The Ethical Choice is Compassion.

Via Andrew Gurvey
on Oct 13, 2011
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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.

Fish in a Vegan World

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.

Positive Changes Vegan Vegetarian Animals

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.


About Andrew Gurvey

Andrew Gurvey is an Engineer for the Fire Protection Division of Underwriters Laboratories by day, and a yoga teacher by night. Andrew’s arrival to the yoga mat was a long and winding road that has since turned into a powerful, focused journey. You can read his full bio via his website, or connect with him via Facebook.


22 Responses to “The Ethical Choice is Compassion.”

  1. "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."

    Well said, Andrew. I agree…and I think I received more constructive advice and info from some of the other commenters (yourself included) that from Gary.

  2. I thought you would appreciate this, Kate. Thanks for reading.

  3. Bob Bernstein says:

    I admire your wit and education and I especially respect your point of view. What you do not address is that man is a carnivore, in fact an omnivore like 1000's of other creatures. I hope you, Mr. Smith and other vegans understand that this is how we have lived for thousands if not millions of years.. However, I do agree that many things we eat are apart of big business/McDonalds mentailty and many animals are treated inhumanly, thus I tend to purchase most organic products but not merely just the things I injest. Many of the products we buy like cosmetics, oils, cleaning products and countless others are not only harming man or animal but the environment as well. So to that end, you cannot stop at vegan vs. non vegan. Or to put it bluntly, stop buying those leather shoes and I have my druthers about Lululemon products that are more than likely made by cheap over seas laborers which is also unfair to the work trade in those impovershed countries. Why stop at cruelty to animals and not look at cruelty to man or earth? More "food" for thought.

  4. Anne – the original article was brief, but the comments did get downright violent and angry on both sides of the issue.

  5. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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  6. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Great article Andrew!

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  7. Great article Andrew. I've been looking forward to this since you posted on my Vegan article. Well written and honest.

    Keep it up!!

  8. Jeffrey says:

    Excellent article, Andrew! And the title is so spot on….the ethical choice is compassion. Even though I've read all "the books," know all "the facts," have seen all "the movies," it was really hard for me to make the (hopefully) permanent transition from being a vegetarian to being a vegan. Remembering how hard it was and the times that I slipped back to eating eggs, cheese, etc. reminds me that it is just as hard or even harder for others….and not just on this issue. That helps me be more compassionate to others when I seem them struggling (again not just on this issue.) They are no different than me in this regard. We've been "practicing" a lot these habits for a very long time and it takes time and effort to become free of them.

    ‎"Zen Master Suzuki Roshi once looked out at his students and said, “All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.” That’s how it is. You don’t start from the view of “I’m fundamentally messed up and I’m bad, therefore I have to get myself into shape.” Rather, the basic situation is good, it’s sound and healthy and noble, and there’s work that we need to do, because we have ancient habits which we’ve been strengthening for a long time, and it’s going to take a while to unwind them." ~Pema Chödrön

  9. Thanks, Hannah. I loved your article as well. For those of you who haven't had a chance to read Hannah's article, "Vegan?", this is the link:

    I appreciate your honesty in expressing yourself as well.

  10. Wow, Jeffrey. Thank you for your reply. You explain your circumstances very well, and I think your experience with the transition is echoed by many…And not just on this issue. I love your Pema Chodron quote (can't figure out how to get the accents). Thanks so much for sharing.

  11. Maria says:

    A well written article, thank you.
    There are fundamentalists in all walks of life – even the vegetarian and vegan worlds – so your argument here rings true – the ethical choice is compassion. not just towards animals, but humans too….

  12. Thank you for your comments, Maria. You're right. Any point of view that is taken to the extreme tends to be alienating by its very nature. It would be great if all of us with our varying points of view were nicer to each other, wouldn't it?

  13. Anne says:

    Suri kate wrote: "you could be just as healthy or more being a lacto-ovo vegetarian or a flexitarian"
    I do not disagree. For people like me, and most likely for Gary Smith as well, it is Totally Not About Health.

  14. Julia Cohn says:

    hey Andrew… as someone who has been vegetarian for 20+ years and mostly vegan off and on throughout that time, I totally agree with your compassionate approach!! Think about how Gandhi would handle this… think about how Jesus would handle this…. think about how Buddha would handle this…. Compassion is the only way!! AND being unkind to people because of their dietary choices will never get them to change anyway. A compassionate, thoughtful conversation about the meat, dairy and egg industries just might. Being mean only solidifies the stereotype that "vegans are crazy."

  15. Julia Cohn says:

    A great example of getting the message across in a classy, non-confrontational kind of way is Kathy Freston's book Quantum Wellness where she makes a very informed and smart case for veganism. She urges readers to think "progress, not perfection" by making gradual changes. Just like yoga right? If we jam our bodies into poses we are not ready for it won't work. Dietary transitions have to be gradual as well as we invite the idea into our conciousness and going without the foods we've grown up loving. And I, like you, am making the transition toward being vegan. I once saw a woman who belonged to a radical animal rights group splatter ketchup on a fast food worker. How demeaning!! Mr. Smith you need to wake up to the fact that you are not loving your fellow humans by talking to them in that way. Demeaning with words are not only hurtful, but toxic. Thank you for your thoughtful insight on your path. Peace, Peace, Peace & Namaste! -Julia (p.s. love your term "assholism." perfect.)

  16. […] The order has been placed to shoot to kill and 30-36 animals have been killed. A deep violation of ahimsa by even owning these animals? Supposedly there are even primates and others that are living in the […]

  17. Thank you for your comments, Julia. I really do believe that presentation matters as much as message. There's an irony in that I believe Gary Smith owns a PR firm that is intended to promote veganism and healthy living. I apologize if I am misinterpreting the biographical info following his posts. I think what he has to say has quite a bit of value. However, when someone is abusive in how they display the information, it is alienating. I can understand the converse idea that the information is vitally important and needs to be distributed in every way possible, but I also understand reality. Speaking to me in an abusive way, and then countering my resistance to that by telling me I'm abusive is completely antithetical to the overall intent, which is to be conscious and compassionate. While eating meat may be murder, not eating meat and leading all of the other aspects of a vegan lifestyle would be considered compassionate. That means distributing the message in such a way. Cont…

  18. I love your comments to this effect, Julia. Assaholism and douchebaggery are two largely growing epidemics on both sides. I have yet to understand, short of imprisonment or slavery, how being nasty and cruel to anyone would yield a desired, unforced result. I, of course, from the beginning, have welcomed Mr. Smith's comments, and still do. In some of his later posts in his supplementary article (The Ethical Choice is to Abstain from Eating Humans), he replies rather insightfully to some of the people who replied to his article (Kate, the woman I quoted in my article, being one of them). He has yet to reply to me, and that's totally okay. I am always up for having a discussion or logical debate with someone from whom I can learn, and who may actually be able to learn from me. Thank you again, Julia. You are excellent!

  19. […] the reality of life is that everything we say or do boils down to perception. It comes down to our choices in action and thought. It comes down to expecting, wait for it, the […]

  20. […] about our food choices. It may not come naturally, but the most ethical choice we can make is to be compassionate to each other. We all make choices that defy our biological drives. It’s part of what makes us […]

  21. […] I am trying to get all omnivores or ovo-lactos like myself to adopt this habit in an endeavor to create peace. Even if I choose to eat meat, I have decided that it’s not necessary to tell anyone. If no one […]