Friday, May 31, 2013

The Messengers

There was an interesting program on our local public radio station on Memorial Day. It was an hour long, broken up into segments, but the part that interested me most was about war veterans, particularly soldiers and photographers, and the difficulties they face finding people who are willing to acknowledge their experiences back home. The sense they get is that the public - meaning civilians - may ask about it, but they don’t really want to know about the devastation and brutality in honest, unflinching detail. 

During the program, I couldn’t help but find parallels to the animal liberation movement and the courageous people who are working to bring what is largely concealed, mythologized or abstracted to the public view. It seems that our larger culture is able and at times even eager to acknowledge dark times from our collective past that we have now evolved beyond (for example, slavery) but when exposed to the horrors that are being inflicted in their name in the present-tense (for example, current wars or violence against animals), most people shut down. They cover their ears, sometimes literally. They turn away. If the violence is happening in this moment, painful feelings of personal complicity or guilt arise. The emotions that people cannot face or reconcile drive them to want to silence or avoid the messenger, covertly and sometimes overtly.

This reveals something unfortunate about human beings, of course, and how we would prefer to live in denial rather than face the reality of our choices, but it also reveals something encouraging: that our essential instinct is one that is not welcoming to violence. For vegan activists, we have an added challenge to overcome and it’s a big one: it is one thing to feel guilt by association because of a war one’s country is involved in, but it takes on a much more unavoidable implication of personal responsibility when it comes to one’s own role in perpetuating violence. By accepting the oppression of animals because our preferences for taste or convenience undermines our deeper values, we are tacitly but unmistakably saying that violence is acceptable to us. It is no wonder that people shut down when presented with the unvarnished truth about the horrors we inflict upon animals. When confronted with our own culpability with a violent system that we are at odds with, it’s understandable that many people would rather reach for far-fetched, deeply deceptive fairy tales about happy cows and contented chickens than put themselves through a much less forgiving internal reckoning.

As messengers of something that is difficult to face, much less accept, how are we supposed to get over this resistance? Individuals acting in conflict with their values have a vested interest in not facing the reality of their actions, and it’s a pretty powerfully motivating one. It’s a matter of self-respect. How can we tell ourselves that we are kind, compassionate, loving and so on when we maintain habits that are deeply in conflict with this? And this is where the wall that vegan advocates need to scale comes up. As if family traditions, social pressure, big business, government collusion and institutional reinforcement weren’t enough to overcome, we have that very influential personal motivator, too, to circumvent. We have guilt.

On the radio program I heard, the panel did not offer pithy solutions to overcoming the challenges war veterans face when returning home, they simply acknowledged that this drive of the public to avoid or try to control the message of those returning is a very real thing. As activists, we have also heard many different versions of this unwillingness to hear, ranging from “I don’t want to know!” to “Couldn’t you just focus on the positive things? You’re too negative.” These are examples of people attempting to silence or restructure the message from those of us who are trying to get the public to understand the reality of what is happening. Most cannot handle it.

So what do we do? How do we chip away at this massive wall, cracked and crumbling in some places but still mammoth?

There are no simple answers and there is no one approach. The radio program host asked a guest if there was something intrinsically wrong with portraying a war as it was happening and the guest responded, “Well, we’ve never really done it...I think what you’ve got is a public that’s basically embarrassed by what’s going on and doesn’t want to look at it.” They are embarrassed. They don’t want to look. This makes sense. What we need to show people is that there is an alternative to covering their ears and their eyes, an alternative to guilt or shame, one where they can take their power back as conscious individuals who are living in alignment with their values.

Given this, I believe that we need to find a multitude of entry points because what might make one person shut down, could make another person think, and that person who has shut down could be more open with a different approach. I’ve said this before but I believe it in my core: we need artists and nutritionists, scholars and leafletters, architects and poets, piano tuners and bakers to get the word out. Most of all, we need to be smart, creative and adaptive with our outreach. We’ve also got to see that most of the people who are not there yet - the ones who shut down when we try to talk to them - are essentially good people and they are reaching for what they can to avoid an internal crisis. We need to have empathy with them and help them through to the other side because if we just hit and run, most will just retreat to a more comfortable, safe place. Why wouldn’t they? We have a difficult message, one full of triggers and the potential of doors slamming shut on us, but also one that carries within it an accessible solution that someone can begin at any moment.

We are the messengers. The responsibility and power of this cannot be underestimated, which is all the more reason why we need to be smart and thoughtful with our messaging. 


  1. Inspiring post! I find it utterly frustrating to be in this situation (veganism, sexism, racism, war, you name it...). Its hard not to just give up.

  2. Yes... This is a massive wall of denial to chip away at. But thankfully it also has a very thin veneer. More of everything from every angle will surely bring it down. Let's all stay at it - Diversify. Unify. Educate. Liberate. Over time we can surely do this. ;)

  3. I often lately feel like shutting down, too (too much NPR and Facebook). One approach - which worked on me and so hopefully it would work on others - is the realization that there is little or nothing I can do about many bad things that happen, but changing my eating and purchasing habits IS totally under my control, and is something easy, tangible and valuable that I can do every day to make the world a better, kinder place. Which is what you just said, of course! ;-)

  4. I was absolutely shocked when I met an elderly neighbor in North Carolina who'd survived Auschwitz. He was a Catholic who'd served in the Polish Resistance, so there was no ant-Semitism that seemed to explain the total shut-down he and his wife described when his experience became known to other people. She said either people would act like they hadn't heard them, or they'd offer some lame, pathetic comment, like, "We all suffered during the war. We had to live on rations."

    So, yes, this reaction is ubiquitous. But someone eventually listened to the stories of women whose husbands were beating them before divorce became legal (or wife-beating was made a crime) and of slaves enduring hell on earth in the American South. And, there's Holocaust museums, movies, etc. But change comes so slowly for the victims, making is so difficult to be someone who cares deeply. Thanks for this post!


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