to contend with, I, too, cannot see why we should condemn him when he has done and continues to do so much for animal liberation.

Is the mere act of consuming animal flesh or animal secretions the problem, even when done in a way — such as eating road kill–that does not contribute to violence?  Do we risk fetishizing veganism rather than viewing it within a larger ethical context which makes room for others who are not yet vegan but are potential allies?

Questioning Ourselves

I realize that many of the questions posed here may seem rhetorical or suggestive, implying a certain answer is already in mind. Yes, I do have some definite leanings.  I cannot conceive of anything shaking those core values. But I would like to think I will always be open to questions. I do not have an unreasoning  faith in veganism. My strong belief in veganism and animal rights, though not without passion and emotion, is based on well-reasoned ethical arguments.  Those ethical arguments long ago caused me to question my use of animals. They caused me to question my own speciesism. I believe we always must question things “as they are.” We must question what is deemed “normal, natural and necessary” as Melanie Joy puts it.

I do not want to see veganism become entrenched as dogma, for then it would become moribund. To keep veganism and our vegan activism  alive and vital, we must confront ourselves with vital questions, among them, perhaps, the following:

How does veganism truly express my values? Do I fully understand the values inherent in veganism?  Moral values of  non-violence, justice, kindness and compassion?  Am I truly living those values or just smug behind a vegan facade? 

Fellow Humans

A couple of days ago I was jarred by a remark made by an acquaintance — let’s call her Mary –a woman  whose work for the animals and for the planet I respect deeply. It was at the end of the annual Fur Free Friday protest in Beverly Hills.  A group of us had planned on getting lunch at Veggie Grill in West Hollywood and I, sans car, begged a ride from her. I looked forward to continuing a conversation begun the day before, at the Vegan Thanksgiving  potluck in Rancho Park, regarding effective activism and the need to get the larger, “Mom and Pop” public involved in animal rights causes.

As we walked to her car I mentioned how I have been forced, much of the time, to take public transportation and I mentioned how I loved taking the train, the Metro Expo La Brea station just a ten minute walk from where I live. Mary responded that she loathed taking the train or any form of public transport. And why is that? I asked. “Because of all those gross people.” she replied.

I wasn’t quite sure which people she was talking about. To be sure, I have encountered some less than appealing humanoids in all my years riding buses and taking trains. Was she talking about someone like the homeless guy I encountered once on a subway train in New York whose rotten cabbage/cat piss reek practically cleared a whole car? Or the woman chugging malt liquor from the can at 7:45 in the morning on the 212 bus headed into Hollywood?

No. Mary was not talking about certain people.  She was talking about all people — or at least the majority of people who still “stuff themselves with the bodies of dead animals” (or words to that effect.) In fact, she went on, she hated the human race. If a virus were to wipe out the entire human population, she averred, she would be fine with that. Now, I have heard this sentiment expressed before and have found it not only disturbing but asinine, as I shall explain below. But I did not, perhaps naively, expect to hear it from this woman.

“Name one good thing that human beings have done on this earth!”  she demanded.

“What about all of us?” I asked, “What about all of the people who care deeply about animals and the Earth and are working to bring about change?” She replied that we were but a minority and besides, it was already too late.  We’d already reached the tipping point.  Humans had fucked things up forever.  Another person who was walking  with us to the car, an older woman I didn’t know,  readily agreed that all people were detestable and she hated them, too.

“Do you hate yourself, then?” I asked  Mary. She replied that she had no problem with dying –and that she would be perfectly fine with having her whole family perish as well –but whilst she was alive she planned to keep fighting for the animals. I turned to–or perhaps on  (my ire was up)– the other woman and posed the same question: “Since you are a human, do you hate yourself?”

“Oh, I, too, do not care if I die,” she replied  in a European accent I was unable to identify.

“That’s not the question that I asked,” I told her, trying hard to keep a prosecutorial zeal from gaining control. “Do you hate yourself??”

She conceded that, well, no, she did not hate herself.

“So you just hate everyone else, then.  Is that it?”  We had reached  the car by this point and I got in and shut up. On the drive to Veggie Grill I remained silent until  Mary wanted to continue our conversation from Thanksgiving. I took this opportunity to confront her with her anti-human stance but she merely reiterated her desire to see a virus wipe out the entire human race.  There was no human being, “not even the Dalai Lama”  whose life was worth a damn compared to the life of an animal.

“And what about all the children?” I asked, barely able to contain my repugnance for what this woman professed to believe. “All the young children I teach.  Do you want to see them perish as well?”

To which she replied, “Yes, them too. Children grow up to become vivisectors.”

Once we reached Veggie Grill, I had lost my appetite. As the two human haters waited for another human  to find parking, I took the elevator up to the ground level and then walked out to to Crescent  Heights and continued walking, down towards Santa Monica Boulevard. Away from human haters. Away from the activist crowd gathered at Veggie Grill, a crowd comprised of who knows how many others who fervently wished for a final viral solution to the human problem.

Of course, I do realize that there are many– perhaps most– in my Vegan/Animal Rights community and in the worldwide circle of advocates,who eschew such  misanthropy. Here’s what Animal Rights philosopher Tom Regan has to say in his book, Empty Cages:

With rare exceptions, ARAs [animal rights advocates] stand for love of family and country, for human rights and justice, for human freedom and equality, for compassion and mercy, for peace and tolerance, for special concern for those with special needs, for a clean, sustainable environment, for the rights of our children’s children’s children — our future generations.

I question whether most ARAs “stand for love of family and country” and it’s Hallmark- patriotic sheen but I would like to believe the rest is quite true.

Yes, human beings are capable of great cruelty, staggering mindlessness, monumental stupidity, selfishness, greed and folly.  Many people  have annoyed me, repulsed me, horrified and deeply saddened me. But there have also been people who have greatly inspired me, who have bolstered my faith in humanity, whose self-sacrifice and dedication are a wonder to behold, whose kindness and compassion have at times brought me to tears.  And I have known humans who, though not (yet) vegan, not animal rights advocates, have touched me deeply with their warmth, humor and sensitivity.

I understand the anger, the sickness-at-heart; I understand the rage. There is much that humans have done to animals and to Nature (and, I might add, to other humans) that is unconscionable and deserving of unequivocal rebuke.

But it makes me sick at heart to hear people like Mary declare such hatred for a species to which I, my family, friends and loved ones — and yes, even she–happen to belong.  And all this talk about looking forward to a virus wiping out the human race is such asinine rubbish.  Of course those like Mary are not prepared to start things off with themselves and not wait for the virus (thank goodness!) because of the important work they have left to do.  But it is fine to consign everyone else to death. Even little children who will, undoubtedly, grow up to become vivisectors.  And what of the suffering involved?  The anguish of   those who, before their own demise, have to witness their loved ones sicken and waste away. What of the pain, the terror, the horror of such a scenario? Would this, in Mary’s mind, be justice served?  Or is she planning on a quick and painless plague?

I am a human being, a deeply flawed human being.  We are all flawed to some extent.  Yes, even the beloved leaders of our Vegan/Animal Rights community (I have been privy to some stories which paint a less than glowing portrait of  the human interactions of some highly respected people ) But this does not mean they have not made positive contributions to  saving the lives of animals and to changing the hearts and minds of other human beings.  And this does not mean that there are so many others out there who are open to our message of compassion for all earthlings, who are ready to change, to become Vegan, to put their ideals into profound practice.

We cannot, we must not, conform to the false stereotype of the “people hating” animal rights extremist.  This does not mean that we must not confront the public with the truth — the horrors of factory farming, the insanity and barbarity of animal research, the depravity of the fur trade, etc. It means that we must be guided by hope, we must be always ready to take the long view, to see an arc of history that truly does bend toward justice.

And we must be open to the small epiphanies, the serendipitous discoveries that are awaiting us as long as we leave ourselves open to them. Last night, after taking part in a rousing street theater stunt against UCLA vivisection  organized by Progress For Science at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, I had time to kill before my bus arrived and so I stopped in at the bar at Buddha’s Belly on Broadway and Second for an  après (street) theater drink.

I had much to think about, much to contemplate regarding the events of the past few days.  I had been a part of a peaceful and lovely gathering of like minded folk in Rancho Park for the Vegan Thanksgiving potluck; I had been in the midst of some righteous anger directed at the purveyors of  fur in Beverly Hills; I was happy that the stunt on the promenade had gone well and that nearly thirty people had shown up.  I had felt a comradeship with these people, these dedicated activists,many of whom were young enough to be my children.

And I also was mulling over Mary’s comments.  As I sipped my Tsing Tao beer, to be followed by a sake, I scanned the others at the bar and in the dining area.  Would Mary find everyone of them gross and consignable to death?  And would I feel a true sense of kinship with any of them?  Did any of them really care about earthlings other than themselves?

We cannot, we must not, conform to the false stereotype of the “people hating” animal rights extremist.

And there I was, dressed up in my grown-up clothes, my non-wool dress jacket, dress shirt, slacks, non-leather shoes (I had been to the real theater earlier in the day). How did the others see me?  Would they see a much different person were I wearing the “Animal Liberation” tee shirt I wore to the fur protest? Most likely, yes. Dressed as I was, they had no way of knowing I was a Vegan, an Animal Rights Advocate, the creator of The Veg Monologues, fer cryin’ out loud.

And then the bartender, a  friendly young woman named Jamie, spoke to me. “Did you just come from a movie or show?” she asked.  And I told her that, no, actually, I had just come from a street theater stunt against vivisection at UCLA.  And that’s how I found out that she and her mother were both Vegan and supporters of animal rights.  As she went about her bar tending duties we talked about veganism, tofurkey, Native Foods, and how difficult it is sometimes being around people who just don’t get it. Before I left, I urged her to check out this blog.

So, Jamie, if you are reading this, it was great meeting you, fellow Vegan.  Fellow Human.

Monologues vs Socrates?

In their wise and practical guide to  effective animal advocacy, The Animal Activist’s Handbook, Matt Ball (Vegan Outreach) and Bruce Friedrich (PETA) advise,

“Rather than launching into a monologue about cruelty . . . we must lead people to recognize that what they already believe (cruelty is wrong) necessitates a change in diet.”

They recommend using  “the Socratic method” which involves leading the conversation to where others are answering their own questions, leading people  “to think about what it means to choose to eat animals.”  It is a dynamic way for eliciting change in others rather than trying to impose it on them.

So is something called The Veg Monologues an effective tool for bringing about a change to veganism? I have struggled with this question. I know very well Why Vegan? But why The Veg Monologues?

I have attempted to describe  the intentions of this project on the About  page. I believe in effective vegan advocacy but I also believe that we vegans have a need to tell our stories and I believe that in telling those stories, in all their diversity, in sharing who we are as unique individuals, the general public will come to connect with us on a personal level and in that connection seeds may be planted, doors may be opened, a light might be shined.

So, yes, as advocates for veganism,  let’s reach out to others, let’s draw them into a conversation, let’s lead them to coming to their own conclusions based upon compassion, or perhaps health or environmental concerns.  But as individuals who are vegan, who care deeply for animals and our fellow human beings, let’s not be afraid to tell our stories, to be authentic to who we are.

Sharing our own stories may prove to be prologue to the many unique and wonderful stories of all those future vegans out there.