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Belief on the Right Side of History

Matt Ball

Most people think a concern for animals is limited to liberals. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Lots of Vegan Outreach leafleters report better reception at places like Brigham Young than the University of Colorado in Boulder. Indeed, Berkeley is known as the toughest leafleting school in the country.

I am a good example as well. I was raised in a conservative religious family, went to religious schools all the way through high school. I read Ayn Rand, considered myself a neo-con, and supported Republicans.

Three events changed my outlook.

The first was when I was in high school – an older cousin I had admired left our church and joined the Bahai religion. As nearly everyone I knew – my circle of friends, classmates, etc. – were all the same religion, I had never really considered other religions; when I did, I thought about slightly “wrong” versions of Christianity.

Yet here was a very different religion that led my cousin to leave our church.

Obviously, my first reaction was to simply dismiss my cousin as misguided, and the Bahai religion as heresy. But in the back of my mind, I wondered.

The second event was reading the book Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Goldhagen. This book disproved the common myth that the Nazi’s extermination of Jews, gypsies, atheists, and others was done without the support of the German people. In reality, the Germans knew what was going on, and, except for a relatively small proportion of the population, supported it.

Now I had always been horrified by slavery in our country. The idea of people treating other people as mere property, and that so many people would fight and die for the “right” to do so was both shocking and appalling. Simply and utterly bewildering.

But Goldhagen’s book about Germany showed something more – a society that turned on its fellow citizens and methodically exterminated them.

Obviously, the normal reaction is to assume that I would have been a part of the Underground Railroad, protected the Anne Franks of the world, etc. But…really? Did I really, honestly think that I would have gone against the overwhelming majority of my society? If I had been raised in a slave-holding household in a slave-holding society, would I really have stood up? Did I honestly think I would have been different from nearly everyone else?

And if all these millions could fully believe things that, today, are so obviously absurd and repulsive, well, how could I assume everything I currently believed was absolutely right? If so many would willingly support gruesome atrocities, how can I possibly think everything today is morally pure? Even if I’m not chaining up a slave, or leading my fellow citizens to the gas chambers, isn’t it possible – even probable – that I am at least tacitly supporting another horror – one that future generations will also look upon with bewilderment?

The answer came my first year of college, where I met my vegetarian roommate. Fred – a big block of a man – introduced me to the horrors of modern agribusiness.

Now again, I was not a liberal. I was a middle-class kid who dreamed of a good career, a bigger house, a fast car, a fancy stereo system, trips and good food, etc. That first week of college, my parents and I planned to celebrate my future graduation at the city’s five-star French restaurant.

So I didn’t go vegetarian. As uncomfortable as Fred made me with his stories of how animals were treated on farms – the brandings, the debeakings, the tail dockings, the confinement, etc. – I justified eating animals by saying that they were just animals.

But the stories did bother me. We obviously could show you gruesome video footage that would turn your stomach – more is released every month, some just a few days ago – but I’d rather give a description from the New York Times Magazine:

Pig farm Pig farm (photo courtesy of Farm Sanctuary).

Piglets in confinement operations are weaned from their mothers [quickly] because they gain weight faster on their hormone- and antibiotic-fortified feed. This premature weaning leaves the pigs with a lifelong craving to suck and chew, a desire they gratify in confinement by biting the tail of the animal in front of them. A normal pig would fight off his molester, but a demoralized pig has stopped caring. “Learned helplessness” is the psychological term, and it’s not uncommon in confinement operations, where tens of thousands of hogs spend their entire lives ignorant of sunshine or earth or straw, crowded together beneath a metal roof upon metal slats suspended over a manure pit. So it’s not surprising that an animal as sensitive and intelligent as a pig would get depressed, and a depressed pig will allow his tail to be chewed on to the point of infection. Sick pigs, being underperforming “production units,” are clubbed to death on the spot. The USDA’s recommended solution to the problem is called “tail docking.” Using a pair of pliers (and no anesthetic), most but not all of the tail is snipped off. Why the little stump? Because the whole point of the exercise is not to remove the object of tail-biting so much as to render it more sensitive. Now, a bite on the tail is so painful that even the most demoralized pig will mount a struggle to avoid it.

Hens in battery cage A decomposing hen is left inside battery cage with live birds (photo courtesy of MFA).

And a different section:

[T]he American laying hen…passes her brief span piled together with a half-dozen other hens in a wire cage whose floor a single page of this magazine could carpet. Every natural instinct of this animal is thwarted, leading to a range of behavioral “vices” that can include cannibalizing her cagemates and rubbing her body against the wire mesh until it is featherless and bleeding.… [T]he [5 percent]9 or so of hens that can’t bear it and simply die is built into the cost of production.

This last point is important – if you look at the statistics, hundreds of millions of animals a year, just like 1 in 20 battery hens, die before going to slaughter. Just think about that – hundreds of millions die before even being shipped to slaughter.

I assume my dilemma at this point is clear. Obviously, I considered myself a good person – an ethical, kind, and thoughtful human being. And yet, here I was – supporting what is clearly a modern-day atrocity. “Our own worst nightmare” is how the New York Times Magazine describes modern agribusiness…and I was giving this nightmare my money to continue to tail dock, debeak, confine, forcibly impregnate, brand, dehorn, and otherwise brutalize these thinking, feeling creatures.

What about the argument, “They’re only animals”? Having seen this phrase used to justify slavery and the Nazi’s “Final Solution,” I certainly didn’t want to be uttering the phrase “just animals.” I had read the various justifications for past atrocities – not just from hateful, ignorant people, but from some of America and Germany’s leading citizens – professors, clergy, civic leaders, politicians, etc. I saw just how easily the vast majority of people went along with the prejudice of their day – to believe whatever they were taught without question, no matter what the consequences.

So I knew I couldn’t simply accept the line, “They’re just animals.”

Here is where I should tell you about the great breakthrough, where I went from unquestioningly accepting society’s norm to animal advocate. But it didn’t happen that way.

I did go vegetarian for a bit late in my freshman year, but after a while, I convinced myself I was starving on the dorm’s beans and Capt’n Crunch. To my lasting shame, I went back to eating animals…just like all my friends and family.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about what it meant to eat meat. Even if they were “just animals,” my choices caused them to suffer, suffer terribly and die horribly. My choices deprived them of the life they wanted to live. My choices created this unnecessary suffering – the choices I was consciously making, every day.

The next year, I was living off campus, entirely responsible for my own food choices. And one day, I was looking into the mirror, and the thought just came to me: “How can I consider myself a good person if I continue to eat animals?”

I had no answer.

And then – this is entirely true – the medicine cabinet started shaking, and deafening “Bam! Bam! Bam!” filled the room.

I’ve never eaten another animal.

(It turns out someone in the adjacent apartment was driving a nail into the other side of the wall. Banal cause, but it made for a fine punctuation to when I changed my life.)

Now obviously, there is much more to discuss: everything from nutrition to priorities to optimal advocacy to the future of society.

Matt, Ellen, and Anne Matt Ball with daughter and wife, Ellen and Anne Green.

But before all that comes what took me so very, very long to realize:

We each have to ask the question: what kind of person are we? Will we accept what our society dictates today, or will we write our own story? Will we rationalize the status quo or thoughtfully make our own decisions? Will we oppose cruelty or support slaughter?

Slowly – very slowly – I came to realize there are more important things in life than accepting the status quo and taking the easiest path. Choosing the road less traveled does not necessitate denial and deprivation. Making our lives a part of something real, something larger than ourselves…this expands our life’s narrative, enriches our existence, and allows for real meaning and lasting happiness.

History shows that questioning society is necessary in all times, and today, choosing not to eat animals makes a public, powerful, ethical statement – not just about the lives of animals, but about the nature of our character. It shows that we are honestly striving to be truly good, thoughtful people.