August 17, 2007

We Are Spokes In The Wheel

Posted in rant, veganism, wordy at 7:35 pm by nevavegan

Or Why I Keep Breaking the Golden Rule Every Freakin’ Day

I’ve been pondering the Golden Rule since Bruce Friederich’s post over on Animalblawg where he said in essence that fighting for animal welfare reforms is just extending the Golden Rule across the species barrier.

While I at first bristled at the implication that I’m so speciesist that I can’t extend the Golden Rule across the species barrier, my next realization was worse. There are tons of areas in my life where I simply don’t live up to the Golden Rule, and I had to start thinking about why that might be. The thoughts this stirred up are complicated and troubled. In some spots they make perfect sense to me, and in others I wonder if I’m doing the things I should. But here goes…

Before I delve into other life areas where the Golden Rule isn’t guiding my every action, I had to ask myself if Bruce is right. If I were to apply the Golden Rule to every single campaign, letter to the editor, blog entry, etc. would I be lobbying for welfare reforms to make small improvements in the lives of farm animals. Possibly. But on examining this I have to say that if I were to truly put myself in the position of the animals and ask “what would I want” I come closer, though maybe not as far as the Jerry Vlasak view. The animals would want me to charge the battery egg farms, punch the farmer in the face, and start opening cages.

What holds me back from that action, and why I think that action is not good for the movement as a whole, is complicated enough to warrant a whole entry by itself naturally. So if we just for now take that off the table for later discussion, what’s the next thing? It’s likely Bruce is right and any small improvement to the lives of these animals is significant to them. At the same time I have to understand that the reforms made today won’t affect the animals alive today, instead these reforms might not be instituted until generations of animals later, might be instituted in an uneven manner, some farms may cheat and never institute them at all. Further, for the animals born in later generations that might have more space, we are still talking about unthinkable cruelty, unimaginable crowding. So for those generations born under the welfare reforms we’re pushing through today, we’re still talking about millions of animals born into misery, living their whole lives in misery, and dying in agony.

Just so I’m not sugar-coating anything here.

So looking at that, I still have to say that if I try to imagine what it’s like to be a chicken, and then have a choice between someone giving me one or two extra inches of space now or just fighting for the rights of future chickens… But that’s where it gets tricky, because when I try to put myself in that position the thing that runs through my head more than anything is “please kill me now.” I can’t imagine being in that position and I can’t imagine retaining any will to live under those circumstances. But then I’m bringing my own baggage to it, where I personally fear captivity more than death. So to set my reactions aside. For most if the choice is between a little space and no space? Sure most would choose a little space.

My issue continues to be that if we, the “Animal Rights Advocates” pat farmer Jim on the back and call him a hero for crowding huge numbers of chickens into a dim barn, but on the floor, not in cages, does the general public also think farmer Jim is hero? And if they do think he’s a hero do they see eating the animals he raises and slaughters as their only obligation to helping animals. If they are people who say “Peta is so radical, I could never live up to their standards,” then what are they to think about “Burger King Victory?” Ah, you know the speech, I’ve said it all before.

But then my rambly mind went to other places, other aspects of my life where I’m not adhering to the golden rule and why I came to be this way. In some respects it was purely utilitarian. I was raised to fill other people’s needs and put my own last, and with that kind of upbringing comes this huge guilt that I’m being selfish when I ask for something for myself. But it took really getting to that point where I started to think I really might be consumed by the needs of others to start trying to reconsider some assumptions I’d always held. The first realization was that if I allow myself to be destroyed, whether that destruction is a complete mental breakdown or actual physical death, then I’m useless to everyone, useless to me, useless to the world. So, if I define the choice as being between fading away/falling down and doing nothing, or doing the things I feel are within my reach while preserving my own sanity, one choice seems obviously better for all involved.

This might be easier to understand when we apply it to survivor work, so we can get specific, rather than remaining purely theoretical. We have all heard that old metaphor about the oxygen mask on the plane—put yours on first, then help others, because you can’t help anyone if you’re out cold. In survivor work we sort of have to cling to that idea because so often the women volunteering to help and counsel victims of sexual assault or other forms of violence and abuse have lived through those same experiences themselves. Having been there themselves, they can often provide excellent real world advice, tons of empathy, and a truly understanding ear. But survivors often find old wounds re-opened through doing this work, and they also might be vulnerable to being manipulated or used in various ways.

If we think only in terms of the Golden Rule, we can end up going down some dead ends. When we think of the one survivor in front of us at the moment, we can feel her need for company and comfort. She might express anger she can’t express at others toward us. We do understand those things. If we were in her place we’d want someone who could supply bottomless compassion, without resting or taking care of herself, who could take our rage quietly and make something positive out of it. But we also know that this is about more than this one woman in front of us at the moment, it’s also about all the others before, the others waiting their turn right now, and all the many more who will need help later. So we have to pace ourselves and look after ourselves, even knowing that to the one person begging for more help right now, our distance, our sanity-preserving detachment seems unthinkably cruel and selfish.

However it is a trap to think that we must be everything to everyone. Saving the world is not our task to be shouldered alone, instead it is a shared task for all of us. This is not to say that we should shirk personal responsibility and do nothing because we’re waiting for others to take up the slack. Instead it is an understanding that we are spokes in the wheel that we are slowly moving toward better things. The wheel cannot turn without us, but it can’t turn with our effort only.

So to be better spokes we need to seek out those tasks that are suited to our skills and experience, and try to excel in those areas. We need to keep an eye on the big picture, because we don’t want to be so wrapped up in our own tasks that the wheel starts spinning backwards. At the same time we need to think about being effective in our own way, putting our particular talents to work.

If we are to go back to working with people, not animals, we have to believe in our own work, and believe in the ability of others to do their work. Even when we are faced with the disappointing reality that others can fail us and can fail the most vulnerable out there. But we still struggle with this idea that we do our part: the reporter does her part telling the stories and raising awareness, the educator does her part trying to instill respect and compassion in young people, the advocate does her part accompanying the survivor to hearing… Even the lawyer for the other side is doing her part because it protects all of us to try to have a fair system and make sure the convictions we get are actually for the right people and are just.

To go back to animals, a friend told me a story of going out leafleting with an organization and being told by the organizer that if people rejected taking a “vegetarian starter guide” she should urge them to eat cage-free eggs and free-range meat. The rational of the organizer was that the suffering we’re facing is so vast that if people aren’t open to being vegan we should immediately offer them a much smaller step. But this is working on the assumption that we’re the only ones out there. We’re not and we need to recognize that. We can hand them a leaflet, even if they don’t take it we’ve put the thought in their mind “there are people who care so much about animals that they go stand in the sun all day to ask me not to eat them.” But then they might see a news story, read a book, meet a friendly rescued cow or a thousand other things. We have to hope that us, standing there, leaflet in hand, is just one spoke in the wheel. Though I do recognize that some people just aren’t open to change, but if they’re not then how likely are they to go out of their way for free-range anyway.

If a group like PeTA who already has a reputation for holding the hard line against all forms of animal exploitation praises certain exploiters, sends out press releases, and gives them free advertising for getting slightly better while still torturing and killing countless animals, what’s the message there? It’s because they don’t want to be a spoke, they don’t want to fill that role of continually hitting people with one message. Instead they want to be the whole wheel and be everything to everyone. Which is understandable of course, particularly when we see so many people doing nothing, in fact seeing nothing. But is it effective to try to be the whole wheel? Does it mix the message up? I think so.



  1. Gary said,

    Hi Neva, interesting and provocative post. I can tell you put a lot of thought into it, and I appreciate that as it enlightens me and makes me think critically as well.

    I suppose any principle has its limits. There are dilemmas in which two laudable, if not compelling, moral goals abut, and we have to arbitrate between them. There are scenarios in which the interests of two or more sentient beings, all in dire straits, conflict. There are times when we have to go with our gut and no simple maxim can by itself drive our decision.

    Rights, the Golden Rule, doing the least harm – maybe more frequnetly than we realize we find ourselves in situations in which it’s not an open or shut case whether or how much we should apply them.

    Nonetheless, they remain guiding principles. If we stray too far from the golden rule, then we never rescue hens from batery cage facilities that were destroyed by tornadoes, we never give the homeless person any change – we can always forfeit the immdediate need in pursuit of a loftier long-range goal, such as a structural or fix or societal transformation.

    However, going to that extreme might make us very cold people. We might become inured to the suffering of others right in front of us, but adept at assuring ourselves that we’re doing the right thing because we are really working for the greater good, a glorious future.

    So the challenge is finding a balance, and seeking out ways in which we can help victims who are currently suffering without jeopardizing long-range objectives or future beneficiaries.

    Maybe a starting point is prioritizing short- and long-term actions so that, to the best of our abilities, we do not neglect real victims in front of our faces but also do not think strictly in the short term, devoid of cohesive long-term strategy.

    So we could ask ourselves: Does what I’m doing for this victim help cultivate conditions that are desirable for long-term change, or does it delay them? How much is action on behalf of current victims helping them? How are these actions affecting my effectiveness? Does helping animals at a shelter or reducing their suffering at a factory farm keep me connected to the animals, or does it interfere with my ability to see or work on more fundamental solutions? Does steeling myself to look past current suffering enable me to see the big picture, or does it distance me from the victims?

    These are just off the top of my head, and not necessarily the ideal questions to ask. Just sharing ideas, ripe for criticism if that helps the process along.

    In closing, let us have the wisdom to know that we can’t do everything, that we will necessarily have to make choices and sometimes feel – uncomfortably – like we are playing God, but on the other hand let us always look for creative approaches in which we can help those nearest us and build on that to be even more effective to those we meet in the future.

  2. Gary said,

    Just a thought that popped up. In those instances where we forego, entirely or in part, attending to the needs of those who currently would benefit from our help, so that we can work on a more far-reaching long-term problem or a “greater good,” is that greater good or long-term problem that we’re compelled to resolve often a matter of getting people in the future to apply the golden rule? IOW, do our moral dilemmas often boil down to apply the golden rule immediately vs. convince others to apply the golden rule down the road?

  3. jen said,

    i think you are taking the golden rule too literally. it’s more about putting yourself in the other person’s/creature’s shoes. it doesn’t mean subsume your interests in favor of the other person’s interests.

    the golden rule certainly doesn’t mean treat other people how you’d want to be treated if you were in the midst of a crisis that was affecting your ability to reason logically and see the bigger picture.

    it’s like how i feel about the death penalty… i’m against the death penalty, but i can imagine that if someone i love had just been brutally murdered i might want revenge in the form of the murderer’s death. i don’t know that i’m above wanting that. but that’s why we shouldn’t leave it up to crime victims to determine the criminal’s punishment — we decide as dispassionate observers the just and correct way for our society to deal with crime. denying a victim’s plea to help you get revenge on the person who has victimized her is not a violation of the golden rule, even if you’d want the same thing in her shoes.

    anyway, i don’t really use the golden rule as a guide for my behavior. rather, i think about what’s going to do the most good for the world. sometimes my needs outweigh other people’s. my need to be safe outweighs some douchebag’s “need” to get to work five minutes quicker — so i’m not going to speed, even if the guy behind me is really pissed about it. and even if, in a moment of stress, i’d be just as pissed as he is if our situations were reversed.

    so how does one apply my philosophy of maximizing goodness to the issue of welfare reforms? i don’t know. i tend to think it does the most good for animal rights activists to focus on vegan advocacy and let the industry focus on less cruel methods as a “defense.” but i really don’t know. what i do know is that the answer isn’t about what i would want if i were in the chicken’s situation.

    in any event, i agree with you that asking whether we would want a crowded barn or a tiny cage is a false choice. clearly we would want them to kill our captors and break us out of either kind of confinement. (and i suspect most of us would look at welfarist efforts as patronizing and say “fuck you if you aren’t going to free me, don’t waltz around thinking you are some kind of big hero for getting me a bigger cage, asshole.” but i doubt chickens think that way.) this “live free or die” ethic is a integral part of american culture. you don’t see a lot of movies with bruce willis negotiating with the terrorists to give the hostages some water and food. no, the audience expects that he’s going to kick terrorist ass and free those hostages. which isn’t to say that i think we should bust into the chicken farms yelling “yippee aye ki yay mother fuckers!” not at all. i’m just reiterating that what the answer is to the “welfarist question,” it’s not about what we would want if we were in the chickens’ position.

  4. Neva Vegan said,

    “So we could ask ourselves: Does what I’m doing for this victim help cultivate conditions that are desirable for long-term change, or does it delay them? How much is action on behalf of current victims helping them? How are these actions affecting my effectiveness? (SNIP) Does steeling myself to look past current suffering enable me to see the big picture, or does it distance me from the victims?”

    These are interesting points. I think that if you’ve read my blog over time, not just the last couple entries you know that I’m definitely not in favor of ignoring the cats in need right in front of me so that I can devote more energy to helping future cats…

    However, I do try to set an example in how I deal with the cats and other animals I rescue. I tell stories here that emphasize that I’m rescuing the animals because they deserve help, not because I’m getting something for it. I also tell stories that emphasize their personalities and range of emotions. And I make it clear that it’s never ok to buy an animal or mistreat an animal.

    There are also situations where I’ve stepped back from helping an individual animal because as much as it was heartbreaking I couldn’t compromise with the other side. An example would be the person who wants to sell you the rabbit they’re mistreating. I’d help find a home for the rabbit, at my own expense, but I’m not going to pay them, especially since they might be trying to sell their rabbit so they can buy a kitten… It’s the kind of thing where you simply can’t condone what’s going on, so you have to give your conditions and if they can’t meet them, you have to walk away.

    What we don’t want to do is concentrate so completely on the immediate issue in front of us to the point that we sell out the future. If we’re talking about cats, therein lies becoming a hoarder, right? You think about each individual cat coming in and how they need a meal and to get off the street, but you don’t think about how you can’t afford to get them all fixed…. Maybe that’s a poor example, but I have known people who with reasonably good intentions have harmed animals because they were unable to see the big picture about where it all was heading.

    But anyway, my main issues with AW have been and continue to be language and investment. Does the language in which we hedge welfare campaigns convey acceptance of animal exploitation and killing? And does the investment in welfare campaigns bring back dividends on a par with vegan campaigns? The second question will be difficult to measure. The first is much easier. Now please note I’m not saying that you or Bruce or anyone else thinks it’s ok for people to eat at Burger King. Instead I believe that the positive language wrapped around relatively minor reforms does convey that it is actually a good thing to buy those animal products. I don’t think PeTA is trying to send that message, but I think it’s the message being sent.

    Ok, a little funny story to illustrate how we think we’re saying one thing but it comes out another way. I was selling my art at a fair and I had jewelry and small items on a table in front of me and paintings hanging behind me. A young woman came up to the table as I was taking money and giving change to others. She stood right in front of me staring fixedly. I assumed she was staring at a bear painting right behind my head–I loved that painting and figured it would sell early (incidentally it didn’t sell). So I said “Hey, my hands are full right now, but if you see something you like feel free to come back behind the table and get a closer look.” Then suddenly I was in dead silence and everyone was staring at me and the woman was raising her eyebrows at me. Everyone else seemed to realize she’d been staring at my face, not the painting, and they all thought I’d just made a very forward pass at her. To me it was so clear that I was there to sell art it didn’t occur to me that others were there to pick people up or that my words could be taken that way.

    Anyway, the point was that sometimes we’re so deep in our work that we can’t see how things appear to others who maybe aren’t even thinking on the same terms we are or have no exposure to the background that we rely on.

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