Wednesday, January 11, 2017

When Compassion Just Isn't Enough

by Bethany Cortale
The Vegan Vine; The Compassion Conundrum
The word compassion gets thrown around a lot these days as a kind of magic elixir for creating an ethical, vegan world. It seems everywhere you look vegans are plugging compassionate consumerism: The Compassionate Diet cookbook, the "compassion over cruelty" t-shirt, the "nothing tastes better than compassion" tote bag, etc.

Vegans and animal activists have a compassion problem, and I don't mean with other non-vegans or themselves (that's for another post). The issue concerns the (over)use of the word compassion and its inadequate appropriation for animal advocacy objectives.

While compassion is a basic component for advancing ethical veganism, it is not the be-all and end-all since it doesn't require much more than feeling. Merriam-Webster defines compassion as a sympathy toward others' distress and a desire to alleviate it. Note the word desire, which is vague and discretionary. Having compassion is an admirable virtue, but it is not a directive for willful, binding action. Take Meatless Mondays as an example. Compassion may drive some to abstain from animal flesh one day a week, but it does not deter them from engaging in other forms of animal abuse or from even eating meat the remaining six days of the week.

If nonhuman animals are going to live in a just world that honors and respects them as equally deserving of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it's going to take a lot more than compassion, pity, or empathy to make it happen. What other animals require are legal and protected rights.

In Circles of Compassion, David Cantor of Responsible Policies for Animals (RPA) described the problem this way: "The move from humanism to the new animalism, from animal abuse to rights of all animals as the basis of governance, is a struggle against injustice, so we will do well to elicit the moral indignation humans naturally experience at animal abuse rather than emphasize compassion, which positively affects those in our presence, not policy. Belittled as 'anger' by the industry-government-university-media complex, moral indignation is the human trait most likely to instigate radical policy change. The Constitution refers to establishing justice, not promoting compassion."

Animal abuse and exploitation address concrete issues of justice and fairness, not abstract and arbitrary feelings. People can offer compassion to others on an individual basis and can make compassionate choices, however, compassion alone cannot and will not alleviate the systematic suffering and oppression of other animals indicative of the profiteering animal-industrial complex. Ethical vegans make up less than one percent of the population and despite our intense compassion and best efforts, we are unable to counter massive apathy among many seemingly compassionate people, even our own friends and family members. It doesn't mean we should stop trying, but if we think championing compassion is the answer, we're gravely mistaken.

On ecorazzi, Dr. Frances McCormack illustrated another problem with using the word compassion. "We urge others to be compassionate or to show mercy to the animals for whom we're advocating. . . they are intricately bound up with the idea of pity, and they are always directed downwards from a perceived superior (in terms of a balance of power) to a perceived inferior. Using this kind of language draws on ideas of human supremacy, painting animals as our natural inferiors. These words are also frequently used to talk about suffering, and as a result they have been co-opted by the large animal groups to talk not about rights and justice but about treatment instead."

Compassion and mercy are subjective and elective concepts on par with the notion of tolerance. The focus of these words is on the graciousness of the subject toward the inferior object. These sympathies do little to lift up the object to one of parity with the subject.

There is a widely held assumption that if we can simply turn on people's compassion switches, then they will see the error of their ways and adopt a vegan way of life. I, too, have been guilty of this wishful and misguided thinking. The fact is, the vast majority of people in the world—who also happen to consider themselves compassionate—continue to ignore and neglect the lives of other animals for their own self-interests, which is why securing animal rights is so imperative. Moral indignation at unrighteous laws and structural changes to persecuting policies and institutions are as essential to other animals as they were/are for blacks, women, gays, the disabled, and other oppressed groups.

According to Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) President Steven M. Wise, the legal "thinghood" of all nonhuman animals is the single most important factor preventing humans from vindicating nonhuman animals' interests. In preparing lawsuits on behalf of captive animals, NhRP demands that judges release their plaintiffs to sanctuaries, not as a matter of welfare [or compassion], but out of respect for their rights.

We can't consume our way to animal rights or sell veganism as a good for sale. No amount of compassion-focused pillows or chalked sidewalks are going to right a universal wrong. There is no doubt that adopting an ethical vegan lifestyle impacts animals and animal-exploiting industries, but buying vegan swag with messages of compassion is a waste of valuable resources that could better be used to support organizations like NhRP and RPA, who are fighting for animal rights.

"I find it crucially important for animal-rights advocacy that justice, liberty, and equality are mentioned and not compassion, empathy, caring, love, or any other staples of standard animal advocacy," continued Cantor. "Rights are a basic policy, not a feeling, an attitude, a degree of caring, a set of shopping choices, or any other personal trait or behavior. . . .We must work together to establish in the human mind all animals' innate equality and personhood so their equal rights of self-determination and security in their natural homes can be established."

Compassion is a wonderfully important characteristic that we should employ often and always, but it is also subjective, ambiguous, and inconsistently applied. We can't make people be compassionate toward other species any more than we can regulate how compassionate they are. And all the compassion in the world will not make people do the right thing if they don't feel so inclined. But, we can hold them accountable to laws.

After adopting an ethical, vegan lifestyle, a commitment to promoting both veganism and global animal rights is vital. Widespread veganism can alter and perhaps even eliminate animal economies of supply and demand, but it alone cannot achieve animal rights and liberation—only laws can do that. Ending the fundamental use and domination of nonhuman animals will only happen when animals gain rights and, consequently, veganism will be the mandated byproduct of those rights, regardless of any one person's level of compassion.

"True compassion," said Martin Luther King Jr. "is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

Our current laws enable us to go on using and abusing nonhuman animals for our own selfish interests. The biases that frame our laws are reinforced by advertisers, corporations, educational systems, and governments. Our laws defend socially-constructed appetites that empower the capitalist engines and elites of the animal-industrial complex. Our laws are unjust toward other animals and it's time to make them right.

Vegan Starter Kit

Saturday, December 3, 2016

When Veganism and Family Just Don't Mix

by Bethany Cortale

I had been following my niece and nephew, both under the age of five, on my brother and sister-in-law's shared Facebook page for years. Every so often I would "like" a picture of the kids or make an admiring comment without any acknowledgment or fanfare, until one day when I came across pictures of the kids decorating eggs for Easter. I was saddened since I knew their joy was unwittingly at the expense of other young innocents. Like most children, they are unaware of their participation in animal cruelty and exploitation because they are conditioned by a non-vegan society that starts with their parents.

Since I knew these pictures were posted by my brother and his wife for their own benefit and that of their friends, I sent the following comment and picture to remind everyone that even painting eggs for Easter is not harmless:

The Vegan Vine; I am not TRASH
Sadly, this is how male chicks are treated soon after they're born because the egg industry has no use for them.

Shortly thereafter I received a brief text message from my brother saying, in part, "Have you lost your fucking mind? . . . You are no longer welcome in my home or around my family."

Nothing in our past prepared me for this seemingly knee jerk reaction, so I was dumbstruck. For one, this was his and his wife's Facebook account, not the kids'. Secondly, when did facts and information become so threatening? I've been an outspoken vegan for many years, so why should my response to animal injustice come as a surprise now? Perhaps my brother felt as though I were telling him how to raise his kids but, even if that were the case, is that a compelling reason to kick me out of his family's life . . . forever?

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Veganism, Zombies, and the Mental State of Things

by Bethany Cortale

The Vegan Vine; I am Legend
I am broadcasting on all AM frequencies. I will be at the South Street Seaport every day at mid-day, when the sun is highest in the sky. . . . If there's anybody out there, anybody, please. You are not alone.

There are days when I feel analogous to Robert Neville in the movie I am Legend, one of the last human survivors on earth. Like Neville and his dog, Sam, my only companion is a cat, Max, and I'm surrounded by zombies who want to infect others with their flesh-eating disease. Okay, maybe that's a little dramatic but some days it fits.

This year marks ten years that I've been vegan. Choosing a vegan way of life has been one of the most rewarding decisions I've ever made. Growing in consciousness as an ethical vegan has been a blessing as I've grown more connected to my animal brethren and more enlightened of how my choices impact them and their environments. However, like any progressive act, it also has its challenges. After all, they don't say ignorance is bliss for nothing. Just as you cannot have flowers without rain; with knowledge and truth comes the burden of awareness and personal responsibility.

I, too, was once an oblivious, flesh-eating zombie, doing what everyone else did, and causing much pain and suffering to myself and others. Now, I struggle to adapt as a vegan in a non-vegan world while attempting to open the eyes and minds of those around me who remain corrupted by an invisible virus. I offer them an alternativea cure if you willto this deadly and deleterious way of living. Some are willing to apply the corrective antidote but most are myopic and resistant, reacting like a vampire to garlic.

The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.  Elie Wiesel

"You're not going to get me to stop eating meat," one of my coworkers scoffed after I explained how the meat and dairy industries separate animal families and cause them so much sorrow; "Mind your own business," wrote an anonymous Facebook user when I pointed out the problems attributed to buying companion animals from breeders as opposed to adopting from shelters; "Do me a favor and fuck off," wrote my neighbor when I expressed concern over finding her cat outside during the bitterly, cold winter months.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The War on Animals

Time Magazine, The War on Delicious; The Vegan Vine, The War on Animals
by  Bethany Cortale

The world is engaged in an endless, partisan battle. Unlike the wars du jourISIS, Afghanistan, Iraqthe War on Animals doesn't garner headlines nor is it debated by politicians and pundits on cable news networks. In contrast to the War on Terror, the War on Animals needlessly terrorizes and kills billions every single dayand that's just fine with most people, even negligent participating pacifists.

Since the beginning of human existence, most conflicts have been waged over property: land, animals (both human and nonhuman slaves/labor), and the resources necessary to sustain them. From capitalism, a system built upon increasing exploitation, and its version of human progress, has come nonstop bloodshed and the destruction of the natural environment. And so, in the wake of such numbing violence and needless destruction, it should come as no surprise that our anthropocentric urges and desires have dulled our sense of morality and justice.

Last fall Time magazine published a piece on the most recent findings linking the consumption of animal flesh with cancer. On the cover (above) Time depicted two pieces of pig flesh (bacon) crossed over each other like army artillery and chose "The War on Delicious" for the title, reflecting the warped and derisive attitudes of many Americans.

While I was angered by the news magazine's trivializing and mockery of butchered body parts from devalued beings, I was not surprised since the mainstream media mirrors the obtuseness of an undisciplined and unrestrained populace. Only in a society as sick as ours, in which people are disconnected from themselves, nature, and the lives of other sentient beings, is the savage manipulation and voluntary ingestion of dead and disfigured bodies considered delicious.

The War on Animals remains invisible because we are entrenched in a dominant, patriarchal code that views the use and exploitation of nonhuman animals (hereafter, animals) as normal, natural, and necessary. The prevailing ideology promoting brutality and the transformation of someones into somethings is so steeped in our society that it is widely tolerated and ignored. Those who challenge prevailing myths, mindsets, and behaviors indicative of speciesist chauvinism often face hostility and defensiveness.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Be Fair Be Vegan Calls for an End to All Animal Use

The Vegan Vine
Rising above 1500 Times Square and the Jacob Javits Center stands the most ambitious social justice campaign ever to be launched in New York—“Be Fair Be Vegan.” The powerful imagery and messaging introduces viewers to the sentience of animals by using evocative close-up images and messages demonstrating that other animals experience emotions just like humans do.

For four weeks, these provocative slideshows will be displayed in two of the highest profile billboard locations in the country and will be accompanied by a series of 200 street posters throughout Manhattan. The campaign invites passers-by to consider the circumstances of the victims of the animal production industry while seeing them for who they are: feeling, caring beings who value their lives and their families.

The campaign is the brainchild of Joanna Lucas, a writer, visual artist and animal rights activist. Joanna created vegan outreach materials and campaigns for Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary where she studied and chronicled the rich lives of animals who are commonly dismissed as food or objects of use. “We want people to consider their obligations to these often invisible animals, consider that they are sentient beings with complex relationships and lives of their own,” said Lucas.

Actor Joaquin Phoenix commented on the billboards, saying “I believe that the Be Fair Be Vegan campaign is much-needed because, in addressing our speciesist attitudes toward other animals, it encourages us to consider that our core similarities are far deeper than our surface differences. Now, more than ever, the world needs to hear this message.”

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Every Day is a Meat Festival in the United States

Yulin Dog Meat Festival
by  Bethany Cortale

The annual Yulin Dog Meat Festival in China came and went but not without strong opposition to the slaughtering of some 10,000+ dogs for food. This year many high-profile celebrities added their names to the fray, raising the scope of awareness. While attempts to close dog abattoirs in China are laudable, Western revulsion and outrage at the consumption of dog meat reeks of hypocrisy and American exceptionalism.

Killing animals for the taste of their flesh is not unique to China. Just as there are some Chinese who care little for the lives of dogs beyond the perverted pleasure they get from eating them; there are plenty more Americans who care even less for the lives of farmed animals for similarly immoral reasons.

The United States consumes 10 billion land animals every year for their flesh, milk, and eggsone million times more animals than those killed at the Yulin Dog Meat Festival! 

In a campaign video, Matt Damon, Alyssa Milano, Andy Cohen, and other Hollywood stars voiced their concerns regarding the treatment of dogs at the festival: "We're here asking you to stop the cruelty, stop the beatings, stop the burning, stop the hangings, stop skinning them alive, stop the stabbing, stop boiling them alive, stop the torture."

American methods for butchering farmed animals are no less cruel and violent than Chinese practices. In fact, the same savageries that Damon, Milano, Cohen, and other non-vegan Americans want stopped for dogs are the same savageries they sanction against pigs, chickens, turkeys, cows, goats, ducks, and other animals every time they sit down to eat.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Speciesist Language Reinforces Animal Inequality

by Bethany Cortale

The Vegan Vine: Speciesist Language Reinforces Animal Inequality
Violent animal idiom: Kill two birds with one stone.

As vegans, we're usually focused on our behaviors, forgetting that words have power, too. So much of our language is subconscious and mindless, and all too often it conforms to the speciesist notions we have been raised with that we, as vegans, are trying so hard to thwart. Our common usage of certain speech and adages that engender violence and indifference toward nonhuman animals have gained traction through protracted use and long held beliefs to reaffirm perceived inequalities. Whether we intend to or not, when we reiterate these phrases and uses of grammar in speech and in word, we continue to mark nonhuman animals as less than and others.

As a writer, I've noticed that even my computer's spell checker is programmed to uphold speciesism. When I refer to a particular animal as a heshe, him, her, or who, the program highlights the selection and suggests that or it instead. 

In an article I submitted to a newspaper regarding animal testing, I wrote about "great apes languishing in cells who have never experienced climbing a tree or feeling the warmth of the sun.” Even though I ignored the rule change suggested by spell checker, the editor of the newspaper did not and printed my piece exchanging who for that. His correction did not strike me as editing per se but, rather, an unjustifiable license to strip animals of their sentience through words. I've since learned my lesson when submitting letters to the editor; I now inform them beforehand that my use of pronouns is intentional, and I request that they not be revised.

Unfortunately, even writers and publishers of books on veganism and animal rights have incorporated the standard grammatical usage into their works, unaware of how they, too, are promoting speciesism.

How does a that or an it experience anything? Beings think and feel, lifeless matter does not. Our society's treatment of other animals as commodities and tools rather than as individuals is so insidious and far reaching that even our computers command us not to consider them as living creatures who experience joy and pain.