Once upon a time in the summer of 2008, I interned at an animal sanctuary in upstate New York. It was by far one of the best experiences of my life, and certainly also one of the most transformative ones, but it was not without its growing pains. While living in the intern house for nearly four moths, a feeling grew within me that many people who dedicate them to animal issues are often in need of much healing, self-acceptance, and forgiveness. So many of the interns were on medication for emotional health or had serious self-esteem issues (including myself). It was a dramatic summer of people not only struggling against and with one another, but also with themselves. One intern left early due to the hard emotional and physical labor of caring for the animals, while others got in terrible feuds with their distant partners, or even fell into self-hatred and bewilderment.
I began to see some truth in animal studies literature that many people in western, industrial societies turn to animal others as emotional cruxes in a fragmented, disenchanted society. However, rather than thinking that animal others simply stood as surrogate humans, it seemed that perhaps there is something about animal others that gives us something more-than-human. It seems that we turn our attention to animal others when we cannot accept ourselves or other humans, or it is they (fellow humans) whom we feel have not accepted us. It’s no coincidence that animal therapy can be so powerful in prisons, with children, and in nursing homes. Animal others give us something few humans can give, even ourselves.
I recall the winter of 2004 when a vegan environmentalist had returned from studying abroad in Tanzania and had given me a video at my request on how farmed animals are treated in conventional agribusiness systems. I was appalled not only what I witnessed on the screen, but also what I witnessed in myself, my autobiographical self. Compassion welled in my chest breaking through the protective barrier around my heart, this willed-stoicism I had constructed over a decade. I was left vulnerable and trembling. The self I had known, the self that recognized itself as one that loved and cared about animals, had been a complete farce. The faces of slaughtered animals forced me into a choice to look away, to pretend that actually I really cared as I continued my participation in these moral crimes against other beings, or to shed my identity and stop caring at all, to fool myself into thinking that this impossibility were possible. The third option was perhaps the most difficult, but also the most sincere. It was to overcome myself, overcome my habits, to transform myself, or rather will myself over to my compassion, to allow it to devour my self. I chose the later.
However, this will to my own self-unwillingness, handing myself over to the other, had not sufficiently thought through my history. I had overcome my former self, but the uncanniness of that former self had almost become lost to me. It remained a specter lurking within, a foreign element I had thought I needed to abject, to autoimmunize. I was still burdened with all the guilt from before, especially a recent moral failing in which I succumbed to my hunger and ate chicken, despite my promise never to do so again. My history, my former self was something I wished to forget. Yet, it wasn't until later that I realized that forgetting made no substitute for forgiving. Forgetting is the enemy of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is something I had to learn in order to be socially and emotionally healthy after deciding to become a vegan. More often, I think, vegans have more to struggle with emotionally than they do nutritionally. To recognize the need or urgency to become vegan, to be true to oneself and animal others, is a recognition of one’s own history of hypocrisy and vice. When people are unable to accept themselves (their history of supporting mass violence against the most vulnerable), they forget it and project their anxiety and self-contempt onto others--they wage war. They may fail to remember that they were once too like these others, locked into an inauthentic everydayness of non-reflection. At early point I had to come to reconcile my need to stay true to my values while not coming to hate the people I loved because of their continued participation in mass violence. In order to forgive others, I had to first forgive myself.
Forgiveness is perhaps one of the most crucial needs of vegans (or anyone trying to recover from an abject autobiographical guilt). Forgiveness opens a society to being renewed, not reproduced, but born of new values, meanings, purposes, and goals. Forgiveness, rather than forgetting, promises something other and to others. This, of course, is not forgiveness in the sense of a reconciliation where one becomes resolved of guilt and illness and no longer has to remember illness, but more like what Nietzsche calls convalescence, a gradual return to health, in which wounds heal up, but leave their trace in the form of scars to recall our history in order not to forget. Rather than being paralyzed by guilt and shame, willing oneself into submission, or fleeing in the face from ourselves in guilt, forgiveness brings us face to face with an-other world. The failed project of perfection should not result in resignation or punishment--lashing ourselves for the sake of our superegos--, but rather bring us deeper into appreciation of our own finitude, an acceptance of our ownmost possibilities that are always ahead of themselves.
Life is a tumultuous journey riddled with anticipation, blunders, and regret. Veganism, as an anti-oppression philosophy, I would say, is a commitment to amongst the most tumultuous itineraries of life. It requires confronting our own moral regrets and guilt, not determined by the authority of others, but by the felt recognition of ourselves-with-and-for-one-another, and the responsibility this incurs. Veganism is not something one "chooses" so much as comes into--a coming into oneself-with-and-for-others. Contrary to popular conceptions of veganism having its roots in some form of puritanism, self-contempt and guilt, I believe people come into veganism because they are in search of affirming love--their own love for others, and perhaps their own love for themselves. As vegans, we must adamantly recall that we do not come into veganism out of convenience, out of tradition, or out of pleasure, but out of love, and this love must never be forgotten as our point of departure and arrival.
Veganism is not a project that becomes actualized when animal others become "liberated" (I prefer the term emancipated), because veganism ought to be understood more as an etiquette of listening to the disavowed and unrecognized voices of all marginalized sentient beings. Veganism, as I mentioned before, is not so much an identity of abstention but a nourishing conversational process. The ends of veganism are in the means of not forgetting, disavowing others. This is where it connects with the Jainist idea of ahimsa, least violence, because we commit the most violence when we ignore ourselves and others, when we wage war on ourselves and others out of ends, ideals, and identities, rather than waging conversation.
Perhaps if there is truth in Wittgenstein's claim that philosophy is therapy, veganism is an animal-assisted philosophy. What veganism introduces to this philosophy is that conversation is not limited to rational beings whom we share a language with, but all responsive beings, especially those whose body languages we come to understand best--animal others. In killing them we silence their bodies and violently cut-off conversation with singular beings forever, their voices and faces leaving all but traces in our memories, perhaps even haunting us unless we develop the callousness to forget, but not forgive. (The regret humans once felt having to kill animal others for sustenance in which traditional cultures recognized in ceremonies and prayers has long been absent in the west, especially since the rise of humanism, modernism, capitalism, urbanism, and industrialism since animals themselves--not solely their representations have become absent).
How are veganism and ourselves transformed by recalling the original compassion, suffering with? As we are all sentient beings we must have compassion for not only animal others, but our animal selves, and our animal adversaries. But why prescribe compassion? Compassion need not be prescribed so much as nurtured, since compassion that is already with us, and this nurturing requires a commitment to listening, to hearing its call that is triggered by the vulnerability of others. Again, veganism is a commitment to response, to responsibility for-oneself-with-others. To say we must wage veganism is similar to saying that we must wage peace. It is to teach others to listen to their own compassion and identification with others, to be true to one's heart because it is unreasonable to do violence to oneself-and-others' ownmost possibilities to fortify against one's self from becoming-other-wise.
How is this to be done? We first must learn to listen, then to recall our originary love and compassion in order to forgive ourselves and others for having previously not listened but waged war. Veganism only seems excessive because ethics itself is excessive. Yes, it may at times be inconvenient, difficult, and require an arduous self-overcoming, but only because of our commitment to our own ability to respond (to ourselves-in-others). In this, to become veganism is to enter a mode of being true to oneself-in-a-world-shared-with-others; it is companionship beyond boundaries.
Looking back, my desire to intern at the animal sanctuary was not to only to become closer to farmed animals in a context of care (and not commodification and consumption), but also with the impossible hope of encountering love, which had been absent most of my life. It was there that I learned from the cows, the sheep, and the pigs (and the other interns) what love can be. The care they provided for one another, their forgiveness of humans who gave them anything but love, was truly inspiring and contagious. Miraculously, my failed application to intern at Veg News magazine left the possibility that I stay an additional month in which I would meet the first person who flooded me with the love that I would need to love myself, a love I would later be able to return, and no longer doubt or disavow. My passage into veganism has been a disruptive process of learning how to love, not as society teaches, but as a queer process of trial-and-error across kin and kind. Veganism has been a muse that has called me to respond and be responsible for accepting others, including myself, and not become fearful of becoming close or being wrong.
Had I not listened to animal others, including the ones within myself, would I dare love today?