Animal lovers, animal rights activists and vegetarians often claim that only when one has compassion towards weaker and more innocent creatures may he be a warm-hearted and socially tolerant person. As a veteran vegetarian I have no special interest in slamming this idea, yet I am glad to show some of its weaknesses.
Cynics would provide Charles Manson, Genghis Khan, Pol Pot and Hitler, to name a few vegetarians who did not really mark their CV with humanitarian acts, proving that ‘meat’ and ‘murder’ are hardly synonyms in our hypocritical world (the site Vegetarians are Evil is truly a classic). This claim is not substantial; none of us really knows what reasons led these characters to abstain from biting flesh. Furthermore, love towards animals can be manifested and sensed on many levels, not necessarily in the passion towards tofu.
Feeling sensitivity and compassion towards helpless creatures is indicative of a warm place within one’s heart and the ability to reach out, rather than dim this feeling indefinitely. If this tendency to identify with the pain of others is a motif that expands towards many domains of the animal lover’s social world, then openness and understanding of others are an inevitable outcome.
This is not always the case. People usually sense warm feelings towards animals, because they see them as pure, harmless, unthreatening and certainly not a complex being. The days of brave hunters who overcome a dangerous beast and bring upon security to the human environment are a distant memory for most of the global population. The meat industry does not try to convince us that chickens and cows are evil, and meat-lovers seldom suggest that fear or hate towards animals has to do with their burger craving. Animals are unequivocally weaker than we are, their eyes reflect innocence, or – in the worst case – dumbness.
Human social interactions are more complex and produce emotions that are not always naturally compassionate. In some cases (and only in some) people who love animals are surprisingly those who can manage to show compassion especially to inhuman creatures, as only they seem loyal/non-harming/free of interests/etc. Once the heart muscles are used to open up mainly to animals, power relationships which are salient in the human world and faces of people, who are less widely graceful than those of our furry friends, might not have a similar effect and even become a precursor of indifference. Human in pain express anger and bitterness, they scare us more easily and we might not want to see their innocent or sensitive side.
Another element which impedes the correlation between animal loving and awareness to social wrongdoings or to the pain of others is the emotional gap between what’s in front of the eyes and the things that are further away (even if they are waiting just around the corner). Something that exists within our field of vision, whether it is a wounded animal, a sick elderly person or a handicapped man tests our immediate sense of compassion.
Developing awareness towards a person suffering in another town or another continent requires not only instinctual compassion but also initiative. Our world, from media, politicians and social groups, equips us with infinite tools and reasons not to take such mental (I’m not talking here about actual activism) step.
Surely, even a person who is both open hearted and socially aware cannot know about more than a tiny fraction of the suffering taking place in our world. But I am not referring here to constant awareness through reading, travelling, etc, but rather to our ability not to develop indifference or antagonism (in case that there is a social or political clash between the victim and us) towards pain of another that we do not witness directly. (Another factor is guilt feelings, which can also lead to rejection and indifference, but this psychological twist is outside the scope of this post).
A person who is involved in helping people/animals in his/her close circle is usually regarded as a good-hearted soul by others, hence this person is not likely to be aware to the fact that while he or she are good hearted in one front, they might be closing the heart to other expressions of pain.
What is the conclusion? Unlike my other posts, here it is quite simple: Developing awareness to things we are indifferent to (and understanding why we ‘choose’ to be indifferent), not necessarily as activists, but as people who refrain from becoming emotionally numb. Another option is moving ourselves, so that more sites of controversy will enter our field of vision. Especially if we think we already possess an opinion about them…