relating to oppression and taking a stand
Thanksgiving is my vegan fuel. In fact, my first post on this blog was in relation to this day. My first post encouraged simply abstaining from the event but this year I have decided the right way to celebrate Thanksgiving is by fasting. The thought process that got me here began with a news segment when I was about 13 years old and is encouraged by the current occupation of spaces around this country, which exemplify the oppression of the many by the few. The short story is that I plan to fast rather than feast this Thanksgiving. For the long story, keep reading…
Empathy through Relating
Thanksgiving has taught me the importance of relational understandings of the world and the role that personal experiences can have to connect us to experiences of others. Relational understanding provides a foundation for empathy; through relating one’s own experiences to that of the “other” some sort of understanding and caring can begin to happen.
In the case of animal rights, philosophers such as Peter Singer and Tom Regan have made great arguments for moral philosophies that encompass nonhuman animals. There are also stacks of data showing that animal rights ideology is logical—eating meat will kill us, drinking pasteurized milk increases risk of osteoporosis, farming practices are torturous, leather and fur production is environmentally irresponsible, animal testing has never cured cancer and is not a good model to test the hazards of substances. I think this is all great; we need rational justifications that systematically torturing and murdering animals, trapping them for entertainment purposes, killing them for sport, raising and slaughtering them to wear their skins, or eating their flesh until we are diseased is wrong.
However, rational, empirical facts are not enough. Recent books by psychologists Melanie Joy and Hal Herzog both show that we are a schizophrenic society. We do illogical things to animals and in relation to animals. For example, we kill some cows for leather, and then we kill different cows for meat, but we don’t kill cats or dogs at all (in Western cultures anyway). Most silently allow our country to spend money on wars that lead to the deaths of millions of innocent people, at the same time that they fervently believe in pacifism. People get into a frenzy over protecting small numbers of dolphins and whales and even encourage government money to be spent on the issue. However, few ever question that over 97% of all animals used in research studies—rats, mice, and birds, for example—are not technically classified as animals at all by the federal government and so are not protected by any animal cruelty laws in that setting. These inconsistencies are not based in reason.
Our culture has a twisted circle of compassion that is not logical or rational and is so entrenched that the illogic is not even discernable to most. We need more than logic to explain these problems to people; we need people to feel empathy. Our own feelings are something we know to be true. If we can use that knowledge to generate empathy and relate to the experiences of others, we can connect in a deeper way.
Thanksgiving as Relationally Transformative
For me, Thanksgiving has been a holiday that has served as a conduit for relational understandings of oppression. I was about 13 years old when I saw a news segment in which people were using frozen turkeys in lieu of bowling balls for some sort of holiday lawn bowling competition. Something about the light-hearted nature of the segment and that this was the news cast’s “feel good” segment disturbed me. I never ate another turkey. I wasn’t introspective or comfortable enough with myself at that time to fully investigate my feelings or to even understand why I acted on them, I just did. It took another decade before I embraced veganism, slowly eschewing various practices of species, gender, race and class domination along the way.
Looking back at that “turkey decision” now, I remember that I was studying the Holocaust at the time. I was in a program in high school that required me to conduct a self-directed, year long research project. That year I chose the Holocaust. It was for personal reasons, as my father and his family are all Jewish. My grandfather immigrated to escape the pogroms in Russia; my father was born in 1935 and went through postsecondary education at a time when there were quotas to keep Jews out of schools. Marked by the sense of fear that this history stirred inside of me, I traversed the Holocaust by taking my video camera to survivors and asking them to tell me their stories. I was deeply disturbed by the events of the Holocaust and moved by the survivors I met.
I remember the connection I felt between the Holocaust and Thanksgiving; I believe I even verbalized it once or twice at the time, though it is easier to understand now than it was then. What struck me about the turkeys being used as bowling balls was that their deaths were purposeless and I could finally understand that because I understood what had happened to the Jews in the Holocaust was unnecessary and I had deeply felt emotions about it. I didn’t complete the logic for many years–that all murder, be it for sustenance or desire or domination, is unnecessary and senseless–but in my personal understanding of the needless, systematic, mass slaughter of ‘my own people’ I related to the needless, systematic, mass slaughter of turkeys at Thanksgiving time.
Some people reject the parallel of the Holocaust to animal slaughter, but for me it was in that space that I came to understand animal suffering. As I have discussed before, relational understanding through sexual assault has also helped me connect to the experiences of factory farmed animals. But in regard to Thanksgiving, specifically, there have been other beliefs and feeling and experiences I had that over the years have rubbed up against the violence of the holiday. The insanity of this holiday has allowed me, over time, to see, acknowledge, and deplore oppression in our society, even where it has been normalized and even when it doesn’t directly affect me.
When I learned the truth of the deception of the Plymouth settlers I felt personally deceived by the education system. That feeling then allowed me to connect to and better empathize with the more serious deception and betrayal that European colonizers and those of us of their ancestry have enacted on all indigenous and non-white people in this country. It made me better understand the futility of national boundaries and state-generated wars, as well as the bullshit behind political “concessions” to minority groups who shouldn’t need to be fighting for equal rights in the first place. Though my own experiences and feelings do not parallel those of others, they have allowed me to find empathy. I can acknowledge the plight of others, whose shoes I have the privilege of not walking in, and to acknowledge that their injustice exists.
Relating Inorder to Reject Thanksgiving
I despise the US thanksgiving tradition and each year I am disturbed to watch the majority of people in my communities, often myself included, engage in the practice just because it is tradition, rather than taking a political and social stance not to engage in this ostentatious celebration of inequality and oppression.
There are so many connections that I wish others would make through their own understandings and experiences of the world. I want the Occupiers to acknowledge that, in the big picture, nonhuman animals and the earth are the 99%. I want their experience of the minority oppressing the majority to help them build empathy for the animals slaughtered on this day. I want people who have experienced racism to use that experience to build empathy for those who were tricked, exploited, and betrayed by the colonizers and to reject this holiday as it is a symbolic celebration of oppression. I want women to recognize that the factory farming of animals disproportionately targets female-bodied individuals. In their understanding of what it feels like to live in a society that is generally unsafe and unfair to women (e.g. 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted by the time they reach their mid 20’s, women still do the majority of housework, women make less than men for the same jobs), I want women to build empathy for the turkeys at the dinner’s centerpiece and all the animals who were beat or raped or otherwise tortured and killed for milk and butter and eggs and the other meat on the table.
Most years on Thanksgiving I try to simply ignore what is happening, or I show up to a vegan potluck and call it “Thanksliving” to feel better about my compliance. But this year, I want to use it to create new experiences that might help me relate better to the world around me. All experiences can be transformatively relational if you are open to it, and this year I will try to be. I have spent years trying to pretend like this holiday has no meaning, but it is bursting with meaning. For me, Thanksgiving exemplifies the intersections of so many oppressions. In honor of and in solidarity with all of those who have been killed, starved, abused, exploited, and neglected as a result of the “bounty” of my country, I will not feast this Thanksgiving but I will fast instead. I know it is just symbolic and it will not create change, but I do know that for those with privilege, the consumption of food is a political act. We have the privilege to choose what we eat, and that is why I am vegan.
On Thursday I will fast to protest and reject murder for the sake of gluttony, the subjugation of the disadvantaged by the privileged, and bounty for few at the expense of many.