Staying true - more thoughts on 'reducing suffering'
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There's an Elephant in the Room blog
August 2018

In seeking to make a virtue of ‘reducing suffering’, an unwinnable ‘numbers game’ is being played.... As I have noted before, with regard to our unnecessary victims, we fail them all if we fail to recognise them for the individuals they are. They are not a quantity that we can cut down on like our sugar, fat or alcohol intake. We are talking about individuals here.

dairy cows
Image by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

More and more often I see comments from those who for some reason identify themselves as vegans, comments in which they are approving the most astonishing levels of violence and brutality to the defenceless individuals that veganism is sworn to defend. I shared an article this morning, that pointed out that the ‘lab grown meat’ industry uses fetal bovine serum, a substance derived from the hearts of calves, cut from their heavily pregnant mothers in the slaughterhouse.

I think too many vegans are thinking of this as the Holy Grail, which may subtly be taking pressure and urgency off of other modes of action and analysis.

~ John Sanbonmatsu

Please see this link ["Clean Meat"? - Two Animal Rights Advocates Say "NO"] where the points raised by philosophy professor John Sanbonmatsu closely match my own perspective. The subject of lab grown meat is a fertile source of controversy amongst those who are unaware of the grotesque reality it involves, however, this essay has been fermenting for a few days following the reading of a particularly shocking number of comments by apologists for the continued use of nonhuman individuals.

Virtuous pragmatism?

My thoughts here are applicable in far too many situations. Whenever any article of this nature is posted, there are invariably several who announce that ‘anything that reduces suffering’ is ‘okay with them’, as they scramble to commandeer a shaky patch of moral high ground, while seeking to cast critics as ‘extremist’ and ‘unrealistic’ when compared to their own ‘virtuous pragmatism’. I have several issues with this.

First and foremost, in seeking to make a virtue of ‘reducing suffering’, an unwinnable ‘numbers game’ is being played. This quality termed ‘suffering’ is not scalable. As I have noted before, with regard to our unnecessary victims, we fail them all if we fail to recognise them for the individuals they are. They are not a quantity that we can cut down on like our sugar, fat or alcohol intake. We are talking about individuals here.

To illustrate this, and this is mainly for those who find themselves leaning towards the ‘less harm’ / ‘reducing suffering’ idea as being good in theory, I’d like to suggest a brief thought experiment.

A thought experiment

We all have people we love; children, parents, siblings, friends so let’s focus on them (the human ones, in this instance, leaving aside our nonhuman companions just this once). Let’s think about those whom we love the absolute most. For example, I have two sons, grown men now but still inspiring in me the fierce love that all mothers know so well, the sort of love that would stand unhesitatingly in front of a bullet, would gladly lay down its life to keep them safe. I’m thinking of them here and no doubt everyone has someone in their life that inspires protective love. Now. Look at these beloved faces in your mind’s eye while considering the following question.

If a circumstance arose where they were threatened with some completely unnecessary harm but, rather than fighting to protect them all, you decided that ‘reducing suffering’ would be good enough, which ones would you consign to torment, incarceration, mutilation and an agonising and unnecessary death, and which ones would you consider as worth sparing? Would it be your youngest child? Your eldest? Your mother? Really think of what you’d be agreeing to on their behalf; the terror, the gore, the whimpering and begging for the hurt to stop.

It’s not so easy now, is it? After all, when we’re promoting ‘less harm’ and we strip it all down away from the rhetoric, this is what we’re saying about some other mother’s children, parents, siblings, partner. We’re advocating that collateral casualties are a reasonable price to pay as a scientifically unproven route to some imagined ‘greater good’. However that sort of high ideal is fine only when we’re talking about someone else’s loved ones. Or in fact for some, preferably some other species and their loved ones. It’s always easy to sound noble about sacrifices that are never going to touch us personally.

What we think we’re saying vs What is being heard

When we promote ‘less’ harm, a strategy that often accompanies the ‘I’m good with that as long as you’re trying’ approach, we’re completely overlooking something. Despite seeking to claim brownie points for pragmatism amongst extremists, we are actively promoting all the horrors of non veganism. Whatever we may fondly imagine we’re saying, what our audience is hearing is that it’s perfectly fine to not be vegan.

In saying that we’re ‘okay’ or ‘have no problem’ with this nebulous and highly subjective idea of ‘reducing suffering’, the message that we are conveying to a non vegan audience that, let’s face it, wants nothing more than to have their own current behaviour vindicated is this: ‘Veganism isn’t all that important. Yeah, there are some extremists out there who go over the top but hey, people like me are realists and as long as you’re trying, I’m good with it. Every little bit helps.’ I even saw a conversation with almost these exact words on a thread recently. Some self-identified ‘vegans’ were falling over themselves backwards to condone harm and bloodshed in their efforts to be seen as ‘reasonable’ while those who were not vegan were swapping anecdotes about why their own brutal choices were perfectly fine – and no doubt would seem even more fine having had a ‘vegan’ seal of approval.

Accept that the message isn’t popular

And here we have another point to note. Promoting veganism to any audience that has normalised animal use, harm and slaughter – and every dietary permutation and position short of veganism falls fairly and squarely into that category – is never going to be popular. As I said earlier, because people want their behaviour to meet with approval from their peers, the last thing they want to hear is unsolicited information about the harm that their actions have been causing, and facts about how totally unnecessary it is.

Every one of us, when we were not vegan, had a ready set of justifications with which we had studiously avoided recognising the consequences of our actions. An advocate who promotes veganism is going to run headlong into that wall every single time. Unless of course we take the tack that, ‘yeah, that’s all fine, I’m good with that’, in which case, the wall of excuses has once more served its purpose, deflected the challenge to our carefully constructed narrative and dismissed consideration of veganism.

It’s going to hurt

That moment when we finally open our minds to veganism is painful. Always. It doesn’t come gently at the end of a long period of having our awareness ‘raised’ whatever that means. It’s not a gradual and sweet progression of enlightenment that allows us to feel good about ourselves all along the way. At the point where we have to decide one way or the other whether to embrace veganism or ignore it, we feel sick with horror, chilled with the heart-stopping realisation of exactly what we’ve been paying for.

And for the purpose of this essay, the final major issue I have with the ‘I’m good with that as long as you’re trying’ idea is this. Who the hell gave us the right to sanction a bleak existence being used as a resource, violation and slaughter on behalf of another sentient individual? Surely being vegan is defined as an acceptance, an internalisation of the fundamental injustice of taking the life of any individual because we know that it’s all unnecessary?

A false dichotomy: being realistic or being unequivocal

If we hold true to ourselves and unequivocally champion the defenceless victims of non-veganism, it’s naive to even hope we will be liked and we must learn to accept this.

Often presented as ‘unrealistic’, unequivocal vegan advocacy does not mean being drawn into mudslinging, anger and aggression, even when that is the tone adopted towards us. The truth speaks for itself. It is my experience that providing facts, calmly, honestly and without compromise, does work. When a critic seeks to ridicule veganism, or justify their own abusive choices, they are seldom in a mindset for having a reasonable discussion. The fact that they invariably choose to do so in a public thread emphasises this; when cheered on by their animal-harming contemporaries who are similarly seeking justification in the comfort of numbers, it becomes almost unthinkable for them to back down. That is why I consider that leaving a link to information and making a strategic withdrawal is often the best policy. But somewhere, someone lurking on the post may click on our information and it may start to plant seeds.

Never lose sight of what’s at stake

In 2016, 74 billion land based individuals each endured an existence as a resource and a death so horrific that we shrink from even thinking about it. The number of aquatic individuals subjected to our unspeakable brutality far exceeds that number by many multiples. They all deserve nothing but our best efforts to defend them, to bring down the whole vile commercial edifice that has been built up to support the consumer choices of those who are not vegan; that massive industry in which sentient individuals are no more than business assets.

And those who are queuing, trembling in fear and horror in the slaughterhouses at this moment, as well as the innocent and defenceless individuals who will continue to comprise that queue every day into the future until the madness ends, are relying on us to defend them without compromising a single one of them.

We can do that. Believe it. Be vegan.

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