A Vegetarian Journal for Quakers and Other People of Faith
The Peaceable Table is intended for the mutual support, education, and inspiration of people of faith in the practice of love for our fellow animals and observance of a Peace-full diet
Editor’s Corner Guest Essay:
“Custom Heavy as Frost and Deep Almost as Life:” What Do We Mean by Socialization?
By Karen Davis
Carissa kissing Akachan. Photo by Laurelee Blanchard
I grew up in Altoona, Pennsylvania in the 1950s where my father and three brothers and virtually the entire male community took sport hunting and fishing for granted without question. I never participated in their activities or had any desire to, though my father would sometimes invite me to join them, “just for the walk.” I could say no, but my brothers could hardly refuse. Boys are as much at the mercy of “male domination” and punishment for deviance as girls are, sometimes more.
Through the years I’ve worked professionally with children and young people of all ages. In the 1960s, I taught at a daycare center in Baltimore, MD called – yes! – The Little Red Hen. In the 1970s, I was a juvenile probation --Art by Greg Schlindler officer in inner-city Baltimore for five years, where I counselled troubled teen-age girls. From 1980 to 1991, I taught English at the University of Maryland-College Park to students who often sought my counsel not only about literature and writing, but about themselves. Thus I have had many interactions with a variety of children and young people over the years, and my views on the effect of socialization on the human-animal bond include these encounters.
My talk is inspired by the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), whose poem Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood recounts his loss of visionary insight into Nature as he became an adult. The poem begins:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;--
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
In the poem, Wordsworth argues that children enter the world with a light of perception that fades over time “into the light of common day.” Seeking to understand the loss of this light, he describes how children, despite their affinity for Nature and the bliss this gift confers, are driven simultaneously to imitate and please their parents. Wordsworth views the eagerness of children to model and fit into the adult world as a tragic but inevitable motivation that, unbeknownst to the innocent ones, guides them into “the darkness of the grave.” Toward the end of the poem he asks the child:
Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!
This is a rhetorical question but one that seeks an answer. Wordsworth finds solace in his belief that there are compensatory forms of adult happiness commensurate with the hard realities that Life brings, and that despite the loss of visionary joy in Nature that comes with growing up, there remains in each person a “primal sympathy” that custom cannot destroy. Portrait of Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert
The seventeenth-century English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke (1632-1704 argued in opposition to [the later] Wordsworth that the mind of a child at birth is an “empty cabinet,” a blank slate or tabula rasa devoid of innate ideas or content. Whereas Wordsworth argues that people are born with a supernal knowledge that informs the young child’s perceptions and enthusiasms, which he regards as positive attributes that socialization stifles, Locke views the human infant as an empty vessel whose content develops from the elements of each person’s life experiences. Locke said, “I think I may say that of all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education.”
Modern genetics disproves the idea that individuals come into the world as blank slates. Instead, we each have a unique genetic blueprint. As noted on microworld.org, “Almost every cell in your body contains DNA and all the information needed to make you what you are, from the way you look to which hand you write with.” As for Wordsworth’s idea that children possess an inextinguishable primal sympathy with Nature, even if so, the question remains as to how, and why, biology, psychology, aging and socialization conspire to smother this primal sympathy as part of the growth process in most people. Must socialization conflict with compassion for animals?
Let us note that compassion for animals as individuals is not synonymous with primal sympathy with Nature. Wordsworth’s own passion for Nature had more to do with waterfalls and woods than with animals per se, and being a Nature enthusiast can involve treating animals badly. Worship of animal Spirits and concern for animal Species can coexist with callousness toward individual animals, even disdain for a “mere” bird or a single squirrel.
Writing in the anthology Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice, farmed animal transport and slaughterhouse investigator, Twyla Francois, describes her experience growing up in a small, religious farming community in Manitoba, Canada. In rural Canada, she writes, almost all students are enrolled in the 4-H --Head, Heart, Hands, and Health-– program, where they learn to suppress their feelings of compassion for animals. She recalls how her friend who unknowingly was raising her beloved calf to be auctioned for slaughter, wept as the calf was loaded onto the trailer to be taken away and killed. Immediately, the organizer handed her a check for $1,000. “To my surprise,” Twyla writes, “her tears were quickly replaced with thoughts of how she would spend the money.”
What this episode shows is complicity between the “child” and the elements of adult callousness – not just between Twyla’s friend and the auction organizer, but within the girl herself. The elements of socialization include desires, satisfactions and compensations that compete with and often overwhelm empathy and compassion, not only for animals but for anyone. Socialization is not simply an outside force bearing down on innocent children. Like all animals who live in herds and flocks, humans have evolved to be socialized in order to live within their own group.
In “At First Blush,” in the December 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard describes a childhood episode in which he was shamed by his teacher in front of the class. He goes on to consider what it means to be a child:
To be a child is to be within yourself, inside your thoughts and feelings. To be a child is to be free of the perceptions of others. To be a child is also always, in a certain sense, to be inconsiderate. Your own needs, your own hunger, your own thirst, your own joy, your own anger – these direct everything you do. To grow up is to learn to show consideration, to know who you are in the company of others, and to act in relation to them, not only to yourself. Shame is our way of regulating this relation. Shame is the presence of the gaze of others within ourselves. This is what I experienced back then, in the classroom.
Knausgaard discusses the role of shaming – bullying – in socialization. Bullying isn’t so much learned behavior as it is instinctual. Children will bully a deviant without any help from adults. This “dark side of childhood,” while cruel and pitiless toward the victim, acts as a social correction. Without bullying, he says, there would be no rules or sense of belonging to a community – “just individuals who would each be forced to create and maintain their own separate worlds.” The cost and benefit of being part of a community is that the “deviant” (the individual or that part of the individual that differs) has to be sacrificed. “It is the price we have to pay to be more than one,” he says.
Psyche and socialization are complicated, but let us assume that there is a compassionate “child” – a primal sympathy for animals in most of us. One of the saddest ironies in life, I believe, is that there are adults in every community who love and empathize with animals, only they don’t know that there are others among them who feel the same way, because everyone keeps quiet about it. Fear of ridicule and rejection, isolation and ostracism, enables people to bully one another into silence and submission. Ethical deviance challenges the tyranny of custom and blind compliance.
Ethical deviance is the element in society that prevents socialization from becoming sclerotic. The ethical deviant opens the window a crack to let in fresh air, fresh ideas and perceptions. The ethical deviant may be thought of as the “child” within a society who, lucky for that society, will not grow up to be just another replica. The ethical deviant reassures people whose sensibilities have not gone totally underground or been beaten to death that they are not “crazy” for caring about a chicken. The ethical deviant refuses to be bullied into becoming a slave or a clone in order to belong. The ethical deviant provides a social service.
In a very valuable sense, then, the “child” aka ethical deviant is a grownup. In his Ode on Intimations of Immortality, Wordsworth contrasts his instinctual, unreflecting passion for Nature as a child with the “years that bring the philosophic mind.” The ethical deviant’s primal sympathy with and insight into the life of things matures to become the conscious sensibility, awareness and purposefulness of the adult. This person is the poet, the peacemaker, the social justice activist, the animal rights advocate – the “outsider” who keeps the consciousness and conscience of society alive and growing.
The struggle between conscience and callousness isn’t just between the self “in here” and society “out there”; the struggle takes place among conflicting impulses within our nature in response to situations we find or put ourselves in. Running a sanctuary for chickens, I can tell you that whereas I like mice and raccoons ontologically, I am not fond of them situationally. There is an ethical struggle among competing forces, feelings and obligations even within a sanctuary and a sanctuary provider. For some people it may be that being or becoming vegan changes them to feel more peaceful inside, but as I once wrote, this hasn’t been my experience. Rather:
Veganism has made me more conscious of behavior patterns that are not consistent with my adherence to philosophic veganism. Being vegan has not made my personality more peaceful, as by some sort of physiological or mystical transformation or holistic purification; however, it has made me intellectually more aware of my feelings and behavior and less able to rationalize and do certain things that I might otherwise overlook.
I’m concluding this presentation with the Introduction I wrote to a book for children that dramatizes issues that are raised here. An important point is that we must never take for granted that people “over twenty-five” are unreachable, unteachable, or dispensable in our quest to make compassion for animals part of the socialization process. Not only is this assumption wrong, but children who are surrounded by adults who don’t support their compassionate feelings suffer in lonely isolation and confusion and will often turn against themselves, and against animals, violently for having feelings that no one they looked up to when they were little seemed to share or understand. Our best hope for the future isn’t five-year-olds. Our best hope is five-year-olds supported by adults who have nurtured their own primal sympathies to maturity.
Karen Davis, PhD, is the founder and president of United Poultry Concerns, and author of three books: Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs; The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities; and More than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality. She presented the above essay on the panel “Where Did Our Compassion Go? Children, Adults and the Loss of the Human-Animal Bond,” The City College of New York, December 2, 2014. Essay and illustrations from the newsletter of United Poultry Concerns. Used by permission.
Letter: Ann Johnson
I have enjoyed reading your newsletter for a number of years but I have been concerned by items in the two most recent editions.
In this latest issue a young tiger and orangutan are photographed cuddling together. This leads me to wonder about the circumstances under which these babies are placed together to be photographed.
I have just accessed a website which appears to be that of the Taman Safari animal hospital, Indonesia, (described as an animal park) and see they encourage the kind of interaction with animals that is now widely criticised. For example, the manhandling of a crocodile and swimming with dolphins - see these links:
Pictured: Friend Ann with friend Alex
Is this the same organisation as featured in Peaceable [Table]?
Secondly, In your last newsletter there was a photograph of a young sloth with a human baby. Again, I looked at the website source from which this image originated, and found many more, similar photographs. The sloth appeared to be loved but there was nothing on the site to discourage the practice of keeping wild animals as 'pets'. As I recall, there was a brief mention that the sloth was a 'rescue' animal but no further details were given.
Gorgeous as these young animals are, I do feel that reproducing these kinds of images--unless they are genuine rescue animals which is explained in the accompanying text, only serves to promote the concept of wild animals as cuddly pets. As you will be aware, the expanding trade in exotic species-- particularly sloths--often involves terrible cruelty and suffering to animals, birds and reptiles who are not suited to lives as domestic pets.
I have been a lifelong animal advocate and am a member of Quaker Concern for Animals UK, an organisation which campaigns against the exotic pet trade. I greatly appreciate most of the articles printed in Peaceable Table but these two instances do worry me.
Alex and the others in the Raystede Sanctuary aviaries are all rescue birds.
Dear Friend Ann,
I checked out the sites whose links you provided, and agree that the situation is questionable.
The business of human animals interacting with wild animals is a complex one. We humans have been so governed by our dominating and exploitative side that there is no doubt we have done much more harm than good to the rest of the world's animals, driving many of them to extinction and enslaving and massacring millions of others. I agree with you about rescue; we who care about individual animals and animal families certainly have the responsibility to do what we can to undo the harm caused by hunting, poaching, and habitat destruction, creating their thousands of orphans, by gathering them into sanctuaries and orphanages, encouraging them to cuddle and meet one another's needs as long as it is safe to do so. (We cannot assume that the infants in the photo were put together specifically to be photographed; the camera may well have recorded a moment of real affection between the two needy orphans.) We have to be careful about giving them affection ourselves, so that as many as can probably fare well in the wild can be released. I think we should also do what we can to care for animals orphaned in the course of nature. The sloth in question seems to be from one of these categories.
I also heartily agree with you about the “exotic pet” industries who kidnap animals inherently unsuitable to be human companions. Parrots, I know, are very intelligent, complex, and long-lived beings who bond deeply and need far more attention than most get as “pets” in cages; I am not very knowledgeable about sloths. I also oppose zoos, but I think that especially in situations where animals are threatened with extinction, huge animal parks, with humans allowed to go through them and see and appreciate the animals as living creatures on their own as much as possible, probably do more good than harm. Of course the message given by persons in charge is important here, and the project might be primarily a moneymaking one. Yet sanctuaries do need money to continue; the logistics can be difficult.
I am not opposed per se to humans interacting with wild animals. About fifteen years ago, when my family lived near a wood in Alabama, I encountered a doe not far ahead on my path. For a long time we looked at one another; for me it was an I-Thou, and one of the most thrilling, unforgettable experiences of my life. She seemed a marvel, like a being from another world glimpsed in a vision, yet unmistakably, elegantly solid. I loved her and would like to have shown it with caresses, but of course knew that wasn't an option. She showed no sign of leaving, and I felt I could have stood there transfixed for hours, but finally had to continue on home. I wish this sort of encounter could be available to all children as they grow up, but as humanity now is, there are just too many of us humans. Living with such a free animal on a "friendly neighbors" basis would be even more wonderful, but probably even less possible (unless and until humanity evolves to an Edenic state). But I do think organizations can teach humans to respect wild animals, and some of the Tasman Safari’s policies may be doing the opposite.
Thanks for voicing your concern.
Comments and responses from others are welcomed.
What if we saw ourselves as they see us? So many creatures willing to share earth with us, share air with us, share the joy of life with us. But we are not willing to share and so we tear them apart, and with them our own hearts . . .
--Contributed by Franceen Neufeld, Suffering Eyes, p. 116
Love is the strongest force the world possesses, and yet it is the
humblest imaginable.--Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi, 1869-1948 (pictured) --Contributed by Diane Eisenberg
Supertrawlers Banned by Australia
Fishing trawlers above a certain size, who scoop up virtually all living things in their path and leaving behind an underwater moonscape in the areas they cover, have been banned in Australian waters as a result of public outcry. See Supertrawlers . Such an ordinance needs to be passed by every nation that engages in fishing.
Fois Gras Ban Overturned . . .
The California law prohibiting the cruel force-feeding of ducks and geese to make their livers swell up grotesquely and become diseased has been overturned by a US District Court judge’s decision. Mercy for Animals is urging the California Attorney General to appeal the decision. See Fat Liver
--Contributed by MFA and Lorena Mucke
Farewell to Norm Phelps, 1939-2014
Norm Phelps was a leading animal activist who worked toward winning the major religions for the cause of animals, and sought to bring about the cooperation of different social justice movements. Among his achievements are co-founding the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians, and authoring three books: The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible (2002), The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights (2004), and The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA (2007). He left us on December 31. We will miss him, yet are grateful that he lived, and that he gave so much.
--Contributed by Steve Kaufman
Deadly Pig Virus Mutates
The pig virus PEDv, which is almost 100% fatal to pigs, has mutated and is spreading widely as a result of highly stressful and grossly unsanitary conditions on pig “farms;” it has killed about a tenth of U.S. pigs. Let us hold these poor victims of human callousness and greed in the Light of Love.
See Pig Killer
--Contributed by MFA and Lorena Mucke
My Pilgrimage: Matt Ball
Belief on the Right Side of History
Most people think a concern for animals is limited to liberals. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Many leafleters report they were received more openly at places like Brigham Young and the University of Oklahoma than Berkeley or the University of Colorado in Boulder. I am a good example as well. I was raised in a religious family and went to religious schools all the way through high school. I read Ayn Rand and considered myself a “neo-con.”
[Two] events changed my outlook . . . . [One] was studying World War II. (Growing up, I loved airplanes; WWII was the time of greatest change in aircraft.) I had always assumed the Holocaust was the work of just a few individuals. I discovered, though, that the Germans knew what was going on, and, except for a relatively small proportion of the population, supported it. Like most Americans, I had always been horrified by slavery in our country. The idea of treating other people as mere property—and that so many people would fight and die for the “right” to do so—was both shocking and appalling. Simply and utterly bewildering. But learning more about the Holocaust revealed an even worse aspect of human nature—where people turn on their fellow citizens, systematically and methodically exterminating them.
Obviously, the normal reaction is to assume that I would have been a part of the Underground Railroad, or would have protected the Anne Franks of the world. But . . . really? Did I honestly think I would have gone against the overwhelming majority of my society? If I had been raised in a slave-holding household in a slave-holding society, would I really have stood up? Was I truly different from everyone who viewed certain people as “property,” who went along with Hitler’s “Final Solution”? . . . .
And if all these millions could fully believe things that, today, are so obviously absurd and repulsive, how could I assume everything I currently believed was absolutely right? If so many would willingly support gruesome atrocities, how could I possibly think everything today is morally pure? Even if I’m not chaining up a slave or leading my fellow citizens to the gas chambers, isn’t it possible—even probable—that I am at least tacitly supporting another horror, one that future generations will also look upon with bewilderment?
The answer came my first year of college, when I met my vegetarian roommate. Fred—a big block of a man—introduced me to the horrors of modern agribusiness. Again, I was not a liberal. I was a middle-class kid who dreamed of a successful career, a bigger house, a cool car, an elaborate stereo system, travel, and good food. That first week of college, my parents and I planned to celebrate my future graduation at the city’s five-star French restaurant.
I didn’t go vegetarian. As uncomfortable as Fred made me with his stories of how animals were treated on farms—the brandings, the de-beakings, the tail dockings, the confinement—I justified eating animals by saying that they were “just animals.” But the stories did bother me. There’s plenty of gruesome video footage to turn your stomach (more is released every month), but I’d rather give a description from the New York Times:
Piglets in confinement operations are weaned from their mothers [quickly] because they gain weight faster on their hormone- and antibiotic-fortified feed. This premature weaning leaves the pigs with a lifelong craving to suck and chew, a desire they gratify in confinement by biting the tail of the animal in front of them. A normal pig would fight off his molester, but a demoralized pig has stopped caring. “Learned helplessness” is the psychological term, and it’s not uncommon in confinement operations, where tens of thousands of hogs spend their entire lives ignorant of sunshine or earth or straw, crowded together beneath a metal roof upon metal slats suspended over a manure pit. So it’s not surprising that an animal as sensitive and intelligent as a pig would get depressed, and a depressed pig will allow his tail to be chewed on to the point of infection. Sick pigs, being underperforming “production units,” are clubbed to death on the spot. The USDA’s recommended solution to the problem is called “tail docking.” Using a pair of pliers (and no anesthetic), most but not all of the tail …is snipped off. Why the little stump? Because the whole point of the exercise is not to remove the object of tail-biting so much as to render it more sensitive. Now, a bite on the tail is so painful that even the most demoralized pig will mount a struggle to avoid it.
And a different section:
[T]he American laying hen . . . passes her brief span piled together with a half-dozen other hens in a wire cage whose floor a single page of this magazine could carpet. Every natural instinct of this animal is thwarted, leading to a range of behavioral “vices” that can include cannibalizing her cagemates and rubbing her body against the wire mesh until it is featherless and bleeding. . . . [T]he [five percent] or so of hens that can’t bear it and simply die is built into the cost of production.
This last point is important: if you look at the statistics, hundreds of millions of animals a year die before going to slaughter. Just think about that: hundreds of millions die before even being shipped to slaughter.
I assume my dilemma at this point is clear. Obviously, I considered myself a good person—an ethical, kind, and thoughtful human being. And yet, here I was, supporting what is clearly a modern-day atrocity. “Our own worst nightmare” is how the New York Times describes modern agribusiness, and I was giving this nightmare my money to continue to tail dock, de-beak, confine, forcibly impregnate, brand, dehorn, and otherwise brutalize these thinking, feeling creatures.
And the argument: “They’re only animals”? Having seen this phrase used to justify slavery and Hitler’s “Final Solution,” I certainly didn’t want to be uttering the phrase “just animals.” I read the various justifications for past atrocities—not just from hateful, ignorant people, but from some of America’s and Germany’s leading citizens: professors, clergy, civic leaders, and politicians. I saw just how easily the vast majority of people went along with the prejudice of their day: to believe whatever they were taught without question, no matter the contradictions or consequences. So I couldn’t simply accept the line, “They’re just animals.”
Here is where I should tell you about the great breakthrough, where I went from unquestioningly accepting society’s norm to animal advocate. But it didn’t happen that way.
I did go vegetarian for a while, late in my first year of college, but soon I convinced myself I was starving on the cafeteria’s beans and Cap’n Crunch. To my lasting shame, I went back to eating animals, just like all my friends and family. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what it means to eat meat. Even if they were “just animals,” my choices caused them to suffer—suffer terribly and die horribly. My choices deprived them of the life they wanted to live. My choices—the choices I was consciously making, every day—created absolutely unnecessary suffering.
The next year, I was living off campus, entirely responsible for my own food choices. One day, I was looking in the mirror and the thought just came to me: “How can I consider myself a good person if I continue to eat animals?” I had no answer. And then (this is entirely true) the medicine cabinet started shaking, and a deafening “Bam! Bam! Bam!” filled the room. I’ve never eaten another animal.
Now obviously, there is much more to discuss: everything from nutrition to priorities to optimal advocacy to the future of society. But before all that are questions that took me so very, very long to fully consider. We each have to ask the question: What kind of person are we? Will we accept what our society dictates today, or will we write our own story? Will we rationalize the status quo or thoughtfully make our own decisions? Will we oppose cruelty or support slaughter?
Slowly, very slowly, embarrassingly slowly, I came to realize there are more important things in life than accepting the status quo and taking the easiest path. Choosing the road less traveled does not necessitate denial and deprivation. Making our lives a part of something real, something larger than ourselves—this expands our life’s narrative, enriches our existence, and allows for real meaning and lasting happiness.
History shows that questioning society is necessary in all times. Today, choosing not to eat animals makes a public, powerful, ethical statement—not just about the lives of animals, but about the nature of our character. It shows that we are honestly striving to be truly good, thoughtful people.
Thanks so much!
 “An Animal’s Place,” by Michael Pollan, New York Times, November 10, 2002.
 It turned out that someone in the adjacent apartment was driving a nail into the other side of the wall. Banal cause, but a fitting punctuation for when my life changed.
--Matt Ball is a co-founder of Vegan Outreach; at present he is with VegFund. He is the father of Ellen Green, whose Pilgrimage story appeared in PT 91 .
This essay, originally a talk given in Salt Lake City, is reprinted (and edited by the author) from Chapter 1 of Matt’s recent book The Accidental Activist (reviewed below), and further edited for PT. Reprinted with the permission of the author and the publisher, LanternBooks. Copyright 2014 by Matt Ball.
Pad Thai, raw style
4-5 cups shredded zucchini
2-3 cups of shredded carrots
1 cup shredded red cabbage
1 sliced red bell pepper
1-2 cups of sliced mushrooms
1 cup bean sprouts
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 cup of sliced scallions or green onion
Thumb-sized piece of ginger
Juice of one lime
1/4 cup of crushed pistachios as a topping
Sesame Ginger Dressing:
3/4 cup raw, unhulled sesame seeds
1/2 cup fresh apple juice
1/3 cup orange juice
1/4 cup crushed pistachios
1/4 cup tamarind sauce
1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger
1/2 - 1 lime squeezed
1) Blend dressing until smooth.
2) Prepare your veggies by slicing, dicing and shredding.
3) Combine sauce and veggies in a bowl, top with dressing, and enjoy!
--From Fully Raw (see http://www.fullyraw.com/recipes/fullyraw-pad-thai/ Permission to reproduce sought.
Book Review: The Accidental Activist
Matt Ball, The Accidental Activist: Stories, Speeches, Articles, and Interviews by Vegan Outreach's Cofounder. Edited by Anne Green, with contributions by others. Foreword by Peter Singer. Introduction by Paul Shapiro. New York: Lantern Books, 2014. xx + 269 pages. $16.00 softcover
This is the book many of us really need: a heartfelt yet pragmatic account of what it's like to be avegan activist for the animals, by one who has been out there, heard the arguments, seen the responses, made mistakes (which he freely acknowledges and analyzes), and remains hopeful for a vegan future.
To begin with, The Accidental Activist is not a continuous narrative, but as the subtitle indicates, a collection of varied presentations given for different kinds of audiences. As the editor, Anne Green (who is also incidentally Matt's spouse) suggests in opening remarks, this is not a "linear" book to be read straight through, but one in which the reader can poke around to find whatever is of interest or use at the moment. Titles of a few of the many brief entries hint at what one might find: "Real Courage (or: Learning from Past Mistakes)," "How Vegan? Ingredients vs. Results," "Anger, Humor, and Advocacy," "Advocacy in an Imperfect World," and "One Possible Future: A Roadmap to Animal Liberation." There is admittedly quite a bit of virtual repetition in this collage of occasional items, but the other side is that one has a sense of immediacy in them: these are actual talks given to live audiences, spur-of-the-moment interviews, direct responses to questions, rather than at-a-distance armchair musings.
All the way through, Matt's big point is that the whole purpose of activism is the reduction of animal suffering. Period. It is not to win arguments with meat-eaters, nor for that matter with other vegans over exactly what is an acceptable level of vegan purity. (Examples: using life-saving medicines, as Matt says he has, that may have been animal-tested but helped him live for many more years of vegan activism; driving a car which may involve a few animal products, but which helps you get far more pamphlets to where they're needed than walking; letting one's child eat a piece of birthday cake at another child’s party, and the like.) Matt confesses that at first, like most fresh converts to a cause, he was more purist and more interested in winning arguments than later. But as time went on he recognized that those ideals actually did little to reduce animal suffering compared getting out to campuses and classrooms with Vegan Outreach's powerful pamphlets like "Even If You Like Meat. . ." on the evils of factory farming, meeting people non-dogmatically just where they were, and helping them greatly reduce or eliminate animal products in their diet.
Along the way, Matt deals with a number of common issues, such as raising a vegan child, and the tendency of some to think they're helping if they switch from "red meat" to chicken. The author, very much aware of the suffering of factory-raised poultry, is not impressed--see "Bad News for Red Meat Is Bad News for Chickens” (the fish option is not much discussed). Another important issue is the many persons who try vegetarianism or veganism but give it up because they "hadn't felt healthy" in that state. Matt and other writers wrestle with their complaint; their main point seems to be that such backsliding only increases the suffering of animals again. True and valid, but unfortunately not all people are able to put the agonizing suffering of those they don't see ahead of the suffering, or just discomfort, they feel in their own bodies.
The author also explains that many beginners have little understanding of how to construct a healthy, balanced vegan diet, which is doubtless a significant factor in these cases. It may also be pointed out that--what I myself experienced, and suspect is often the case with others--the feelings of poor health are largely a physical expression of the isolation and anxiety one can experience in starting a what seems a difficult new way of life, and appears to be the cause of painful separations from family and friends. In this case, a deep, honest self-analysis and assessment of strategies, plus reading sensitively-written books for persons in this state, such as those by Carol Adams,* and collecting or joining a supporting group, should help all parties. Of course, in a few instances serious medical conditions could be involved, and must be addressed. Incidentally, Matt has exceedingly harsh words for well-known writers like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman who know the issues very well, including the horrors of the slaughterhouse, yet while advocating movement toward plant-based food refuse to make the final commitment, but think that one can somehow be a completely ethical omnivore.
The Accidental Activist is a book to pick up, dip into, ponder, and enjoy. The pondering part of it will, I assure you, be substantial and energizing. Give it a try.
*Adams’ books Living Among Meat Eaters and Help! My Child Stopped Eating Meat are particularly valuable in this regard.
Note: Matt Ball’s book is not to be confused with The Accidental Activist: A Personal and Political Memoir by Candace Gingrich, which deals with gay and lesbian issues. There is also a film with the same name, but it is not a dramatization of Gingrich’s book.
Poetry: John Hall Wheelock, 1886-1978
Summer fades soon here, autumn in this country
Comes early and exalted. Where the wild land,
With its sparse bayberry and huckleberry,
Slopes seaward, where the seaward dunes go down,
Echoing, to the sea; over the beaches,
Over the shore-line stretching east and west,
The ineffable slant light of autumn lingers.
The roof of heaven is higher now, the clouds
That drag, trailing, along the enormous vault,
Hang higher, the wide ways are wider now,
Sea-hawks wander the ocean solitudes,
Sea-winds walk there, the waters grow turbulent,
And inland also a new restlessness
Walks the world, remembering something lost,
Seeking something remembered: wheeling wings
And songless woods herald the great departure,
Cattle stray, swallows gather in flocks,
The cloud-travelling moon through gusty cloud
Looks down on the first pilgrims going over,
And hungers in the blood are whispering, “Flee!
Seek otherwhere, here is no lasting home.”
Now bird-song fails us, now an older music
Is vibrant in the land--the drowsy cry
Of grasshopper and cricket, earth’s low cry
Of sleepy love, her inarticulate cry,
Calling life downward, promising release
From these vague longings, these immortal torments.
The drowsy voice drones on--oh, siren voice:
Aeons of night, millenniums of repose,
Soundless oblivion, divine surcease,
Dark intermingling with the primal darkness,
Oh, not to be, to slough this separate being,
Flow home at last! The alert spirit listens,
Hearing, meanwhile, far off, along the coast,
Rumors of the rhythm of some wakeful thing,
Reverberations, oceanic tremors,
The multitudinous motions of the sea,
With all its waters, all its warring waves.
Issue copyright © 2015 by VegetarianFriends