The face of hope

Jo-Anne McArthur

Last night, Jo-Anne McArthur stayed at our place while she was giving a talk in my hometown, Ghent. For those who don’t know her, Jo-Anne is an award-winning photojournalist and author, who has been documenting the plight of animals on all seven continents for a decade. She’s the author of the book We Animals and the movie The Ghosts in our Machine is about her work.

I had met Jo-Anne a couple of times but it was good to spend a bit more time with her. Those who have met her will know that she’s one of the warmest people you can hope to encounter, and one thing struck me. Having gone around the world to document animal abuse on camera, you could arguably say that few people have seen more animal misery than her from close by. Yet at the same time, Jo-Anne has the most wonderful smile in the world and her face exudes happiness.

After her talk, someone asked her the question how she deals with all the misery, and Jo-Anne answered that she had been through some bad periods, but that she had learned to focus on the positive and to choose hope again and again.

It reminded me of this old Cherokee legend that I find very beautiful and inspiring:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

We each have the power, or at least can learn, to focus on the positive, the beautiful, the good. And if we want, we can find it, at the very least in small amounts, everywhere, at every moment.

Focussing on the positive helps us continue our work for a long time, and thus, helps the animals.

PS: read more in this interview with Jo-Anne.

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(c) Jo-Anne McArthur/WeAnimals

Not our anger, but our love

“If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention.” Ever heard that saying? It implies that being angry is a necessary consequence of being a conscious citizen, who is well aware of the horrors happening in the world – in our case, to animals. In this article anger stands for anger that is actually expressed. We can’t be faulted for feelings as such, even though we can learn to control them.

There is certainly a lot of anger in our movement. We are angry with the people who do horrible things to animals, both in our own and other cultures, in slaughterhouses, circuses, on farms… We’re angry with people making a profit on animal products in restaurants and supermarkets. We’re angry with politicians not taking a stand. And especially lately, we seem also angry with people on our own side of the fence: other vegans, people with different opinions or strategies, celebrity would-be vegans, people taking baby steps…

Sometimes it feels to me that in our (or probably any) movement, anger is somehow put on a pedestal. Anger is seen as a sign of one’s commitment to our cause. Anger is thought of as giving us energy and passion. Anger is believed to be a driving force that keeps us going on and on and on.

Conversely, activists who are positive, open, tolerant, forgiving, understanding… in short: not angry, are sometimes seen (it is my impression) with a bit of distrust. It seems almost perverse to greet all that horror with niceness. Here is something somebody sent me, and which felt very familiar to me:

“I found that I thought that holding on to anger and grief made me a more steady “vegan for life” vegan. And I feared that the happy vegans were mostly just hopping onto this hype-train and would soon return to being an omnivore again.”

I’m usually an almost naively optimistic and irritatingly positive individual. I have faith in the human race, I can see advantages in the most terrible things and I can muster at least some understanding for things that most people won’t even want to hear about. But now and then, I’m angry. About so much suffering, injustice, indifference and stupidity. I do understand how people in our movement can resort to less peaceful behavior. Because the horror of what happens – what we are doing, as a species – to non human animals is so incredibly big, that we feel there is no other option. So yes, I definitely can feel anger, at times.

The problem is that I think this anger doesn’t help me much. On the contrary, I think it actually harms me and the cause I fight for. When I get angry, I tend to resort to judgments, accusations, and black and white or us-versus-them thinking. My thoughts become less rational, I’m more prone to exaggerate things. So when I’m angry, I become less convincing. What’s more, as a movement we’re just not numerous enough for our anger to make much sense. Even if all the people in our movement were outraged, there would never be enough rage to change things, right now. Being angry all the time, moreover, is not sustainable. Rather than motivating you, it will burn you out.

The other option is to try to understand others. We have to understand them, in order to help them open their hearts and minds. It is, I think, our only sustainable option. Cliché as it may sound, we need patience, compassion, empathy… not just for the animals, but also for the people who are abusing animals.  Indignation is worthwile. It is good to not accept certain things (a lot of things, in this world). But we don’t necessarily need to be angry. We can hate the sin but love the sinner, so to speak.

What I’m suggesting is that on top of being able to stand all these atrocities, we now also try to be kind – or at least not be to hateful – to the perpetrators. I know that is a tall order.

I have noticed that there is a part of me that finds being angry somehow devilishly attractive. Isn’t there some slightly fun aspect to fighting, to gossiping, to being against, to focus on a bad guy (or bad girl)? It is as if we (or some of us) need an enemy, need someone to be against. Maybe that’s why it’s difficult to try to see animal abusers not as enemies, but as people with their own problems. People who, maybe, we need to help and try to understand, rather than condemn and punish.

It’s good, I think, to be aware of that. It’s also good to be aware of the fact that in every single one of us (except for the saints reading along) there is a lot of room for improvement. In many ways, we are all part of the same group. The group of people who can use improvement. This is about lifting the whole of humanity, including ourselves, up to another level of compassion.

If we need to let off steam, now and then, we might do it in the privacy of a closed Facebook group, in the gym, or with like minded friends. But outwardly, it would be great if we could be a shining example of compassion, helping people, showing them the alternatives, reaching out our hand. We can say a thousand times that going vegan is not difficult, and that is a moral duty, but we’ll jump further if we show some understanding.One day, we will have opened enough people’s hearts and minds and we’ll be beyond the point of no return. What will bring that day closer, is not our anger, but our love.

PS: let me assure you I don’t always manage to practise what I preach. Sometimes you teach well what you are most needing to learn, maybe.

Disruption done right?

Disruption is all the vogue today. Silicon valley and other startup companies are disrupting any industry imaginable. It also happens in the food business. Hampton Creek is disrupting the egg industry, for instance, with their egg replacing products.

DXE (Direct Action Everywhere) and other animal rights “subdivisions” are into “disrupting speciesism”. They literally disrupt people shopping or eating. There’s many videos on youtube of them doing that. I’ll write about DXE some other time, but I just wanted to say one thing about disruptive protests.

While I admire the courage and commitment of the protesters, I see a lot of anger in most of those protests. I get it, of course. People who care about what happens to animals have every reason to be angry (and sad, and frustrated). The question is how effective anger really is. Personally I don’t like to see angry people. Anger, no matter how understandable, in my view is almost the opposite of hope, the opposite of trying to reach an understanding. It increases the gap between “us” and “them”. If we are angry with people, we make the wall between us and them higher and thicker. It is especially problematic when we are angry about something that the people we want to reach are actively engaging in. If we are angry about eating or buying meat, it is not easy to reach meat shoppers and meat eaters with an angry message.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with the idea of disruption itself, but I wonder if it could be done in a more positive and more effective wayWhat if DXE could find a way to disrupt without coming across as angry and accusing? Wouldn’t that be awesome?

Today I found this example of another disruption. It was done in Brussels, during talks about the TTIP trade agreements that many people are concerned about:

Look at the video. The disruptors don’t sound angry, or at least not in a negative way. Their singing (of what I personally think is a wonderful song from Les Misérables) is defiant, proud, and strong, but not angry or negative. I think this is disruption done right. This motivates me, these people make me want to join them. If I were among the audience, I would be attentive. Maybe it’s personal, but positivism, for me, inspires more confidence than anger.

People are beautiful

How we experience the world, and whether it’s good or bad, whether people are good or bad, is often mainly a matter of focus. It’s a matter of what we want to look at, and how we interpret things.

Yes, people are responsible for a huge amount of horrible stuff. Among those horrors is the way we raise and eat animals, sixty billion of them every year. So it’s easy to condemn Homo sapiens and consider us an utterly depraved species.

But let’s try to see things in another light here, for a second. We’re an animal, just like other animals. The primitive parts of our brain are still there, and they’re active. They haven’t been selected out. Our biology is bound to make it difficult for us now and then, certainly when it’s combined with our tool-making intelligence. But in spite of this, for the first time in the history of our planet, an ever bigger number of people is consciously saying no to eating animals. For the first time ever, a species is actively defending another species.

This is special. It moves me. And I get a warm feeling when I see people get together, speaking up for those who can’t. When they do it with patience, with love, with compassion for everyone who is not yet there, who is still learning about kinder solutions… then all the better.

Maybe I’m not making my feelings entirely clear. Watching this beautiful video, which inspired me to write this post, may make them clearer: