Sunday, December 23, 2007

Getting Past "Can't"

While I'd like to humor myself and think that this blog is read by individuals with a wide swathe of dietary preferences, I think it's safe to say that in reality almost anyone reading this is probably already a vegan or vegetarian. That means that, invariably, each of us has had the experience of being offered a delicious looking, but not animal-friendly dish, and responded "I'm sorry, I can't eat that." In my opinion, as soon as the word "can't" leaves our lips, we, as vegetarians, have done a great disservice to our cause.

I'll admit that we as a society spend far too much time talking about labels and semantics, and not enough time engaging in actual action. Hillary Clinton waffles about whether she is a "liberal" or a "progressive." The Bush administration feuds with the UN over whether Sudan is a "genocide" or simply a "mass killing." And thousands of people are riled up because well-meaning multi-culturalists prefer "Happy Holidays" to "Merry Christmas." But in this case, I think it's worth examining the impact that a simple word choice can have.

Stating that we "can't" eat meat, eggs, or dairy turns our dietary choices - which we all adopted for the positive reasons of protecting our health, preserving the environment, and helping animals - into something negative. "Can't" makes me think of overbearing parents or traffic regulations. People who are lactose intolerant can't drink milk; people on diets can't eat fatty food. But almost all of us can eat whatever we want - the point is that we don't. That's a distinction worth paying attention to. At the risk of sounding too corny, I believe that being a vegetarian or vegan should be a joy, not an onus. None of us has been coerced into being a vegetarian - so let's stop acting like it.

When we choose to say "can't" instead of "don't," we set up barriers between ourselves and the meat eaters - and let them off the hook. As soon as you say you can't eat something, the first thing going through the carnivore's head is "well, I can - I've got perfectly good canine teeth and a perfectly functioning digestive system." The discussion ends - there's no reason for them to learn more about the reasons behind your dietary choices, because evidently it's some kind of pathology. In contrast, saying that you "don't" eat something immediately prompts the question "why" - a perfect opportunity for vegetarians to cite the multitude of excellent reasons for their decision not to consume animal products.

Saying "Can't"? Just don't do it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Good Use of Our Princeton Education

Since PAWS was featured on the mtvU show Cause Effect, we’ve received lots of emails praising our dedication to animals. Of course, we’ve also met some critics. For example, today I got home from a long day of classes to read this email from “Dave”:

“I sure am glad that you are putting that high dollar Prinston [sic] education to some use. Have you ever given some thought to all of the suffering PEOPLE in this world? It is no different than the treatment of animals. Women are beaten Children are born into this world with HIV, Crack Cocaine in their system and Meth in their system. There are homeless people and people freezing in the streets. Go Girl save those chickens. Must have been the easiest choice for a project assignment!!”

It would be easy for me to dismiss this email, because we hear this argument all the time, and we think it is self-evidently wrong. Our automatic response is that eating humanely does not take any time away from your other causes, and hey, what are you doing to save the world with all your free time, anyway? By eating meat, are you able to spend more time helping people? Probably not. It often seems that the people who are the most critical of our activism are the people who have never been activists themselves, and have no desire (it would seem to me) to make the world a better place. PAWS activists, on the other hand, tend to be the exact same people who participate in a variety of other positive, progressive activities on campus. Many of us participated in the anti-torture protest last year, many of us care about enacting universal healthcare in this country, alleviating global poverty, and fighting AIDS. We are compassionate, ethical people who care about reducing suffering—no matter who is suffering.

In short, fighting for animals and fighting for people are in no way mutually exclusive. And because of global warming and health, they are actually complementary.

But let me look at this criticism a bit more seriously. While it doesn’t take any more time to be a vegetarian, Dave is actually correct: it does take time to be animal activist. When I’m out setting up demonstrations, leafleting around town, and writing blogs like these, I’m fighting for animal rights when I could be fighting for human rights.

But does that imply that I implicitly put a higher value on animal life than human life? Am I saying that I care about animals more than humans? That seems to be what Dave is accusing me of. Believe it or not, I do think that would be wrong. In general, humans are more self-conscious, more rational, and more emotionally attached to their loved ones than animals can be, so I would have no basis for saving one animal life over one human life. But I don’t think that’s what I’m doing.

Instead, I’m using my unique passion, skills and motivation to make a difference exactly where I can make the biggest difference. Other people who feel passionately about other issues should fight for those causes. In no way am I saying that animal rights is the most important cause—just that it’s my most important cause.

For a thought experiment, let’s say that it was possible to estimate, empirically, the magnitude and intensity of the suffering inflicted by current global problems. We could then rank world atrocities and potentially name the worst atrocity in the world right now. Now, let’s assume that global poverty towered over all the other problems in the world right now—far worse (empirically, remember) than genocide, air and water pollution, AIDS, the US healthcare system, the Iraq War, animal exploitation, and all other problems. If a ranking like this came out, should all activists stop what they are doing and switch to fighting against global poverty? Would that even be effective?

I think the answer is clearly no. We bring about the most change by fighting for what we care about. If everyone worked on one issue (or if everyone worked on “human” issues) then less positive change would occur—spreading out our efforts offers the largest marginal benefit. Everyone making the free choice to pursue her own passions will be what makes the world a better place, even if some problems are clearly worse than others.

Yes, I agree: there are many serious issues facing the world today. While crusading for animal rights won’t fix all of them, criticizing us for taking on this issue won’t solve any. At least we’re doing something.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Joke of the Day