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?

And:

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.

Being Vegan: Not A Diet, An Imperative

A while back, at a pre-opening event at the new Westwood, California  site for the popular and ever expanding Vegan restaurant Native Foods Cafe , I shared a table with a very intelligent, very attractive, outgoing young woman, a Rutgers University graduate and budding entrepreneur who had taken part in the recent Fur Free West Hollywood (WeHo) campaign.  She was not Vegan, nor even vegetarian but something of a “flexitarian.” Still, she considered herself a compassionate person concerned about animals and, well, perhaps she might go vegetarian one day.  She enjoyed vegan food, but when it came to socializing with Vegans, there was a problem. “It just seems to me,” she opined, “that most of the Vegans I meet,  ALL they want to talk about is being Vegan.  I mean, can’t they find something else to talk about?  After all, it’s just  a diet!”

Oh, dear.  There are several assumptions in her statement which I and many of my Vegan brethren (and sistren) have heard in one form or another from representatives of the non-Vegan general population (NVGP):

1) Veganism is primarily about making food choices  2) Those choices are a personal preference  3) Not everyone has an interest in your personal preference   4) You are trying to force your preference on me. Now, if we were talking about just food, this would certainly be a different issue.  A love of asparagus, for instance.  An obsession with heirloom tomatoes.  Or, perhaps, raw food versus cooked food.  If this were, indeed, merely about personal preference – even if that preference might personally benefit others – then one would be justified in saying, “That’s fine for you, but not for me.”

But, of course, it is not just about personal preference. We are not talking about merely the consumption of plant-based foods.  We are not talking about a completely (no lacto, no ovo) vegetarian diet.  There are, indeed, those folks who have adopted such a diet because of health concerns or for other reasons related to their own well-being.  But I do not think they should be called Vegans.   Yes, it is great that they have adopted a diet that is not rooted in animal suffering, that does not support the bloody corporations which profit from the torture and slaughter of innocent beings.  But let’s be clear about something. “Being Vegan” – this implies a state of existence that informs who we are in a very essential way, a state of existence which, I believe, is informed by ethical concerns rather than self interest .  And it extends its manifestations to include what we wear, what entertainment choices we make, what medical research we support, what businesses we patronize.  It influences our whole world view.   Yes, people come to Veganism for a variety of reasons (which The Veg Monologues hopes to convey) – ethical, health, environmental – but ultimately it is a moral imperative which commands our adherence to the principles of Veganism.

Let’s be clear about something. “Being Vegan” implies a state of existence that informs who we are in a very essential way, a state of existence which, I believe, is informed by ethical concerns rather than self interest.

Let’s explore for a bit this concept of the “moral imperative” and how it applies  to Veganism. The eighteenth century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant is well-known for his discussion of the categorical imperative, that which one always has a duty to do, regardless of the consequences of doing it.  In the present day, here is what  philosopher and  renowned Animal Rights Advocate, Tom Regan, has to say about the ethical question of turning animals into food, from his book Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights:  

“We ought to stop eating the bodies of animals (“meat”), just as we ought to stop eating “animal products,” such as milk, cheese, and eggs.  Commercial animal agriculture is not possible without the violation of the rights of farmed animals, including violation of their right to life.  More fundamentally, commercial animal agriculture violates the right of animals to be treated with respect.  We are never justified in injuring the bodies, limiting the freedom, or taking the lives of animals because human beings will benefit, even assuming that we do.”

Notice that Regan writes, “ought.”  This implies an obligation or duty. He takes the deontological philosophical view . Deontology is concerned with duties and rights. Veganism, then is, or ought to be, as much about animal rights as it is about food.   Veganism recognizes that it is not justifiable to choose to contribute to the violation of the rights of farmed animals even if people have a craving for animal flesh or animal secretions.  Veganism makes it imperative that we eat like we give a damn.

Let’s return, however, to my convivial table mate at Native Foods.  Let us assume she had said something like, “I recognize the moral imperative inherent in Veganism.  But still, must that dominate the conversation?  Don’t Vegans have anything else to talk about?”  Of course, my first response would be to ask, if you do, indeed, recognize the moral imperative inherent in Veganism, why in the world are you still eating animals and animal products? But I would also feel that, perhaps,  she had made a valid point.  Mind you, I would not agree that ALL Vegans only talk about Veganism. I am happy that I have Vegan friends who have interests and passions, as do I,  outside of Veganism  (and vegan dining)– hiking, music, books,  theater, movies, art, dancing, to name a few.

I don’t doubt, though, that she has met a number of Vegans who have used Veganism as a sort of conversational cudgel.  I don’t doubt, either, that I have wielded that cudgel more than once throughout my twenty plus years being a Vegan.  Would the same critique apply if the conversation were dominated by talk of the human rights imperative of supporting the Palestinian people?  Or the environmental imperative of stopping global warming (with links, of course, to modern animal agriculture). Or . . . the spiritual imperative of accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?

“Aha!” I can hear some of the NVGP exclaim, quite satisfied to have this last analogy broach the as yet unspoken subject. “You Vegans are all about spreading the gospel of Veganism, all about evangelizing us omnivores. You don’t converse . . . you try to convert!”

Do we Vegan advocates want more and more of the NVGP to become Vegan  — or at least set foot on the path to Veganism?  Damn right we do!  Do we tend to preach? Perhaps. But whereas a Christian evangelist hopes for a transformation based on faith,  we ask that people make a moral choice based on fact. And the fact is that over billion birds and mammals are slaughtered for food each year in the United States.  Before they are killed, often not quickly, not cleanly,  they are subjected to deprivations and abuse in  factory farms that would be considered criminal if done to other, non-farmed animals.

Even supposedly “humanely” slaughtered animals (an absurd contradiction in terms!) have their lives cut short, not because humans need animal flesh to survive (as we now know, through research such as The China Study , a diet centered on animal flesh and animal products is deleterious to human health) — no, these animals,  each and every one a subject-of-a-life as Tom Regan puts it, are killed to satisfy a taste.  Or, in the case of laying hens and dairy cows, they are slaughtered once their brutalized bodies can no longer produce any more eggs or any more milk.

Do we Vegan advocates want more and more of the non-Vegan general population to become Vegan  — or at least set foot on the path to Veganism?  Damn right we do!

Vegans  know all too well the reasons for becoming Vegan. We understand the importance of the choice we have made. Our eyes are open to the horrible violation of rights inherent in the nightmarish world of factory farms, where living beings are treated as things, mere commodities.  We know that we  can’t  look away. At some point we were compelled to look at our own complicity in helping to perpetuate the suffering — even those of us, such as myself, who were many years vegetarian — and we now realize we have a duty. We understood the imperative of making changes in our own lives so as to effect a change in the lives of farmed animals.  We knew then and we know now how much it matters.

I agree with Australian philanthropist Philip Wollen that Animal Rights — and by extension, Veganisn–is “the greatest Social Justice issue since the abolition of slavery.” I became a Vegan advocate not because I wanted to force my “preference” on others, but because so much is at stake, because so many lives hang in the balance.  Because  justice for farmed animals is never going to be a reality until people  WAKE UP and look at what they are doing — out of habit, out of their own preference– to perpetuate the injustice.  That is what I bring to the table.

What are some other reasons that someone might go on and on about being Vegan?  Well, of course, it could be the zeal of the convert, or perhaps a feeling of wanting to share this new, profound information which must surely have an immediate and positive effect on the listener — how could it not?  It might also be that many of us Vegans feel terribly marginalized by the NVGP;  we are always enthusiastic over the prospect of a potential new member of the club and we tend to overdo the enthusiasm.

And yet, there are reasons for having “something else” to talk about.  For one,  if we are truly trying to get others to listen to us, we don’t want them to tune us out.  And the surest way of getting them to tune us out is to dominate the conversation, to force others to listen to something they are not ready to hear.

But there is another reason.  Veganism  ought to be seen in a global context, and not just because  switching from animal agriculture and an animal protein centered diet to a plant-based food source–for the lives of animals, for the environment (despite what some people will have you believe. Click here for some excellent fact checking on this) , for people’s health — will bring about profound positive change worldwide.  Veganism and animal rights need to be seen as existing in the larger, ever changing world; as part of the global mix of  ideas about peace, social justice, health, compassion,  oppression, liberation,  freedom and so much more.

And we Vegans ought to be a part of that world.  We need to be making human connections, not just with other Vegans but with the non-Vegan general public.  We need to be a part of the world of Hope and Joy, Loss and Pain;  of making mistakes and of making amends that all human beings are a part of.

Yes, it is imperative that we not shy away from talking about being Vegan,  that we be unapologetic advocates for the animals.  But it is also imperative that we accept the fact that we are imperfect human beings in a world of imperfect human beings, in order to bring ourselves to the table, to join in the conversation.   And add our Vegan voices to the mix.

[for an excellent exploration of the same topic– Veganism as social obligation, not a preference– see my pal Kara’s post here — we cover some of the same territory but through a different lens]

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Addendum:

Several re-readings of this and multiple mullings-over have convinced me that I did not do my duty in forcefully and unequivocally stating the case for Veganism as a moral imperative.  I see now that my words, particularly at the end, could be misconstrued as excusing as merely “imperfect human beings” those who would disregard or ignore the imperative and continue to act in a way that perpetuates animal suffering.  I certainly did not mean it to come across that way. What I should have said is that we Vegans/Animal Rights Advocates should recognize that there are alliances to be made with others who are concerned about social injustice, oppression, liberation, etc.  within a human paradigm.  As the chant goes: “One struggle, one fight, human freedom, animal rights!”  It is all of one, multi-faceted piece.

I also believe that we should not be smug in our Veganism, we should not be  imbued with a vanity that causes us to forget that we are not perfect, that we are fallible. A self-righteous attitude doesn’t help the animals and it only alienates those people we are trying to influence.  BUT, I want to reiterate that this doesn’t in any way mean that we do not have morality on our side; it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strongly and unapologetically TELL THE TRUTH.  And people who proclaim to be compassionate and ethical and who are not ignorant of the facts but discount or ignore the moral imperative of Veganism should be confronted with their inconsistency.  Yes, we should take the Matrix-like veil of Carnism into account but we also shouldn’t be afraid of urging others to take the red pill.

The Courage of Our Convictions

“True courage is not the absence of fear, but the willingness to proceed in spite of it.”

♣ Think about those people you consider truly courageous.   Who would you pick?  The first responders who rushed to the inferno of the World Trade Center?  The airline pilot who made a successful water landing, his skill and presence of mind saving his plane full of passengers?  The combat soldier who put himself in harm’s way to protect his comrades?  The mother who fended off attackers to protect her child?  In times of danger, in the midst of life-or-death struggles, when extraordinary courage is called for and proceeding in spite of fear is of absolute necessity, there are those who will rise to the challenge.  We are in awe of these acts of bravery and self-sacrifice, these instances of courage, and we ask ourselves if we would be able to do the same.  If we were put to the test, would we pass?

For many people, just getting through the day requires an act of courage.  People struggling to pay the rent or make the mortgage payment. People living in poverty, living with hunger. People who daily face violence, hatred, prejudice, persecution; who encounter racism, sexism, homophobia, and yet somehow maintain a courageous attitude.  That sort of courage is born of an instinct to survive, and is stronger in some than in others;   courage and hope can stand only so much abuse before they are crushed under the juggernaut of economic and societal forces far beyond one’s personal control.

“Everyday courage has few witnesses.  But yours is no less noble because no drum beats for you and no crowds shout your name.”  –Robert Louis Stevenson                                                                                                   

And there are those who work to help others in need; there are those who work to change the system, to make it a more compassionate one, a system which puts people before profits.  The majority of these humanitarians and activists seek no personal glory, expect no hosannas, seek no reward beyond seeing the achievement of their altruistic goals;  in fact, these people who devote themselves to making the world a kinder, more just, more peaceful place, often struggle against indifference or even outright hostility from the general public, and yet they carry on, they take a stand, they take action, because they know what they are doing is right.  They have the courage of their convictions.

Now think of those whose sense of moral obligation, whose courage born of compassion lead them to help non-humans — the animals.  They take action for the purpose of opening eyes and/or opening cages, such as the Mercy for Animals undercover investigators who have exposed, for example, the cruel practices at the world’s largest egg -laying breed chicken hatchery – Hy-Line International in Spencer, Iowa; or the Compassion Over Killing investigators who, in addition to documenting the abuses, also conducted “open rescues” at two egg farms in Maryland. There are, as well, those who liberate animals (without the use of violence) from research facilities, puppy mills, mink “ranches,” etc. These brave people, committed to freeing animals from their suffering, have put themselves at risk; they have not only risked getting arrested, they have also exposed themselves to witnessing firsthand cruelties and horrific environments most of us would want to avoid for our emotional well-being.

But one does not have to go undercover, break into labs or commit any dramatic act to to be an advocate for animals.  Being an ethical vegan requires an everyday sort of courage that is no less noble for lack of drum beats.  By choosing to be vegan for ethical reasons — and to be so proudly, strongly, openly and as a model for others to follow –you take a stand, you put your compassion into action.  There are various ways that ethical vegans can and do demonstrate the courage of their convictions. Below are some I have thought about. I’m sure there are many more.

♣ The Courage to Look

Whenever I participate in vegan video outreach at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, during a showing of Meat Your Meat or Earthlings or other videos which depict the horrific truth about the plight of farmed animals, there will be, invariably, those people who rush past, shielding their eyes or the eyes of their children, refusing to look. The images shown are, indeed, truly disturbing stuff, the stuff of nightmares, hard to watch.

But not looking does not make the nightmare world  of factory farms and slaughterhouses not exist.  There are,  of course, people who stop and watch; in fact the aforementioned videos are the biggest draw and allow us the best opportunity for leafletting.  Are these people mesmerized by the violence on screen?  Captivated by seeing images that are usually hidden from them? Curious to know how their dinner is “produced”? It is hard to say but I do know that some are deeply moved by what they have seen.  Their eyes have been opened, their hearts have been touched and perhaps they have taken the first steps towards a more compassionate diet.

“When faced with a choice between confronting an unpleasant reality and defending a set of comforting and socially accepted beliefs, most people choose the latter course.”  — W. Lance Bennett

Vegans have the courage to look at that unpleasant reality and then to look at their own connection to it, to see that they can make a choice, that they can choose to say no to those socially accepted beliefs about animals as food and yes to a more compassionate choice.

The Courage to Say No

 It is comforting just to go with the flow, to blindly accept what Melanie Joy has dubbed the carnist ideology that tells us that eating animals is normal, natural and necessary. Once our eyes have been opened to the cruelties and suffering inherent in animal agriculture and other forms of animal exploitation and abuse, it is incumbent upon us to reject this worldview, to say “No!” to the brutalization, the needless slaughter of sentient beings, each one, as animal rights philosopher Tom Regan argues, a “subject-of-a-life.” We must say “No!” to battery cages, gestation crates, veal stalls, stockyards, slaughterhouses. “No!” to the continual rape of cows to turn them into milk machines. “No!” to turning chickens into egg-laying machines. “No!” to debeaking, teeth clipping, tail docking, branding, castration. “No!” to merely bigger cages and yes to empty cages.

The Courage to Say Yes

 It can be hard to make a change in your life, even a very positive change. This involves leaving the known and comfortable for strange new territory. It involves opening oneself up to new possibilities, new choices, new ideas, new perceptions, new friends. We are tempted to think, “What have I gotten myself into?”  When we say yes to veganism and by extension animal advocacy (more on this below), we are often agreeing to a paradigm shift of sorts, a change in our basic assumptions about our relationship to animals; or we are affirming what has been there all along but we were perhaps too timid to fully embrace it.

The Courage to Care

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote about the “I -Thou” (or “I-You”) relationship which expresses the mutual existence of two beings.  There is no objectification in such a relationship, there is no thought of using the other, as one would in an “I-It” relationship. Ethical vegans care deeply about animals because they recognize an “I-Thou”  relationship with them.

But with caring comes the possibility of being hurt; caring about animals coexists with knowing how much they suffer, and many people would rather shut off their caring selves rather than experience the sort of psychological pain such knowledge can inflict.

There is also the problem of  not being able to make a personal connection with animals when they are viewed in a general, abstract way, especially if  we are talking about the billions of farmed animals killed each year. Most people do care deeply about their “own” pets and may even care about dogs and cats in general and many care about animals in the wild, but they have not widened that circle of caring and compassion to include the animals they call food, or at least not enough to cause them to change their diets and lifestyles.

Ethical vegans have the courage to care about all animals, especially those who languish in the misery of factory farms or even those raised in comparatively “humane” ways, only to have their lives cut short so that humans can use their bodies to satisfy their craving for animal flesh.

The Courage to Hope

In my previous post I wrote about the necessity of hope. Sometimes, though, things just seem hopeless, we are beaten down by the unrelenting suffering in the world. Sometimes it takes an act of courage to hope  in spite of it all –but then that hope must be turned into action.  And taking action keeps hope alive.  Vegans have the courage to hope for a better future for animals and humans. And they have the courage to take action to make that future a reality.

“Action is the antidote to despair.” –Joan Baez

The Courage to Not Have All The Answers

I have been a vegan and animal rights advocate long enough that I have had the opportunity to encounter just about every question that anyone might throw at me — first and foremost, of course: “Where do you get your protein?” and also, “Don’t plants also feel pain?” and “Do you care more about animals than you do about humans?” and “Weren’t animals put on Earth for us to eat?”  and “What in the world is wrong with drinking milk?”  But there are times when someone might have a question, perhaps something dealing with statistics which I, a dyscalculiac (someone who has an innate difficulty with numbers), am unable to answer.  At which point I will confess that I don’t know but that I will try to find out. We cannot know everything, be able to answer every question, meet every challenge.  But we do know the basics: animals are sentient beings, they are subjects-of-a-life, they suffer; it is unnecessary to eat them and in fact we would be a lot healthier if  we adopted a  plant-based diet.  We must have the courage to admit we don’t know everything   — but also have the courage to clearly express that which we know very well.

The Courage to Bear Witness

As people who became vegan for ethical reasons, for reasons of empathy and compassion, we must have the courage to bear witness to the suffering of animals.  We did not choose veganism simply because it makes us feel good or contributes to our well-being. One way to bear witness is to be proudly and openly vegan and then to explain to others why we are.  We can do this through conversations with friends and family or through volunteering with organizations such as Compassion Over Killing or Mercy for Animals to name just two of many; you can leaflet, do street theater, join in protests; you can write letters, make phone calls, start a blog. You can work with others to change laws. You can help out at a farm sanctuary. In short, you can be an activist, an Animal Advocate.

“Bearing witness means choosing to suffer. Indeed, empathy is literally ‘feeling with.’ Choosing to suffer is particularly difficult in a culture that is addicted to comfort–a culture that teaches that pain should be avoided whenever possible and that ignorance is bliss. We can reduce our resistance to witnessing by valuing authenticity over personal pleasure, and integration over ignorance.”
— Melanie Joy, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism

 ♣If you are new to veganism or perhaps on the cusp of becoming vegan, and you are feeling a bit timid, I urge you to consider what you have just read. Find the courage within yourself to fully embrace this compassionate, life-affirming, ethical way of being, despite whatever challenges may be present.  And know that there is great joy, great strength in being vegan. Know that there are many others out there who have made the ethical choice to go vegan, to break free of the carnist ideology. There is a community of like-minded people who are just waiting to welcome you into the circle of compassion.

“Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around.”  –Henry David Thoreau

And if you are a Vegan for Life, as I am, I hope that these words have helped  to remind you of how much we need to carry on courageously and to help others, new to veganism, be strong in their decision — to act with the courage of their convictions.♥