I recently had the pleasure of writing an article on Viva La Vegan. If you didn’t get a chance to see my post there last week, I am reposting it here. Make sure head over to Viva La Vegan–there is a lot of great stuff going on including an extremely diverse array of articles and a vegan mentorship program.
Veganism is a necessary condition for animal liberation. On a systemic level, there is a possibility that swelling numbers of vegans will allow us to have a critical mass that can drive culture and politics. On an individual level, it is how people take personal responsibility by refusing to be a part of the violence around them. It is a way to queer the food chain and it is the foundation of an animal liberation praxis. It is also, for many, the gateway to activism. Veganism is a must, but it is not enough if saving animals is the end goal.
Some tout veganism as the solution to end mass suffering of nonhuman animals. They say things like, “The world is vegan if you want it.” But that is just not true. The world is vegan only if we actively, systematically, aggressively, and consistently fight for it. If you want to do something to save animals’ lives, you actually need to do something. Veganism is about abstention, not action. The few of us who are vegan are not driving the production of meat down and we are not reinventing culture, we are simply acting according to our basic moral code and abstaining from a practice we know to be wrong.
Yes, being vegan is important and so is vegan outreach and advocacy. It is a vital part of our movement. But the choice to be vegan in and of itself is only a foundation and a gateway to a path of animal liberation.
Celebrity dieters such as Oprah and personable cooks and bakers such as Isa Chandra Moskowitz, have helped spread veganism to new populations and have made it a trendy enterprise. Veganism becoming a trend exposes the idea to more people, which is a wonderful thing. However, we must remember that trends don’t last. While it is better to have someone go veg for some period of time than not at all, veganism as an industry has the potential to overshadow and make us forget veganism as an ethic. Obviously this doesn’t always happen, but examples of it do abound.
On the west coast of the U.S., Veggie Grill is a vegan restaurant chain that is popular and expanding quickly. But you will not find a single piece of animal rights or vegan literature, nor will you see the word vegan mentioned anywhere (except for once on the menu where it says “vegan mayonnaise”). The Facebook page of the owner of Doomie’s, a popular vegetarian restaurant in Los Angeles, features him several years ago posing with a dead fish from a fishing excursion and an ear-to-ear grin; clearly he is not concerned with what this is promoting, and he sees no issue with this picture being public while he runs a vegetarian restaurant. Apparently, the message got lost in the pursuit of a niche market. (I emailed him about this photo last week for his explanation, but to date have had no response).
When veganism becomes the end goal, the focus becomes the food not the animals. It becomes tempting for animal advocacy groups and vegans to promote veganism as a type of “cuisine,” rather than as an ethical choice. In this way it is easier to spread veganism, but it does not promote animal liberation. People forget about the animals that are not present in vegan food, just like they forget about the animals that are present in other cuisines. Veganism becomes something that people “go out” to, rather than a way of life or an ethic of justice. This sort of thinking has also lead to the promotion of concepts like “flexitarianism” and “semi-vegetarianism”—diets in which animals still die. Any diet in which animals die are not diets people who care about animals should be promoting.
Veganism, as it is often promoted today, is also heavily invested in the very system of capitalism that is driving animal exploitation in the first place. It supports capital enterprises surrounding food, even meat production. Veganism drives Tofurkey, Gardein, and Tofutti into the marketplace, but it does not drive meat and dairy out.
Animal exploitation enterprises have learned to expand their profits by catering to the vegan population. The factory farming system is driven largely by the fast food economy. Companies such as Chipotle and Kentucky Fried Chicken have developed vegan options and, in doing so, have won the praise and money of vegans. In a stark example of this in 2008, two vegans allowed their wedding to serve as pro-KFC propaganda when they were married at a KFC in Canada to celebrate the addition of vegan options and KFC Canada’s agreement to use controlled atmospheric killing as a slaughter method. Vegans are putting their money into the very companies that are driving animal exploitation in gratitude for the convenience of a vegan option and “nicer” ways to kill animals.
And yes, I get it. Promoting veganism as something even omnivores can do makes it more approachable. Having more vegan options makes veganism more attainable. It means we can now honestly tell people that being vegan is easy and convenient. But this should not be the crux of what we are striving for and it cannot be our end goal. I don’t know a single committed vegan who became vegan because they realized vegan food tastes good, or who would stop being vegan if there weren’t cheese substitutes and options at drive-thrus. People who only go vegan because it is easy will not stay vegan, and they certainly won’t contribute to the real struggles of animal liberation.
People like to cite numbers about how many lives being vegan will save. Some people go to great lengths to quantify this number. And this number does have a point. It can excite people to go veg. It can force people to think about their food consumption in relation to actual lives. But it is only a tool and a symbol. Vegans need to know that these numbers are figurative; no lives are actually saved. The few of us that are vegan are not driving the shift in the number of animals that are killed.
As the number of vegetarians and vegans in the U.S. has slowly climbed, demand for meat production has increased while per capita meat consumption has declined. There is debate as to which is a better measure, but in the end, what matters for me is that the number of animals slaughter has reduced. Why is this not evidence enough for me that veganism is the answer to animal liberation? First, meat consumption is largely tied to finances and US families have not bounced back from the financial crisis and high unemployment. Since demand is higher, the number of animals killed to meet that demand will likely climb again. Second, there are still over nine billion land animals being killed for food every year in the US alone. This is a state of emergency; more needs to be done and veganism alone is clearly not doing it.
When people claim to be animal rights activists based only on the fact that they are vegan, they are engaging in rhetoric to absolve feelings of responsibility to actually act on behalf of animals. Saying you are an animal activist because you refuse to kill animals is like saying you are an anti-rape activist because you refuse to rape people. I am not saying everyone has to be an activist, I just worry when people misconstrue the act of not eating animals—a morally necessary choice to refuse to murder needlessly—as an act of activism that might actually lead to the liberation of animals.
I do not say this to shame people. I say it to push our community to be more critical of what our goals are and how we can achieve them. Someone can be vegan and stop there; that is totally fine and I am happy to have one less murderer wandering the streets. But at the same time it is important to remember that veganism is an exercise of passive abstinence, not active engagement.
If we want to help animals our sights need to move beyond seeming like pleasant and energetic vegans so people will learn by our example not to kill animals. We need to move beyond the ruse that not actively killing an animal actually saves an animal. If we want to help animals we need to challenge oppression, force people to confront their behavior, and be unrelenting in our pursuit of justice. And this takes more than veganism. This takes a revolution and, while what we choose (not) to eat may be an empowering political and ethical statement, it is not a revolution.
On March 11th, 2012, U.S. army sergeant Robert Bales made headlines when he went on a killing spree in Kandahr, Afghanistan, killing 17 civilians. In another infamous military tragedy, military personnel working at Abu Ghraib routinely abused, tortured, raped, humiliated, and assaulted prisoners. Once exposed, 11 soldiers had charges brought against them, and a few were sentenced to some jail time. Earlier this year, six Butterball employees and one state agriculture official were arrested on charges of animal cruelty for abusing turkeys in factory farms. Preceding this, in September 2010, Billy Joe Gregg, Jr. received an eight-month prison sentence for savagely beating and torturing cows on Conklin Dairy Farm.
What all of these cases have in common is that a select few abusers took the fall for failed and violent institutions. Unfortunately, their punishments appeased most people, leaving a satisfaction that justice was somehow served or is being served. However, in letting these people take the fall and bear the burden of the guilt, a number of truths are masked and the violence is allowed to continue.
making the ordinary appear extraordinary
These prosecutions distract from the fact that these sorts of actions are normal within these institutions. It is the job of the military to systematically terrorize and kill others. Soldiers must learn to view the subjects of US imperialism as “enemies” and to deindividualize them. In seeing each individual as one and the same, it becomes feasible to kill them. That is what all armed conflict does, it strips the personhood from individuals and makes them a collective enemy so they can be detained, controlled, defeated, and killed. It makes sense that some people, trained to enact violence on others, cannot switch back and forth between when, where, how, and against who it is okay to use violence or to kill.
The cases discussed here were only addressed with symbolic reprimand because they could not be hidden from the public. They were punished not for what they did but for the fact the public found out about it. Rather than changing these institutions to prevent such atrocities, great lengths have been taken to prevent other public exposures. Whistle blowers such as Bradley Manning are punished for sharing military abuses publicly. Ag gag bills are popping up around the country, attempting to make it illegal to conduct undercover investigations on farms. (It was undercover investigations that exposed Conklin and Butterball).
The punishments doled out are tokens intended to appease and pacify us, while thousands of others are paid with or subsidized by our tax dollars to enact similar abuses on a daily basis, leaving billions tortured and murdered every year. Every time you pay your taxes, you pay for the tortured cows at Conklin, the prisoners held without charges and violently abused at Abu Ghraib, the millions of baby boy chickens thrown into grinders at meat packing plants, the environmental degradation of meat production, the murder and starvation of innocent civilians worldwide, and the list goes on. We pay taxes to maintain our privilege but our privilege comes with the exploitation, torture, and murder of others. And the people charged in the above-mentioned cases, are the people we pay to do this since we cannot bear to do it ourselves or to collectively do what it would really take to make it stop. When Abu Ghraib happens or Conklin Dairy Farm footage is released, we are forced to confront ourselves, and what is happening without our consent, but on our behalf. It is all too easy to accept the punishment of a few workers as a resolution to these problems. But these people are acting normally, within their circumstance.
Gregg was expected to subdue and move animals who weigh hundreds more pounds than he does. When they lie down he cannot move them. If he cannot move them he cannot get paid. His actions are unforgiveable, unexcuseable, unacceptable. However, given his constraints—the violent system in which he is entrenched, the fact that he kills hundreds of innocent beings on a normal day at work—his actions are not surprising. The system must be changed. To change the system, we need to keep our focus on the big picture and not be pacified with his prosecution. The supervisors who let him take the blame, the owners who profit off of mass murder in the first place, and the government who takes our tax dollars to subsidize this horrific industry—these too are the ones who need the be blamed.
While a few token Butterball employees took the fall for the abuses animals regularly and normally face in the factory farming system, the higher up the chain of command the less blame a person had. While some workers were fired, the government official who tipped the plant off as to when inspections would occur (allowing for these abuses to go unmonitored) received little more than a slap on the wrist (two weeks suspension from work, a year of probation). Then, in a laughable twist, Butterball was actually rewarded for a safe working environment shortly after when five awards for worker safety were handed out by the American Meat Industry. The chickens and turkeys in Butterball plants are the true proletariat, the real working class. In this context, a safety award for protecting workers is beyond laughable.
the villain is a victim
In our fervor to punish these abusers, we also forget that they are victims. In their punishment, their victimhood is erased; further masking the system that instigates these violent acts and benefits the powerful few at the expense of the majority.
Most of these people ended up in their jobs as a result of their disadvantage. (Not all of course—Bales used to be a stockbroker, though being sent on four wartime tours did, arguably, make him a victim). This landed them in these positions to start, and made them particularly vulnerable to the control of their employers and the system that fostered their violence. The US military targets young kids with few opportunities and positions the military as a way out of their neighborhoods, financial worries, and other struggles. It becomes a viable option for steady employment, travel, and education possibilities for those who grow up in circumstances where they are disadvantaged by their families, income, a bad neighborhood, inadequate schools, or mistakes made in their youth. Rich kids are simply less likely to become combat soldiers, or factory farm workers for that matter.
The combat soldier and factory farm worker are at the bottom rung in their industry. They do the hardest, most dangerous, and most violent work—and they take the least pay. They must victimize others for their paycheck, and that can (and should) make a person crazy. They are monsters for what they did, but they alone are not to blame; we can’t forget that or it will never stop.
The few who are punished serve as the fall guys to protect those who profit and benefit from these actions. The term scapegoat refers historically to animals who were literally cast out of cities and towns to symbolically carry the sins of the townspeople away. Fall guys are not as innocent as these scapegoats; unlike the scapegoat they did in fact commit horrific vicious unforgiveable acts. However, like the scapegoat, they are straddled with the burdens of others, who will be absolved of their responsibility as soon the fall guy is prosecuted. That is, unless we demand more than the prosecution of these few individuals.
If you train and pay someone to be a murder, she will be a murderer. If you monetarily reward someone based on his ability to conquer and kill others you will by necessity have someone who embraces violence and murder and who might strive to excel at it. Expecting these lessons to be enacted only when “the boss” says so is asking too much, particularly when there is often no logical justification for or discernable pattern to when and where the boundaries are, beyond the financial interests of a select few in power. “The boss” needs to be held accountable as well. In our hatred of these abusers our sights hone in on the fall guy, the most powerless among the abusers. We focus only on the ones who wielded the sword, not who gave them the weapon, trained them to use it, and placed them into psychologically traumatizing situations.
On another day, Bales might have received a medal for slaughtering human beings. Gree and the Butterball workers probably saw their superiors or coworkers viciously torturing animals as they did. I am not denying that these people have agency, that they are culpable for their violence, that they should not have done what they did, but I am calling attention to the fact that they did these things within systems where their actions were normalized and at times rewarded. We need to attack the system as well as the abuser.
All the abusers mentioned here deserve to be punished. And they deserve to be punished more harshly than they were. But that is just one screw loose in dismantling the machine of violence and oppression that these industries really are. The punished workers are expendable, unskilled, and replaceable to those in charge. Other workers have filled their place already and some are likely acting as they did. The machine will keep running. We need to remember that these injustices will continue to happen unless we start holding those in power—the ones who get to sit behind a desk and send others to do their killing—are held accountable and punished.
People profit off of a system where lives are rendered into objects, physically and ideologically. Lines are drawn between human and non-human, US-citizen and foreigners. We have constructed the boundaries of nationhood and species as if they are boundaries to our moral and ethical limits of care. However, they only exist to preserve systems of power and capital gain via institutions premised on violence and the success of the few at the expense of many. This system only works if the less privileged masses stay pacified blaming each other for the crimes of the powerful and never demanding that the real villains, the ones who drive this insanity but assume no risk, are held accountable.
A couple weeks ago marked the 39th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. This Supreme Court ruling gave women in the US the ability to have legal abortion, within limits. As many celebrate the anniversary of this landmark court case decision the religious right and political conservatives are in the middle of an assault on women’s bodies, trying to strip away our rights to and control over our health, our bodies and our families.
What seems to be misunderstood by some, particularly in my cohort and younger, is that the Roe v. Wade does not mean women have a legal right to an abortion, specifically. Roe v. Wade is a legal precedent about how to interpret the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution regarding due process and the right to privacy between a woman and her doctor. Further, because it is a Supreme Court ruling, it is long and detailed and involves a lot of language that might become challenging in the future. For example, the ruling limits abortion to embryos/ fetuses that aren’t “viable”—as technology advances the very language in Roe v. Wade could make it obsolete as a protection for women’s right to choose how to control their fertility.
the risk is real
A number of liberals I have spoken to do not acknowledge or actively combat (though maybe it is just that they can’t truly fathom), that this is a real and urgent issue. There is a true attempt to criminalize abortion and other types of fertility control. It has gone under the radar to some degree because those running for office who promote such policies (ahem…the republican presidential hopefuls) are not talking about moral issues; they are talking about job creation and the economy. They keep scrutiny off of the moral and social control they want to impose on the bodies and in the lives of women and other minorities by keeping the focus on the economy.
In a recent article, Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, highlights data from the Gutmacher Institute that underscore how drastic our situation is:
“[I]n 2011, state legislatures passed more than triple the number of anti-women’s health provisions than in 2010 — the highest ever. Twenty-four states enacted 92 new abortion restrictions last year, shattering the previous record of 34 adopted in 2005.”
Women my age have always had a right to privacy with their doctor, which feels like—and has been misconstrued as—the right to be able to choose having an abortion. When I discuss abortion with pro-choice people my age, instead of the discussion being about securing this right for all women, in the long-run, conversations are often about the decisions people would make in their personal lives. But, while the personal is political, the individual may not always be. Our sights need to turn back toward the bigger picture. We need to get out of our arm chairs and put on our riot gear because our rights, our liberty, our health, our wombs, our families, and our freedom are at risk. This is a real risk and this is an urgent matter.
inequality and mother-blaming
Woman in the US are living in a culture that already disadvantages women, especially mothers. Our society does not adequately support women financially, medically, psychologically, or socially—much less pregnant women, and especially not mothers. Financially, women are at a disadvantage in this society. Women make less money for the same work as men. The price of motherhood is even greater, with mothers incurring an average 3% wage penalty per year of absence for maternity leave or childrearing.
Even so, women are also expected to be the primary caregiver. A deadbeat dad might seem crappy, but he is not the type of villain that any woman who is not a perfect mother becomes. Women who do become mothers are often held to culturally impossible standards. Among the socially advantaged, mothers who work may be vilified as abandoning their children. At the same time, if a woman chooses not to work to be more available for her children she is seen as lazy, a social welfare pariah—unless, of course, she is independently wealthy or finds a partner to support her, stays home to rear her children, and is completely fulfilled (but not overly consumed) by this role. There is really no winning. Add to that the financial, emotional, and physical burden of pregnancy and motherhood. We treat these as personal issues so that those in power can refrain from providing social or fiscal support for childbearing. At the same time, our society judges women for their choices in their personal lives should they not be perfect pregnant women or perfect mothers.
It is in this context that women are expected to want to have children, even in situations when a pregnancy is unintended, unwanted, or unhealthy. We cannot force motherhood and childbearing if as a culture we don’t adequately support children or mothers.
anti-choice goals are anti-woman (and they also happen to lead to increased abortion rates)
Anti-choice goals are particularly insulting in light of the fact criminalizing abortion does not actually save lives or reduce abortion rates—if successful it will certainly kill more women and increase abortion rates. A reduction of abortion rates and women’s safety during abortions are tied to abortion being legal and accessible and women having access to and proper knowledge of contraception. As Susan A. Cohen of the Guttmacher Institute explains, abortion rates do not decrease when abortion in criminalized—criminalizing abortion just increases the rates of unsafe abortions. Rather, it decreases when contraceptives are used:
“[I]t is not the changes in abortion’s legal status that can explain the decreased abortion rate worldwide, since many more countries liberalized access to abortion than restricted it. Significantly, though, during this same period, contraceptive use worldwide increased and unintended pregnancy rates fell. Where contraceptive use increased the most, abortion rates dropped the most… Where contraceptive use is high, abortion can be legal and widely available, and still relatively rare. The lowest abortion rates in the world can be found in western and northern Europe, where abortion has been legal for decades but access to contraception is widespread.”
The anti-choice goal of criminalizing abortion results in more abortions and many women being forced into medical, familial, economic, and interpersonal situations that can be dangerous and even deadly. Promoting abortion restrictions is laughably unstrategic from the anti-choice perspective; it is not a way to help women, zygotes or fetuses.
Pro-choice activists are not “pro-abortion.” We would rather see sexual health education, access to birth control, and other health and family planning measures made available to preempt unwanted pregnancy in cases when women have a priori control. The only thing we currently have going for us is the hope that in the new insurance plan developed under the current administration, insured women should be able to get the birth control pill. However, anti-choice advocates and many of the conservatives currently in or vying for political power would also like to see even these choices outlawed.
personhood for who?
In an attempt to control the bodies and sexual activity of women, a number of conservative politicians are now pushing for Personhood Amendments. Personhood laws grant fertilized eggs personhood. In at least 22 states personhood proponents are working on some sort of effort to put a personhood amendment up to debate. These amendments highlight how immediate and aggressive the anti-choice threat really is.
Mississippi’s failed personhood amendment reads:
“Be it Enacted by the People of the State of Mississippi: SECTION 1. Article III of the constitution of the state of Mississippi is hereby amended BY THE ADDITION OF A NEW SECTION TO READ: Section 33. Person defined. As used in this Article III of the state constitution, “The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” This initiative shall not require any additional revenue for implementation.”
Personhood is being defined in such a way that the personhood of women is placed second to the personhood of a zygote. This could make it illegal to even use the birth control pill. No, I’m not joking. It failed in Mississippi, one of the stronger attempts for the amendment, but it did not fail by enough to feel comforted—just over half (55%) voted against the amendment. That means almost half of all voters either supported or simply did not care if a zygote—regardless of whether it is viable or not—has more rights than a person.
Personhood amendments define woman’s bodies as tools that can be regulated, subordinate to the potential life of a fetus. Under these laws, women can be legally liable for any injury to that fetus. In a culture of misogyny and mother-blaming, this is likely to open the floodgate to the persecution and prosecution of women who miscarry. That this regressive idea is even being entertained and put on the political agenda should be ringing the alarm bells—we need to acknowledge that these are attempts at regressive sex-based laws and take the threat seriously.
Many proposed definitions of personhood identify insemination as the start of “biological life.” This could arguably make some of the safest, most effect forms of birth control illegal because the pill and other hormonal birth controls do not prevent insemination, just the implantation of an egg into the uterus walls. I suspect that this is part of the plan, at least for the more insidious among anti-choice advocates; it’s a clear attempt to chip away at sexual choice and reinscribe outdated and sexist moral codes that tie women to sexual contact only in the confines of marriage and with the expectation of motherhood. Essentially, women are being told that if they want to have sex, they should be prepared to be mothers.
Personhood is currently up for a vote in the Oklahoma Senate and some Democratic senators highlighted its absurdity and sexist nature by placing men in the same position of blame and control as women. One senator wrote a bill making the sperm contributor financially liable for the resultant child. Another, Constance Johnson, added language making masturbation and other sex acts not intended to procreate illegal. The amendment she proposed states, “[A]ny action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman’s vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.” She says she did this because “The Personhood bill would potentially allow governmental intrusion into families’ personal lives by policing what happens to a woman’s eggs without any similar thought to what happens to a man’s sperm. My amendment seeks to draw attention to the absurdity, duplicity and lack of balance inherent in the policies of this state in regard to women.”
As previously discussed, women’s lives are saved and abortion rates decline when abortion is legal, there is access to trained abortion providers, and contraception is widely available. If personhood advocates could step away from their confused moral and religious dogmatism and sexist ideologies of control over women’s bodies and actually look at the real world data, they would need to acknowledge that the call for a personhood amendment is antithetical to their goals; particularly as it could criminalize access to contraception, the best preventative measure for unwanted pregnancy.
What pro-choice activists are fighting for is women’s right to control their own bodies, their own health and their own families. We are against a government, particularly one that is Eurocentric, male dominated, and organized and maintained by economically and socially advantaged people, having control of the bodies and choices of all women in their reproductive years. We cannot afford to wait until our rights are stripped from us and our persecution begins; we need to fight this now because it is real and it is happening.
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.
Several years ago I made a decision to be a committed activist. The problem? I care about a lot of social issues. In the end, I decided that since other animals have the fewest voices speaking up for them and, cumulatively, the greatest numbers of individuals suffer the most abuse, that that is where I would focus my activist energy. Plus, it was my entre into the animal rights world that made me truly understand the necessity and immediacy of activism.
I made a choice to be focused on one cause, because of the belief that energy focused mainly on one movement would be more effective than scattered energy. So, though I occasionally work with other campaigns for various causes, I keep most of my energies in animal rights. As Mississippi pushes a personhood amendment, occupiers take their cities over, Food Not Bombs hits the dumpsters and the streets, and many other necessary actions are taken to fight the normalized oppression in our society, I want to be there. But I have come to terms with not being there because of my perception (accurate or not) that there are more people engaged with those issues than there are with animal rights issues.
Though I decided to choose only one topic of activism for my main focus, I have not chosen only one tactic or even one avenue ofanimal rights work. I have tried to play two hands at once and do both in-the-streets activism and academic activism simultaneously. Not only that, but within each of those realms I try to do multiple things. Behind the computer screen I am working at an animal protection organization and researching and publishing outside of work as well. In the streets I organize a campaign which involves everything from keeping up a website to going to protests. I also actively support a number of campaigns and I am at anywhere from one to three protests a week. I belong to an animal rights organization as an active member who volunteers and attends meetings and I meet other obligations for this group and other activists. Oh yeah, and I give money each month until I am living on my credit card debt.
I am busy and I am seriously multitasking. But what strikes me the most is that, among activists, my story is in no way unique. I think of my activist community and I can readily think of others in my position. For example, one woman I know is amazing at fostering and re-homing cats and she is a dedicated activist. She works as much as she can at her job to financially care for and find homes for cats, volunteers at a cat rescue, and takes cats to adoption events. At the same time, she is an activist and regularly attends protests and other outreach events. From the outside looking in at her I see the struggles she faces. She needs to work to afford all the cat food and litter and medical emergencies, but she arranges work shifts around the week’s protest schedule, even if it means she makes less money.
My friend usually tells me she is handling it all just fine. I thought I was handling my balancing act well too, until my body revolted. As I was in the last couple months of graduate school, I showed up at a protest I had organized. Half way into the protest, my body broke out in hives. I knew I had to be writing my dissertation, but I knew I had to be at this protest as well, and the clash was simply too much. It was the second time in my life and the second time that month I had broken out in hives.
This physical protest staged by my body forced me to think about what I was doing. And what I was doing was too much. The more I thought I also realized that not only was I doing too much but that my distracted attention kept me from doing anything particularly well. I decided that I would be more focused. But, of course, nothing has come of this.
Why? Because choosing to excel at something, when it means abandoning something else, is a high stakes game when it comes to activism and animal rights. I know that my education provides me a platform others don’t have. The letters I put before and after my name mean that people let me give talks and publish my papers and if I play it right I can get animal issues taken seriously in research and academia. At the same time, I will do what so few other vegans will—I will get out into the streets and raise my voice. I will look at the toolbox of tactics and use less popular tactics such as protesting in a regular, strategic manner, and not just on Fur Free Fridays.
I can clearly see where I am useful in each realm, and I can clearly see the benefits each might have for animals (of course we need many tactics working together simultaneously to create change). So, how do I choose one over the other? How would my friend described earlier choose between only fostering or only doing activism? How would you choose between any two of the things you do on a regular basis to help animals?
Maybe the answer is not to choose. I know that is what I have been doing but, for me, it is not working. At work I feel guilty that I am not running my campaign. When I am doing that I worry I should be trying to get my writing out. When I write I am distracted because I could be working or at a protest. I am everywhere doing lots of things but I am never really “there” and I always feel that I should be doing more. I feel like a bad academic, and uncommitted worker, and a slacktivist even though I am dedicating most of my day to proactively trying to help assuage the ideas and behaviors that allow animals to suffer and die en mass every single second of every single day.
And while I hope this is some strange affliction or issue that only I have, I know it is not. This movement is run by a small, dedicated group of people who, protest, blockade, petition, speak up and speak out with every ounce of energy and second of time we have. There is activist folklore and myriad examples of the dreaded “burnout,” but I wonder, if I choose to do just one thing,and to do it well, maybe I can avoid that. And let me be very clear, by choosing one thing I don’t mean a total rejection of anything else. Anyone can make it to one or two protests every week, no matter what else they are doing. I could always keep up this blog even if my main focus was on running a campaign. What I am talking about is choosing only one avenue of activism/ animal rights work to focus on, and having only one major project within that realm.
I spoke to another researcher recently who is actively focused on animal rights. I am impressed by the level of energy and time he is investing in collecting and analyzing data for a particular project. When I told him that he said some thing to the effect of, “this doesn’t seem like much, I used to be an organizer.” It really drove home for me the amount of work each of these things takes and the way one’s thoughts must border on obsession to come up with the type of innovative ideas that actually drive change. But to become consumed, enveloped, obsessed by an issue, one must be free of other agendas.
I can see the beauty in dealing with only one issue at a time. The problem is, that if I do choose one focus, no matter what path I take I can’t imagine that I will ever feel good about the path I chose not to take. That is an unfortunate side effect of being willing to acknowledge suffering—once you acknowledge it you can’t ignore it. And even if our struggle to right the wrongs of our species seems hopeless, we are ethically bound to at least try. In a movement where the actions that each of us takes is just a tiny drop in a huge bucket of what needs to get done, it is difficult to judge our impact. It will take millions more like us to achieve our goals, and so there will likely never be proof in our lifetime that we have taken the “right” path, the one that will save the most lives. 
In the end it is clear that I am doing a lot of things, but I am doing none of them well enough. I can recognize that, but what I can’t do is decide what to better and what to leave behind.
 The only clear exception to this I see is fostering, adopting and doing sanctuary work for animals or freeing individual animals from situations of abuse. The people who do this are definitely having a profound immediate impact. However, for those of us focused on longer-term goals or cultural or institutional shifts, there is little to direct us.