Human beings are social animals. We yearn for others’ approval, earnestly seek their praise, and often end up altering our behaviour in a vain chase after various mirages called “social norms”. But we are also moral beings, capable of – and often inclined to - embracing moral truth. So what do we do when we realize that society’s moral nihilism is at odds with said truths?
In his book, 1984, George Orwell depicts the struggles of one man - Winston Smith - who dares to remain free in spite of the relentless propaganda and brainwashing that his dystopian society subjects him to. In one part of the book, he remarks:
Always the eyes [of Big Brother] watching you and the voice enveloping you. Alseep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed – no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.
Although nobody reading these words is likely to be living in the kind of totalitarian society depicted in 1984, virtually every human on the planet has been every bit as aggressively subjected to indoctrination in the ideology of violence as Winston Smith was in the ideology of his Orwellian society. The human race is presently intoxicated on the drug of violence, relishing in a sort of drunken stupor that fetishizes oppression, or worse, is indifferent to it.
When we go against the grain by taking a principled stand on anything, we often encounter hostility and social ostracism. No doubt the sober idea of peace is threatening and perhaps even downright offensive to many. But it is not because some take offense at the truth that it ceases to be true, or that we need not be every bit as ardent in embodying it.
All sentient beings – regardless of their sex, race, social class, sexual orientation, or species – care about their lives, and have an interest in not being subjected to gratuitous violence. Speciesism is wrong because, like sexism, racism, and other forms of irrational prejudice, it uses an irrelevant criterion (in this case, species) to deny membership in the moral community. And while all forms of discrimination are unjust, speciesism is particularly problematic because it is used to justify the most hideous violence against the most vulnerable among us. Bred into existence for the sole purpose of being exploited as chattel, ‘domesticated’ non-humans exist in a social contract in which they did not sign up and which allows (nay, demands) that their every interest – including the interest in life itself – be traded away for some frivolous human benefit. We do things to non-humans (under the most “humane” of circumstances) that constitute an unimageinable degree of torture.
The institution of non-human slavery is not only ubiquitous, but it is also in many ways the most radical form of injustice on the planet – the one that legitimizes all of the others. Genocidal maniacs speak of ‘slaughtering’ nations ‘like pigs’. The word ‘chattel’ (as in, ‘chattel property’) even shares an etymological root with ‘cattle’, perhaps explaining why human slavery did not proliferate until after we started ‘domesticating’ non-humans. Our violence against non-human animals serves as a model for the most vile and barbaric forms of violence against human animals.
But the pervasive and deeply entrenched extent of our violence and subjugation over (human and non-human) animals is rivaled only by our capacity for non-violence. Indeed, the ability to make moral choices is arguably the only meaningful difference between us and other animals. It is what makes us human.
When we embrace ethical veganism, we are not simply expressing a lifestyle preference, or reducing animal cruelty. Veganism is a principled rejection of the commodity status of non-humans; a lived protest against massive violence committed against the most vulnerable among us. In a world so intoxicated on hierarchy that the infliction of violence is promoted – or worse, met with indifference - our individual veganism resonates with a simple yet profound truth: that might does not make right. Your ability to embody that truth, and to live it to fruition is the highest expression of not only your own humanity, but also of your unshakeable ability to remain free in a world that has done everything it can to take that freedom away from you.
“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” – Albert Camus
So be loud and proud, and shout it from the rooftops. Wear your non-violence on your sleeve, and never apologize for refusing to co-operate with injustice - for not only is it the right thing to do, but it is also social change on the individual level. It is your individual endorsement of – and demands for – a different world. As long as there is even a single ethical vegan on the planet, the intoxicated haze of violence will always have at least that one wall of sobriety against which it will invariably find itself smashing into head-first.
Social attitudes come and go, like waves passing on the surface of water. But underneath their transient rise and fall lies the timeless and unshakeable truth of non-violence. One day, when we near the end of our lives and we look back, it will not be our not having chased after enough fleeting ripples on the surface of eternity that we will come to regret. If we regret anything whatsoever, it will be that in the face of radical injustice, we stood by and did nothing.