The other day, a woman asked me if I thought she was a bad person because she ate meat. Beyond feeling admiration for her for asking the question at all – most people don’t have the guts – I found myself thinking about what, exactly, constitutes a good person in the context of humanity as I see our species – our flawed, problematic, intrinsically destructive species. The first answer that popped to mind was yes, you are a bad person, and so is everyone else. But that’s hardly productive, especially since adjectives such as “good” and “bad” are relative to some extent. And so the answer that came out of my mouth was no, I don’t think you are a bad person, but eating meat is a bad thing to do.
From that point, we had a conversation about many things, such as just how long people have been “domesticating” (aka controlling) the lives of countless species, including certain members of our own species. We talked about how everything about eating animals and their bodily toss-offs is harmful: harmful to the animals, harmful to the environment, harmful the workers who operate slaughterhouses and farms. We talked about other deeply-entrenched ideas such as the belief that women are still not considered fully legitimate people in many places, and whether individuals in cultures with deeply embedded misogyny should be considered bad people, or badly trained.
We talked about many things. I don’t know that she will ever embrace a plant-based diet, though. Assuming she doesn’t, that leaves me with the same question to answer. If she continues to behave as she does now, after she has been exposed to the truth behind her food choices, will that make her a bad person?
I will preface my thoughts by saying that I have genuine caring and affection for a few people who are in my life and who have not gone vegan despite knowing what happens to the animals who are “involved” in animal farming. I will also say that I do understand that our perspective on animals has been informed by literally thousands of years of indoctrination, brainwashing, and imprinting, to the point that it is so deep, I am not sure it can ever be fully uprooted even by the most ardent animal rights activists. I mean, heck – I don’t believe that the concept of race can ever really be fully eradicated from the psyches of even the most ardent anti-racist activists, and racism is far younger than speciesism. It’s a process, I believe, one that some people continue and other people get tired of. The activists I admire the most are the ones who keep toiling away, because they know that to do otherwise risks developing a sense of complacency that eventually leads to ineffective activism.
Back to the question. In short, I firmly believe that people are what they do. We are only as “good” as our actions; that is to say, it is what we do, as opposed to what we think about doing, or what we feel about something, that defines who we are as an individual. Certainly, there is a relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, but in the end, it is what we choose to do and say that matters. Now, I’m not saying that every last decision we make can be considered a mission statement on The Kind Of Person We Are; rather, it is the collective sum of our actions that makes that statement.
This is why I get so unbearably frustrated when people tell me they “love animals.” It is not because I doubt their feelings. I don’t. I am sure they do love “their” animals, and I’ve seen people love animals – not just dogs and cats, but chickens, cows, sheep, and so forth. So, that’s nice. Love is nice to see. But in the end, love is not an action. Love is a feeling; what’s more, I’ve usually seen that feeling come to nothing (referring to behavior-change, here) because in the end, most of us only know how to love in a self-referential fashion.
So great, I think. You love animals. But you’re still eating them and wearing them. You still paint them on your face to hide your wrinkles and you still use chemicals to kill them. So love in itself – for that matter, any emotion in itself – does not equate with an action, nor is there any documented evidence that I’m aware of to show that love leads to actions with any greater frequency than any other emotion. There’s a lot of activist rhetoric around love being an agent of change, probably because many activists choose to contextualize their actions in love (as in, I am fighting to make the world a better place because I love the creatures of the world) – but I have yet to see a demonstration of causality before the fact; I also know that far more people feel the love and do little more with that feeling save those actions which make them feel good. So, I remain unconvinced.
Let’s get back to the matter at hand. People are only as good as what they do. I really do firmly believe that, to the extent that I would say let’s throw away the concept of self-esteem altogether and replace it with self-efficacy. Interestingly, I developed these beliefs when I taught in a school that was firmly committed to the Generation Y edict that All Young People Are Good Wonderful Perfect Fabulous Terribly Great Individuals No Matter What They Do. Fist-fighting in the classroom? Gee golly, let’s chat about that in the office. Terrorizing a new teacher? Hey, you know, he’s had a hard year, his daddy was sick. Cheating on the state standard exam? Now come on, you know how kids are. Need I say more? I actually don’t – there are plenty of studies to show that Generation Y people have been done a disservice by their parents and teachers by being taught they are good just because they eat, breathe, and poop. (And of course, the world in general has been done an even greater disservice because we are forced to deal with this influx of narcissism.)
In any case, that’s what I believe – you are good if you do good things. Moreover, I kind of feel that you can think or believe whatever you want while you do those good things, because it’s the actions that count, not the thoughts meandering behind the actions. I believe that one can be angry or annoyed while doing good things – one can even resent doing those things from time to time, as long as the resentment does not color the action and thus modify it from its state of goodness.
For example, right now – literally, as I type this – Zoe the cat is on my lap. I hate when she does that. She cannot sit still, so she kneads and kneads, pushing my hands this way and that, disrupting my ability to type smoothly. What’s worse is that she licks and sucks on my shirt: lick and suck, lick and suck. It makes an enormous wet spot that frankly is not very comfortable later.
If I was reading about a cat doing this to someone, I would think it was awfully cute. But I assure you that I am not feeling that way right now. I can’t stand when she does this. Mostly, I’m tired of retyping letters that she’s messed up with her licking and sucking and kneading. But she needs and wants to be on my lap so I’m dealing with it. My feelings and thoughts are NOT HAPPY, let me tell you, but she has no idea about that, so that makes it a good thing because it’s something I can do for her. So who cares what my feelings are?
This is a minor example, but life is one big bunch of minor examples. When you put it all together and look at the trends, this is where you see the kind of person behind the actions. That’s what I mean: how do all of our behaviors add up over time? What picture do they paint of who we are? Despite the hype about goodness being something intrinsic, something part of our cells (which I frankly believe to be neutral ground, entities in their own right), in the final analysis, people are perceived as good or bad based upon what they have done, and what they do, over time.
The person who chooses to continue to eat meat despite knowing their choice dooms countless sentient beings to pain, suffering, and death is making a very, very bad choice. The action is bad, the behavior is bad, everything is bad. Is s/he bad? I say that many things need to be taken into account, many behaviors, and upon occasion explanations for particular behaviors, before making that determination. Because that’s what I’m saying too: that to be defined as a good or bad person, in my book anyway, requires the analysis of a repeated number of willfully chosen actions that have taken place over a reasonable amount of time. Despite my frequent pronouncements of “he’s such a good person” or “she’s an evil person,” I know full well such determinations are far more difficult to make and certainly need to be based upon far more than the one thing that’s annoyed me and prompted me to rant and rave. And you know – we all do that. All of us blow off steam, as it is called.
So where I come down with non-vegan people for whom I have affection or love is here. If we are friends, then I have decided you are a good person (good by my definition), as well as compatible with my personality. Depending upon the length of time and depth of our relationship, I have either love and trust or fondness for you. I would like to keep you in my life. But I will always think that your choice to eat animals and their products is horrible. I will always think – I will always know – that it is a very very bad thing. I will never agree with or support that position, and in fact will continue to spend the bulk of my life working against that position. And you know what? My friends who are not vegan know that this is how I feel.
I mean – how can they not know? Of COURSE they know! Do you think my dear friend Jennifer (a pseudonym) doesn’t know I wished she didn’t eat animal products? Of course she does! And frankly, I suspect she wishes I didn’t do a few things myself. But I think she’s a good person. She gave up considerable financial gain for a decades-long career working with young people who have learning differences. She adopts special-needs dogs and takes extremely good care of them. She’s very caring of and kind to me, and I get to speak with her about things that I rarely can with anyone else. I love her dearly. Perhaps most significantly in terms of our relationship, she is a strong person – significant because she is friends with someone whom she knows disapproves of her behavior in this regard, so strength is a requirement in such cases.
I tend to think in analogies, and I’ve been trying to come up with one, for a very long time, to describe this dynamic. It’s hard. The best I can do is to imagine a western feminist woman being friends with a traditional Bedouin male. You can kind of see how that would go, right? The feminist admires the Bedouin for his strength of character, his ability to make decisions and remain calm under pressure, his remarkable skill with a tent. The Bedouin admires the feminist almost as “another animal,” respects her strength and appreciates her willingness to speak her mind, qualities he would not tolerate in “his” women. He knows she condemns his treatment of women and she knows he knows it. But they love and respect each other beyond and around this issue, and so maintain a genuine friendship. Because we are social animals, this is possible.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t strains in the friendship. That is especially true when the feminist is someone like me, someone who is able to tap into her anger, and who is not afraid of her anger: not just despair, not just grief, but pure and simple rage. I mean everything I said about people doing bad things – but even when I don’t think an individual is “bad,” per se, I can still get quite angry about the whole group of people who are making the exact same choices as my friend. Moreover, I call behaviors as I see them. If something is hypocritical, I name it as such. When something is self-indulgent, that’s what I call it. And there are a plethora of similar accusations that can be levied at people based upon our relationships (so-called) with animals.
Is it bad to say such things? I certainly don’t think so. Hey, there have been plenty of times I’ve been hypocritical; when I’ve been lucky, someone has called me on it. When they’ve been right, I’ve changed my behaviors. Generally, this involves quite uncomfortable periods of adjustment, sometimes tons of resentment, but it’s always a positive effort that allows me to improve my ability to live on this planet and do the least harm imaginable.
It isn’t like I don’t remember the first time I went vegetarian. My then-girlfriend had taken me to the North Park zoo outside of Pittsburgh. We were standing outside a pen in which a few depressed deer were roaming about (although at that time, I couldn’t see their depression). I said wow, I can’t imagine how anyone could kill such a gorgeous and gentle creature. She said well, what do you think you ate for lunch today? We’d had burgers – aka cows. I just looked at her and realized she was right. And I went vegetarian. I only made it for about five minutes though; the hypocrisy of being someone devoted to human social justice issues while consuming the murdered bodies of the biggest victims on the planet would not truly sink in for another decade or so.
My point is that she called me a hypocrite. Well, big deal. She was right. And this has happened more than once, probably because I’ve never been one to shut my mouth about anything. As an ethical person – as someone who wants to try to be a good person – aren’t I glad about that? I’m forced to examine my behavior to see whether or not I agree with that individual. It never occurs to me to be dishonest about what I see in my examination; that would be like a runner training for the marathon and lying to herself about how many miles she’d run that day. If what I see tells me that I have indeed been a hypocrite, then I set things in motion to make some changes. The motion might happen quickly or slowly, but as long as it’s moving in the right direction – and for my purposes, it’s usually an endless track to root out whatever dis-ease caused the bad behavior in the first place – then I’m satisfied. And grateful.
I remember another time when I was in eighth grade. I’m this little randomly Semitic girl and I’m telling one of my teachers – a black woman whom I discovered was a lesbian many years later when I ran into her at a club – that our Italian gardener is amazing because he pulled himself up by his bootstraps (yes, I really did say that), unlike so many black people who seem to need a handout all the time. Thankfully, I was not born any later, or I might have been done the disservice of hearing about how we all have our opinions and aren’t I special because this is my very own opinion. How screwed up is that? It’s certainly not what Ms. Thomas (not her real name) told me. She started by telling me I was wrong, and when I explained that I was only repeating what my dad had told me, she let me know he was wrong also. She told me many of the reasons, rooted in the history of Pittsburgh as well as the nation as a whole, why everyone could not “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” and she even explained how that notion is frankly ridiculous, because no one does anything without help. She was patient but firm and the overall message was that I was being wrong and I needed to evaluate my beliefs before I got really stupid about them.
So thank you Ms. Thomas. I mean it. What a gift she gave me.
Yet another time I was working at Trailblazers in Ann Arbor, MI – a community-based psychosocial rehabilitation clubhouse for adults with serious mental illness. The clubhouse model is an excellent model – possibly the only recovery paradigm designed by people with mental illness (as opposed to others who want to help them, study them, or make money off of them). It’s completely voluntary, and in its ideal form, visitors can’t tell who are staff and who are members. Trailblazers isn’t there any longer, but FountainHouse, in New York – the first clubhouse – is still going strong.
In any case, this was a good place to work. But part of the program involves a daily lunch, and it sure wasn’t vegan. It was whatever we got from the Food Bank, which was quite good (Ann Arbor being not just an affluent place, but one in which people do things like donate generously to food banks), but definitely heavy on animals and their products. It was toward the end of my five years with Trailblazers that I began moving in a vegan direction, but I still was of the belief that if the food was donated, then it represented post-consumer goods and thus it didn’t matter if I ate them or not. Now, I am still firmly committed to freeganism, but this was a different thing. What’s more, I wasn’t really thinking about this issue from an ethical perspective, but frankly from the perspective of someone who was looking for any excuse whatsoever to continue eating flesh.
One day we had a man visit from Food Not Bombs. He was the friend of a staff member at one of the group homes that brought some of our members to us during the day. We had a short talk about him getting involved with Trailblazers – short because when I told him we served animals and animal products for lunch and snacks, he said sorry, I can’t be involved with that. I tried the “but we get everything from the Food Bank” argument, but he didn’t budge and essentially made it clear that this was hypocrisy – that he was happy to help folks in need but not by hurting animals – and he would not be a part of it. After he left, his friend apologized for him, and although I was stung (I don’t like criticism any more than anyone else), I said no, he’s sticking to his principles.
And then I went home and I thought about those principles. A lot. I fought against them, I resisted them, I frankly didn’t like them. But I had to conclude that he was right. Helping people with serious mental illness does not have to come at the expense of other creatures. So, again – another one of many situations where someone has called me out on my behavior, I’ve considered what they said, and I have changed my behavior.
I mean, if it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Go ahead and nurse your hurt feelings for awhile, but then suck it up, apologize to the world, and change your behavior.
In all of these cases, to bring these anecdotes back to some sort of point, the question remains: Was I doing something bad? And the answer is Hell yeah! It’s not good to start life as a racist. It’s not good to think deer are pretty but cows aren’t so it’s OK to eat the one but not OK to eat the other. It’s definitely not OK to help one group of people at the expense of another.
So yes, in these and other cases, what I was doing was bad, and I worked to change my behavior. It’s hard work for sure – so hard that I wouldn’t bother to change my behavior if it didn’t hurt anyone else or bring me some wicked-great advantage. Was I a bad person for doing these things? Frankly, most of the time, I couldn’t care less about the big picture of “Miriam Good” or “Miriam Bad.” I just care about what I’ve done with the hours of the day, and whether or not I can justify my actions.
So back to the anger. Yes, despite my own knowledge that change is a process, and that none of us is “above” needing to examine our lives and our actions, I still get angry at animal rights issues. I cannot imagine not getting angry at those issues. In fact, I get angrier and angrier as time goes on and I see in greater depth the magnitude of this horror-show we call the world. Yet – and here we finally come to the second main point of this ramble – a surprising number of animal rights individuals disapprove of my anger. It’s non-productive, I am told. I am being too mean to people who don’t “agree with me,” I am told, as if they perceive animal liberation to be a neutral matter of opinion, like should I wear green and purple together, as opposed to an on-going holocaust involving every damn body, all over the planet. I need to have compassion for people, I’m told. Catch the world in a love embrace, as it were.
This never fails to blow my mind. It makes me wonder if I’m living in a different world than these people. Everywhere I go – Everywhere I Go – all the time – I see animals being dominated by humans. I see this because it’s there. I’m not hallucinating. It’s real. Pain and suffering screaming out all the time. Yeah, Vermont is gorgeous, and plenty of times I’m walking around astonished at the beauty. But eventually I hear a lawn mower, or a chain saw, or a car whizzing by, or any one of a number of other things, and I remember oh yeah, it’s everywhere. Sometimes the examples are worse than others (a dead coyote on the side of I-91, a factory-farm style dairy barn complete with skinny, bellowing, locked-up cows and a festering shit-lagoon) – but they are always there. I’ve learned how to shut down my emotions in response to most of these things, but I have not succeeded in killing them off.
Nor would I, even if I could. If you’re not outraged, you are not paying attention; by the same token, if you are not paying attention, you can’t be outraged. So that makes me wonder, have these people who take issue with my anger learned how to not pay attention? Do they not see what’s around them? If not, is that a defense mechanism or a literal changing of mind, the way people do when they are scared they will get “too radical” and thus invite even greater censure from society? If it’s the former, hey, that’s great. If that’s what it takes to show films, volunteer at sanctuaries, write letters to pressure corporations, organize fundraisers for grassroots AR groups – if that’s what it takes to stay active, go for it. But if it’s the latter, then over time, your sheer, gut-level knowledge of the wrongness of animal use and abuse gets fuzzy. It diminishes over time, becomes dissipated.
And then you get mad at people who direct their anger where it belongs. It’s typical. It happens in every movement. But that doesn’t make it reasonable, or right. How dare anyone call me out for being outraged at animal suffering? How dare they? Do they remind me of the humanity of war lords who kidnap young kids? How about rape? When I express my outrage at rape, am I reminded that I should feel love and compassion toward the rapist? I am allowed to be angry at actions that are inordinately, insanely horrible. Why can’t I be angry? In fact, I believe I have every right to be angry with the people who will not allow themselves to BE ANGRY, and who further censure other activists because they are angry.
Some activists have told me that I can be angry but that I shouldn’t call people out on their actions (which is interesting, given that I’m told this in the context of being called out on my actions). Again I say: why not? If someone is acting in a harmful way, who should I worry about more: them, with potentially hurt feelings, or the victims of their actions? If people are good people, then they are open to being told their actions are hurtful, or hypocritical, or just plain wrong. They will either agree or disagree, but while they might be initially annoyed or angry, they won’t hold a grudge about it. But at some point, someone has to tell people yo, you are acting in a hurtful fashion, so knock it off. It’s not just about giving them another vegan cookie – it’s about making it clear what the cookie symbolizes.
Now, some people aren’t given to rages like I am. Pattrice, for example, has deep-running emotions – extremely deep – that don’t always involve anger, even when she’s physically protecting someone, or otherwise involved in a right-here, right-now situation that calls for serious intervention. She also believes that random rages can be counter-productive to animal liberation (with which I agree, even when I can’t pull that off). But she GETS IT. She UNDERSTANDS why people might be angry about this or that. She doesn’t say gee, Miriam, stop being so mad about this animal abuse stuff, for heaven’s sake. Surround the meat eaters with light and love and hope they stop doing what they are doing. That will never be me – and she gets it.