Lately I’ve been ruminating, as I tend to do sometimes. It’s like having a running almost-unconscious dialogue in the back of my mind that comes and goes in intensity. My latest rumination has been about the whole “Vegan For Any Reason” movement gaining a strong foothold in the animal rights community. The basic argument is that if you get people to go vegan for any reason, including their own health, that’s fine – you’re still saving lives and it doesn’t matter why they are being saved. And of course, in a gut-level, utilitarian fashion, that’s true.
But that approach makes me queasy, for a few reasons. First and foremost, when people become vegan because of their own health, the ultimate motivation to stay vegan is weaker than it would be if they were doing it out of the knowledge that death lay behind their previous animal-oriented diets. We all don’t need to beat cancer or lose 350 pounds. We all don’t want to compete in the triathlon or make it to the cover of some magazine. We just want to live our lives and feel as good as possible within the confines of what we feel is reasonable.
To violate a cardinal rule when making arguments, I’ll take myself as an example. Twice. To preface both examples, I need to say that I’ve always been someone whose physical strength is critical to my sense of self-worth. I’ve always had more muscle tone than most women I’ve met, and have easily worked out, at many times in my life, to excellent “cut” status. Even when I didn’t try, I looked muscular.
But perimenopause has taken a toll on that luxury. To become as fit as I was even ten years ago, I would have to work out five times as hard and long as I used to. But I could do it. And if I worked out – and especially if I went raw, or became a smoothie-person – I would feel so much better, both about my own self-image as well as physically. Yet I can’t bring myself to do it. I feel fine enough – not so fine that I don’t realize I could feel better, but fine enough to hold onto the foods and activities I’ve grown to prefer over the years. In other words, my own health isn’t enough to make me change my eating and exercise habits. At least not at this point.
My second example dates back decades. I’ve always been incredibly reactive to dairy, but I never met an ice cream I didn’t like. And so, I never went anywhere without a pocketful of Sudafed, and still battled sinus infection after sinus infection. I would go off dairy sometimes, and felt amazingly better, but not good enough to change my behaviors for long.
What do these examples show? Well, I think many people are like me. They have general wishes to feel better, but if they are told they need to give up all kinds of foods they love, they just aren’t always that interested. The payoff isn’t worth the price. The bottom line of these stories is that one’s own health is a tricky and changeable foundation upon which to build a lifetime of a plant-based diet for the majority of people. That’s how I feel anyway. I also feel that it’s inherently deeply selfish, and therefore slightly repellent.
That’s my general response when people advocate this argument (as a friend did about a month ago, which is what spurred this latest rumination). That is, that I just can’t stomach making light of animal suffering – which is what I feel is going on, on some level, with the cheer-leading approach to veganism (hey, you can beat cancer too, rah rah rah) – just as I couldn’t imagine anything perky about a campaign to save child soldiers (hey, let’s get them Tonka trucks and Barbie dolls!). The latter is unthinkable – no one I know, on either end of the political, socio-cultural, or any other spectrum would ever advocate such a thing.
But I can never quite bring myself to say no, don’t do that, don’t encourage people to go vegan because of personal health reasons, because I do know that very real lives are saved with every decision to go vegan, no matter how long it lasts.
That is generally where my thought process ends. However, my recent rumination proves that I wasn’t really done with this topic. Today I realized why that is the case. An image appeared in my head. I was in Nazi Germany, but the reign had lasted for thousands of years instead of the fifteen years it did. The death camps for Jews, Gypsies, queers, and other social undesirables had morphed into work camps, and supplied the world – yes, the world – with the labor it needed to continue on with its civilized, cultured business as usual. No one gave these camps much thought, or if they did, they had fleeting moments of concern for the poorly-treated brutes; thoughts that disappeared when they benefited in some way from those same brutes.
In this future Nazi world, there were some who went further in their compassion and shunned anything that was associated with the forced labor camps. They devised a wide variety of campaigns aimed to help the people around them see and understand the obscenity of what was going on right around the corner from them, all the time, atrocities from which they benefited. Some of these campaigns involved direct actions – prison breaks, for example – and others were more educational in nature. Some were even cajoling, just as the “Vegan For Your Health” campaigns feel to me.
And when I had that image, I had this concurrent thought: These people – these people – they might well need to be cajoled. They’d had thousands of years to learn that the creatures in the death camps were their inferiors, put on earth to serve them, and were therefore unworthy of deep emotions of any kind. When that is the case – when beings are seen in a breezy fashion as objects for our use – then deep emotional arguments might not reach us. Perhaps the only thing that CAN reach us is something equally breezy. Perhaps appealing to self-interest with people like this is the only way.
That got me to thinking. This is exactly how people are when it comes to non-human animals. Almost every single person in the world feels this way. And they’ve felt this way for literally thousands of years. Their deep emotions are reserved for members of their own species (or a few select “pets” who are awarded the status of slightly retarded, but awfully cute, children). So trying to tap into those deep emotions might not work because they might not exist.
Of course, this ties into my on-going conviction that humans as a species are flawed and cannot NOT be flawed. We can only do our best, minimize our harm, and hope we’re taken out of the game before we do too much more damage. But in the meantime, we ARE doing damage. So hell, maybe we need those glitzy color-laden cookbooks that tell us how we get to be glamorous and a triathlete as long as we go vegan. Maybe pack another ten years onto our lives. That might be the deepest most of us will ever get, and if it works, what the hell.
I still suspect it won’t work, though. Self-interest in becoming prime biological specimens is always balanced with self-interest in putting tasty things into our mouths. In the end, as another friend of mine said last week, the only argument for going vegan – and staying vegan – that has no holes in it is the animal argument: the reduction of cruelty, the recognition that tasty animal things have screams of despair woven into their cells, and that no one is worthy of that kind of sacrifice.
And that’s where my ruminations have led me. It is the longevity of the suffering we have inflicted upon everyone else (and of course upon each other, ever chance we get) that might require a different touch. We might literally have no ability to feel empathy toward others, so urging people to tap into their sense of empathy might be like asking them to breathe through their ears. It ain’t going to happen.
This doesn’t make me inclined to get peppy, but it does make me see another angle to this perky trend.
What are your thoughts?