Friday, August 31, 2012

The Persistence of Fairy Tales…

“Peace is a process of retraining the mind to process life as it is, rather than as you think it should be.” Dr. Wayne Dyer

When I was a child, one of my favorite books was a lavishly illustrated collection of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales; the story I liked most of all was The Emperor’s New Clothes and not just because of the image of the pompous central character strutting around in his underwear. The story is about a narcissistic emperor duped by two swindlers posing as weavers who decide to capitalize on his vanity and convince him that they could make him a suit of such exquisite materials that it actually has magical properties: it is such finery that it will be only be visible to those who are worthy of its fine quality. The weavers actually have no cloth but they make a great show for days out of the measuring, cutting, and weaving of this supposedly magnificent material and the emperor sends his officers to check on the progress of the suit they are making. The statesmen, afraid of seeming inferior by admitting that they don’t see anything, each report back to the emperor, gushing about the surpassing grandeur of the suit he has commissioned. Privately, though, they are each deeply troubled, believing that they are the only ones who can’t see or feel a thing as the weavers work on their invisible garment.

When it is time for the emperor to display his magical suit in a procession for the townspeople, the weavers again make a great show of putting the invisible-to-all suit on him, pulling it up his arms and legs, standing back to admire it, while everyone, including the emperor, praises its unparalleled quality, each afraid to admit to themselves and each other that they do not see a thing. When the emperor finally does the procession, the townspeople, all informed of the supposed properties of the suit and afraid of looking stupid or beneath their neighbors, make a great public display of being astonished by its beauty. The charade continues until a child, unaware that everyone else was participating in this unspoken deception, impulsively shouts out the obvious, that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Soon, the townspeople abandon the ruse and the crowd yells that the emperor is wearing no clothes. Even as it dawns upon him that he had been deceived by the weavers, the vain emperor must continue, now humiliated and stripped of self-delusion, parading in front of the villagers in his undergarments while everyone knows that he has been made a fool.

This story appealed to me not only because of the moral about the silliness of vanity and ego but also the concept of clinging to a belief despite all the clear evidence that it is a false one. Like the emperor, when we want to believe a lie about ourselves, we cling to the self-deception even more resolutely, sometimes as if our lives depended on it being true.

For the past 17 years, I have heard otherwise intelligent people tell me fantastical tales with a straight face as a means to justify their omnivorous habits. I have heard time after time that plants feel pain, despite having no central nervous system or this notion having no evolutionary logic. Just a few days ago, someone ventured that mowing a lawn was akin to trimming a dog’s nails. I have heard people who in no other ways emulate indigenous people invoke their “respect for Native Americans” as a way to infuse their meat-eating with an air of quasi-spirituality. (Along those lines, I have heard enough people wax philosophic about the Circle of Life - and their role in the death part of it – to fill the liner notes of every Kansas and Moody Blues album ever pressed.) I’ve heard people claim that they “climbed to the top of the food chain” as if they have fur and blood under their own fingernails. I have heard people insinuate that caring for animals means that you do not care for humans, as if the two cancel each other out, as if we are only allotted a measureable, finite amount of compassion. I’ve had many people express concerns to me about “What would happen to all the animals?” if the world went vegan, as if the process would happen overnight. I have even had someone tell me once that her “totem animal is a tiger and her tiger needs meat.” Yes, she said this with a straight face. Yes, I almost bit through my lower lip to not burst out laughing.

Despite the occasional person with a ravenous, bloodthirsty tiger lurking within, it’s interesting to me how little the excuses have changed over the years. In other words, the same justifications people told me in 1995, they are still repeating. One thing has changed, though. One very damaging narrative has been adopted wholesale by society at large that wasn’t there before. The new conceit is that the animals conscientious people eat are “humanely raised and slaughtered.” [I will cease the quotation marks here and trust that the reader knows that every time I say humane that this is not my view.] The spin is that the images we see of beings suffering in confinement are not telling the whole story: this is just the worst of the worst. That's not all the animals. There is a verdant, wildflower-filled meadow somewhere out there where the animals gambol and the noble farmer dwells with his family in a farmhouse. This is what all those who are conscientious meat-eaters consume. All of them. It just so happens that despite smaller farms representing a very, very small percentage of the industry – the USDA’s own census shows that more than 99% of animals come from industrial settings - somehow, as if wishful thinking made it true, humanely procured animal products is all that everyone eats. In the house and out of the house. For breakfast, lunch and dinner.

This essay is only tangentially about the great deception of humane animal products. Regardless of where the animals people eat were born, they all face a knife and/or bolt to the brain needlessly in the end and that is all I need to know. They are still exploited from birth to death as if they and their bodies were our birthright. Their babies are still stolen from them for our purposes. It is still enslavement. I don’t want to write about that today, though.

I have written a lot about the exploitation of animals through the lens of compassion but right now the concept of critical thinking is driving me. How is it that we willfully suspend our disbelief when the facts do not line up with something that we want to face despite how glaringly obvious it is? And how did we get to the point where virtually all of society effectively co-signs on this self-deception, holding onto the fabrication more tightly than someone clinging to a log in the Colorado River?

When I ask how the mathematical impossibility of free-range could happen on our limited landmass given consumption habits, I am met with the equivalent of hands over the ears, “La-la-la, I can’t hear you!” antics. When I say that this wouldn’t occur without a drastic, and I mean drastic, reduction in consumption, I get blank stares. When I say that eating any animal products regardless of its label is enormously taxing to our planet and wasteful of resources, eyes glaze over. When I say that if everyone ate the way that the foodie elite does, it’d be disastrous, I get diversionary tactics. When I say that eating animals is unnecessary and it necessarily causes pain and death, far-fetched hypothetical scenarios are repeated to me as if they were accurate representations of reality.  

Why have people bought into the lie of humane slaughter so fully that they are willing to sacrifice the integrity of their critical thinking? Because it benefits them to maintain their privileges and to not think that they are jerks in the process.

I don’t think that omnivores are all jerks, I really don’t. That’s silliness. To me, the steadfast clinging to fairy tales tells me something refreshing about the core of humanity - that we want to believe that we are good people because we want to be good people - and it tells me something positive about what we think about eating animals as the status quo. It tells me that people are uncomfortable with the act of eating animals at its root and this kernel holds a lot of hope for me. It also tells me that when animal advocacy organizations spin a narrative of “You can be vegan, you can be an omnivore, or you can pick what’s behind Door #3” and what’s behind that door is the promise of a clear conscience without changing any beloved habits, we are getting into the shameful territory of marching animals to their deaths. The human urge to believe in false narratives when presented with an ugly truth is just too alluring for most to resist. When the rest of society is deeply invested in maintaining the fabrication, critical thinking short-circuits so quickly you can practically hear it happen.

I am a slow study, apparently: I was an omnivore for the first 15 years of my life, a vegetarian for 12 years after that, and, once I couldn’t hide from it anymore, a vegan. Everyone has his or her own process and path and I respect that. Damn, though, I am glad that I didn’t have anyone patting me on the back and spoon-feeding me reassuring stories that would prolong my self-deception when I was transitioning. Now this fairy tale has been inserted into the dialogue and the false notion of a victimless exploitation and killing has been woven over eyes everywhere. Don’t get me wrong: I love fiction. I love it so much I wrote a whole book filled with it. I just don’t like telling fiction that justifies killing others.

Despite being portrayed as society’s dreamers and tree-huggers, pie-in-the-sky idealists and fantasists, those of us who unwaveringly refuse to pretend that using and eating animals is harmless are actually the ones who are facing reality. We are the ones pointing at the products of death and oppression and stating it for what it is. The people who are coming up with far-fetched and illogical excuses are the escapists, valuing their fantasyland more than living honestly. Like the child watching the emperor in the parade, we are pointing out the obvious because we are no longer part of the mass deception.

Just because we wish something were so does not make it so. Killing an innocent unnecessarily is always wrong. We shouldn’t be weaving fairy tales about life-or-death matters and we most certainly shouldn’t be believing them.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Universal Language of Suffering

My mother had a bad fall recently. She has Alzheimer’s disease in addition to a neurological disorder called Parkinsonism as well as some other physical challenges, most of which affect her balance, overall cognition and ability to communicate. My mother needs hands-on care during the day, which we or her caregiver can usually provide and despite how precarious it might sound, we manage to keep her safe, comfortable and happy most of the time. We haven’t quite evolved past that basic biological need for occasional sleep, though, try as we might, and that was our hiccup recently.

My mother started on a new medication for her Parkinsonism the evening of her fall and I think that it disoriented her. She got up at 1:30 in the morning and instead of just walking the ten steps from her bedroom to the bathroom like she always does, she took a detour into the kitchen and fell, banging her head on the sharp edge of the counter. There was a horrifying scream and then a crash as we ran downstairs to find her. She was on the kitchen floor, her forehead covered with blood, and she was largely unresponsive. The paramedics arrived quickly, put her on a stretcher and we met them at the hospital.

Thankfully, she only needed four stitches, but she also broke a vertebra in her neck in the fall. As injuries go, it was a fairly minor hairline fracture and it wouldn’t compromise her spine or mobility but given her other challenges, it wasn’t so straightforward. She had to be transferred to a different hospital, one better suited for her needs, and stay there with a neck brace on, her bed modified to keep her in it. She cried so much, being understandably confused, scared, upset and in pain, that she was able to get a private room in the ICU and she was probably released earlier than they would have liked otherwise, just to return her to the comfort and normalcy of her familiar space at our home.

In addition to the already pretty staggering laundry list of challenges before her, my mother had to continue on this new drug as it was hoped that it would ultimately aid her balance and make her less likely to fall. It made her even more wobbly, though, and it also rendered her utterly unable to communicate. Under the best of circumstances, it is difficult to hear and understand what my mother has to say. With this new medication, though, is was impossible. Words wouldn’t form. Thoughts disappeared as they emerged. She was miles away from us while sitting a foot away, separated by a impenetrable wall. She knew, though, even in her remote, drugged state that she was in misery. Of all the basic needs, to be denied even the ability to communicate your suffering, to be trapped inside your fear and pain, is the ultimate horror. She was reduced to just crying, her whispery voice barely audible, crying for help, crying for her mother like a baby.

We were there for my mother, though, to comfort her and care for her, even if she was only vaguely aware of us. We could walk her to the bathroom, change her clothes, feed her, wash her. Imagine if you were similarly disabled and no one was there to help you. My thoughts naturally led me to think of the billions of feeling, sensitive and intentionally handicapped beings in our agriculture system.

Of all the horrors we inflict upon the animals that end up as our food, perhaps the cruellest is the day-in and day-out pain of being so profoundly compromised. Even if they have never experienced another way to feel, I have no doubt that the drugged-up, ailing states we create within their bodies make it even harder for the animals find any small measure of peace within the oppressive structures we force upon them. Among the many ways we alter their bodies so as to suit our purposes better, the animals are castrated, forcibly impregnated, de-horned, de-beaked, have their tails cut and their ears notched. They are denied their most basic instincts of roaming, grooming, dust baths, nurturing their young. Finally, they are confined into tight spaces and given a routine cocktail of powerful drugs, including antibiotics, antiparasites and steroids, to make it most financially efficient to convert living beings into the stuff we eat.

(I need to interrupt the flow here and state that it doesn’t matter to me if a random farm doesn’t use all of these industry-wide practices: I am opposed to animal enslavement and exploitation always. On these idealized farms, babies are still taken from their mothers, male chicks are still killed at birth, male calves still supply the veal industry, and the animals are still exploited for our ends and violently killed.)

Despite the arthritis, hearing loss, Parkinsonism and Alzheimer’s, my mother’s body is hers alone and there is still a comfortable norm within it. Her well-being is so tightly calibrated on that razor's edge that if she feels five degrees better or worse, it is keenly felt.

Given how much this new medication was harming her, we quit it after a week and she is much improved. She is able to communicate better and we are able to hear her; she is back to singing her uniquely mashed up songs, laughing with her grandson and asking me what I’m making for dinner at 9:00 in the morning. She’s back. She’s with us again. I am grateful beyond words.

The experience has me imagining what it would feel like to lose one’s entire physical integrity, diminished as it is. I imagine how it would feel to be hurting, completely obstructed, trapped inside one’s pain and unable to communicate it. With my mother, we simply took her off the medication and the dark clouds lifted. What if you had no one looking out for you, though? What if you had no refuge? After caring for my mother during this deeply challenging time, hearing her cries through the night and seeing her anguish, I’m pretty sure that I can extrapolate what this would feel like. It would feel like hell on earth.

The conclusion I can draw from this is not that if we simply remove the drugs and physical alterations and replace them with a patch of grass here or there and a pretty label once they’re dead that we are doing the right thing. The conclusion I draw is that living beings suffer profoundly when they are denied their corporal integrity. No matter how compromised one might seem to be, there is still a life in there that wants to thrive, to be supported and be free from pain. To those who are trapped in the system of exploitation and physically compromised, not being able to communicate their fears and pain to someone who cares is the ultimate misery we could inflict.

The way out of inflicting this misery on others is simply to end our participation in it. The beauty of it is that we can start right now. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

When Vegans Attack!

Officers of law ticket civilians, they sneak up on us, they maintain the rules and order but, most important for my purposes here, the police have also taken a solemn oath to be sworn Enemies of Fun. As someone who gets that sinking feeling whenever I spot a police car behind my own, I share that visceral negative reaction people have with officers: Oh, no! I wish they weren’t right behind me. Oh, damn, I hope I don’t get pulled over for anything. Are all my city stickers up-to-date? Can’t they just turn off and go somewhere else? A police officer showing up while people are just safely minding their own business creates a universal “wah wah waaaah” sound effect that is part of our shared experience. We all feel suddenly and conspicuously guilty in the presence of a police officer.

Vegans, just by our mere existence, can have a similar affect it seems. As a result, our presence creates resentment and agitation, whether we are outspoken advocates or not, simply because of what we represent. A vegan at a barbeque is the equivalent of a nun at an orgy: the buzz-kill, the drag, the spoilsport. If only we weren’t around, there would be one bacchanal of a feast - bacon hanging from the rafters, oozy cheese flowing out of every spout, a small mountain of hot, battered and deep-fried animal parts on every countertop – but, no, we had to show up and be all vegan about it, making everyone else feel bad with our sour faces. Why can’t omnivores just enjoy life without us prudes always showing up and managing to ruin their good time?

I was sort of accused of being aligned with “the vegan police” not too long ago. I had expressed unhappiness with a certain famous author, one who had written a well-regarded book that looked at the ethical implications of eating animals, but who, a couple of years later, started promoting more “humane” ways of eating them. This was disappointing and simply sad to me: why create all these new labels (often meaningless) and standards (often toothless) when the bottom line is that eating animals is unnecessary and necessarily exploitative and cruel? Why must we devise labyrinthine, opaque systems for avoiding the inevitability that taking another’s life for a momentary pleasure is simply unjustifiable? There are few wrongs in life that are so lacking in nuance and also so easily rectified than this one. A friend disagreed with my perspective and characterized what I’d said as being reminiscent of “the vegan police.” I was a little offended, sure, but more than that, it got me thinking about the meaning of this term.

Those accused of being vegan police are the humorless, severe and ultra-orthodox arbiters of good and evil. We measure life by a certain moral yardstick and we are always on the right side of that yardstick. We are busybodies, preoccupied with patrolling others. When the vegan police walk into the room, all merriment ceases, the dancing ladies stop doing the can-can, the piano player freezes over his keys and you could hear a pin drop until, like lightning, all the fun quickly bolts out the nearest doors and windows.

I have to say that I get it.

Even as a member by default of this particular order, there are some vegans I am nervous of making a perceived mistake in front of – and not a “mistake” like, say, eating chicken, but a mistake like voicing support for the “wrong” organization. We walk that moral razor’s edge daily, and we can easily lose our footing and go teetering in either direction depending on how our lives are interpreted by others. Activists wield emotionally charged terms (for example, the always-in-vogue abolitionist vs. welfarist polarity) as if they were cudgels, and, in turn, many of us shrink into ourselves, afraid to reveal anything that could paint us with a label that diminishes us. In our efforts to hold ourselves and each other up to impeccable standards, we can become neurotic and tyrannical hard-liners. I’ve seen this dynamic of shaming and one-upmanship, as well as the chilling effect it creates, too many times to deny its presence in the vegan community.

We should voice our differing views, though, because we need to be honest. To be intimidated into silence or cajoled into towing the party line of solidarity is a very damaging approach, one far too reminiscent of a twisted family dynamic for me to participate in. I believe that while we do nitpick one another to death sometimes, arguing over this or that fine point when our core values are aligned, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t openly disagree with one another, sometimes vigorously so. The social justice movement that we are actively creating together is something novel and audacious and shot through with ambition. It is also unprecedented. There is no question that we are going to argue and disagree as we find our way through this work and that is the only honest way to do it. Despite how it is often depicted, veganism isn’t a cult. We have no position papers. Creating a social justice movement for those whose exploitation is so deeply entrenched throughout the world – with all people, regardless of wealth or social status, taking advantage - is hugely difficult, messy work. We need to hash this out and accept that we won’t necessarily always or even often agree. We just need one component, though, that seems to be in short supply.

The essential piece of the equation is respect.

Why do we jump to the worst conclusions about one another? Why do we rush to judgement? Why are vegans our own worst enemies? Time and time again, I have seen good people vituperated during disagreements, treated as if they were just one small step above the worst animal abusers themselves. Why? Why the lack of nuance and inability to see the big picture? Is it because social media, where so much of this plays out, lacks the painful consequences of real life and reinforces those with poor impulse control? Is it just a symptom of living in a violent world, one that we can’t help but let influence our interactions?

I suspect that there are multiple causes. We need to understand this better. In the meantime, though, we can all try to not see the very worst in one another. We are a tiny minority and face a monolithic, uphill struggle as we try to change how society functions on the most far-reaching and altruistic level history has seen. Make no mistake, the vegan movement is made of boldness. Feelings will be hurt. I’m not asking for a group hug or a drum circle or even for us to share our best source for affordable yet stylish vegan shoes with one another. Not at all. We won’t always get along but we could perhaps give each other a break once in a while, right? We could give one another the benefit of the doubt occasionally, even when our fingers are dying to tell someone off and smack that return key, couldn’t we? Could we show one another the empathy, compassion and tenderness we regularly feel for battery chickens? I think it shouldn’t be that hard.

Remember that while we are condemning and berating one another, people who are just beginning to explore veganism are looking on. Is that what we want to show them, that their new community will seize upon any perceived mistake they make, be it linguistic, tactical or just a difference of opinion? That is no way to grow a movement and, damn it, we need one another and many, many more of us if we are going to make this thing work in a meaningful way.

So here are some quick things you can do instead of flying off the handle at a Very, Very Wrong Vegan. You can:
Take a deep breath. (In with peace, out with anger…In with peace, out with anger…)
Punch a pillow.
Take a cardio-boxing class.
Spend an hour playing with kittens at an animal shelter.
Read some Sylvia Plath.
Watch reality TV and scream at your television until you feel all better.

Do what you need to do to get the mean reds out of your system and then come up for air again. When you can speak honestly but not abusively, you are in a good place to create a dialogue. This is only common sense but sometimes we all need reminders.

There is too much at stake for us to self-destruct. Let’s do this thing.