Over the weekend, we saw Lincoln. I am always embarrassed by how little I know of this critical time in U.S. history, so shot through with upheaval. After seeing the film, I was especially struck by the character of Thaddeus Stevens, someone I knew nothing about, played with a fiery but believable zeal by Tommy Lee Jones.
Thaddeus Stevens was chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means committee and a key Radical Republican; by all accounts, he was consumed with such a profound and visceral contempt for slavery, roiled by the thought of it, that he made it his life’s work to eradicate it. Today, it’s easy to take an emphatic moral position against slavery: is there even any reasonable counter-argument? In the 1860s, though, with much of the country in ruins, no end in sight to the horrific combat and hundreds of thousands of deaths already tallied, it was not such an easy political stance, nor was racial equality considered a given. This was a pivotal time in American history, one where the United States could have easily fissured, but President Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens (among others) remained deeply committed to getting the 13th Amendment ratified on the Constitution.
Imagine the pressure. Imagine the misgivings. Imagine the nights of sleepless anguish.
There were many times in watching the film that I saw clear parallels to the uphill battle vegan activists face in our struggle to have 98% of the population consider the rights of others on moral grounds. There seem to be some obvious similarities to the obstacles abolitionists faced. For example, those who wanted to maintain the status quo depicted the anti-slavery campaigners as ridiculous, dangerous and worse. White people were born with the right to own slaves as part of their natural prerogative, after all, ordained by God. (Even many of those who didn’t keep slaves still didn’t want to believe that slaves were as human as they were.) Similarly, vegan advocates are often characterized as ridiculous, dangerous and worse by those who want to maintain the status quo of animal exploitation and use. Further, people of faith and atheists alike consider that it’s a given that animals are ours to eat and use as we see fit. Whether they say that this was what God decreed or they say, well, sorry but that’s the way things are (in so many words), the bottom line is the same: the animals are ours and we have every right to them. Interestingly, some justifications were also similar, for example, the attitude among anti-abolitionists that they were doing it for the good of the slaves, a kind of benevolence: what would all those feeble-minded slaves do if they were suddenly freed? They would not be able to fend for themselves, to feed themselves. Today, we hear the same flawed rationalization for maintaining animal agriculture. If we no longer killed animals for food, they would not only overwhelm our resources and land, they wouldn’t be able to care for themselves.
I am not one who likes to compare historic or contemporary tragedies to each other and say that one is the equivalent of the other. I believe that this cheapens the suffering and diminishes the individuality of those who have been oppressed. When a sentient being is in anguish, the suffering is uniquely experienced by that individual. For this reason, I don’t like saying what the animals experience is like slavery or the Holocaust. This is not because “they’re just animals” but because I think that doing so over-simplifies the specific anguish the individuals suffered, whether human or otherwise. I do think that there are parallels, though, with slavery: the concepts of ownership, of sovereignty, of emphasizing the powerful majority’s “right” to the entitlements they want to preserve versus the right of those not so endowed to simply live their own lives. In short, the chilling mentality of exceptionalism.
The essential questions we have to ask of ourselves are also eerily similar: Where do we draw the line in regards to another’s rights and why do we draw them there? Are the relatively small forfeitures we make in order to end our role in harming another really tantamount to giving up our supposed rights? Is something truly a right or did we inherit it due to existing power structures that unjustly favor us?
The unfair and unnecessary brutality against animals is not going to end unless the world begins to think in moral terms about something as seemingly benign as ordering a chicken salad sandwich. In the 1860s and before, it was considered laughable to think of the lives of the slaves working the field and the moral implications of saying that another being belongs to someone else. Today, we are told the same about the animals people like to eat and exploit. Why? To live with honesty and integrity, there are times when we have to make uncomfortable reckonings with ourselves.
I truly believe that this is our social justice movement of the day. Our blatant and unspoken acceptance of the human domination of other animals is something that the overwhelming majority of people don’t want to face. If some comparisons make us feel uncomfortable, though, that may be a signal that it is something to explore. Within this discomfort, we can reveal a painful truth: there are more similarities than differences between the mentality that allows for slavery and the mentality that allows for eating animals than many of us would care to admit.