Radical empathy

Against the needless killing of our fellow beings

The author with Domino, an alpaca at VINE Sanctuary, July 2018. Photo by Ziggy Tomcich, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

(Content note: Violence.)

Lately I’ve been binge-watching Black Mirror, the dystopian science fiction show that cautions against the dangers of over-reliance on technology. In the Series 3 episode “Men Against Fire” (spoilers ahead), a military psychologist explains to a solider why he and his fellow troops have been fitted with neural implants to make their enemies look and sound like mutants instead of human beings. The psychologist says that humans are naturally empathetic, and don’t actually want to kill each other. In previous wars, he explains, the majority of soldiers wouldn’t even fire their guns, or would fire them over the heads of their enemies. Turning the enemies into monsters, and masking the stench of combat and death, made them much easier to kill.

The neural implant of the solider this psychologist was addressing had malfunctioned, revealing the ruse. The soldier had previously spoken with one of these supposed enemies, after seeing her as the human that she was. He asked why the local villagers, who had not been fitted with these implants, still hated and feared her kind and wanted to exterminate them. She explained that this was accomplished through propaganda. Teach someone for long enough that they should hate and fear part of the population, and they’ll be convinced of it.

The moral lesson of this episode in relation to humans is fairly obvious. But as a vegan, I thought about the subjects of empathy and propaganda in relation to our fellow animals.

Most people in modern-day society do not personally kill the animals that they eat. In fact, many would have a difficult time slicing the throat of another living being and watching them die. Pain and fear of death are universal in sentient beings, regardless of their intelligence. Witnessing these emotions should naturally evoke empathy.

Of course, when facing severe food shortage or actual starvation, it makes sense to squelch our empathy and kill in order to survive. But that doesn’t apply to the billions of people today who eat animal products for reasons of taste, habit, and convenience. Those people include the majority of the non-vegans I see talking about food deserts and indigenous ancestors.

We are convinced by propaganda that our fellow animals are mere products to be bought and sold. We are convinced by propaganda that we need to eat flesh, milk, and eggs to ensure good health, even when consuming these products actually makes us ill.

So the carnage is hidden away, and the products are attractively packaged, disguised with preservatives and seasonings to mask the sight and stench of death. Those who express concern about the welfare of animals are offered “humane” alternatives, which amounts to the same killing, with a higher price tag.

How do we encourage empathy? How can I convince others that our fellow animals should be seen and respected as individuals, not products for our exploitation and consumption? All animals, from the land and the sea, not just those who are cute and cuddly looking like Domino the alpaca, pictured at the top of this post.

Animal welfare concerns are definitely biased toward mammals. Even some self-described vegetarians seem to think that fishes aren’t animals, and can thus be killed and eaten without guilt. But watching a fish pulled out of the water writhe in agony as they suffocate is difficult for me, and makes me sad that many consider fishing to be a relaxing, peaceful activity.

Being surrounded by ongoing, casual violence against both human and non-human animals, day in and day out, wears on me greatly. I feel that we have come to see life itself as disposable, and deliberate killing as inevitable, without daring to look for peaceful alternatives.

I debated whether or not to write this post, as my stories about veganism and animal rights seem to be popular among my vegan followers but ignored (or mocked) by others. I went ahead because at some level, I remain hopeful that with enough exposure to these ideas, more people will be convinced to stop needless exploitation and killing. I wasn’t raised vegan myself, after all; only years of reading and contemplation changed my mindset.

If the next time you prepare to eat a dish containing flesh, dairy, or eggs you feel a twinge of guilt, please don’t ignore it. Listen to that feeling. Respond to the empathy and choose a meal made from plants instead. The world will be a better place for your act of compassion.