Vegans for the Ethical Treatment of Other Vegans
What happens when a group of snobbish 1980s animal rights activists in Houston, Texas have their idealism assaulted by the grossest of animal behaviour? Does their karma run over their dogma?
My teenage years were a mess! But as with most things, despite the circumstances, some good came out of it. As I emerged from the post-embryonic haze of childhood, I yearned to define myself amongst what seemed a chaotic social landscape. To make an awkward situation even weirder, I was very naturally attracted to things that were unusual and thought-provoking. I read books like Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, where a guy wakes up to discover he’s become a giant insect, William S. Burroughs’ compendium of short bizarre stories Naked Lunch, and deeply contemplative work by Leo Tolstoy like How Much Land Does a Man Need? I still find Tolstoy’s work very inspirational and should probably write an article about him.
The 80s Texas musical landscape offered plenty of bizarre adventures, such as the Butthole Surfers, Retarded Elf, Pain Teens and Fearless Iranians from Hell. If something didn’t bore me, I paid attention to it, even if it didn’t perfectly align with my still very formative views on life.
So when I came across some photocopied pamphlets late one night at a Houston music venue staked out by members of activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA), I was happy to take them home for a read. I’d also recently listened to an interview on a local college radio station with an animal rights advocate who seemed to exude conviction for her cause, albeit at the expense of not being broadly likeable. I remember thinking that shaming others would more likely make people dig in to their existing ideas than contemplate the ethics behind the diets they’ve had since birth. The pamphlets were written in the same tone yet, embedded within one of them was a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that really got me thinking.
“My opinion is well known. I do not regard flesh-food as necessary for us at any stage and under any clime in which it is possible for human beings ordinarily to live. I hold flesh-food to be unsuited to our species.
We err in copying the lower animal world if we are superior to it. Experience teaches that animal food is unsuited to those who would curb their passions.”
There were also a few lines of a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, an eighteenth century author I’d never previously heard of.
“No flocks that range the valley free
To slaughter I condemn:
Taught by that power that pities me,
I learn to pity them.”
On the back of the pamphlet was a membership form and an out-of-state PeTA address to send it to. It said they’d send me a welcome pack through the mail. I thought, “Why not? It’d cost me no more than an envelope and a stamp.” About six weeks later, at the age of fifteen, I became a member of PeTA. I also told my parents that I was now going to be vegetarian. Despite that fishing was a major theme in my family, they were accommodating and sometimes went out of their way to provide meatless meal options for me.
The introductory material PeTA sent was slightly underwhelming. It contained a few glossy brochures, a sticker and some photocopied papers with info on meet-ups across the country. I scanned for one in my area and found that there was, surprisingly, a contact in Houston that we’ll name Bruce. I thought about calling Bruce to find out when and where the next meet-up would occur, but didn’t follow through.
Serendipitously, my high school “love life” soon took an interesting turn. The girl I started seeing, we’ll call her Trisha, turned out to also have recently taken up vegetarianism. Moreover, her best friend Danielle was an animal rights activist and member of PeTA. Danielle had actually attended some of the meetings and invited me to come along to the next one. She had a car and a driver’s license too!
I need to pause here and provide some narrative context. This was the mid 1980s in suburban Houston, Texas. Vegetarianism or veganism were not widely known about or socially accepted. It was generally seen as something that only weird people with weird ideas did. There were no vegetarian restaurants, no plant-based meat substitutes, and no labels that let you know if a product was vegetarian friendly. I never even saw tofu until I moved to California years later when I was in my 20s. Suffice to say, it was not an environment that supported our choice of a non-violent lifestyle. I sometimes joke with people, “Texas is not actually the Mecca of enlightenment you probably think it is.”
So meeting up with other people who shared my dawning interest in this kinder way of life sounded exciting. The meetings were interesting too; at least they started off that way. In a member’s lounge room, they’d have a discussion topic for each session and, after a short chat usually given by Bruce, we’d go around in a circle. When it was our turn, we could opt in to share any thoughts on the topic; or we could also opt out if we preferred to listen passively. It was all very orderly and never devolved into people talking over each other.
I liked this format, but Trisha and Danielle seemed a bit more tuned into some sort of underlying social pressure, to which I was pretty much oblivious. The girls mostly just kept to themselves. Apparently, there were already pre-determined acceptable answers for these “discussion” questions. Contributions that fell outside the scope of these answers were looked upon with more than a slight bit of disdain. Hence, my introduction to pretentious vegan fuckery.
For example, in a talk about the evils of vivisection, where scientists conduct experimental surgery on animals, the question arose of whether or not it was ethical for humans to offer their own deceased bodies for research. I opined that it was ethical because humans, unlike animals, could make a conscious decision. This was, apparently, not the “correct” view. I was meant to see all such research as unethical. I didn’t, and I still don’t. Although I wouldn’t describe the atmosphere as outright hostile, there was a palpable tendency for some to look down on others’ ideas as less evolved which shaped the culture of the group significantly. I thought it to be needlessly competitive. Being so young, I was given some leeway to be “wrong”, but that courtesy was not extended to adults in the group. I often made the discussions awkward by sharing my honest thoughts, but was not overly concerned about social repercussion. You’d think that being such a minority group in an incongruent surrounding culture would inspire a deeper sense of acceptance and leniency? As my mentor Swāmī B.V. Tripurāri sometimes states, “Weak faith needs an enemy.” The cool thing about these difficult discussions was that they always ended with a vegan meal that was outstanding.
“Please just don’t share your opinions any more. I’m embarrassed by the looks you get”, Trisha, now my actual girlfriend, asked me on the drive home one evening. Trish, despite her compassionate stance for animals, was haunted by a neurosis that I’d never previously experienced with anyone before. She was hyper-aware of what others’ thought of her and obsessed over the smallest things. The relationship ended up being characterised by me trying to get her to feel confident in herself and her trying to dismantle what I thought was a well-reasoned aloofness to popular opinion. Before we went out somewhere, she’d sometimes ask me to change my t-shirt, shoes or jacket. It was such a different experience with her than hanging out with my male friends. I found it difficult, but at least we shared a sense of ethics together. I wasn’t, however, going to mute myself in conformity to her social anxieties. To me, a discussion forum was just that: a place to discuss. If someone had a valid counterpoint to my thoughts, I welcomed the new perspective and would happily acknowledge that in the dialogue. If people were afraid of looking at the topics from different angles, I saw that as their own limitation. I wasn’t there to garner appreciation or approval; I was trying to forge my own path amongst a carnivorous environment, and could somehow intuit the need to fortify my decision with good reason. These discussions were a major part of that. I tactically ignored the self-righteousness and posturing because the talks served a need. Feeling morally superior was not a sustainable disposition in my family or amongst any of my friends.
One evening, the meeting was at Bruce’s home. I liked the programs there because he had two large German Shepherd dogs that were very friendly. The people he lived with, also vegan, were excellent cooks. As a teenager, this was a big deal for me as I subsisted on whatever my parents provided, sometimes just whatever they were having minus the meat portion, lots of pasta and the ubiquitous ramen noodles. These people were mature adult vegans of many years, and their palette was adapted.
The topic that evening was a word I’d never previously encountered: speciesism. Speciesism is the assumption of human superiority over the animal kingdom that underpins how we humans justify exploitation. I liked the initial idea of the topic, but the conversation quickly veered off into “human hating” with less of a focus on animal protection.
Someone offered, “Why do we just naturally assume that this world is meant for us and that we’re superior to the animals? They could actually be in the superior position, and we could just be blind to that.”
Although I didn’t outright agree with this sentiment, I didn’t mind entertaining the idea for a bit. So I sat in the ad hoc circle of chairs and a couch, waiting patiently for my turn to chime in, and contemplated the idea of an animal species actually being so much further evolved that they allow us to imagine ourselves as the top species. Although ridiculous, it filled in the time before the expected amazing dinner. Delectable scents were already wafting from the kitchen. I was, after all, still a teenager with a typically voracious appetite. For all the pretence, this group always accommodated me generously in that regard.
Just then, as if on cue, the two German Shepherds who were milling about the group, began copulating right in the middle of the discussion circle. It started off as an ignorable annoyance, but quickly and noisily escalated into something akin to violence. Bruce and his partner scurried to deal with the situation.
I could not help but to laugh out loud! The juxtaposition of our conversation and this animal behaviour was hilarious! Trisha and Danielle both shot me looks to pipe down, but that was just not going to happen. I could not control my laughter and thought with anticipation, “How are these posturing people going to deal with this!”
Bruce tried to separate them.
Someone shouted vehemently from the circle, ”Don’t disengage them. You could injure him!”
This just cracked me up even more! And the dogs weren’t letting up in the slightest. They were in some sort of impenetrable doggy trance that blocked out the rest of the world, something that a mild whack with a rolled up newspaper would have snapped them out of, but I did not dare to go there. No way.
Bruce came up with a plan. He asked his partner to open a bedroom door adjacent to the lounge. Those sitting in chairs on the path quickly hopped up and moved the chairs out of the way, creating a corridor from the discussion circle to the door. Then Bruce stood right next to the two consummated canines and mildly nudged them towards the door with his leg. At some point in the cyclic act of intercourse, there was enough forward momentum to allow Bruce's well-timed bumps to move them down what was, for all appearances, a procession, replete with adoring animal lovers standing to either side of the corridor. Just before the pooches had completed the gauntlet, they broke apart and then just nonchalantly went about their business without a care in the world.
Still sitting in my chair, I was alone in my hysterics. Nobody else wanted to acknowledge the humour in this visceral event, despite that it interrupted a conversation that was well on the path to establishing animal superiority. More than thirty-five years later, it still gives me the giggles, and I enjoy telling this story in social settings. It’s a perfect example of someone’s karma running over their dogma (a saying I once read on a bumper sticker).
Much to my disappointment, our discussion didn't continue. I was eager to witness all the back-pedalling and philosophical pivoting required to get the talk back on track. I suppose the inanity was obvious, so the decision was made to break for supper, which was, as always, fantastic.
Later on that evening, I learned that my reaction had crossed the line in Trisha's and Danielle's minds. They both expressed disappointment about my immaturity on the way home and gave me an earful. I suppose they wanted to make lasting inroads with this social group? From the beginning, I was clear to everyone that I was just in it for the chats and free meals.
Shortly after, Trisha broke up with me. I won't pretend that this didn't hurt, but it didn't take long for me to see that we were fundamentally incompatible anyway. Danielle completely stopped talking to me. I was persona non grata in her eyes, which would be, in modern terms, like blocking me on social media.
Such is life!
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These words were not generated with or augmented by artificial intelligence; just “flawsome” human thoughts here … with, of course, due homage to The Algorithm that abides over us all.
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