Most people think a concern for animals is limited to liberals. But this isn't necessarily the case....
I am a good example. I was raised in a conservative religious family, went to religious schools all the way through high school....
Three events changed my outlook.
The first was when I was in high school – an older cousin I had admired left our church and joined the Bahai religion.... Obviously, my first reaction was to simply dismiss my cousin as misguided.... But in the back of my mind, I wondered.
The second event was reading the book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, by Daniel Goldhagen. This book disproved the common myth that the Nazi's extermination of Jews, gypsies, atheists, and others were done without the support of the German people. In reality, the Germans knew what was going on, and, except for a relatively small proportion of the population, supported it.
Now I had always been horrified by slavery in our country.... But Goldhagen's book about Germany showed something more – a society that turned on its fellow citizens and methodically exterminated them.
Obviously, the normal reaction is to assume that I would have been a part of the Underground Railroad, protected the Anne Franks of the world, etc. But … really? Did I really, honestly think that 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? Did I honestly think I would have been different from nearly everyone else?
And if all these millions could fully believe things that, today, are so obviously absurd and repulsive, well, how could I assume everything I currently believed was absolutely right? ... 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 my vegetarian roommate introduced me to the horrors of modern agribusiness....
As uncomfortable as his stories of how animals were treated on farms – the brandings, the debeakings, the tail-dockings, the confinement, etc. – I justified eating animals by saying that – they were just animals.
But the stories did bother me ... [for example,] a description from the New York Times:
“The 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 paper 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 5% or so of hens 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 die before going to slaughter, just like 1 in 20 battery hens. 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, debeak, confine, forcibly impregnate, brand, de-horn, and otherwise brutalize these thinking, feeling creatures.
What about the argument, “They're only animals”? Having seen this phrase used to justify slavery and the Nazi's “Final Solution,” I certainly didn't want to be uttering the phrase “just animals.” I had [seen] 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 what the consequences.
So I knew 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 bit late in my freshman year, but after a while, I convinced myself I was starving on the dorm's beans and Capt'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 meant 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 created this unnecessary suffering – the choices I was consciously making, every day.
The next year, I was living off campus, entirely responsible for my own food choices. And one day, I was looking into 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....
We each have to ask the question: 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?
Slowly – very 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, and 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.