For the past several years, I have been a pacifist, abjuring all violence now and forever.
Violence in some form was always a part of my life. I had a kind of rough and tumble, Mark Twain-esque childhood that included running around the neighborhood largely unsupervised and more boyhood fistfights than I could count. This kind of young, mostly harmless scrapping was more akin to play than it was to violence. Of course at the time it felt dangerous, scary, and important, but truthfully it was probably closer in nature to rams butting heads to establish dominance or lion cubs wrestling. It was more about testing our strengths, learning how our muscles worked, and sorting out the pecking order of the group.
I’m always surprised to talk with men whose childhoods were heavily supervised and didn’t include much in the way of confrontation and fighting among boys. My parents were usually laissez-faire when it came to my frequent scraps with the boys on our block. My father had grown up fighting and thought it would have done me more harm than good to be sheltered from these kinds of confrontations. For the most part I agree with him; the kind of small-scale battles playing out between me and my friends between the ages of four and ten were something biological, perhaps not necessarily to be encouraged but also certainly not something that should cause panic.
Surrounding the benign play violence that us boys were perpetuating, there was a darker and more frightening violence that would occasionally break into our world. Our neighborhood was a working class white enclave that felt more rural than urban even though it was nestled in the middle of downtown, and we had more than our fair share of the problems not only that plague poor urban communities but also those endemic to poor rural areas. Substance abuse abounded in all the colors of the rainbow, from alcohol to heroin to vicodin and percocet to crack.
Domestic and child abuse were rampant. Not only were many of us beaten at home, but we were also frequently witness to public displays of domestic abuse whose brutality was surpassed only by their ostentation. Men beat their wives openly in the street and we as children experienced a kind of confused discomfort, an ambivalent horror. The blasé reaction of other adults witnessing these situations served as our model and so we tried early in life to affect a nonchalant attitude toward brutality.
Into my late adolescence and early adulthood, violence became a different creature entirely. Although my involvement in the Hardcore Punk scene certainly afforded me a lot of opportunities for violence, it would be inaccurate and self-defeating to lay any real blame on my surroundings or the music I was listening to. Truthfully, it was my own fear and insecurity that drove me to so much violence.
It would be difficult to overstate the degree to which my insecurities about my own masculinity played into my overly-aggressive behavior. I’m a man who’s fairly small and one who doesn’t present a particularly threatening figure to those around me. When I say I’ve had my ass kicked more times than anyone I know, it isn’t an exaggeration. There was almost a full decade of my youth where I was roughed up at least once a week by kids at school or a group my peers from the neighborhood. Constantly being beaten up and picked on made me afraid, and that fear drove me to many stupid, desperate, and childish acts of bullying whenever I got the upper hand in a situation. I thought that if I never walked away from a fight, never turned down a chance to hit someone, flew off the handle as often as I could, that I could convince all the people around me that I wasn’t as afraid as I really was.
And of course this all came in the hyper-masculine, patriarchal language of male power. It wasn’t just cowardice I was afraid of people seeing in me, it was femininity. I can’t even begin to articulate how ashamed I am to have hurt so many people trying to convince my jerk friends that I wasn’t a “pussy.”
It’s not necessarily that I loved violence; I certainly didn’t hate it, but I simply had no comprehension of an alternative. I didn’t know how to be a man, or at least a man with any respect — much less self-respect — without some comfortability with violence.
My attitudes toward violence were affected by a number of experiences and decisions I made as an adult, but the two that gave me the most pause were my decision to go vegan, and several years I spent training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai. Going vegan raised my consciousness of how much violence, how much inexcusable cruelty, we are party to everyday without a second thought. And training in BJJ and Muay Thai allowed me to feel a little bit less afraid and vulnerable, which meant I felt less drive to constantly prove I wasn’t afraid and vulnerable by starting fights. That isn’t to say I went vegan, attended a few BJJ classes, and became MLK, but it does mean that I started thinking about things differently.
Veganism is a much more varied philosophy than most outsiders would presume. Veganism is integral to so many ideologies and subcultures that vegans often find that they cannot relate to other vegans because their reasons for being vegan and the ways that it interacts with their lives are so fundamentally different. Most omnivores have the impression that vegans are more uniform in their beliefs and ideas than is actually true.
The cultural lens through which I first experienced veganism was through the lyrics of Hardcore Punk and Metal bands whose ideological agendas in no ways eschewed violence in general, simply violence against animals. Bands like Earth Crisis, Chokehold, and Tears of Gaia comfortably advocate “Violence against violence,” the mantra of those who would feel no compunction about attacking scientists who experiment on animals or the trainers who beat circus animals into performing.
This vegan culture is a far cry from the gentle, earthy, flower-child stereotypical vegan most omnivores imagine. The longer I have been vegan however, the less convinced I have become of my native, false dichotomy of “justified” and “unjustified” violence, the former being the vengeance, real or simply fantasized about, of activists against those in the animal industry, and the latter being that perpetuated by employees of abattoirs and research labs. After years of veganism, I see my decision as a reaction against violence, not just a reaction against a certain kind of violence targeted at a certain kind of being.
My thoughts on training BJJ and Muay Thai were less complicated. Training — and especially training under such an amazing teacher — simply gave me the confidence that if a violent situation arose, I needn’t worry about my ability to handle myself. Just knowing that if a fight happened, I could handle myself, allowed me to walk away from confrontations because I knew that I didn’t have to start a fight to know I was still a man.
But while these were steps in what I think was the right direction, a formal, serious break with violence for me didn’t come until years ago when I was involved in a fight that opened my eyes to aspects of violence, and connections between violence that I had never wanted to see. For my own sanity, as well as out of respect for other people involved I will forgo unnecessary details about the confrontation and simply state the facts. After being egged on by my friends, I started a fight which involved me choking a man unconscious. After he passed out I walked away and several other people continued to beat and kick him.
Although the damage I personally inflicted would have been minimal had we been alone, I left him unconscious and totally vulnerable to others. More than anything else, two powerful visceral memories stuck out to me from that night. The first is the choking, snorting sounds that came from the man I had choked unconscious when he woke up, confused and disoriented. The noise, coupled with the blood that was gushing from his face triggered a powerful, intense memory of the slaughterhouse shock videos that vegan groups use to convince people to stop eating meat. The second memory is the gloating, laugh-filled crowing of my friends moments later who couldn’t wait to tell everyone else what had happened and brag about their own involvement. By that time I was sick to my stomach and couldn’t reconcile my own nausea and horror with the pride of my associates who reveled loudly in the damage they’d done.
The comparison I make now will for good reason seem very subjective and was undoubtedly fueled as much by my extremely heightened emotions as by any realistic or measurable psychological accuracy. But when I stood there that night, weak, with the image of a bloody choking face burned into my mind’s eye and heard my friends bragging about having stomped someone’s head in, I couldn’t help but hear the voices of every proud omnivore who ever mocked me for being vegan and bragged about how animals taste so delicious and how meat is “murder, tasty murder.” The rank and vulgar callousness it takes to make those kinds of remarks is a kind of low-grade, normalized sociopathy. That is exactly what I heard in the voices of my friends that night, some of whom are, surprisingly enough, vegan themselves.
It was a dramatic, yet philosophically straightforward feeling of revulsion that made me renounce violence that night. After I went home I didn’t get any sleep whatsoever; I spent the night crying because I felt so awful. I would have been a hypocrite to see some of the worst violence of my life and then try to push it down and carry on with my normal behaviour. If I can criticize another person because he continued to eat bacon after seeing a video of a pig being castrated with no anesthesia, have its throat cut, and then hung upside down to bleed out its neck while it struggles and cries in pain, how could I continue to hurt people after seeing what the end result could be?
But the rest of my feelings, the feelings of disgust toward my friends for bragging about stomping an unconscious and helpless man, and the parallels I saw between that and ostentatious proud carnism, those things took me much longer to unpack. What I eventually saw in them was the cowardice and insecurity I knew in myself. The drive toward validating my one’s own masculinity at any cost.
I keep mentioning masculinity because I have to. It’s impossible to talk about violence, or veganism for that matter, without talking about gender and power. We see the same dichotomy applied to food that we see applied to violence. “Steak is for men; violence is for men. Salad is for women; pacifism is for women.” That message is constantly bellowed at us by advertisers, music, movies. Men brag about eating meat and participating in violence because of an insecurity about their own potency and male prowess. Vulnerable masculinity is a bottomless hole in the middle of a man that no amount of violence or reinforcement ever fills.
Carol J. Adams does such a thorough and impressive job of examining and debunking the masculine cult of animal consumption that I hesitate to undertake the venture myself more fully than is necessary for fear of clumsily paraphrasing her and not doing her arguments the justice they deserve.
As often and as loudly as we are told that eating meat is macho, the claim crumbles under even a cursory examination, just as the masculine triumph of my friends in that fight crumbles under scrutiny. If we are to believe that masculinity’s essence lies in victory in combat, overcoming obstacles, strength, perseverance, besting an opponent, and all of those other Spartan truisms about manhood, then what part of meat eating fits into that narrative? What part of subcontracting out your share of the violence against a weak, frightened, domesticated animal to someone else is supposed to be glorious and triumphant? The crime of eating meat requires overwhelming violence against a powerless victim totally unable to defend himself or fight back; if we were guilty of only that we could call ourselves cowards for overpowering the helpless. But almost all of the people who perpetuate this horror subcontract the violence out to someone else and are thus guilty of the combined sins of cowardice, callousness, and laziness.
My friends in that fight wanted to participate in violence, they wanted to be part of what they perceived to be a victory. They wanted to fight and win, but they didn’t want to do any actual fighting. What they participated in was cruelty, overwhelming violence against the helpless.
Beyond the absolute moral bankruptcy of carnism, the act of eating meat is the ultimate act of cowardice. No amount of fratboy-esque advertising by fast food restaurants or misogynist shaming by magazines can make the realities of meat eating anything but the desperate attempt by insecure and scared men to reclaim an imaginary sense of victory.
There is a quote by Isaac Bashevis Singer, “As often as Herman had witnessed the slaughter of animals and fish, he always had the same thought: In their behavior toward creatures, all men were Nazis.” As much as I loathe the overuse of comparisons to Nazis as a catch-all for immoral or reprehensible behavior, the remark here is apt, and not just because of the man who made it. If we can be forgiven for reductionism and say that one of, if not the single defining characteristic of the Nazi, both as a literal historical entity and as an eternal symbol, is his willingness to directly participate in, and indirectly sanction the use of extreme violence against the powerless, what else could we call human behavior toward animals?
What I saw in that fight, from myself and from those around me was the cruelty of humanity collapsed into a single incident. I saw people eager to validate their own masculinity but only if they could do it at no real risk to themselves, the satisfaction of the masses at inflicting cruelty on a helpless victim. I saw the boasting, proud, inflated chests of boys bragging about their prowess to bystanders. I saw the same fake victory among my peers that man feels over the animals he pays someone else to murder so that he can enjoy the carnal satisfaction of flesh in his stomach and feel like he’s conquered something.
Needless to say I have renounced violence in my own life. Once I have seen how close my behavior can come to that of the abattoir worker and the Nazi I simply cannot deny my conscience and blink away the shame and horror. My personal commitment to veganism and animal liberation has to be a continued commitment to nonviolence and compassion and against cruelty, and not simply a commitment to cruelty against a different group of creatures. My personal commitment to some form of egalitarianism, to human rights, to any idea of justice or right that I can imagine, has to be a continued commitment to nonviolence, to peace, and against the laziness and the craving for a false sense of victory.
As imperfect and as flawed as some of my reasoning might be, as subjective and emotional as some of my comparisons might seem, as ethnocentric and specific as some of my directives inevitably become when you view violence as a universal phenomenon across all cultures, I cannot think of circumstances in my life that will ever excuse me participating against violence against any other being ever again.