First published in Ecorazzi on 6 October 2016. If you follow me on Instagram, you will have seen some photos from my recent trip to India. This piece is about something you would not have seen from those photos.
Recently, I was in India. There was one incident that illustrates in heart-breaking perfection how easily we compartmentalise exploitation. We recognise exploitation amongst humans and we condemn/fight it. But we ignore, rationalise and even glorify our own exploitation of non-human animals because of utterly arbitrary reasons. We do not stop and examine our own behaviour because we believe in human exceptionalism for no other reason than it is good and convenient for us. Yet, all forms of exploitation stem from the same place and that is simply some variation of the following: I believe I am better than you and I matter more than you because I say so; it is good/convenient for me and I do not care about you. Therefore, I can use you as my thing and exploit you.
While in Delhi one late evening, on the drive back to the hotel after a terrific meal in a Kashmiri restaurant, the taxi stops at a traffic light at a congested and major intersection. The air is less than salubrious, thick with car exhaust, dust and humidity. My fellow passengers are all committed human rights and justice advocates, yet none but two of us are vegan.
A small, thin child aged anywhere between five and eight approaches the car selling balloons. Initially, I think she is a little boy. I can only see a closely cropped head of hair, sweet and dirty face and hands. I cannot see the little tattered dress she is wearing. There is an adult nearby who seems to be directing the selling activities, hers and that of a few others scattered across the large intersection.
We all fall silent at the sight. We all have the same thoughts; our hearts are shattering and throats constricting. One passenger has leftovers from dinner and she rolls down the window and gives them to her. The little girl happily accepts. She runs off to the median and sits down next to an even smaller girl with whom she shares the goodies. As the stop-light and traffic permit, we drive away.
My fellow passengers are some of the most committed people to human rights and justice issues; yet they are not vegan and they do not consider that being vegan is of fundamental importance. I am not making a moral judgment upon them. I respect and admire them, in fact, I have already briefly touched upon this distinction.
We all see and understand how exploitation affects humans and we fight against it every day. We understand the arbitrary reasons for this exploitation, whether the reasons are complex or straight-forward. None of those reasons are acceptable to us on moral grounds despite the fact that we may understand their causes. We would never dream of behaving in the same way. Yet, we do behave in the same way, every day, when we put animal flesh and secretions on our plates. We do not stop to think that the death and suffering we inflict on completely harmless and vulnerable non-human animals (because we think they taste delicious or that they are convenient to our lifestyle) is analogous to oppressive and unjust actions by powerful humans upon other humans. The only reason we have to distinguish our own oppressive and unjust behaviour is that we believe non-human animals are somehow lesser than us and we are better than them. Yet, each and every single reason for this lesser-better judgment on our part is completely arbitrary. We make up the rules as they are convenient to us…in exactly the same way that any oppressor makes them up for her convenience against who she oppresses.
I had much time to reflect upon this and other similar incidents and something that my good friend, Ben MacEllen, said kept coming back to me, louder and louder the longer I reflected: <<Every serious and thoughtful social justice activist should, by default, be vegan. >> He is right. How else are we supposed to eradicate a behaviour we find opprobrious if we ourselves are carrying on in a similar way? How can we permanently make the world a more just place for humans when we give little to no justice to beings who are as vulnerable as the little balloon girl?