Being Vegan

A friend posted  to my Facebook wall this recent NPR article entitled “Do Vegetarians and Vegans Think They’re Better Than Everyone Else?” Despite its cheeky tone, the question seriously got me thinking about the community of vegans — do we think we’re better?

I had to admit my initial gut answer is that yes, a lot of vegans do, maybe even me.  And not in an entirely wholesome way. So I wanted to explore it because, clearly, it’s a potential sign of arrogance and ignorance to think such a thing.  

To start, I think President Bill Clinton does a great job of talking about why he went vegan in this two minute video. 

Getting deeper into this, I’ll start where Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals picks up this topic.  In his first chapter, he discusses his grandma’s Chicken Carrot Soup, and the legendary status it had within his family. On the way to sharing the story of how this came to be, he beautifully draws out how we have a very delicate, complex psychology around our relationship to food that runs through our relationships with family, friends animals, and the planet — and weaves its way into our most basic daily choices, like “what’s for breakfast — fruit and granola, or bacon and eggs?” Deep emotional attachment and in some cases, addiction, are a big part of that psychology for most people.

So it can really impact people on a deep level to hear about why anyone chooses to be vegan, and why I deeply hope others make similar choices in ever-larger numbers if they feel it’s right for them.  Fair notice. 

Now my simple answer to the article’s question is — obviously, I think it’s better not to take any creature’s life needlessly. I don’t think we should cut down forests any more than we should slaughter birds, fish or cattle. It’s holistically not great — for our planet, our health, our karma, our relationship to each other, and to all the dead, and those who live on. 

Veganism is a modern take on the spirit of the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” That spirit is non-violence. Love. Through veganism, among other practices, I strive to live out my belief in Love. 

Morally, I believe slaughtering animals is wrong, and feel toward it just the same as I feel about slavery and racism. Taking life needlessly, for pleasure, and without a reverent regard for the web of life of which that life plays an integral part — that, to me, is deeply ignorant and dark-hearted.  To refrain whenever possible, in the spirit of the Biblical injunction “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and the Buddha’s admonition to first practice ahimsa (non-violence) above all else is a real virtue.  Yogic philosophy and Gandhi, and much of Eastern philosophy, focuses on ahimsa as the foundation of a more deeply alive, meaningful life.

However, despite mention of religious injunctions — I want to affirm that I am really not ideological or fanatical about this. I appreciate the spirit, but realize, in practice there are lots of situations it may be necessary or good to eat meat.  For example, I don’t fault an indigenous tribesman living in a desert or tundra where agriculture and money are unavailable to kill an animal and feed it to his family. This is clearly part of our human heritage; it’s just that we don’t need it now, in our global economy with so many alternatives available.  Ethics are complex, but I believe when you can choose better practically, and are informed and awake in spirit enough to do so — then we are living up to our human potential for creative, inspired, positive action.

I have entertained the idea, and know some who cling to it tightly — that “meat is murder.” This is the extreme ethical vegetarian’s view.   But I believe to hold this view is deeply hurtful to the holder, as well as to those people who are judged, and ultimately to the animals who meat-eaters go on eating for lack of a sensitive, nuanced and fair conversation about the ethics and practicality of their choices.  

It’s just not quite accurate to say meat is murder — and by extension that most meat-eaters are murderers.  But there does need to be a clear-eyed acceptance that we all do participate in a deadly system — and most of us are complicit, even if not directly responsible.

The nature of that deadly system has a name — just like slavery had a system, called racism, which we are still recovering from 150 years later. In the case of animal killing, it’s called carnism. And it’s the ideology that consuming animal flesh for pleasure is perfectly justified, in some cases — “the psychological disconnect which allows people to eat some animals while remaining resolutely sentimental about others.” 

It was written about recently on the NY Times website here:

Why DO we love dogs, wear cows, and eat pigs?? Carnism is why — it’s a complex, contradictory ideology that deserves close exploration by any person who wishes to deepen their practice of compassion. Many books could be and will be written about it — the spiritual, economic, psychological, political, scientific, nutritional dimensions each have their own nuances that deserve to be addressed. But this is a blog post, not a book.

So I’ll try to wrap it up by saying, I believe we are with veganism where the anti-slavery movement was about 200 years ago, in the 1810s. There is an impending global ecological, food, and water supply crisis, driven in large part by industrial-scale meat production and consumption and related depletion of forests and food/water supplies required for meat, which otherwise would feed humans.  

Confronting this globally will force some deep reckoning, and may possibly even precipitate war, akin to the Civil War, but on a global scale. I am not the only one who believes this. Climate change scientists at the UN do as well: 

I would rather we avoid this fate, and feel it’s responsible and forward-thinking to try to work to avert it.  And I hope, through compassion and honesty, that we each make personal choices to effect a transformation without further bloodshed, of any kind. In the current world, I don’t believe eating animals is good, for anyone. We have nutritious plant-based alternatives and supplements that can meet everyone’s needs. 

Finally — I know it makes me a better person than I was before to choose to care about all this, and to make the choices I do — each day, I literally feel better, more serene, more integrated, more connected to nature and all of life, more happy, more healthy, more able to be of service to others. It’s up to you to decide whether you might feel like a better person to do likewise, and to try it for yourself. 

So — to answer in all seriousness the question the NPR article somewhat cheekily poses — my answer is: look, I do think it’s useful to meditate on this deeply.  For me,  I really feel there’s no consistent framework in which I can assert I’m better than anyone else.  But — what I do feel sure of is that I’m better than I was.  

And, just like anyone with the experience of positive change in any area, I hope others who need or want it, have all the support they can to find it.

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