October 10, 2007

Bad, Wrong, and Vegan

Posted in vegan, veganism at 5:20 pm by nevavegan

Bad, Wrong, and Vegan

Like I said yesterday, I’m having trouble trusting my words at the moment. Those of you who know me, know that I have a lot on my plate at the moment and it’s making it hard to be the blogger I’d like to be. So forgive me if I misspeak here.

More than a decade ago I moved into a group house in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, before that neighborhood was so trendy and yuppified. I was grateful for a place to live, with seemingly nice roommates. So I decided to cook a meal for all of them. I didn’t make very much money but I wanted to do something nice for my roommates.

Unfortunately sometime during that meal one roommate, a guy, decided to play quiz the vegan. Somehow this wound up with him extracting from me the information that six or so years prior to that meal I had done something that really wasn’t good for animals. I admitted that I had done this thing and also said that I deeply regretted it and considered it a terrible mistake. At the same time I reflected that in an odd way, doing something wrong had been the thing that probably set me on the path toward veganism.

My roommate was incensed. He pounded his fist on the table. He yelled that I was a hypocrite and in his opinion I might as well give up being vegan because I was a sham. He then yelled that I could never make up for what I’d done and he despised me. This after eating my food and drinking my wine, but there it was.

I was deeply hurt. Not because I didn’t know the wrongness of my prior actions and not that I didn’t live with constant regret. But I was hurt because I thought I was doing something nice, feeding everyone a home cooked meal, and I felt I was paid back in a confrontation that was mean, unfair, which more or less ruined the evening for everyone, and given the fist pounding and the significant size difference between myself and this guy, felt fairly physically intimidating to me.

The other roommates had looked uncomfortable and then positively ill and then drifted away as the confrontation continued. A friend who dropped by for the food but didn’t live there looked uneasy, his eyes got huge, he kept opening his mouth as if to say something, then stopped and just drank more wine instead.

What was my terrible crime? Years before, my boyfriend at the time had given me a gift of a baby rabbit purchased at a pet store, and I, even knowing pet stores are terribly wrong, and it’s wrong to financially support them, fell in love with the rabbit. I was nineteen and a vegetarian. I was old enough to know better. I knew everything wrong with the whole thing and yet I did it anyway. I organized no great protest of the pet store. We did not return and demand our money back. Yes, I know there’s everything in the world wrong with that story, but that’s what happened.

Happily he did no try to pry further back into my life to learn I had previously gone fishing, eaten animals my father had killed, eaten rabbits my father had killed, eaten animals I had raised and loved, worn fur trim, worn leather, carried a purse made out of crocodile that I’d found in storage in my parents’ house. I can’t even imagine how much fist-banging would have been involved then. I don’t think I can possibly list anything and everything I did wrong. I generally say of all of this that I was very young and just didn’t know better and had been raised to accept all of these things. But I’m not sure age is the relevant factor. Most of us live our lives one way, the way we are taught, until something transformative happens at some point and opens us up to empathy and compassion. And opening up to those things can really be ego-crushing because to change requires admitting something was wrong in the first place. So many people find that kind of examination incredibly painful and try to avoid facing it.

In any case I managed to eventually work out my differences with that roommate and we ended up getting along. Not that I condone fist-banging ever.

The H Word: Hypocrite

I tend to think we’re all hypocrites, some less than others, but still we all have our issues. It’s not just that I’ve done things in the past that weren’t good to animals. I really value being good to people and not acting in an underhanded, passive aggressive way. In fact I wrote an article about how damaging gossip is. Yet, I’ve caught myself gossiping. The thing is that doing better and being better is a work in progress. It’s easy to fall back on bad habits and it’s generally difficult to break them. Shocking as it sounds, I find it easier to be vegan, because at this point it’s largely habit for me, than I find it to always be empathetic to people who don’t present themselves well, for example people whose mental illnesses make them disruptive, angry and aggressive. In cases like that I often have to take a deep breath, step back, and remind myself that nobody chooses to carry around those kinds of burdens.

Does the fact that it doesn’t always come perfectly naturally to me mean it’s hopeless and not worth pursuing? I really don’t think so, because if nothing else, the effort I put in matters to me and matters to those immediately around me. And also I hope for the cumulative effect of many people putting effort into kindness and compassion.

We all screw up. We all fall down. We all make mistakes. But the belief that we have to be perfect all the time is paralyzing. If we believe we must be perfect at everything we do, then it can be an excuse to do nothing. It means we can’t experiment, learn, and grow.

To go back to the idea of being a nice person, we can recognize that we have failed in the past, and might fail again, but still acknowledge that it’s important to keep trying. Knowing that we can’t be perfect isn’t a carte blanche to be as awful as we’re capable of being. Instead, it’s an incentive to keep trying and to also be able to apologize for the mistakes we make along the way. Likewise with veganism. Most of us weren’t born vegan, we might have even done very non-vegan things in the past. We might screw up tomorrow and accidentally eat something that isn’t vegan. But we’re going for the balance here. We want to keep trying to do our best and not let the mistakes paralyze and disempower us. Mistakes are also learning experiences, when we mess up once we know to look out for that problem next time.

Also, what does hypocrite mean? It refers to a person who holds one value, but behaves in a way that is opposite to that value. So, Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite to own slaves while calling slavery immoral. Many of us looking at history are deeply disappointed by his personal failings and participation in one of history’s truly great wrongs. However his own participation in a deeply immoral system doesn’t mean he was wrong to call slavery unethical. The message was still valid, even delivered by a deeply flawed human being.

So the call to prove our own lives free of hypocrisy before we can talk about anything, much less veganism, is another red herring. Most of us don’t fall in the Thomas Jefferson category either in the extent of our influence nor in the depth of our hypocrisy. However, we can make mistakes but still have valid concerns and a valuable message.

“Just one drop and I’m falling apart again”

If the bad actions of my younger self, or my occasional laziness, gossip, grumpy mood, whatever, today are the worst things I ever do in my life, I suppose we’ll all be pretty lucky. The gift of wrestling my former self and making changes in my life is that I know in a very real sense that I can be wrong. I can be wrong, I can be stubborn, I can be mean and selfish. Since I know this possible I can try harder to avoid it. But if I fall down and screw up, I’ll get back up and try harder.

I once knew a guy who went to 12-step. He’d been sober five years and then one night had a dessert that had been spiked with some liquor. Since he’d fallen off the wagon anyway he went ahead and had a few beers, and then a few more the next night. Later he said he’d given up on the whole idea of 12-step, he liked drinking and it was too hard going to all those meetings and always watching what he did. I’m hardly in a position to judge who has a drinking problem and who doesn’t, but I do know that sobriety had been important to this person, both due to actions of his own while drinking that he regretted and a family history of alcoholism. But he felt if he couldn’t be perfect and spotless he’d just toss in the towel.

But veganism, compassion, kindness, trying to do better for the environment, etc. aren’t necessarily things anyone should chuck out the window due to one mistake, particularly a mistake from lack of information or a moment of inattentiveness. But I’m consistently amazed at how many people (despite voicing their own strong opinions) think that before I can express an opinion on veganism I must prove my complete blamelessness in every aspect of my life.

I’d love to be perfect and it’s never going to happen, which doesn’t mean I can’t try to be “better.” It just means I’m a flawed person in a flawed world and sometimes even my best isn’t going to perfect. Other times all the choices available to me are bad in some way and it’s so hard to find the one that’s least harmful. Still we have to muddle through somehow and keep hoping the balance falls in the good.

You’re Not Making A Difference

Many people lately, vegans and non-vegans alike, have told me that my being vegan really makes no difference. It spares only a small number of animals, and maybe not even those animals as others are “eating my share.” Further, they say, veganism will never catch on with large numbers of people, so therefore veganism doesn’t really make a difference.

I think that my being vegan makes a difference in the fact that I’m a living example that someone who didn’t come from an animal-friendly environment can be vegan. I show that vegans can eat well, hold normal jobs, need not be socially isolated, and can have a sense of humor, and so on. Being vegan shows other that veganism is possible.

Likewise, buying a hybrid car really doesn’t accomplish that much, individually. Instead, people hope that by buying into hybrids they encourage more to be made, that others start driving them, and that more and more people will use them. Because one hybrid, not a big difference, you’re hoping lots of people do it.

My earlier point was that hybrids are not accessible to many. I’d love one, but I can’t afford one. Many people are also faced with similar financial constraints. But anyone can be vegan. It doesn’t require special equipment or a down payment, and foods can be as simple or as gourmet as one chooses.

But there it is: if you’re the only person recycling are you accomplishing much? Maybe not. But if you’re the first in your community to recycle, but you teach others, push for curbside recycling, find ways to make it easy, or even hold neighborhood recycling days and make it a social event, then maybe that’s something.

None of us do so much all by ourselves, but we teach others and spread the message.

There is the other aspect too. When my father commented that I wasn’t accomplishing anything with animal rescue because I’d found and saved so many animals, but still the homeless, abandoned, starved, and sick animals kept coming, he entirely missed the point. It might not send huge ripples through the entire world, but to each animal I save it means everything.

September 28, 2007

Rant: Relative Ease

Posted in environment, rant, vegan, veganism at 2:55 pm by nevavegan

I’m perplexed by the level of hostility I’ve seen in some recent blog comments regarding the connection between eating animals and global warming. It would seem that not only are a lot of self-proclaimed environmentalists unwilling to give up meat, but they’re hostile to the very mention of the idea and want to encourage others to keep putting animal products on the table.

Why should this confuse me? Because it’s so, so illogical. I’m going to try to break down why I find this illogical bit by bit here.

First, it’s not just me, it’s not just PeTA who are saying animal agriculture is the single largest contributor to global warming, it’s the United Nations. Do they have a vegan agenda? Are they out to destroy your fun? No, they’ve never promoted vegetarianism before, they are merely interested in protecting the most vulnerable people on the planet from the ravages of global warming. They did the research, and that’s what they found.

Secondly, some environmentalists have objected to my use of this study by saying it really only talks about beef and pork production and doesn’t study the effects of factory farming of chickens or other birds. Surely, since the study doesn’t say that chickens contribute to global warming, then we can still eat chickens and eggs. Tell you what, come with me back to Harrisonburg, VA where I went to school and tour some intensive farming operations for chickens and eggs, and tell me what you think that does for the environment. Then let’s go to an outdoor stream near a large poultry operation and you can drink that water. I’ll bring a cup. And if you don’t want to drink that water, I have to ask why you’d expect anyone, including wildlife, to drink it.

Global warming is one major harm to the environment, but there are other harms as well including water pollution, overuse of antibiotics and hormones, and so on and so on.

So, ok, the environmentalist counters, factory farms are definitely bad for the environment, but you can’t convince me that it’s bad for the environment if I keep some chickens free-range in my yard and eat their eggs and occasionally slaughter them and eat them. Not only do environmentalists think this is not bad for the environment, but they point out that someone raising a few chickens surely has less environmental impact if they drive little, don’t have kids, and use energy saving devices, than the impact of a vegan who drives a lot, has kids, and throws away a lot of trash. Ok, chicken-obsessed environmentalist, I promise that I won’t argue with you about environmental reasons for veganism if you move to a tiny, energy efficient shack, stop driving, promise not to have kids, and raise a dozen chickens in your yard, Then I’ll only talk to you about the ethics of veganism. But keep in mind that no environmentalist who has ever used this line of debate with me has lived like that. Most eat meat of some kind every day anyway–raising a dozen chickens in your yard might mean eating meat once a month. Most live in urban areas and drive. And besides, the few well-treated, free-ranging, bug-eating chickens in the yard is not a viable solution for our huge population, most of whom live in densely populated urban areas.

Next the environmentalists want to talk to me about how they feel there are other areas we need to improve first before we can worry about what we eat. What about cars, they want to know, do you drive a hybrid?

I don’t drive a hybrid. I’d love to, but a hybrid car is expensive and I don’t make a lot of money. I did move as close as I could to my work to limit my commute though.

But here’s the thing—a hybrid is a very good idea. Like I said, it’s on my dream list, some day, when I save up the money. But veganism is relatively simple. I can do that, right now, today, with really no special equipment, minimal supplies. Sure fresh vegetables can be expensive, but everyone is supposed to already be eating them. Beans, lentils, rice, flour, and so on are all inexpensive. Anyone can start being vegan today. Buying a hybrid car means money and maybe even a significant wait time. Installing solar panels is hard, you’d probably need to hire someone and maybe it’s not even possible to do this where you live. Trying to get the Chinese to control factory emissions, that’s a long-term goal. Changing over to a vegan diet sounded hard before I did it, but really it was pretty easy and painless.

Also, the UN ranked animal agriculture ahead of cars in environmental harm. So if you have something that’s relatively easy to change, and is one of the most harmful things you do, why postpone making that change while concentrating on harder to solve problems that do less harm.

September 25, 2007

Plants Feel Pain: The Psychopath Test

Posted in debate, veganism at 3:27 pm by nevavegan

I was apparently born loving plants. My parents said I had a green thumb from about age two. I loved to garden. I loved to start my seedlings for vegetables and flowers in flats every February, an activity I shared with my dad.

There are pictures of me as a baby grinning stupidly over flowers in the garden, and as a young child sitting on my Dad’s shoulders showing off a sunflower I grew. Although my home is more animal sanctuary than designers’ showcase, much of my art which decorates the place and any objects like bed spreads, etc that I’ve brought in are green, reflecting my love of verdant plant life.

I love plants. I don’t know what kinds of consciousness if any plants have, but I’ve read that they react to noxious stimuli by growing in other directions or producing chemicals that deter pests. They’re pretty amazing really.

So I don’t think I’d like the idea of someone needless torturing plants and people cutting down trees upsets me.

Still, there is the omnivore argument that vegans focus too much on alleviating animal suffering and this is wrong because “plants feel pain too.”

I’m not sure that we can necessarily draw the conclusion that what plants feel is really close to the kind of pain vertebrate and maybe even invertebrate animals experience. Many plants have developed symbiotic relationships with the animals who eat them. For example, anyone who has ever tried to garden without doing any pruning knows that this is not always to the benefit of the plant. Further, animals serve a reproductive function for plants when they eat the fruits and berries and later distribute the seeds through their droppings into new prime areas to grow.

Secondly, if one is actually concerned about plant exploitation, then we use more plants when we feed them first to animals, and later eat the flesh of the animals.

Still I have the following question for the “plants feel pain” crowd, and I urge a secondary usage of this as a psychopath test.

If you were running at full tilt down a narrow path and realized when it’s too late to stop that a tiny helpless kitten and a very nice potted plant were both directly in your path and you could not avoid stepping on one or the other (and lets assume at your weight and rate of speed the impact would be fatal to both), which do you step on and which do you avoid? I see only one reasonable answer to such an annoying hypothetical question.

Still, should you ask this question and get any of the following answers, please consider avoiding that person in the future.
*”I’d step on the kitten because the potted plant would get my brand new shoes dirty.”
*”I’d step on the kitten because she would make a funny sound.”
*”I’d step on the kitten because she’s weak and helpless and doesn’t deserve to live.”
*”I’d step on the kitten because she’s stray and helpless and what kind of life would she have anyway.”
Or
*”I’d step on the kitten because I want to take the plant home with me and put it in my apartment.”

None of those answers is acceptable obviously. But in this scenario, hopefully your “plants feel pain” antagonist must admit placing a higher value on animals. And if so, how does he justify not acting on that in terms of his diet?

September 21, 2007

Human Concerns Are Also Reasons for Veganism

Posted in environment, vegan, veganism at 5:36 pm by nevavegan

Sometimes people will tell me that they think veganism is a good idea, but they’re more concerned with helping people. Of course I’m concerned with helping people too, and have volunteered and donated through the years to many human causes as well.

But I resent the idea that veganism is all about helping animals at the expense of people. Instead I see it as holistic, an approach to life that helps animals and people.

When I first became vegan I was motivated by concern over animal cruelty, animal use, and the environment. But I also made the change because I believe that it’s easier for us to feed the world when we concentrate on a plant-based diet. With an unprecedented human population we need to start thinking seriously about how we utilize our food and water resources.

I was in late elementary school when we were bombarded by TV images of a famine in Ethiopia. There are few things sadder to witness than footage of starving babies, who are so innocent and helpless. When I saw these images I thought famine must be a huge problem that’s almost impossible to solve. Then I learned how simple the needs of these people were. They wanted grain, any grain would do. Wheat or corn would be nice, but hominy grits could keep them alive. They wanted dried beans, and they needed clean water. How could people be dying of hunger when it would take so little to save them?

Yet, year after year the location may have changed, but we still saw babies starving, or lying dead next to their emaciated mothers. We saw lines of starving people marching away from their homes, sometimes trying to carry others who were too weak to walk, sometimes forced to abandon loved ones because they themselves were too weak to help them. We saw the people who lived so simply that they hardly harmed the environment at all destroyed by starvation while people in the US struggled with an epidemic of obesity.

I later learned that while people starved worldwide, the US feeds most of the grain and soybeans we grow to livestock to fatten them up, and because we want to eat more animals than we have grazing lands to feed them. We use much of our clean water to water these animals and to periodically clean out their housing. In addition many people lack access to clean water because the water is being polluted with animal waste from farming or ranching.

Even more shocking, our government subsidizes meat with our tax money to keep it cheap, while people elsewhere starve, while even some children in the US go hungry, and while so many people in our country lack basic health care. So the poor can afford burgers, but they can’t afford greens or dental care. This sadly means that we don’t see the true price of animal products, but we pay these intensive farmers to pollute and over-consume resources.

Growing up in a sparsely populated area, where our chickens pecked at bugs and spent all day outdoors, and cows from neighboring farms sometimes went feral and hid in our woods, I never knew what it took to create the huge amounts of meat Americans ate. It was a stunning revelation. I thought that if we continued to grow grain and soy in the same amounts as before, but ate it ourselves and exported the remainder (rather than feeding it to farm animals) nobody would ever have to starve again.

Of course as I got older and made friends with people who’d survived the Ethiopian famine, I learned more about political systems and came to understand that world hunger is a more complex problem, often fueled by war and political unrest. Still I think cutting down on the wasteful process of feeding most of our plant-based foods to animals bred for food is a big step in the right direction. We need both, more available food and a more peaceful world. One of those things I hope to affect primarily via the voting booth and letter writing, but the other I support every day through what I choose to put on my plate.

Also, let’s not forget that the environmental crisis is about to become a human crisis as well. Changing climate will produce more famines world wide. Rising ocean waters threaten unique human cultures. The poorest people in the world will bear the brunt of global warming, but none of us will be immune from it. When the UN says that animal agriculture is the single largest contributor to global warming, and we know global warming is already killing people across the world, we have an obligation to change.

September 14, 2007

A Word from the Self-Righteous Morally Superior Dogmatic Fundamentalist

Posted in vegan, veganism at 2:27 pm by nevavegan

I’ve been following a thread on the Animal Person blog (Mary Martin) about whether vegans condsider themselves morally superior to non-vegans. Then there is the secondary question of: if we do consider ourselves morally superior, are we judging people on subjective matters (analogous to judging members or other relgions) or are we basing this in some kind of solid area, like ethics or science.

What a sticky mess to step into! But I’ll give you my take.

I wouldn’t be vegan if I didn’t think it was better for the animals, better for the environment, and better for human survival, kindness and culture. I don’t find it very hard to be vegan, but why would I put any effort in if I didn’t think it was the best choice available to me?

Do I think that makes me morally superior? That’s harder. I work with and am related to and friends with a whole bunch of non-vegans. I know they are kind and caring people. I know they help others. I know they think and read and debate and engage with the culture of ideas around them. And nearly all of them hold practically the same ethics I do. They are almost all deeply troubled by our relationship with animals and the unprecedented exploitation of animals, and all the new Frankenstein-like ways we make animals suffer in our culture.

Nearly all of them are in fact more upset than I am by this stuff, because I read about it and keep up with it, and most of my friends who eat meat will turn off the tv if something comes on about cruelty to animals. If I try to show them an article on factory farming they’ll say they can’t face it or they’ll be crying all day. But the downside of hiding from the information, since they won’t watch it or read it, and have never seen it firsthand, is that I think it takes the urgency out of the equation for them. Not seeing it allows them to believe we should treat animals better, but without feeling compelled to make an immediate change in their own lives.

Most of them are also deeply concerned about the environment too.

They care, they have ethics. The difference is that I keep trying to act on my ethics and my friends, for whatever reason aren’t there yet. Maybe they are still turning stuff over in their heads, maybe they’ll announce they’re going vegan next year, maybe they never will. But I do think we have the same values.

When it comes down to someone who just really has no capacity for empathy and tortures and kills animals and just doesn’t care? Yes, I would think I’m morally superior to them, at least right now. I know it’s unpopular to say such things and I’m not supposed to judge others, but if I’m really honest about it, that is how I feel. I hope that those people will change of course, but I’m not holding my breath.

Am I basing this on solid ground, or is it all about religious differences? I personally think it’s solid. I think our study of animals has demonstrated that non-human animals are more like us than we ever imagined. They have emotions, they are more intelligent than we ever gave them credit for, and they suffer and feel pain in the same ways that we do. The evidence is overwhelming that veganism helps the environment, which in turn saves the lives of disadvantaged humans all across the globe who are at the mercy of the climate. Again, I think most people care about animals and care about the environment and want to help other people. It’s not that I live in some ivory tower thinking I’m better than everyone else. I did everything wrong that you can think of, then I woke up one day and decided to start making changes for the greater good. Anyone can do it.

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.

August 20, 2007

Survivors: Vulnerability

Posted in animal advocacy, animal rights, survivors, veganism at 1:57 pm by nevavegan

I have not been posting the survivors writing exercises lately. Many are just too close to the bone, so to speak, and putting them out there into the ether seems strange.

So it was somewhat coincidental that the most recent writing exercise was on vulnerability. Do we avoid the appearance of vulnerability? Do we fear vulnerability so much that we can’t even admit to ourselves when we need help?

To put this stuff out on my blog is in itself an admission of vulnerability. I know that there are people in the world who like to probe others for a sore spot, the slightest bit of weakness and then exploit that. There are others who respond to an admission of vulnerability with their own flood of emotion, relieved that someone else expressed fear or weakness or pain, because now they feel they have permission to express their own emotions.

I’ve been reading Pattrice Jone’s Aftershock recently and I have to admit it’s very interesting and also very reassuring. So I’m sure many ideas I’ll cover here can be traced back to her.

One thing that keeps striking me over and over is how our very denial of own vulnerability can lead us down a path where we stop seeing the pain of others. If we need to believe we are always right (in other words we are not vulnerable to making mistakes) then it is hard to admit that we’ve hurt other people or hurt animals. If we need to be right all of the time, then we can’t allow ourselves to reconsider our past actions, including the harm we may have done to animals by eating them or the products from their bodies or wearing their skins.

If we can’t admit that we ourselves hurt, then it is difficult to understand the pain of others. This might mean turning a blind eye to humans that are being exploited and it might mean telling ourselves that animals don’t mind their confinement, enslavement and eventual deaths for our purposes.

If we can’t allow ourselves to understand that we sometimes need help, how can we comprehend a world out there full of others, human and non-human who are suffering and can’t protect themselves, who are dying and can’t defend themselves, who live only to satisfy the capricious needs of their captors? We can’t admit that this happens because to empathize with that total lack of control means understanding that we ourselves could, if only for a few different turns in our lives, be reduced to a position of zero control.

I am so grateful for everyone who has offered me a helping hand through life. I like to feel that I’m pretty tough and I can take care of myself, but there are definitely days when the only things keeping me sane are going home to a husband who loves me unconditionally and all those furry faces who live for my return. None of us can do this on our own, but sometimes we’re forced to realize that and other times we manage to pull on the blinders and power through believing ourselves untouchable.

Thank you survivor community for letting me ponder these issues again in a safe space. Thank you to everyone working to make the world better.

Then I Handed In My Super-Secret Abolitionist Decoder Ring and Went Home

Posted in abolition, animal rights, veganism at 1:56 pm by nevavegan

Mary Martin, a self-admitted abolitionist recently called it “the a-word.” I sympathize. I would consider myself an abolitionist, and yet there are times when maybe I don’t measure up? I’ve seen a number of arguments lately against arguing from environmentalism, or arguing against vivisection on non-ethical grounds (like my recent post on how stupid some animal experiments are). Those methods, according to some, fall short, because they don’t emphasize animal issues from a rights point of view.

What does it all come down to? I think people should be vegan. I think veganism is the only ethical way to live in this world, the world we have, not the ideal world we make up in our heads to excuse our own shortcomings.

I think that to promote veganism we should be honest. We shouldn’t downplay the plight of the animals because the horror of it upsets people. We shouldn’t tell people untruths about veganism or give poor nutrition advice. We shouldn’t pretend we are perfect. But we should face our fellow humans as humans and tell them what we know and what we understand and hope that at least part of that message sinks in.

I don’t think we can promote veganism by praising people for using slightly less awful methods of slaughtering, nor do I think we can promote veganism by giving free advertising to restaurants that don’t really serve vegan food but now use cage-free eggs.

I don’t think we can promote veganism by being degrading to people, whether that means the exploitation of women, or trying to trick people into veganism by capitalizing on their desire to be thin alone. For what it’s worth everyone I’ve known personally who became vegan only to lose weight gave it up because they were looking at it as another diet and then a new fad diet came along and they decided to try that one. Which is not to say that people can’t be motivated by their own desire for health, I’m just not sure the pursuit of thinness alone is enough. But others have told me they knew people who were only vegan for health reasons who stuck with it, so my experience doesn’t define everyone’s, I guess.

But when it comes to promoting veganism I’m going to open up the toolbox and use every tool at my disposal that I don’t find unethical. I think animals have a basic right not to be bred and brought into this world simply to be used and killed for our taste buds or amusement. That’s basic. But I’m going to throw the suffering argument in too. Then I’m going to throw the environmental reasons at my audience. If they want to talk religion, I’ll talk religion. If they’re concerned about health I’m going to reassure them that veganism is healthy. There are lots of reasons to be vegan. There’s really, as far as I’m concerned, one ethical way to view animals. However, it takes a radical re-thinking of our current world view to get there, so I’m all for using everything we have. I’m not against appealing to every reason and every emotion, I just use those things toward veganism, not toward promoting Burger King.

August 19, 2007

Thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount

Posted in veganism at 1:55 pm by nevavegan

With a special thanks to Bruce Friedrich for his assistance and the fixing of my typos!

As a child I spent many summers without air conditioning, without TV, reading the Bible during the worst heat of the day, memorizing and later reciting key passages. Other days my mother sent me over to the house of one of leaders of our church and I would spend afternoons with her, talking and delighting in the wild birds that came to her feeder. Living like this, surrounded by trees and animals and clear springs streaming out of rock, it was easy to feel like this really was Eden, that the world was beautiful and whole and everything was as it should be.

I have tried to look back over my life and identify those moments where I began to see animals as individuals and the early influences that lead me toward compassion. I’m not sure exactly where religious and secular thoughts blended, but somewhere in all of this thinking of a compassionate God, and thinking of the kindness and gentleness of Jesus had a powerful effect on me. I remember that church leader reading to me that no sparrow falls without God noticing, and I thought that if God cares for the sparrows then I should care about them too.

This is a hard topic for me to write about because I grew up in more than just one religion and found value in all those practices. I found more in inclusiveness and commonality than maybe most are comfortable with. This is not meant to tell anyone what or how to believe, but just to share something that was meaningful to me and may ring a bell with others.

My grandmother always said with regard to our neighbors and acquaintances of other religions “It doesn’t matter, we all worship the same God anyway.” Her best friend was Muslim, and this never created a conflict for her. “Religion is about how it helps and changes you, not about changing other people.” Growing up I had a Jewish best friend and my great uncles were born Jewish though they didn’t practice, and I was friends with Hindus, Wiccans, and Seiks, Atheists and Agnostics. I’m sometimes reluctant to even speak on spirituality for fear of not being inclusive enough or somehow making someone uncomfortable.

Not too long ago my friend Britney said that she hated to see me not talk about things that mattered to me because I was afraid of being associated with intolerance. Why not claim it for yourself again, she asked. It’s not like the fundamentalists own the Bible. She felt that if I found parts of the Bible important in my own development of compassion I should talk about that, not hide from it.

So, here goes. To touch on what my grandmother said about spirituality or religion being important because of how it changes us, not because we use it to change others, I feel that it’s not enough to say the words of certain prayers or wear a certain symbol. We have to examine our lives and try to do better. In both the physical world around me and in wisdom handed down to me through religion I tried to find my own ways to do better, and so often my thoughts came back to how I treated other people and also how I treated animals.

My father performed marriages and funerals, and along with my own memorization of Bible passages I remember watching him give talks of love and of comfort. So often he returned to “The Sermon on the Mount,” particularly the opening known as the Beatitudes, or the later part on faith and worry, as instruction for how to live in this world and not be consumed by it. The words were always so beautiful and echoed in my mind days afterward. When asked to recite a passage out loud, those were the words I always returned to.

In contrast to the voices in our culture that say we have to be cruel because the world is a cruel place, this sermon emphasizes why, despite the cruelties we may see around us, we must still struggle to be compassionate and gentle. Jesus warns us it will not be easy for us to love the way we should and to care the way we should, but that we shouldn’t let our fears and the obstacles in our path stifle that love. He also tells us that others will not always understand or appreciate when we try to do the right thing, but we should not give up.

When I first became vegetarian many of my friends and family members reminded me that the world is an unfair place and that we need to “take care of ourselves first.” This was somehow to them a justification for eating animals. At first I was doubtful about how I’d make it as a vegetarian (and then later as a vegan) because I was so used to eating animal based meals. During that unsure time I thought again about the words “consider the fowl of the air, for they reap not, neither do they sow, yet the lord thy father provideth for them.” I felt reassured that if I was doing something to care for the weak and exploited by no longer eating animals, that somehow this would be ok.

This doesn’t mean that I took the idea of nutrition lightly or didn’t do my homework. It only means that I had to believe that there’s room enough in this world for compassion and empathy. When we talk about protecting the meek and gentle, we cannot help but think about all the exploited animals around us. Jesus never said it was acceptable for us to use others simply because we are stronger, or smarter, or more powerful. Instead he emphasized mercy, which is having the ability to do harm, even the desire to do harm, and choosing instead to help and protect. As our understanding of non-human animals has grown, and we have found that they think more deeply than we ever gave them credit for, that they feel emotion, and feel pain and fear just as we do, then we have to also think of them as our neighbors in this world. When Jesus instructs us to care for the needy and help others, to me this means not only our extended family of humans, but also the animals who are suffering in unprecedented ways and surely need our help as well.

This is an antidote to the ingrained belief so many of us hold that we need to be cutthroat (quite literally) in looking out for ourselves. When we live in a world, like those of us lucky enough to live in the US or Western Europe do, where we’re surrounded by plenty, then our instincts to stock up against famine, to hoard against disaster backfire on us. We have stores of grain rotting while people elsewhere in the world starve. We suffer diseases of excess, too much fat, too many calories but not enough nutrients. And we still believe this idea that we have kill animals for our own survival, that we have to be hard-hearted or the world will eat us alive. Jesus told us that the poor will be rewarded, that the meek are literally our future, and that those who act with love and kindness will lead the way. We can create a world based on kindness, but only if one by one we all take that leap of faith and do something selfless. So often in my life I fall short of that goal, but in becoming vegan I gave up something I liked, something I had trouble imagining my life without, because I felt it was kinder to the earth, kinder to the animals and kinder to people all over the world. I thought it would be a sacrifice, but I found instead love and beauty I hadn’t imagined. Naturally I was provided for, more than provided for. Veganism no longer feels like a sacrifice to me at all.

Of course this is a small thing. It isn’t giving up all my worldly possessions and wandering the earth as a beggar. It’s a small thing with huge benefits, for the animals, for me, and for the world.

When I think also of what the Sermon on the Mount meant to me in particular I go back to this theme of the incredible care and love that God invested in creating us, the world, and all the plants and animals in it. Those lines about the lilies of the field, though ultimately about impermanence, also remind us that though we try to create beauty ourselves, we cannot come close to what God has created. Each wild flower, however common, was formed in beauty and love. Every bird is cared for, his wings crafted exquisitely for flying, the seeds and berries perfectly suited for his diet. So if we acknowledge all of this as gifts, how can we toss it aside like garbage? When I realized the destruction animal agriculture was causing to the planet, all the forests lost, the water polluted, and the animals maimed and deformed, it seemed that we were taking everything we had been given and destroying it. The only responsible choice seemed to be to step away from that destruction and find a new way to live in harmony with the world.

One argument my family brought up when I first decided to stop eating animals was that meat-eating is natural because animals eat other animals, and because people all over the world eat animals. Aside from the obvious concern that so much of what we, as humans, do now has very little to do with nature, I also think about the spiritual instruction that we should try to do better than what we see all around us. While Jesus spoke with reverence and kindness toward animals many times, he never said that we should be like them in every regard. Instead we are capable of thinking about our actions beyond just instinct and desire. Although animals also demonstrate mercy and kindness, we hold ourselves to a higher standard to pursue these qualities in all aspects of our lives. Jesus also tells us it’s not enough to just imitate what those around us do, instead we concentrate on doing right ourselves and trying to live a merciful and just life.

I’m not a theologian, I can’t pretend I understand every word of the Bible, but there are some passages that just stuck in my head and I found my thoughts turning to them again and again. I know enough to know that many people find different meaning in these words than I do. For example, most of my family disagrees with me on my interpretation of the lines about being the salt of the earth. For me personally, these lines conjured images from museums of ancient salt cellars that demonstrated the value of salt in pre-industrial ages. In biblical times I know that salt was both common and precious. It was something that people needed every day just to survive, it wasn’t pretty or showy, but it was difficult to pry from the earth or filter from the sea. So when I think of a person as the salt of the earth, I think of someone who is nurturing and sustaining of life, but also human, or “down to earth,” not flashy, or wealthy. This says to me that we should try to protect and care for other people, but also for all life, including animals, and try to sustain the planet itself. So in my view, veganism isn’t glamorous, it’s the opposite of conspicuous consumption actually, it doesn’t make anyone famous or powerful, but it is a simple, often private, commitment to protect and nurture life.

Not all or even most of my reasons for being vegan are spiritual. I find so much logic, so much self preservation even in veganism. Anyone, of whatever religion or non-religion, can find value in compassion and mercy of course. But I do think that people who are spiritual can find that veganism is the natural extension of the beliefs they already hold. We can look back at words that have always helped us through difficult time, and now with new eyes understand that we should extend our love to all living creatures and to the earth itself.

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.

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