Today I wanted to write about something I’ve seen a lot of lately. When you become a vegan – or a feminist, an environmentalist, an activist of any flavor – you start to notice things. You have interactions with people that you didn’t have before.
To be an activist, in a sense, is to step outside the bounds of what’s proper and try to push, pull, or encourage others to change. To be an activist, even when you’re silent, is to critique people. It’s not always going to be popular. Sometimes you’ll see sides of people that you didn’t see before. And you’ll have the opportunity to hear people’s justifications for their beliefs and actions. People who share the same mainstream beliefs don’t necessarily ask each other why they believe what they do. Minority status (which I’m using in the broadest sense) can offer a different perspective on majority culture.
What I’m seeing is a lot of people talking about their personal moral journeys.
But before I get to that, let me talk about some of the awkward conversations I’ve gotten involved in. If you’re vegan or vegetarian I’m pretty sure you can relate. And if not, there’s still a good chance similar things have come up whenever you have stood up for an unpopular opinion.
A good friend of mine wrote to me to tell me I should stop being judgmental about people eating meat. I didn’t think I had been; I couldn’t even think of a time I had asked him not to eat meat. But there were plenty of times that he or others had asked me why I was vegan and I explained myself. I didn’t say I felt like it was my personal moral decision. I answered honestly, saying I think it’s wrong to do so. Sure, that’s implicitly critical of people who choose differently, but it’s not like I walk around pointing fingers.
Well, the conversation devolved to the point that he said vegans are like serial killers who have given up killing. Hey, I can’t really disagree with him, since the whole point of veganism is to cease participating in violence as much as possible. But his point was that since I’ve done the same thing I was supposedly pestering him about, I’m just as guilty as anyone else and so have no place telling anyone else what to do. I have no moral high ground, so to speak.
Part of the power of being vegan, of visibly standing up for something that not everyone does, is that people will start to think about things without you having to pester them about it. Being the “vegan in the room” can be a powerful thing, but on the flip side people sometimes feel accused and defensive when all you’re doing is ordering a veggie burger. I knew my friend was just coming from that place, and we got over the argument and are good friends still. But the conversation was really enlightening.
It highlighted how many people think ethics is about the qualities of the person trying to be moral. Their virtue, innocence, purity, motivations, or whatever it is. Whereas I, and I suspect most activists, see ethics as essentially about the acted-upon, not the person acting.
Another time I was talking with a different friend of mine, this time Pagan if that matters. I’m not sure how veganism came up, but it came up, and her justification for eating animals was that she doesn’t have any other vices. Doesn’t drink, smoke, or gamble. We all deserve to have at least one vice in our lives.
I don’t ask my friends to defend their habits. Well, maybe I did a bit when I was a new vegan, but I’ve realized that being accusatory just doesn’t seem to make people want to hear your take on things. But people quite naturally want to defend their positions. If someone says, “It’s wrong to do x,” then of course people who do do x will feel compelled to explain why it’s ok. So over the years I’ve heard a lot of reasons why people eat animal products.
I see a lot of similar things pop up. Probably the most common one is personal choice. “We both have the right to our opinion and this is how I choose to live my life.” But it’s not the only one. “I’ve been eating this way all my life; I can’t/don’t want to change at this point.” At least that’s honest. The worst, I think, is when people say, “Don’t tell me what happens in animal agriculture; I don’t want to know.”
What do these all have in common? They are the mantras of “it’s all about me.”
It’s not an attempt to say that animals don’t have the capacity to suffer, or that they are treated well and for that reason don’t suffer. It’s not an attempt to justify actions by saying there are no victims. It’s not even an attempt to say that for some reason, the victims don’t matter. No, instead it says: Regardless of who may or may not be hurt, my actions are all about me. It’s about my choices, my agency, my habits, and my pleasure.
In no other area of ethical concern would these arguments be taken seriously.
In this mindset, what the victim wants or chooses is not relevant. Only what the individual wants or chooses is important. I think that this represents a huge moral blindspot. When it comes to freedom of choice, there is not only freedom-to (freedom to do what you will), but also freedom-from. There’s a saying with multiple different attributions which I think makes a far better mantra. The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.
From Zechariah Chafee:
Each side takes the position of the man who was arrested for swinging his arms and hitting another in the nose, and asked the judge if he did not have a right to swing his arms in a free country. “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.” (from http://quoteinvestigator.com/tag/zechariah-chafee/)
What I’ve been seeing a lot lately is people talking about their moral choices in terms of their personal journey. I saw a discussion recently involving animal rights activist Gary Francione. I generally agree with him, but often disagree with what I consider a harsh approach. That aside, someone had told him that he shouldn’t be too harsh with people, and respect the personal journey they’re on. Give me time for my process; I’m doing the best I can.
I do believe that becoming vegan is an awakening. It’s an unfolding and engagement with life in a newer and fuller way. Many vegans didn’t become vegan overnight; it was a process. So yes, it is a journey. And it’s often good to look back on one’s life, take stock, and say, “Wow, what a journey.” But that becomes insincere and self-involved when we try to make our journey a justification. Your journey is important to you, but it does not justify victimization. It smacks of saying, “I’m living my autobiography” and everyone else is rendered into background characters.
As Francione put it:
“But how any one person–or most people–went vegan is completely beside the point. The point is what position a social movement for animal rights takes. […] It’s not a matter of condemning or criticizing anyone; it is a matter of being clear about moral principles and educating in a clear, coherent, and nonviolent manner others who care about animals but who are not vegan.” (http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/journeys/#.U9Xpe_ldUrU)
I don’t normally talk about self-centeredness when the vegan question comes up. At least, not since my early days. I think it can hurt feelings and relationships without really helping the animals. I’m bringing it up now because I’m starting to recognize it as one of the problems impeding social progress.
Some people think ethics is all about them, not any potential impact they have on others. And I’m not really sure how to address that.
Here’s my best attempt. I think that a lot of the suffering that goes on in the world isn’t real to people. It’s just data, a statistic. That’s why we’re able to make it into background noise, some texture or flavor for our personal journey. The solution, then, might be to make it real for people. For veganism, that often involves an encounter with animal abuse. That’s how I had my first real vegetarian awakening. And I admit, it took me about four years to become vegetarian, and two more to become vegan.
If you’re up for it, watch the four minute condensed version of From Farm to Fridge. It’s very upsetting, and it should be. I can talk about animal suffering endlessly, but seeing it makes it more real. Choosing not to see can make us feel more comfortable, but it doesn’t help those who really suffer every day.
I’m learning, in every area of life, how rarely people are convinced by logic. I think activists can better reach people by helping them make an emotional connection, the only thing that truly makes anything real to us. Maybe show people the suffering that goes on in the world instead of chanting invectives. The organization Mercy for Animals does that by offering to pay passersby $1 to watch the four-minute video referenced above, to great effect.
I was once discussing animal rights with a Wiccan friend. He said that the Goddess created animals for our use. I told him I didn’t believe that. He took that to mean that I didn’t believe the Goddess created the animals. Now, creationism and my opinion on it is a whole ‘nother topic. But at the moment I was completely dumbfounded. It should have been obvious that my objection was to “for our use” and not “the Goddess created.”
It took me a long time to consider that the idea that animals exist on their own, for their own reasons, was just so outside the realm of his imagination that he assumed I was weighing in about metaphysics. Animals’ concerns are unfortunately just outside the scope of a lot of people’s daily concerns. That’s probably true for many, even most, of the causes we champion.
What do you think? Do what I call the mantras of me just mean that important issues just don’t seem real enough? And if so, what do we do about it?