It was likely five decades ago when I sat at the kitchen table with my father talking about slavery, which I was learning about in school. “Our family always treated our slaves well,” my father declared somewhat defensively. I was shocked and confused. What did this mean? His family likely did what everyone else did back then in Charlotte, N.C. It was their cultural norm, and there was no reason to question it. After all, they were good Christians, good people. It was a way of life.
But what about each of us? For a moment, let’s imagine ourselves in the pre-Civil War South. Would we have been slave owners, or would we have been the few who understood the injustice of racism? What if we were Germans under the rule of Hitler—would we have been Nazis or part of the resistance? And had we been men in the early 20th century, what would we have thought of the suffragettes?
Looking back on history, it’s easy to distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, justice from injustice. But what about when we are in the middle of it? In fact, we are always in the middle of it, weaving the fabric of history every day. Without serious reflection, how can we be sure of landing on the right side of history? Could we, the enlightened beings that we think we are, be unwittingly complicit in acts of oppression?
While we strive to overcome racism and sexism, another social-justice issue challenges our times: speciesism. A rancher in West Marin once said, “I’ve given them a good life. Now I get to end it.” Had he been talking about dogs instead of cows, we would have cried abuse. But why do we feel okay—even that it is necessary—to do as we want with cows, pigs, chickens, sheep and other farmed species? Why do our rules differ based on species?
Sometimes our speciesism crosses over to unintended racism. Once, while standing in line, I overheard three women passionately decrying the bloody slaughter of dolphins by the Japanese, as depicted in the Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove.” The crimson bay portrayed in the movie was indeed awful, but was it any worse than the killing floor of any slaughterhouse in the United States? Likewise, Americans express disgust and dismay at Koreans eating dogs, but why is it okay for an American to eat a pig? Why eat a pig or a dog at all?
The effort to overcome speciesism is sometimes called animal rights, a term that makes people squirm in their seats. Sometimes those fighting to liberate certain species are even called “eco-terrorists.” Chances are that abolitionists, suffragettes and everyone who ever fought oppression were also considered radical and called a variety of names. But it was these radicals who recognized injustice in what were established cultural norms, no matter how much an inconvenience to their personal lifestyles. It was they who launched movements that replaced those very norms with ones that were more egalitarian and humane.
Not long ago, we thought that women, children and certain other people were property and could be treated as we pleased. My hope is that, in our lifetime, we will evolve to a point where we see all creatures as individuals worthy of the dignity of liberty, life and the pursuit of happiness rather than being mere commodities—and not just humans (or free white males, which was the intention of the Declaration of Independence). The time will indeed come when historians will look back on today as the age when humankind finally made the connection between the food on our plates and the need to overcome speciesism. With so many options for delicious food made from plants, there is no longer any need to confine and slaughter billions of animals for our enjoyment, or to separate babies from their moms so we can drink milk.
Ultimately, what we call “animal rights” is about us—humans. It is about our own humanity and the choices we make to shape the future. So what side of history will you be on?
I invite all who are curious to attend the Mindful Eating Film and Food Festival at the Dance Palace Community Center on Saturday, Feb. 2. The food festival is free; films are $10 each, or $20 for all four, and senior discounts are available. Furloughed government employees are welcome to attend and view movies for free. For more information, please go to mindfuleatingfilmfestival.com.
Miyoko Schinner is the founder and CEO of Miyoko’s, a company revolutionizing dairy with plants, and a co-founder of Rancho Compasion, a farmed animal sanctuary in Nicasio.