Sometimes, it happens that a particularly ornery acquaintance, when informed in some way or another that I’m vegan, might hurl out the old ‘but what about humans?’ argument. You know the one. It references the fact that there are a multitude of people suffering in the world and that our efforts at alleviating suffering should begin with our own kind first. Help the humans before the animals.
Generally, me and my kind tend to respond to this with reassurances that we do indeed care about our own species and in addition to working towards reducing the suffering of our non-human animal friends, we also try to be aware of and do something about injustices against humanity.
Most vegans that I know aren’t comfortable with the thought of other beings suffering, human and non-human alike. But I also think that there’s more we can do.
By now, I think I can recite the dictionary definition of vegan almost off by heart. Only I think this definition is a little too limited and I’m not surprised that whilst most meat eaters can grasp the notion that vegans don’t eat or use animals (actually, lots of them have trouble even with this), the underlying reasons why we don’t are mostly lost.
This is because the definition of vegan is very descriptive – it covers what we don’t eat or use. It doesn’t capture why though, and I think it’s this why that matters most. I would suggest that although the impetus for going vegan might differ amongst our clan – maybe you cared lots about the environment, or maybe you felt passionate about the pain inflicted by animal testing, or maybe you are committed to optimum health, the general underlying philosophy at the heart of veganism is about reducing suffering. Isn’t it?
Whether your main focus is to reduce suffering for animals, the environment or yourself, this is the why that serves as the foundation to our philosophy. And I would argue that it is a philosophy. It’s certainly not just a set of actions concerning what we eat. It’s the motivations behind why we make the choices we do that form the essential drive towards being vegan. At least it is for me. I don’t follow rules about what I eat or use simply because they are the rules. And neither do any vegans I know.
Mostly, vegans aren’t the best at signing on to rules just because they’re there. The vegans I know tend to critically evaluate any and all rules, to examine what they mean, who made them and how they might apply. This being the case, the story of why vegan is not about what we eat or don’t eat, what we use or don’t use, it’s about why we make the choices we make.
If you can accept that being vegan is not about what we eat or use, but why we do so and if you can accept that this moves the central tenets of veganism beyond descriptions and rules to inhabit the murky landscape of a philosophy, then here’s why I think we need to stop shopping. Or more specifically, reduce our involvement in consumer culture. If the reduction of suffering is the banner that most of us feel comfortable marching under, then it is undeniable that the folk who took digs at us by asking why we don’t care about human suffering, had a point.
What are we doing? Are we being vigilant in informing ourselves where and how suffering exists and what we might be able to do about it? I don’t think we are. And I don’t blame us. Most of us are already slightly unhinged by the daily knowledge that others of our species kill and consume non-human animals. It’s fucked and we feel it. Many of us can’t eat at the table with our families anymore, because the sight of mindless consumption of other beings is just too disturbing.
So my suggestion of widening our lens to consider all suffering doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? But we vegans know the cost of turning a blind eye to suffering, we remember it when we were vegetarian but knew that eating eggs wasn’t really okay. In order to get through that plate of scrambled eggs on our Sunday breakfast plate, we had to employ some tactics so that we could turn a blind eye. Because if we opened ourselves up to the truth, we wouldn’t be able to keep eating those eggs, instead we’d have to acknowledge that they were a result of suffering and we’d have to go vegan.
So we did. Even though we knew it would be sometimes difficult in that it would set us apart a little more from the acceptable mainstream message. But we did it anyway. And I think we need to do it again. And again. Over and over wherever we find suffering.
As confronting as it might be, I believe that the philosophy of veganism requires us to identify suffering wherever it lies and to make efforts to do something about it. For me, this has led to a process of opening my mind to consider the suffering that exists within each item of clothing that I purchase.
I’ve been down this road before and I’ve read the books, blogs and arguments about sweatshops and what ‘made in china’ really means. But like those Sunday eggs back when I was vegetarian, I think about it for a while and then put it in the too hard basket as my own consumer desires rear up and I delight in the thrill of a new dress or shoes or whatever. I try.
But I pretty much fail time and again. I read a few blogs and watch a doco and feel sick about what’s in my cupboard and whatever the most recent purchase I made without even looking where it came from was. I feel sadness and despair for the young women who leave their villages each day and move to a factory in the big Southern cities of China to work 20 hour days without breaks, proper wages or respect.
Sometimes, they are only 14 years old. Sometimes, they sleep at their workstations when there is a big order to ship out. Often, after deductions for their food and bed, there isn’t money to send home to their families. Which was the whole point of them leaving their villages for the big smoke in the first place. Sometimes, they live their whole lives like this, slaves to the production of my jeans, of your t-shirt. This knowledge hurts me. I can feel it in my chest. I think it makes my heart ache. So why do I continue to override this knowledge when I determine that I need a new something or other from the shop and more importantly, what is the cost of doing this to my being?
I do try. I’ve emailed many of the shops I buy from and asked about where their clothes are manufactured. I’ve contacted my daughter’s school uniform supplier. I’ve read the Outworkers Code of Practice and I know about which brands are sweatshop free. The responses I get provide little information.
Companies frequently tell me not to worry, it’s all okay because their manufacturer in China is really nice and treats their workers with love and lollies, so go ahead and buy our stuff, it’ll make you feel good. Only I know this is rubbish. I’ve read about how the factories easily convince the inspectors that it’s all fine. They coach the workers and given that the inspectors don’t really want to overthrow the whole capitalist system of production, they ‘re fairly easily appeased. I know it’s not even the factories fault, given that the brand name companies demand cheap labour and fast production and would simply take their business elsewhere if the price wasn’t cheap enough.
And I know that it’s ultimately the consumer, whose demand for cheaper and cheaper clothes drives the whole system further and further down into depravity. I know times are tough and money is scarce and some families struggle to buy clothes for their kids and cheap clothes might make their lives a little easier. It’s not a simple problem with a simple solution. I know that. But still, as a vegan, I know I cannot ignore it any longer.
I’m not suggesting that vegans need be Saints. We are no more or less perfect than any other creature. We have limits to how much we can do, to how much we can take. The difference though, is that we try to act on suffering when we see it. Don’t we?
Our actions may not make a huge difference – they may not solve problems outright or overthrow systems. But they are a step in a direction that seems like a more compassionate place to go. The bottom line is that at the very least, we should be identifying where our clothing is manufactured and choosing not to buy it if we cannot guarantee that it was made without suffering.
This is only the first step though, and I can see that following the logic of reducing suffering, we might eventually want to do away with purchasing new items altogether. Some of us might even end up somewhere down the road deciding that consumer culture and the whole damn economic system that underpins it might need some re-dress, but for the moment, I’m starting with this. Being vegan now means that I don’t buy clothes that I suspect have suffering sown into them.
What I want is for those of us who understand ourselves as being vegan to broaden our lens on suffering so that it includes the suffering that comes with consumption. Many of you will already do this, I know. Some of you have gotten rid of your car, reduced your energy consumption, only buy local and drink fair trade coffee.
Many of you make hard choices everyday that expose you to the constant awareness of the extent of suffering and for this, I bow low to your courage. If you, like me, have a nagging feeling that some action you’re involved in perpetuates suffering, human or non-human, then I think it’s time for us to step boldly into that suffering, to open our minds and take action against it. Doing so will better embody the true philosophy of being vegan.