Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Origins of HEALTH: The Foundational Years

This is the first post in a trilogy in which I will share my own personal narrative of how I arrived to the moral position I hold today. This essay comes out of a
Moral Values presentation I was invited to give at my college as a person who had an active presence on campus.

You may be wondering, "What exactly does this have to do with coalition building, veganism, and feeding the world?" Good question! These will all be answered if you read through the posts. But the main reason I am posting this autobibliographical information is because I believe in the power of narrative. Narrative allows us the unique opportunity to understand another in a way few other things can. Through, narrative we see each other first as people and then as--perhaps in my case--vegans, privileged males, (eco)feminists, crazy liberals, etc. Thus, stories break through political divisions and present a face to which we are invited to ethically respond to (i.e.
Levinas). So whatever our opinion is on killing animals and free trade, this is an opportunity to delve into someone else's history of ideas, to see "where they are coming from."

We are indeed narrative creatures. Many philosophers are of the opinion that it is through telling stories that make us the most human, although I'll let you decide on that one. Hannah Arendt discusses in her The Human Condition the power of storytelling as political action, behavior that has a beginning but no ending. Stories are told and retold, each retelling a new interpretation. In fact, there are clinical psychologists who promote
narrative therapy as a way of treating anxieties, because how we tell stories, how we choose to end them, and which ones we choose to tell shape our self-perception, our very identity. The following is not just my story, but a small slice of a larger story. We never have ownership of these stories, they are born in communities and transcend the life of the narrator... Really, though, I hope people may find some valuable knowledge in this story as I have. Through stories, we discover things about others, as well as about ourselves. Stories can also provide inspiration. As you'll read, I did not choose a vegan lifestyle until I was 19 because (other than being ignorant of animal agribusiness) I knew of no stories to provide me with guidance. If you've ever been veg*n, you'll know how much most of us enjoy learning others' journeys.

So, enough with the explanation. Time to deconstruct and psychoanalyze my childhood...

1. Defending Otherness
I did not discover the ethic of HEALTH in a day; rather it was an ethic that developed out of the process of my personal journey through life. The foundation of the ethic germinated in my early childhood when my fascination with the infinite Otherness of the biological world began. The extensive variety of animal and plants’ shapes, sizes, defenses, and relationships with other organisms astounded me. The information I learned in science classes about the natural world would at times move me; it was like a modest peek into the world of these Others. People upset me when they littered, did not recycle, and spent money on lavish things. Conserving the homes of animal Others and plants’ existences was the right thing to do; they needed clean homes as much as any of us humans.

At the same time, I was also open to Otherness within my own species. For as long back as I can remember, equality was a core value of mine. My father’s emphases on independence and critical thinking, and my mother’s on the value of compassion and modesty planted the seeds for my empathy and introspection. The presence of my sister, whose mental disabilities were occasionally a challenge, only drove home this intuition to accept, not reject difference. I hated to see others being bullied around by people, being excluded, or treated unjustly. As far back as five, I was very critical of and stupefied by the division between girls and boys. I was one of the few boys I knew who wasn’t grossed out by “the opposite sex” up until third grade. Although I often shunned “girly” things, I spent as much time around females as I did around males—at least until we boys “realized” (i.e. subliminally taught) that girls were sexual objects for our “natural” heterosexual impulses. I’d even get into futile arguments about why the other boy’s had misperceptions about girls.

Just as I became aware of sexism early on, so I became aware of racism. In kindergarten one day I was called a “black girl,” and became very upset. At only six years old, I struggled with why that was. Did I think “black girls” were inferior to “white boys?” I concluded it must have been because 1) I did not identify as a “black girl,” and 2) that I did not appreciate the suggestion that “black girls” were inferior. But by the end of fourth grade, I became ashamed when I discovered that, indeed, I was racist, too! I was playing basketball with a fellow classmate I liked a lot. We’d often talk together in class about important things like dinosaurs and movies. After we had won a game against two other boys at recess, he gave me a high five. I remember feeling a quick wave of contamination as his darker hand touched mine—his hand seemed “dirty.” But I knew it wasn’t, I knew that his darker skin should have signified no more than his heritage, that there wasn’t anything really yucky about his hand. I couldn’t understand how or why I had come to such an opinion, especially of someone I talked to every day. The disgust I felt did not feel as if it was really mine. It seemed alien to my values of equality. I became confused how my self, wasn’t really myself. How could I be someone different than I thought I was? It didn’t make sense at the time. I never even recalled being told by someone that “blacks have dirty hands. Don’t touch those people.” So why did I feel that way, and where was I taught that feeling? Being only a kid, though, I didn’t dwell on this much—I had to beat Donkey Kong Country.

Despite an early recognition of others’ and my own prejudices, I made no connection between the disregard my family, friends, and neighbors had for females, non-whites, the poor, and nonhuman earthlings. Each discrimination seemed to be it’s own, independent of all others. Each had its own reason, though, one’s I disagreed with: females did not have the same physical and mental abilities of males, non-whites didn’t care about school, families, and peace, the poor lacked intelligence and ambition, and nonhumans were just plain dumb. Further, the Cartesian dualism--the chasm that separated the human, the cultural, the civilized from the natural and the wild--made such a connection between the domination of humans over human and earth Others impossible. Even so, in the end, all life was precious to me, even some of the nonliving like my stuffed animals and video games. The world was a wondrous place. I preferred to get to know the Other rather than prejudge them—where would be the wonder in that?

2. The Heretic’s Excuses
As a young bloke, I envisioned myself in a paradoxical ideal relationship with animal Others. I yearned to be both a hunter and a vegetarian. Culture dictated that the best way to connect to “nature” was through a barrel full of ammunition. How convenient that this too was a way to practice masculinity—an identity that became essential to social survival as we began puberty in middle school. However, it was difficult to become either one. I knew few hunters, and those that I did know were jerks. Likewise, I knew very few vegetarians. One of my cousins went veg for a couple months after seeing featherless ducks hanging in a window within Chicago’s China Town, but beyond that, I can’t recall anyone else.

Nonetheless, I had much more aspirations to become vegetarian than to become a hunter. According to reason, it only seemed logical that if I admired and respected animals that I’d no longer participate in their deaths. Yet, having no role model, no story to inspire me and guide me, it seemed futile. I tried to rationalize myself out of it: “If only I become a vegetarian, animals will still be killed, what’s the use?” I’d be “depriving” myself of tasty food while every one else delighted in their feasts on flesh. By fifth grade, I had at least moved beyond thinking vegetarians were nuts. I remembered distinctly earlier telling my father, “You know, I think I could become kosher. I think I could give up bacon and sausage, but going vegetarian… those people are crazy! How can they give up meat? It tastes so good!” It wasn’t that I thought their reasoning was crazy; it was more that I thought they were crazily consistent, that they gave up these great tasting foods out of principle. I called them crazy so that I could feel saner. It was normal after all to eat meat, right?

One night, not too long after my eleventh birthday, my mother served my family duck. Though, I was a big fan of brisket, ribs, hot dogs, bacon, and sausage, I never liked the taste of duck. But this night was not like all other nights. I was in a particular confrontational mood. Something about seeing a whole duck taken out of the oven ruffled my feathers. Every summer we’d go to the lake and my mom and I would toss ducks breadcrumbs. Ducks were one of my favorite animals, especially when the mother had a chain of children following her around. There was no animal I felt closer to than perhaps the squirrels I enjoyed watching in the backyard.

I told my mom that I was not going to eat the duck. She replied that she was not going to make anything else, not that I expected her too, I just couldn’t, wouldn’t, eat ducks anymore. But something inside of me wanted to challenge not only her, but myself as well. “Well, then I’ll become a vegetarian. I’ve always wanted to become one, so now I will.” In anticipation, I awaited her response. When she said, “Fine,” I recall feeling a warm, liberating energy, as if I had accidentally discovered the courage to do what I had wanted to do for several years. She tossed in front of me a plate of steamed broccoli and told me to eat up. Broccoli had never impressed me much, but this was the best broccoli I had ever tasted. (Since then, broccoli has always had a special place in my heart).

My mom didn’t expect me to last more than a week as a vegetarian, but when I made it to a month, she became nervous, telling me it wasn’t healthy. So did my grandparents, who’d often compete over my sausage and bacon from Denny’s grand slam after failing to goad me into eating them myself. I was told tales that vegetarians lost all their hair, they were weak, they needed more protein to grow properly, and that they were anemic. (I actually had become anemic—I discovered this after I had become lightheaded and fainted during class). I was not eating properly, and rather than assisting me in eating well, my parents tried to bribe me(!) with expensive Lego sets. These offers only strengthened my convictions. Eventually, I printed off an article from our digital encyclopedia on vegetarianism. “See,” I told my family, “vegetarians can eat as healthy as everyone else, if not healthier.” They were skeptical. “You think I’m crazy? You should be happy that I’m not a vegan—they don’t even drink milk and eat eggs.” Again, I reassured myself that I was, contrary to what my family believed, within sanity’s zip code.

Although no one went out of their way to make it tough, I felt as if no one was on my side. During holidays when our family came together, I had to subsist on salads. No one thought of providing me with any other option. When I said, “I can’t eat meat,” they’d say “you won’t eat meat. You could if you wanted to.” Even my formerly vegetarian cousin would challenge me. I don’t really recall why, but I lapsed several times, returning to eating chicken and sometimes fish (but not cows, pigs, turkeys, etc). She’d ask me why I still ate chicken if I thought killing animals was wrong. My bogus answer at the time was because at least I was only on bad terms with of one species—it had not occurred to me that I was actually participating in even more animal deaths by eating chickens. (I couldn’t really justify eating cows, though, because 1) they were another of my favorite animals and 2) I was always told vegetarians ate chicken and fish, never cows). In one conversation with a true vegetarian, I tried to excuse myself from eating fish. “Don’t you know fish suffer when you pull them out of the water—they suffocate,” she said. I had never thought about it that way. I responded quickly that they wouldn’t suffer, because that wouldn’t make evolutionary sense to experience all that pain when you’re just going to die anyway. Of course, my reasoning was very bad, but it was good enough to reassure me that I was doing enough to help animals by not eating most of them.

1 comment:

LittleOwlHerbivore said...

So much of what you narrated here describes my childhood! Thank you for putting to words some concepts that I've never been able to.