I have written before about emotion and its engagement in the struggle for the acknowledgement of the basic rights of nonhuman individuals. I have previously considered how, when one is emotionally affected by the abhorrent practices that are perpetrated casually upon helpless, vulnerable animals, the admission of this is so frequently pounced on and mocked in an attempt to discredit one’s position.
Today I found myself returning to thoughts of emotional response, and the very personal and individual way that emotional response has become a more noticeable part of my everyday life since becoming vegan. I find that it is often those whom I have known longest that I find most difficult to talk to about the fundamental shift in my outlook that has taken place, and I know that many vegans share this experience.
Dis-empowerment and denial
I don’t have a vast social circle, ironically and largely due to the premature deaths of so many close ones from what I now recognise as the diet-related diseases endemic to our time. I sometimes consider that those who knew me in the old days when they thought of me as ‘normal’ (ish?), find that they dismiss my veganism because they assume I’ve ‘gone soft over animals’. I can sometimes almost see the eye-rolling, head shaking, rueful smiles; the sympathetic, kindly way that I’m humoured by those with a view of veganism as something cranky, weird, soppy, bizarre or perhaps just a tad misguided.
‘She has cats, you know’, ‘she’s always been a bit emotional’, ‘obviously reads too much of that ‘animal welfare’ nonsense’, ‘not very practical, but harmless’, the body language says it all. Suddenly a lifetime of being an honest, sincere human being, of prizing intellect and knowledge, of studying mathematics, of project managing and practical problem-solving in the world of construction has dissolved into an amazingly all-too-plausible notion of me as a naïve, impractical, fanciful and gullible marshmallow, sobbing into my vegetables about ‘poor animals’ being hurt.
I’m compelled to view this patronising as well-meant because I have loved these folks forever, but this willingness on their part to disempower me, this denial of my status as their intellectual equal, leaves me frustrated and struggling to rediscover my voice. However cast in the role of an over-emotional adherent to some weirdly fanatical diet, it is so difficult to exert any level of gravitas.
Are they right?
This caused me to start wondering if there was any chance that they might have a point. After all, before we tackle any misconception, it’s important to know our own weaknesses if for no other reason than to be prepared with a response. And I find that to an extent my emotions are closer to the surface than they were in the past.
Admittedly I have always been the kind who cries at sad films. There are some that have left me distraught for days and I was grateful to have sunglasses to wear. When we have known sadness and loss and the ill health of loved ones, we can find it all too easy to empathise with others in a similar situation. However in the past, it was always possible to deal with this in a manner that was virtually undetectable in everyday life. Every one of us has a shell that protects and screens our innermost thoughts from the outside world. Veganism somewhat changes that for a number of reasons.
No hiding place – on one side the nightmare
As vegans, we walk a path in a difficult place. It is a place where on one side we are beset by the heartbreaking tragedy of what our species does to others. There is no escape whatsoever from this. So completely contrary to the ‘shoving ideas down other people’s throats’ accusation that is frequently flung at vegans, the challenges of living in a world completely oblivious to the extent of their gruesome obsession with death and torment are inescapable. Once we see it, we can’t un-see it and moreover we have no place to hide.
Almost every advert, every conversation, every TV programme, every aisle of every shop, every field, every building, every person we see everywhere is casually flaunting the results of both the tyranny of our species, and its profound disconnection from the consequences of our actions.
Having crossed the border into veganism, we quickly discover that no activity, however innocuous, is exempt from the horror. For example I recently required to buy pyjamas and a more harmless activity it’s hard to envisage. Nevertheless I had a long search for something plain because I could not escape the observation that almost every fabric depicted animals, sweet sleepy lambs, cute fluffy bunnies, baby creatures depicted as adorable and cuddly and a desirable illustration to induce peaceful sleep.
Only a couple of aisles away were their tortured and bloody remains, still echoing with the whimpers of loss and fear that are the inevitable consequence of what our species REALLY does, rather than our distorted and dishonest perception of ourselves. Violated, despairing, grieving, alone and afraid, the truth of our behaviour from the perspective of our victims is the stuff of nightmares, not of peaceful sleep.
Loved ones – on the other side, oblivious
As we walk the vegan path, on the other side, we are beset with the humans in our sphere of contact who are the direct perpetrators of the tragedy that affronts us. Some of these humans we love with all our hearts, and it hurts us deeply every day, to face the fact that these people, many of whom are exactly like we were ourselves, staunch in their perception of themselves as decent, moral people, are the very consumers whose demand is tormenting the helpless and vulnerable whom we now seek to defend.
Despite this, we need only cast our minds back to our own experience to realise that whilst we can never again overlook what they are doing, we have to keep looking for the key that will unlock their understanding. We cannot turn our backs, and there is no way to protect ourselves from the hurt their actions cause us.
After all, on the day that veganism opened our eyes, we did not become different people. I was exactly the same person on that day as I had been on the previous day; all that had happened was that a huge and previously disregarded truth had moved into the centre stage of my being, which resulted in everything else realigning itself. Oddly, the result of the realignment was to make me the person I had sincerely thought I was all along. And those whom we struggle to reach are no different. We must always strive to understand the reasons why their world-view is so inflexible and we can never give up.
Which brings me back round to the start; how to communicate that what we have become is so far removed from over-emotional naivety as it is possible for us to be; how to convey that it was in fact the removal of that naivety, the end of our innocence, and the continuous exposure to an inescapable horror that makes our emotions sit nearer the surface than before?
We each have our own coping mechanisms; some days they work better than others. My own focus is on justice for the persecuted, an end to unnecessary violence, the cessation of society’s delusions of necessity and entitlement to hurt others without cause. When someone mentions my ‘love for animals’ I never miss a chance to correct them. I am not vegan for love. When ‘welfare’ is mentioned, I correct the phrase. This is not about ‘welfare’, it’s about rights; the right of every individual to belong to their own self. I am not vegan because of ‘compassion’ or ‘kindness’ or any other nebulous reason to which we can each apply our own interpretation.
I refuse to be sidelined and overlooked as a weak-minded sentimentalist. I am vegan for justice. I am vegan as a rejection of violence. I am vegan because what we are doing as a species is wrong. I am vegan with my heart and my soul, but also with my mind, my intellect and my intelligence.
I value the knowledge that I am not alone and for that, I’m grateful. Let’s keep each other strong because this battle is not about us, it’s about the powerless billions to whom we owe the clarity and passion of veganism. We’re making headway.