Food and Friendship

Those of you who heard my talk yesterday might remember that I shared the following. I said if Tom Regan has a central, recurring message it is this: any chance that animal rights advocates will achieve what we want to achieve depends on growing our movement—and growing it not a little but a lot.

“What do I mean by a lot?” I went on to ask. And I answered: “I don’t mean hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of new people embracing animal rights. I don’t even mean hundreds of millions. No, what I mean by a lot is what the astronomer Carl Sagan was fond of saying: I mean billions and billions. Only if the day comes when billions and billions of people believe in and practice the ideals that inform the struggle for animal rights—only then will we have a realistic hope of achieving what we want to achieve.

“One reason why the challenges we face seems so enormous [I suggested] is because we try to imagine all those billions of people joining our ranks but otherwise remaining the same. The day comes when billions of them no longer eat the flesh of dead animals and don’t wear fur; they don’t go to circuses or visit marine parks; they don’t buy cosmetics that have been tested on animals and they don’t give to charities that support research on animals; they don’t . . . well, you can add to the list of what they eliminate from their life. But aside from these changes, most of us seem to assume that these billions of people are the same as most of the world’s population today. The only difference is they have come over to our side when it comes to veganism or animal rights.

“I want to suggest [I said] that this way of thinking is far too simplistic. We are not merely trying to change a few old habits about what people eat and wear. Billions of people will embrace animal rights only if billions of people change in a deeper, more fundamental, a more revolutionary way. They must embrace and, in their life, they must express a new understanding of what it means to be a human being.”

I then went on to explain this new understanding by describing a new generation of people, the people comprising what I called the Thee Generation. These are the people who offer hope for the future, the ones who, because of their numbers and influence, can cause cultural change—who can save not only the whales and the planet but our species.

That is the gist of what I said yesterday. On this occasion I want to say something about the role you can play in brining about this revolutionary change. Granted, none of us has a magic wand that, when waved, can create the Thee Generation on the spot. We all need to recognize the limitations of our power and influence. Even so, I hope you will not underestimate the power of your living example — the light you bring to the world by living as you do and by being the person you are.

Recall Jesus’s words (and let us look passed the male bias in them): “No man, when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a secret place, neither under a bushel, but on a candlestick, that they which come in may see the light.” (Luke 11:33).

Ah, yes: the power of your living example, shining like a light in the darkness. It should never be hidden, never put under a bushel, but always burn openly, especially when it comes to relationships with those closest to you: your friends, including your family. For reasons that I will go on to offer, we not only can, we must share our vegan values with our friends. To fail to do so not only would represent a betrayal of these values; it would also represent a betrayal of our friends.

True friendship is one of life’s rarest treasures. Cynics deny its existence, but people who love life know friendship’s reality firsthand. Rife with paradoxes, the very fragility of friendship can be part of its strength. Without patience, without understanding, without loyalty and determined work, not by one acting alone but by two acting together, a friendship that “might have been” can shatter into a thousand pieces of anger, remorse, recrimination. It is easier to destroy a friendship than to sustain one. But having withstood the test of time, true friends make of their lives together something of greater value than the sum of their lives taken separately — a value beyond price and, in some ways, beyond reason as well. True friendship has its reasons that reason does not understand.

Throughout the ages poets and philosophers alike have sought to define what friendship is, but to no avail. Like love, like beauty, like goodness, friendship is beyond the reach of words. It matters not. Some things that we know, we know cannot be said, and the essence of friendship is one of them.

Not all is mystery, however. “Lovers,” C. S. Lewis observes, “are normally face to face, absorbed in one another. By contrast, friends are side by side, absorbed in some common interest.” But not just any “interest” will do. The interest must be compelling to both; it must help give shared meaning to the life of each; it must be what, taken individually and together, they stand for, in part what they live for. Ralph Waldo Emerson understood this. Would-be friends, he writes, must ask of each other, “Do you see the same truth? Do you care about the same truth?” Only when both answer yes is true friendship possible.

Now, one of the truths vegans see, one of the truths we care about, concerns the food we eat. And the food we do not. This is not the whole of what gives meaning and purpose to our lives, but it does explain part, and this is an important part, of why we are who we are. Which is why we must share our vision and our concern with our non-vegan friends, not under the threat that “you better become a vegan or else” (for there are other compelling interests we might share), but in the hope that our friendship might be the richer and the stronger if this truth, this care unites rather than divides us.

How might we do this? How might we share our vision and our concern with our friends? A place to begin is health.

True friends cannot stand idly by, cannot be indifferent, when their friends are doing what is physically injurious to themselves. And eating meat and other animal products (eggs, milk and cheese, for example), day in and day out, is injurious. With a vengeance. When all the statistical dust settles, when all the charts are constructed and the graphs drawn, the facts speak with one voice: An animal-based diet is dangerous to human health. It is causally linked to the leading causes of mortality and disability. Colon cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, diabetes, hypertension, stroke — all these and many other human maladies often have their origin in a high fat, high cholesterol (which is to say, an animal-based) diet. This is not the fantasy of a small band of uninformed food fanatics. This is well established scientific fact. The more we learn about what various foods do to us, the more we understand what foods are good and bad for us. And there is no question that our chances of living a longer, fuller, healthier life are significantly increased if we eliminate meat, eggs and dairy products from our diet.

Friendship involves a commitment to fostering the good of the other. Vegans want to do more than pay lip-service to this commitment. We want to express this commitment to our non-vegan friends, not in mettlesome, intrusive ways, one hopes, but responsibly, lovingly. This we cannot do if we fail to offer our knowledge about nutrition and health. The very reverse is true: Not to share our knowledge would attest to the absence of true friendship.

Friends want their friends to be healthy, vibrant, filled with the joy of living. And they want them to live a long life, so that this joy can be shared most fully with those who matter most dearly. In the end, of course, we understand that people must make their own choice about what to put into their bodies. As vegans, well aware of the links between diet and disease as well as those between healthful food and a healthy life, we express our love for our non-vegan friends when we endeavor to insure that this important choice of theirs is an informed one.

Vegans value more than their own and their friends’ bodily health. We also feel a special bond with our “shared body” — the Earth. We understand that the human presence is but one part, and this a small part, of the larger life community. We see ourselves connected across time with the myriad life forms that have come and gone before us, just as we see ourselves connected at each moment of our existence with all those living creatures currently making their journey on this planet. Whatever may be true of the human soul, whether it is fact or fiction that we will find spiritual life after physical death, this we know: Our bodies come from the Earth, and to the Earth they will return.

For vegans, this sense of belonging to the Earth awakens a sense of responsibility to the Earth. Just as we cannot be indifferent to what harms our human friends, so we cannot be unconcerned about what harms the natural world. To eat meat is to be a party to such harm. The industries that make meat consumption possible — the multi-nationally owned farms, and the petrochemical and pharmaceutical companies, for example — harm the Earth far more than any other cause. Topsoil is being washed and blown away. Once fertile pastures have become barren deserts because of over-grazing. Water supplies grow perilously scarce. Rivers and streams are open sewers of pollution. Lush, irreplaceable rain forests are being plowed under in the name of cheaper hamburgers. All this and more, incalculably more, is the environmental legacy of commercial animal agriculture as we know it.

Imperfect creatures that we are, there is no perfect way to obtain the food we need in order to survive. But there is a better way. Vegans are guided by the principle of doing the least harm, a principle that applies to our dealings with the Earth, not just our interactions with one another. Unquestionably, less harm is done to the Earth the lower down the food-chain we eat. A diet rich in grains, legumes, nuts, vegetables, and fruits — a vegan diet — is the diet of choice for those who truly care about the fate of the Earth.

Those of us who are vegans invite our non-vegan friends to join with us in befriending the Earth, to add to the compelling interests that already unite us a new commitment to live in ways that protect and promote the good of the web of life in which we find ourselves. Human friendships can be the stronger, not the weaker, by including the good of the Earth among those truths friends both “see” and “care for.” When the breadth of shared concern extends to the larger life community, human friendships can plant even deeper roots.

And then there are the animals themselves — the more than ten billion cattle, hogs, chickens, turkeys, and others who are slaughtered annually, just in the United States, more than ten thousand killed every minute of every day, day in and day out. What of their fate? What does the principle of minimizing harm mean in their case?

Any realistic answer must first replace fiction with fact. The enduring images of the idyllic farm, straight out of The Wizard of Oz, populated with contented cows grazing in the pasture, free roaming chickens bustling about the farmyard, hogs wallowing happily in the mud — these bucolic images conceal, they do not reveal, today’s sordid reality.

That reality is simple: From birth to death, the lives of those animals raised on factory farms for human consumption are characterized by suffering, deprivation, fear and stress. Every basic interest of these animals is compromised. Lack of space. Lack of freedom to move. Lack of companionship. Lack of opportunity to express their preferences. Lack of access to fresh air, sunlight, the very Earth itself. Incredible though it may seem, the vast majority of these animals are raised permanently indoors, in densely crowded conditions, like so many inanimate objects technologically assembled in highly automated factories. For these animals, reduced to so many pounds of flesh sold for so many dollars spent, there is no farmyard, no pasture, no mud. These exist only in the mythology of our imagination.

But there is more. And worse. Roughly herded into the truck. The frenzied journey to the packinghouse — in the wind and the rain and the snow. The pandemonium of unloading. The electric prods. The gruesome details of the slaughter — the torrents of blood, the smells of death, the sounds of terror and of life’s ebbing. All this most people want to deny rather than acknowledge. Hardly anyone visits the local abattoir; most do not even know where it is. Out of sight, we seem to hope, out of mind. And yet everyone knows, in their heart of hearts, that Emerson is right when he writes, “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”

Vegans choose not to be accomplices after these facts. We do this not only because we believe that nonhuman animals deserve to be treated with respect and not in the ruthless fashion that ends in their slaughter, but also because we regard their treatment as symptomatic of the darker side of human nature: the desire for domination, the need to destroy, the delight in violence. As the renowned twentieth century writer Issac Bashevis Singer wisely observes, “Everything connected with vegetarianism is of the highest importance because there will never be peace in the world so long as we eat animals.” Though we cannot totally eradicate our role in all the evil of this world, we can work to end our involvement in some of it. At the end of each day, there is no good reason why the blood of those animals raised for food must be on our hands. Granted, people who aspire to live according to the principle of causing least harm are called upon to try to do much more than adopt a vegan way of life; even so, this truth remains — an informed life of compassion is called upon to do nothing less.

A vegan way of life, often thought to be reserved for incorrigible cranks and unstable eccentrics, actually has a long and venerable history. Pythagoras. Plato. Ovid. Horace. Putarch. Leonardo. Shelley. Leo Tolstory. Annie Besant. Anna Kingsford. Gandhi. Shaw. Scott and Helen Nearing. Dick Gregory. Frances Moore Lappe. Cesar Chavez. These are among the more illustrious names associated with the history of veganism. Hardly a group of “animal crazies.” Today, hundreds of millions around the world, including millions of Americans, practice various types of vegetarian diets. And the ranks continue to swell, at historically unprecedented rates.

Resistance continues, however, often because of the presence of nutritional myths (the protein-myth, “Without meat you won’t get enough protein,” is among the most common) and because of the force of personal habit and social custom. Vegans march to a different drummer. We seek to realize in ourselves some of those qualities we most admire in others: a mind thirsty for knowledge, a heart filled with compassion, a will fueled by a sense of justice. Then we try to live our life empowered and directed by these very qualities, not after the fashion of saints, to be sure, and not dressed in the arrogant garments of self-righteousness, but sincerely, determinedly, as best we can. Here, most assuredly, it is the journey, not merely the destination, that matters. Our own life is enriched, we believe, by striving to make life better for others.

Almost twenty-five hundred years ago, the philosopher Aristotle taught that true friendship is possible only among “equals.” Those who are “superior” in his view cannot be friends with those who are “inferior.” It was on this basis that Aristotle concluded that educated men can never find true friends among women and slaves, for example.

Aristotle’s understanding of friendship is classist, elitist, racist and sexist. By contrast, Emerson’s is inclusive. A person’s class, education, race and sex are not barriers to true friendship. Any two people who “see” and “care about” the same truth can be friends for a lifetime. Shared values are the building blocks of friendship, and friendships can grow, in both breadth and depth, as the sharing of values grows.

A concern for health. A love of the Earth. A sense of justice that extends to our brothers and sisters in fur and feather and fin. A commitment to non-violence and peace: These are among the values that define what it is to be a vegan, and these are the values we offer to our non-vegan friends, as food for thought, so to speak. Perhaps a tomorrow will come when “seeing” and “caring about” these basic truths will help define the friendship that unites us today. For all vegans who have friends who are not, this is the hope. For many, this is the prayer.

Whatever the outcome, this we know:

I hope you will not underestimate the power of your living example — the light you bring to the world by living as you do and by being the person you are.

Recall Jesus’s words (and let us look passed the male bias in them): “No man, when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a secret place, neither under a bushel, but on a candlestick, that they which come in may see the light.” (Luke 11:33).

Ah, yes: the power of your living example, shining like a light in the darkness. It should never be hidden, never put under a bushel, but always burn openly, especially when it comes to relationships with those closest to you: your friends, including your family. For reasons that I will go on to offer, we not only can, we must share our vegan values with our friends. To fail to do so not only would represent a betrayal of these values; it would also represent a betrayal of our friends.