Bearing Witness is the Most Meaningful Way to Start Veganuary
Seeing suffering animals — really seeing them — is difficult, but it’s also the perfect way to cement your commitment to veganism
I’ve been vegan for about five years now. During that time, people have often asked me if being vegan is difficult, mostly out of genuine curiosity. The honest answer is that, at times, it has been difficult — especially while I was living in a poor community with no car and limited food access. But it has gotten much easier over the years. Now, living vegan has become my new default and requires little additional thought on my part. Certainly, part of that is due to time and learning how to navigate different food systems. But, one of the biggest reasons veganism is easy for me now is that I can never un-see what I have seen. After bearing witness at a slaughterhouse, participating in animal violence is simply not an option for me.
“When the suffering of another creature causes you to feel pain, do not submit to the initial desire to flee from the suffering one, but on the contrary, come closer, as close as you can to him who suffers, and try to help him.”
Bearing witness is the act of sharing our experiences with others. In activism, it refers to being present during an injustice, trying to intervene rather than look away, and then sharing that story with the world. The Save Movement, a grassroots animal rights organization made up of over 660 groups across the world, believes in the power of bearing witness. Save groups organize vigils and truck stops outside of slaughterhouses, often trying to give water to the animals and provide them a brief moment of compassion before their death.
Anita Krajnc, founder of The Save Movement, says she was inspired by Tolstoy’s writings. Tolstoy and his family were vegetarians and, in his later writing, he often wrote about the plight of animals. “When the suffering of another creature causes you to feel pain,” he wrote, “do not submit to the initial desire to flee from the suffering one, but on the contrary, come closer, as close as you can to him who suffers, and try to help him.”
Bearing witness to the suffering of others is hard and, for some, can feel traumatizing. Most people simply do not want to know about the suffering going on around them — because to know means to feel some responsibility. Most of us choose to look away from suffering to avoid the burden of action and, perhaps, to avoid learning something unpleasant about our own willingness to intervene.
Intentionally choosing to bear witness to violence and suffering means that we are taking on this responsibility and that we are choosing to become an advocate for those are being oppressed.
In his 2018 article in Animal Studies Journal, Alex Lockwood describes bearing witness as an “(extra)ordinary encounter between human and [non-human] animal”. He argues that the bodily sensation of being present with the animals, physically able to touch them, in their final moments creates a unique moment of connection as we are made aware of our shared mortality.
He writes, “What close bodily encounter with industrially farmed animals provides, which other forms of activist encounter do not, is this understanding of the lived materiality of their bodies. If we see our bodies on a continuum with other species and entangled, we should find it harder to exploit them… the most effective advocacy places our own affective bodies into the encounter.”
In the winter of 2018, I stood outside a South Philadelphia slaughterhouse every Wednesday and Saturday morning and watched crates of baby chickens, and sometimes rabbits, roughly loaded into packed cages. In the afternoons, I would return to watch the workers of these slaughterhouses grab the chickens upside-down by their feet, throw them into a trash can, and roll the can to the “disassembly line.” I saw the fear in their eyes, heard their screams, and watched them die.
This experience was haunting, but also motivating. It motivated me to take direct action to rescue some of those chickens. It motivated me to care for those chickens in my own home. It still motivates me to stand up for them in public and private discourse today.
For someone considering veganism for the first time or taking the first steps to reduce their consumption of animal products, all of the things to remember about veganism can feel overwhelming at first. “Is red #40 vegan? Where do I get my B12? Does ‘Cruelty-Free’ mean no animal products, or just not tested on animals? Which vegan cheese will my mother-in-law approve of? Can dogs be vegan?”
These day to day logistical questions are what make veganism feel out of reach for many people. Changing your habits and learning a whole new set of “rules” requires a lot of emotional energy. If you mess up (as we all do, from time to time) it can feel like it is easier to just give up rather than fight an uphill battle.
“Virtually every atrocity in the history of humankind was enabled by a populace that turned away from a reality that seemed too painful to face, while virtually every revolution for peace and justice has been made possible by a group of people who chose to bear witness and demanded that others bear witness as well.”
In 2014, a Faunalytics study found that 84% of vegans and vegetarians return to eating meat. While there have been criticisms of their methods, some data is uncontested — like the fact that about one-third of relapses occurred within a month, and over half within the first year of transition. 64% of former vegans and vegetarians said they were motivated by health to try the diets and 84% had not been actively involved in any related group or organization. If you want to stick with your commitment to veganism, finding a powerful “why” and building community are vital steps. Bearing witness helps you do just that.
In her book, “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows”, author Melanie Joy writes, “Virtually every atrocity in the history of humankind was enabled by a populace that turned away from a reality that seemed too painful to face, while virtually every revolution for peace and justice has been made possible by a group of people who chose to bear witness and demanded that others bear witness as well.”
By bearing witness to the violence first hand, I have tangible experiences I can point to when I feel like veganism is difficult. I can remember what I saw, heard, and smelled, and know that no matter what it takes, I will not contribute to that suffering. By taking on the responsibility through being a witness to what most people turn away from, I now have a first-hand story to tell when others ask me why I am vegan, make fun of my ethics, or try to pressure me into recanting.
I’m also able to use this experience to justify my other anti-speciesist stances beyond veganism. For example, when I am invited to a dinner where dead chickens will be served, I can explain that because of my relationships with rescued chickens and my experiences of seeing them killed, I no longer feel comfortable being around those products of violence. Sharing personal stories and the emotional toll these experiences have had on you is a more effective way to communicate your ethical stance.
Participating in a slaughterhouse vigil or truck stop is emotional, and new activists should mentally prepare for that. But when you bear witness as a community, even if it is just with one other person, you strengthen your bond with that person and find support. If your loved one or friend is struggling to understand why you have decided to go vegan, bring them to a slaughterhouse vigil. You might not change their personal behavior, but you will likely change their attitude towards your decision. Now they have borne witness, too. Now they understand.
To bear witness also sends an important message to passersby: there is an injustice happening here, and we can not ignore it.
You also have the opportunity to serve publicly as a witness to the violence you have experienced on social media. Citizen journalism has been found to play an important role in allowing the populace to bear witness by proxy. Although there are many documentaries of online videos that show the reality of slaughterhouses, by sharing your personal experience with these animals in their last moments you make the distant feel more real to your followers. Species Revolution co-founder, Abhijit M., argues that this may be the most important part of bearing witness. “I think bearing witness can be a very powerful way to narrate the stories of individuals exploited by humans.” he said, “However, creating an effective narrative requires us to rescue animals or to capture visual moments through well-made videos and photographs.”
To bear witness also sends an important message to passersby: there is an injustice happening here, and we can not ignore it. In my time hosting vigils at Philadelphia slaughterhouses, both in North and South Philly, I was able to engage in conversations with neighbors who hated the slaughterhouses for their own reasons. Many were parents concerned about the health impact of one Kennsington slaughterhouse being located right next to a daycare. Others were local business owners who didn’t like that the sounds and smells emanating from the slaughterhouses meant they saw reduced foot traffic to their shops. We found common ground with our neighbors and formed coalitions which benefited both the animals and communities.
Visiting sanctuaries and spending time with rescued animals is the other half of finding your “why” as you start off on your vegan journey. Getting to know individuals who have been liberated from places of violence helps you put a face and name to the packaged “products” on the shelf. Bearing witness to violence and then visiting places of healing supplement one another, helping you form a deeper connection and compassion for other species than you may have ever thought possible.
January is the perfect time to make a commitment to veganism, and is also the perfect time to bear witness and cement your “why”.