Saturday, April 30, 2016

You Can't Just Say that Vegetarianism is Unquestionably a Superior Moral Decision

For whatever reason, the face of an old dorm-mate suddenly came to my mind tonight, and I remembered that we were no longer friends on Facebook.  I remembered having an argument through Facebook messages that must have convinced him that I couldn't be reasoned with, because he unfriended me sometime after that last online discussion.  The argument came about when he, opting to deal with his personal concerns one-on-one, sent me a message in response to a post I made about factory farming.  He wanted me to know that it was belittling and dismissive to say things like "Vegetarianism is unquestionably a superior moral decision to eating meat," and very politely explained why he found this a Very Bad Way to Go About Things.  This was my response:


I appreciate the sentiment you're expressing. I respect that you want to cover it one on one. So let's do that. 

I am adamant about my opinions. I recognize that. And people have told me that I should reconsider the way that I portray my opinions, time and time again. Each time that I've heard that suggestion, I've considered what it was exactly that they were suggesting I do. 

My statements are not made on my behalf. They are unpopular and only serve to make me come off as annoying, irritating, and pretentious. So think for a second about what I'm trying to do: I want to prevent suffering. I want to save lives. I want to end systematic torture. 

Say there were some systematic human rights abuse happening in New Brunswick. Say people knew about it but didn't care enough to do anything. What would be your strategy in ending that abuse? Maybe appealing to some higher power? OK, let's pretend it was happening everywhere in the US. Let's say this particular human rights abuse provides some new convenience or diversion to the majority of the population, and has subsequently become so ingrained in our culture after decades of practice, that it's now explicitly legal. How exactly would you go about getting rid of the abuse? What if you knew some of the people who were suffering this abuse, and you were emotionally connected to them? How would that impact your decision? 

Ultimately, I'm making a point for those who can't make it themselves. Nonhumans in the meat in industry can't stand up and say "Hey, I would prefer that you don't torture me". Let's go back to my absurd analogy for a moment. Let's say you were trying to stop this abuse. Where would you go? To whom would you speak? How would you speak to them? Are you going to ask your friend to sit down with you for lunch to talk about the issue? When your friend cracks a joke about this culturally accepted human rights abuse, do you think that you'd have the capacity to respond with respect? Say they laugh off the notion of talking about it, because it's so obviously important to our society to continue whatever the practice may be. Your response would probably not be an earnest and polite "I think your joke about people abusing my friends is really funny". Might you appeal to morality? Might you suggest that, even if it's inconvenient for this economically beneficial human rights abuse to halt, even though it has no negative impact on the people who contribute to this practice, there might be a moral reason to change? 

Let's say this abuse culminates in the youthful deaths of the people who are fed into this system. Let's say you watch one friend go at the age of 25, whereas they entered this system of abuse as a healthy, independent individual. Let's say they die because of this abuse, and to fill the place of this friend, they take another one of your friends. And that would repeat, ad nauseum. At a certain point, your friends are gone, and they've started moving onto other people. Now, how do you approach others with your plight? You probably feel somewhat indignant about the whole process, and now you can't even say "that's my friend". You can't use that personal appeal, you can't say "he's my family" or "he's my classmate". The abuse continues to strangers. What options are left to you? You see this process continue with no intention of ending, and you value the lives and well-being of the people going into the system in a way that very few people do. 

When an advantageous practice becomes so closely entwined with a culture, it becomes implausible for people to see the morality of that system. There are plenty of systematic human rights abuses around the world that people don't care about, and it's universally accepted that they're wrong--or else no moral judgment is really made. Nobody says that human rights abuses are good. LOTS of people choose apathy, and PLENTY of people refuse to have a conversation about the issue. Despite the fact that morality is subjective, despite the fact that it's only a minority of people who spearhead the anti-abuse campaigns, it is not unreasonable to say that such abuses are definitively immoral. It's not unreasonable to say that refusing participation in whatever exploitation occurs is an unquestionably morally superior route to take. 

Which brings me to my next point: any decision that I make on the grounds of a moral judgment has nothing to do with how I view myself as a person. Like my new status outlines, my judgment that it's wrong to commit acts of suffering, coupled with the fact that animals suffer in commercial meat production, is grounds for obligatory action on my part. I have not arrived at this conclusion through superiority. I am not superior because I think this way. I am not superior because I act this way. I am doing something that I believe everybody should do. I incidentally happened upon the realization that eating meat is immoral, and when I began to consider the notion, I spent a great deal comparing that way of thinking to my previous way of thinking - which is the norm. Which is to say that I understand where people are coming from and came from the same place. It was by accident that I came across the moral realization that I espouse today. And I hope to, through whatever means I can come up with, share that revelation with others. Because it's bigger than me. The fact is, ten billion land animals dying every year, most of them suffering in factory farms, is a far bigger issue than me or you. I perceive this with much anguish; because of the grand scale of the issue, I think the words "unquestionably morally superior" are appropriate for talking about it. 

It's surely important to leave matters of subjective experience to the realm of subjective experience. I would never deign to express disdain or doubt for the Christian faith. Because it's a matter of faith, and therefore is not something I can criticize in others. But when people's actions affect others, it's entirely appropriate for their actions to be called into question. Opinions become irrelevant, and it's the set of actions that are brought into discourse. 

Briefly, one last time, let's go back to my poorly construed analogy. Imagine you come across a person who insists that the human rights abuses in this fictional world are entirely justified because they provide him some useful benefit. Because they, like you, are entitled to their opinion, it would be wrong of you to call into question their actions. What is your response? Wouldn't you feel some sort of [moral] obligation to question his indirectly exploitative way of life? 

So am I took quick to put down the opinions of others? Am I not sensitive enough to people's feelings about their own opinions? Are my statements too boisterous and assertive? Perhaps. But do I have a reason for being angry and indignant? Absolutely. Certainly, the innocents who are affected do, and they have no way of telling us how they feel. All things considered, my public statements are pretty tame. I doubt that you'd get as gentle a message coming from the cows, pigs, and chickens that are mercilessly slaughtered every day, were they to use the same means of communication as their owners. 

I am incredibly open to constructive dialogue about any issue--except this one. I usually join dialogues with well defined opinions and have something to say, but that by no means entails an unwillingness for or inclination against listening to the opposing viewpoint. But animals suffer, and that's not okay. 

Ultimately, my concern is that you view this as a dialogue about me and you. It's not, and that's not what I intended to start. I wanted to start a dialogue about a concept, and what frustrated me was that you immediately reduced the issue to a personal one. I tend to speak like an activist, and I understand that bothers people. Nobody ever pushed forward a movement by being quite and polite, and although I intend to search for more permanent and systematic changes to the paradigm of meat consumption in the course of my life, I have a moral obligation to do something more, here, and now.

Rereading that post, the ensuing discussion, and this thread of personal messages was an interesting reflection.  3 years and at least 3 veg(etari)an converts later, I solemnly believe my bitterness throughout the years about this topic has been justified, and probably even worth how much it made people dislike me.  Juvenile and unrefined at times, definitely, but I'd rather be loud and corrected than silent and forever wrong.  I've learned an incredible deal from the people who tell me I'm wrong, even if it sometimes takes years to realize.  So I'll remember even my cringier activist moments fondly, because they led me to where I am now, which is closer to where I will eventually be.

There are definitely lots of people who do this whole activist thing better than me, and probably have at least as much impact while being more likable, but that requires skill, charisma, and intelligence that I don't have yet, and that I didn't have three years ago.  Some people are naturals, and some people draw from years of experience.   I don't feel like I have either the natural ability to be a successful activist or the experience to do it well yet.

Knowing what I do now about advocacy, tone policing, marginalized voices, and social justice in general, it is so much easier now to see this conversation for what it is: an imperfect person channeling a lot of anger at the status quo and being attacked from all sides for challenging people's privilege.  When a pretentious dissenter makes a plea for some cause, and the conversation gets immediately redirected towards a discussion of their personal flaws, that's privilege.  Unilaterally ganging up on somebody who doesn't know how to express themselves is just messed up.

Three years later, I'm thrilled to see way more conversations about the importance of ending factory farming, of going vegan, of being good to all sentient life forms.  I'm super happy to see that there are more allies and will-be-vegetarians than ever.  Hopefully the dialogue changes even more by 2019.  And hopefully in another three years, I will have grown as a person to have a greater impact while being even less unlikable.  
Maybe I'll even be morally superior to the person I am today.

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