One compassion

"So long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields" - Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy saw what so many see when they break down their internal intellectual wall between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom.  There is not one sort of violence on the battlefield and another in the slaughterhouse, there is one violence, which emanates from the same place in the human psyche.

Tolstoy was a deeply religious man, yet his view is at odds with most religions, who hold humanity up as the supreme, divinely created being and the rest of nature created simply to serve human purposes.

The rise of secularism hasn't seem to shake our belief in humankind as the “raison d’etre” of the universe.  This is peculiar 150 years after On the Origin of Species was published showing us to be just one link in a chain.  Charles Darwin so thoroughly refuted this image of humanity as "the meaning of existence", as radically as Copernicus had done for our conception of the Earth’s place in our solar system, yet little in our relationship with other animals has changed.  If anything the rise of modern secular science has coincided with an increase in the rearing of animals for food and more animals suffering in factory farms than would have ever been possible in the old "religious" world.

The links between human violence towards each other, and violence towards other animals have been well documented1. The analysis of the life history of violent criminals shows cruelty towards animals is a repeated theme in their earlier lives.  Domestic abuse is generally accompanied by violence towards the household animals2.  Working at slaughterhouses is correlated with an increase in domestic abuse in their homes3.

These links should come as no surprise.  We know as Darwin said “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher animals in their mental faculties”. Tolstoy knew this when he drew the link between killing humans and other animals.  Abusers feel this on some primal level, that suffering of all creatures has a commonality they wish to exploit.

Whether we call for compassion for animals or humans, we are asking for control in the same place in the human psyche.  Whether people are working on ending violence towards people or violence towards non human animals, they together strive towards a common goal.

Lord Acton said power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.  From the random abuse of power towards animals we must move on to confronting institutional abuse on a far wider scale, the modern intensive farming techniques our absolute power over our fellow creatures has enabled.

We can see parallels in our treatment of both human and non-human animals in the current system of production and consumption centered as it is around efficiency and monetary cost.

Clothes, electronics, household items, the cheapness and desirability of material goods means more to us than the lives of the people who produce them. Obviously we don't think like that consciously, because we want to like ourselves, but that is the reality. In the sweatshops where workers toil beneath human dignity, long working hours, poor health and lax safety are the norm.  Forms of slavery are still common in the world. Poverty forces people into situations and working conditions we would never accept for ourselves or the people we care about, yet their distance from our lives makes it acceptable to us.  It is difficult to even uncover the living conditions endured by the workers involved in creating our products, as the mainstream media have direct economic disincentives against informing a public who may consume less of whatever their advertisers are selling.

The same capitalist system brings us 60 billion creatures each year passing through living conditions designed for our interests, not theirs.  Perhaps a trillion sea creatures taken often cruelly from the sea.  Animals in factory farms are afforded none of the protections we expect for the companion animals who are part of our families.  Many countries have special exemptions from animal cruelty laws to allow factory farming to continue and be as profitable as it is.  The same corporate media remains silent on the treatment of these creatures that they profit via, from the advertising of junk food and high profit livestock products.  Added to this media silence, is an unwillingness on the part of consumers to inform themselves about the lives of animals in factory farms.

To satisfy our desire for often unnecessary products corporations compete to provide us with the cheapest possible goods, caring only as much for people, animals or the environment, as it affects their profit margins.  The treatment of humans and animals is part of the same system of complicity and silence.  Those of us who are lucky enough to have choices in how we consume can choose not to economically support these actions.

Vegans are people who have chosen to, as much as possible, withdraw their economic and intellectual consent from exploitation of our kindred animal species.  We boycott an industry that is often cruel, environmentally unsustainable and ethically unfair, an industry where sentient beings are robbed of any freedom and reduced to being a commodity.  Most vegans are not only focused on the treatment of animals, but also commonly care about the environment, the treatment of workers, the suffering of the poorer regions of the world and many other social concerns, because they make the connections between them.  Vegans are advocates of nonviolence, who generally see as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr put it so clearly in his letter from a Birmingham gaol, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

The great struggles for justice of the past, have found their strongest advocates within the oppressed groups themselves.  The Pankhurst family for women's suffrage, Frederick Douglass against  slavery, Gandhi against imperialism, Martin Luther King Jnr for civil rights, Nelson Mandela against apartheid.  The oppressed billions of creatures in this world however can never speak for their own liberation.  They rely purely on the empathy of others, who will take a stand for justice even though it doesn’t affect them directly.

To be vegan is to make that choice, a choice which has obvious parallels with others who cannot speak for themselves, such as starving children, war torn families and hidden workers in the poorer regions of the world who have little more voice in our society than the animals destined for slaughterhouses.  

Those who glance casually at advocates for animal liberation might see only a concern for the killing of other species, but it is much deeper than that.  Veganism is a political statement, against selfishness, against violence, for compassion, for the environment, for solidarity with the oppressed, ahimsa. 

We also see that ultimately to participate in a system of oppression damages the soul of the oppressor almost as much as it does the bodies of the oppressed.  The world we envisage of equality amongst peoples is unlikely to be built upon the oppression of all other beings.  Whilst we participate in the denial of freedom to others we cannot be truly free within our own minds, we stifle some better part within ourselves. Animal liberation is also human liberation.

Freedom is a basic right all creatures yearn for, your own and theirs are bound together. Transitioning towards a vegan diet is a necessary step in a more just world for all.