Thursday, December 31, 2015

Resolution suggestions for 2016

It's easy to be pessimistic looking forward to 2016. Climate change already beginning to wreak havoc on the planet, lots of anger, intolerance, and violence in the world, more animals being killed for meat and abused in various other ways by humans (the most "intelligent" life form on the planet) etc., etc... Is it even possible for a compassionate individual to see all this and still retain any kind of hope?

The thing to remember here is that a truly ethical person will not ignore an injustice, even when fighting against it seems (almost) hopeless. Sure, some injustices are harder to get rid of than others. One looks at the slightly lower levels of meat consumption in the US, and is encouraged, and then one sees the skyrocketing meat consumption in "developing" countries like China and can't help but have some of the wind knocked out of one's sails. There are two things that we have to remember here: 1) We cannot solve all of the world's problems, and 2) The fact that we can't solve all of the world's problems shouldn't prevent us from trying to solve some of them. And we should do this ACTIVELY. Posting "this is horrible" comments online is not really getting active. Instead, why not donate some of your time and/or money to organizations that truly help improve the world? Why not get political and start pressuring your representatives to start making more ethical choices? Why not get involved in creating more fair legislation? Why not stop eating meat? Or buying clothes that are made is sweatshops? Why not stop supporting corporations that screw the environment and make lots of money doing so? These are all examples of active helping. Why not make one of your resolutions for 2016 to become a more informed individual and to make more ethical choices?

Sometimes people get so overwhelmed by all the horrible things happening in the world that they end up doing nothing at all to improve things. They forget that some things can indeed be improved. Are you saddened by the fact that so many dogs and cats live (and die) in shelters? Why not make one of your 2016 resolutions to adopt a friend for life? Are you the kind of person that complains about violence in the world, but has no problem picking up that pork chop, steak, chicken thigh, or piece of fried fish? Well, there's a big problem there, because the meat (and other animal products) that you consume are directly responsible for a lot of the violence in the world, not to mention the environmental damage that the various meat, egg, and dairy industries cause. Hate violence? Want a peaceful world? Why not make going vegan (or at least vegetarian) one of your resolutions for 2016?

2015 was not a good year for people "coming together", and 2016 might be even worse if we're not careful. The refugee crisis was one of the issues that really polarized people. This was one of those "tests of our humanity", and, unfortunately, many of us failed that test by allowing our latent prejudices (and, in many cases, hatred) steer us away from a compassionate course. When we begin to fear other people, focusing on our differences instead of what makes us all human beings, there is a problem. When we allow the actions of a few extremists to blacken our view of a majority of people that want nothing to do with those extremists, there is a problem. When I visited Cuba many years ago, I remember a Cuban family inviting me into their home, and even though they had almost nothing, not even a real roof, they shared everything they had with me. Why not make one of your resolutions for 2016 to be more like them?

I wish you all a very good 2016. If you really care about this world of ours, I hope that you remember that, to paraphrase Gandhi, we can indeed be the change that we want to see. More importantly, I hope you have the courage and conviction to be that change. This year, let's all take a step away from selfishness, and towards a more empathetic approach to life.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Teaching kids to treat animals well

Kids are very impressionable, and we all know that it’s important to teach them right from wrong, to encourage positive behavior and to discourage the negative. When doing so, it's also important not to forget to teach them the correct way to treat the animals of the world, and to respect these animals' lives. Learning to properly deal with animals will go a long way to help a child blossom into a good human being, one who understands the importance of fairness and compassion.

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you probably know that it’s possible to raise a healthy and happy child on either one of these diets. A quick online search will reveal many well-informed websites which will help you through any questions you might have about this. Don’t be afraid to go this route. I personally have several friends who are raising vegetarian kids, and all of them are perfectly happy. In some countries such as India it is completely normal to encounter individuals of all ages who have never tasted meat. If you’re not vegetarian/vegan, you probably won’t be raising your child this way. Still, be mindful of their natural empathy (which many kids have a lot of). Encourage it, and don’t stifle it. Many kids are shocked when they find out that the animals that they love so much are actually the same ones they eat. While it’s often easy to indoctrinate a young mind into believing that this is “right” and “the way of the world”, you should allow your child to not eat meat if he/she doesn’t want to. If you have a child like this, be thankful. – S/he is an empathetic individual who realizes the importance of all sentient life. S/he is someone who "gets it".

Another important thing to teach your kids, whether you eat meat or not, is that animals have feelings and can suffer and feel pain. You might think that your child would come to this conclusion naturally, but just like many kids have a lot of natural empathy, many others don’t really understand that animals can be hurt when mistreated. This is an important thing to teach your kid, one that can prevent him/her from harming animals while s/he is young, and to treat them better when s/he is older. Respecting animals and treating them correctly (both pets and other animals) should also be taught at schools, and in an ideal world this would be standard practice. If this issue concerns you, don’t be afraid to contact your child’s school and to ask them if they already have any kind of compassion-building lessons in place geared specifically at helping kids understand the importance of respecting animals’ lives. If they don’t, ask them to consider developing some.

When it comes to the unfair treatment of animals, whether it’s eating them or abusing them in one way or another, a lot of our bad habits stem from our childhood. Teach your kids to love and (more importantly) respect animals to make sure that they grow up with good habits instead.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Speciesism, the dos and don'ts

Speciesism as a concept has been gaining popularity of late, mostly among folks like myself who are into animal rights and/or veganism. The concept, as you can probably guess, refers to discriminating on the basis of an animal's species - ie. having one set of rules for humans, and another for other animals, or having one set of rules for cats or dogs, and another for cows. Many speciesists believe that it is OK for some animals to suffer simply because they happen to be cows, pigs, chickens, fish, etc. Many also believe that the above-mentioned animals' sense of pain, emotion, etc. is not as strong and/or important as ours, so it's ok kill them for food, or that, to put it bluntly, their lives simply matter less than say our pets' lives or our own. These days, whenever someone online makes excuses for animal suffering, there will most likely be someone who correctly calls that person out for being a speciesist.

In my mind, there are two issues worth mentioning regarding speciesism, - the first is how we as human beings see ourselves in regards to other animal species. At this point I'd have to confess, that using a strict definition of the concept, I too could be considered a speciesist. I do not believe that humans and the animals we share our planet with are exactly the same. For better or worse, it is much more special to be human. Although you'd never guess it from what's going on in the world right now, humans are more intelligent than animals, and only we have the capacity to change our planet for the better, or, if we continue down the path we're on, to destroy it completely. This is a lot of power, a lot of responsibility. Unlike other animals, we are the guardians of this planet, - and it is up to us to create a harmonious world in which we can all coexist.

The keyword here is "guardians", not abusers. This is a very important distinction, as it says no the arrogant abuse of animals that has been part of our daily lives for centuries. Those who feel that we have some kind of right to do with animals as we see fit should be reminded of the following: Yes, we are very different from other animals, but the things that we have in common are so important, that they are reason enough to respect these animals' lives, and to find ways to harmoniously coexist with them, instead of using and abusing them for our benefit. Cows, pigs, chickens, etc., although not human, have emotions, can get depressed, feel fear, and wants to live just like we do. It is therefore unethical (and, for most of the world's population, unnecessary) to kill these animals and to make them suffer. While someone might not embrace the concept of speciesism, they will most likely be able to understand this simple reasoning. This is how we build bridges to empathy.

The second issue worth contemplating regarding speciesism is why we value our pets more than we value other animals. This, in my opinion, is more important to discuss, and easier to fight. We, as a society, have chosen some animals to be on our "do not harm" list, - ones that we have gotten to know, and to love, and to share our homes with. There is nothing wrong with putting animals on the "do not harm" list, but we should indeed question why dogs or cats are on there, while other animals that can be equally caring, and as intelligent (or in some cases even more so), end up on the unfortunate "eat or ignore" list. While we can hypothesize until the cows come home, the truth of the matter is that this is fairly random. The thing to remember is that it really is as easy to bond and get attached to a loving pig, calf, rat, turkey, etc. as it is to a cat, for example. If you need proof of this, just do a simple YouTube search and you will see that there are plenty of people that are very happy sharing their lives with these animals. While you don't necessarily have to join their ranks and adopt a baby pig, this will hopefully make you realize the importance of not discriminating, of respecting all sentient life.

The last thing I want to mention is how some animals rights activists use racism and sexism as the logical precursors to speciesism. I have done this myself. When doing this, however, you can't just throw all these concepts out there and expect people to magically make the connection between them. You have to walk people through it, remembering that most people will initially not get the connection between the first two and the last concept. The fact that racism and sexism still exist proves that many people in the world can't even get around treating their own species well, let alone other species. Empathizing with the latter can be pretty hard for some, especially when someone still sees certain animals as food instead of sentient beings. This is why it becomes even more important to remind people of certain truths: 1) that animals do suffer 2) that a lot of this suffering is because of our diet, clothing, and entertainment, and 3) that switching to a plant-based diet can help end this suffering. Even if someone believes that humans are (in whatever way) superior to other animals, they can still embrace the above mentioned concepts and do a lot less harm.