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Minding the Gap: Ruminations About Liberation

I had a friend in Ann Arbor, Michigan who told me that as a black woman, she hated the pseudo-acceptance offered to her by so many white liberals in that college town. She said she would rather they were honest with their hatred instead of smiling in her face and quietly locking their car doors when she passed them by. As a queer woman, I knew what she was talking about: when people offered me those fake bright smiles upon the discovery that my partner was a woman, I thought you know, why not be honest with me and grimace in disgust?

Six months later, my friend got a job at a social work agency in a small town about twenty miles from Ann Arbor; far enough away to be real, rural, Michigan. She was the only black woman there, and she very quickly got the kind of treatment she’d professed to prefer: outright racist comments and behaviors directed against her. Sitting at my kitchen table a couple of weeks into the job, she told me she wished they’d be more like the folks in Ann Arbor, hiding their feelings underneath a veneer of liberalism. I knew what she was talking about: when I was 19 years old, standing with some friends in a gay park one summer night, a car blew by and its inhabitants threw glass beer bottles at our heads. We ducked just in time to avoid serious injury.

Which was right? Which moment in time more fully captured our true feelings about oppression?

Both of them. It’s one kind of horrible to know people are lying to your face, and another kind to have them hate you to your face. And of course, neither one of us in our lives had ever dealt with the most horrific abuses leveled at our respective kinds down the millenia (and by that I mean multiple kinds: black, queer, Jewish, female).

That experience taught me much about the gradations of oppression, the degrees of abuse. It sparked ruminations that have continued for years; especially relevant given my involvement in what I feel is the penultimate of isms: speciesism. The fight for true animal liberation has activists at all points along a vast spectrum, from those who lobby politicians to those who free animals from cages in the middle of the night. Who is right? Which approach is the best, most effective one? Are small victories useful, or do they simply detract from our ultimate goal of total liberation for all species?

And so, I spend lots of time asking myself hard questions. For example, along the spectrum of devastation, where can one place the gaining of a couple of inches of cage space? Almost to the end, one might think. On the other hand, one might think of the actual life of an actual hen in a slightly larger cage and think well, this is a step for her.

As a person of Jewish descent, I would say that having someone beat the crap out of me on Easter would be better than having them perform vivisection upon me. Do we fight, though, for a world in which this kind of thing is the norm, simply because it is better than so many alternatives? Of course not. But do we accept the progression to a slightly less terrifying reality on our journey toward complete liberation? We surely do, if only because it gives us slightly more strength to keep going toward our ultimate goal.

And that leads to the one critical difference between the quest for liberation for humans and that for non-humans. The animals are not fighting this fight. A tiny sub-section of humans is fighting it for them. And so there is no way to ask the chickens, the cows, the sheep, if they would accept a morsel of freedom or if they would reject it with derision. We cannot argue with them night after night down the years, discussing strategy, hammering out ideological differences, making compromises or splitting off into separate factions. There is no way to know what they want.

Or is there? Can we not see the change in how chickens act, how they clearly feel, when the snow melts from outside the coop and they can see the grass again? They’ve spent most of the winter in a far smaller space than they usually roam, where they were fine but pretty cranky on the worst days, and suddenly they are free. And once they’re free, they’re thrilled with life as they aren’t in the middle of January. We can take this observation and extend it, apply it to life in an excruciatingly small space, compare it to life in a terribly small cage, and perhaps accept the extra couple of inches. We can imagine life in a stall, never stepping outside, never roaming the land we can see beyond the window, and compare  it to a  life spent being able to walk around in between appointments with the milking machine, and perhaps we accept the deal.

And yet when I reason in this fashion, I almost can’t tolerate it. Rage and grief enter my body and I can barely stomach the thought. It kills me when I hear about legislative victories that will take effect some years from now and will result in nothing more than giving billions of creatures a tiny shred of a better quality of life. I feel like Achilles racing the turtle in Zeno’s paradox. Here’s a good description of that: http://www.mathacademy.com/pr/prime/articles/zeno_tort/index.asp

The gist of the paradox is that because an infinite number of steps exist between any two points, it’s impossible to get from here to there because you cannot cross infinity. So how will we ever get to total liberation for all species if all we have to celebrate are infinitely small victories? My gut is straight-up aligned with abolitionism: true, pure, complete abolitionism, so such reasonings make me recoil; but I cannot escape the conclusions I reach, regardless.

My endless ruminations along these lines were reactivated by reading Animal Blawg’s latest entry about the Mind the Gap program begun by Whole Foods. Here’s a link to the entire post, including the comments (one of which I will discuss): http://animalblawg.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/minding-the-gap-program/

In a nutshell, Whole Foods implemented a 5-step program to rate food products according to the level of misery behind the animal products included in them. This program is lauded because, according to Animal Blawg, it brings more honesty to the labeling process, allowing people to purchase products based upon their own ethical beliefs. The hope, of course, is that it will make people think more intensely before they buy a five, perhaps deciding upon a three instead. And those two levels, in time, add up to lives saved and misery reduced. So from that perspective, it’s a good thing.

On the other hand, SBH Clay comments that this program does an egregious disservice to the cows, chickens, and other animals murdered in the “happy meat” industry, as well as those who are being used by that same industry for their eggs and milk. She notes that the most damning label of all is that of traitor: those who betray the human-identified “friends” who are not only exploited and murdered by their caretakers, but then slapped with a sticker to make people feel better about the agony they’ve endured. And from that perspective, the Mind the Gap program is nothing more than another way for humans to feel better about themselves for eating and drinking the offshoots of a profit-driven, torture-centered industry. And it’s not a good thing.

As usual, I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know how we will get from here to there. But if we don’t act as if we believe we will get there, using every ounce of strategy at our disposal from one extreme end to another and fighting the battle on every front – if we don’t use our time on this planet to push us even one inch farther to our uncompromising goal of total liberation – then we don’t deserve to be here.

9 comments to Minding the Gap: Ruminations About Liberation

  • There is no ONE answer or one god – that is Christianity not us. And it is not all on you.

    Many Paths –everyone coming from where they are at. A thousand ants.

    For you, it will feel right to keep exposing the myth of humane slaughter without minimizing the improvements where they are real. At least investigating it and publishing what you learn. And doing vegan cooking videos. Let the rest do what they do. There is no truth in duality and extremes.

    We are all lurching sideways toward the goal. find your peers and support them. Build community with like minded. Learn not to divide. Leave the divisions to our enemies.

    I admire your work. So do others. Your light is bright. Keep shining it on the factory farms and cruelty wherever you can. That is enough.

  • Rick Edmund
    Miriam and Aram,
    I am eating much less less red meat and will no longer buy eggs from caged chickens, even though they cost more than twice as much as eggs from caged chickens. Thanks for your enlightening information! Hope you are doing well!
  • Oppression hiding its ugly face. Oppression revealing its ugly face. It’s one and the same ugliness, as your Michigan friend found, Miriam.

    I definitely relate to your dilemma. I suspect, as Greenconsciousness said above, there are many ways to fight back against oppression, not one single way.

    It occurs to me that if each of us is listening closely to the voice within us to determine what role we should play, what steps we should take, on any given occasion, we WILL receive an answer. It may be a different answer each time, depending upon the circumstances. One day it might feel like the best thing I can do is sign a petition to prevent Prop B in Missouri from being repealed. Another day the act that feels most productive and progressive might be editing a friend’s essay on animal rights, which is designed to push back against the destructive pacts welfarists are making with the animal-exploiting industry.

    An idea just hit me: if we focus on improving our own character with each action we take on behalf of animals — becoming kinder, more patient, more humble, gentle, and even more honest in exposing and expunging our own internal flaws — we’ll be advancing the world at large, including the animals, via the ripple effect of our greater goodness. I like to think that an earnest desire to be nicer neighbors, more serene sisters, more forgiving fathers, is what will cause the selfishness and materialism of mankind as a whole to cede to self-sacrifice and spirituality. That trend can’t help but benefit animals across the board — not to mention bless animals’ abusers.

    Final observation: Thinking through the story of Achilles and the turtle, I concluded that Achilles is like those who know in their hearts animals deserve more than slightly larger cages, that they deserve to be liberated, their property designation scrapped, their basic rights affirmed.

    Meanwhile, the turtle is like the animal activist who tries to con Achilles into thinking that welfare works, welfare wins. Achilles gives up the race before he has even started, all because he has listened to the false argument posed by the turtle. If Achilles had worked the problem out himself, he would’ve realized that even though he started later, he CAN and WILL catch up, as long as he keeps his eye on the prize: freedom from slavery for his animal friends.

  • Very well said.

    I was struck by your writing: “But if we don’t act as if we believe we will get there, using every ounce of strategy at our disposal from one extreme end to another and fighting the battle on every front – if we don’t use our time on this planet to push us even one inch farther to our uncompromising goal of total liberation – then we don’t deserve to be here.”

    I do also think that we doom ourselves (“don’t deserve to be here”) if we don’t unrelentingly pursue the goal of achieving a world where all sentient beings can pretty much count on being able to pursue their own interests and live their own lives without being the victims (for whatever godawful purposes or schemes) of human animals. In that way, “animal liberation” is about “human animal liberation”, about us giving up the notion that we are “above it all” or “superior”.

    This sort of narcissistic mind-set is reminiscent of that of a very young human child who appears to see the world/universe as revolving around themselves. Unless and until we learn to “play well and work with others” we are flirting with the destruction of our very planet…which is exactly the outcome you would expect if a group of very young human children possessed very great power and control.

    You are right, if we are going to “pull the house down” as it were, destroying all because of our lack of maturation (or evolution as you might say) then we indeed “don’t deserve to be here”. Those who are on the side of the other animal people are thusly and truly on the side of the human animal people too.

  • bravebird
    Thanks for the kind words, Greenconsciousness. And yes, I definitely know it’s not all on me — if it was, I’d be living my life a BIT more differently. HAHAHA But I do think that it’s important to be honest with oneself and do what one can — REALLY do what one can. Not so much that we burn out and do no one any good, but not so little that really, we might as well be doing nothing. Hard call, different answer for everyone, but if we were all doing SOMETHING — well, HELL! Could you imagine? ;-)
  • bravebird
    Thanks for the kind note! We are hanging in here although we are getting another 5 inches of snow today after several days of spring weather, so that’s a bit hard to swallow. ;-) Hope everything on the island is all right!
  • bravebird
    SBH, thanks for such a thoughtful response! You are always so thoughtful. :-)

    What you said here reminds me of something pattrice jones has always said, not just to me but I’m sure to many others: think about your personality and then act accordingly. So, if you’re the kind of person who can pull off an undercover investigation, go for it. If you’re a reclusive writer, go for it. If you prefer having the company of non-humans to NOT having their company, work with (or start) a sanctuary. And of course there are millions of other things to do, which is the point: There are LOTS of ways to further the struggle, and so we can all find our place in this movement (or on its fringes if we so choose).

    MOSTLY I have to thank you for that kick-ass interpretation of Achilles and the turtle. You are RIGHT ON!!

  • Veganelder’s interesting comment about very young human children being narcissistic brings to mind the night-and-day difference between childlikeness and childishness. It’s thought to be normal for children to be egocentric, narcissistic, childish. I’m wondering if it’s really more natural for children to be unselfish, humble, and childlike. Childlikeness, to me, means desiring to do right, to be helpful, generous, good, obedient, innocent, wise, joyful.

    The reason I’m making this distinction is because I love the idea that all of us are not only originally childlike, but cannot lose our childlikeness. This quality helps us detect whatever is less-than-pure in our own or another’s motives — a barometer that we need when gauging our goals and our actions and our achievements within the AR movement. As Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) put it in Anna Karenina, “Hypocrisy in anything whatever may deceive the cleverest and most penetrating man, but the least wide-awake of children recognizes it,
    and is revolted by it, however ingeniously it may be disguised.”

    @ bravebird: The more I think about the Achilles/turtle story, the more it rings true and makes me want to stay the course instead of dipping into short-term fixes that do nothing to change the animals=property paradigm.

  • bravebird
    Veganelder, I went to reply to you yesterday, and ended up spending an INORDINATE amount of time playing and replaying the video of a kitten you have up on your blog — the one that over 44 million people have seen. ANYWAY. :-)

    Your comments about humans as narcissistic children reminds me of what so many people say about Europeans versus Americans — that they are adults whereas we are still idiot adolescents. Of course, Europe has a VERY long way to go when it comes to, as you say, play(ing) well and work(ing) with others, but as a collective, they have finally gotten a few things into their heads regarding the destruction of the planet, etc. It’s hard to imagine that we as a species will get as far as we need to go in the amount of time we have left on this planet before all hell breaks loose, but yes, for sure, all the more reason to, as SBH says, “stay the course instead of dipping into short-term fixes that do nothing to change the animals=property paradigm.”

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