May 10, 2007

Are we underestimating or overestimating people?

Posted in animal advocacy, fur, vegan at 2:10 pm by nevavegan

I really didn’t set up this blog with the intention of picking on any animal organizations or disparaging the efforts of others, so I hope that this entry can be taken in the context of philosophical discussion of tactics, not mindless bashing.

When we’re reaching out to others with our message of compassion, I think we have an obligation to try to reach our audience where they live, so to speak. We need to bridge the gap between what we now know, after our visits to factory farms, after our rescue efforts, after years in this movement, and the place where the audience member might be, with little if any exposure to the issues.

But when we try to bridge that gap, in my opinion we need to always try to reach out with respect, consideration, and above all honesty. Because if I’m not honest about one aspect, I feel it throws doubt on everything else I say. If I speak without respect, the resentment in my audience will overpower my message. I can’t talk down to people. I can’t assume I know their lives, minds, or hearts. I can tell them about my experiences, about my reality. I can tell them about research, and papers, and investigations. I can try to bring those things together in a cohesive way. But I have to trust my audience, trust that they are capable of compassion, that they are able to understand the issues.

In talking with some representatives of the larger animal rights groups in the US I’ve started getting this impression that there’s some kind of battle fatigue going on. I’ll ask why so much effort and funding is being put into campaigns for “cage-free eggs” or controlled atmosphere killing (a plan to use gas rather than throat-slitting to kill animals in slaughterhouses). The answer I get, by and large, is that these groups have come to realize that most people aren’t open to veganism and so these campaigns hope to do something concrete to alleviate suffering right now.

There is often a secondary motive discussed as well: a belief that people tune out at the mention of veganism, but pay attention to “less threatening” messages. So there is a hope that if a group can get someone to care about “cage-free eggs” this will open them up to future messages. Maybe they’ll eventually even get to the point where veganism doesn’t seem like such a strange idea.

I do understand both of these arguments, and it’s not that I don’t want to end suffering now, nor do I really believe that huge numbers of people are going to become vegan tomorrow. But I still feel fundamentally dishonest if I tell people something, like a message to buy more “humane meat” or “cage-free” eggs, if I myself am uncomfortable with that message. It’s not that I don’t prefer that they buy slightly better animal products if they insist on buying them. It’s more that I have to have faith that there are many people capable of understanding the complexity of these issues, who can understand that hens still suffer considerably on “cage-free” farms, who can understand that even animals treated “more humanely” still endure confinement and an early, often violent death. I have to hope that people can grasp the concept that even “free range” farms produce run-off that damages the environment.

I also have to believe that my personal message is more compelling when I am honest and open. If I admit to people that I don’t have absolutely all the answers to everything, but I’m trying to do the best I can with the information available to me, some might view that as a sign of weakness. But maybe others will value my candor over someone who just gives glib answers plucked from a brochure.

Now is the time for a shocking revelation: I used to be an avid PeTA volunteer and as such I did quite a few “I’d Rather Go Naked” protests in NYC while I lived there. I stopped doing those, and not just due to weight gain. I started to get the impression that while I stood there, clutching a banner to my chest that the people standing around watching weren’t really getting much of a message, they were just hoping my banner would slip. This is something PeTA calls shock tactics, a desperate attempt to draw the public’s attention to the plight of animals. Dan Matthews has even said that he realized that people tune out most messages about animals but they pay attention to nudity.

What could possibly be wrong with using nudity to get people to take notice of animal issues? The first and most obvious issue is that in all my years of talking to many people involved in animal concerns, whether they’re vegan, just rescuing companion animals, campaigning against fur, or any level of involvement, nobody has ever told me they got involved because they saw a naked person holding a banner. People have told me that Vegan Outreach changed their lives, people have told me that adopting a dog or cat from the shelter completely altered their entire view of animals, people have mentioned films, and books, and friends. Nobody had ever said nudity was a major influence in their ethical decisions.

But beyond that, could we be underestimating our audience when we pull stunts like this? Is there some kind of insidious message beneath it all that people, especially straight men, cannot be reached through compassion, that they somehow lack the depth and insight we possess, and so the only way to speak to them is through sex? Are we underestimating the power of our activists to speak from their hearts, in the full complexity of the human experience, and reach others? Are we losing some of the people who might be reached with intelligent arguments, because they’re turned off by stunts, theatrics, or what they view as an exploitation of sexuality?

Anti-fur campaigns are largely aimed at women, though sadly even many men’s coats now have fur trim. In all the naked protests I did, I never looked out into the crowd of faces gaping at me and saw many female faces. Maybe a couple, maybe a woman passing by and doing a double take, maybe a woman giving me a disapproving head shake or glare as she passed. But most of the audience was male. It did make me wonder if those protests were therefore effective in reaching the people we most wanted to reach.

This issue was brought up for me again when I read a recent blog interview with the young woman who did the PeTA “State of the Union Undress” video. She remarked at one point that she felt maybe some wives and girlfriends were angry that the men in their lives had watched her video, but she was not bothered by that because the men themselves chose to watch. I wonder how much we shut down our communication though when we don’t care if we anger people. Um, let me clarify, I don’t care if I tell someone the truth about animal agriculture and they get angry or defensive. However, if I’m needlessly angering someone about another unrelated issue at the same time I’m trying to speak about compassion for animals, there’s a chance that anger and my message will get mixed up in that person’s head. So there’s this possibility that because of their anger, they will pay less attention to future messages regarding animals. Because not only are they offended, but they may feel they have a real reason to be angry that isn’t being acknowledged or respected.

Just rambling thoughts. I don’t really have any hard data to back it up. I’m operating on a theory here that appealing to the best in people is a good idea. But I could be wrong.

Note: After all this I found the following article
Which says that sex doesn’t sell to women. Hmmmm.


March 13, 2007

What I Deserve

Posted in emotional healing, entitlement, fur, vegan at 2:25 pm by nevavegan

Yes, this about veganism too.

All too often when I’ve tried to talk to people about wearing fur, and the cruelty involved in producing fur, I’ve heard “I’ve had a really hard life, so I deserve this fur coat.”

It’s really hard to look at someone, and listen to their hard luck stories and still say “No, you don’t deserve this.” Of course to me, it’s not really about deserving anything. People deserve to feel good about themselves, they deserve to be happy, they deserve to have some clothing they like. But that really has nothing to do with the horrors of the fur industry; in that case the animals deserve better.

But the question of deserving and entitlement run very deep in my psyche. I was raised with some soul-killing guilt and shame heaped on me. Guilt for being my own person even, for having my own thoughts or desires. Things have been rough at times, and I deserve more than this.

Still, I’m a slow learner at times so I tend to have these mouth-agape, pick my jaw up off the floor moments of realization. One such moment came when I was sitting in the therapist’s office describing how my mother essentially ruined my sister’s birthday and the party we’d planned was cancelled, and my sister nearly went off the deep end, running away screaming and crying. And I told this entire story, and the therapist asked some questions, and I did what I almost always did which was to launch into my litany of excuses. My mother is old, my mother is very sick, she has this health problem and that health problem. She calls me non-stop to tell me how much pain she’s in, all the medications she’s on and their side effects, how she can’t sleep, she’s having palpitations and so on and so on.

The therapist looked at me and said “All that may be true, but you need to realize that being sick doesn’t entitle someone to mistreat others. People can hurt without trying to hurt others. We can excuse an occassional slip up, everyone gets cranky. But just because someone is sick doesn’t give that person permission to terrorize and bully everyone else.”

Hello Jaw, meet floor.

I mean, I always knew this. I often don’t feel well, and while I do have my less than stellar moments of behavior, I never felt I could just trample over everyone in my path because I’m in pain. I never felt that having been abused myself gave me the right to abuse others. But I have this deeply entrenched excuse-making habit. For G__’s sake, I never reported or filed charges against the guy who attacked me because he told me he’d been molested as a kid and I felt so sorry for him. Yeah, it’s pretty pathological, huh?

While I would never put wearing fur in the same category with abusing other people (if for no other reason than wearing fur is condoned in our society, so many people just don’t get that there’s an issue with it), I do think there’s something applicable here. We can feel great sympathy for someone who has been through rough times, but that doesn’t really absolve them of living up to their own morals. I do think that if someone is saying “I’ve had it rough; I deserve this” then on some level they know there’s cruelty involved in producing fur. The person who isn’t aware is going to say “Huh? What are you talking about?”

But here are some thoughts on what all of us deserve. We all deserve to know that we are beautiful in all our many shapes, sizes, colors, or whatever, and that this beauty radiates from within us and is not enhanced by wearing expensive clothes (fur or not). We all deserve to love, and to know that we cannot accept the love offered to us until we love ourselves. We all deserve to be honest with ourselves, like a loyal and candid friend, who will call us on our b—sh–, but forgive us for it at the same time. We all deserve to continue to learn and grow everyday, but without growth there’s only death. None of these things we deserve can be bought at a store, but they are much more valuable.

Of course you also deserve that perfect outfit that flatters you perfectly, you know, so long as it’s vegan.