Whose suffering matters?

17 Oct

To go against the dominant thinking of your friends, of most of the people that you see every day, is perhaps the most difficult act of heroism that you can perform.

Theodore H. White

I (Stacia) was having a conversation with my neighbor the other day about religion and animals.   She said that some people might not think that animal suffering is important because of their religious beliefs.  Initially, I thought, “Well, that’s hard to argue.”  Later as I was thinking and reflecting upon this, I realized this is just one more instance of the dominant group deciding whose suffering is and is not important.  By “dominant group”, I simply mean those with power.

Columbus Day was just this week.  Our culture (American culture) has decided that Columbus was so great that he gets his own day of celebration.  A little reading reveals that Columbus and his men killed and raped indigenous people wherever they landed.  It was decided that “their” suffering as a result of this was inconsequential.  This “discovery” of the “New World” (new to them, but not to the people living on it) led to the eventual European conquest of the whole of North America.  Now we also celebrate Thanksgiving to give thanks for the Native American’s help during the first grueling winter.  The first time I actually used critical thought processes to examine this holiday, I was incredulous.  How had I not realized how ridiculous and rude the whole “Turkey Day” shebang was?  We (European descended Americans) made 400 treaties with Native Americans and broke every single one of them.  We became masters of deceit and genocide.  If you want to learn more of the nitty gritty, read Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States.  I warn you, it is not for the faint hearted.  I dare you to try not to cry when you read the section about the Trail of Tears.

Zinn’s book and many others cover slavery in excruciating detail.  It was decided that the suffering of Africans was negligible.  We went so far as to even insist that black people were a different species.  Come on.  A different species?  Really?  The rationalization of cruelty knows no bounds.  The Emancipation Proclamation and the final freeing of slaves did not spell relief for blacks either.  White people still had a lot of meanness in them to unleash upon nonwhites.  It took about a full 100 years after the end of the Civil War for the Jim Crow laws to be repealed.  Did you know that when South Africa was devising its system of Apartheid that they used Jim Crow as a model?  I just learned that recently.  So much for being “the model” of justice and democracy for the world.  Segregation is so repugnant that it seems like something that would have occurred hundreds of years ago, not something that ended about shortly before I was born.

I was surprised when I read that before Hitler began the Final Solution, he thought Germany was lagging behind the United States in the loathsome task of enforcing racial purity.  During the 1930’s, in the States you could be denied certain rights if you had up to 1/16th African ancestry and at the same time Germany was only denying rights to people who were up to 1/8th Jewish.  He admired our effort.  We certainly could have provided a more just example instead of justifying the notions of a madman.

Now here is a fact from ancient history.  Were you aware that women were pronounced human by one vote by the Catholic Church in 584 AD?  Yep, one vote.  A group of Catholic priests and other “important” men met in France to discuss whether or not women were human and we barely squeaked by.

These are but a few of the moments in history when humans have decided who matters and who does not.  Our (collective humanity’s) track record is poor and our history of violence long.  We do not seem to innately know how to behave well.  It is easy to assume within one’s own time, that most of this is worked out.  But, many people must have thought this in the US when slavery and betrayal of Native Americans were the norm.  What common practices will be seen as barbaric 100 years from now?  Keep in mind that “everybody else is doing it” and “this is how it has always been done” both apply to slavery and genocide (as well as to countless other forms of exploitation and oppression). Jim Mason, author of An Unnatural Order:  Why We are Destroying the Planet and Each Other and several other important books, calls the proclivity to harm those who are different from ourselves “misothery”.

Lest you be lulled into thinking that animals are the last frontier of “misothery”, think the Iraq war.  It was so scary to read that the majority of Americans thought that the Iraqis were part of the 9/11 hijackings.  Why would you want to drop a bomb on someone without doing your homework?  Why would you want to drop a bomb on someone period?  So many Iraqis have died because of the actions of the United States.  How many?  Hundreds of thousands?  More?  Does anybody really know? We are comfortable with counting every American life lost as precious and ignoring the loss of Iraqi life.    The media aids this mindset by keeping a strict tally of American casualties while encouraging complacency for Iraqi losses.  Media outlets also swayed the public to connect Saddam Hussein to 9/11 by mentioning the two simultaneously on newscasts over and over and over again.  Many people were more than happy to go to war because the news told them that it was a good idea.  This is frightening. There are certainly things that needed to improve in their society, but there is in ours as well.  I don’t want an occupying force to invade and terrorize our country because we need to improve. Sadly, Iraq is only one example in a sea of contemporary instances of the powerful heaping abuses upon the less powerful.

This brings us back to religion and animals.  I’m not sure that religion is a great pedestal to stand on.  If we were able to look back through recorded human history, would religion be the number one reason for murder and war?  I am guessing that is why John Lennon asked us to Imagine “no religion”.  I am not against religion.  I am only against using it as a rationalization to harm others with perceived impunity.  Deciding that what we do to animals does not matter is simply another permutation of misothery.  This holds true whether religion is used as a shield to harm animals or some other motivation is employed such as science, culture, economic gain, or personal preference.

It is clear from history to present day that humans have a weakness for using violence for personal gain.  Humans can also be incredibly loving and altruistic.  Often, these dipoles exist within the same person.  Actions that nurture and cause growth of the compassionate side of humanity benefit everyone-humans, animals, and the planet.  We like to believe that we can abuse animals three times a day through the consumption of their flesh, mammary secretions, and reproduction secretions without consequence for human society, but cruelty and acquiescence to suffering do not stay neatly compartmentalized.  We have to turn parts of ourselves off to participate in this social custom.  We learn to do this early when we cut our teeth on animals.  This creates apathy towards the suffering of others (Iraqis for example) and creates a culture where a certain level of violence is the norm (but, none of us want this “norm” to visit our own homes or our own children).  It also serves as a constant validation of “might makes right”.  When will these three awful words leave us?  Choosing foods that cause less harm is a very empowering method of fighting against them.

I am respectful of the fact that not everyone can eschew animal products and get enough daily sustenance.  We do not all have access to the same choices.  There are many reasons why this might be true.  However, if we want peace and mercy and compassion for ourselves, we would be well served to make choices that reflect this for others whenever we are able.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.”  When I was younger, I never thought about whether my choices were “just”.  I thought that the job of making the world a better place laid with people who made important decisions and held powerful posts or, conversely, with people who committed heinous crimes as they needed to learn how not to commit them.  Now, I see that that every person’s choices act to reinforce the status quo or to change the social fabric.  I try to think about how my choices affect others and make a concerted effort not to harm.  Perfection eludes me and personal evolution is an ongoing struggle, but a kinder world is worth the effort.  The revolution is in the mundane.

– Stacia Mesleh

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