Friday, 30 November 2012

Misanthropy And Its Effect On Our Vegan Advocacy (with Addendum)


In my last blog post, Abolitionism and Discrimination, I wrote:

As animal advocates, to retain any form of discriminatory attitude towards other humans indicates that we really don't understand the basis for rejecting speciesism and we're only likely to be a liability to the cause of abolitionist animal rights because we will undoubtedly, and correctly, be perceived as misanthropes, further entrenching negative stereotypes about "animal people".

Apart from discriminatory attitudes, there is another way that misanthropy can manifest for us as vegan advocates. It appears that it's not uncommon, after having the life-changing realisation of our complicity in animal exploitation and becoming vegan, that we begin to view darkly the rest of the human population who haven't yet understood what we understand and continue to support exploitation. Becoming aware of the sheer enormity of the scale and intensity of the crimes of human beings against non-human beings -- 56 billion land animals and approximately one trillion fish unnecessarily killed each year for food alone -- can be overwhelming and leave us feeling ashamed of belonging to the human species. And even though we've gone vegan, we may not entirely spare ourselves from the shame due to having previously been complacent about acknowledging our own participation in exploitation and giving the issue of animal rights any serious thought.

Most difficult of all is when, after "getting it" ourselves, we expect our friends and family to likewise get it and become vegan once provided with the facts of animal exploitation and the logical argument for veganism, we often encounter a brick wall of indifference and resistance to the message. People who we previously considered to be kind and decent may now appear to us to be coldly callous and lacking in a basic sense of justice. If we weren't misanthropes before, we may find ourselves drifting in that direction. 

Indeed, I've encountered a number of vegans who appear to have a decidedly misanthropic view. It's impossible to know whether they were this way inclined prior to becoming vegan or not. Statements like "I love animals but I can't stand people", or "Animals are innocent but humans are evil" are not unfamiliar. We sometimes hear sentiments expressed by vegans (and others) along the lines of humans being nothing but a "cancer upon the earth" and that "it would be better if the human species became extinct". This quote from a vegan on the internet is somewhat typical:


I feel very angry whenever I witness something horrific, unnecessary and cruel. I feel sad and upset. I admit that at times I have hated humans, including myself and everyone I know and wish they would vanish from this planet. I believe this feeling comes from hopelessness. Sometimes it seems that we humans are just a force of destruction, pain and misery.


While feelings of sadness and disillusionment regarding the human species as a whole or certain people in particular, in relation to animal exploitation, may be very understandable, I feel that we need to be aware of and carefully guard against moving in a misanthropic direction of despising other humans for their failures towards animals. A misanthropic attitude, like any persistent negative attitude, hurts us. It's also, obviously, likely to hurt others. But, most importantly in terms of our animal advocacy, we need to be clear that it hurts animals, in that it will most definitely be an impediment to advocating on their behalf. 

In short, misanthropic animal people are mistaken if they think they can be effective animal rights advocates. It just doesn't work that way. Our only hope for abolishing animal use is our ability to educate other people, and that requires establishing trust and rapport. No matter how well we think we might be able to hide it, our basic attitudes towards our fellow humans broadcast themselves through our verbal inflections, facial expressions, eye movements  and gestures and are picked up loud and clear by others. Research has suggested that between 60 and 70 percent of all meaning in human interaction is derived from non-verbal behaviour. The best logical argument for veganism is likely to fail if what people are registering, no matter how subtly, is a fundamentally misanthropic attitude of contempt, disrespect, impatience or cynicism, whatever the source of these feelings. All this will generally succeed in creating is defensiveness and resistance, no matter how brilliant our animal rights argument and its verbal delivery. 

Helping people to get in touch with their moral concern about animals and to be receptive to the rational argument for veganism can only be enhanced by our ability to communicate a positive attitude towards them. This doesn't mean faking that we care about people more than we do, or being effusive. Rather, it means letting go of any false distinctions that contribute to a sense of separateness or "otherness" and acknowledging our essential commonality and interdependence. It means allowing our natural awareness to arise, to the extent that we can, of people as beings worthy of respect who are, as I believe, fundamentally good, fundamentally wanting to be happy and, on the whole, wanting others to be happy, despite the many misguided, destructive and self-defeating ways we as humans often go about trying to achieve this. And as we well know, most people do care about animals to some degree. Almost all agree that it's wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on them, but, in a deeply speciesist world, are terribly confused and in the grip of moral schizophrenia in terms of knowing how to act on this in a coherent and meaningful way. Professor Gary Francione has described moral schizophrenia as: 


the delusional and confused way that we think about animals as a social/moral matter. That confusion can include conflicting or inconsistent ways of looking at animals (some are family members; others are dinner).

In a nutshell, what I'm talking about is not essentially a cerebral matter, but an opening of our hearts towards the people with whom we engage in our vegan advocacy. I agree with  Francione that what we need is a "revolution of the heart" in relation to animals. I think that's more likely to be achieved if we can also open our hearts to other humans. If people sense that we respect and care about them, and are willing to genuinely listen to them and their concerns, they're more likely to care about what we have to say on behalf of animals. 

Not only is it necessary to have basic caring about other humans in our vegan advocacy, but I would even suggest that, if we really don't care about other humans, or hate them, or consider them a lost cause, our caring about non-humans is unlikely to be authentically about them, and more likely to be about us. Our focus on animals may be a reaction to feeling hurt and disappointed by other humans, justifying and reinforcing misanthropic cynicism or resentment; or projecting our own identification with victimhood and other aspects of a narcissistic disposition upon suffering animals, rather than facing these and dealing with them in constructive ways. In a subtle and unacknowledged way, this is just another form of exploitation -- using the suffering of the animals for our own agenda, while on the surface engaging in activities "for the animals". No matter what flurry of activity we engage in "for the animals" we're not likely to be very effective if our motives are muddied. This may be a harsh truth to face, but if we have serious issues with other people such that it affects our ability to interact with them in positive ways, we would do well to acknowledge and address these directly rather than attempting to escape from them and displacing the problem via animal advocacy. I consider, however, that a need or desire to gain personal fulfilment through doing something worthwhile with our lives is a healthy motive for engaging in animal advocacy and does not fall into the problematic category I've been discussing here.

If we really can't relinquish our misanthropic attitudes, or don't want to, then as misanthropes, I repeat what I said in my previous post -- we're only likely to be a liability to the animal rights movement. I'm certainly not suggesting that this describes most animal rights advocates. I think some feelings of negativity towards humans in general or certain people in particular, in their lack of overwhelming enthusiasm for our vegan message, is something that some of us go through as a phase in the early stages of vegan advocacy (I certainly had my own version of this), but that we "snap out of it" when we realise that it's disempowering to us personally and as advocates -- and the sooner the better.  

While we can't make people care about animals if they don't, people who don't care are not our concern and we need not waste one iota of time or energy focusing on them once it's apparent that they don't care. Our concern is the huge number of people who do genuinely care about animals and are, if they only knew it, just waiting for an abolitionist animal rights advocate to come along and educate them about how to translate that into meaningful and effective action by going vegan. These are the people we need to find and on whom we need to focus. How many of these people will one day say, as we do, "If only someone had told me about this sooner!" and "Becoming vegan was the best decision I ever made in my life!"?

Addendum:

Although my focus in this essay has been the effect of misanthropy on our vegan advocacy and the necessity of establishing positive interpersonal connections with people we talk to about abolitionist animal rights, it's certainly not a case of "love is all you need"! 

We need to educate clearly and efficiently. Education is primary. (My essay assumed that those who are already abolitionists are aware of this, but for those who aren't, it's worth stating explicitly). 

By education, I mean the logical argument for abolition of animal use as presented in Francione's book, Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog, and throughout his work generally, including other books  and a large body of essays and podcasts.  (Blogs, podcasts and educational materials by other abolitionists are also useful).This argument essentially states that, if we regard animals as members of the moral community, if we take their interests seriously, then we cannot morally justify eating, wearing or using them in any way as resources. In practical terms, this means veganism as the moral baseline. As a corollary, we need to be able to clearly explain to people why single issue welfarist campaigns and so-called humane or "happy" meat, eggs and dairy are not the solution to animal exploitation.

We also need to be able to provide practical education on veganism and to refer people to the appropriate resources (such as this and this) for making the transition to a healthy vegan diet and a vegan lifestyle generally. If people are interested in going vegan but don't don't want to do so immediately, we should provide practical steps they can take (such as the "Vegan 1-2-3" Plan, as described in this essay). 

So although our role as abolitionist vegan advocates is primarily as educators, our education will be more or less effective depending on the affective component of our interactions. Logical argument and information are central and powerful, but can be undermined by misanthropic or generally negative attitudes to others. We need to be vigilantly self-aware in this respect and not underestimate the interpersonal and non-verbal component in our advocacy. 

Also, I do not regard challenging people to be incompatible with caring, empathy and respect. As abolitionist vegan advocates, challenging the dominant speciesist paradigm of  animal use is the essence of what we do! We certainly should not shy away from respectful debate and disagreement. Being "willing to genuinely listen to (people) and their concerns" does not imply passivity and collusion with speciesist attitudes or excuses for continuing to consume animal products. Rather, listening carefully helps us in personalising our message in order to address any specific points of confusion or anxiety, and in removing any obstacles to becoming vegan.