I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World — a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition.
This article was originally published February 29, 2012 on Care2.
“I found the minds of the people strangely indifferent to the subject of slavery. Their prejudices were invincible—stronger, if possible, than those of the slaveholders. Objections were started on every hand; apologies for the abominable system constantly saluted my ears; obstacles were industriously piled up in my path… What was yet more discouraging, my best friends—without an exception—besought me to give up the enterprise! It was not my duty (they argued) to spend my time, and talents, and services, where persecution, reproach and poverty were the only certain reward. My scheme was visionary—fanatical—unattainable… But opposition served only to increase my ardor, and confirm my purpose.”
~ William Lloyd Garrison (July 14, 1830)
We live in a world where the vast majority of people consider it perfectly acceptable to oppress and exploit other animals, despite the fact that we have no moral justification for doing so. Every year in the United States, approximately ten billion land animals are killed, after being intentionally bred and enslaved, all for human gain. Worldwide, the numbers equal approximately 56 billion annually. When we count animals who live in water, there are tens or hundreds of billions more every year.
All of these animals are as innocent as children, but we treat them as though being born as a member of a different species is a crime worthy of life in prison, often accompanied by torture, ending with the death penalty. In fact, for the vast majority of them, the lives they are forced to live are so unbearable that premature death – itself a severe harm – might conceivably serve as some kind of merciful release from a life of physical, psychological and emotional suffering.
Widespread veganism is the only hope these nonhuman beings have for emancipation from their brief, brutal existence. Such a fundamental change in our society will only be brought about by a radical moral paradigm shift similar to those which resulted in the abolition of human chattel slavery and the voting rights of women.
Moral paradigm shifts, however, do not cause themselves. They are caused by small groups of people within society – always considered “radical” in their own time – who persistently educate others over decades about why change is necessary. Indeed, William Lloyd Garrison founded The Liberator, a weekly anti-slavery newspaper, in 1831, and it wasn’t until after 34 years and the bloodiest war on United States soil* that slavery was finally abolished in 1865. Similarly, the women’s suffrage movement’s first well-known spokesperson was John Stuart Mill in 1865, but women were not permitted to vote until 1918 in the United Kingdom, and 1920 in the United States.
* Note that William Lloyd Garrison, the authors of this article, and the abolitionist approach to animal rights reject violence, and support only non-violent education and reasoned dialogue as a means to social justice, regardless of the cause.
In their efforts to educate and to engage in civil disobedience in the name of noble causes, abolitionists and suffragists endured ridicule, anger, imprisonment, and death threats, both from the establishment itself, and also from counter-movements made up of citizens with an interest in maintaining the current situation.
Nobody minded a quiet abolitionist or suffragist. Respecting “everyone’s personal choice” with deferent silence was deemed “moderate and respectable” by those vested in the status quo. Challenging the injustice with moral education was called “self-righteous,” “offensive,” “extremist,” and “off-putting.”
Take, for example, the following quote from 1847, in which human slavery proponent Joseph W. Lesesne criticizes anti-slavery advocates and the abolitionist movement:
“[The abolitionists’] conduct has been most atrocious. No language is strong enough to denounce it. The shameless impudence with which they have trampled the Constitution under their feet, and their mean and despicable contrivances to deprive us of our Slave property ought to be held up to the scorn of the whole Union.”
The more direct and unequivocal an advocate’s position, the more resistance he or she encountered.
And so it is with vegans today. Despite the fact that we stand so clearly on the side of justice for all sentient beings, we can expect to encounter resistance most of the time. As strong vegan educators and advocates, we can expect to be dismissed, ignored, misrepresented, and to be subjected to whatever treatment those opposing us believe would be most effective at discouraging our efforts. Recognizing and accepting this situation for what it is, and realizing that other successful social justice movements faced similar resistance and criticism over spans of decades, can help us persist in our efforts over decades as well.
Aside from simply being on the justifiable side of a cause, a major reason that social justice movements of the past succeeded was persistence. Realizing that even the most effective vegan advocacy will take decades, rather than months or years, to have its intended goals achieved can give us the perspective we need to ultimately succeed by avoiding the burnout that comes with obsessive activity, unrealistic expectations, and a short-sighted focus on short-term results. We should recognize that it might sometimes be beneficial to take a break and recharge our batteries, and that, alongside our personal advocacy, it’s important that we also strive for physical, mental and emotional health, so that we can be as effective as possible in our efforts to educate and inspire others.
So let us relentlessly persist in the struggle for justice at a pace we can maintain for as long as is necessary. Let us not measure our progress in insignificant welfare “victories”, which, during the short time they last, only serve to perpetuate the exploitation paradigm and make consumers feel better about their purchases of animal products. Let us instead measure progress in terms of the increasing number of ethical vegans, the decreases in animal product consumption, the increases in vegan alternatives, and the gradual transformation of the collective consciousness, which, only 65 years ago, didn’t even have a word to describe someone as being ‘vegan’.
Over time, the irrepressible power of justice will prevail, as we overcome the shameful prejudice and despicable discrimination that attempts to justify and maintain the moral status of animals as economic property and tradable commodities. Until that day comes, let whatever opposition comes our way serve only to increase our ardor, and confirm our purpose.
Drawing on the wisdom of another of the great voices of the anti-slavery movement of the 1800s, Frederick Douglass,
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without plowing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”