This post is one of my all time favorite essays by Stephanie Ernst.
Now and then over the last couple years, some folks’ reaction to my being a vegan and an animal rights activist has been to conflate the two (or rather, to conflate “vegan” and their own personal definition of “activist”) and tell me that although they “love animals,” they can’t go vegan because they don’t have time to be, or wouldn’t be comfortable being, an animal rights activist. “I’m not like you,” such a person tells me. “Everyone has different priorities,” he or she may say. “I’m more behind-the-scenes; I’m not comfortable being out there.” And how the connection is drawn from “not an activist” to “can’t be a vegan” always perplexes me.
Let’s say you indeed are not an activist or potential activist. Or you’re not comfortable doing what you currently think of as activism (you absolutely can be a quiet, behind-the-scenes activist). Or you are an activist within another worthy social justice movement, and you don’t have the time and resources to devote yourself to another. Or your life is chaotic with responsibilities, and you just can’t add something else to the mix and still take care of yourself. That’s okay. But none of this stops you from doing what you can in your own personal life; none of this changes what daily choices you are capable of making in order to make how you live consistent with what you already believe.
If you don’t devote your time to public activism against racism or homophobia and heterosexism, for example, does that mean you’re obligated to be a racist and homophobe yourself, to be violent against people of races or sexualities different from your own? Consider these hypothetical statements:
- I know that racism is wrong, but I’m not comfortable being a vocal activist against racism, and racism isn’t my priority, so I’m going to continue to hurl racist slurs at my neighbor.
- I know that sexism is wrong, but I’m not comfortable being a vocal activist against sexism, and sexism isn’t my priority, so I’m going to continue sexually harassing the woman who sits next to me at work.
- I know that homophobia/heterosexism is wrong, but I’m not comfortable being a vocal activist for LGBT rights, and LGBT rights aren’t my priority, so I’m going out gay-bashing tonight.
Nonsense, right? So how is this different?
- I know that exploiting and killing for pleasure is wrong, but I’m not comfortable being a vocal activist for animal rights, and animal rights aren’t my priority, so I’m going to continue paying people to exploit and kill animals on my behalf.
An issue doesn’t have to be the highest priority in your life or in your activism for you to do what you can in your daily life to minimize harm and live your values, without detracting from whatever else it is you do in life (and in non-animal activism). If you truly oppose something, you seek to not participate in it. If you believe in an ideal such as nonviolence, you don’t actively, daily make choices that stand in direct contrast to that belief. It’s not a choice of (a) devote yourself completely to activism against the injustice or (b) be a participant in the injustice. If you love animals, you don’t kill animals. If you respect animals, you don’t torment animals, emotionally, mentally, or physically. If you believe in nonviolence, you don’t engage in violence. And choosing to eat animals and animal products is to participate in torment, to participate in violence.
The mother cow at the dairy operation who bellows for her stolen babies, year after year; the newborn who cries out for his mother as he’s dragged on wobbly legs, terrified, toward the slaughterhouse; the pig who screams through his mutilation; the chickens, the goats, the sheep, the turkeys — all the animals on whom we impose suffering and terror and whom we kill so casually when they want so desperately to live — they don’t suffer and die for the farmer, for the slaughterhouse owner, for the food companies, for the grocery stores. They suffer and die for you if you’re still eating the bodies and fluids and eggs of animals. They suffer through life and die horrific, brutal deaths because although you have said to the world, “I believe in nonviolence. I believe in compassion. I love animals,” and although you have said of the dog or cat next to you, “I love her like she’s my baby,” you have at the same time said to the farmer, to the slaughterhouse, to the food companies, “If you will take these other animals just like this dog, and you will tear them away from their families, and you will rape them, and you will mutilate them, and you will shoot them in the head and slit their throats and peel off their skin and pull out their feathers and hack off their heads and their limbs, I will gladly pay you to do it.”
This is a statement you make with every meal, with every chew of animal flesh, with every bite of cheese and eggs. Going vegan isn’t effortless. There are truths — and foods — to learn about. If you have a desire or need for community, there are Web sites, organizations, and groups (local and virtual) to explore. But the information and community both are easy to find, and the upfront time and effort required are minimal in the big picture, especially when compared with the rewards. Besides, since when is temporary inconvenience or effort an excuse to participate in any brutal, exploitative, violent, and unnecessary system for nothing more than selfish pleasure? We don’t have to brutalize and kill to be healthy and happy. We have a choice.
For whatever it’s worth, a lot of people who don’t think of themselves as activists or who don’t think they’d feel comfortable in that role do become activists, of one sort or another, after going vegan, just as a byproduct of the process — the more you learn, the more you want to share that information with those you care about, for their sake as well as for the sake of the fellow animals whom we victimize. But even if that’s not you, even if you never write a letter to the editor or directly rescue an animal or hold up a sign or organize a boycott or even talk in much detail about your choices to your friends and family, you can do the bare minimum — you can remove yourself from the cycle. You can not only speak but live a belief in nonviolence, animal rights activist or not.