|Enewsletter • September 11, 2002|
Like most Americans, today our thoughts turn to the events of one
Week of 9/11/2001
I know that factory farms have not been emptied. I know that slaughterhouses have not been shut down. I even know that greater human tragedies have occurred, and that tremendous human suffering continues around the world.
I can logically understand all these things, and yet, I have to admit that, having been involved in animal advocacy for a decade now, the events of Tuesday affected me unlike anything else ever had.
"What are you going to do?" my brother asks over email. What can I do? Can I do anything to lessen, let alone remove the hatred in the world? Can I address other's despair when that is what I feel? Can I end poverty, deprivation, fanaticism? Starvation, sickness, violence? This week, I have felt a pointlessness of trying to say or do anything, the naivete of calling for a vegan utopia in the face of fiery fury, murderous malice.
Is it futile? Can one really expect a better world when people will immolate themselves with the only purpose to horrifically slaughter as many fellow human beings in a certain country as possible?
One answer might be: "What choice do we have?" Is the horror in the world really such that we are unable to accomplish anything? I think that, when taken as a whole, history indicates that progress has been made towards a more just world. Those trying to extend the circle of ethics have met with halting yet relatively steady success. As pointed out in The Economist (8/19/95): "Historically, man has expanded the reach of his ethical calculations, as ignorance and want have receded, first beyond family and tribe, later beyond religion, race, and nation." Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "The arc of history is long, but bends toward justice."
The arc doesn't bend on its own, however. Rather, it has been bent by dedicated efforts of those who refuse to be cowed by the oft-seeming hopelessness of humanity. The hard, sometimes impossible progress has been made by those who look beyond the travesties of their time, to force, through shear force of will and that magical, impossible blend of pragmatic idealism, the next turn in the path of humanity.
Obviously, the arc of history is jagged. Yet because of those before us who dedicated their lives to justice and compassion rather than anger and hatred, we also face unprecedented opportunity. Instead of having to struggle for basic liberties for ourselves or other humans around us, we are able to seek to address the suffering of unseen individuals of other species.
This week, it may seem an absurd goal. Yet despite all the horror and continued suffering, if we are to make an honest assessment, we, like the selfless visionaries before, have to take the broader view. As The Economist concluded, "To bring other species more fully into the range of these decisions may seem unthinkable to moderate opinion now. One day, decades or centuries hence, it may seem no more than 'civilized' behavior requires." It is up to us to make this happen, but to do this, we must not allow ourselves to be defeated not only the pettiness and banalities of our time, but also the evils.
To paraphrase Camus: "Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which there is suffering. But we can lessen the number of those suffering. And if you do not help us do this, who will?" I believe that we must continue to do what we can to make a better world, to alleviate the suffering, to lessen the violence, to counter the hatred, to expand the circle, to bend the arc. I believe that this is our ethical duty, our human duty. Not just so violence doesn't triumph. Not just because it is the most purposeful thing we can do with our lives. Not even just for those who are suffering. We must continue, if only to honor those who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much for us.
A week after the bombings occurred, I spent my day videotaping animals at slaughterhouses and on factory farms. I saw ducks being shackled at the slaughterhouse, a downed cow at a slaughterhouse, pigs in pens awaiting slaughter, and baby female calves chained by the neck in tiny stalls.
On the way there, I thought of the bombings. And on the way back my mind was filled with images of what I had just seen, what happened in NYC, and a fear of what was to come.
I wish everyone could see inside of factory farms and slaughterhouses. The media is the quickest avenue through which to achieve this, but we all know that media interest will be lacking for awhile. This does not mean our efforts should diminish. We can remind people that during this time when we don't have much control over world events, there is still something they can do. By going vegan, they can help to end some of the horror in the world.
We had leafleting events in San Francisco and Berkeley this past weekend and both were very positive. Not one person made a negative comment on us being there so soon after the bombings. There was a church next door to one of our events and the people were supportive as they walked by and took our literature.
Perhaps compassion is filling some people's hearts and it is a good time for us to bring our message to them.
Helping in a Time of Helplessness
As I watched the footage of businesspeople jumping to their deaths, families grieving for their lost loved ones, and all of the other horrors of the past week, I must admit that I felt a sense of helplessness. In the face of such atrocity, I wanted nothing more than to help those in need, if even only in the most minor way. I quickly realized however, that there was little, if anything, the vast majority of us could do to alleviate the suffering.
My thoughts then shifted focus to what could be done to prevent future similar tragedies, and again, I came up short. Despite our president's PR-driven assurances that the attacks occurred because the United States is a "beacon of freedom," I knew all too well that these attacks were committed because of specific U.S. foreign policies which–rightly or wrongly–enrage much of the Muslim world.
As I can't do much to comfort the victims' families nor do I feel that I'm in a position to change U.S. foreign policy, I sank deeper into feelings of helplessness. Are we truly powerless in the struggle against violence and terror?
Perhaps on the international terrorism front, there isn't much normal citizens like myself can do. However, while my attention has understandably been focused primarily on terrorism lately, it was helpful for me to remember that there is indeed much individuals like myself can do to make the world a gentler, more compassionate place to inhabit.
By continuing to promote veganism and animal liberation, we're able to contribute to the building of a better world in a very direct way, thereby giving our lives the meaning we're desperately searching for in this time of helplessness.
A reason for my terror while pondering the recent attacks was due to the vulnerability of the American people to these kinds of atrocities. But, we need to remember that there is no group of individuals more vulnerable than the nonhuman animals we systematically terrorize and kill by the millions each and every day, with virtually no one grieving their losses or even recognizing our status as oppressors in their eyes.
The animals we institutionally exploit also feel pain and suffering. They also care about their lives and the lives of their loved ones. For them, there is nothing more important than the creation of a world where being born into the "wrong" species isn't a crime punishable by a lifetime of torture followed by an unimaginable death.
Each one of us can help create that world. While we may not be able to correct all of the world's injustices, it is imperative that each of us do what we can to make the world a better place for us having lived in it. After all, what reason is there to live if we can't say that our existence was more helpful than harmful?
—Paul Shapiro, Compassion Over Killing
War and Activism
The United States' government is now preparing for war. This might make someone think that efforts for animals have become futile. However, it should be pointed out that major social progress can and has occurred during times of war. The time during which the U.S. was involved in Vietnam saw much progress for many social movements. The creation of the Environmental Protection Agency is just one example. There were also advances to protect animals, such as The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and The Endangered Species Act of 1973.
I would not say that this was the case during the Gulf War. I don't have any direct measurement to go by, but my experience was that animal activism dropped off drastically and did not pick up for a year or two afterwards. We can make sure this does not happen again.
“I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here”
The issues posed by Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, global arms proliferation, global poverty, and other socio-politically caused suffering, are difficult ones. Understandably, people at every point on the political spectrum feel confused and powerless. There is so much violence and suffering in the world, and events like those of September 11 thrust that reality upon us in a way that is impossible to ignore. People are searching both for ways to respond and for ways to regain their sense of control and calm.
Few people understood the world's evils better than folk legend Phil Ochs. In one of my favorite Ochs songs, he lists all the awfulness in the world, a catalog of ills that could dishearten the most optimistic person, and then he notes that we will not be able to fight for change after death, declaring, "I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here." I've been listening to this song a lot over the past 10 days.
The animal rights message is, I believe, a powerful response to this violence, and it represents something that people can do to make the world a better and less violent place. Each time any of us sits down to eat, we make a choice: Do we want to add to the level of violence, terror, suffering, and death in the world? Or do we prefer a compassionate, life-giving, vegan choice? This is a message that we, as compassionate people, can and must offer to society. Now is the time to redouble our efforts and bring our message of compassion to those who are more open than ever before to making changes in their daily lives that will give them a sense of empowerment and that will help ease suffering, terror, and death.
Although I haven't really felt it since September 11, I do often think of myself as one of the luckiest people alive. If I weren't working for PETA, I would be devoting all my spare time to animal activism and would have to devote my work time elsewhere. Because I feel this way, I strive to devote 60 hours or more per week to animal activism, so that I can approximate what so many of our activists are doing. I know how incredibly lucky I am to have access to PETA's resources and the exceptionally competent PETA staff working with me through it all.
Because I've been at PETA during this time of crisis, I've had more time than most people to consider what sort of response seems appropriate for animal activists. Most importantly, I return to the fact that the level of animal abuse in society is beyond anything we can easily imagine. The other animals feel pain as we do, they are horrified at the sights and smells inside the slaughterhouse, and they're afraid to die. Like us, they fight for their lives and wish to avoid pain. People must understand that if they are eating meat, they are promoting violence and killing on a massive scale: Animals raised for food lead lives of utter misery and die violent and gruesome deaths. This level of evil requires a clear-headed focus on how we can change the world, one person at a time.
I have watched, repeatedly, PETA's "Meet Your Meat" video as well as our recent Seaboard pig farm investigational video. They help me focus on the level of suffering involved in eating animal products. They help me speak up when the situation is uncomfortable. They help me realize that I can part with that extra cash I was going to spend on some personal knickknack; people (and the animals) need more resources for spreading veganism. I'm not living the animals' hell, so I feel it necessary to keep the suffering in my mind's eye, because it's more comfortable and too easy to forget.
The level of suffering demands that we reflect on what method is going to be the most useful and effective in turning people toward veganism. It is easy to become self-righteous, interpersonally violent and abusive, condescending or snide, or noticeably angry. We know how the animals suffer, and it's frustrating to deal with people who display ignorance or apathy.
But the animals deserve better. It may be personally satisfying to tell off (or write off) a meat-eater, but the animal suffering requires that we ponder our most effective method of conversion. I personally know the satisfaction of walking away from a conversation having really "told off" some obnoxious meat-eater, and I know what it's like to decide, "(S)he just won't listen." But unfortunately, such interactions don't bring people one iota closer to veganism; if anything, they do the opposite. How many of us know animal activists who are condescending and unpleasant in their activism? How many of us have ever been influenced by someone like that on any issue?
The animals require that we speak up, and they require that we come across as likable, thoughtful, and willing to listen. I recommend that everyone take the time to read How to Win Friends and Influence People. If it works for the corporate executives and public relations gurus, it can work for us. The lessons are basic but extremely useful.
A similar issue is the human tendency to avoid conflict. "Why are you a vegan?" someone will ask, an edge to their voice. Alarm bells go off; your body prepares for fight or flight. You take the easy way out, "It's just my personal decision." Whew. Conflict avoided. But, again, the animals deserve better. At the very least, practice in front of a mirror saying a few of the things that move you the most about veganism. And carry a small stack of Why Vegan? booklets with you everywhere you go. Give them to anyone who asks (and leave them in doctors' offices, etc., where people are likely to want something to read).
The tragedy of September 11 and its aftermath pose an array of difficult questions. I am reminded of the words of Nobel Prize winner and holocaust historian Isaac Bashevis Singer, who stated, "Nuclear power, starvation, cruelty–we must make a statement against these things. Vegetarianism is my statement. And I think it's a strong one." Each new vegan represents a huge victory for compassion and nonviolence, a victory of good over evil in the world.