6. Crisis of Identity
Many vegans and vegetarian I know tell me that they got involved with “animal rights” only after they were first involved with human rights. For me, however, it was the opposite. Sometimes I joke that I came through “the backdoor” of the house of social justice. To me, “the environment” was the most important issue. Despite knowing relatively little about local ecosystems and plants as well as the principles of ecology, I thought I felt a deep connection and obligation toward this Other. Again, to me, all humans were equivalent to one another.
In the winter of 2004, the beginning of my second semester, a student would return to Beloit from her semester abroad and set my down a new path in life. Her name was Annie, a member of the OEC who had just returned from a field studies program in Tanzania. She was the second vegan that I knew personally—the first was Rachel, someone who I met during my first week at Beloit. After the first meeting of the semester, I chatted with her about her experiences in Tanzania and somehow the topics of animal rights came up. I told her I had always wanted to see how animals were treated before they were made into food, how they were slaughtered. She lent me a video, which I brought back to my dorm and placed into the VCR. One of my friends, who had just finished watching the Meatrix, decided to join me. In a way, I expected the film to inspire me to commit to vegetarianism—I wanted it too--,but I grievously underestimated the impact it would have on my life.
The film was an older version of “Meet Your Meat,” twenty minutes in length without any narration. The absence of explanation, I believe, made the imagery all the more outrageous as there was no rationalization, no logic of efficiency, given for the abusive treatment of the animals. The situation was depicted as it was: gross, massive, systemic, unnecessary suffering. Although certainly everything in the film was horrific, there were several scenes in particular that burned into my memories. One involved a man clubbing a turkey with a metal rod. Another, a series of day old chicks’ beaks placed in what looked like a guillotine. As the camera zoomed out, one could see a pile of beaks lying on the floor, which conjured up a memory of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s exhibit of a pile of shoes that had been stolen from Jews. Every chick’s cut beak formed a drop of blood that would eventually fall from it’s own weight. Perhaps the most shocking scene was the egg-laying factory where the chicks were sent, with its three-tiered wall of battery cages, each containing six chickens. Who came up with this? I thought. Who could be so cruel and indifferent? It was as if the design came out of a sadistic nightmare.
Next, a conscious cow hung by her rear leg, swinging from side to side. The amount of stress she felt on her leg and the fear surging through her body was beyond my comprehension. It was plain absurd. In the next scene, we see one cow with her throat slit, blood rushing out more powerful than a bathtub faucet as the camera zooms in on her blinking eye. It appears she, like me, is utterly baffled as to what is happening. Finally, there is footage of pigs. In an early scene, one pig is unable to walk so a man picks her up, and slams her with all his strength against a concrete floor… twice. Another piglet gets shot in the head. One piglet is castrated on camera without any anesthetics, the worker continuing to cut off various appendages. At last, the final scene: three pigs’ throats are slit while they hang from chains, each one conscious as they convulse around each other in circles becoming tangled in the process. One swings so furiously, she detaches herself from the chain and lands into a pool of her own blood as she continues to struggle for life. The three pigs screamed—a scream indistinguishable from a human infants piercing cry. The film concluded with a plea to go vegetarian. My friend and I sat in silence for a moment. When I asked her if she could ever eat another hamburger, she got upset and left. (She’d remain vegetarian for about two weeks).
Hyberbolically anxious. That’s how I felt as I returned to my room. My heart was beating fast and I was breathing pretty heavy. Pacing back and forth, my thoughts wandered. What had I just seen? What did that mean to me? Who was I after the video? I had once prided myself on my (semi)vegetarianism, not in an elitist way, just in the sense that I knew I was acting consistent with my values. I was especially proud of my egg eating habit. I ate a lot of eggs—scrambled eggs were my favorite food. At the time I wasn’t as much of a fan of veggies as I was of eggs and grain. If there were such a thing as an egg-atarian, I probably would have identified as one. (In a thought experiment, I concluded that if I were a dinosaur, I’d be an egg-eating kind). I never thought there was anything wrong with consuming eggs before, after all the chicken didn’t have to die, right? (Well, actually they’re all killed in the end). After "Meet Your Meat", that all changed.
I kept thinking about the hens in those battery cages, locked up in the dark, unable to spread their wings, walk, fly, rest, mate, have children, etc. What must it be like, I thought, to be trapped in one of those cages for just an hour, just a day? What about trapped in there for an entire lifetime? What about being trapped in there with tens of thousands of other hens? What about the hundreds of millions of hens in that situation every year? But even my attempt to imagine myself within the mind of a hen was a futile effort. I felt an obligation to know their experience, to perhaps suffer with them. Why? I’m not so sure. Maybe I wanted to have a deeper connection with them, maybe so that I could feel retribution for all the eggs I had eaten that had come from their relatives. But as much as I wanted to, I could not empathize with them, I could only sympathize. The hens and the battery cage were both too alien to me.
I attempted to express this frustration by writing a monologue, which was more of a rant. As I wrote, I realized there must have been so much that I did not know, beyond the sentiments of these animals. How did I not know about these animals’ suffering for so long? I had known about PeTA and had read through their magazines in my high school library a number of times; I had access to the web, and information. Why had I remained so ignorant about something I wanted to know? I was frustrated with myself for having supported these gratuitous practices for my entire life, never challenging myself further. I began to wonder, “Who am I? How could I remain so ignorant?” Any satisfaction I had in my moral consistency, my advocacy for equality and justice, had become null. But I wanted to be morally consistent, I wanted equality and justice, I wanted people to morally consider animal Others. However, if I wanted those things to happen, I knew that I’d have to be the change I wanted to see in the world. If I were to be a just person, if I truly believed in equality, if I truly wanted people to respect nonhuman animal others, I’d have to change. As long as I remained complicit in the system, I not only financially supported these institutions, but also advocated for them through my symbolic acts: “It’s okay to eat these animals. I do. If I can’t uphold my values, you probably can’t either.” I could no longer financially and symbolically support this mass institutionalized system of death and suffering. I had to become a vegan.
But my journey to veganism was not accomplished in a day as it is for many people. (For instance, I’ve heard a couple stories of hunting dairy farmers going vegan overnight). I spent the next several months eliminating food categories from my diet: first of course were eggs, milk, ice cream, cheese, eventually pastries, and finally cheese pizza. I was even debating whether I could be vegan minus the pizza thing, but I figured that wouldn’t be very consistent. Anyways, it would be way to confusing to explain: “Yeah, I’m 98% vegan; I just eat cheese pizza once in a while. I know it’s not too ethical, but it’s only pizza, you know.” However much veganism seemed to take my valuation of equality to its logical conclusion, part of me also just wanted to identify with a community of people. I had previously always been on the margins of social groups, never fully in one or the other. I liked the diversity and ability to pick and choose who I associated with and not be coerced into staying within my own circle. My parents took my veganism surprisingly well (compared to how it could have gone). They probably weren’t that surprised, although they were disappointed. They had sent their son off for an expensive education only to have him become a dumpster diving socialist vegan, great! My mom would comment, “they sure were right: Beloit College really does change people’s lives.”
Soon after I decided to transition toward veganism, I became a very militant advocate. It was as if all my pent up passion had erupted forth. Although I had spoken up on political issues before, this one seemed the most personal. In a way, I believe animal advocacy filled a void in my life, gave my life meaning. I felt like I had a purpose now; I wasn’t ashamed to live. Struggling for something larger than me felt empowering and gave me greater confidence and esteem. At times I felt like I was part of secularly spiritual crusade. I’d jokingly compare myself to evangelical Christian. (There are actually a lot of parallels—and differences—between the anti-abortion movement and the animal defense movement, which I hope to explore in a later post). I’ve actually found this fervor a lot within animal, environmental, and anarchist activists (as well as “pro-lifers” and “pro-choicers”), something I don’t see in other movements as much. I’m still trying to figure out why that is, why the question of the animal raises such passion. I don’t want to reduce it to the argument that it challenges our identity and categorization of the world, but surely that’s a big slice of the pie. To include animals into our moral community, especially as moral equals, decimates the Western cosmology (to a degree). It also raises questions about our own animality: do we become animals in the process of animal cruelty, are we nothing more than animals, is animality something we should embrace rather than fear?
Regardless of the greater philosophical questions, the people who supported these “factory farms” were no more than animal abusers in my eyes, perhaps the moral equals of those complicit in the Holocaust. How could they support and finance these institutions that caused so much suffering as well as so much ecological damage? They must just be very selfish people, I concluded. But how were such good people so cruel? And how could I be a friend of people who took pride and pleasure in so much suffering anymore than I could be friends with a member of the KKK or a serial rapists? They all performed morally abhorrent acts. Could a person be separated from their actions? If they couldn’t, 99% of the world population would have to be my adversaries, even those who I loved the most, even my closest friends. Hadn’t I already alienated myself enough? What practical advantage did that create? How would that help the animal others who were suffering? It seemed almost an imperative to reach out to these other people and be a living example of someone who could live without directly financing suffering. After all, if it had not been for Annie, Rachel, and a couple other vegans I met along the way, it would have been much more difficult to become vegan; there would have been an absence of stories for me to identify with.
I began to see how just eating with people motivated them to cut meat from their diet (at least until they studied abroad and came back with excuses). With my help, the cafeteria began serving more vegan options (and better ones too!). People would thank me for getting better food and tell me how much they enjoyed the vegan options even though they weren’t even vegetarian. I would frequently be complemented on the salads I made from the salad bar; in fact, many people would stare at the colorful plate as I walked past them. (You could tell the vegetarians from the omnis because their plates looked more like multicolored collages than brown and yellow globs. The cafeteria, I’d joke, was the best vegetarian advocate on campus). Although I didn’t see as many instant “conversions,” people expressed greater comfort around me, and overall ore receptive to what I had to say. Vegetarianism became more mainstream and less alienating. Nonetheless, I still lamented the passionate vigor from the previous year. Even so, I wasn’t satisfied; I had to do more.
7. An Ecofeminist Epiphany
Immediately after typing that monologue, I sat down over the next several days and watched every film on petatv.com. I had to know everything; I had to see it all. Ignorance was no longer an acceptable excuse. The more I navigated the web, the more I began to see the connections between eating animals and many of the other problems society faces. For instance, water and air pollution, deforestation, world hunger, the obesity epidemic, heart disease, cancer, and labor issues. I read about books that made arguments that the treatment of animals paralleled the treatment of other marginalized groups: the extermination of Jewish vermin during the Holocaust, the enslavement of Africans earlier in American history to produce food, the dehumanization of other races during wars, women being portrayed as meat, the expendability of animals and slaughterhouse workers. Two medias in particular brought me to this awareness and inspired me to research these issues further: Animal Voices radio and Satya magazine. It was fascinating to hear about the ties between human and animal justice around the globe as well as the intersection of theory and action. Although I had speculated that all oppression was interconnected earlier, as I did more research, that intuition accumulated more and more empirical validation.
While I researched animal liberation and veganism, I also was in the midst of researching environmental ethics. Because there was no environmental studies major at Beloit at the time, I decided to combine my interest in ecology and philosophy so I could pursue both those and English within four years. Over the summer of 2004, I read major books in animal ethics as well as some introductory books to environmental ethics. As I read through the books, one section stood out over all the rest. The topic: ecofeminism. According to the book, ecofeminists believed that the domination of women and the earth coincided together and were no accident—they were historically constructed and conceptually interconnected. In fact, all oppression was conceptually interconnected! According to a predominant ecofeminist philosopher, Karen Warren, three structures of thought founded oppression: 1) dualism (dividing the world into oppositional binaries), 2) value hierarchy (structuring some categories as superior to others), and 3) the Logic of Domination (premising that the superiority of A over B *justifies* B’s domination by A).
Once I got a taste of ecofeminist philosophy, I was hooked. As someone who had been advocating for equality and against oppression since a child, ecofeminism seemed almost too good to be true. I was simultaneously enthused and distraught by the things I read. Enthused, because through this lens the world began to make more sense and the solutions to our problems more obvious. Distraught, because I was able to understand my own personal failures having arisen from the exact metaphysics the ecofeminists criticized: Western dualism, atomic individualism, stoicism, and the privileging of rationality above all else. Rather than deviating against the status quo, I had become a token of a hyper-modernism. I also felt existential angst over by privilege. After reading Val Plumwood’s work, I realized I had been “backgrounding” the work of Others; that is, I took for granted the literal and figurative fruits of labor that I had been provided with, that in fact I was not an independent individual, but was extremely dependent on those in coal mines, harvesting grains, and picking up trash. Instead of feeling ashamed of not having a purpose, I felt shame for all the unearned privilege I accumulated. Yet, I also realized that privilege extended beyond race, sex, class, etc. For instance, I was not privileged with charisma and sociality. Even so, my privileges grossly outweighed my underpriviliges (at least in terms of life chances).
By the end of sophomore year, when I finally identified myself as an (eco)feminist, I realized that I wasn’t just advocating that others change their worldview and to challenge their assumptions, I was also in the process of changing myself. Slowly, my interest in philosophy shifted away from metaphysics to normative ethics, and then eventually to social philosophy. My Kantian ethics upon entering Beloit transitioned into a preference utilitarianism, as advocated by Peter Singer, which then translated into a process-relational care ethic rooted in feminism and postmodernism. This transition in interest and belief, however, did not just stem from theory. After having viewed “Meet Your Meat,” it felt as if a light switch had been hit on inside of me (to borrow Harold Brown’s metaphor) and once again I could feel toward others. Up until then, I had turned off my care (more or less) so that I could be both more objective and more emotionally fortified. Instead of seeing everyone as discreet individuals, I learned to appreciate them within their embedded relationships and contexts. My world was changing.
8. A HEALTHy Vision
While this transition was occurring, I lived within the OEC house and ran the club with only a couple other individuals. Frustrated by the lack of animal issues presented at club meetings, I organized and facilitated my own discussions. These of course, required me to undergo independent research covering topics such as factory farming and the environment, environmental justice, and the politics of food. But I wanted others to be active participants, as well. I wanted to see collective action. Before I entered Beloit, I expected to join up with other activists and hold demonstrations and campaigns, but little of that activism existed, especially within the OEC. I realized that if I wanted change, I’d have to be the catalyst. As I grew increasingly frustrated with the apathy within the OEC, I attempted to create my own environmental advocacy club that also addressed animal issues. At first it was simply a final project for my Sustainable Buildings class to organize community support and presence on sustainability issues on campus, but it quickly took a turn to activism. Unfortunately, I had little idea how to lead a campaign, as I had never participated in one before—again, I lacked a concrete story.
As my campaign to get post-consumer waste paper on campus fell though, largely because of a predominant lethargic campus population and my own lack of experience, I decided to focus on issues that mattered to me more. So I devised a club that would represent my values and worldview. I spent a few days conjuring up names for this ecofeminist club that would focus on the interconnections of oppressions, and finally came up with H.E.A.L.T.H.—Humans, Earth, and Animals Living Together Harmoniously. It simply conveyed what we were advocating: the health of human, animal others, and the world’s ecosystems.
HEALTH was not without its obstacles. First, the acronym was too simple; many people thought we were a self-help club to get people into shape and eating better. Second, the established presence of the OEC cast a shadow over our activities on campus—many people assumed the OEC had put on the events we organized. Of course, I was part of the OEC and other groups like Peace & Justice, and I saw no conflict of interest: the OEC had its outdoor activities and fun and HEALTH had its advocacy and education. However, not all OEC folks saw it that way. HEALTH was seen as a threat to either take over the OEC or divide their member base. Incidentally, the members of HEALTH were mostly people who never even attended OEC meetings. Third, as a club that intended to address so much, there was very little focus, and thus, very little got done. The club attracted people interested in environmental racism, animal rights, recycling, among other things. But because the majority of members wanted to focus on animal issues, many of our members felt alienated, as if they were being judged or just out of place.
As time went on, I was able to appreciate the need for greater coherence. We decided to stick with our core members’ ideas and pursue vegan advocacy, and finally things began to get done, however that only isolated us further from others. We were too radical, too few, and had too little time to dedicate. After a workshop during an interview weekend with Green Corps, I learned that campaigns are more successful when they have a single message—too many messages and people become distracted and lose focus on the overall campaign. So, as I decided to finally return to my project of lifting HEALTH outside the confines of Beloit’s campus and sharing it with others across the country and world, I decided to have HEATH undergo a makeover. I decided to better instrumentalize the rhetoric of health and emphasize sustainability and non-prejudice, two concepts most people could relate to. Instead of spreading ourselves thin over imaginably any and every environmental issue, HEALTH would focus only on those issues that were pertinent to “food”—becoming as concerned about agricultural ethics as animal and environmental ethics. After all, what better focus for a club concerned with health than food!
So where does the future lie for HEALTH? I envision HEALTH less as a concrete organization that constantly struggles with fundraising, and one in which at any one time the workload falls upon the shoulders a few dedicated individuals. Rather, HEALTH would be focused on coalition building on a local scale (such as campuses) as well as on a larger one (such as coordinating campaigns between NGOs representing different social movements). Thus, HEALTH is not so much a container as it is a glue. HEALTH recruits new activists in addition to bringing together activists from different movements, building larger and stronger bases to champion causes. Activists not only help each other with their fellow activists campaigns, they may also organize a campaign around all of their causes. Whether that will happen is up to you. I hope that this blog can serve to inspire people to take collective action and challenge the single-issue politics of soft-core, million dollar Non-Profits.
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