Friday, September 14, 2012

Vegan Activism: Yin and Yang

I define vegan activism as any effort to make a person go, “hey, I want to try that lifestyle!” There are two different ways to do this, both with varying degrees of efficacy. Defining these approaches is best done with examples:

Approach 1: “Look at this picture of a butchered, tortured chicken! Aren’t you horrified? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for contributing to this awful institution? You’re risking a heart attack, destruction to the planet and negative karma by eating meat. Go vegan!”

Approach 2: “Look this picture of an adorable, healthy rabbit that gets saved by purchasing vegan cosmetics. You have the power to nourish your body, help forests thrive, peacefully co-exist with all of earth’s sentient creatures and contribute to a sustainable eco-system. And by the way, soya paneer is freaking delicious. Go vegan!”

Both of these approaches have their merits, but I am overwhelmingly in favor of approach number 2. When I advocate veganism, it will almost always be in #2 style for many reasons.

Before I get into those reasons, I’ll back up and defend the merits of style #1. When I was 16 (pre-vegan days), I remember going to a fried chicken joint with a good meat-eating friend of mine. I don’t recall how we got to this topic, but he explained the systematic execution of chickens in slaughterhouses. Andy described how they’d get hung upside down in a line like a conveyor belt, their heads would get chopped off, they’d be de-feathered and dunked into scalding water. This… horrified me. Sure, I knew chickens died for my meal before me. But I never thought how. I figured it was something like back in the old days where farmers grabbed a chicken from the back yard with the axe and beheaded the thing in one fell swoop. Andy’s more accurate (yet still highly sanitized) version was new to me. I honestly didn’t believe him.

The story relating my complete ignorance of the atrocities committed towards animals is one reason why I believe there’s a time and place for style #1. As much as I want to condemn PETA’s repeated use of gruesome images, it has its merits. So many people are wholly unaware of what the meat industry is about. I know I was. PETA’s images and gut-wrenching movies like “Earthlings” are critical for awareness on a massive level. Even though it’s uncomfortable, provocative and contentious, people should come to terms with the fact that these events are an all-too-common reality that has been euphemized and re-packaged for the sake of profits.

The reasons why I prefer approach #2 though, are rooted in behavioral psychology and perhaps surprisingly, Buddhism. Let’s compare and contrast what these approaches advocate:

Approach 1: not doing something (ie, not eating meat)
Approach 2: changing something (ie, eating more plants)

Approach 1: inciting fear (terrifying pictures)
Approach 2: inciting warm and fuzzies (cute pictures)

Approach 1: citing bad things that happen from doing something (heart attacks)
Approach 2: citing good things that happen from doing something (nourishing your body)

Approach 1: creating feelings of guilt (how could you eat that?)
Approach 2: creating feelings of positivity (love the planet!)

Approach 1: pointing out how you’re part of the problem (factory farming)
Approach 2: pointing out how you’re part of the solution (buying vegan cosmetics)

Approach 1: separates my actions from yours (I don’t eat those chickens; you do)
Approach 2: shows how you can replicate my positive contributions to the world (eating soya paneer, buying vegan makeup)

As you can see, approach #1 is like the yin of veganism: it’s dark, negative, rooted in fear and human depravity. Approach #2 is the yang of veganism: it’s light, positive, rooted in love and the best of the human spirit.

Like I said, approach #1 has its place and is to some extent necessary. Just as yin must counterbalance yang. But from a behavioral standpoint, I don’t think it does much to change behavior. Putting it this way, I’m more inclined to change my actions when I see how it benefits me; when I see the positives of doing something. I also like approach #2 because it takes a uniting approach as opposed to a divisive one. Change should always come from a place of love, peace and acceptance… never from guilt, fear, or obligation.

From a Buddhist perspective, approach #2 is more in line with its teachings. I like the Buddhist thought that everything witnessed externally is a reflection of yourself in some way. In the case of veganism, focusing on the incredible misery of slaughterhouse practices and getting angry about it only intensifies the problem. Focusing on the solution, on the other hand, generates that reality. I don’t want to get into things like the nature of reality, but I believe it’s subjective and malleable based on the manifestations of our thoughts. So, I believe positive change can only come about when I focus on, well, the positives. This is why I will opt for approach #2.  When I live and breathe in a world where I employ approach #1, I feel sad, judgmental, agitated, and confrontational. How could I not, given the material I’d be living and breathing on a day-to-day basis?

What this means for me, practically speaking, is that I do not partake in activities against something. I will not hand out fliers condemning butchering practices. I won’t write blog posts about the incredibly tragic life of a dairy cow. I won’t put images of suffering, abused animals on my website. As I said, I don’t have any grievances against those who incorporate approach #1. It’s just not my method of choice. 

 Here’s how to switch from approach 1 to approach 2, also using examples:

Instead of… “Eating meat causes,”
Start with… “Switching to a plant-based diet causes”

Instead of… “you are harming”
Start with… “you would be helping”

Instead of… “senseless act of cruelty”
Start with… “improving and saving”

Instead of… “cancerous and heart-clogging”
Start with… “cejuvenating and revitalizing”

Instead of… “protesting against”
Start with… “supporting and encouraging”

But hey, these are just my thoughts. Everyone has a role to play in this world. 

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