Invisible Voices

a voice for the voiceless

the delicate balance

I was reading someone’s blog post recently where they were explaining that they were beginning to transition to vegetarianism, and wanted to eventually make their way to veganism. The cruelty in the factory farming was the issue for them, and it was recognized to exist in the dairy industry as well, thus the goal of veganism.

I am always happy to hear that someone is making the transition, and while I worry a bit about people’s focus on cruelty, I know that many if not most of us actually started there. An initial focus on cruelty often moves from that point to a broader ethical position where we see the inherent problem with exploitation and use of all kinds, not just with the gratuitous and gruesome cruelty of the factory farming.

So, sure, cruelty is sometimes a place to start, the wedge that opens the awareness.

But at the same time I cringe, because focusing on cruelty opens the door for the happy meaters to convince you that you can eat cruelty-free animal products.

And sure enough, the happy meaters came to write their name on the wall of that particular blog post.

I think back to myself in my formative vegetarian years, but that doesn’t really apply. It was not the cruelty or the treatment, of which I didn’t actually let myself think, but it was being responsible for an unnecessary death that I could no longer be a part of that made me give up meat. And I was stubborn, there wouldn’t have been anything that could have made me waver once the decision was made.

Whether he was just being nice to the happy meat people or not, he responded to the “look at how nicely I raise the animals I have in my freezer, and let me assure you that their deaths were instantaneous and kind” comment graciously and with a statement about how he’d think about their points.

I don’t know this person well, I don’t know what is in their mind, not really. I don’t know whether he could be convinced that killing an animal that trusts you, that treating them like a thing, is being nice to them. It is possible – we’ve all seen it before. A friend’s coworker was vegetarian for about five minutes after seeing that Ingrid Newkirk documentary that came out recently – what was it called? “I am an animal”, or something like that? So my friend’s coworker was really serious that she couldn’t eat meat ever again after she saw that, and a couple weeks later she said “it is just too hard” and gave up on her vow.

Though I’m rambling, I guess the point I’m trying to make is that while focusing on cruelty seems to open the doors on one level, it also opens the door to the myth of the small happy farm with the animals who whistle on their way to slaughter. Yet I’m not sure most people really listen to the rights arguments unless they are already feeling uneasy about the overall treatment. It is just too abstract for us when we’ve spent our lives disassociating our dinners from the sentient beings they used to be.

Obviously if there was one answer for reaching people, if the magic formula had been discovered, vegans wouldn’t be in the minority.

heidi meditating

7 responses to “the delicate balance

  1. emily February 19, 2008 at 9:37 am

    I think it may also be that creulty is the main, or only, issue for a lot of people. So it is the whole room and not the door, and they just end up in a different place to you?

  2. Dino February 19, 2008 at 11:18 am

    What a beautiful lady there. ❤

  3. Deb February 19, 2008 at 6:48 pm

    @ emily – I guess that is the point – when they focus so tightly on cruelty, they often end up in an entirely different place, where killing animals for humans to eat, use, or just for convenience can be seen as kind. It is easier to justify something by finding the “less cruel” version if you never look beyond the apparent cruelty of aspects of the issue, rather than evaluating the ethics of the whole.

    @ dino, why thank you! Or, rather, Heidi thanks you! 🙂

  4. Gary February 28, 2008 at 8:17 pm

    Very insightful and articulate post.

    People tend to “get” cruelty instantly and react to it viscerally, so it often is a natural and appropriate entry point to meaningful changes in attitudes and diet, as you point out. As you also point out, many vegan activists (such as you and me) leverage people’s welcome interest in minimizing cruelty to discuss broader, more fundamental issues, such as our obligation, as decent moral beings, to strive not to violate animals’ interests – including their will to live.

    However, even if one’s interest remains focused above all on cruelty – which in and of itself is a noble pursuit – I think that it’s easy to show that being as un-cruel as possible leads one to veganism – and beyond. Avoiding cruelty – being kind and respectful – surely implies refraining from exploitation. Once people have a desire to limit the amount of cruelty they cause – to farmed animals in particular – that’s a great thing; something to work with that has enormous potential. Then we have some realistic expectation that they’ll listen, and take it to heart when we explain how all meat (and dairy and eggs) – at least in this society – is cruel, and how going vegan is essentially a required step toward living a life that’s as cruelty-free as possible.

  5. Deb February 28, 2008 at 9:48 pm

    Gary, I disagree, based on interactions I’ve had. Focusing on cruelty is a double-edged sword, and it can backfire and send people to eating the meat and other animal products that they’re willing to believe are cruelty-free. If people want their animal products badly enough, they’ll believe just about anything with regards to the “producers” claims. I wish it weren’t true, but I’ve seen it happen, and happen often enough that I try to avoid talking about cruelty at all. It is hard to not be cynical about the focus on cruelty when you see the people raising and killing animals using the exact same terms that you just used – “avoiding cruelty, being kind and respectful” – to describe the meat that is in their freezer.

  6. Gary February 28, 2008 at 11:07 pm

    People will go through denial and concoct implausible rationalizations for continuing their exploitative habit of eating meat – to which they’re often quite psycho-sociologically addicted – regardless of the animal advocacy approaches to which they’re exposed. It’s human nature to avoid self-incrimination.

    In addition, many people (perhaps the great majority), though they may not articulate it or even realize it consciously, are afraid of dropping meat from their diets.

    So they employ a variety of defense mechanisms to avoid facing uncomfortable, sobering truths. Just as people may pretend that there’s no cruelty involved in, say, an organic dairy farm, they may also superficially convince themselves that animals were put here for our use, that plants feel pain, that eating animals is part of the “circle of life,” and so on – any excuse to perpetuate their addiction, and stay in their comfort zone.

    Compounding this dysfunctional behavior is the meat industry pumping billions of dollars in advertising to make people want to eat meat and focus solely on the end product – not how it got there. (Of course, any meat industry images of animals always show robust, happy animals in ideal, pristine settings.)

    To declare that an obviously cruel activity in which one is engaged is not cruel is a combination of denial and willful ignorance. The denial is a symptom of inner turmoil, that at some level the denier knows that what s/he’s doing is wrong – that’s what triggers the denial. Similarly, the willful ignorance is due to fear of confronting the wrongfullness of what they’re doing, and, by extension, their moral shortcomings.

    That someone would make-believe that killing for pleasure is not cruel is not an indictment of dicsussing cruelty when advocating on behalf of animals. It is human psychology and fallibilities, not a particular advocacy technique, that triggers the myriad of defense responses.

    Moreover, it’s honest, accurate, and appropriate to describe actions such as kicking a sick, downed cow as cruel. Severe cruelty is a terrible wrong and a violation of basic rights and moral principles.

    But – all that is tangential to the main point I was trying to make: If a non-vegan – as opposed to the vegan activist – is concerned about cruelty to animals, by all means inform that person of the cruelty that is pervasive throughout animal agriculture. That leaves them with no out other than veganism, and is a perfect setup for explaining vegan solutions. Note that I’m not advocating that other approaches be discarded, or that focusing on cruelty is always the best means of advocacy. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it generally should not be the only strategy employed. But for me, it has been very effective as a launching pad. Which may only go to show that we all have different styles of advocacy that work for us.

  7. Deb February 29, 2008 at 6:28 am

    But that is exactly the point I have been trying to make – take a non-vegan and talk about the “cruelty that is pervasive throughout animal agriculture”, and you can end up (as I have seen, several times) with someone who agrees with you, agrees that the cruelty should be avoided, agrees that “animal agriculture” should be boycotted, and yet their conclusion is to eat happy meat (sometimes that which they raise themselves and kill themselves) and NOT veganism.

    It simply isn’t a guarantee that two people wanting to avoid cruelty will end up with the same conclusion.

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