Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ten Reasons Why This Broccoli is More Appealing Than This Plate of Bacon

1. Unlike pigs, this broccoli never had its ears notched, its tail docked, its teeth clipped with pliers or was forced to undergo castration without anesthesia. Broccoli doesn’t have ears, tails, teeth or genitalia and it does not possess sentience as we define it.

2. Unlike pigs, this broccoli never had to endure multiple forced impregnations, babies taken from it shortly after their birth and living in narrow structures that restrict full movement. None of these would be replicable to a broccoli.

3. Unlike pigs, this broccoli is not producing an enormous quantity of fecal waste that is being collected in poorly regulated lagoons that spill over and pollute our groundwater. You can observe a broccoli plant all night and all day and you will not find evidence of it urinating or defecating.

4. Unlike pigs, this broccoli is not fed crops that are sprayed with chemicals, which then leech into and spill over into our waterways, creating dead zones in the world’s oceans. Broccoli does not consume feed.

5. Unlike pigs, this broccoli is not regularly given a cocktail of antibiotics and other drugs to keep it from getting sick in overcrowded, unhygienic surroundings. Broccoli does not get sick.

6. Unlike pigs, this broccoli is not trucked in extreme, crowded conditions that exacerbate suffering to slaughterhouses. Broccoli does not have sentience and thus does not suffer in observable or verifiable ways, and it does not go to the slaughterhouse.  

7. Unlike pigs, when this broccoli is picked, it does not cry out, try to escape, bleed or convulse. Skin, hair, organs and viscera do not need to be removed. Broccoli is simply picked. 

8. Unlike pig farming, growing broccoli is not an indisputably major factor contributing to climate change, which has a ripple effect on everyone, with negative repercussions felt most harshly in the developing world. Broccoli production does not contribute to climate change.

9. Unlike pig farming, broccoli is not given feed that, in order to be produced, has taken over valuable landmass with the mono-crops required to produce abundant cheap meat. Broccoli is simply grown. 

10. Unlike pig’s flesh, broccoli does not contribute to clogged arteries, obesity and other maladies that are linked to suffering, disease and shortened life spans. Broccoli is actually considered a food that contributes to human wellness.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

An Open Letter to the Facebook Commenter Who Said that Vegans Are Hippie Fascists

Dear angry guy,

I am guessing that it felt gratifying for you to come to our Facebook page and expose vegans as hippie fascists who are trying to ram our extremist, hardline agenda of consideration and compassion down your innocent throat. I am imagining that you sat up a little taller, your chest puffed out a little more proudly, and you maybe even uttered a sassy little riposte like, “Top that, tree-huggers!” as you hit the return key. Oh, burn. You caught us. We’ve pulled off the nearly impossible by managing to be both hippies and fascists simultaneously (“You will buy me a pack of the very best sandalwood incense and you will like it,”) but we weren’t able to sneak past by the likes of you. You’ve exposed our so-secret-we’re-not-even-trying-to-hide-it-that’s-how-sneaky-we-are agenda: We are going to stomp on your rights and oppress the ever-loving daylights out of you. Ooooh, you are going to be so flipping oppressed when we get done with you. But first, we will disband the U.N., NATO and the ACLU, then we’re going to put all your human rights through an enormous paper shredder (and we are going to cackle as we do it) and then we will stomp on your shredded rights. Finally, we will pour stinky, hippie-certified patchouli oil over the shredded mass that was once your personal rights and we will set it all ablaze because that is how hippie fascists roll. (Oh, we should probably have a drum circle, too, since we’ve got a good bonfire going and, as hippies, we cannot resist.)

That’s right: We are an army of highly organized, powerful and sadistic bohemians who tyrannize humanity with our bunny hugging and constant chugging of green smoothies.

Given that you clearly have our number, one has to wonder why you walked into our den so ill-prepared. On the one hand, you think that we’re all writing our own terrifyingly menacing manifestos (I call dibs on “Mein Kale”), organizing our troops of joy-crushers, green dry-cleaning our grim uniforms and on the other hand, you characterize us as dreamy idealists. Why do you do this? It seems unwise. 

I will concede that some of us are hippies (the hippie population within veganism is holding steady at approximately 19%, give or take five percentage points according to the most recent Gallup national poll) so it makes sense at this point to simply examine and address the vegans’ putative fascist tendencies. According to my Oxford Concise English dictionary, this is the definition of Fascism, n. “1 The totalitarian principles and organization of the extreme right-wing nationalist movement in Italy (1922 - 43). 2 (also fascism) a) any similar nationalist and authoritarian movement. b) (loosely) any system of extreme right-wing or authoritarian views. Fascist, n. & adj. (also fascist). I think we can safely rule out the first definition, though the Italian vegans of 1922 - 1943 will have to speak for themselves. Reading the definition, I am going to venture that it is the aspect of “authoritarianism” connected with fascism that is the specific charge levied against us. So this is the definition of authoritarian: adj. & n. “1 Favoring, encouraging, or enforcing strict obedience to authority, as opposed to individual freedom. 2 Tyrannical or domineering. n. A person favoring absolute obedience to a constituted authority.

Apparently we are authoritarians and we are really, really lousy at it. Pitiful! Maybe it’s our hippie nature winning out, but we are supposed to be cracking our pleather whip at all the omnivores and forcing them to follow a joyless diet of steamed cardboard with tears gravy, yet where are we? Rocking out at a measly two percent of the population, barely able to get our parents to understand that we don’t “eat around” dead bodies in the Thanksgiving stuffing, and being served a boiled broccoli plate at the catered annual office holiday party. How is that for a domineering, tyrannical authority figure?

Clearly, we suck at it.

It would maybe make sense at this juncture for vegans to re-assess if we want get that fascist regime off the ground better by honing our latent autocratic tendencies. I think it’s time to study another group and see if we can get that whole brutal despot thing going a little bit more effectively. I think I have the perfect one.

Let’s see: We could develop entrenched systems that keep billions of sentient beings subjugated in order to serve another population and have that industry be underwritten by the government. We could impose our will on their freedom of movement, their bodies, their reproduction and their capacity to raise their own offspring. We could force them to eat food that is not chosen for their digestive systems but to help them reach market weight the quickest. We could keep them locked in a cycle of reproduction until they are considered worth more dead than alive. We could be in control of the method and timing of their slaughter. We could sell their product or flesh and financially benefit from it. We could create an industry that has a proven detrimental ripple effect on human health, water, air, and climate, for starters. We could do all that.

Are you really sure this is the direction you want to go with your argument? Or should I conclude that you’re just pulling random insults out of your ass and you don’t really know what you’re talking about?

I think I’m going with that.


Your favorite hippie fascist

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Language of Love in So Many Words

“The Eskimo has fifty names for snow because it is important to them; there ought to be as many for love.” - Margaret Atwood

When I was very young, love meant many things but perhaps this was when I felt it most: whenever my grandparents came to our house. The tightening in my chest, the happy jitters, and, finally, the sheer combustive, ebullient joy when the sea green Chevrolet pulled up and it was finally them, my grandmother carrying her pocketbook, my grandfather with his adorable, flat-footed shuffle. I loved that purse, that shuffle, and I charged out the door like a panting golden retriever whenever their car pulled up: pure bliss.

Love was also felt on the epic firefly chasing expeditions that turned into sleepovers with my best friend; whenever my sketch pad, charcoal pencil, brain and hand transported me somewhere new; running through the field behind our house, which, in retrospect, was a pretty plain place that became transformed by my lens into the lush meadow of poppies from The Wizard of Oz. Love prior to, say, the fourth grade, was experienced as the pure, unfiltered expression of joy running through my little body.

As I got older, life and love got more complicated, as it does. Love wasn’t what I thought it was, apparently: love was what I read about with disbelieving eyes in Cosmopolitan magazine, it was found in the convoluted, tangled plot twists on All My Children. Love was what I overheard the older girls whispering about in the high school bathroom when I was supposed to be in World History: it was wild, a little scary, and being in it was your ticket out of the tacky juvenile jungle.

The first time I free-fell smack-dab into the sticky spider’s web of love-love, I was 19. In hindsight, I’m certain that I was ridiculous but that’s part of love -- we become ridiculous. I‘m pretty sure that that spring, I skipped down every sidewalk and, in my imagination at least, butterflies seemed to always be flitting around me, songbirds serenading me personally wherever I went. Whenever the phone rang, my heart almost pounded out of my chest. I imagined the first time he would meet my parents, what our apartment would look like (a beautiful vintage building with a courtyard and wood floors and potted herbs growing on our windowsill), our wedding. Our wedding band. My dress. Our song. The honeymoon. And...we broke up after two months.

But love was also the sweet guy with the big smile, the one who couldn’t play mind games if he tried, the one who I didn’t need to tiptoe around. We have this cultural trope of love as a big, nauseating roller-coaster of ecstasy-and-despair (thank you, Emily BrontĂ«) and sometimes it is but sometimes, blessedly, it’s not. Sometimes love is someone who adores you just as you are. Sometimes love doesn’t inspire you to write bad poetry or sit outside an apartment building just to watch the lights go on and off. Because it’s soon to be Valentine’s Day, I am thinking about love in all of its permutations and expressions, which includes the inter-species kind, a variety I’ve found to be no less emotionally gratifying than romantic love. Especially as I’ve gotten older, love has become more and more uncomplicated, back to that simple, pure experience of blissed-out joy I felt as a child. Sometimes animals help me to connect with that most.

This was Lenny. He will have been gone twelve years this March and I still think of him pretty much every day. It took me years to not expect to see him when I got home, even after we moved to a new one. Meeting Lenny was like meeting someone I immediately recognized as being from my own tribe and that is a true rarity. When I got off the train after work, I would rush down the streets, so excited to return to his side, see those enormous cafĂ© au lait eyes, that whole body wag, that deliciously soft muzzle I couldn’t resist. With my husband, we were a family. The three of us meandered down Route 66 one dusty September, we slept on the balcony together whenever it was too hot inside and he was also at my side when I had a miscarriage before my son was born. Lenny used to lie with his paws on my chest, staring into my eyes and licking my face with an intensity that made me a little woozy. The day he died, Lenny looked at me with cloudy, old man eyes full of love and devotion and I was struck by his expression because it was exactly how my grandfather used to look at me, an unguarded look that said so much. It was a pure love we felt for each other and remains why I cannot accept the notion that we only feel that way for other people. 

Part of what made our relationship so rewarding is the same thing people express about their beloved companion animals all around the world: it is not complicated by human emotions and psychological games, it’s pure, simple, not messy. Is it any wonder that as our lives become more complicated with social media, more isolated with technology and more preoccupied with responsibilities, we would seek these sustaining, enriching but undemanding relationships that give so much in return?

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and rarely saw animals other than dogs, cats, birds, squirrels and the occasional chipmunk so the first time I went to an animal sanctuary in the mid-1990s, it was a revelation. I was already vegan but being in the company of these animals - sheep, cows, roosters luxuriating in their freedom on those rolling California hills - confirmed for me that what I felt for them wasn’t just theoretical. I genuinely loved these animals and not just the idea of them; my heart swelled in their company. These animals were different from Lenny in that they were not a part of my life: how could I love those beings I hadn’t met before and would probably not meet again? Doesn’t using the word “love” to apply to strangers cheapen the meaning of the word?

I don’t think so.

When we are vegans, we have unlocked that part of our hearts that is normally closed off. It would serve to reason that when we open up the parameters of whom we love, we also have a more expansive understanding of why and how we love. Why are we speaking out against cruelty? Why are we revoking our own privileges? Why do we risk outing ourselves as unstable, bunny-hugging, dirt worshipers? Because we love. It doesn’t have a to a gushy I-want-to-rub-my-face-in-your-muzzle love; it’s love on its own terms. It’s as simple and straightforward as than that and, as we know, a prevailing characteristic of love is that it operates by its own wisdom. Whether we are talking about the one we plan our futures with, the dog we greet when we come home at the end of the day, the babies we nurture, or the first turkey we sit together at the sanctuary with, love is love is love. I think that part of why people have a hard time fathoming us as vegans is because they cannot fathom loving in this expansive way.

Margaret Atwood was right; there ought to be more words for describing the kinds of love we feel. As vegans, we are expanding the parameters of whom and how we get to love. Love can be messy and complicated but it can also be simple and just as heartfelt. We are vegans because we love, whether they have two legs or four, arms or wings, skin or fur. We are vegans because we love.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Radical Storytelling: Capturing Hearts and Minds with Stories That Resonate

Your tale, sir, would cure deafness.” - William Shakespeare, The Tempest

I can’t remember most facts to save my life. This is a shortcoming of mine and it certainly showed itself up on my report cards growing up. A compelling story, however, will bore itself into me like the best sort of tick. Once it’s the story is attached to me, it’s impossible to remove; it’s become absorbed. We can cite all the data we want but at the end of the day, I believe that the stories we tell - richly woven, personal, evocative, transcendent, empathetic - are what influence the people around us the most, becoming part of us.

With our vegan advocacy, we own the vast majority of the significant arguments in favor of moving away from eating animals. We own the ethical debate, we own some very powerful environmental statistics, we own a good deal of the persuasive health arguments. Why then do so many of our attempts to successfully communicate our message misfire? There are myriad simple and complex reasons why people might ignore or push back against our attempts to advocate, ranging from anxiety about change, defensiveness that is outside of our control, or poor communication skills on our part, but I believe that we can overcome obstacles when we learn to meet people where they are at and tell the stories that they find compelling. We actually own the arguments. Now let’s tell the stories better.

We are a species with multiple tools at our disposal for communication - from spoken word to the visual arts to dance to music - for a reason; essentially, our forms of communication have a common root of sharing a story in direct and abstract ways. Stories penetrate us. The best stories can create a shared, universal experience out of a personal, unique one and the reverse is also true. Stories help us to transcend our own skin and see things, including our own lives, through a fresh lens. Along the way, they move us, influence us, make us double over in laughter or collapse into tears. We return to the most compelling stories again and again, in our thoughts and in our words, and as we do, we are changed and we change the world around us. I believe that the stories we tell are our richest resource and currency as communicators of the vegan message and that we are barely scratching the surface of our potential.

When we move others through our stories, we have unlocked part of someone’s heart.

Our goal is a lofty and deeply challenging one: to encourage people to reconsider how they conceive of other animals, and, in this reconsideration, determine that other animals are as deserving of respect and protection as humans. It isn’t enough to change one’s behavior, though: through this radical revaluation of our place in the world, the goal is that people will decide to change their mindset to embrace the principles and practice of compassionate living. We are asking people to willingly give up their privileges, their family customs and their comfortable habits for the sake of others. There is no enforcement here. No one is doing anything illegal. This is grounded in good faith, altruism and kindness for the sake of itself.

I think we can agree that this is a hard sell. Given that, let’s compare two approaches and see what is more moving, relatable and empowering. 

“Sixty billion land animals are killed worldwide for food. In the U.S. alone, it’s 10 billion. (This does not include aquatic animals, which are killed in even higher numbers.) Of the 10 billion killed in the U.S., well more than 99% of the animals are raised in an industrial setting. The 10 billion land animals consume two-thirds of the nation’s grain, one half of the nation’s water, one-third of the nation’s landmass and one-third of the nation’s fossil fuel. Animal agriculture is considered a leading cause of climate change. This is why you should go vegan.” 


“It all started when I saw a truck transporting pigs to slaughter on the highway. I’d never given what I ate much thought except on that one day, my dog Sally happened to be sitting in the passenger’s seat. On the other side of her, I could see the the pigs looking out through the tiny little slats in the metal as the truck drove past. I could see snouts and shapes but what really struck me was a pair of eyes I could see through the slats. I looked at the dog I loved so much, and back to the eyes when something struck me: Sally’s eyes looked just the same as that pig’s. They were so expressive. I couldn’t shake having seen those pigs for the rest of the day - they looked scared, confused, but maybe even a little hopeful for breathing the fresh air, seeing the sky. They looked just like my dog would have under the same circumstances. From there, the more I learned about what we do to animals, the less I could contribute to their suffering, and the more I learned, the less I was able to deceive myself. This was why I went vegan.”

In one example, we are barraged with facts and statistics that are so depressing, they can easily make us feel overloaded and disempowered. A common response to feeling overloaded and disempowered is hopelessness and giving up. This is a massive industry, reinforced by history and industry, governments and our own attachments, and it is all we’ve known. Given this, it’s easy to feel bombarded by depressing fact over devastating statistic and, as vegans, we often feel if we just keep shelling out as many truth-bombs as possible, something has to eventually hit our target. At what cost, though? 

In the second example, we are told a story. It is humble, honest and unguarded. It is relatable, it has something the listener can grab on to and filter through their own experience. It’s not lecturing; it’s not hectoring. It’s honest and simple but not boring: it’s told in a personal, vivid way that people can imagine in their own mind’s eye. The story didn’t tell someone how to think: it left that up to the listener, and simply illustrated how the storyteller thought.

The stories that touch us resonate. We return to them again and again. We think about them when we’re walking to school, when we’re in the bathtub, when we’re grocery shopping. The stories pull us to them because we are a communicative species and we make sense of the world around us and our place in it through stories: this is part and parcel of being human. We need to learn how to tell our stories better because, as we know, the facts are out there and they are compelling. What we need to do is get people to feel and disempowerment is the wrong route to go if we want them to not to turn off the capacity to feel. 

Facts, data, and statistics are essential to the big picture of influencing people. Essential. They ground our stories in reality, in something of substance, in the non-subjective. Our stories, ideally buttressed with select facts, will build the perfect structure, filled with the unique details that make it memorable but also the support beams that are so necessary for it to remain standing. How do we do this, though? How do we construct the stories we have in ourselves to make them move and inspire? That’s a big question. I have some thoughts and I will be sharing them in the coming weeks. In the meantime, have you ever been told a story that has changed your life? Have you ever told a story that changed someone else’s life? Please share in the comments.