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On the Seemingly Silly Questions I Ask

I've asked what you read (/if you read) as a child, if your parents or any other grown-ups were vegan, whether you had an affinity for animals, and what I'm looking for in probably the most inefficient, ineffective way possible, is a pattern.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes patterns that led to certain successes (or not, such as a spate of plane crashes, or plane crashes in general). The commonalities and patterns are different from what you might think (such as the oft-given example of what the top hockey players in Canada have in common . . . they were born in January, February or March . . . and were more mature and larger than the kids born at the end of the year. It's far more complex and I recommend reading the book).

I don't think we're being as conceited as we are accused of being when we say that our moral development is more advanced than others. (Do you?) But the outlier question is: why? What is it about us, or what was it about our childhoods, or maybe what was it about our parents, or maybe what is it about our culture that makes us this way?

Where's the pattern? It appears that it has something to do with allowing for something other than what is acceptable in the mainstream. What makes certain Americans from various socio-economic backgrounds, with varying degrees of affection for nonhumans and varying interest in reading at an early age and coming from homes steeped in both major parties, feel compelled to seek nonviolence and social justice by opting out of significant parts of what America calls tradition?

Critical thinking is an important element here, and maybe it's the answer. At some point, we said: Why would we do something that hurts someone else just because everyone around us does it? We don't have the same obedience to authority and deference to culture for the sake of it.

But why? Where does that come from?

Certainly not from formal education or field of study, as Richard Dawkins demonstrates. His work against the mainstream in one area is commendable (speaking out against religion and god), but then his odd
statements such as that he doesn't have "the level of social courage
necessary" to stop eating animals though he thinks we should, is
frustrating. He admits he's in a difficult moral position and would
rather everyone stop and then he'll stop. So he spends years fighting one thing the majority does, yet doesn't have the "social courage" to fight the one that could save billions of lives? What? (And here's the transcript from a talk Dawkins gave, where Singer asked him about animals. It's enough to knock Dawkins off any pedestal. Quite frankly, it's pathetic.)

If vegan education were the answer to duplicating our success as vegans, we'd have a lot more vegans. But some people, as we all know, listen intently to what we have to say, read our pamphlets, watch Gary Francione's slideshows, and even watch some of Earthlings, and still aren't moved enough/interested enough to change their lives.

Why is that?

If we can get to what made us receptive, then maybe there's a way to reproduce that in others.

Any ideas?

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Personally, I grew up heavily influenced by/in the 60s. I was a precocious kid who had an anti-mainstream letter published in Newsweek (OK, I wasn't that anti-mainstream yet if I was reading Newsweek ;-)) when I was 11.

    So always questioning and rebelling is my default mode, whether it be how animals are treated or how AR activists live the rest of their lives. My connection to animal/ecological issues is much more emotional than intellectual–I have no interest in the philosophical and legal approaches.

    December 29, 2008
  2. Good questions, not silly at all.

    I was raised on a small farm. We ate the meat we raised and we considered them meat, not pets, not friends. My mother explained to me very early on that I could not get attached to the meat. It didn't make sense to me that we could love the cat but not the rabbits. I kind of began to identify with the cat as a meat eater. But I knew it was wrong.

    I struggled with veganism all my life, wanting to be one but giving in to societal pressure and being young, poor and undereducated about nutrition, often ate meat. I never could eat meat with bones in it. I had to totally remove anything that might remind me that it used to be alive, feeling, thinking, dreaming. just like my cat.

    Now I'm over forty years old and I don't give a shit what anyone thinks of me. Also, when I eat meat and dairy, I get fat. I like being a normal size, something I haven't had since… Since grade school.

    My BF says he will quit eating meat if he is told he has cancer. !! Cancer? So I said, "baby, you have cancer. Stop eating sentient beings!" It didn't work.

    But he is eating more vegan since i came to live with him. He doesn't have much choice with me preparing two of his three meals a day.

    Well, I hope this helps in your quest for answers. Let me know if you find any.

    December 29, 2008
  3. "I don't think we're being as conceited as we are accused of being when we say that our moral development is more advanced than others. (Do you?)"

    No, I don't think we're special. I think our moral development is different, not more advanced. It's more advanced in regards to animals, but not in other ethical arenas.

    Whale Wars will show you that. I'm not talking about what they do to the whalers, I think that's perfectly justified. I'm talking about the way the ship is run. There are serious ethical problems involved on that ship. It's basically THE definition of a coercive environment. Once someone steps aboard, they've given up all freedom. They will be told what to do and some of what they will do is extremely risky with very little reward for the whales. Only some kinds of personalities can survive well in that environment. Bullies, for example, do well there.
    There is a reason they have a captain, first mate, cook, doctor etc… but they don't have an ethicist on board. I would never, in a million years, get on that ship. It's not because I'm not willing to risk my life for animals, it's because I don't trust Paul Watson's moral character.

    Anyway, my point is that I think you may be right that something clicked during our childhoods that made it easier for us to understand animal suffering and that made us feel powerful enough to want to do something to stop it, but I don't think that necessarily relates to the rest of our moral development.

    December 29, 2008
  4. Dan #

    The herd instinct/mentality is exceptionally strong in most humans. The need for consistent moral behavior is relatively weak in most humans. The opposite is true of me and many vegans: we have a weak herd instinct and a relatively stronger need for moral consistency (not perfection, just reasonable consistency).

    BTW, if vegan education/advocacy doesn't work over the long-term, we should stop wasting our time on it. Personally, I think the herd can change, but it will take more time and patience than we would like ( or perhaps can even tolerate).

    December 29, 2008
  5. As a kid, I remember going with a friend and her parents to Radio City Music Hall… On the way we saw a begger. A one legged man, with a cup. I'd never seen such before and broke into heartfelt tears. At 6, I wanted the crowds of people walking by to "help him"… And at the very least, I wanted my friend to see and feel what I did. Nothing.
    From then on I knew I was "different".

    I don't know about being "morally advanced" – In fact, it almost seems like being "inferior" at times. Inferior, because unlike others, I can't manage to "put things in perspective" and not let (small) issues of injustice bother me. Their lives always seeming more "complete" than mine… They've obviously "dealt" with issues. Issues of enequities and suffering they say, do bother them ***BUT*** they've learned how to not let it bother them "too much". They are *But* people.

    There are studies which show that more accute "awareness" (intelligence?) and empathy are intertwined. Our right frontal
    "insula" is where we process feelings of compassion… Maybe the *but* people have a damaged or malfunctioning insula?

    Tom Regan's lecture here:
    examines why some (like Divinci), grasp at an early age, the need for social justice. While most others do so only to the degree that they are willing to break with tradition. Independent thinking is viewed as rebellious and narcissistic… In that light, it's much easier to become a *but* person.

    So I don't think it's a matter of trying to teach people to feel (sympathy) so much as teaching them (kids) how to question, question, question everything, until it makes absolute, logical sense. I don't think morality is of the heart but of the mind. We need to teach kids (people) how to "think".

    December 29, 2008
  6. I would dispute that there's necessarily one pattern. There may be many different roads that all happen to add up to the same thing in terms of animal consumption. Some roads may be open to some people, others to others.

    December 30, 2008
  7. Doghead #

    I used to be one of those people who say they'll never stop eating meat because they enjoy the taste too much. I used to say this while claiming to be an environmentalist, claiming that I loved animals. I made up excuses and used all the stupid lines every vegan hears when they question an omnivore. Yet I knew what was going on in those slaughterhouses, I watched Earthlings.

    I'm a vegan and an abolitionist animal rights activist now. I feel haunted by my past and wish I could have understood sooner, knowing it would be that many more lives saved from my greed and human arrogance. What changed? My boyfriend was a vegetarian for a year before me. One day I decided to eat what he was eating, rather than the omnivore dish my roommates had prepared. From there it snowballed. For the first time I could no longer lie to myself. I had to face the fact that my actions did not match my thoughts and feelings in the slightest. That I was a hypocrite, and worse, a murderer.
    When an omni has their fork stabbed into a piece of dead animal flesh, they have to pretend it's no different than the carrots on their plate. It's food, not an animal like you, just plain ol' innocuous food. But it's not, that "food" has a history, it had a family. I had to get off my human power-trip to realize that animals are not beneath us, they're our equals, our cousins, and are worthy of life just as I am.

    December 30, 2008
  8. Angus #

    I doubt that more than a small minority of people will give up meat and other animal-exploitation products just for the sake of animals. Education/propaganda can help maximize the number of ethical converts, but there is probably an upper limit of, say, ten percent of the population. Given that the world's human population is growing and that the demand for meat is increasing dramatically in developing countries, the prospect for an ethical revolution based on compassion appears grim indeed.

    But the meat industry is perhaps the single greatest threat to global and local ecosystems, including being a major factor in climate change. The meat industry is now a serious threat to any prospect of a sustainable human civilization. If humans are not to commit collective suicide, then ultimately (if not yet) they are going to have to stop thinking of non-human nature as having merely instrumental value. Animal liberationists should take every opportunity to get people to understand the link between meat and planetary ill-health. It may not be ideal that people are more likely to decrease animal exploitation (meat consumption, in particular) for what could be seen as selfish reasons, but I think it's probably the only hope of an eventual revolution in the way animals are treated. In other words, most people will have to stop eating meat BEFORE they realize it's wrong to treat animals as things. It might be a good idea for activists to have some memorable slogans to help people understand the link between meat and global catastrophe. I invite people to make up their own. I suggest this one to throw into discussions:

    December 31, 2008

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