Evolving into an ARA
London, 1984; Summer. A music festival is underway in Brockwell Park. Merry people are dancing, laughing, drinking and otherwise enjoying the early August sun. I am sixteen, a punk of sorts, blissfully winding my way with a friend through the crowd toward the delectable aroma of frying onions wafting across the grass from a line of catering vans. We join one long queue (they are all long) and chat happily and in rising anticipation of the juicy burger awaiting us.
Suddenly, I hear a strange noise, a kind of wail that my brain can find no template for so oddly does it contrast with the laughter and babble of the crowd. My friend and I exchange puzzled glances as the sound moves closer and we scan the throng for a possible source of what we think may be an argument of some kind. Then I see her: a woman, perhaps in her thirties, with long, black hair walking unsteadily along the lines of people shouting something I can’t quite make out. Her cries are almost a primal scream, with each sentence deteriorating into an anguished sob before the searing anger of the next erupts. An uncomfortable silence spreads through the queues; nervous laughter breaks out, and as she comes ever closer I am anxiously aware I will very soon be her next target.
I brace myself as she finally appears in front of me, her fury directed at me like cannon-fire, but I notice tears are streaming down her face as her words bombard me with a now searing clarity: ‘the animals!’ She is screaming about ‘the animals!’ She spits out a grisly description of barbaric cruelty, and as she passes me (for her progress is slow but sure) I hear her unleash a bitter howl with the words: ‘think of that as you eat your lovely meat!’ She continues up the line eliciting more nervous laughter as she goes - and I laugh too. There is comfort in laughing with others at such a spectacle, at the weird woman who has broken the spell of our Summer bliss and embarrassed us all with her very un-British display of emotion. I buy my burger and think no more about her – not yet.
Surrey (just outside London) 2004. Sainsbury’s supermarket. I am thirty-six; another lunch queue, this time full of chattering office workers. I hear a conversation going on right behind me: ‘some people are vegetarian because they think it’s cruel to eat meat.’ My ears prick up: ‘yes, that’s a stupid reason to be a vegetarian.’ I feel as though I have been punched in the chest by Mike Tyson; I feel anguish rise within me mingled with an overwhelming sadness. I turn, and with a fixed smile attempt a tone of friendly engagement: ‘I can’t let you get away with that’ I banter gently, ‘factory farming is actually very cruel if you look into it.’ A look of amused disdain crosses the faces of the respectable couple and they begin to question me as one might question a person with a tragic but rather annoying mental deficiency. I am the target of a barrage of enquiries spewed out with a mixture of contempt and ridicule. Every answer I offer is countered with another question or statement delivered with an air of triumph: ‘My friend is a farmer and he slaughters his animals humanely’. ‘How do you suggest we control deer populations without culling?’ Sniggers greet every word, even when I politely end with: ‘it‘s not necessary to eat meat to survive and so we have to justify our actions morally.’ In fact, this draws the biggest laugh of all, and I walk away, their laughter ringing in my ears. Outside, I fight back tears; they are not for me. Not here, I tell myself, not in a public place. But when I am home, behind closed doors, I cry bitterly….and I remember…
I realize my tears are filled with every ounce of anguish contained in the wounded wails of that ‘strange’ woman twenty years before. The image of my uncomfortable laughter directed at her swims in like a shark threatening to tear me open. A wave of shame engulfs me. She knew…and now I know. I have known for many years. I know the ugly truth that hides and lurks behind society’s thin veneer of moral respectability; I know the unimaginable cruelty that is systematically rained upon defenceless beings behind closed doors; I know the hypocrisy that allows such cruelty to exist, then dares to talk of a civilized society; I know what kind of sickness justifies it, rationalizes it, defends it and secretly glories in it. Philosopher and spiritual teacher Krishnamurti once said ‘it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’ I am proud to be mal-adjusted! That woman’s cries, my own tears, are the only sane reaction to a reality so appalling, so reprehensible and morally disgusting that any other would betray only total ignorance or psychopathy.
The supreme irony of being laughed at by those who know nothing of the realities of their own world, and who, in most cases, do not want to know, is laughable in itself. And yet I once laughed. I was once blind, I was deaf and dumb, I was asleep, as most people are. But I awoke, and life was never the same. It is hard to look with clear and honest eyes; when all propaganda, all lies, all falsehood and sophistry is stripped away and existence is revealed in all its horror, for that is the only appropriate word. Ignorance is truly bliss - I’ve been there. The past is another country they say, and for me, that country was beautiful; it was safe, it was kind and it was sane. I never saw harm come to any creature; I never witnessed violence, my companion non-humans were cherished and, unlike many in human care, I see now they were valued for who they were as individuals, and were not merely mollycoddled as an extension of our own egos.
This bliss was fractured, however, one day in 1973, when, aged five, I sat transfixed in front a TV programme showing images of the holocaust. My mother was not in the room or she would surely have quickly changed the channel but I saw, and my young mind could scarcely process what I was seeing: piles of emaciated bodies, skeletal frames moving like mere ghosts with vacant eyes, talk of mass murder. I was horrified and confused. For the first time I had become aware of a strange and terrible verity that, I vaguely grasped, had been there all along. The world in which I lived, in which I had unquestioningly put my trust, accommodated cruelties such as these, but still, I absorbed the fact and moved on. Historical barbarity became familiar to me with my school lessons as the bloodbath of the centuries unfolded. Even the holocaust, with its temporal proximity seemed a million miles away. Thirty years might as well have been three hundred. Human beings were capable of great cruelty towards one another I realized, but it was removed from my own life. It was in books and on documentaries about past events. What did it have to do with me living in the bosom of a small working-class Welsh mining community? Surrounded by extended family and friends, with the rugged mountainside as my playground, I enjoyed the kind of idyllic early childhood many never know. I knew security and love; I saw compassion extended towards humans and other life, but I never saw the world as it really is. Things were changing, however…
At aged ten or so, and now living in England, I had become aware of foxhunting and the controversy surrounding it. What a shock and what a no-brainer! The very thought of chasing a creature until it is exhausted then watching it being torn to pieces - for pleasure! I sent off an impassioned letter to ‘Bunty’ girls’ magazine about it. It was never published. It would have looked out of place amongst the others all about what fun it was in The Brownies or Girl Guides. I also remember my sister steaming it open before I posted it and laughing with her friends at my earnest words. There’s that laughter again. I vividly recall being hurt and embarrassed. But I was too young then to understand that I had nothing to be embarrassed about.
Aged fifteen, my friend suggested we attend a local animal rights group meeting. It was full of nice, middle-class ladies as I recall. I thought they might disapprove of our mohicans and buckled boots but, on the contrary, they welcomed us with open arms. Here, no-one laughed at me for my ‘earnest words’. And here, I found out about vivisection. This subject I could write a book about, but for now, suffice to say, the sheer level of cruelty involved dealt me a blow from which I have still not recovered. This before the days of the internet when no undercover footage was posted on youtube. We had photographs and descriptions. But it is the pictures that seared themselves into my memory, never to be erased. It is as if they are imprinted on the insides of my eyeballs, for every time I close my eyes they are there, though joined by others now; a never-ending reel that begins to play during any quiet moment: beagles with their sides burned away, or cowering in a barren cell; monkeys trapped in some medieval looking contraption, screaming; rabbits enclosed in a box, their heads free, having caustic liquid dripped into their eyes and many more. The looks in the eyes of these sentient beings never leaves me. Ignorance is bliss…
All this time I was still happily munching away on the bodies of other sentient creatures. What of them? I never gave it a thought. Ay, there’s the rub! There is the moral schizophrenia I now know so well. Such is the power of societal conditioning, that someone actively engaged in campaigning against animal cruelty could support and sustain it with every meal. Such is the weight of tradition passed down through the generations that the most vast and systematic barbarity of all can continue day in, day out, without a murmur from the population. Those who urge their children to coo over a newborn lamb will quite happily serve her up for their offspring to devour, implanting the roots of compartmentalized compassion that allow ‘decent’ people to be complicit in moral crime. In this sense, we are all victims. This schism between our intellect and our moral sense should be the fascinating subject of study for any psychologist worth his or her salt – but unfortunately, those very psychologists suffer from the same malady as the rest of the masses. Our intellects can tell us we are eating the remains of once-living beings and yet our psyche shields us from the emotional impact of accepting that those beings have suffered terribly before the ultimate act of violence was committed against them. There is a saying ‘give me a boy until he is seven, and I will give you the man.’ It is a concise way of expressing the crucial importance of those early formative years in programming us for life – and for most of us it is for life! We are wound up like little toys and set down to beat a drum of the same tune until we finally fall silent. Unless we are, at some point, confronted with truth; what we do then is another psychological minefield.
Most of us like to think of ourselves as decent people. Most of us would rush to the aid of any being in distress, and so the acceptance of the fact that we are complicit in the suffering of innocents as a matter of course is too much to bear. Cognitive dissonance kicks in, a condition that requires one of only two responses in order to restore emotional equilibrium: a change in behaviour so that our actions are no longer out of alignment with our values, or a bold rejection of the facts, supported by those familiar ego-defences – denial, rationalization and of-course, ridicule - the latter being particularly effective at undermining the source of discomfort. If one can make the bearer of bad tidings ‘lesser’, then there is no requirement to take that person or information seriously. If we can laugh at something that makes us uncomfortable then we do not have to confront it. Over the years I have observed these same reactions time and time again.
They occur with aching regularity. Most people are not even aware of the processes at work, so automatic is the response of the psyche. Didn’t I indulge in this delusional exercise myself that fine summer’s day when I was sixteen?
The difference between myself and most people, however, is that when I was finally shown the awful truth of how cows, pigs, sheep, hens, and all the other beings we unthinkingly condemn to suffer so that we might fill our bellies for pleasure, I did not turn away, I did not try to deny the facts, I did not attempt to justify my actions, I did not rationalize them, and, most importantly, I never again laughed at anyone emotionally devastated by sickening cruelty. How I wish I had engaged with that woman all those years ago and tried to understand her pain. I understand it now only too well.
I am now forty-one years old. The year is 2009. Behind me lie twenty years of campaigning on behalf of non-human (and human) animals. Twenty years of being exposed to anger, ridicule and, sometimes, wonderful moments of openness and receptivity. Twenty years of being considered abnormal in the eyes of a society so blind it has finally stumbled to the edge of a precipice. Twenty years of being out of step, of swimming against the tide, of seeing even family and friends look at me as though I were a stranger.
The American writer J. Howard Moore once wrote: ‘I am ashamed of the race of beings to which I belong. It is so cruel and bigoted, so hypocritical, so soulless and insane, I would rather be an insect, a bee or a butterfly, and float in dim dreams among the wild flowers of summer, than be a man, and feel the horrible and ghastly wrongs and sufferings of this wretched world.’ His words no doubt sound hyperbolic to any ‘ordinary’ person. But then, a dim dream-state is what most people float through life in. To those of us who know, his words are perfectly apt. Moore committed suicide because his acute sensitivity and pain would not allow him to go on, and I cannot blame him for that. Every long-term activist knows this despair; it is the shadow made of the accumulation of horrors witnessed and the pain of not possessing the superhuman power to end them.
But we cannot underestimate how momentous an achievement it is to somehow wrench oneself free from the deeply entrenched beliefs we absorb before we can possibly apply any critical reasoning to them. To do this; to begin swimming against that tide is a triumph in itself. It takes immense strength of character and purpose because it brings with it alienation from most of our fellow men and women, from our culture, sometimes from our own families. But the rewards are incalculable. To live completely in alignment with one’s deepest values, to live in truth; to face it, to proclaim it, to bear witness to it, to defend it against those who would seek to perpetuate lies, to defend the weak and voiceless, this is a privilege. What are ridicule and insults in comparison? What are they compared to the amazing and compassionate people I have met, the selflessness I have seen in a world of selfishness and greed. I would not have met them had I walked a different path. We would not have felt the deep sense of satisfaction that no money could ever buy in our search for a kinder world. On the road of life most of us tread the main highway with the masses, but some of us turn off and go another way.....