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tears and activism, rational responses to irrational behavior

January 5, 2011

My intellectual and activist work is sometimes described to me in negative terms as emotional and irrational. Prior to this my feminist work was met with the same “crazy cat lady” treatment. I have been addressed as hysterical or overly emotional, because I refuse to not care. And no matter how many coherent arguments I make, I am not taken seriously by many in my line of work and by some of my ‘friends’ and family. My decision to be compassionate, to care about others regardless of whether their lives directly impact me, and my to attempt to live a life that reflects my moral principles is viewed as irrational, zealot-like and overly emotional.

There is a strange belief that rationality is the opposite of emotion and is akin to the status quo. I reject both of these notions. The status quo is rarely developed in accordance with what is rational. People seem to forget that what typically becomes “normal” is rarely rational, as the procedures and institutions and inequalities instilled in any society are to benefit the few in power, not the masses. Rationality is also not the opposite of emotionality. Rationality is associated with science, masculinity and objectivity while emotionality is devalued via being imagined as subjective, erratic and feminine.

A false dichotomy has been created that privileges the former over the later, and this is a problem in two ways. First, the characteristics of masculinity, objectivity and science deserve no privilege over subjectivity or femininity. Second, emotionality and rationality are not opposite ends of a dichotomy, nor are they mutually exclusive ways of engaging with the world. They can coexist and inform one another and, in the case of inequality, having an emotional response to the suffering of others is completely rational. The only thing more rational is to act on those emotions to try to eradicate the inequality.

Activists are people who not only locate and highlight social problems but attempt to change those problems. Activists are the most rational of actors

What is irrational about rejecting needless suffering for the sake of unnecessary things like the accumulations of wealth, aesthetic preferences or culinary preference? What definitely is irrational is to accept the suffering others and to remain silent witness to that suffering in support of a capitalist system of exploitation that oppresses women, ethnic minorities, the poor, non-human animals, and the working class in our own country while perpetuating inequality, starvation, poverty and environmental degradation on a global level.

I am working on a campaign at the moment to get “games” such as the Lobster Zone removed from local bars. Patrons and neighbors come out to ask why we are there and they honestly seem utterly confused as to why we would spend our evenings trying to do something to defend lobsters. They come out and scream at us, laugh at us, and taunt us for caring for the lobsters but I have never seen any of them, even the ones who say they don’t play the game, yell at bar patrons who are actively, openly, and gleefully torturing lobsters.  I don’t see their logic in labeling me illogical while they practice a level of violence that cannot be attributed to anything other than wanton cruelty.

What seems irrational is that every second of every day there are millions of cows standing feet deep in their own shit in overcrowded conditions. They are fed grains that are unnatural to digest so that there is somewhere to put the surplus of corn that we produce due to government subsidies that take millions of tax dollars that would be better-spent feeding people. (By the way, the corn is fertilized in a manner originally developed so that there would be somewhere for our government to spray the extra chemicals left over from chemical weapons in World War II). These cows are sick due to standing in their own shit, overpopulation, and unnatural diets. To deal with this farmers pump the cows full of antibiotics. These antibiotics run into the waterways and are in the milk and the meat U.S. citizens consume, which leads to antibiotic resistant strains of disease and illness—leading us to have a sick population. Similarly, the cows are pumped full of hormones so that they can grow very quickly since on these unnatural diets thay can’t even live a year. The hormones enter human populations similar to the antibiotics, creating early onset puberty and increased rates of hormonally linked cancers in our population. (We then torture millions more animals to try to cure these diseases that we have essentially created, and we continue these experiments even though a cure has never been found using animal-based models—but back to the cows…)

The shit-covered cows will then be slaughtered, their e-coli ridden feces winding up in your hamburger because in the name of increased profits production lines are sped up leading to mistakes being made. (Their e-coli ridden feces also runs off into the vegetable fields leading to e-coli outbreaks in spinach and lettuce and other veggies). Also as a result of speedy production lines, workers are injured at alarming rates such that working conditions in US slaughterhouses lead the Human Rights Watch to label it the most dangerous factory job in the U.S. The fast lines also mean that the cows, already forced to suffer a life of torture in cramped, dirty feedlots after being kidnapped form their mothers and refused any form of loving contact, enrichment activity, healthy exercise, or tolerable nutrition, might go through the slaughter line completely coherent and alive. This means after their heavy bodies are hung upside down by one leg and a conveyor belt takes them down a line to be stunned with electricity, they may not die due to being missed by the overburdened worker or the voltage being turned too low (again, in the name of saving money). This means they are coherent as their throat is ripped open with a knife. Hopefully the cut hits them in the right spot and the knife is sharp enough, or they will be alive and slowly bleeding out as they are skinned and their limbs hacked up and their innards gutted.

Every moment for these animals will be sheer pain, torture and hell. The workers who work with them at every step will be overworked and undercompensated. The people who eat their food will risk food-born pathogens and worse. The increase in meat consumption in the U.S. has lead to a proliferation of all the diseases that are the number-one killers in our society—heart disease, diabetes, obesity. To me, this scenario of feeding poisoned crops to animals who are ruthlessly tortured, “growing” these animals in a way that leads to public health tragedies, and then consuming these animals as food even though it leads increased morbidity and disease, is totally and incomprehensibly irrational. Oh yeah, and did I mention that the meat industry does more environmental damage than any other industry on the face of the planet?

[For more on the cow and beef issue read: Omnivores’ Dilemma and watch the video below]

What I do on the other hand seems totally rational. I mourn the loss of these animals, I am angered that people are dying of preventable diseases because they eat these animals, I refuse to eat animals or their byproducts because of my empathetic understanding of the animals’ suffering, my concern for the environment, and for the preservation of my own health. I attempt to educate others about these issues and I speak out and stand up on behalf of the animals who are tortured for irrational reasons by handing out educational materials and protesting those who endorse these industries.

Irrational is that people wear clothes made of fur. Fur production involves severe torture of animals, often skinning animals alive or shoving a rod up their assholes and electrocuting them.  (This is after extreme confinement that leads to them going crazy or crude trapping measures, such as leg-hold traps, that often drive animals to try to gnaw off their own limbs in order to survive). All that so that a garment can be produced, even though the heavy chemicals used in its production damages the environment and leads to cancers in tannery workers. This garment will be needless and serve only for aesthetic reasons, as much warmer fabrics have been developed. To me this is absolutely insane and irrational. Protests outside of fur stores seem rational. Activists who free animals caged and slated for death so that they can become articles of conspicuous consumption are acting rationally, whereas imprisoning these activists as terrorists is ludicrous.

Irrational is torturing large animals to the point of mental break-down so that they will do tricks in circuses.  Irrational is pretending that zoos teach people about wildlife and conservation.   Animals in small cages who are suffering mental and physical health conditions due to their unnatural environment provide no clear insight into the “wild” and often live shorter lives than they would in the wild—they suffer to make money for people. Rational is the parent who refuses to let her or his child go on a field trip to an aquarium or zoo, insisting on instilling and ethic of compassion rather than domination . Irrational is breeding “pets” while over 4 million cats and dogs in the U.S. this year alone will be put to death because no one will provide them a home. Rational is protesting at a pet store that sells animals from puppy mills.

The list goes on, but to summarize: all animal exploitation industries make money off of animals suffering and in the process usually contribute to additional human health and social problems. This is just not rational. Fighting to save these lives and protect others (human and not human) is rational.

The idea that rationality is antithetical to emotion is wrong. Emotion and compassion in no way preclude rationality. In fact, emotion is possibly the greatest catalysts for the most rational reactions to the atrocities mentioned above. The most rational and logical thing a person can do is to value life and to fight for freedom. When learning about any one of the above atrocities it is in no way rational to defend or try to justify the behavior. It is certainly not rational not to react, to refuse to change, and to continue in abusive behaviors compulsively and unreflexively.

Remaining silent is irrational and refusing to change is criminal. The most rational responses are emotions—fear, pain, tears—and the bravest course of action is to react to these emotions by speaking out, fighting back, and by refusing to be complacent.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2011 3:01 am

    You write: “Remaining silent is irrational and refusing to change is criminal.” I couldn’t agree more, the specter of supposedly “good people” doing unspeakable things to sentient beings (or paying to have them done) and then often those self-same “good people” protesting their “compassion” and/or their concern for animal “welfare” or the environment is indeed the height of irrationality. The disconnect from reality that passes for “normal” in most cultures is frightening and grotesque.

    Thanks for this great post.

  2. January 5, 2011 12:13 pm

    Bravo, Vegina. Animal rights has always seemed to me the most rational position of all. Stay strong, and keep writing inspiratioal material like this.

  3. January 5, 2011 1:19 pm

    Thank you for this. My life is filled with humans constantly telling me that I’m too emotional and that if I just think a bit more rationally about it all I’ll be OK.
    Well, Rational science proves you are correct.
    Rationality stems from emotion, and that emotion stems from bodily senses.
    The leading expert on emotion and rationality is Antonio Damasio.
    His 1994 book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, won the Science et Vie prize, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and is translated in over 30 languages. It is regarded as one of the most influential books of the past two decades.
    Simply put his research (on human beings) proves that a person cannot be rational without feeling an emotion first. His main finding that turned the scientific world upside down was that people who cannot feel emotional about something… cannot make decisions…plain and simple.

    Thank you for your well written and rational post.

  4. January 14, 2011 5:26 pm

    Not only is it not rational for a person to have no empathy but it’s also immature in the sense that these people are not fully formed or complete in their emotional development. A whole person has a full range of feelings and the ability to (rationally) express those awarenesses. Someone who has never learned to care about others is stuck in an infant-like, intellectual slumber. Sadly, and with relentless dogma, those who are motivated by justice and compassion are called the “dreamers”. What a nightmare of a world turned inside out…

  5. Tru Day permalink
    January 21, 2011 7:35 pm


    You talk about both your intellectual and activist roles. You’ve said, “Because I am an academic by trade, I spend my days tempering my perspective in the hopes that I can be even-handed, avoid alienating readers or misinterpreting data. I can only do that if I also get space to let my vegan vagina roar. …. I don’t care if I alienate you. I do not intend to be even-handed.”
    You are a researcher, rising star in sociology, and animal rights spokesperson with strong activist activities. I’m wondering how you maintain objectivity in research when you realistically are very opinionated in the activist’s rights issues that you are studying? Objective research demands even-handedness? On the surface this would appear to be a conflict that could damage your “intellectual” role. Don’t get me wrong, I admire your commitment. I’m really trying to resolve my own similar issues of professional integrity conflicting with some core activist beliefs. Both are a part of me, but if I “come out” it could greatly impact or be the end of a growing career that I love. Any thoughts?

    • January 25, 2011 11:48 pm

      To be evenhanded, I ask research questions to which I don’t have a preconceived notion of what the answer should be. In other words, I am not in vested in one finding over another. So, right now I research the effect of government repression on the movement. I may find that it makes the movement grow stronger. I may instead find that it makes the movement weaker. Either way, I am okay with the answer. It is necessary knowledge, so I can research in an area I care about and ask a question I can examine honestly.
      I also have the benefit of being able to “come out.” For example, when I write about repression, I state clearly to my readers that I am an animal rights activist. I also have the freedom to choose what I research, and my interests are reflected. For example, I have written academically on the ways that sexism can harm the animal rights movement. I do not claim to be objective. No research is objective. For example, if vivisectors did not have the subjective belief that animals were less important than humans, there would have been developed different research methods to search for cures to diseases. If people who engaged in medical research were affected by HIV/AIDS we would have cures for those things, but instead we have cures for impotence and infertility. ALL research is biased in the questions asked.

      • rabbit permalink
        March 30, 2011 1:06 pm


  6. February 13, 2011 2:48 am

    Thank you Vegina. Beautifully stated. It’s interesting that you say emotionality is devalued as being imagined as ‘subjective, erratic and feminine’. That’s a frequently heard statement. In my work as a medical doctor I repeatedly stress to our ,juniors that they must not lose their ’emotionality’ with their patients. It may hurt at times, and they may feel they need to ‘keep their distance’, but if they lose that connection they become poorer doctors. There’s huge value in keeping that ’emotionality’.

    It took my leaving my family and my birth country to truly ‘come out’ with animal rights. My family ridiculed me while loving me at the same time – ‘Are you going to eat those carrots? You know they have feelings too.’ They, in no uncertain terms, emotionally emasculated me at Sunday lunches. Moving countries is what allowed me to be truly me. To love more, care more. Be more feminine and more masculine. And more rational in this world.

  7. rabbit permalink
    March 30, 2011 1:08 pm

    This is my favorite of your posts.

  8. Lavender permalink
    May 10, 2011 10:05 am

    The abuse of animals, any kind of animal, is morally wrong in my eyes. But animal rights activist need to learn about what agriculture really is before they jump to such irrational conclusions. Factory farms are NOT agriculture: they are factories owned by big-name corporations who want to make a significant profit. Agriculturalists have been suffering from the actions of these corporations because the blame is put on all things related to agriculture. Go to a real beef farm: cows and calves have hundreds of acres to roam and graze in the summer, and have much spacious shelter in the winter. They are NOT fed an all-grain diet; in fact, 80% of their diet is grass, hay, and silage. If they were fed no grain at all, the animals would be very weak. Hormones are never used on these animals, they are merely vaccinated and poured with dewormer for their own health and comfort. They are checked by a vet three times a year, and are only slaughtered when they are too old to have calves. These cattle are healthy, happy, and live full lives. Cattle on feed lots have plenty of space to roam, and eat a healthy balance of hay and grains. They are slaughtered not because they are “so heavy they can’t even stand up,” but because that is their purpose! They could live just as long as any animal, but in order for humans to thrive, the animals must serve their purpose. That is how it has been for thousands of years.
    Animal rights activists must stop attacking agriculture and instead turn to attacking the corporations who run these so called “factory farms.” They are the ones pumping up thousands of animals with hormones, putting e.coli into our food, making our society obese by making their products cheap and fattening, and not performing their routine inspections of farms that may be abusing their animals. Blame the media for emphasizing fatty products and fast-food one-thousand times more than they emphasize vegetables and healthy foods. Blame society for being biased and only learning one side of an argument, and for attacking the most essential part of our world’s food foundation: farmers. Without farmers, there would be no meat OR vegetables, OR any other sort of food for that matter.

    • May 11, 2011 7:15 am

      Hi Lavender… I think you’re missing the point of animal “rights” activism. I’m sure there are many cows and other animals living a relatively “happy” and fulfilled life. I’m sure they are enjoying all the natural benefits of space, appropriate food, sunshine, etc. But what then is the justification for removing contented animals from this earth? I always ask myself by what “right” have I to end a life?

      You say it is animal’s “purpose” to serve man. That man requires their flesh, blood and bone to thrive. I totally disagree with this as do millions of others living excellent, healthy lives on plant based diets.

      I have a deep respect for the people who raise my food. I am nourished by what they harvest from the ground. I have no need or want of the things gotten through deliberate killing… No matter how “contented” that life was. Perhaps this is the difference between “farmers” and “harmers”? One grows food for humans… The others filter food through animals first. It is not only a terribly inefficent system but a very unkind one as well. It’s clear to me we would not perish if not for “meat” – Indeed I say the world would be better fed and healthier without.

  9. Anna Sanderson permalink
    May 13, 2011 7:12 am

    I believe that it is a flawed system, but not one that should be eliminated. This fall, I am attending University of Illinois and majoring in Animal Husbandry because I want to change the ways animals are slaughtered. The way it is practiced right now – I agree – is not always effective, not completely humane, and not to mention very unsanitary. Animals will ALWAYS be used for meat, and because there is no reason in fighting it, I want to change the standard. Temple Grandin has already made the way animals are slaughtered much more humane with her chute and pouring systems. I want to strive for cleanliness, painless killing, and animal dignity.
    Animals do have rights – to live without pain, to be nourished, and to be treated with dignity. Their dignity should be fulfilled even up until they are slaughtered. They should be treated as sacred vessels giving humans their bodies for our own nourishment; the way they are packed into slaughterhouses today completely defies that idea. This is not the fault of the producer; rather, it is the fault of the USDA for having such low restrictions in today’s slaughterhouses.
    Most American farmers raise meat animals AND crops. They grow corn, oats, hay, straw, soybeans…much of it supporting their herds, with the rest going to consumers. Actually, very few who farm the land do not keep some sort of livestock. Meat animals are their main source of income, as selling crops can be faulty due to weather and blights and does not exactly bring in thousands of dollars.
    People need to eat LESS meat. The average person cannot (and probably would not) just completely cut it out of their diet…they would have to slowly wean themselves off of it because it is a primary source of protein and fat in their diets. People eat TOO MUCH meat today, which contributes to this overwhelming obesity dilemma. Mostly, people need to become more educated about their meat. Average people these days have no idea where and how ANY of their food was made, and therefore have no respect for the animals sacrificed and the farmers who toiled for it. The average livestock producer lives a very respectable way of life and treats their animals with utmost dignity; it is the thoughtless consumer who wastes the animal’s life by not educating themselves about how it arrived to their plate. If more consumers were aware, perhaps more standards would be changed.


  1. NEGOTIATION IS OVER – tears and activism, rational responses to irrational behavior

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