Recently I had a conversation with another animal rights activist, and this essay is a culmination of that exchange. It was in large part about the kind of emotional response animal rights activists have to the horrors of animal abuse. This really is my first foray into writing about animal rights in general, so bear with me.
She talked to me about her own personal emotional reactions as a vegan to those in her life who weren’t. She suppresses a feeling of horror at having to sit across from someone who has a meat dinner, she averts herself away from the line of dead animal parts in the meat department of the grocery store, and has trouble forming close relationships with those who sees as normal the violence against animals.
And that is a perfectly understandable reaction. Most people don’t support animal cruelty in a general sense, and are shocked when they are presented with information about the cruelty and torturing of animals in industries that are hidden from public view, with full financial and cultural support. Once the veil has been lifted, it’s quite alarming to see the breadth and scope of the kind of carnage and torture that is committed in the name of fashion, food, entertainment, and research. Those that have been moved enough to make the compassionate choice to not support systematic suffering feel a disconnect with those that continue to do so. It is a natural reaction to want to have nothing to do with people that support cruelty, to separate from them and to be only with others who have made the commitment to be more compassionate. Just as it would be uncomfortable to form a friendship with someone who sees no problem with violence against women, for instance, once one adopts the ethical position of seeing no distinction between animal and human suffering, it would be disagreeable to form a relationship with someone who is willing to lay out money for a product of animal torture.
At first glance, that kind of reaction would seem an antithetical position for an animal rights activist. An AR activist not only recognizes the need for a compassionate stance in their own personal life, but of a need to counter the decades of social and corporate conditioning to convince others of their role of encouraging animal abuse; to do so requires constant interaction in situations and with people that have evidence and products of once-living things. To make the most impact to reduce animal cruelty requires one to interact in the culture that supports it, to inform people of the connection between their money and the cruelty that it supports, to constantly engage, inform, and educate in “mainstream” society.
The fear the activist I talked to had, was in order for someone not to express horror at the constant evidence of agony, one has to avoid thinking about the experience of the victim, to become desensitized. She made the comparison of experiences by emergency medical responders she had talked to. They were passionate about what they did and cared very much, but in order to perform their jobs, they said they felt like it was necessary to shut off the part of the mind that elicit emotional responses to the situations they encounter. They said in order to survive mentally, they had to numb themselves to the experiences of those in anguish. While this person admires the kind of outreach AR groups conducts, she was not sure she could do that, and felt that the outward expression of abhorrence was a natural response to the violence surrounding her; she didn’t enjoy being expected to behave as if she wasn’t horrified.
While I’m certainly no psychologist, and don’t even pretend to know the inner workings of the human mind, I think that the kind of education and outreach that we do doesn’t necessarily involve a level of desensitization to the horrors, but rather a channeling of that visceral human emotion. From my own personal experience, even though I had already been an animal rights activist, after I had watched the movie “Earthlings,” and felt my insides knot up in suppressed rage at the unspeakable torture being shown, that made me more determined to reach out to the rest of the meat-eating, leather-wearing world with renewed vigor and passion in order to convince them of what they are directly supporting. There is no way that the normalized violence will end unless we can convince more and more people of their role in it and have them reject it. I think what we are doing at NARN, and by extension every other AR group, is more a redirection of that horror into a method by which we can convince others of their role in it. By bearing witness to those atrocities, and seeing exactly the hidden costs of the products that I’m constantly surrounded by, it increases my focus and reminds me that no matter what kind of discomfort I feel at any point in my life, it is nothing compared to what animals are constantly subjected to, day-in, day-out. The horror then becomes a call to action.
It is certainly not “bad” vegan behavior to act horrified at the situations and evidence we come in contact with; the point is not about condemning our very human reaction to standardized torture, but more about being aware of the perception by the non-vegan world. Most vegetarians/vegans started off as meat-eaters–still rare is the vegan that was born into the lifestyle. And in most cases it was that initial contact with a pamphlet, a video-viewing, or a polite conversation with an activist that planted the seeds of change. It’s important that non-vegans see vegans as approachable, non-stubborn, and non-judgmental; to treat others with distain and militancy will solidify in their minds that our approach isn’t worth investigating, with the net result being the cause of more suffering, not less.
And while it is still germane to feel disgust, we can still feel hope as well. The animal rights movement is still very young; the modern inception of it has only been around since the 1970’s, and since that time, we’ve made many advances. And we’ve saved countless lives of animals–just imagine how much worse animals would have it now if there weren’t a movement underway to eliminate animal suffering. And while it is important to maintain a compassionate lifestyle, the impact of our entire life spent not eating meat will literally double if we convince even just one person in our lifetime to also choose a more compassionate path. And the more people we reach out to, the more suffering we mitigate and eliminate, and the less viable the current structure of society and industry that allows cruelty will be. And that’s something we can truly feel good about.