This was the article I hoped I would never have to write. Every writer (journalists, mostly, although they are often delaying the inevitable) will occasionally find themselves in a tricky situation, in which they will be called upon to shine the light of truth and journalistic integrity into the darkness that reality often brings. In doing so, the author of the piece ought to know full well that a certain amount of pushback is due when he or she brings certain truths to the surface. We all have individuals and institutions we revere, often unquestioningly, and we find our hackles being raised when the aforementioned are brought under close scrutiny. My take on this currently developing issue, it should be noted, is certainly not the final say in the matter, nor should it be read as such. The following simply reflects my concerns about the situation at the present juncture in time, and offers a perspective of caution as the story develops.
In the past few years, I’ve come to appreciate and respect the work of the animal rights organization “Mercy for Animals”. The work that they’ve done concerning undercover investigations is to be praised, informing the public about the horrible realities that billions (yes, billions) of sentient beings face every year. In addition to working to document the abuses against animals, Mercy for Animals creates informational films about living a vegan lifestyle, helping to educate others about why its so important to be true to our own values of compassion, mercy, and kindness by leaving animals out of our diets.
While the above still holds true, a recent news story has caused to me reconsider my position concerning Mercy For Animals, and what they truly stand for. In early January, it was reported that Mercy for Animals had released horrific footage of piglets being subjected to unimaginable cruelty at an Oklahoma factory farm. After the release of the footage, Tyson’s public relations team swung into action and announced that they were ending their professional relationship with the slaughterhouse. Mercy For Animals praised this move on the part of Tyson Foods, proudly claiming “Progress for Pigs” on their website. On the surface, this all seems well and good. Tyson will no longer (as far as we know) be getting their pigs from this particular slaughterhouse, and Mercy For Animals appears to make progress in achieving a more humane standard.
Upon a more thorough inspection, this news is nothing if not completely absurd. On their personal website, Mercy for Animals mentions that they have “urged” Tyson Food to likewise “encourage” (not require) their suppliers to choose other methods of killing in accordance with the American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines. I knew very little about the AVMA, or their guidelines for killing (a rather gruesome act to have “guidelines” for) farm animals, so I did some investigating, and what I discovered was abhorrent. According to the AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals: 2013, the following is a list of approved methods for killing animals, farmed or otherwise:
-CO2 poisoning (gassing the animals)
-Blunt force trauma
Let us take a moment to consider the implications of what we’ve learned. Mercy for Animals has put their stamp of approval on “alternative” AVMA-approved methods of killing. They’ve encouraged Tyson to choose other AVMA methods of slaughter, and Tyson has made mention that they are considering making a change (which is certainly no guarantee that change will be made). And even still, the AVMA considers blunt force trauma to be an acceptable method of killing. We should note that the undercover video that MFA recorded dealt with piglets being subjected to blunt force trauma; if Tyson wished to, they could make a strong case that they were simply following AVMA approved guidelines for slaughter.
We need to ask ourselves honestly: do any of the above methods seem humane by any stretch of the imagination? Do any of them seem to be “progress for pigs”? I would believe the answer to be a firm “no”. Mercy for Animals could have said that this behavior by Tyson is unacceptable; they could have spent time, money, and energy focused on doing vegan education instead of working with the institutional supplier itself to create an arbitrary “change” which will only lead to an equally inhumane and cruel form of death for these sentient beings.
After a few years of writing about these issues, I’m no longer naive about the responses I’m most likely going to receive from well-meaning and otherwise upstanding individuals. They’ll ask me, “But shouldn’t we be doing all that we can for the pigs suffering right now?” “Isn’t this a step in the right direction?” “We can’t expect the world to go vegan overnight, you know”. My answer to those questions is simple: Yes, we should. No, it isn’t. And, of course I know the world isn’t going to go vegan overnight. Here’s the primary issue: if you’re a non-vegan, and you heart that Mercy for Animals has, for all intents and purposes, provided a veritable seal of approval on Tyson pork, will this cause you to eat more pork or less? If you’re a non-vegan, and you learn that Perdue might possibly be banning gestation crates in the next ten years or so, and that PETA has praised them for this, will this make you eat less meat or more? If you’re a non-vegan, and you notice that Whole Foods has begun using animal welfare rated products (wherein the animal might have just been decapitated instead of torn to pieces while alive, perhaps), are you going to strongly consider going vegan? Of course not.
If Mercy for Animals has a vision for a vegan world, then why are they condoning actions that merely serve to make the general public more comfortable with their habits? It makes no sense. Does it really, honestly matter in a moral sense if a sentient being is gassed or electrocuted? I would argue that it makes no difference whatsoever. In this real-life situation, Tyson receives a phenomenal amount of positive PR for their “high welfare standards”, and Mercy for Animals is allowed to declare “victory” and “progress for pigs”. Its a win-win for everyone. Except for the pigs themselves. If you continue to tell the public that this method or that method of slaughter is somehow “better”, you are not allowed to be concerned or frustrated that the world around you isn’t going vegan.
This story is still developing, but the information I researched was as up to date as recently as this week. If I’ve omitted a critical detail that someone spots, please feel free to inform me; I am as fallible as the next writer. But the driving force behind this peace is the concern that this story is similar to many other large animal rights organizations declaring “victory”, when in fact the institutions simply shift to another equally horrific form of slaughter, if they even shift at all. You’ll have to forgive me if I see this form of campaign as a waste of time. If we wish to realize the vision of a vegan world, it’s not going to come from us telling non-vegans that this particular pig was killed “humanely”, so thats ok. Encouraging any form of animal consumption will have a deleterious effect on our goal of realizing a compassionate world, and all of our advocacy (in my opinion) should be creative, non-violent forms of vegan education, which can come in so many wonderfully effective forms. Over the years, I’ve come to learn about so many individuals whose lives were changed when they shared a dialogue with someone who encouraged them to be true to their own values of compassion and mercy, which means going vegan as a matter of fundamental justice. This approach is honest, truthful, and very straightforward. Additionally, it respects the intelligence of the individual and their capacity to make these positive, life-affirming changes.
Will the world go vegan overnight? No. Will it take many, many more years to see a vegan world if we continue to support groups such as Mercy for Animals that encourage “humane” consumption? Absolutely. As a full disclosure, I support much of the work that Mercy for Animals does, but I cannot throw my support behind this campaign which (in my opinion) will simply bring more of the same for the animals involved. I certainly wouldn’t claim to have all the answers, but I am quite sure of one thing: We must choose a path that will achieve real results for the animals themselves, and that means choosing to advocate for veganism, not welfarism.
Within the (relatively small) circle of vegan authors, writers, and activists who grew up in a deeply committed Judeo-Christian community, there has existed a common thread that has connected the men and women from this group. The more I have studied this subculture, the more I have become aware of this binding commonality that we have shared in our past lives (I include myself in this category, as I was raised in a Southern Baptist culture). Norm Phelps, author of several works on the intersection of veganism and the world religions, details the aforementioned thread rather powerfully in the following selection from his book “The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible”:
“I grew up in a devout Southern Baptist family. Food was an important part of our church fellowship. On Sunday afternoons we would gather in the church social hall, or under the ancient oak trees in the church yard, to enjoy the feast that the ladies of the church had spread before us. Before the first plate was passed, we would bow our heads and fold our hands as the pastor offered thanks to God for the food that we were about to eat. The obscenity of thanking God for the suffering and death that were on our plates never occurred to any of us. We had all been corrupted, as had our church, by absolute power”.
Very much in the same vein as Phelps, I myself grew up deeply invested in the orthodoxy and the values of the culture I inhabited (as would be expected of most individuals, who adopt the habits and traditions of their immediate communities). Looking back on my upbringing, it was initially incredibly tempting to blame my religious heritage for giving credence to the idea that man may well do as he pleased with the “lower creatures”; that he may choose to destroy, instead of nurture and heal. And for a time, I harbored bitterness and resentment towards my upbringing, in this regard. I was under the false impression that it was religion, as an institution, that was fueling the fire of merciless cruelty towards our fellow sentient beings. After all, it is one thing for an individual to claim that it is simply his or her prerogative to consume the flesh or secretions of a fellow earthling. It is another matter entirely for that individual to claim that he or she has some sort of divine and eternal permission to act in a way that causes enormous and unnecessary suffering to creatures that can and do feel tremendous pain. The latter claim caused my blood to boil much hotter than the former, for whatever reason.
It’s rather tempting to lay the blame at the feet of the religious institutions in whose shadow many of us grew up in. They’re omnipresent, vocal, and deeply interwoven into the fabric of our cultures. And yet, to place the blame on this faith traditions is misguided. Dr. Will Tuttle, in his best-selling book “The World Peace Diet”, gently reminds readers that however eager we might be to cast blame on a particular culture, organization, or religious tradition, to do so would be to fire prematurely, so to speak. Speaking from an anthropological perspective, Dr. Tuttle reminds us that the herding culture emerged several thousand years ago, allowing this new paradigm of domination and subjugation to be created and built into almost all cultures and tribes alike, as well as the faith traditions of our ancestors. When we hear a believer speak of her desire and “right” to consume flesh, or we listen to a man of faith claim his divine “right” to use a living being however he wishes, we must not expend our energies on the minutiae of their faith, or wear ourselves out in attempting to understand the technicalities or verses where they believe the “right” lies within. In remembering that the overarching paradigm of domination and oppression extends far beyond the fairly recent advent of major world religions and faiths, we allow ourselves to have more compassion on those who feel extremely confident that their faith allows them to act in a manner that we consider deeply unethical and cruel. In keeping this perspective in mind, we give ourselves opportunities to practice thoughtfulness and consideration towards all people, regardless of their religious histories.
Vegans, by and large, exist within communities and societies that have yet to adopt a healthy, compassionate way of life as a general rule. I’m not certain this even needs to be said, but it occasionally helps to remind ourselves that our current state of being is a delicate balancing act. Quite naturally, we wish so very ardently that our friends, neighbors, and coworkers will begin to open their eyes to the realities that they’ve been shutting out for so many years. Our passion often leads us into delivering fiery monologues that deal with the nature of injustice, oppression, and shifting paradigms; and yet, we are all (at least most of us) aware of the fact that the core of our message (compassion, mercy, health, social justice, etc.) will be totally and completely lost if the way in which we communicate leans too far into the realm of unreasonable, vicious snarkiness and barbs filled with venom.
It is quite often that (due in large part to the conundrum listed above) animal activists find themselves a bit stuck, and anxious in regards to how they’re perceived in the community at large. On the one hand, their own state of veganism would lead us (rightly) to believe that they care more about justice and compassion more than they care about what opinions other people might draw about them. Yet, by the same token, they’re often very concerned about just how they’re coming across, for many possess a concern that they might lose a chance to plant a seed of compassion in the heart of an omnivore due to their style of communication or the manner in which they’re attempting to speak on behalf of the animals; if the latter is the case, the animals certainly lose in that scenario.
In response to this paradoxical situation, many vegans unintentionally reside in a state of homeostasis; not really willing to risk “losing” ground in a conversation about why veganism is necessary and important, as well as not wanting to outright offend a coworker or friend, many of us simply carry on with our lives, perhaps wanting to have a larger, more tangible impact on the world around us, but being unsure with how to best approach that rather complex issue.
While there may not necessarily be a “one size fits all” approach to solving this conundrum we all face, there is a general principle which we must remember in our interactions with those around us who may not yet be open to the truth quite yet. Malcolm Gladwell, in his new book “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, And The Art Of Battling Giants”, gently reminds us that all innovators, dreamers, and thinkers, throughout the course of human history, have insisted upon being disruptive in a manner that suits the greater good. When I use the term “disruptive”, I mean to employ it in the service of how we might understand innovators; we don’t consider them to be rude, unpleasant, or un-amenable, but rather we see their eccentricities as forgivable quirks. Gladwell considers disagreeableness to be a crucial trait of the innovator, an element which provides them with a “devil may care” attitude in the pursuit of something greater. whatever that passion might be. He writes,
“Society frowns upon disagreeableness. As human beings we are hardwired to seek the approval of those around us. Yet a radical and transformative thought goes nowhere without the willingness to challenge convention… If you worry about hurting people’s feelings and disturbing the social structure, you’re not going to put your ideas forward”.
While Gladwell is not speaking specifically about veganism, his message is timeless and perfectly applicable to the effort that vegans are attempting to make on behalf of their fellow man, animals, and the planet. Should we ever be rude, violent, condescending, or spiteful in our expression of the message? Absolutely not. I would never condone such an approach. But by the same token, should we be bold, straightforward, and willing to challenge the current paradigm with a sense of purpose? Absolutely, we should. The fate of so many sentient beings depends on us doing exactly that.
As a child, I was fortunate to be raised in a home where reason, analysis, and critical thinking were the languages by which we communicated truths to one another. My parents were, and are, to this day very religious people, yet they always insisted that their children discover truth for themselves and judiciously avoided the phrase “because I said so”, in regards to our adolescent inquiries. For some children, being raised in a household that was deeply spiritual was an experience many are desperate to forget, and some leave behind the family faith traditions, but with the encouragement and guidance of my parents, I was able to cultivate a sense of reason, and critical thinking, and perhaps even more importantly, a deep appreciation for the spiritual side of life.
When I was nearing the end of my final year of secondary education, being on the cusp of my eighteenth birthday, my father called in into his office in our home, and sat me down. This was not an uncommon practice; over the years, my father often communicated messages he deemed important for his children from the safety of his office, so that together, we were free to dialogue and discuss many controversial topics from a place of mutual respect and consideration for another point of view. My dad told he me loved me very much, and he wanted to impart a critical truth to me before I was to leave for university in the fall. In this instance, I cannot recall the exact words he used in our conversation, but the essence of his directive will always be preserved in my mind. He encouraged me, as he had over the years, to test and seek out the truth in the face of competing messages of materialism, consumerism, and vanities. He reminded me that much of the world has placed its trust in elements that will eventually crumble and fade away; he told me that if I invested in the lives of those around me, if I were to serve my community, if I was to grow in my spiritual journey, I would first have to test each message against the basis of what I knew to be true. Years later, I would find a message that helped to give structure to his advice, via the Reverend Andrew Linzey; he reminds us that the true ethical test of religion, faith, and spirituality must be this: is it helping to make us into more compassionate, kind, merciful, generous individuals? If upon self-reflection, finding our response to be in the negative, it would behoove us to reevaluate our spiritual journeys, and perhaps change our course.
Over the past two years, I have applied this advice, sound reasoning, and logic to my journey on the vegan path. My parents taught me how to think critically, and to peek behind the curtain, as it were, to discover the truth that is so often hidden in plain sight, if only we were to look for it with fresh eyes. And yet, the road I have traveled has been fraught with difficulties, to be perfectly honest. With respect to the practice of veganism itself, there has been nothing but ease, joy, and peace in my life. It is often said that being a vegan in and of itself is quite simple; the only difficulty one faces is found in relations with those who make up part of our lives. It is one thing to spread the message of compassion and kindness to strangers; admittedly, we find ourselves on occasion preferring to plant seeds on foreign soil, eschewing the land that we are all too familiar with: our friends, and our families.
Part 2 begins here (600 words only) When a stranger informs us that they are unmoved by the message of widening one’s circle of compassion, we may be disappointed; we may even find ourselves frustrated, confused, and downtrodden that this individual has yet to awake to the compassion they have within themselves. Yet, in my personal experience, the magnitude of these difficult realizations is much greater when it concerns those with whom we have lived, those with whom struggled with, those with whom we have broken bread with for so many years. It is perfectly natural to care deeply for our families; after all, they have made up a large part of our lives, for better or for worse. They have seen us through so much: our triumphs and victories, our struggles and our difficulties, our successes and our failures. They so often know us in a way that very few people do. Perhaps these ties, along with others, can make the realization that our parents, brothers, uncles, and sisters do not yet understand the joys of living in accordance with the values and beliefs we hold so near and dear to our hearts.
My father recently came to stay with me for a few days over the Christmas break. At the moment, he lives with my mother overseas, which means that our in-person visits tend to be few and far between. He was well aware of the fact, as was I, that we would inevitably be discussing veganism during his visit. As a lifestyle, and as a journey, veganism does not always resemble a religion, or a belief system, or other ideological frameworks, in the sense that one can perhaps keep to those beliefs in a private fashion; yet in the case of veganism, your stance on a non-violent, healthy, compassionate way of life is publicly manifested at least three times a day when you dine with others, who will most likely be curious as to why you are abstaining from something that seems perfectly normal, natural, and necessary to them (in the words of Melanie Joy).
When sharing a meal with your family, you’re doing much more than simply taking in calories in a collective space; you’re connecting with one another in a manner that extends beyond the table, beyond the physical realm of the dining room. Family traditions around food, for many people, have incredibly deep roots that reach into customs, ancestral traditions, and bonds that, for our non-vegan family members, often appear to hold members together as they share in a ritual that has been practiced since the beginning of time. As I came into veganism by way of health, initially, it was (in the eyes of my family) somewhat more acceptable to abstain from a particular item on the table due to health considerations (after all, most people are not going to attempt to make a case for the health benefits conferred to us via red meat), but it was another matter entirely if I preferred to sit in abstention on the grounds of morality and ethics.
Perhaps the reader may, at this juncture, be wondering where and when the “hill to die on” metaphor came about in regards to arguing a position, and how it may perhaps provide us with key insights into understanding the interrelational dynamics between family members where one is doing their best to live a live that minimizes harm, and the other is perhaps still wrestling to reconcile their deepest held values of kindness and mercy with the stark understanding that their daily actions might perhaps betray the integrity of these values. My father is a kind man, and his heart is certainly geared towards a generous appreciation for life and the lives of beings around; years of tender care towards our companion animals have certainly proven this value beyond a shadow of a doubt. And yet, my father has consistently defended his participation in a cruel system on the grounds that, due to to his personal religious beliefs, he is free to do so as he chooses. This is the hill that he will die on, as I fervently argue the converse of his position.
This is not the time to discuss the convoluted ramifications of how religions and animal right issues intersect; that is a dialogue that will be discussed another day. That being said, it remains a fact that my father has yet to see the inherent contradiction between his belief that it is morally wrong to cause suffering on the basis of pleasure, amusement, or convenience and his continued participation in an overarching system that runs in direct opposition to all that is just, kind, compassionate, and responsible. This past week during my father’s visit, this was the hill that I died on, over and over and over again. I simply could not, despite my best efforts, help him to see this deep seated inconsistency that was plaguing his sense of what was good, and right, and just in the world.
My father departed once again. Our visit had come to a close, and we embraced tightly; for all that my father and I see differently about the world, we’ve never stopped loving one another. We both remained firmly entrenched in our positions, however. I wrestled with so many questions after his car pulled away: was there any way that I could help him see this truth that appeared so blindingly, incredibly clear to me? Was it not brilliantly, painfully obvious? How could someone so wise and contemplative on many issues completely miss the mark on this particular topic? After several hours of introspective study and meditation, the truth once again returned to me, and I was at peace. It was never my place to “force” anyone to see this reality. I will never be able to “argue” anyone into being true to their values they hold so dear. I will never “fight” someone into expanding their circle of compassion. In my future articles, the reader will quickly see that I am somewhat of a broken record on the following point: embodying the principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence, commits us to also being peace and compassion to ourselves as well. As vegans, we’re attempting to manifest compassion to a world that is desperately in short supply of this virtue, and our actions can often feel like drops in a bucket that seemingly appears to grow ever larger. The world is changing, bit by bit, thanks to the commitment, perseverance, and non-violent actions being taken by activists in their communities across the globe. We must not forget this fact, even when it appears that everyone around us is still asleep to the truth. A compassionate lifestyle is our best hope for a rejuvenated planet, so that we may heal our lands, the lives of the non-human earthlings we share the planet with, and our own hearts.