Most of us are comfortable with the usual, the ordinary. Change can be frightening, the unknown can become anxiety-producing, even when what is known is disastrous. For those few people that have benefited from the status quo, voluntary changes are not likely to be undertaken; aggression may serve as an outlet for internal conflicts about change. For some people, those who feel alienated, change has meant an ongoing sense of personal assault and loss of power. The familiar is often represented by tradition, and tradition has included some horrendous practices, including racism, sexism, fundamentalism, and speciesism. Justification because of common or historical practice allows people to continue abhorrent practices because of tradition’s normalizing of the behavior.
When women and children have become reduced to the status of property, according to tradition, they have not fared well. Wives in some cultures may be murdered, as may children. Daughters who have been raped, through no fault of their own, may be killed due to the shame the act brings on the entire family; other young women are destroyed in “honour killings.” In some current cultures, women are viewed as so toxic that they must keep covered at all times, even though they are uncomfortable and cannot see properly within their proscribed garb. Some are not allowed to leave their homes. Husbands have the right to beat their wives and children with impunity in many other countries. In some nations, young girls are considered “filthy” until they are circumcised, and have all their sexuality excised along with a lot of their ability to urinate, have sexual intercourse, or bear children; they are left mutilated. Men who immigrate to progressive countries from repressive cultures may find it difficult to give up their “power,” as it is the way they maintained control and a sense of their proper place, a sense of their masculinity. It was tradition, the way things were, the way they are supposed to remain. We have all heard about living widows who threw themselves on the flames of their husband’s funeral pyre (sati or suttee); when a woman’s status only existed when her husband did, it was a tidy but tragic way of ending a dependency which was created by tradition.
Similar thinking exists about animals. They exist only for their intended purpose as seen by a very anthropocentric view popularized by humans with a narrow focus. People who are self-loathing displace much of their internal loathing onto animals. A look at common verbage will affirm this: eats like a horse (who only eats hay and a carrot or two?), sweats like a pig (who actually sweat very little, some breeds hardly at all), et cetera. In most of the modern era genocides, humans have been reduced to animal status in order to be considered fit for slaughter. In Rwanda, where the resentful Hutus plotted to murder their Tutsi cousins, hate radio first began calling Tutsis “cockroaches,” which somehow allowed people who had lived side by side for years to take part in brutal murders, including the murders of little children, with machetes in a personal and up-close confrontation. The idea was planted that they were ridding the land of these “pests” rather than the truth: they were cold-bloodedly killing trusting people whose children had played alongside their own children. During the Holocaust of the Nazi regime, Jewish people were called “rats,” or “vermin.” It became easier to kill “vermin” than individuals, so alienated are most humans from their animal brethren. Because most humans long ago quit identifying with the natural world, they have become capable of wanton murder of innocent non-offending animals to sate their lust for entertainment, clothing, food, and cruelty. If they were able to feel empathy, these humans would be incapable of the horrendous acts of unnecessary suffering they inflict on millions of animals on a daily basis.
After the mechanization of killing begins, The Other becomes unseen, invisible. Their personhood is nonexistent. There is no normal human reaction to their plight, their suffering, their individuality. This is one of the most frightening aspects of human behavior and is the most chilling by far to witness or experience. Whether The Other is a human or nonhuman animal, the result is the same. Destruction runs rampant and leaves a bloody trail in its wake. Many Tutsi women were raped by their assailants, giving birth to a generation of children whose mothers find it difficult to have any feelings for them – they are a constant reminder of their degradation and the man who raped them. Most of the murderous Hutus have remained unpunished; it is only now after more than 30 years that some of the Khmer Rouge stand trial, despite leaving more than two million dead Cambodians in their wake. So compartmentalized are we that we can even turn against people living side by side, who look like us, talk like us, and work with us; how much easier it must be to detach from creatures who bear little visible resemblance to us.
Justification for the suffering and murder of billions of animals exists because it is tradition, it is accepted by vast numbers of human beings. They turn a blind eye to the dogs stuffed in cages or the debeaked chickens, the tail-docked cows, the once-proud horses awaiting their dismal end in the abattoir. Yet these traditions are not universal; there are millions of human beings who do not partake of animal products and whose tradition has never permitted it. The growing numbers of vegans breaking tradition are finding new answers for the current problems of global warming, human and animal starvation, suffering, deforestation, water pollution, and health issues. When an article about “traditional values” surfaces, one must ask: what is being promoted? It is important not to accept traditional values “whole,” but for each generation to look at what is of value and what needs to change. Our moral evolution has not come so far that we need to look backwards towards even more primitive times to find an ethical baseline. Become a vegan and stand up for the rights of all animals to exist for their own purposes. Save the planet, save the future, save yourself. We must go beyond tradition if we are to survive. We must do what is right.