In 2014, world news reported that in a remote village in India, a local judge had ordered the rape of a 14 year old girl, as “justice” for the man who had been wronged by this girl’s brother (and was thus given the “privilege” to rape her.) Although rape is technically illegal in India, some remote villages have customs and traditions like these that generally are not noticed outside of their local area. Since people growing up with an injustice learn that it is, “normal, natural and necessary” to their way of life, they become desensitized to it. Like my father, the residents of this local village had been taught to not see this tradition as an injustice, and they literally could not see it. But when word got out beyond their village, people around the world were outraged. Yet the reaction of many of the women, who had grown up in this tiny village was surprising. Even though they were part of the class of people (females) who were victimized by this tradition, some staunchly defended it – and demanded that the outsiders -- social justice advocates, “butt out – this is none of your business!” Their reaction reminded me of the stories I have heard so often about small children growing up in horrifically abusive homes. When the abuse is finally discovered by officials who attempt to intervene, the children will often do everything they can to protect their parents and thwart alterations in what they have become accustomed to.
In America, we have many examples of large groups of people – often people of strong faith even, and/or who claim to care deeply about doing what is right, just like my father – who have either participated in, or simply stood by silently (often benefitting too) as terrible injustices took place right in front of them. The removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands, the jailing and beatings of women in the early 1900’s who dared to demand the right to vote, The persecution of Mormons, and the internment of American law-abiding citizens during WWII simply because they were of Japanese heritiage, are just a few examples. In the 1970s, our government was conducting attrocious medical research – without their knowledge or consent, on rural African American men (The Tuskagee Experiments.) About that same time Jews were prohibited from buying or renting in the Country Club Plaza and other elite areas around Kansas City. All of these injustices were witnessed by otherwise caring, thoughtful people, who could have spoken up and raised awareness – and likely prevented injustice.
What if, there was something we could all do that would not only bring an end to a large violent injustice taking place right now, but just as important – had within it the power to create a cultural value of, never turning a blind eye to any injustice? In other words, if there was a practice we could embrace, that might serve to “immunize” people against blindly going along with traditions that were unneccessarily violent or unjust, would you support it?
While most of us think of ourselves as reasonable people who would be willing to question (and not participate in!) any tradition, or custom if we could come to see that it was fundamentally inconsistant with values we already hold about fairness, justice, compassion, or avoiding unneccary violence, we tend to underestimate the degree to which we might also be, “caught” by our own culture or social pressures to conform. Yet it is this human ability to turn a blind eye to injustice that is fundamentally the root cause of every human caused tragedy in history. As Albert Einstein said, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of people who do evil, but because of people who look on and do nothing.”
How do you want to see yourself? Are you willing to open your eyes and take a heartfelt look at traditions and customs we have all grown up with – that we were taught to NOT see how unjust they really are? What if this means that you might stop doing some things you do just for enjoyment, or perhaps out of habit, because now, with your eyes opened you can see are in fact causing terrible harm to others? Would you be willing to change? Have you ever been the victim of injustice? Have you wished that others would have cared more about what was unjust to YOU? Do you want to see yourself as a person who would not turn a blind eye to injustice affecting others? Further, would you, as a matter of your own conscience, if you suddenly became aware that an injustice is happening right in front of you, would you be willing to discuss your concerns with those around you, who might be still be supporting the injustice?
Before we can proceed, we must appreciate how “blind spots” work – and how generally we all assume that we don’t have any. Like most white Americans prior to Civil Rights, we have all been taught to “not see” injustices that we’ve been brought up to believe are normal, natural and necessary to our way of life. Consider the recent change in how Americans view gays and lesbians. While there are still those who believe discriminating against people who do not fit our traditional sexual binary is normal, natural and necessary to preserve our way of life, the tide IS clearly turning. Most young adults today recognize that it is unjust to deny anyone rights or privleges because of their sexual orientation. The recent landmark supreme court ruling on gay marriage shows that as a society we are making progress.
Do you remember Michael Vick, the football star who was convicted of dog fighting? Most people were very upset with what he did….why? Because it was obvious to them that the only justification for Vick’s abuse of the dogs, was because it brought him pleasure, and most of us recognize that dogs are beings who can suffer, and we should never cause them to suffer without us having an extremely compelling reason (like our survival being at stake) for doing so. Most agree that personal pleasure, or other frivolous reasons are not sufficient justification to cause suffering or death to animals. So consider the yearly mass slaughter of dolphins in “The Cove” in Japan. It’s a tradition there that bonds men with their sons and provides an additional source of meat. (There is no evidence that anyone would starve if this traditon were abolished.) Around the world, many people have condemned Japan for not halting this unneccessary violence. How do you feel about that tradition? What about the killing of elephants in Africa simply because some people enjoy having things made from their tusks (ivory.) Does that seem like an injustice to you? Most Americans (unless they have been raised to enjoy sport hunting—a profound forced dessensitization) have an easy time seeing the injustice in each of these examples. We agree that it is immoral to hurt animals unless we have a very important reason for doing so, and hurting them simply because it brings us pleasure, is not sufficient, morally, for us to cause an animal to suffer or die.
Yet in spite of holding these values, most Americans (just like my father) act inconsistant with their core values as they go about their daily lives. And they are largely unaware of the fact that they are doing so. The existance of circusses and Sea World are prime examples. Few people, spending money to support these entities consider how horrific the lives of animals captive in these ventures are, or the violence and trauma catching them is responsible for – and for what purpose – soley to entertain humans!
But the biggest and worst attrocities are one’s we support through our daily purchase or consumption of foods that contain dairy, eggs or meat. Not only have these food items been clearly linked with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases and many cancers, but eating animals and their excretions contributes MORE to environmental destruction (via greenhouse gas emissions) then the entire transportation sector! (According to the United Nations.) That means, consumption of these foods is directly increasing the likelyhood that BILLIONS of economically disadvantaged humans (In Bangledesh, Florida, New York and Louisiana for example) will be displaced from their homes as sea levels rise and intense strorms become more common. Now also consider this: Wars, and conflicts over resources will result from the mass migrations of billions of people now living in these areas, struggling to find homes and survive elsewhere. Rising sea levels could make today’s mass exodus of Syrians look like a very small migration!
But all of that concerns the future. It’s easier to turn a blind eye to things that might happen later, so lets turn our attention to right now. The biggest injustice (in terms of the number of individual victims) happening on the planet today, is the fact that many Americans are eating animals and their bodily excretions, while businesses here are actively seeking to grow demand for meat, dairy and eggs around the world in places that have traditionally eaten very little of these. Since, a growing number of elite athletes, body builders and ultramarathoners, like Derek Treisez, Kenneth Williams, Ruth Heidrich, Jim Morris, Brenden Brazier, Carl Lewis, Scott Jurek, Serena Williams, and Robert Cheeke, have shown that you can win and set new records at the highest competitive levels eating nothing but plants, it is clear humans can do quite well eating zero meat, dairy and eggs.
Every year just in America alone – over ten billion animals are purposely (and often violently using apparatus that agriculturalists call, “Rape Racks” brought into existance by humans to live lives filled with unneccessary pain and suffering, confinement in limited spaces, and an extraordinarily terror-filled and violent end. There is NO moral difference between supporting (through purchase or consumption) this massacre, and the dolphin, or elephant massacres – or Michael Vick’s dog fighting.
In 1944, Donald Watson and his wife (living in England) coinied a word for a revolutionary idea, that in just 7 decades has become known around the world. This idea – or philosophy is more consistant with all the values most people already hold then what most of us have been doing. The word is “Vegan” and they defined it as this:
"A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals."
Please notice, that contrary to what you may have heard some movie stars or elite athletes say, (who find eating vegan improves their health or recovery after hard trainings) this is NOT just about food or diet. Veganism is a social justice movement. Like all social justice movements, its primary challenge is to wake people up from the “normal, natural and necessary” mantra that has kept otherwise thoughtful, caring people from really taking an honest and compassionate look at their support of terrible injustice.
To paraphrase words from a speech by Norm Phelps: Animal exploitation is the most widespread and deeply entrenched form of social injustice in the history of the human race. There is no society remembered by our history) that did not enslave and kill them for food, fabric, transportation, entertainment, religious sacrifice and/or science. The emotional power of meat, eggs and dairy is multiplied because it is the material out of which many of our defining rituals are constructed. America is more deeply invested in animal slavery and slaughter then we ever were in the oppression of blacks or women, because most Americans believe their health, happiness and prosperity depend upon the abuse and murder of animals.
As a mother who has raised two healthy children as vegans – in addition to knowing many other vegan families during this time (and I am NOT including those families who did so merely as a “dietary choice” only those that did so as a philosophical/ethical perspective that requires thinking critically about our own behavior.) I have observed another benefit to veganism. The people who understand and embrace this philosophy are MORE likely to step up and speak out about ANY injustice they see. Whether its catch and release fishing, the class bully, littering, or children who are somehow “different” being excluded, I have been heartened over and over to see children raised vegan, step up and refuse to “turn a blind eye to injustice.” Would you like to see that ethic grow in our society? Every one of us has the power to make a difference. It’s up to you, what will YOU support…oppression or non-violence and justice?
[How desensitized are YOU? How many of these can you recognize as injustices?]