Vegans and animal activists have a compassion problem, and I don't mean with other non-vegans or themselves (that's for another post). The issue concerns the (over)use of the word compassion and its inadequate appropriation for animal advocacy objectives.
While compassion is a basic component for advancing ethical veganism, it is not the be-all and end-all since it doesn't require much more than feeling. Merriam-Webster defines compassion as a sympathy toward others' distress and a desire to alleviate it. Note the word desire, which is vague and discretionary. Having compassion is an admirable virtue, but it is not a directive for willful, binding action. Take Meatless Mondays as an example. Compassion may drive some to abstain from animal flesh one day a week, but it does not deter them from engaging in other forms of animal abuse or from even eating meat the remaining six days of the week.
If nonhuman animals are going to live in a just world that honors and respects them as equally deserving of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it's going to take a lot more than compassion, pity, or empathy to make it happen. What other animals require are legal and protected rights.
In Circles of Compassion, David Cantor of Responsible Policies for Animals (RPA) described the problem this way: "The move from humanism to the new animalism, from animal abuse to rights of all animals as the basis of governance, is a struggle against injustice, so we will do well to elicit the moral indignation humans naturally experience at animal abuse rather than emphasize compassion, which positively affects those in our presence, not policy. Belittled as 'anger' by the industry-government-university-media complex, moral indignation is the human trait most likely to instigate radical policy change. The Constitution refers to establishing justice, not promoting compassion."
Animal abuse and exploitation address concrete issues of justice and fairness, not abstract and arbitrary feelings. People can offer compassion to others on an individual basis and can make compassionate choices, however, compassion alone cannot and will not alleviate the systematic suffering and oppression of other animals indicative of the profiteering animal-industrial complex. Ethical vegans make up less than one percent of the population and despite our intense compassion and best efforts, we are unable to counter massive apathy among many seemingly compassionate people, even our own friends and family members. It doesn't mean we should stop trying, but if we think championing compassion is the answer, we're gravely mistaken.
On ecorazzi, Dr. Frances McCormack illustrated another problem with using the word compassion. "We urge others to be compassionate or to show mercy to the animals for whom we're advocating. . . they are intricately bound up with the idea of pity, and they are always directed downwards from a perceived superior (in terms of a balance of power) to a perceived inferior. Using this kind of language draws on ideas of human supremacy, painting animals as our natural inferiors. These words are also frequently used to talk about suffering, and as a result they have been co-opted by the large animal groups to talk not about rights and justice but about treatment instead."
Compassion and mercy are subjective and elective concepts on par with the notion of tolerance. The focus of these words is on the graciousness of the subject toward the inferior object. These sympathies do little to lift up the object to one of parity with the subject.
There is a widely held assumption that if we can simply turn on people's compassion switches, then they will see the error of their ways and adopt a vegan way of life. I, too, have been guilty of this wishful and misguided thinking. The fact is, the vast majority of people in the world—who also happen to consider themselves compassionate—continue to ignore and neglect the lives of other animals for their own self-interests, which is why securing animal rights is so imperative. Moral indignation at unrighteous laws and structural changes to persecuting policies and institutions are as essential to other animals as they were/are for blacks, women, gays, the disabled, and other oppressed groups.
According to Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) President Steven M. Wise, the legal "thinghood" of all nonhuman animals is the single most important factor preventing humans from vindicating nonhuman animals' interests. In preparing lawsuits on behalf of captive animals, NhRP demands that judges release their plaintiffs to sanctuaries, not as a matter of welfare [or compassion], but out of respect for their rights.
We can't consume our way to animal rights or sell veganism as a good for sale. No amount of compassion-focused pillows or chalked sidewalks are going to right a universal wrong. There is no doubt that adopting an ethical vegan lifestyle impacts animals and animal-exploiting industries, but buying vegan swag with messages of compassion is a waste of valuable resources that could better be used to support organizations like NhRP and RPA, who are fighting for animal rights.
"I find it crucially important for animal-rights advocacy that justice, liberty, and equality are mentioned and not compassion, empathy, caring, love, or any other staples of standard animal advocacy," continued Cantor. "Rights are a basic policy, not a feeling, an attitude, a degree of caring, a set of shopping choices, or any other personal trait or behavior. . . .We must work together to establish in the human mind all animals' innate equality and personhood so their equal rights of self-determination and security in their natural homes can be established."
Compassion is a wonderfully important characteristic that we should employ often and always, but it is also subjective, ambiguous, and inconsistently applied. We can't make people be compassionate toward other species any more than we can regulate how compassionate they are. And all the compassion in the world will not make people do the right thing if they don't feel so inclined. But, we can hold them accountable to laws.
After adopting an ethical, vegan lifestyle, a commitment to promoting both veganism and global animal rights is vital. Widespread veganism can alter and perhaps even eliminate animal economies of supply and demand, but it alone cannot achieve animal rights and liberation—only laws can do that. Ending the fundamental use and domination of nonhuman animals will only happen when animals gain rights and, consequently, veganism will be the mandated byproduct of those rights, regardless of any one person's level of compassion.
"True compassion," said Martin Luther King Jr. "is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
Our current laws enable us to go on using and abusing nonhuman animals for our own selfish interests. The biases that frame our laws are reinforced by advertisers, corporations, educational systems, and governments. Our laws defend socially-constructed appetites that empower the capitalist engines and elites of the animal-industrial complex. Our laws are unjust toward other animals and it's time to make them right.
Vegan Starter Kit