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.

18 comments:

Val said...

"We shouldn’t be weaving fairy tales about life-or-death matters and we most certainly shouldn’t be believing them."

Wow Marla!
Powerful stuff. Amazing post!

Oh, and I love this:
her “totem animal is a tiger and her tiger needs meat.”

Seriously? LOL

Rhea Parsons said...

Yes, it's easy to believe what you want to believe if it keeps you from changing your behavior and giving up something you don't want to give up. I know, I did it for decades.

It's hard to look back and wonder how I did that, how I ever took the very simple fact that the food I loved meant death for animals and wrapped it in a fairy tale that let me walk through my days (and meals) with any peace of mind.

Love your posts, always!

Amber Anderson said...

I love this post of yours so much. It feels supportive at a time when situations like the ones you describe are really weighing on me. There is a woman at work who wants to talk about my veganism everyday just so that she can try to tell me why it's pointless. A couple days ago I just about lost it when she told me that cows don't have to become pregnant to produce milk (after I told her they did because she asked what was wrong with cow's milk).

Me: Look it up! I know what I'm talking about.
Her: I believe you believe you know what you're talking about.

Infuriating. I try to be a good ambassador but it's difficult with her. I know she won't look it up because she wants so badly to continue believing that she is a good person who loves animals. So basically, your post came at a perfect time for me. I love your writing. Your newest piece in VegNews is outstanding, btw. There's a lot of information in it that will help me to be better equipped when the conversation about world hunger comes up...

David said...

I'm a lifelong vegetarian (and tryin to become a bit more vegan though not fully) and I can relate to the responses of the non-veggies mentioned in your post. Someone once asked me if I'd ever 'try' meat. I mean, really? Vegetarians and vegans don't eat meat and fish, ever. Not complicated.

CQ said...

Marla, you recount the emperor's no-clothes fairy tale better than even Hans Christian Andersen told it -- seriously!

And you weave it seamlessly into another fantasy -- a true-life story that has been #1 on humanity's best-seller list of lies since the first human hunter slayed an animal for dinner.

An element critical to Andersen's fable is that it took a child to cut through the hypnotic trick that the weavers performed on the emperor and his subjects.

Similarly, in real life, it takes child-like courage and candor to cut through the naked calumny of today's defenders of animal exploitation -- defenders who are posing as actual advocates for animals.

I use the word "calumny" because some leaders in this calumnious crowd are slandering the reputations of honest, ethical abolitionists and even the reputation of the animals. The latter would be turning over in their graves (the stomachs of their "cycle-of-life"-spouting killers) if they could comprehend (and maybe they can!) that those who claim to care for their interests have allied themselves with "humane" pig farmers.

With eternal thanks to Leo Tolstoy, I once again borrow his apt quote to cap my point:

"Hypocrisy in anything whatever may deceive the cleverest and most penetrating man, but the least wide-awake of children recognizes it, and is revolted by it, however ingeniously it may be disguised."

The emperor's pride wasn't very ingeniously disguised, was it? Similarly, today's apologists for (1) misleading the animal-eating public, (2) collaborating with animal exploiters (3) promoting “humane” animal products and (4) engaging in egregious conflicts of interest isn't very ingeniously disguised.

Truly, major childlike humility and truth-telling is a must if we are to overcome this miasma.

Leslie Armstrong said...

Thank you so much Marla for such a beautifully written and compelling piece.
I just bought your book for my young grandchildren.

proud womon said...

powerful and articulate as ever marla... and of course, worth sharing with the world... thank you...

Carolyn Field said...

I am in absolute awe after reading this! Who are you, and why have I never heard about you? This entire essay is so beautifully conceived and written. It's really just brilliant.

And it has just pushed me over the edge. All summer I've been considering becoming a vegan. I became a part-time vegetarian 15 years ago after reading "Diet For a New America" (John Robbins) — the only meat I ate was fish. Two months ago I realized that the egg and dairy industries were just as awful as the meat-producing industry. [I wish that had been in the Robbins book — he's probably written about this in one of his newer books. ]

I did buy into the "humanely raised" idea for several months. But I know in my heart that it is a lie. I've seen the pictures now and read what The Humane Myth people have to say. And now I've read your heartfelt, intelligent, and perfectly presented essay. I just can't ignore the truth. I CANNOT let animals suffer for my benefit.

So as of right now, I am a vegan. I just stood up in my living room and said that out loud!! I AM A VEGAN!!

Thank you for sharing your heart and your mind. I look forward to reading your past and future writing.

Nadine said...

Thank you for shining light on the illusion! When we bring awareness to such critical issues, we help others see through the fairy tale and see the reality.

Marla said...

Thanks, Val. And, oh, how I wish I were joking about the totem animal lady!

Marla said...

Thanks, Rhea. And now you are one of the most passionate voices for compassionate living. Look at what an influence you are having! It's amazing, a miracle really, how much we can change for the better.

Marla said...

Thank you for your kind words, Amber, and I very much relate personally to what you wrote. Years ago, a woman who volunteered where I worked (back when I worked in humane education) made all kinds of claims about "food animals" based on the fact that she grew up in "farm country." I was from the Chicago suburbs so anything I said in response was dismissed. There was no such thing as factory farms (this was back in the mid-90s, so it was easier to be ignorant) and, no, cows did not need to be pregnant to produce milk. This made no biological sense to me! I am not a scientist and I am not a farm kid but still, how would that make any sense?! Anyway, she argued it so vehemently that even though I would produce articles backing up what I'd said, she would just dismiss them out of hand as propaganda and I eventually stopped arguing with her. I relate all too well, Amber. The desire to delude ourselves is powerful stuff...

Marla said...

Hi, David -

Yep, I've heard that a million times! It's funny (?) how much we keep getting asked the same questions over and over.

Thanks for your feedback!

Marla said...

Hi, CQ -

Thank you for your very illuminating thoughts. As someone who has been an activist for the animals since the mid-90s, I can tell you that it is a sad state of affairs today. My heart just is heavy most days when I look at it. I am guessing that, as with the political landscape, we just need to keep being truth-tellers and justice seekers -- we need to stop looking for leadership elsewhere. We need to be our own leaders. Thanks for sharing your insights, CQ, and for all you are doing to help the animals. You are making a difference!

Marla said...

Thank you, Leslie! Your restaurant looks amazing! I was only in Asheville once years ago but it's a lovely community. Plant looks like it would be a wonderful addition. What a fantastic menu! Thanks for all you are doing to build a more compassionate world.

Marla said...

Thank you, Proud Womon, and thanks for all you do!

Marla said...

Oh, Carolyn. You have made my heart so happy! Thank you for your honesty: we all started somewhere, we all have a path. It is not easy to tease out the truth when there are so many vested interests blocking us from it. I have a feeling you are going to be a great advocate for the animals, given your background. Thanks for your courage and honesty!

Marla said...

Thank you, Nadine! All we can do sometimes is keep shining a light. Thanks for all you do!