April 26, 2007

Small Harms and What Matters

Posted in animal advocacy, vegan at 4:27 pm by nevavegan

On Earth Day I observed a man dumping his fast food trash out on a median strip, and then pulling his SUV into a gas station, where there were at least five trash cans. Ugghhh, moment of hopelessness. But observing littering reminded me of something I meant to blog last month but never got around to.

I recently had a discussion with someone about veganism. This person was aligned with veganism from an animal-loving standpoint, but was having a lot of trouble sticking with veganism in the face of social pressures or when sitting down at the family table and facing a big plate of her favorite non-vegan food.

As we discussed my own early vegan efforts and what helped me personally and what had tripped me up, we stumbled into a whole different issue, which kind of fascinated me.

This young woman felt that veganism was “a good thing to do” but also said that sometimes she felt she put so much effort into other efforts, like feminism, and tutoring underprivileged students, that she didn’t feel she had energy left over to worry about making a vegan dinner or ask the waiter if there was butter on the pasta.

While I always think it’s wonderful when people put a lot of energy into any cause, this comment did kind of get my back up because a) I feel like I do things for other causes too, and b) to me veganism really encompasses many causes in one action, and so helps the environment, the animals, and other people.

My acquaintance told me that she was very troubled by Francione’s rape analogy, and was also put off by sayings like “meat is murder.” She said that she’d seen the effect first hand of rape and murder and she was uncomfortable saying that anything done to animals was as wrong as these harms done to people. It’s just much worse to hurt or kill people, she insisted.

Yes, I know, that’s the definition of speciesism, right? But I didn’t say that. Instead I listened some and talked further. I tried to remind her of the terrible conditions that animals are kept in, all the many shades of wrong and suffering that befall them. Still, she said, in the scheme of things, as kids kill each other, people die from hunger, and an unjust war rages abroad, butter on pasta or a few slices of cheese are pretty insignificant.

And then something really weird happened. Someone tossed his still-burning cigarette onto the grass and walked away. We both looked at each other with disgust. How could someone be so selfish, so careless, so inconsiderate? Why, there’s a trash can just a short walk away.

Then this hit me. My acquaintance would never toss her cigarette on the ground. Ok, she doesn’t smoke, so it doesn’t really apply. She wouldn’t litter. She recycles her bottles. She wouldn’t cheat on a quiz, even if it means she’ll get a bad grade. She doesn’t cut in line. Those are all small things, but important, because they demonstrate intent and integrity. Because small things still matter, and the effect of many people doing small things is huge.

And how much more important than not cutting in line, or a tossed cigarette is the suffering of untold dairy cows, or chickens (even cage free chickens) who are hidden out of our sight? How much more important is the life of an animal than a dropped bag of trash? It doesn’t have to be the worst thing you can conceive of to be wrong, to still be worth worrying about.

I don’t know how to address the whole issue of speciesism. It’s hard to escape, and I myself have been accused a few time of being speciesist. I’d like to live in a world where animals really matter (ok, I’d also like to live in a world where women matter, and minorities and people living on other continents matter too). But I’m not convinced that we have to root out every speciesist thought in our head to understand why veganism is important.

It’s just an issue of awareness, of understanding the cumulative effect of all of our actions. The philosophy or the theory might be the least important aspect. Just start doing it, and get in the habit. It’s a little inconvenient to pick up our own trash, but hopefully most of learned that lesson early (clearly not everyone). So once we get used to being vegan it will just be another good thing we do.



  1. Douglas said,


    Thankyou for being so wondefully expressive in this world of people who are all so quiet and emotionless. It is a wonder that I can argue with other Vegans about what kind of Animal Rights work is the best or if PETA is good or not.

    Basically you are a good person and us Vegans have to stick together because we are all in it for the same cause!

  2. Neva Vegan said,

    Hey thanks Douglas!

    I’m not sure I’m a good person… It just seems to me that people will sometimes argue about if eating animals is the “worst” thing possible. Yet there are other things they just won’t do because they know it’s harmful, even if it isn’t the “worst” thing ever.

  3. Vincent Guihan said,

    I enjoyed your post. It’s one thing to say that the rape analogy has problems; it’s another thing to say that it has problems because people are better than animals (which I agree is speciesist). All animal species are different (and then there’s individual variance within the species). Lumping them all together in a single rhetoric of ‘we’re all the same’ oversimplifies, I think. The argument, imo, that ARAs should be making is that we’re all different, but that each of us should have rights in spite of that difference because the differences in this case are not a sound basis to behave otherwise.

  4. Neva Vegan said,

    Thanks Vincent. My thought wasn’t to defend a clearly prejudicial thought, but just this realization that even given the speciesism, this woman should still be vegan. Because even if she thinks she’s better than animals, veganism still lines up with her values.

    Maybe I just have debate fatigue sometimes, because I can argue with someone all day about why animals matter, and why in many ways we clearly are not better than animals, and it often just goes nowhere. And then I realize we’re actually arguing about something that’s more or less a side track from the actual point.

    Dunno. Actual mileage may vary on this one.

  5. bazu said,

    The thing is, I don’t even think that the rape and murder analogies are all that important. Maybe the murder of a human being has more impact on more people than the murder of one chicken, but it’s the same cavalier, crass attitude that underlies both. I think you need to cross a certain line to harm a human and to harm an animal. There are so many studies done about the link between torturing animlas and violent crimes later in life. The problem with getting the veganism word out is that most people don’t feel personally implicated in the animal cruelty that eating a turkey sandwich or slice of cheese entail. That’s why I believe that at least some (but not all) people would rethink things if they knew the full extent of inhuman cruelty and suffering that goes on in factory farms. So I agree with you, little things count, because they address much larger root problems that underly every form of violence: human, animal, environmental, etc.

    I showed my mom a picture of a downer calf and its mother, who was chained up, but still trying to get to it. My mom said, “noone can understand the full pain in that picture unless they are mothers.” So, right there, my mom made a connection between herself and that mother cow. Does that mean that my mom is less significant as a human? No, it means that we are all interconnected and disregard for suffering is disregard for suffering.

    Sorry for my long rant! Your posts are always so thought-provoking. I’ll stop now. =)

  6. Neva Vegan said,

    No, don’t stop ranting! Rant away.

    That’s really cool that your mother was able to make that connection.

    I think my mother felt bad about some stuff involving animals, but not enough to make any significant changes. My father however grew up killing animals and was in the military, so there’s a kind of cognitive dissonance that comes into play. You have a person who can love animals and yet be ok with hurting and killing them.

    I honestly think that in some cases people become so attached to the idea that they’re right that it’s intensely threatening to their self identity to question the way things have always been done, the things they’ve always done.

    So I guess I’m saying that if that realization is too scary they don’t necessarily need to take it all on immediately.

    I guess I changed my own thinking very gradually over time, so that does make sense to me. On the other hand my husband had one of those moments of total realization and changed his whole life over night. So that does happen sometimes too.

  7. Urban Vegan said,

    You’re right: Little things add up to big things.
    Even though this biggest problems have political and corporate roots, there are small things we can all do to help. And I believe positivity has a snowball effect.

    I remember seeing a lot more litter when I was younger. Now, I hardly ever see it, here anyway. When I travel to other countries, I am astonished by it. In Syria, there were little plastic bags wafting everywhere. Thye were stuck to the tree brancches, like little flags. It was so sad.

  8. Neva Vegan said,

    Thanks for your comments Urban Vegan.

    Sadly on litter, I live in a kind of rough, low income area, and there is a lot of litter here, though as you say, not as much as in other places.

    We have trash collection here now, so I really can’t understand, though there seems to be some purposeful effort to it, as I’ve caught people deliberately breaking bottles on the sidewalk by my house. Which needless to say is very bad for my poor doggies.

    However, I still think the message is getting through to more and more people on litter.

    When I moved into the last place, just five minutes from where I am now, the whole back yard was nothing but trash, decades old trash some of it. And as I was cleaning it all up one of the older neighbors said that the county had stopped trash collection for a while and since nobody really had money for private trash collection they just piled it all up in their yards. Yuck.

    I hope that’s the reason there’s so much litter now and that as people realize there really is trash service (erratic, picky trash service, but nonetheless we have it now) and also curbside recycling, it will hopefully get better.

    But for, you know, middle class type people who are offended by litter, shouldn’t they be offended by animal agriculture too?

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