Saturday, February 28, 2015

Ration Compassion?

There are many misconceptions about vegetarians, vegans, and animal activists, and it’s a joy to debunk them whenever I can. However, one that leaves me somewhat sad is the assumption that because I care about this issue, I don’t care about others. That in caring about animals, I don’t care about humans, as if compassion for one species means lack of compassion for another. The implication is that humans have a limited capacity for mercy, kindness, and empathy – that we don’t have enough to go around and that we’ll just run out. 

Though I wasn’t explicitly taught to limit my compassion only to humans when I was growing up, I was given messages that encouraged me to have “selective compassion.” Like most children, I was dressed in clothing that depicted animals, I had more stuffed animals than my bed could hold, and every book read to me used animals to teach me – how to count, how to talk, how to read. Yet, as I was being encouraged to love animals, I was also being fed animals – even the very animals I was brought to the zoo to admire! Also like most children, I had a natural instinct to intervene when someone suffered, whether that someone was a human or non-human animal. 

So, years later, when I became vegetarian and an animal advocate, a decision motivated by the very same compassion my parents and society sought to instill in me, I was surprised to encounter people who questioned my choice to widen my circle of compassion. The quality that had been encouraged in me as a child was now met with suspicion – even derision – because of who I included in that circle. The message seemed to be: ‘it’s okay to be compassionate, but let’s not be indiscriminate with it.’ 

Though I don’t believe people have a limited capacity for compassion, I do think our innate childhood compassion gets dulled by the many ways in which our society values convenience and convention above everything else. As a vegan cooking instructor and animal activist, my work is built on a foundation of compassion for all, and, contrary to what some may believe, I’ve found that the more I give, the more I have to go around.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Golden Rule

There seems to be an unspoken societal expectation that vegetarians be as silent about their food choices as possible. Written into this expectation is the following clause: "vegetarians must be considerate, respectful, and sensitive to meat-eaters at all times. They must not speak of their reasons for being vegetarian unless asked first. But when they are asked, they must make their answers as brief and sanitized as possible so as not to upset the meat-eater while he/she finishes lunch." 

I've learned a lot about animals in my many years as an animal advocate, but I have learned much more about human animals. The stereotype that vegetarians talk about being vegetarian all the time is so funny to me, because, well, in my experience, once someone finds out I'm vegetarian, I become their Confessor, counselor, and sounding board. I can't stop them. Unsolicited, they proceed to tell me how often they eat "meat," how much they've cut back, or how they've become vegetarian except for the chickens and fishes they still consume. They tell me they eat only "humanely killed" animals (??), or they challenge me to solve the great hypothetical dilemma: "if everyone went vegetarian overnight, what would we do with all those animals? So, you see, it's much more humane to eat them." Ummmm... 

You see, I really do love every encounter I have with animal-eaters, because it offers me the opportunity to offer a perspective they may not have encountered before (such as "well, stopping breeding usually takes care of any overpopulation concerns"). However, I do wish the expectation of respect was a two-way street. Every vegetarian/animal advocate I know treads ever-so-gently in the speciesist realm in which we live. 

That doesn't mean we don't challenge the status quo through outreach, education, demonstrations, etc. But it does mean that we're sensitive. For instance, when is the last time you heard a vegetarian ask a meat-eater to defend why she eats animals? And yet how many times have you heard a vegetarian asked why he doesn't? Can you imagine a vegetarian saying to a meat-eater "Oh my word! You're a meat-eater? Where do you get your folate, fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and selenium?" And, yet, how many times - how many blessed times - does a vegetarian have to answer the question "where do you get your protein?" 

Frankly, I think vegetarians should start asking our friends and family members these questions, because left unchallenged, our species allows 10 billion land animals to be born into this world every year only to be killed - for nothing. For appetite. Out of habit. In the name of tradition. Every time vegetarianism is silenced, disregarded, ridiculed, disrespected - another heart stops beating. 

Honestly, I can cope with the lack of respect for my choices. What I have a hard time with, however, is that it really has nothing to do with me. I'm just the vegan in the room that reflects all the misery, pain, and suffering of every life that's ended by a steel blade. So, I take my role very seriously and will continue to be as respectful, considerate, and sensitive as I can be. I have to be. Ten billion lives are at stake.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

There are No Neutral Actions

My delightful next-door neighbors leave their day-old NY Times for me on my doorstep every day. It's a great system: they read through the paper each day, and I get to read the Arts section and do the crossword puzzle. (It's how I relax.) The only problem is sometimes if I'm not careful, I get a glimpse of the Dining section. Painful stuff. Now, I know as an activist it's important to 'know thy enemy' and all, but if I took in every article, every advertisement, every piece of propaganda out there, I'd be a puddle right now. A big, wet puddle. 

The other day, as I ritually pulled out the beloved Arts section and started a recycling pile for the rest, I happened to see a cover story in the Despicable Dining section entitled "Reductio ad Perfectionem: What a Pigeon." I knew I should have moved on, proceeded to the crossword puzzle, and sunk into my word play. But, I just couldn't. I had to know. I regretted it the moment I read the first sentence: "A ROAST pigeon changed life. And his career." The author gushed over the chef's "duck foie gras with stuffed duck neck" and "rack of lamb," as I glowered at the description of the chef's "epiphany" the first time he "put fork to pigeon" and realized his training was all wrong." The poor dear went back to his room and cried. Amazing what a dead pigeon can do! 

The thing that frustrates me the most, I think, is that millions of people go about their days thinking these are neutral stories, that our meat-eating culture is just the norm and that anything else is a "political position." I've encountered this trying to get a veg show on TV, trying to get certain articles published in print media, and when told to be careful what I say during a lecture lest I "offend" anyone. The joke that pro-meat-, -dairy, and -egg stories are actually neutral and anything that smacks of "vegetarianism" is political would be funny if it weren't so pathetic. Think of all the product placements, the commercials, the print ads, the dinner scenarios on your favorite shows - they're all political, every one of them, and whatever products appear are a reflection of the interests of the person making the decisions. It's like saying journalists can be "neutral," as if they don't each come with their own agenda. It's nearly impossible. 

I was thrilled and surprised by a breakfast scene in a film called The Secret Lives of Dentists (which I do recommend) when the a carton of what was clearly labeled "soy milk" sat on the table. In another scene, the father was putting their dinner on their plates, and the girls said "what's that?" The father said "it's tofu" and moved on. It was just part of the scene, nothing dramatic, no statement made that was relevant to the scene. But a statement had been made, and it was so refreshing to see a vegetarian meal as a matter-of-fact part of a movie scene. We need more statements like this. 

Each one of us is in a position of power. We influence each other every day in so many ways: what we eat, what we wear, how we spend our free time. None of our decisions are neutral - they're seen and processed by everyone we encounter. If we all knew the power we have to inspire and influence those around us, when it comes to food in particular, perhaps we wouldn't be so afraid of making that statement, of speaking our minds, of speaking our truth. Cause whether you like it or not, you're already sending out a slew of messages about who you are and what you believe just by the way you do your hair or which shoes you wear to work. You don't have to be a journalist to influence minds. Use everything you are and everything you do right now to reflect what you believe. The chef who sticks his forks into dead pigeons and sundry other animals' body parts is making his statement. Why shouldn't you?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Righties of the World

I am a lefty. A proud lefty. No, I'm not talking about my political leanings (though, you can probably guess what they are). I'm talking about the hand I use to write and eat with. Technically I'm ambidextrous, but that's another story. The point is, for all intents and purposes, I am considered a bothersome lefty, mainly because at restaurants I am often told where to sit lest I bump elbows with the almighty "righty." But what if we looked at it another way - my way, for instance. Maybe - just maybe - the righty is sitting on the wrong side of me! Let me give you another example to illustrate my point. I'm 5'5" - not really short, but compared to my 6'3" husband, I'm a shrimp. (And I say that with only affection for shrimp!) Now, who do you think has to stand on her tippy toes and modify her height for the I'm-off-to-work-I'll-see-you-later smooch?? Not the (right-handed) hubby, I assure you. It's all about the lefty accommodating the righty and the shorty accommodating the giant. "That's all very sad," you're probably thinking, "but what does this have to do with vegetarianism?" Glad you asked. 

Let's be honest. Non-vegetarians are the righties of the world. (No political implications intended.) They rule the roost. They call the shots. They play first fiddle. Have you flown on a plane lately? No more options for vegetarians. Nope! Vegetarians be damned! "Want some chicken? Some turkey? Some ham? We have that in spades. Vegetarian? No, sorry. We can't accommodate your special needs." I even heard of a vegetarian who was told by a pizza joint that they could make a pizza with less cheese - but not without cheese. Madness! So, who's to blame, and where do we go from here? 

Certainly, the non-vegetarians are not to blame. Generation after generation, they've been lazily groomed for this position, never knowing how tenuous their sovereignty has been. Well, I have some news for them. Lefties, shorties, vegetarians - hear me now! If ever you have been relegated to the end of the table when you wanted a middle seat; if ever you have strained your body to reach for a glass in a high cabinet; if ever you have had to accept a plate of wilted iceberg lettuce, it is time to claim your power. It is only because we have not asserted our rights that we have endured dry bread, flavorless pasta, and overcooked vegetables that we are second-class citizens. It is time to usurp the non-vegetarian dominance and claim our birthright. And we will prevail. There will come a time when meat-eaters will have to ask for the special meal when traveling, when restaurants will charge extra for adding meat to the standard (i.e. vegetarian) sandwich, when meat-eaters will be subjected to strange looks and countless, endless questions about what they eat and why they eat that way. The time is nigh. Let us not lose a moment. 

In the meantime, non-vegetarians may want to give up peacefully and join the coup. Lay down your sirloin steaks, your turkey breasts, and your chicken legs. Join us where arteries are unblocked, animals are at peace, and cholesterol is normal. As for the righties...well, you're next. 

DISCLAIMER: We have intended no offense to righties (either as a political position or as a handedness preference), to people of tall stature, or to shrimps. If we have offended any non-vegetarians, well, it was all in good fun. :)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Eating Animals

To the animals, it’s all the same. They want to live. If they have wings, they want to fly. If they have legs, they want to walk. If they have voices, they want to communicate. If they have offspring, they want to mother them. To humans who perceive animals as inferior, their lives are here for us to end, their wings and legs are ours to eat, their voices are ours to silence or ignore, and their reproductive cycles are ours to manipulate and use. It’s not the animals but our perception of the animals that enables us to do all sorts of horrific things to them. As with any kind of prejudice, first you have to lower the societal status of the group or individual before you can actually oppress them, and we do this with animals across the board: in the language we use that denigrates them (calling people pigs, calling animals dirty), in the rights and natural behaviors we deny them, in the place we’ve carved out for them in society, making them tools for research, clowns for our enjoyment, delicacies for our palates, and victims of our desires. This dynamic is so ingrained. We learn it at such a young age, and we’re considered quite radical if we question it at all. And we think all the world thinks and acts as we do.

We never stop to consider that our perceptions and treatment of non-human animals is culturally based. Period. Our cultural and personal and familial habits inform so much of what we do on a daily basis. It’s why any talk of the "necessity" of eating animal flesh is balderdash. It has nothing to do with our biologic makeup and everything to do with our cultural foundation, taste habits, and, frankly, our arrogance, the arrogance of the human species. But let's talk about cultural habits for now.

As westerners, most of us were raised eating the dismembered and scorched bodies – otherwise known as meat – of pigs, cows, calves, chickens, fishes, ducks, lambs, and turkeys. Despite the fact that these animals suffered and were killed to satisfy our appetites, many of us draw an arbitrary line and turn our noses up at the people who eat other animals that may not have been on our own dinner plates: animals such as deer, rabbit, or buffalo. People get upset at the thought of eating precious bunny rabbits, as they munch on the leg of what was once a precious calf or baby chick. With even greater indignance we’re shocked at the (also western) cultures who eat horses and goats, and our stomachs turn at the idea of eating frog’s legs, chicken’s feet, cow’s tongues, and monkey’s brains. And with what can be characterized as approval of our own speciesism, we scorn those who eat cats and dogs.

“Can you believe that?” Some people have said to me. “That’s just so upsetting – cats and dogs? I mean really!.” Is something I often hear. And I attempt to mirror the hypocrisy of their remark by saying: “You know what I heard? I heard people eat the shoulders of pigs and the wings of birds! Can you believe that?” OK it doesn’t have the same shock value, but it would if that person lived in a place where that was unheard of. In the workshops I teach, do an exercise that works quite effectively to get this across. I give the group a handout that talks about the growing number of farms raising dogs for their milk, about how this is a growing trend that’s popular in different parts of the world. People get outraged. They get really upset to hear about the female dogs in confinement, chained up, made and kept pregnant so they will keep lactating, taking away the babies so humans can have the dogs’ milk, etc. After everyone records their reactions, I reveal that the article was really about goat’s milk before I replaced all the references to goats with the word “dog.” It’s at that moment that everyone feels the impact of their reactions. They begin to question why they reacted so strongly when they thought it was about dogs and that they don’t think twice about drinking cow’s milk (and now goat’s milk and sheep’s milk, which are being touted as necessary health food for humans). It’s a powerful exercise, and it’s hard to do, because it’s so hard to look at the world through a different lens. But it’s what we need to do to see the absurdity of our choices.

In writing these podcasts and the essays for my newsletter, it’s always a struggle finding the words and the photos that will be effective enough without turning people off. The photos of dogs and cats raised for their flesh in parts of Asia (particularly Korea and China) are so horrific for people, because they’ve never seen dogs and cats in such gruesome circumstances. It’s the way most of us react when we first see the animals we kill and eat in this country, but it’s a little more upsetting I think, because most people haven’t had personal relationships with pigs, cattle, chickens, turkeys, etc. I can understand having a strong reaction. I really can. But I also think it’s important we recognize that the deep roots of our desensitization enable us to allow animals here to be imprisoned, confined, denied, abused, and tortured so that we can satisfy a palate preference, whether that preference is for the legs and wings of chickens, the backsides of pigs, or the sides of cows. – it comes down to the cultural habit that has been ingrained in us. The dogs and cats, the goats and horses – they’re all cultural habits of other countries. Just as some cultures or religions choose vegetarian – it’s all cultural. It has nothing to do with biology. If we can remember that, perhaps we wouldn’t be so quick to judge other cultures but would instead rise up to oppose what we do in our own. On the other hand, I don’t believe culture, tradition, or religion are adequate excuses for cruelty. Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the great humanitarian wrote, “The thinking [person] must oppose all cruel customs no matter how deeply rooted in tradition and surrounded by a halo. When we have a choice, we must avoid bringing torment and injury into the life of another.” I couldn’t agree more or have said it more eloquently. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Just because we’ve always done something doesn’t mean it’s the best thing or the right thing to do. And when we know better, we can choose better. To the animals, it’s all the same. Whether they meow, snort, bark, winny, moo, quack, gobble, hop, fly, swim, or run, they all feel pain, loss, and fear. A Korean dog wants to live and resists death as much as an American duck. To the animals kept and killed for human pleasure, it’s all the same.— the loneliness, the pain, the screams, the darkness, the torment, the fear, the cold, the heat, the untreated illnesses, the longing, the frustration, the boredom, the desire to flee, the desire to live. When we can recognize that we share all of this with non-human animals, perhaps we’d reconsider the choices we make on a daily basis. Consider this – they’re all habits, and habits were meant to be broken. It takes three weeks to break old and form new habits. There’s no reason – only excuses – not to at least try.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Children & Animals - Mixed Messages

I have some very good (vegan) friends who are raising their daughter vegan as well. She is almost three now, and her favorite book is Victor, the Vegetarian. She asks to have it read to her every day - though she can recite the whole story herself. She is just starting to understand what it means to not eat animals or their milk or eggs, as explained very eloquently by her parents: "The cow's milk is for her babies. We don't want to take the milk away from the babies." Pretty simple if you ask me, but to some people, it's actually considered radical to tell the truth. I had someone ask me once, very innocently, "so if you had children, would you impose your viewpoints on them and not feed them meat?" My head reeled, as there were so many ways to answer that question. 

First of all, parents impose their viewpoints on their kids all the time. It's called raising children. I don't know of many people who actually raise their children with values that don't coincide with their own. And as for the choice not to feed children meat, I can't think of a more consistent message to give to children. I grew up learning that my dog was worthy of loving but the bodies of animals who covered my dinner plate were worthless - or, rather, killed for me! Fortunately, by the time I heard that disturbing justification, I was desensitized enough not to notice. I was (implicitly) taught that the bird with the broken wing who was lucky enough to fall in my yard was worthy of saving, but the chickens and turkeys who "give their lives for us" were valuable only in so far as their flesh was tender and juicy. 

It is such a joy to watch my friends give consistent and compassionate messages to their daughter, aware though they are that we live in a culture that doesn't support these messages of truth but that encourages instead messages of domination and control. My friends have a wonderful sense of humor that has been passed onto their daughter, and we've had so much fun making up new words to animal-unfriendly songs. "Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool? Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full; One for the master, One for the dame, And one for the little boy, Who lives down the lane" becomes instead: "Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool? Yes sir, yes sir, but it's not meant for you. I have none for the master, None for the dame, And none for the little boy, Who lives down the lane." You have to sing it to appreciate the beauty of it! :) The little piggy who had roast beef (a little human projection there?) has roasted veggies, and the teacher doesn't actually kick Mary's lamb out of the school, as she does at the conventional ending of that nursery rhyme. 

Seriously, though, I grew up singing "A Hunting We Will Go," "The Bumblebee Song" ("I'm squishing up a baby bumblebee..."), "Three Blind Mice" ("They all ran after the farmer's wife, who cut off their tails with a carving knife")! Granted, I was taught some nice songs about eency weency spiders climbing up water spouts and about a mouse who ran up and down a clock, but I have to say even in those years when I didn't know these songs were reinforcing the lowly status of animals, I was none too thrilled singing about the old woman who swallowed a fly and sundry other animals. It really grossed me out! 

Some people label as "politically correct" any attempt to reframe the familiar. Every message we teach to children becomes part of them, and any attempt to teach children compassion is not, in my mind, politically correct, but it is correct. I recently watched a video of my (non-vegetarian) niece sing Thanksgiving songs whose lyrics included "Grab a turkey and stuff him in the oven." It broke my heart. She didn't even understand what she was singing, but it reinforces the fact that she is fed turkeys. But then I thought of my little 3-year-old friend and how she will never have to go through a painful period of realizing the animals she was taught to love are actually the animals who suffer so much just for her pleasure. There is no greater joy than watching her process the actions of Victor, the main character in her favorite book, who saves lambs from being killed for his supper. "Auntie Col," she'll say as she pets our cats, "we love the lambs. We don't eat them. Read it again." There really is no greater joy.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

No Excuse for Compassionate Eating

There seem to be as many excuses to eat meat as there are land animals killed for such a purpose (10 billion in the U.S. each year, by the way) and though I have heard many of these excuses, I have yet to hear a convincing reason. I don’t think people really give much thought to the justifications they create; or rather, they have never really been challenged when they say such things as “If we didn’t kill and eat animals, the world would be overrun with them” or “These incisors in my mouth prove that we were meant to eat animals.” Lacking the space to address these tenuous arguments, I would rather focus on one that sounds fair enough on the surface, but which falls apart upon closer examination. It goes something like this: "Eating meat is my personal preference, and since I respect your desire not to eat animals, I would appreciate your respecting my preference to dine on them." 
The problem with this justification is that it assumes there is no victim, no other. It implies that the meat-eater’s desires, traditions, culture, or taste buds are superior to anything — or anyone — else and that because of this, he or she is absolved from the harm eating meat causes. 

As a society, we collectively decide that certain behaviors, certain actions, certain personal preferences are inappropriate or morally reprehensible, particularly when they cause injury or harm to another. When confronted, abusive parents or spouses often protest that it is nobody else's business how they treat their child/wife/husband, that people should not meddle into their affairs, and that they can do what they like in their own home. Though there was a time when the law protected such people and practices, this is no longer the case. As conscious consumers, we make choices every day about the products we buy — we choose those that do not contribute to child labor, those that use the least amount of the Earth's resources, those that do not exploit indigent farmers. How, then, can we possibly ignore the animals whose miserable lives have been so violently cut short because we hold onto a particular taste preference or habit? The animals whose bodies we have locked up, used up, and cut up for our enjoyment are no different than the victims of domestic abuse who, if they had a choice — if they had a voice — would choose not to be tormented or killed. 

When we take away the choice of another and then use that as license to hurt or kill, we are participating in an egregious act of cruelty — whether we do it ourselves or pay others to do it for us. We only tell ourselves that our personal choice is our own business — our own preference — so we can sleep soundly at night. A choice made from personal preference might be the color I paint my bathroom, the kind of car I buy, or the way I style my hair.But a personal choice to hurt someone else? Deconstructed, it comes out looking like an unpleasant credo to live by. Yet, because millions of people do live by it, billions of animals unnecessarily die by it — year in and year out. 

There are as many reasons not to eat animals as there are lives that could be saved by making a simple dietary change. One of the joys of being vegetarian is that my behavior is consistent with my values, and though it’s not a perfect world and I’m not a perfect person, it feels pretty good knowing that my personal choices reflect nonviolence, compassion, kindness, and simplicity. Adopting a vegetarian lifestyle is the best choice I’ve ever made, and I’ve never had to offer any excuses for it.

Living in a Vegan World - in my head, that is!

I'm one of those people who sometimes lives in my own Happy Vegan World - in my head, that is. It's a great place to be, and you're invited to visit anytime. For instance, when I'm eating in a non-vegetarian restaurant and I hear people order "chicken," for a moment my brain assumes they're ordering vegetarian "chicken" because my point of reference for "chicken" is a live, friendly, cooing bird - and why would anyone order that in a restaurant!? Sometimes it's fun living in this world, because I get to pretend - if only for a moment - that everyone sees things as I do. But it doesn't last. I'm quickly reminded that the "chicken" on that restaurant menu doesn't come close to resembling the birds who once lived - complete with feathers and a brain and a desire to live. The pain of that reminder is often very acute (and is the reason I tend to eat primarily in vegetarian restaurants)!

I've said this before, and I will say it again: I didn't always see the world this way. I didn't always wince when I saw someone gnawing on a chicken's leg or on a pig's rib cage, because I, too, ate those things at one time. That's the beauty of being human, isn't it? Having new perspectives, trying new experiences, creating new habits. And goodness knows humans love their habits! (Some might even say we're stubborn. I'll just say we're steadfast and leave it at that.)

The truth behind humans' exploitation of animals is so hidden, disguised, ritualized, and rationalized that we're encouraged not to think about it at all. It's like we're all walking around in a dream - a dream that provides sustenance, comfort, and the very foundation on which we build our lives. The risk of waking up and having everything turned upside down is too great - so great that we're taught not to use such words as slaughter, dead, corpse, carcass, flesh or refer to hamburgers as "calves," bacon as "pigs," or even chicken as "chickens." We're taught that animals are made for us, that they sacrifice their lives for us, that if they lead relatively happy lives (the 1% that do) there's nothing wrong with killing them.

I once heard a father playing a "question and answer" game with his daughter. She was to think of an animal, and he was supposed to ask questions until he was able to guess what animal she was thinking of. After a series of questions whose answers gave him clues, he asked if it was red. She said it was. The father said he knew the answer! It was a lobster! She very excitedly answered "YES! You guessed right!" And I thought - a lobster?? Red? I wanted to shout: "Lobsters aren't red! It's only when they're cooked that the red pigment in their shell comes out. Lobsters aren't red!" But I didn't shout - or say anything at all, because I would have been pegged a trouble maker, an upstart, a radical. I didn't speak up, and do you know I regret it to this day? It seems like a small thing, but a voice is a terrible thing to waste - especially when you're speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves. I watched sadly as that little girl was fed lobster flesh (oops! I said that word) and was inured to any pain that animal endured while being boiled alive...

...And I longed to retreat to the place in my my Happy Vegan World, where "chicken" is vegetarian, where all fur is faux, and where people don't assume all "milk" is from cows. It's nice living in this happy place, if only for a moment. I encourage you to visit once in awhile; that is, until we all awaken from our dream and live here for good.