Friday, September 18, 2009
The switch inside...
If you have been vegan for any significant length of time, you have undoubtedly asked yourself several vexing questions during your tenure. You may have wondered why your mother persistently mispronounces the word, nearly fifteen years later. (Or maybe that’s just me.) You may have speculated over why the omnivorous world seems to view you as a priest in a confessional as they lay their souls bare about their flesh-eating ways (“It-is-not-much-it-is-just-fish-I-tried-to-do-the-vegetarian-thing-but-just-couldn’t-resist-my-grandma’s-brisket”) seeking absolution, like you are some sort of God proxy figure. And then there is the Eternal Question, the one that has nagged at us since the word vegan was first coined by that English gentleman in 1944. It usually sounds something like this: what makes me different from my omnivorous and even vegetarian friends? Why do I tick when they tock? How can I see something so very clearly when it remains obscured to my friends, my family? Further, why do I see this when others do not and how can I get them to see it, too?
We all have friends who are so progressive in every other way but for whom the diet part of the equation does not factor in much. They eat whatever is in front of them, no or few questions asked. But then there are those who are aware of their consumption habits within the context of what they eat. They may scrupulously avoid food that is out of season or shipped too far or artificial or over-packaged or produced by horrible companies, Many even will avoid the most infamously torturous “delicacies” like veal and foie gras, but the line they will not cross is a broad one and one that is very clearly rolled out in front of them. The line is more of a wide gulf, really, and it separates the vegans (a.k.a., The Crazies) from everyone else (a.k.a, The Sane Ones). Vegans have good intentions but they take it too far, they may say or broadly hint. We are absolutists, extremists, people who wake every day with the sole purpose of wrecking everyone else’s good time. My question is this: when we are trying to live our lives with integrity and a certain measure of consistency, veganism could be seen as the natural extension of a general point-of-view, an intuitive conclusion to draw when taking into consideration one’s whole path and perspective, right? It would be ignoring the elephant in the room for many of us to not adopt a vegan lifestyle. It is rooted in the same desire to live compassionately and mindfully, therefore it would be radical and extreme to pretend that it wasn’t natural. It entirely natural if you are trying to live compassionately, are concerned about social justice, believe in your power to effect positive change.
Knowing this further compounds the confusion I feel when those who are so clearly on a similar path as mine take an entirely divergent route right exactly here, where how we live our lives and food intersect. It is as though we were walking along together, really enjoying one another’s company, compatible as peas in a pod until my feet just want keep following the path – the one that seems to be the most natural one – and my non-vegan friends take an abrupt turn and bid me adieu. “You’re on your own with this one, friend. Good for you but not for me,” they say as they skip off and I am left baffled once again. I can think of so many examples right off the top of my head and after almost fifteen years of wondering about this, I am no closer to understanding it. There are friends who won’t purchase any new clothing because they don’t want to support the brutality of the sweatshop industries. They are not vegan. There are people I know who will go on a hunger strike at the drop of a hat to draw attention to the military violence overseas. When they resume eating, they eat the product of violence. There are feminists, artists, freedom seekers, peace workers, culture jammers of all variety who actively reject the consumerist-patriarchal-military-industrial-you-name-it complex but feel no conflict with eating animals and even more who do feel that inner-tug but decide to live with it anyway. How is it that our moral compasses are so out-of-synch on this single issue, but return to being coordinated once we leave it? I know that people disagree all the time on core issues – we all have our own path, it is part of what makes us unique, blah blah blah- however when things are lined up to point in a certain direction, and then that direction takes what seems to be a random, hairpin turn, it is only natural to look back and say, What on earth just happened there? Where did you go?
Except it’s not really accurate to say that I am totally confused because I do have an idea, even if it’s fuzzy and only a metaphor. I tend to think of vegans as having had their switch turned on. Imagine the switch as the mechanism that turns on a light. Either it’s the kind of switch that turns on a blast of light at once (the equivalent of a mental epiphany) or it’s a dimmer switch, slowly illuminating a room over time (the equivalent of a slow dawning). This light switch reveals the arbitrariness, brutality and injustice of our dominion over non-humans. Occasionally people have the light switch engaged but then decide that they no longer want to see all that it exposes, or that they still do see but it doesn’t affect them the same way any longer. (They can see but have turned off the corresponding feeling switch.) For most of the vegans I know, though, I would say that once that light switch turned on – either as an epiphany or a slow dawning or somewhere in between – it is stuck on. From that point on (the point being where recognition leads to an inner- and outer-transformation) our new perspective has fundamentally altered us. The veil has been removed and we can clearly see. The challenge is in coexisting with those for whom the practice of eating animals is still shrouded, either intentionally or unintentionally, and that we are asked to suspend seeing what we do so the rest of the world can continue maintaining the status quo, which is that animal parts and products are neutral and harmless, no different than broccoli or apples or kidney beans. To us, this is being complicit in a deception we have already identified and rejected.
So this is how I’ve come to think about vegans, as patronizing as it may very well be to omnivores: somewhere along the line, our lights were switched on. This doesn’t mean about everything, that we are above reproach in all matters. It also doesn’t mean that I think omnivores are entirely in the dark, Gollum-like creatures lurking in the shadows. I don’t think this, never thought that. (Okay, there was probably a period in the spring of 1995 when I did, but no longer.) Vegans are just regular people who have our lights switched on. Once the light switched on, we made changes accordingly. We can be approachable and helpful, but it is a tall order to ask us to pretend not to see what is plainly obvious to us.
How do we activate this switch in another? We can’t. We can leave a trail of clues to locating that switch but the other person’s hand has to be on it herself. You cannot force anyone’s hand, you can just sort of coax it along.
Helping others find their light switches is our work.