May 5, 2007

When Boxers Take Their Balls and Go Home

Posted in Francione, marcus, vegan at 7:58 pm by nevavegan

That sounds more obscene than I really meant. It’s just mixing metaphors.

I’m referring of course to Erik Marcus’s latest podcast, where apropos of nothing he rants at the end about Gary Francione’s abandonment of a kind of pointless debate on the Satya boards. In this he compares this to a boxer forfeiting a match and complaining of stomach cramps, which he feels was a silly excuse (he actually says lame, but we all realize that we shouldn’t use that word). He implies that Francione walked away from the Satya board because he realized he was outmatched and gave up.

The debate on the Satya board was a sort of back and forth, informal thing between Hoss Firooznia and Gary Francione. I read the whole thing but didn’t post there, as I didn’t seem much value I could add and preferred not to get pulled in. Often such exchanges become a tad repetitive and falling yet again into those stereotypes we always see tossed around. Professor Francione supposedly left because he didn’t appreciate seeing another message board debater labeled a “Francione sock puppet.” But I’m not sure I would describe this as running scared from an outmatched fight.

Marcus employs a lot of loaded words to describe leaving: “cowardly,” “shameful,” and “laughing stock.”

So those are the words that Marcus associates with giving up the good fight, with bowing out. This strikes me as odd because those that Francione calls “the new welfarists” tend to be the same people that 10 years ago were protesting right at my side and were fervent about the idea of abolition. And now 10 years on, many of those same people seem to be spending a great deal of time and energy on initiatives like “humane slaughter” and bigger cages. When I ask these people what happened, why the change, the answer I get is that they “realize most people will never be vegan” and that there effort is now toward alleviating what suffering they can affect.

I understand the sentiment. We all want to help in any method we can. We all want to do something. If you look at all the horror all around us, doing nothing seems downright criminal. But is that not giving up in a manner? Isn’t that saying “I’ve seen the people and they are too unreachable, too selfish, too self-involved to ever really care”? Is this giving up the fight?

The difficulty is that I’ve seen the people too. It is intensely frustrating to get so much negative feedback from people who say “I just like meat too much” or “vegan? What are you, crazy?” The trouble is that the people who respond worst to the free samples of veggie burgers or the brochures you’re handing out actually represent the people most emotionally affected by the issue. Their denial may be deep; maybe so deep you’ll never get through it. But you just hope that you’re make the slightest dent in that denial, and you hope that guy has a vegan cousin who will make another dent, and then a news show on pollution from animal agriculture will make another dent. Just because someone doesn’t immediately respond well doesn’t mean they’re unreachable. I’d rather have someone get mad or get sad, or get defensive, than just shrug it off and say “so what.”

But there are actually a lot of people out there who do care about animals and do care about the environment and are caring, kind people. We can reach them, but they need good information and a consistent message. No, it won’t happen overnight. I couldn’t even venture an estimate. But I know I didn’t want to become vegan and it was a consistent message that it was the only way to solve the environmental and cruelty issues that convinced me I had to at least give it my best. I do know a lot of people for whom veganism really was a sudden overnight revelation and each person who realizes that adds to our weight, our seriousness, the growing volume of our message.

So many people have said to me “Neva, you’re living in some utopian, dream world. People are selfish, mean, and cruel. They will never listen to us.” I actually think I know as well as anyone the depths of which people are capable of sinking to. I also know that for many people when the chips are down, they come through more than we ever would have dreamed. But ok, bad people, that’s a problem. I’d be more discouraged by it if I didn’t see all around me vegans that do all the same things anyone else does. They gossip, they fight with each other, there are a few that just aren’t good people. Because guess what? You don’t have to be a saint to be vegan, you just have to change your grocery list, get in the habit of cooking a few different dishes, and then keep doing that. Worry about angel status later, worry about what you’re putting on your plate today.

Anyway, with the looming environmental crisis, nobody even has to be altruistic to give veganism a try. They can do it purely for selfish reasons, or because they care about the world their children and grandchildren will inherit.

Naturally since this is my blog and I’m hopeless self absorbed I have to put in some kind of personal anecdote. I’ll call this one “Why boxers quit.” See, my dad used to be a boxer. He was quite good in his time, though not professional. Then one day he just stopped. When I was little he still had two punching bags, the speed ball and the great big one, that he’d work out with. He seemed to me to really punish those punching bags, so I asked “Daddy, why don’t you box anymore?” He replied “I used to get into the ring knowing I’d annihilate my opponent. I had so much rage, and I knew that if that rage lessened I could just picture my stepfather’s face and I’d have a whole new supply. I wanted to put the other guy down and I knew I could do it. Then one day I got in the ring and I just didn’t want to kill the other guy. I searched for that bottomless supply of hate and anger and it just wasn’t there. And once I no longer wanted to kill another person I knew I wasn’t going anywhere as a fighter.”

So, what’s the point? Sometimes the people you think are fundamentally unreachable are in fact reachable. Sometimes the people you think represent the more negative qualities in humanity change and become something more. The first step is compassion. Let’s go spread some.