October 13, 2011

The Ethical Choice is Compassion.

This article is in reply to one written by Gary Smith on September 29, called The Ethical Choice is Vegan. Mr. Smith’s post is very short but contains a lot of passion behind it that caused, to say the least, a stir among a varied group of Elephant Journal readers.

To truly understand the article, one has to read all of the comments following. While some of the replies espouse vitriol and strong negative behavior towards other respondents, as well as to the author of the article (which the author reciprocated, by the way), the responses were, for the most part, thoughtful, controversial, and clearly also struck nerves on all sides.

This article is not intended to refute Mr. Smith’s comments or advocate for them. It is also not intended to pick apart or judge the comments of all of the wonderful respondents. The intent of this article is to discuss the method that was used to get the initial point across. I nod my head to all of those who had the courage to respond to Gary Smith’s post and be willing to listen to and espouse their own viewpoints. I also applaud Gary Smith for his post because of the stir that it created, and for having a viewpoint that the rest of us could learn from and discuss.

Mr. Smith’s first edgy statement in his very short article is that “if you choose to eat meat, dairy and eggs, you are choosing to cause pain and to participate in exploitation and murder.” This statement, predictably, caused much consternation among the non-vegan readers, myself included. No one likes to be referred to as an exploiter or murderer, even if the statement is true. Mr. Smith, in one of his comments following did indicate that “rather than twisting yourself into a pretzel trying to justify your participation in the exploitation and murder of nonhuman animals, why not take a few moments and ask yourself if this participation lines up with your values. Unless you value murder and oppression, the answer is vegan.” Again, this is a valid statement that actually provides good food for thought. But the first part of the statement is patronizing and the last part is incredibly combative and borderline vindictive, taking away from the validity of what he had to say. As much as we may not want to admit it, the way a message is delivered can determine if the message reaches others.

Kate, one of the voices of reason among the commenters to the initial post, had this to say:

“This is significant to me…If the rationale for veganism is ahimsa, what about non-harming of our fellow humans with our words? I am much more responsive to, ‘hey, can I enlighten you about a better way to do that?’ than, ‘you are a horrible murdering a-hole because you are eating cheese.’ You catch more flies with honey…”

This was Gary Smith’s response:

“I agree. Someone’s tone is equivalent to shooting a bolt into a cow’s skull, cutting his or her throat, while still alive and dangling. and sawing off his or her limbs. Totally the same thing.”

If it’s not apparent from the text, Gary Smith’s response is snide, rude and quite frankly, off-putting. His very valid point of what we do to animals gets lost in that he can’t take a constructive criticism from someone on how to reach more people with the vegan message.

I will now speak for myself here. I’m an ovo-lacto vegetarian. I have been so for nearly 12 years, but it has evolved a lot. Nowadays, I am actually borderline vegan in my dietary habits in that I rarely eat cheese, eggs or other byproducts and I don’t drink animals’ milk. Here’s the kicker: My choices are all for health reasons. Meat has always made me feel uncomfortable, sick or drowsy. Milk and cheese slow my digestive system and cause a build-up of phlegm in my throat (appetizing, I know). Eggs don’t bother me, but I just don’t end up eating them that much.

Also, for as long as I can remember, I have never been able to eat anything that used to be alive that looked anything like it did in its living form. I remember once, as a young adult, when someone put a lobster in front of me, I got sick to my stomach. It got worse when I saw people breaking the lobster apart and stripping out its innards. I don’t know why I used to be immune to shrimp. Maybe because I couldn’t visualize its underwater function in the same way I could with lobster. The idea of a live lobster being dropped into boiling water makes me cringe.

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bluumwezi/

To clarify further, fishing has always made me squeamish. A friend of mine, who is an avid fisherman, was in the process of killing a fish for the purpose of creating fillets. To kill it, he hit it on the head with a mini baseball bat (at least, that’s what it looked like to me). This is a common practice among fishermen, but I couldn’t even look at it (incidentally, I wasn’t fishing with my friend; I just enjoyed hanging out in the boat on the water). With all of the aforementioned situations, I got physically squeamish and sick to my stomach. Enter my pragmatic nature. Because of these physical manifestations, I came to the conclusion that meat and living things are not healthy for my body. This has not stopped me from loving cheese. I don’t eat it much, but it is still one of my favorites. It has also not stopped me from enjoying an occasional omelet.

It has been a very long, transformative process for me to get to this point. I grew up in a Midwest, meat-eating household. In my adult life, I know many people—some friends of mine—who are hunters and avid carnivores. My entire process to get where I am started out with me going vegetarian based on listening to my body alone. I have had to endure criticism and ridicule from most people close to me because my choices appeared to have offended their sensibilities. I came under fire in many situations relating to food because often I was the only vegetarian. And it stood out to people when I abstained from eating the main course at meals when those courses were meat or meat-related.

The point of relating this story is not to discuss how hard my struggle has been but to illustrate that anyone who has chosen to defy convention, for whatever reason, has a story to tell. Convention can be defined as and by the McDonald’s culture in which we live. I’m sure a number of you can remember as children when it was considered a special treat to get to go to McDonald’s or Burger King for dinner. On long road trips, my parents would placate me by telling me we would stop at McDonald’s at the next rest stop if I would be patient.

Nowadays, my compassion is catching up with my health choices. I am experiencing a slow growth in this area of compassion that, quite frankly, did not exist before and is something I still struggle with today. My choices have always been pragmatic and health-based and generally lacked compassion for the animals themselves. By interesting default, though, these choices I’ve made align with many whose political and compassionate choices involve humane treatment of animals. As I continue to become educated more about veganism, and as I continue to view videos chronicling the horrible treatment of animals, my choices continue to become more conscious and compassionate. Like I said, it’s a slow process.

Now to bring this all to Mr. Smith’s article. If you read through the comments, there are some very militant arguments against veganism, but what sticks out to me are the vehement retaliations against the aspect of moral absolutism that exists in vegan culture. This is the idea that if you are not vegan, you are a murderer and exploiter. Pragmatically speaking and put more cleanly, this is to state the idea that through ignorance and passive choices, those of us not adopting a vegan lifestyle are condoning and contributing to inhumane treatment of animals.

And the truth is that I have to agree. I also have to confess to being one of those people who do not adopt this lifestyle (getting closer, though) and am therefore guilty of the aforementioned actions. Only I am not ignorant or passive, so I wonder if that makes me worse. I can say that it is causing me to re-evaluate my choices.

Having said that, to adopt a vegan or even a vegetarian lifestyle is to fight against a very powerful and hostile majority comprised of the media, older generations, older thinking, a flawed political system and big business. Not to mention, in some cases, being ridiculed and singled out by family and friends.

In our culture, it’s extremely difficult to get to the point of being able to live a fully conscious lifestyle in which we are knowledgeable about what we eat, where it comes from, and whether or not the choices we are making are even good ones. It is not impossible, but it does take a lot of effort.

However, this fight is worth fighting, and it is worth every bit of the struggle to work towards and eventually achieve the vegan lifestyle. Even better, it’s great when we have the support of those vegans who are already living it to help us get there.

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/coolinsights/

I can practically hear the reply a vegan might give me to my last paragraph now: “Yes, but Andrew, not everyone is as open-minded as you (even though you still have a long way to go), and I am tired of being kind and compassionate in how I reach out when most of the people I talk to about it are derisive jerks and downright offensive in how they treat me.”

To the person with this point of view: you are absolutely correct. Most people, when presented with a point of view that is contradictory to the way they are currently living their lives, are defensive jerks who are quick to attack instead of ask questions. This is one of the challenges in having a minority point of view, even if that point of view may be considered correct. While the majority of people may respond with hostility or disdain, it is still important to reach out to those of us who are willing and want to be educated. And to do that, it certainly helps if the educator is approachable and isn’t condemning your overall existence.

One thing I know that definitely does not work is creating even more divisiveness between vegans and non-vegans. I have heard and seen arguments from vegans that claim a “shock” method of presenting information is the only way to get people to listen and see what’s going on.

Well, I’m pretty open-minded and am continually evolving my lifestyle to be more compassionate, even if I am more health-based and less politically-based in my approach to doing so. However, I have to tell you, a militant or moral absolutist approach to try to get me to change my ways is like trying to flog someone into becoming more peaceful (“you WILL be compassionate, goddammit!!!”). After all, isn’t a prevailing point of veganism to teach us, through conscious food and lifestyle choices, to respect our brothers and sisters, our animals and our Earth equally and supremely? If we, in our endeavor to make compassion for the latter two happen (animals and Earth), and disregard the former (humans, especially the uneducated), then isn’t this approach antithetical to the intended end result?

The reply to that might be, “Yes, but Andrew, people are a$$holes. They are shallow, infuriating, materialistic and they are buying into the machine politics that comprises our really f*cked up Western culture.” I agree, but we still have to try to be compassionate, even to those who seem hopelessly lost. Getting up on a soapbox and condemning the majority of culture without educating them helps no one. Throwing red paint on someone wearing a mink coat is only going to alienate the owner of the mink coat and push away some of us who may previously have found value in the cause. Worse yet, the thrower of the paint may have pushed the owner into buying a new mink coat just to be spiteful.

Hate begets hate, no matter how righteous the cause may be. Militancy begets militancy. Assaholism, when enabled, becomes an epidemic in itself. To get people to change is a painfully slow process. It’s true that every minute we waste kills more animals. Animals are being inhumanely slaughtered even as I write this. This atrocity can’t be stopped quickly enough, but attacking those of us who are in the process of changing or are willing to listen to you is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Gary Smith and other vegans: help me get on board with you. Be patient with me. Don’t accost me with abuse and absolutism. Help me learn more. Help me learn to incorporate it in my lifestyle. Teach me how to continue to wean things out of my diet that shouldn’t be there. Teach me how to make more conscious decisions.

And then back off. It has taken me 12 years to get this far, and it might take me longer than you would desire for me to transition completely. However, although you may think you know why it’s taking me longer, you don’t. You may attribute it to complacency, laziness, fear, or some other reason. But you don’t know the life I’ve led other than what I have written here in this article. You don’t know the life that other vegetarian or carnivore friends of mine have led. You may, in fact, have a better handle on how to live a more conscious life, but fundamentalism in your cause is only going to alienate people like me who are leaning towards your cause in the first place.

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