I don’t know about you, but I had an interesting evening last night. I was one of the keynote speakers (since I spoke first, let me lay claim to being the keynote speaker of the keynote speakers) at an event hosted by the Humane League of Philadelphia (my speaking notes will follow this vastly overlong piece). The Humane League is a great group which works to educate the public about the issues surrounding food animal production and promote alternative diet choices.
Of course, that means that for most of them vegetarianism is a yield sign on the way to veganism, but they are not strident about it, embrace incremental changes, and even invite guilty meat eaters like me to their events. Needless to say, this was a very different crowd from the ones I usually talk to. These were not the puppy hugging crowd. It was more the cow and hen hugging crowd. And I was there to kick off three other speakers including their executive director with his brand new book (I have got to write me one of those, signing your own book just looks bad-ass), a guy who saves whales by, no lie, placing himself between 50 ton whaling boats, and a woman who is so vegan I’m not sure she swallows her own saliva (I kid, I kid. But I hope she has a sense of humor because I’m not done yet. OK, someone just gave me another one: So vegan I’m not sure if she chews her own fingernails. Rimshot!).
If you know me, and you have my sympathies if you do, you know that putting me in front of that crowd was kind of like have a stand-up comic open for a huge stadium rock band. It was like having a vegan talk at the PA Farm Show. It was like having Bill Cosby talk to the NAACP. It was like having a guy who eats meat and is regrettably responsible for the euthanasia of animals telling a portion of the crowd that they behave like fundamentalists. Actually, it was exactly like the last one.
Yeah, I’m not sure that was the best idea but I made the point that as a vast minority and one which spends our time in an echo chamber which can convince us that we represent a larger portion of the population than we actually do, those of us who are animal activists- animal welfare, rights, liberation, whatever- needed to be gentle with a majority who just don’t see things our way when we try to “convert” them. That we need to provide options along a continuum of change. That the messaging is as important as the message. And that the most effective way of helping animals was by helping people to make the right choices for animals. I was politely received and managed to clown my way to a couple laughs at Bristol Palin’s expense (that poor girl). Cue the tepid applause.
Of the people who did not already know me I had exactly three people in the crowd of a couple hundred (or one hundred thousand on the Beck-O-Meter) come up to me to say the really liked what I had to say. A few more offered me, “Well, that was certainly brave.” Oh, boy.
But I am a thoughtful guy and the next two speakers, as well as something crazy that happened on the way home, gave me something to think about. The second speaker was Darrius Fulmer, who is a volunteer crew member for Sea Shepherd, the group that goes out and disrupts the whale hunt every year. Besides having an awesome name, his story was nuts. Japanese whaling boats ramming them, Sea Shepherd boats blocking access to the factory boat so the harpoon boats couldn’t load their kills, having a boat called the Bob Barker. As a result of their actions, the Japanese were not able to kill a single humpback whale in the last season. That is just freaking epic and downright heroic. So when he talked about eschewing incrementalism, which I am usually all for, in exchange for direct action, it gave me pause.
The speaker to follow him was Jenny Brown, director of Woodstock Animal Sanctuary and loud and proud animal rightser and vegan activist. She was perfectly charming and wonderful and, as far as I’m concerned, as pleasantly…[post-publish edit/redaction: right here I used a four word phrase that I associated positively but someone who I know and respect (aww, now you know) who knows and respects Jenny did not take that way. So, as I’ve been known to do when my clever shorthand does not do what I intended, I am rewriting the sentence for greater clarity but more length.]…as pleasantly and alternatingly funny and earnest, random and direct, etherial and grounded, and apparently seventy years old. Lest there be any confusion, I really liked her, respect what she said and does, but I have a fundamental difference of opinion in her approach and some beliefs and I have a feeling we could speak for a very long time, grandly enjoy it, stand up an move over to the next tea setting, and start at it again. [I turned four words into seventy-five and I’m not sure it’s any clearer!] Let me apologize to her now because I’m going to lay into her for rhetorical effect and although she really was nice, genuine and well-meaning, I just need a point to kick and she’s it- sorry.
She was the rock star of the evening and living anti-thesis for my talk. She was straight up on the “meat is murder” tip. She ran through a vegan best-of medley of the numbers of animals suffering, the type of suffering, the impact on the earth and our health and economy. All effective arguments and all arguments that make me at least think about my food animal consumption. But then she painted me, and 97% of the rest of the country who are not vegetarians, let alone vegans, into a corner. She said that if one believed meat is murder as she did, one was obligated to make the following case when proselytizing for the cause: If you really believe cruelty to animals is wrong, you must become a vegan.
And that was exactly the fundamentalist, convert or die, approach I had just suavely railed against. As soon as she said that, I realized my face was smiling but my eyes were not. That’s because unlike Darius politely commenting on incrementalism and making me stop to think, the first thing I thought when she- repeatedly- pushed the “if you really care” approach, I immediately thought, “Well, no, I guess I must not care since I’m not going to become a vegan today. I guess I’ll quit my twenty year career in animal welfare which apparently I never really cared about in the first place”. That was followed by what I will euphemistically refer to as a Cee Lo Green. I responded this way to her message despite being easy meat for her message, no pun intended, because I’m in the animal business. I can be swayed much more readily than the average person on the street. And I was moved to direct a Cee Lo Green at her in my head. Her comments played well in an echo chamber, but in the big, wide world, it’s a dud.
Of course, that approach cuts both ways. Here’s another way it can go: An estimated 2.4 million people die from air pollution each year. If Jenny really cared about the lives of people, she wouldn’t have flown on a plane to Philly and taken a gas taxi to the speech. Oh, that’s kind of fun! How about….Each year 331 million barrels of oil are used to make plastics and synthetic materials in the US alone. Cotton production is incredibly damaging to the environment and employs the use of child and slave labor in many parts of the world. If she really cared about the planet and children and slaves, she wouldn’t wear polyester or cotton, she’d wear wool. Wait, that’s a problem, too, isn’t it?
I won’t do that to her because I’m sure she does care about the environment and children and slaves. But she is passionate about people eating animals and that is her focus. She subordinates those other concerns because in her life she has prioritized what she thinks matters. And that is fine. But everyone else in the US is also prioritizing what they think is important and if we start on down the path of passing judgment on them for prioritizing other things- like having a job or other charitable pursuits or even just really liking steak- rather than showing them how they can pursue those things and make the change we seek, we truly become fundamentalists.
She talked about using this approach on a guy she met on her plane in to Philly. “If you really care…” I will bet her $1,000 that the guy is not now a vegan and that he will be responsible for just as many dead animals today as he was yesterday. I’ll go further and issue another bet. I bet if we both talk to 100 random meat eating people and use our approaches, she will get zero vegans converted on the spot and I can get at least ten who will cut meat out of one meal a day for a week. Her impact: Zero. My impact, assuming three meat meals a day: A 3% decline in the number of animals dying on their plates this week.
But her delightfully pious approach made me want to go find the closest Burger King. OK, only at first. Then I thought I should spite her by trying to get a few people to go on a one day meat holiday. How that’s spiting her I’m not sure, but that was the progression in my head. But then, driving home and being the thoughtful guy that I’ve mentioned I am, I started wondering why I found Darrius’ tale of essentially breaking the law to stop whales from being killed and his take on incrementalism to be so much more provoking than her vegan fundamentalist fervor. Why did I find him heroic in the face of suffering and her just kind of insufferable?
It’s because with the exception of Eskimos, and I give them a pass since the US and Canada stole their continent, only Iceland, Japan and Norway still conduct whale hunts and they lie about the reason, claiming it’s for “research”. It’s actually about the outrageously expensive, yummy whale flesh. The entirety of the planet besides them has decided hunting whales was out of bounds, yet they do it, often illegally in other nation’s territorial waters. When Darrius takes his direct action it does something. If Sea Shepherd did not go out they know that 50 humpbacks would be killed. Because they went out, no humpbacks were killed. That is a pretty serious increment. He’s taking direct action on the side of the 99% against the 1% who do something horrible.
But Jenny is in the far less than 1% and is tilting at the windmill of the 99%. She may not be wrong. But she has a long way to go before she has the critical mass to effect the change she seeks and while she may boast the purity of her convictions, is she really making the difference Darrius is? Someday, we may live in a world in which animal farming is a marginal thing. I think it’s more likely because of massive economic and environmental upheaval than a moral blossoming, but I’m a closet apocalyptisist at heart. And when that happens, someone like Jenny might be able to block the gates of the last veal plant and save those cows.
But she lives in the equivalent of the whaling world two hundred years ago. Whales were aplenty and people were still fighting about whether black people were actually human. No one was talking about not killing whales. Flash forward two hundred years and we have definitively established that whites aren’t the only true humans and that we don’t like killing whales. Now, we can begin the long, slow painful movement forward to diminishing, then decreasing, then ending the suffering of animals for food production- not to mention all the other ways they suffer. I actually expect this to happen since although the scale of the suffering is vastly larger, the acuteness of it has, in fact, decreased. Just read Upton Sinclair. A case can be made that moving from a few being tortured to many merely suffering by comparison is progress to the greater end of the Jenny’s of the world.
But ultimately, and I will wrap this up because it is waaayyy to long already, what Jenny is asking is just not realistic and it is not fair to ask people to do something they just can’t manage. Racism is bad, but I’ll settle with getting a Klansman to just take off the hood. I’m not going to demand he marry a black woman, too. Aside from the unlikelihood of finding a willing wife, it would simply be asking more of the Klansman than he could probably manage. Asking most people to stop eating any animal products is just more than they can do. People can’t quit smoking and it kills them. We are weak. Deal with it and work around it.
I’m thinking all this as I’m driving down the Schuylkill Expressway in the rain at 9:30 and on the riverside lane in front of me a car swerves into the guard rail, flips over and spins around on the roof. Well, that was unexpected. I was in the far lane going about 55 MPH. There were a couple cars in the other lanes and exit 341 had just gone by. I did a quick calculation and decided not to cross three lanes of traffic, pull onto the shoulder, cross an exit ramp on foot, and go to provide assistance to the driver in the car with racing traffic all around. That would have been heroic, had I helped the person, or heroically stupid had I been killed in traffic.
Instead, I slowed down, pulled out my cell phone and called 911 and report the accident. Not heroic but it was what I could do. Darrius might have done the heroic thing and swerved across lanes to pull the person, who probably would have been some really hot woman or the mayor or something, out of the car, which probably would have exploded in a ball of flames just as they reached safety and his heroic jaw would gleam in the fire light. Seriously, that dude was cool.
But I would bet Darrius didn’t have three daughters and a wife who would have been pissed to learn that I had been hit by a car trying to save someone who in my case would have been a coke mule or something. So, I did what I could.
But I wonder if in Jenny’s world the choice for me would have been pull the driver from the wreck or drive on without calling 911, as I saw the other drivers doing, with no third option. Had that been my choice, I’d have done the unheroic thing and kept driving. I wouldn’t have been proud if that but given those two choices, that’s what I’d have done. Instead I found another option which let me do something, even if it wasn’t everything.
When we force people into the position of having to choose all or nothing, whether it is their food choices, politics, how they care for their pets, we can expect that most will choose to do nothing. They might not feel good about it, but that’s what most will do. But if we give them some other option, we might get them to do that middle thing and feel good about it. And when people feel good about something they are willing to try something else that makes them feel good and we can start them down the road we want them on, even if we can’t get them all the way to the next town.
So I am sticking with my thesis of helping animals by gently helping people to walk the right path. I hope Darrius keeps being awesome and I hope Jenny takes all this with good humor. She shouldn’t really care what I think, I was just the opening act, but if she does our next meeting will be awkward.
Here are my comments to the Humane League if you feel like wasting a little more time, minus my insanely pithy off the cuff comments and asides that made me go way over my allotted ten minutes. Oh, and I’m not opening this blog up for comments. I’ll think up all the speciesism insults I’ll probably get on my own but more cleverly, thanks.
My profound and insightful comments [with a few notes thrown in]:
I’d like to offer a four part apology in advance: 1st: It’s a bit longer than my time but I speak really fast [Note: I wasn’t kidding, I ran really long], 2nd: I haven’t given this sermon before and have not even done a run through so it may be more a reading, 3rd:it’s entirely self absorbed in my current high horse and 4th: I fear it may be viewed by some as an Bill Cosby style admonishment of my gracious hosts. I’ll try my best to avoid that and you can check your email if I get annoying.
I may have been invited to speak under false pretenses. Unlike most of you and my fellow speakers tonight, I do nothing for animals. Let me rephrase that. Nothing I do is specifically for animals. [Another note: Making a rhetorical point here and giving a speech, not testifying under oath. Cut me some slack]
I don’t even try to do things for animals. In fact, my organization, the Humane Society of Berks County, explicitly avoids “doing things for animals”. That is not to say that what we do doesn’t help animals. It does and I think that we actually help more animals and do more good for specific animals and animals in general than most. But while that is our goal, it is consciously not our tactic.
I am no doubt in a room with some True Believers. People who truly, devoutly, perhaps even religiously believe in the welfare- even rights?- of animals and whose efforts to help them are defined by those beliefs.
I am, however, an Animal Rights Agnostic. So you invited an agnostic to preach at your church tonight. Don’t worry, I’m one of the good ones.
What do I mean by that and why do I think you should bear this phrase in mind as you go out into the world proselytizing your beliefs?
Like a religious agnostic (I’m one of those, too) it means I am without knowledge or belief in the higher nature of animals. I am a natural scientist so in both cases I can appreciate the arguments made and can craft intellectual architecture to support both. But in a broad sense, I have been provided no proof in one of divinity or in the other of- what do we even call it for animals? A soul? An inherency of rights?
Before you start checking email, let say I am not a denying of these things. I am not an Animal Rights Atheist. At the risk of offending the atheists in the crowd, I believe that denying the undisprovable is as religious in nature as affirming the unprovable.
I know that animals feel pain. I know they suffer. I know some use tools, and learn and communicate. I think there is the slightest chance that at some point in the future some ape, somewhere will open the name book and select “Caesar”, and as they cart me away to the human work camps I’ll think, “Well, I’ll be damned, they do have a soul.”
But chimps aren’t parrots and parrots aren’t dogs and dogs aren’t chickens and chickens aren’t yeast. No more than I can tell you what the one true religion is, I cannot tell you what version of the animal rights religion is right. Vegan, vegetarian, animals aren’t property, only eat the ones without eyelids? Where on the continuum does the hammer fall?
And most people are in my camp. They just don’t know it.
But like with religion, there are true believers who are certain they know and insist that there is one true way- their way- and that we must all follow their lead. They loath non-believers but they maintain a special hatred for those who believe the wrong way or are open to other ways. They are fundamentalists.
Over the past few years I’ve noticed that many of the “Animal” people corresponding with me by email had a common quote attached. “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”*
I began to notice that often the people who attached these quotes were the least sympathetic, least agreeable, least kind human beings when it came to people but were absolutely strident when it came to their beliefs about our oppressed non-human brethren. [One more note: If you have this quote on your email, I’m not talking about you.] All of the qualities they found so delightful and compelling in animals, they themselves lacked utterly when applied to people. And that stridency utterly alienated any human being they came in contact with in their supposed effort to make other people as “humane” as they are.
But Gandhi was not promoting equal animal rights. He believed that decreasing suffering was a part and parcel of a process of changing ourselves and our human race. His struggle was not merely about forcing the end to oppression, it was about changing the oppressors themselves so that they would choose to stop oppressing. When oppression is ended forcibly and not by choice, it waits to return.
But the strident true believers use this quotes as a beard to pretend that they are empathetic to all. They are, in effect, true believers in a religion of their own making. For them every discussion is an argument and every position is a purity test which none but themselves could pass.
No animal I had ever helped had demanded that help. No animal I had ever helped had in turn helped another animal. No animal had protested a lack of aid. Of course, the same could be said of an infant child.
But I have seen that when I helped an animal’s person- caretaker, owner, whatever- not only did that animal benefit, but so did every animal associated with that person in the future. That person became more likely to do right by animals in the future. That person protested in the future when others did not do for their animals. By engaging the human part of the animal equation there was real change for the animal and that change was sustained. Like the infant child in distress, the preferred assistance was strengthening the family.
That is why my efforts and the efforts of the HSBC are to help animals by effectively helping people. It is what we do best. For the Jim Collins fans out there it is our hedgehog. We believe that most people can be moved to do better, to perform good works- but not all can be converted. This is not the Spanish Inquisition. Conversion or death is not an option. Yet many of us in the animal field treat our interaction with humans that way.
I think we need to decide what our goal actually is. Is it to demand a world today we will not obtain but feel the self satisfaction of the purity and blindness of our dogma? If so our lives will be frustrated and we will find our animal rights heaven very empty. Or do we envision a world we want, recognize that we will only get there in time and by small steps and begin moving in that direction? Moving the suffering scale for animals by degrees may seem less satisfying than a Holy Roller conversion, but isn’t the impact greater?
If we have people who on the living cruelty scale are a ten and we go with the convert or die – or ignore they may opt- we might get one convert who we can take to zero and nine ignore us and stay at ten. We go from 100 cruelty points to 90. But what if we give options and don’t demand the conversion? What if then we get one convert to zero points a few to seven points a couple to five, maybe a three pointer, and a few who stay at ten. Maybe we end up at 81 cruelty points. Except we have moved several in the right direction and inertia will help keep them moving.
I will use meat consumption as an example since it tends to be one of the screechier arguments [Note 4: Boy, was that a mistake.]. Most people who eat meat will not stop eating meat entirely. If the choice they are given is meat or no meat by someone with a poster of slaughtered animals preaching at them, almost all will choose to ignore you.
But if you offer reasons and alternatives that do not rely solely on making a case for abstinence in the name of the divinity of your belief, many will change. For some it may be that they would prefer to eat less cruelly harvested meat. Others may respond to the economic and ecological impact of modern meat production. For some it may be health. Alternatives work for most people in a way that abstinence does not. Just ask Bristol Palin. [Note 5: I’m sorry, Bristol. That was funny but totally uncalled for.]
I now eat drastically less meat than I may have in the past, maybe half [Note 6: I think I exaggerated, probably more like 3/4]. For a true believer, that’s half [Note 6.1: 3/4] too much. But if we could frame arguments that would help people eat half as much meat, be twice the caretakers they are now, to be twice as aware, even if that’s not perfect, the cumulative effect would be staggering. And we should embrace those who make these small changes with open arms.
That is what religious charities do, or at least good ones. They do their good works because of a devout belief. But they accept the help of anyone who wishes to see the benefits of the good works realized. Most are not true believers and need to have a case made that that work. Churches and charities who operate this way don’t ask if you are of another faith or if your donation is strictly for a tax write off or if you are pure of heart. And neither should we.
We should hope to engage the community, make the changes we can make, and hope to make more as we get our hooks into their psyches. The most effective of us do exactly that, although not without stones hurled by the puritans. I’ll single out HSUS as being particularly effective at this.
In case after case, they are faulted for cutting the pie in half for everything from puppy mill legislation to humane meat standards. And time after time they get half a pie, not the whole one. But the next time that issue comes up they manage to cut the now half pie in half again, and again. It is effective and has moved the issues important to them forward faster and farther than any all or nothing approach would have.
I have no doubt that HSUS is chock full of true believers. But they have moderated their tone and approach not because they are selling out but because they know they can sell more of their beliefs and agendas by not being wild eyed lunatics. At the HSBC we have done the same and the success of our organizations compared to the success of others makes me believe it is the right approach.
So I make the case for embracing the large percentage of Animal Rights Agnostics out there on their own terms and not on yours a little selfishly because it is how I’d like to be approached. However, I will say that I think most Agnostics, religious of otherwise, would kind of like to have the conversion experience or at least aren’t opposed to it. I think my wife might hold out hope that the fact that I will go to church with her, know more about the bible than most there, and genuinely find value in much of the Judeo-Christian philosophy means that I’m just in the closet and will tell her I was kidding about that whole agnosticism thing [Note 7: I’m pretty sure I did “jazz hands” here. I’m not proud of it.].
I think a few of my Animal Rights True Believers friends feel the same when it comes to me and animals. While I won’t tell them to hold their breath, I also won’t say it’s not in the realm of possibility given the shifts in belief I’ve undergone in my first forty years. But if they were ever to tell me that I am bad, condemned, evil or corrupt for not bowing down next to them at the altar of their choice, they would not be friends for long, even with the well of sympathy I have for them and their cause.
That is why I, as one of the many Animal Rights Agnostics out there, encourage you all to lead others gently into your faith.
[Final note: This is where I thanked them for having me, apologized, experienced the definition of “smattering of applause, and slunk off the stage. But I am accepting bookings for the continuation of my “Talking Smack About Things Your Audience Truly Believes In” tour! Coming to a town near you!]
* And a final not: I have subsequently learned that the Gandhi quote is fake. So, that’s kind of funny.