Before I was a vegan, I used to believe the stereotype about vegans – that they were tree-hugging hippies who just loved animals and not much else beyond trees and bunnies. I thought that they were deluded flakes who had their priorities mixed up, putting animals before and above humans.
Now that I am a vegan myself, I see how wrong I was in my assessment of them. I now understand how it appears we care more about animals than humans when nothing could be further from the reality.
For starters, being vegan is about extending compassion, not limiting it to one species. I can assure you that vegans don’t love animals more than people although I will say sometimes it is easier to. The same way in which all humans would like to be treated – with compassion, care and consideration – is how vegans would like all animals to be treated as well. Animal Rights is not about making sure pigs can vote or a cow can babysit your kids or a goat can get their driver’s licence. As Peter Singer first put it so succinctly in his 1975 book Animal Liberation: “The basic principle of equality does not require equal or identical treatment; it requires equal consideration.” That’s pretty much it. If you look through history at the Civil Rights movement, Gay and Lesbian Rights and Women’s Liberation, it all comes down to the same struggle: none of those groups was asking for special treatment, they were asking for equal consideration. Certainly those struggles are not over yet either. As a vegan, I believe that animals have a right to live and to be cared for and are not here to serve my needs and desires. They are their own unique species who deserve the same chance at freedom as I do. Period.
A lot of people think that’s silly because they believe that animals are beneath humans and, at least on some level of their psyche, “It’s just a stupid animal.” Never is that attitude more evident when you read an online article about extending rights to animals, at least beyond dogs and cats. I wish I could remember and find the article I was reading the other day about factory farming but I can’t recall where I read it. Regardless, there were a lot of comments from activists, vegans, vegetarians, farmers and meat-eaters alike. Someone in the comments responded to it by saying, “What about what’s going on in Syria? Guess animals are more important.” Or the comment about world hunger and child poverty and how animals rights activists don’t seem to care about those issues and why don’t they deal with the pressing issues “at home” first (even though were everyone to become a vegetarian, world hunger could be eradicated almost overnight). I can’t get too upset with commentators like that because I used to think the same way.
Here’s my response to those types of comments and people: one, it’s an excuse. By dismissing people as caring about a cause you don’t think is as important, you relieve yourself of having any responsibility at all. No one is asking you to make it your life’s mission; they are asking that you open your eyes to the reality of your food.
Two: remember when you were a kid and your mom told you to finish everything on your plate because there were starving children in Africa? To be fair, my mom never pulled that one but I had other adults in my life who did. The idea was that you would learn the lesson of not wasting food but what bearing me finishing or not finishing my dinner had on a starving child in Africa was always lost on me. Were they going to mail the leftovers to Africa? How was that child’s suffering dependent on whether or not I finished my food? If you don’t want me to waste food, don’t serve me so much in the first place.
I think of that often when people play the but-what-about-the-starving-children card when you talk about the rights of animals. What does caring about animals have to do with not caring about world hunger or starving children? As if caring about one species automatically precludes caring for another. In fact, children – like women, minorities, the elderly, the poor and immigrants – are a vulnerable group in our world. They can be easily exploited because of their perceived “weaker” status. I would argue that no one understands that more than people who also happen to care for the rights of animals.
I also think that response is simply another deflection. The person who comments, “What about the children?” probably isn’t doing a whole helluva lot for children anyway outside of the ones in their own life and it’s just another way to write off animals rights as a flaky idea rather than one they could actually do something about.
That is what made becoming vegan such a mind-fuck for me the first few weeks. All the years leading up to it, I considered myself to be a socially conscious person, someone who was aware of the suffering in the world. And then to realize, like an anvil being dropped on my head, that every meal I ate actually contributed to the very pain and suffering I thought I was so tuned into, messed me up for a while. It was hard to accept the scale of my ignorance. It took time for me to understand that I don’t have to “love” animals to give a shit about their well-being. I just had to care enough about all living beings, all those with breath in their bodies, all those born into this world, animal or human, and do everything I can each day to make sure I am not responsible for taking that chance for a life away from them.