On being fully human

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.

2 thoughts on “On being fully human

  1. No. See, there is indeed a humane way to go about things there.
    One does not have to become a Vegan for “justice” to be done. The argument that plants do not feel pain has already been proven false, as shown here: http://www.department13designs.com/vegan.html
    http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/plants/news-feeling-plants-how-sensitive-flora
    http://www.viewzone.com/plants.html
    One could, by some of these studies, argue that plants are even more advanced than mobile animals.
    While, yes, there are many flaws in the current industrial complex of the Meat processing world, just as there were in Upton Sinclaire’s time, Veganism can be construed as hypocrisy. For example, declaring vegetables to be “cruelty free” is false, given that some states hire immigrants (legal and otherwise) to tend to and harvest the crops. These workers are forced out in varying types of weather during the growing seasons and very rarely have access to the basic facilities required just to stop E.Coli outbreaks in the Scallions and Spinach.
    Hunting wild game does serve a purpose as well.. Left unchecked, the vast numbers of deer, goose, etc… would exhaust their own food supply. While I hate guns and they taint the meat, they are much less painful than starvation.
    Halal butchers do not let other animals see the slaughter of their herd members, and said animals do not even have the chance to feel pain before death. Proper farms allow their animals to live happy, healthy lives.
    As thus, the outcry about Fois Gras is equally ridiculous. The animals, while being raised for the purpose of food, are allowed to run around and eat as much food as they want. Sounds like a pretty damned good life to me.
    Abusing pets and livestock is one thing.. But declaring your “lifestyle” to be the “moral” high ground and the only means of justice for animals is just as repulsive.

  2. Alex, I’m sure that you would agree with me that “it’s wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals” (I’ve never met anyone who has disagreed with that statement). What does that mean?

    It means that because animals are sentient, we need *at least* a very good reason to impose any sort of harm on them. So let’s look at something like eating animal products (our numerically most significant use of animals). What justification(s) do we have for it?

    The American Dietitic Association (one of the largest nutritional science organizations in the wild) has this to say:

    “It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful [and] nutritionally adequate. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”

    In other words, we don’t need to eat/drink any animal products to be healthy. We do it because it tastes good, it’s convenient, it’s traditional, it’s a habit, etc. None of these reasons falls under “necessity”. Wearing animal fabrics, using them in entertainment, testing cosmetics on them etc is also unnecessary.

    So if you agree with the statement about unnecessary suffering and death (which I assume you do), then by your own admission you have no choice but to go vegan. Think about it. Even if we could use animals without torturing them (which we don’t, can’t, and never will do anyway), killing them would still be imposing a harm on them.

    And breeding into existence vulnerable beings for the sole purpose of using them as our reasources (and eventually killing them) is by definition exploitative. Our entire relationship with non-humans is abusive. Less brutal treatment would be ‘better’ in some relative sense but it doesn’t address the basic exploitative dynamic that we have with non-humans.

    As far as plants are concerned – they are (obviously) alive, and they can process information hormonally, but that is not the same thing as sentience (perceptual awareness). If you think about it, it makes sense that plants wouldn’t be sentient. Sentience is a characteristic that some living organisms have evolved to have so that they can escape from harm that is imposed on them. If I started stabbing you while you were fully conscious, your body’s ability to detect pain would send a signal to your brain telling you to run away. The same is true of non-human animals. If you put a lighter to a plant, on the other hand, the plant stays where it is and burns. Given the inability of plants to escape noxious stimuli, it would be irrational for them to have evolved into sentient beings.

    For a more nuanced take on the plant question, feel free to look at these:

    http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/a-frequently-asked-question-what-about-plants/

    http://unpopularveganessays.blogspot.com/2009/06/plant-sentience.html

    As for the humans who are exploited in agriculture – I share your concern. Capitalism creates and exacerbates inequalities among humans, which is problematic. But as bad as some working conditions may be, it is not the chattel ownership that is non-human slavery. A worker can be treated like crap and fired for no good reason, but s/he can’t be (say) sent to slaughter when his/her ‘productivity’ declines. Besides which, human workers used in animal agriculture are treated like crap, too. Many of them are immigrants and/or poor, mentally unwell, etc. Almost all of them accept jobs that involve commiting violence against animals because they have few/no other options. Many of them take out their sadistic urges on the animals. As far as the industry is concerned, humans and non-humans are to be treated the same: like dispensible pieces of meat.

    Please understand that I’m not making personal judgements about you or other non-vegans. We live in a society in which people are brought up to think that exploiting animals is as normal and ‘natural’ as breathing air; few people have ever been exposed to rational arguments in favour of veganism/abolition. But even though you seem like a really nice person, the point still stands: if it’s wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals, then all of our institutional uses of them are by definition unjust.

    I hope I’ve addressed some of your concerns & given you some (non-violent) food for thought. Thanks for taking the time!

    Happy holidays.

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