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Originally published in 2000
Some people have asked how I can make jokes when the animals are suffering so terribly, when I’m supposed to be entirely focused on animal liberation. I believe that having a sense of humor is in the animals’ best interest, because not only does it make our example more appealing, it also aids in avoiding burnout. In the cumulative forty or so years we’ve been active, Anne and I have known hundreds of activists who have given up working for the animals – some of whom have even gone back to eating meat! On the other hand, the almost all of the successful long-time activists we’ve known – those who have made a real difference in the world – have a sustaining sense of humor.
As a reaction to what goes on in factory farms and slaughterhouses, very strong feelings are understandable and entirely justified. But I believe that our inability – individually and as a movement – to deal with our anger in a constructive manner is one of the greatest hindrances to the advancement of animal liberation.
Over time, people tend to deal with their anger in different ways. Some take to protesting, some to screaming, hatred, and sarcasm. Others disconnect from society and surround themselves with only like-minded people, seeing society as a large conspiracy against veganism.
I do not believe either of these reactions help to move society toward being more compassionate.
A different approach is to try to maintain a positive outlook and a sense of humor. This makes it easier to continue in activism, as well as avoid self-righteous fundamentalism. In turn, this makes it possible to interact positively and constructively with others, thus making it more likely they will take steps to help animals.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to gain and maintain a sense of humor. One suggestion is to always remember our ultimate goal. In my case, it is the alleviation of suffering. If I allow myself to be miserable because of the cruelty in the world, I am adding to the suffering in the world. More importantly, I am saying that unless utopia is instantaneously established, it is not even possible to be happy. Thus, my goal is inherently unachievable.
To have any change occur in the world, we need to convince others to think beyond themselves. We must be willing to do the same. Just as we want others to look beyond the short-term satisfaction of following habits and traditions, we need to move past our anger to effective advocacy – i.e., moving from yelling and chanting and arguing to positive, constructive outreach.
If I believe I can’t be happy – that I am a slave to my situation – how can I expect others to act differently?
It also helps to maintain a historical perspective. I realize I am not the first person to be upset by the state of affairs in the world. I can learn from the mistakes and successes of those who came before me.
Few people come to an enlightened view of the world overnight by themselves. It took me over a year after my first exposure to the issues to go vegetarian, and even longer after that to go vegan. If I had been treated with disgust and anger because of my close-mindedness and (in retrospect) pathetic rationalizations, I would certainly never have gone veg.
My story is not unique. Not only does it show the shortcomings of anger and the benefits of kindness and patience, it also indicates that you shouldn’t give up on friends if they don’t react to information as you would like. Shunning friends because they don’t immediately adopt your vegan views not only cuts you off from the very people we need to reach, it also perpetuates the stereotype of the joyless fanatic with no life other than complaining.
“Fighting” suffering is not the only way to make a better world; creating happiness and joy as part of a thoughtful, compassionate life filled with constructive advocacy can be an even more powerful tool for creating change.
As long as there is conscious life on Earth, there will be suffering. The question we face is what to do with the existence each of us is given. We can choose to add our own fury and misery to the rest, or we can set an example by simultaneously working constructively to alleviate suffering while leading joyous, meaningful, fulfilled lives.
In the end, being vegan doesn’t need to be about deprivation, sobriety, and misery. It’s about being fully aware so as to be fully alive.