|...meticulous advice for the refined activist|
Dear Gwendolyn Good-Deed:
When one becomes awakened to vegetarianism, the most obvious concerns that arise are often related to health, maintenance and will power: will I get all the nutrients I need? What will I eat for lunch? Will I be able to turn down turkey at Thanksgiving? These questions are important and should be considered, although many won't be sufficiently answered until the journey has begun. Far more insidious and veiled, however, are the personal matters that germinate below the surface and spring up like voracious, throttling weeds the moment the v-word enters the scene. Often one can feel like she, her values and her beliefs are being ripped to shreds and gobbled down in a swirling vortex of antagonism. See? Even the level head on Ms. Good-Deeds shoulders can spin about like a weather vane at the recollections your letter has conjured.
Sifting through the memory vault, Ms. Good-Deed must offer up at least one gem as an example that illustrates the state of affairs that you, gentle reader, have described. Some summers ago, as a vegetarian neophyte and a budding adolescent, little Gwennie Good-Deed packed her bags and headed off for three weeks at Miss Millicent's Woodsy Encampment for Courteous Young Ladies. It was all excruciatingly proper, as should have been expected from the woman who was also proprietress of a string of notoriously rigorous charm schools throughout the East Coast, and Miss Millicent insisted that throughout all of the activities, gracious campers must be wearing pristine white gloves. Of course, water sports were verboten, as was anything that involved levity, dirt or the possibility of fun. Predictably, the Courteous Young Ladies were becoming less and less inclined to courtesy as the second week approached, and it became apparent that essentially all they were going to be allowed to do was construct lanyards, take instruction on proper posture and learn the finer points of hosting a tea party in a semi-rustic setting. Needless to say, resentment was beginning to fester.
It was during this tense time that little Miss Good-Deed voiced her personal frustration about what, as a vegetarian, she was expected to eat. Day after day, she was fed a gloomy diet of lukewarm, pulpy oatmeal for breakfast, and for both lunch and dinner she received a plate of unidentifiable vegetables that had been cruelly boiled to the point of complete exhaustion. After a day of making more lanyards than she could ever hope to unload on even the most distant of relatives, Gwennie unleashed her considerable chagrin as yet another loathsome plate was placed before her.
"Can't I ever have anything else?" she implored of the poor cafeteria attendant. "This is inedible!" she opined as she speared an unrecognizably limp and soggy vegetable for dramatic effect. Shocked speechless, the cafeteria worker scuttled off, and during the daily post lunch constitutional, Miss Good-Deed was given the much-anticipated summons to meet Miss Millicent in her office at once. The mutinous camper and her insolent attitude would be duly addressed and quelled!
Meekly, Gwendolyn knocked on the door leading to her lair, and Miss Millicent's crisp voice, full of an "I will not tolerate a vegetarian insurgency" intonation, cut through the well polished walnut with a short command,
There was Miss Millicent, sitting with her straight-as-a-rod spine behind her enormous desk, her hands fiercely folded together on top. She gestured at the chair that faced her desk.
"Have a seat young lady."
Gwendolyn climbed onto the mountainous chair, and folded her sweaty gloved hands together on her lap, as her little girl legs hung stiffly in mid-air.
Miss Millicent, after dryly studying Gwennie's face for a few heart-stopping moments, stood, crossing her arms in front of her chest, and turned to face the window behind her, from which she could observe the rest of her subdued, petrified captives going through the daily posture exercises.
"Do you know, Gwendolyn," she began imperially, "that when I was your age, I was passionate about certain causes, just as you are."
Not knowing where this was headed, little Miss Good-Deed sat numbly.
"As I grew older, though, I came to realize that the things that I felt were important, weren't important at all."
She turned from the window to face Gwendolyn, and strolled around her desk before perching on the corner. What did this have to do with boiled broccoli?
"You're a vegetarian, correct?"
"Why have you decided not to eat meat?" she asked.
Gwendolyn shyly stammered, "Well, because I, ummm, I ...you see, I don't want to eat animals."
A little "a ha" bulb lightened up Miss Millicent's face, causing her to almost grin despite her best efforts at maintaining an impassive, cool expression. Leaning forward, she said,
"Oh, so it's all about the animals to you. Well, let me tell you something, young lady. While you feel all warm and fuzzy about bunnies and piglets, children are starving to death in the world."
Miss Good-Deed, still in a state of confusion, remained silent.
"Bombs are being built, teenage pregnancy is skyrocketing, homeless people are sleeping out on the street, illiteracy is epidemic and children around the world are starving to death. And here you are, just worrying about fuzzy, woozy widdle animals. The world has some real problems, and the last thing we need is people like you, young lady, caring about things that simply don't matter."
For the first time in her young life, Gwendolyn was speechless.
"Now, I don't want to hear again of you being defiant, Gwendolyn. If you've chosen to not eat a conventional diet, than you have brought this on yourself. And until you find some real issues to be concerned about, I don't want to hear another peep out of you. Do you fully understand, young lady?"
Miss Good-Deed must have nodded, because Miss Millicent walked back around her desk to her chair, sat and folded her hands together in the same pose she was in when Gwennie entered the office.
"You are excused."
Of course Miss Good-Deed did not lose her passion for what she believed in, but this was the first time she was exposed to hostility being directed at her for doing what she thought was "the right thing." After this experience, she has had to endure this type of interference from others on too numerous an occasion to possibly recount. Of course this is not always the case, but often when one gets wind of the fact that another doesn't eat animals, a profusion of bombs disguised as questions are lobbed out, usually in a reflexive, illogical manner, for example:
"What are you doing about the starving children?"
"Don't you care about the homeless?"
"Why don't you do something that really matters?"
This line of questioning, whether the inquisitor realizes it or not, is a manipulative tactic designed not only to fluster, but also to make the interrogated appear superficial, phony and/or dim-witted. It is a very common maneuver for throwing any conversation off the topic at hand. In addition to all this, there is also the fact that if this line of questioning follows the natural course determined by the interrogator, it establishes an unfair power dynamic and faulty logic in which the vegetarian will always be on the losing end.
It's very important that you remember is that this is just a tactic, most likely born of a guilty conscience, and you are aware of it when it's happening, instead of becoming flustered like Miss Good-Deed did the first time she was exposed to it. Most of all, do not fall into the all-too-common trap of letting your questioner control your discussion, because it's likely that he already has a conclusion that he's steering you toward, which is, to recapitulate, that you are superficial, phony and/or dim-witted. Gentle reader, your adversaries have a tactic and so should you: the most valuable way for you to circumvent any conversation that is attempting to expose you as a villain is to remain aware, calm and confident. Here's a fictionalized (though not too far off the mark) conversation snippet:
Other person: Oh, you're a vegetarian? Why don't you do something for all the starving people?
You: Actually I am. Almost 40 percent of the world's grain is fed to livestock. Perhaps there wouldn't be such a staggering world hunger problem if we didn't have such a grossly wasteful system. Thanks for asking, though, because it's inexcusable for there to be starvation when the world has such an abundance of food. I know that by eating a plant-based diet, I am not adding to the problem."
Do you see how gracefully the conversation has been hijacked? You have effectively shifted the burden of blame off of you, and put the conversation back on the proper track. Yippee! The beauty is that you can apply this technique to nearly any debate, because there are so many flawless arguments for adopting a vegetarian lifestyle. Human rights? No problem. Worker's rights? We've got that covered, too. The environment? Don't make it too easy! We've got it all covered.
But since you've got Miss Good-Deed on a roll, gentle reader, she'd like to make three final points. The first is that treating animals with compassion and love is an end in and of itself. It is ethically justifiable to not inflict cruelty onto animals simply because they feel pain, they feel peace and they feel enjoyment - simply because they feel. There does not have to be some "larger" reason tacked onto it; pure compassion and empathy for another creature are reason enough for your beliefs to have validity. Some of the greatest minds in the world, from Gandhi to Einstein, have used this as the basis behind their ethical convictions, and there is nothing wrong with anyone feeling the same way. Certainly you would be in good company.
The second point is that all there's a prevailing attitude that all world's problems must be foisted onto the shoulders of those who have demonstrated a tendency to "give a damn". Once again, this is a flagrant shunting of responsibilities. If the person you are debating is truly concerned about the state of the world, let's hope he is very active in humanitarian causes. In Miss Good-Deed's experience, the truly compassionate and committed of the world recognize and appreciate the same values in another, even if ostensively they are driven by different causes. As she mentioned earlier, those who belittle are likely doing so to assuage guilt.
Finally, Miss Good-Deed would like to make expose an obvious but
none-the-less treacherous myth that is implicit in the type of
arguments discussed in this letter. There is a notion that humans
possess a finite amount of compassion, and we must carefully ration
how we distribute it. How ridiculous! True compassion isn't like
a faucet that can only pour in one direction when we want to turn
it on, but is more like an ocean, vast and uncontrollable. It
is a lazy mind that would compartmentalize and simplify such an
innate, boundless resource like compassion. A person who feels
compassion for animals is likely a person who feels compassion
for others. In Miss Good-Deed's opinion, it is much more likely
that one who is kind to animals is in general kind, and it is
more likely that they do more good work for the benefit of the
entire planet, than those whose main contribution is initiating
irrational, self-serving arguments.
P.S. - If you still want a little more advice on this subject, please visit chapter 2 of the Activist's Handbook -- In Quest of a Question: How to Answer an Ornery Omnivore
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