Saskatchewan·Opinion

I'm vegan, but don't think we should guilt, shame or threaten meat-eaters

When things get political they get divisive, oppositional, and polarizing. We don’t need any more reasons to divide ourselves, to be entrenched in our ideologies or to choose sides. I don’t want to focus on difference.

'We don’t need any more reasons to divide ourselves'

A nearly nude PETA activist lies naked on a Vancouver sidewalk. Campaigns designed to guilt or shame people into giving up meat spur division, says Ryan Gray. (CBC)

Earlier this year, CBC Saskatchewan published an op-ed by Osler, Sask.-area dairy farmer Cam Houle entitled As a farmer, I'm sick of being harassed online by animal rights activists.

Houle's piece inspired the following response from Ryan Gray, a Regina-based vegan.

It was originally published on Feb. 27, 2019.


I try to stay out of vegan-related politics.

When things get political they get divisive, oppositional and polarizing. We don't need any more reasons to divide ourselves, to be entrenched in our ideologies or to choose sides. I don't want to focus on difference.

Zen Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki said that, "the cause of conflict is some fixed idea or one-sided idea."

Telling the whole story

I would be overjoyed if people stopped consuming animal products. I hope one day the animal agriculture industry shrinks until it becomes a negligible contributor to the suffering of animals.

Still, I'm not convinced guilt, shame, threats or violence should have any part in bringing an end to animal suffering. I would be surprised if my vegan-allies justified these types of tactics outside of their political activism.

Is it really the right approach to use violent, jarring, shock-value footage of animals being mistreated and killed? Can we acknowledge some irony of using animal suffering as a means to a vegan's end?

I can't think of any examples where any of these tactics worked to change people's behaviour for the better.

If I'm absolutely certain in my beliefs I'm only creating a barrier between myself and those who don't share them.- Ryan Gray

Yes, industrial animal agriculture has a large role to play in greenhouse gas emissions.

Yes, there are well-reasoned philosophical arguments for animal rights.

Yes, spiritual practices thousands of years old advocate against causing harm or hardship to animals.

Yes, there are parallels between the oppression of animal agriculture alongside the historical and continued oppression of marginalized groups in society.

Yes, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting it's healthier for humans to eat a plant-based diet.

But all that information, convincing as it may be, does not tell the whole story.

There are communities that rely on animals for survival. There are cultural practices centered on consuming animals. There are people economically dependent on the animal agriculture supply chain. There are people who, because the complexity of poverty, couldn't be vegan even if they wanted to.

'Animals and humans are not so different'

To me, being vegan — aside from the obvious dietary choices — means to not expect anything from animals. It means not valuing animals strictly for the use they serve. It means treating animals with intrinsic value just like we treat one another.

My beliefs suggest a kind of moral equivalence. Animals and humans are not so different that we can justify treating animals the way we do.

Things went sideways when we started seeing difference. We started to see different kinds of people. We started to see ourselves as different from the rest of the natural world. Once we felt comfortable categorizing and othering we started to justify a lot of horrible things.

Maybe we can push pause on our constant need to individuate ourselves and consider how much sameness exists between us as people and between us and the natural world.

"Animals and humans are not so different that we can justify treating animals the way we do," says Ryan Gray. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

What if we approached those ideas of sameness from the innocent perspective of a child, with childlike ignorance instead of our usual grownup ignorance? What if we were genuinely curious rather than thinking we know everything?

It's hard to stay entrenched in our beliefs while also being curious about what makes us the same and empathetic about what makes us different. If I'm absolutely certain in my beliefs I'm only creating a barrier between myself and those who don't share them.

This is not a simple issue with obvious or easy solutions, but I know that curiosity can be a bridge for people to bring people together. I can think of a lot of examples where that worked a lot better to change people's behaviour than guilt, shame, threats or violence.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ

About the Author

Ryan Gray is a (non-militant) vegan living and working in Regina. He enjoys (beyond) meat burgers, (cashew) milk and his dog.

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