Since making the transition from omnivore to vegan in 2004 (I sometimes refer to myself as a "recovering omnivore"), I have found myself perplexed countless times by the overwhelmingly negative attitudes frequently encountered by vegans when interacting with many - but by no means all - omnivores. I have seen and heard numerous vegans, including myself, ridiculed, belittled and verbally assaulted for nothing more than having made the choice to discontinue the use of animal products in their diets and lifestyles. It seems paradoxical to me that what is in effect a compassionate choice should incite people to anger, but I have seen it happen enough times to know this to be the case.
It should be understood that many of the types of incidents I am describing occur at the most innocuous times, such as while quietly sitting down to a meal and minding one's own business. I cannot count the number of times I've had my meals interrupted by someone ostentatiously pointing out the portion of animal carcass they're about to eat (usually accompanied by "yummy sounds" and comments like, "Look at this juicy burger!" Most times, I resist pointing out that the "juice" they're enjoying is actually the blood of a dead animal not far removed from roadkill), then asking such mocking questions as, "How's your tofu?", as if they truly believe that's all I eat. Interestingly, tofu's not on the menu all that frequently.
On New Year's Day, I met with about 40 vegan & animal activist friends in West Palm Beach at a new vegan restaurant called Darbster. As has become my usual custom, I wore an animal rights-themed t-shirt and my hand-decorated Converse All-Stars that say, among other things, "Go Vegan!" and "Choose Compassion." This was a conscious choice for me as, though my closet is filled with much-loved concert and music-related tees, I prefer being a walking billboard for animal rights issues these days. I really enjoy Elvis Costello's music, but so far as I know, he's not languishing in a factory farm somewhere and slated for slaughter.
I really wasn't expecting what came next, considering the circumstances.
Not long after sitting down for lunch, the gentleman across from me noticed my shirt and began a conversation with me and some nearby friends. The conversation was heated in places; opinions flew, fingers were pointed and minds swung open and closed like shutters in a blustery windstorm. In the end, it seemed the gentleman and I had found enough common ground (we both work in the mental health field, we both... um... breathe oxygen?) to agree to disagree and go our separate ways with an amicable handshake.
Here's the t-shirt:
Courtesy of animalrightstuff.com
As provocative as the photo and the word "Auschwitz" may be, I understand the message on the shirt (attributed to Theodor Adorno, who the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls "one of the most important philosophers and social critics in Germany after World War II") to mean that the same consciousness that allows us to slaughter BILLIONS of non-human animals yearly for food leads us to devalue life to the point that we allow ourselves as a species to do the same to human animals, only in lesser numbers. In fact, it is well-documented that many serial killers commit acts of animal cruelty in their childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
The next day, I received the following email (in bold). Although he suggested I publish this, I have omitted the gentleman's surname so as to protect his privacy:
Vegan Rage, Vegan Hypocrisy
By Dr. Jay ______________
On New Year’s Day, I went to a Vegan Meetup in South Florida .
Sitting across from me was a man wearing a tee-shirt that displayed a really disturbing message. Really disturbing to me. The message that compared killing Jews in Auschwitz to slaughtering animals. Probably, the intention – the calculated strategy - of using such a provocative comparison was to drive home the point about killing animals.
But, what does raising animals for food and then eating them have to do with exterminating Jews?
Yes, killing living beings heartlessly, cruelly, is involved in both cases.
And if that was the point you wanted to make, why not use the death of 6 million Jews to help you? Why not? Why?
I, for one, and I’m not really involved with either Veganism or the Holocaust, think that using the death of the Jews - living beings - to your advantage is in really bad taste, or worse.
So why would you do it? No better options? No stronger argument?
Would it be OK if you were feeling frustrated that so many people cared about the Jews and not about your animals? Would it be OK if so many people didn’t care about your pain at the death and mistreatment of animals? A pretty hard message to sell in our meat-eating society. A pretty hard reality to live. To have to tolerate.
So, why not use the Jews execution to your advantage? To make your point? To get your way?
Now, that’s true compassion! True sensitivity. True morality. A really high example.
Anything to change a mind in your direction.
How powerless you must feel, how unheard. How sad you must be.
I feel your pain and your desperation.
That makes me sad.
Jay ___________ – New Years Day, 2010
Here is the reply I sent:
Sarcasm: from the Greek sarkasmos, to tear flesh.
Having come away from our conversation Friday afternoon with a rather high opinion of you, I now sit shaking my head, stunned - not so much at what you've written but at the sarcastic tone you've chosen to use. You accuse me of rage and hypocrisy, yet it is you who are deliberately using this attacking form of communication. Interestingly, as you accused another person at the table of being angry, you did so in an aggressive manner with your finger pointing.
You've redefined irony for me, Jay.
All I did was show up wearing a t-shirt; you began the verbal debate. Yes, my choice to present myself as a billboard for the animal rights cause was/is intentional, as I think it is important to challenge people in this area by making them examine their choices and behaviors. My guess is, as an on-again, off-again vegetarian/vegan [aside: I'm never sure whether "used-to-be-vegans" should be considered relapsers or recidivists...] who now chooses an omnivorous diet because, in your words, "I don't have a conflict with it", the information you perceived from my shirt challenged your conscience and sparked your rather visceral reaction. No matter what your choices continue to be, my work was successful. All I want is for people to think, rather than simply go about their day oblivious to the holocaust (yes, holocaust. Deal with it. The terminology is appropriate to the situation) going on around them every single day. Denial kills, Jay. It kills billions of non-human animals every year. It is my strong belief that there are things in this world that are very easy to see, but very difficult to face. Death, especially in those kinds of numbers, is a very high price to pay for looking the other way.
To answer a question you posed, yes, I do see a difference between human and non-human animals: human animals enslave other animals and kill unnecessarily - all by choice. That definitely sets us apart from ALL other species. I'm not sure that's the answer you were looking for, but it's the one I have.
Just so you don't think I'm a one-cause pony,I sometimes wear a shirt that says, "Give Racism the Boot", and I observe peoples' reactions to that one, as well. Some give me a thumbs-up, some ignore it... and some see it, absorb it, and look away quickly, but never quickly enough to hide the shame that flashes across their faces. When I see that, I think, "Gotcha!"
Since speciesism is the form of racism that allows human animals to justify a system of enslavement, abuse, torture and wholly unnecessary death of non-human animals for what is, in effect, their own gluttony, I again say, "Gotcha!"
You are correct that there are things over which I am powerless, and that list is long. What I do have power over are my choices and actions. Today, my choice is to refuse to knowingly and willingly support such a system as I have described above.
More disturbing to me than any message any t-shirt could ever bear is the idea that a person such as yourself who purports to be high-minded and compassionate, given the information available about the suffering of non-human animals and the simplicity of taking an individual stance against it, would choose to remain actively complicit in that system.
Despite the back-and-forth of our dialogue Friday, I'm not sure you ever really heard me as, each time I spoke, your eyes moved away and began working in the telltale manner of one who is half-listening while formulating their next response to what's being presented. I saw this and understood it for what it was. As a fellow mental health professional, I'm sure you're quite familiar with this and have seen it as many times as I have (more, probably) while presenting controversial, challenging ideas to those we treat. I know you're a perceptive person, Jay, so I know you saw me looking into your eyes as you spoke. That's because I wanted to hear you and understand you. I didn't have an agenda; I was simply there to eat, enjoy the company of friends and perhaps make new ones. If it was aimed at anyone, my shirt was meant for those I might encounter elsewhere, not at Darbster's.
One of the women at the gathering told me that she lost 25 family members in concentration camps (and, lest it be overlooked, I am Jewish and have a relative who survived Auschwitz by tunneling out under dead bodies). When I asked the woman if she found my shirt offensive in any way, she said, "Oh, no! I've written about that very subject because the correlation is dead-on (no pun intended) accurate." I am comfortable enough with myself today to stand in my convictions, so I don't need to justify my choices. If I did, however, I think that exchange would be more than enough justification.
Here is a book you might find compelling:
A quote from Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jewish Nobel laureate:
"We know now, as we have always known instinctively, that animals can suffer as much as human beings. Their emotions and their sensitivity are often stronger than those of a human being. Various philosophers and religious leaders tried to convince their disciples and followers that animals are nothing more than machines without a soul, without feelings. However, anyone who has ever lived with an animal - be it a dog, a bird or even a mouse - knows that this theory is a brazen lie, invented to justify cruelty."
Finally, Jay, a quote from me:
I long for the day when we no longer have to create humane societies and instead simply choose to live as one.
I'm glad we met, and I wish you peace.
Oddly, Jay sent me a few more emails quoting other sources reinforcing the statement on my t-shirt, without any comments of his own. While he railed against the idea presented on my shirt, he simultaneously seemed to support it. I'm glad to know he's at least turned his mind to the subject.
More and more, I find, we are desensitized to others' suffering and death - we see it, we cause it and we eat it, often without a second thought or a moment's remorse. As the saying goes, "Every hamburger begins with an animal begging for its life." How many omnivores take the time to think about where that hamburger came from or what suffering was involved in its production (not to mention what's in it and how it's going to negatively affect one's body)? How many omnivores sit and ponder whether, on a molecular level, ingesting the stress and terror of a tortured animal might have some impact on their own bodies? I know that if I, like other animals, were to die in a violent manner, my body would be flooded with adrenaline and numerous stress hormones which would then be trapped in my muscles, organs and tissues. If one were to consume some portion of my dead body (Keith chops, anyone?), one would be ingesting the chemical residue of my last terrified moments of life. Another saying comes to mind: You are what you eat.
This recovering omnivore thinks about these things. Perhaps now, Jay, or someone like him who reads this, will as well.