September 6, 2007

Vegevangelism?

Posted in philosophizin, vegan, veganism at 3:07 pm by nevavegan

Recently Animalblawg wrote about vegevangelism, that is the effort to spread veganism the way religious people spread their particular beliefs, through “testifying,” revivals, and ready-made support systems for the new comers.

In many ways the analogy is apt, as Animalblawg pointed out, many people are already deeply uncomfortable with how our culture treats animals and the environment. Lots of people want to do better, but they’re not sure how or are intimidated by the process.

I’ve been thinking lately about community and building community and also who benefits from and who suffers when community breaks down. I guess I’ve been thinking about these things because 1) Gary over at Animal Writings has been posting up a storm about ways to bridge our differences within the Vegan/AR movement, and 2) because I participate in a vegan on-line forum where I see and hear about some of the isolation many new vegans face and also observe the hostility some vegans direct toward other vegans.

Then I read Pattrice Jones’ AfterShock and she told me there’s not enough time for me to build bridges, I need to start being the bridge.

Ok, so I know I just went off on like fifty tangents here, but trust me they’re all connected and then some.

When I was out leafleting on Thursday it occurred to me that I am a vegevangilist. I was smiling at everyone and it wasn’t a fake thing. I love being vegan and I think it does so much good, and I see so much good in everyone walking past, that I’m just thrilled to be out there sharing something that means so much to me with them. I know that sounds totally corny, and it’s not like I’m consciously thinking that the whole time or anything. It’s just that I didn’t have to plaster a smile on my face because I just saw all these beautiful people walking past me on a beautiful day and it seemed like such a wonderful privilege to ask them to take a few moments and think about the animals.

At the same time I’m not sure I’m much of a vegevangelist, because I’m not really a great public speaker or anything, so aside from leafleting, this blog, and feeding people cake I’m not really getting out there and testifying so to speak. And I have to realize there are some ways that I’m maybe not the ideal spokesperson for veganism, because I hope I’m decent at outreach, but I’m not a movie star or anything like that. I just hope somehow the people who listen to movie stars get that message and the people who aren’t impressed by movie stars see that ordinary people like me are vegan and doing just fine.

In those moments I am being the bridge too—I’m putting myself out there trying to be the connection, not just form a connection. It’s small but it is about bridge building in some respects.

Which brings me to Gary’s thoughts on trying to resolve differences in the Animal Rights/Vegan community and find common ground. It’s a great idea naturally, because I’d love get along with absolutely everyone. But, I’m older and more realistic now than I used to be. I feel that some of us just aren’t going to agree no matter what. And that’s actually a good thing because it shows that veganism isn’t some cult where we all chant and lock-step with each other, but it’s a dynamic living approach to making the world a better place and each of us have our own interpretation of what that means. So we might not always agree; we might not even like each other, but nobody can accuse us of employing brainwashing, because if we did, we’d all be on the same page.

I’m reluctant to be the bridge with other activists because I’ve been burned before too. Which is maybe a whole different entry for a whole different time. It’s just that with time and energy at a premium I’m not willing anymore to put myself on the line, or spend hours spilling my guts if I’m pretty sure from the outset that the other person has no intention of hearing anything I’m saying. There’s no reaching compromise if the only outcome acceptable to the other side is for me to either agree with them completely or be quiet and get lost. So why would I waste my time?

However, I’m trying to tell myself whenever I encounter another animal rights/vegan activist who is insulting, rude, untruthful, or whatever else rubs me the wrong way, that this is actually a positive. It demonstrates that people don’t have to be super-empaths, or peace and love types to be vegan. All you need to be vegan is ethics and/or compassion when it comes to thinking about animals, there are no other prerequisites at all. So anyone, polite or rude, from a close family or a shattered home, gregarious or painfully shy, loud and obnoxious or total wallflower, anyone can become vegan and stick with it and find it meaningful enough to want to share with others.

That said, one thing struck me about the part of AfterShock where Pattrice advocated organizing groups on a collective model with shared power and real listening, with value placed on each individual member. She contrasted this with the typical organization which is set up like the spokes of a wheel, with all power and decision making concentrated at the center. I wrote previously of M. Scott Peck’s theories on building community in church groups and how he said that those with considerable power prior to the formation of true community often resist the painful process of community building. This is because true community divests prior leaders of the power they hold when community is absent and they alone are the glue holding everyone together.

We’ve probably all worked (if only for a little while) at companies where the corporate atmosphere tended to divide rather than unite employees. Some company founders make this decision consciously because they fear the collective power of their workers if they were to unite. In other places it’s less of a decision, and more a culture that develops over time because the leaders are uncomfortable sharing power, not welcoming of new ideas, and adhere to old ideas regarding workplace hierarchy.

The most obvious example is that some workplaces actually have policies against workers discussing their salaries with each other. When this culture is enforced it allows the company to pay workers as little as possible and employees rarely complain because they don’t know their co-workers are paid more. However, when the rules are broken and salaries revealed the results can be devastating. I once worked in a place where all the women were paid considerably less than the men, and even men with only a high school diploma were being paid more than women with degrees in positions of responsibility. In the short term this benefited the corporation as they gained the skills and hard work of women on the cheap. However, when the women found out it caused great disillusionment and bitterness, and even deep scars in some of the women who had never encountered such blatant devaluation and discrimination before. So the consequences were not easily repaired.

I’m using the analogy of a workplace when I’m talking about the activist community as a whole because it fits in some ways. We’re a bunch of different people with different ideas, values, and approaches thrown together by one common cause. Leaders function like bosses in many ways, though for people like me, they don’t hold power over my paycheck. There is all kinds of jostling for status and money going on too. So it seems to me that we can work on making communication better, and we can work on building bridges, but there are some out there who have pretty compelling reasons to resist that effort.

But as I said before, were we all agreeing all the time that might be a little frightening. As is, nobody can accuse us of being “pod people.” So a healthy dose of individualism and independent thought could be a good thing.

It would be nice though, if as Animalblawg advocates we could unite enough to form support systems for new vegans and wanna-be vegans to ease their transition and mentor them along. Worth thinking about at least.

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May 29, 2007

Birthday Blues and Other Mistakes

Posted in family, philosophizin, stupid me, veganism at 3:43 pm by nevavegan

So before anything else, everyone should go check out Harold Brown’s article entitled “The Dynamic Between the Animal Industry and the Animal Movement” which appeared in this edition of UPC’s Poultry Press. Sometimes we need to just ask ourselves what we’re doing and why!

My birthday is coming up really soon and this is always a bad time of year for me. We passed the anniversary of my being attacked, and it came and went without real notice, because it’s not a day I observe. However the ghosts came too, all the nagging self-doubts that sometimes tell me I should have died years ago and it’s only some cosmic accident that I’m alive.

I don’t mean to say that in any kind of suicidal way. I’m thankful for each and every day, and all those moments of beauty that shower down on me. I just think of people I’ve known who aren’t here any longer and I miss them. And I think on my own mortality and the line between my being here and not being here seems so thin and so easy to cross over, and I boggle at the randomness of my existence.

My birthday kind of sucks because it is always the reminder that I’m a trusting moron. It might be dangerous to call myself such on my vegan blog. But actually I think in a way this makes me more right about veganism, because I recognize this tendency in myself. So I definitely did my homework on all aspects of veganism. If someone tells me something, I look it up. If I’m wondering about something, I look it up. And one source isn’t sufficient, I have to double and triple check. And I like to look at the methods and size of the actual studies, because I know not all studies are created equally.

At first I was not so open to the idea that vegetarianism and ultimately veganism might be a good idea. I thought: Why would my family feed me meat if it weren’t the right thing to do? The environmental issues were the wedge that started to separate myself from the “eating animals is right” view. Because the environment is changing, and our damage to it is snowballing. So, if things are changing, then “what’s right” might be changing too.

After years of doing this, my thinking has changed in many ways. I’ve come around to thinking that if I don’t need to eat or wear or abuse animals to ensure my survival that probably means I really shouldn’t. IE, I don’t need to hurt others, so I shouldn’t hurt others. I’ve read more and learned more. But it’s always there, the need to research and give myself a little sanity check.

But anyway, trusting moron…

See, I was born in June. My brother was born in May, on the Sunday just before Memorial Day, Memorial Day Sunday, part of the long holiday weekend. And growing up, my parents always told me that I was also born on Memorial Day Sunday, and so every year my family would observe our birthdays together, on the Sunday before Memorial Day. My mother didn’t believe in holding birthday parties for children, she didn’t let us invite our friends or anyone our own age, but we still had cake and some family there, and maybe even a gift or two. As I got older I asked why we often celebrated on my brother’s actual birthday, but never on my actual birthday. My parents told me that Memorial Day used to sometimes take place in June, but after I was born Congress passed a law to decree that Memorial Day would now always occur in May, and so it would never be on my birthday again.

So, all through school when I told people that I was born on Memorial Day Sunday and that’s why my family observed my birthday then, people would look at me like I was nuts. They’d tell me plainly, no, you were not born on Memorial Day Sunday, to which I’d happily reply that the year I was born Memorial Day really did happen in June, but then Congress passed a law… And people laughed at me, but I kept on insisting.

Fast forward to me being an adult and married and still believing this story, and my husband told me that he hated to be the one to break it to me, but this was all entirely fiction. We looked it up. No, I was not born on Memorial Day Sunday. Any law regarding Memorial Day was passed long before I was born, and even so Memorial Day had never been in June. I told my sister about this, and noted that I was a little disappointed to learn this after so many years. She passed it on to my parents. The end of the story is a rather annoyed phone call from my mother to tell me that it was no big deal and she couldn’t understand why I was being so childish as to talk to my sister about my birthday not happening when we all thought it did. Still she insisted that she always thought I was born on Memorial Day Sunday, but she’d really been in too much extreme agony risking her life giving birth to me to notice what day it was.

Which I guess I can accept for what it is. It doesn’t matter. Though I will note that my family was never confused about the birthdays of either of my siblings. I looked it up and my brother really was born on Memorial Day Sunday. The only thing that really bothered me about it was all the times I’d made an idiot out of myself insisting against all evidence and all really good arguments to the contrary that this myth was real.

If there’s any point to this story, it’s to refer back to something my therapist said: I have a gift for loving and believing in people even when they haven’t earned it. I have to be careful with my trust and my belief. And though my impulse really still is to trust and love everyone, I have to be able to look at things with a critical eye as well. I can like someone, but I don’t have to accept everything they say as gospel. If nothing else, even the best intentioned people are sometimes mistaken.

Lately in the animal rights movement I’ve noticed a tendency of those in positions of power to take any questioning as a direct insult. “Don’t you know how hard I work; don’t you know how many hours I put in for the animals?” Honestly I really do. It’s just that my loyalty isn’t to the person, it’s to the movement. I can know how absolutely sincere someone is in every possible way, and still sometimes wonder if they have all their facts straight. It’s not a desire to hurt anyone on my part; it’s a reflex now: Check the facts and then check them again. With it comes the innate distrust of anyone who demands belief without providing solid evidence or logical backup. Sorry, I can like you without following you off a cliff, and I can like you without believing you’re infallible.

Sometimes it’s not so bad to question everything. I’ve even had those moments where I go back and review the reasons I’m vegan and note how my views have changed over the year. Because it’s my compass and my road map to understand where my convictions come from. Because without questioning I’m just happily rattling off something someone else told me, and it might be that I’m saying something really silly and everyone else knows it, except me. So I have to review. I have to ask if what I’m doing is helping or hurting.

I think about the protests I went to when I was younger, organized and attended often by fairly prominent people in the movement. We were babies really, and so, so angry. The sight of a full length fur coat in a shop window, sent me to tears and then to shouts of rage. I saw the footage over again in my mind of animals in traps, and multiplied it over hundreds of times to produce that coat. And I was one of the calmer people there, really. So you can imagine those protests were a little on the frightening side. So now, years on I have to look at that and ask if that was helping or hurting. Was I indulging my emotions or was I reaching out to people and educating them on the issues. I don’t think anyone was really listening then, when our shouting reached the upper decibels.

So I have to ask myself: Is this something I really understand, or do I have to go back and do my own research and get a better grip on it? Am I acting in a way to further compassion or am I loose cannon? Am I simply repeating things that I’ve been told without any of my own knowledge?

Where does that leave us? Simply here: It’s not wrong to ask the hard questions, it’s in fact absolutely vital to our movement. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.