Wednesday, September 24, 2014
On Disunity and Fighting Dirty...
In writing this, it didn’t take long to remember why writing longhand is such a frustrating but also uniquely rewarding experience. Once you get past the self-loathing that stems from not being able to write just one decent sentence, there is the delicious fsssst! of ripping out pages from a notebook and crumbling them up - viciously and with a hiss or growl or sometimes both - as I did recently with this, starting and stopping and tossing draft after draft into the recycling. After so many fits and starts, I realized that it was the tip-toeing around that made the thorny subject I circled around more jagged and intimidating, and the only way around it was through it, thorns and all.
So, in that spirit, it goes something like this: I’ve noticed that vegans seem to really kind of love to hate each other. Perhaps you’ve noticed this, too. This animosity is nothing new but these days it’s so much more intense, perhaps accelerated by more of a multitude of approaches, definitely fanned by the limitations of social media. The question I run up against is why can’t we disagree with one another, even emphatically, and not be jerks about it. Why must it so often become personal and turn to the vituperative? For people who are so repulsed by violence that we’ve altered our lives to minimize contributing to it, we turn to personal evisceration with an astounding readiness.
As vegans, we are promoting a crucial cause, one that is so invigorating and forward-thinking it still gives me goose bumps and one that matters so much to so many that the word “cause” is hopelessly ill-fitted for its scope; with it we have invaluable opportunities to grow and create lasting change that can ripple out to produce so much good. So often, though, instead of seeing people put courageous, hard work into effecting change, what I see is behavior that is as loud and puerile as toddlers fighting over who gets a turn on the playground swing next: I see puffed-up chests and bravado, I see posturing and platitudes, I see character assassinations and casual cruelties. I see people squandering the position we own for being on the right side of history and I see us fragmenting into tinier and tinier units until I wonder if it’s possible to subdivide into even smaller numbers.
Division was never my thing, though, and neither is allegiance politics. So where does today’s fixation on take-no-prisoners, “with me or against me” mud-flinging in the vegan movement leave people like me? Increasingly, we are likely to go it alone.
Before I go any further, let me clarify what I am not saying: I am not asking for us all to get along. It is a waste of time to ask for unity because it’s simply not going to happen. This occurred to me the other day and while the thought initially depressed me, I have gained clarity and total acceptance about our lack of unity. The Hatfields and the McCoys and all their feuding offspring and a bunch of teenagers without texting privileges on lockdown together would have a better chance of finding peace together sooner. This is not me being pessimistic: I say this because we don’t necessarily have the same objectives, and, given that, despite having lots of common ground and significant areas of overlap, it’s understandable that we cannot find unity.
I am not even asking if we can’t all just agree to disagree. That isn’t going to happen either on a large scale because there are simply too many of us for that to happen, and, frankly, because there are some key strategic approaches that are irreconcilable to one another and deserve to be critically scrutinized. Agreeing to disagree shouldn’t be accepted by those who can’t stay silent about the disagreement. The way we change the things we don’t like is by creating new models, after all.
That being said, we need to be asking ourselves difficult questions, we need to be challenging our own comfort zones and become more creative, more effective communicators of our message. In the endless fighting, though, in the increasingly petty, internecine allegiance politics that grinds us down to dust as we try to prove who is right, I am wondering how the animals or the movement itself will see any immediate or even long-term benefits. We have a real problem with self-sabotage and dividing ourselves up into impossibly smaller and smaller factions until it’s clear that the ones benefiting are also the ones who profit from animal use.
I am reminded again of one of my first experiences with this divide-and-conquer mentality, of being a spectator at a meeting with a mediator as the once-popular vegetarian society in Chicago messily and loudly fell apart. In the middle of the room, with people shouting, threatening and pointing fingers, the poor mediator, who probably thought mediating a dispute between vegetarians would like watching a basket of kittens play with yarn, looked at the people gathered and said, truly incredulous, “This is how compassionate people act? I thought you were better than the rest of us. What hope does the rest of the world have then?” I was embarrassed, not for the disagreement but for the way that people were disagreeing.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a “can’t we all get along?” entreaty. This is a “can’t we be humane?” entreaty. The long and the short of it is this: we’re not going to have unity because the differences are too vast. While unity is not happening, though, could we fight less dirty? Can we give one another space to do our own work without making it ugly and personal? Most important, could we just focus on what we do best and do it? I think if we give up on the pursuit of unity and focus instead on personal effectiveness, the vegan movement, the animals and the planet will all be better off.