When I first went vegatarian, my naive little self thought that PETA was actually a good thing. I didn't know that much about them at the time, except for the fact that their tactics were a little guerilla-ish (pouring red paint on women's fur coats, etc.). But I thought a support group for compassion-minded people had to be basically decent and well-intentioned, even if their way of expressing it was a little socially...off. At any rate, I figured, it got the message out there. It educated people about vegetarianism. It got people looking at the food on their plates and asking questions. Whether they became vegetarians or not, it made people more conscientious about where their food was coming from, which couldn't be a bad thing. Surely if the ends didn't justify the means, they must at least have excused them.
But the longer I've been a vegetarian the more I've learned, and the more irritated I've become. I used to become so frustrated and hurt when people would get on my case about being a vegetarian; after all, what does anyone else care what I put (or don't put) in my own body? I couldn't figure out why it offended so many people. But the fact is, PETA's outlandish, over-the-top tactics haven't succeeded in opening society to a vegetarian lifestyle. All PETA has done is serve to further isolate it on the fringes of left-wing extremism. They do horrible things like stand outside elementary schools telling the children that their parents are murderers. They expose society at large to horribly offensive billboards, like one last Christmas showing Santa Claus looking unhappily down his pants and declaring in large letters that milk makes you impotent. And I'm sure everyone has heard of the campaign they mounted where they parallelled images from the Nazi concentration camps alongside pictures of slaughterhouses.
This is why people automatically distrust me when I say I'm a vegetarian. This is why parents have a cow (an especially appropriate pun, I thought) when their teenage daughters tell them they're phasing out meat. It's not because society at large is cruel and compassionless, as PETA would have us believe. It's because groups like PETA have made vegetarianism about fighting "the man." No longer is it simply a way to practice compassion. These days it's nothing more than an especially self-righteous form of social rebellion. A disproportionately large number of animal activists will out-and-out tell you that they fully sanction the use of violence if it means what they call "complete and total animal liberation." I'm not even sure what that means, and nobody's a bigger animal lover than I am. Regardless, these people have the audacity to compare themselves to MLK and Gandhi, saying that they're fighting for a cause.
But there's an oh-so-huge difference: King and Gandhi are famous for preaching non-violence. There were other people fighting for the same causes as they were, but these men achieved great things because they were full of compassion. And what I wonder is: how did we get to this place? How did something so obviously rooted in empathy become a cause that not only tolerates but endorses violence? You can't have compassion for animals without having it for humans, and ultimately you can't have compassion for humans without having it for animals, because it all comes from the same place in the heart. Why must they be mutually exclusive?
I want to go on record here: I am horrified at the fact that we even eat meat anymore, let alone at the way we do it in America. I am horrified at the way some people treat their animals. I am horrified at the fact that lots of animals are tortured unnecessarily at testing facilities. But what we need as compassionate people isn't another war. What we need is to take a pragmatic approach to the situation. We can't simply let every animal in captivity go; it would be mass chaos. We can't simply up and elimiate animal testing; there are hundreds of people (including the diabetic vice president of PETA) who rely on animal products for their survival. What we can do is educate people. The vast majority of people still believe that vegetarianism is horribly bad for them, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary. We can offer incentives to scientists so that they can find techological and synthetic alternatives to animal testing. We can live our own lives in ways that make people realize that not eating meat doesn't necessarily mean giving up on life.
Look, it's just a fact that things have to die for other things to survive. It's the natural order of things. Our job is to cause as little suffering as possible. I don't eat meat not because I think it's inherently wrong, but because I believe that our current technology and wealth of food choices make it an unnecessary evil in America, especially with the way we go about it with our greedy little selves. I could go on about all the other incentives, how if we used all the grain we fed to cattle we could feed most of the third world and how the vast majority of the rainforests are being destroyed for cattle farms, but I'm sure PETA's already told you all of that. And if you really think that animals don't have a soul, come on over and meet my dog Hunter. He'll change your mind in one of his little heartbeats. Change - real change - takes time. I'd much rather it be slow and painful and lasting than a passing fad. To be perfectly honest, I'm not holding my breath while I wait for the rest of the U.S. to go vegetarian. I'd be happy just having people accept the fact that I've done it. After that, who knows? Maybe when my grandchildren are growing up this won't even be an issue.
Yes, I have a life. Yes, I get plenty to eat. I'm healthier than most of the people I know. Last time I got blood work done my protein and calcium was at the high end of the scale, even though I haven't eaten meat in four years and haven't had any milk in two. I've lost fifty pounds since I went vegan. I've already inspired two other people to become vegetarians without proselytizing or laying on the guilt.
All this, and I've never once poured red paint on a fur coat.