This essay was originally published on Ecorazzi.com
Guilt and the New Vegan
Veganism wasn’t always a source of joy for me. I remember, after I made the decision to be vegan (or, rather, after I realised there was no other option), sitting down to watch videos of how animals bodies’ are made into products for our consumption. Why I inflicted those sights of suffering and cruelty on myself is clear to me even now: I was under the misapprehension that, after recognising animal interests, it would only be something visceral that would transform that recognition into a lifelong will.
So often, I encounter new vegans who sit through videos of graphic footage almost as though it is a vegan rite of passage. One vegan I encountered in a Facebook group made a rather distressed post in which she declared that she was halfway through a viewing of Earthlings but could tolerate no more. She experienced a two-fold guilt: for her past participation in animal exploitation, and for her present inability to watch the film to the end. “I keep trying to watch Earthlings every once in a while,” wrote someone in the comments “but I just can’t get past the first 30 minutes.”
The determination to endure something so obviously traumatic seems, in a way, to be almost penitential, as though watching the film will absolve the new vegan of their nonvegan past. A cathartic discussion resulted on the thread, dealing with the guilt of having lived as a nonvegan, of other commenter’s memories of viewing the film. Most of us can probably identify with these emotions: the guilt of looking away, and the guilt and self-directed anger of having been a participant.
I endured many sleepless nights, and spent weeks trying to get out from under the weight of grief, anxiety, and despair at what I had seen. My view of the world had shifted utterly, and the more guilt and anger I felt, the more I found myself involved in a process of atonement: a cycle of reading about our treatment of animals, plummeting into the depths of remorse, and punishing myself by forcing myself to find out more.
Despair and Welfare Reforms
I followed all of the major animal organisations, and the more of the graphic footage I saw the more dejected and despondent I became. Rhino, pandas, oxen, turkeys, horses, dogs; foie gras, fur, vivisection; veal crates, live export, debeaking: it was impossible to know where we could possibly start and where we would finish. These groups shattered the picture of the problem of animal use and the violation of their rights into a thousand different pieces; subscribers’ feeds would be flooded with one campaign after another. Despair—with so many fractured pieces, so many “reforms” needed, so many species in distress—would inevitably overcome many subscribers (as was quite evident from the comments sections), leaving them to feel utterly reliant on the animal organisations and disempowered from taking matters into their own hands by engaging in vegan education. With so many problems, and with the pieces of the puzzle constantly changing, no clear picture of how to end the problem of animal “cruelty” could possibly emerge.
But I had misconceptualised the problem. The problem was not the beatings that make people want to install closed-circuit cameras in slaughterhouses; the problem was not the live maceration of male chicks; it was not tail-docking and castration without anaesthetic; it was not boiling other sentient beings alive; it was not the bolt to the forehead or the knife across the throat; it was not the cramped cages or gestation crates: it was the whole picture of our attitudes towards other animals.
The heart of the problem is that we humans participate in a system that treats other animals as things. As long as we deny that their sentience accords them moral worth, and that that moral worth ought to protect them from being treated as a means to our ends, then this will continue indefinitely. With this realisation, I shifted my focus from treatment onto use, and the picture puzzle began to make sense. All of the disparate pieces of the horrors of how animals are treated joined together and made me realise that there is one thing and one thing alone that we need to tackle in order to bring about a vegan world: speciesism.
Closing Our Eyes to Open Our Eyes
Some vegans speak of an ethical obligation to bear witness to the suffering of other animals, but whatever the individual’s choice about the level of violence to which they expose themselves as a witness and advocate, we are most certainly not obliged to endure the sights and sounds of animals in pain. It does not serve them well, it can cause us distress and anguish, and thereby diminish some of the strength that we need in order to be effective educators. Most importantly, though, we and others are in danger of getting mired in issues of treatment rather than focussing on the bigger picture that, even without beatings, confinement, physical torture, animal use is an abrogation of the fundamental rights of another sentient being, and is morally wrong.
Hope and Vegan Education
Still, I see violation, torment, and deprivation in a slice of cheese. I see exhausted bodies and missing sons where others see eggs. I see zoos as places of captivity, and leather as the skin of someone who wanted to live. Every animal product is a reminder of our speciesist world. But I am not the victim of their exploitation, and to inflict suffering upon myself through dwelling on their torment, rather than to harness all of my strength to educate others to stop using them, is not only futile but self-destructive. After all, the only hope we have in a vegan world lies in vegans advocating veganism.
If our years of nonveganism cause us to desire to make amends, if our anger or despair at a world that treats other sentient beings like resources impels us to try to bring change, if our impetus for justice compels us to help create a fairer world, then we can do so by educating. It is in helping the number of people who abstain from using animals to grow that the joy of being vegan is truly made manifest.
Please see this essay for further analysis of the use of graphic imagery in advocacy.