Paul Blest on vegetarianism, gender roles, and a video of some really happy cows.
I don’t want to reduce a major part of my personal philosophy to selections from YouTube, but I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for videos of bulldogs running around, cats doing funny things, and happy pigs and cows, especially because pigs and cows in America generally aren’t.
The above video is going viral, documenting a group of cows who were scheduled to be sent to the slaughterhouse after their dairy farm in northwestern Germany went under. Their local community banded together, and Anke Heublein started a foundation to purchase the cows from the farmer, rescue them from slaughter, and take care of them. This video shows the cows literally jumping for joy in pasture after a long winter. From a scientific perspective, it was pretty astonishing to watch dozens of cows bounce around on a beautiful day. Emotionally? It reminded me exactly why I’m a vegetarian.
I first became a vegetarian just to challenge myself. I was always a bigger kid in school and my family had (and still has) a meat-and-potatoes diet. I also played sports from the time I was six until I graduated from high school, so the fact that I needed protein was drilled into me by my coaches, my parents, etc – although we’re now at a point where vegetarianism in athletics is readily accepted and sometimes encouraged. When I met a few friends within the East Coast punk rock scene who happened to be vegetarian or vegan, I saw that they didn’t live all that differently from me, only a bit more healthy. So I tried it. And I failed miserably. I ate a bunch of cheese and pasta, got sick, and went back to meat. It was a miserable failure, but after I started eating meat again, it never felt right. Nine months later, I stopped eating meat and I haven’t gone back since.
The reason why it worked for me the second time and not the first was simple: I realized that I couldn’t reconcile my personal beliefs in human rights and social justice while enjoying a nice juicy steak for dinner. There are some people who can and do, and that’s totally fine; it’s a difference in philosophy, not a matter of who is more virtuous, more practical, or who is the better human being.
But consider this: in 21st century American society, we consider our pets to be members of the family. We put out thousands of dollars every year to make sure our dogs and cats stay healthy and happy. Not only that, but we spend money to go to zoos, aquariums, safaris, aquatic parks, and so on so we can experience the animal kingdom. We feel a personal connection to whales and dolphins, which is why Blackfish was one of the most popular documentaries released last year. Some of the first learning experiences we have as kids involve animals: the pig goes oink, the dog goes woof, the cow goes moo, Old McDonald had a farm, etc.
And then, as we grow up, society gently pulls us away from the initial love for animals, and teaches us that cows are for steaks and milk, and pigs are bacon machines. And a lot of this has to do with gender roles; men are expected to be tough, willing to do whatever to provide for their families, and emotionally cold to a certain extent; thinking of this in artistic terms, the end of Old Yeller served as a major growing-up moment for Travis, while the opening scene of House of Cards where Frank Underwood puts an injured dog down serves as an introduction to a ruthless politician. So, as a man, refusing bacon and abstaining from chicken isn’t a very popular view. It shows weakness and empathy, which are supposedly feminine traits.
Except those aren’t female traits. Those are human traits. Feeling something for another person or animal is part of the human condition, and only when we stop putting on a front that what we learned when we were younger (love, empathy, sharing, kindness) was utter bullshit and the world has to be a certain way, 100% driven by some sort of financial bottom line or societal expectation, will that front dissolve.
I, personally, am not of the opinion that showing people videos of pigs and cows being mistreated and slaughtered is the absolute best way to go about convincing people to become vegetarian or vegan; although it is effective for some people, but again, gender expectations kick in, and a lot of dudes would rather talk about how tasty bacon is than the fact that there’s an animal smarter than all of our dogs behind the meat. The climate change argument hasn’t been very effective, although it has been proven that eating less meat would be equivalent to taking cars off the road. There’s also the perception that vegans are “annoying” about their dietary choices, although I’ve met plenty of vegans who prefer not to talk about it at all. So if we’re faced with apathy and fatigue right off the bat, then how do we start the conversation?
This is why this video hit me so hard. When I watch this video, I don’t see dinner going to waste; I see a living thing freed from its man-made obligations to end up on my plate.
I’m not a fan of using torture videos to convert people. I’d rather show people the positives of not consuming meat or dairy, and the living, breathing animals that benefit from the decision to skip out on a hamburger. By showing former dairy cows jumping for joy, or rescued pigs nuzzling with their new caretakers, we can put a face on the fact that the animals we use for meat are not really all that different from our dogs, our cats, or even us.
And if we take everything else that was taught to us when we were younger to heart: loving our neighbors, the importance of sharing, that kindness is a key component of life, and the golden rule – then why should we stop there?
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