Saturday, June 13, 2009

People (“People who need people…” and all that)

The other day I was talking to a friend in the animal rights movement, and I happened to mention that people are my favorite animal. I guess that didn't impress her. She looked at me like I'd been eating those funny mushrooms again, and said, "Oh, I don't feel that way at all!"

I can certainly see her point. A quick perusal of the local TV news on any given night will tell you exactly what kind of selfish and vicious animals humans are. Kidnapping, rape and grisly serial murders are everyday events—and that's just in your neighborhood! It's all become so commonplace we take it for granted. Just this past week a friend of mine came home from a business trip and found her house had been robbed. Most of what was taken had little or no value to the thieves, but represented huge sentimental losses to her. Who would do such a thing? People, that's who.

Of course, all of this pales in comparison to the horrors of the factory farm, the slaughterhouse and the medical research laboratory. There's seemingly no end to the violence and the suffering, and virtually everyone we know is in on the action. It's enough to make any vegetarian swear off the human race and spend the rest of his/her life cavorting with frogs and trees.

Okay, so it's no secret that humans are the only animals that commit "inhuman" acts. Sometimes, though, that reality can be overwhelming. It causes us to lose perspective, and that, especially for vegetarians, is a very bad thing.

In those moments when I'm not too depressed about the state of the world, I try to focus my attention on the other side of human existence—the kind and good side of people. Take war, for example. (Yeah, war. There's something that makes me want to live out my life on a deserted island away from people!) But even in war, amidst the pervasive death and destruction, there are constant examples of humans doing extraordinary things. People who have lost everything find something inside them to reach out and give comfort to those in similar circumstances. People give their very lives for their countries and causes. (As misdirected as those efforts sometimes are, the act itself is noble nonetheless.)

And of course astonishing courage, valor and selflessness aren't limited to times of war. I see those values in the people I come in contact with every day—from my friends who are teachers and social workers, to cancer patients dying with dignity, to the retarded man who always bags my groceries with a smile and a cheerful greeting. I see it every day in my vegetarian friends too—people who care so much, and work so hard to eliminate the suffering and disease and environmental destruction caused by eating meat.

People are my favorite animal. I think that's because the same mental and physical capabilities that allow them to do so many horrible things empower them to do extraordinary things as well. And I love those extraordinary things! I can't watch a space shuttle launch without getting a lump in my throat, and when I listen to a Beethoven piano concerto… well, let's just say I've never been anywhere closer to God.

I hate it when I hear meat-eaters say to vegetarians: "You don't care about people." It's an easy cop-out that allows them to feel better at our expense, and it's never true. On the other hand, it's sad when vegetarians and animal rights activists and environmentalists get so caught up in their causes that they momentarily lose their goodwill for humans. Without people the world would be an awfully lonely and boring place.

"Speciesism" seems to be a bad word in the vegetarian and animal rights communities. But I suspect all animals are inherently "speciesist," and a little of that may not be a bad thing for everyone's survival. Maybe it's not so wrong to revel in our humanity, as long as we keep it all in perspective and don't lose our compassion. (Compassion—another one of those characteristics at which humans are capable of excelling!)

Human rights is a mere subset of animal rights, but it's a necessary subset. You simply can't have one without the other. When every human being on earth finally realizes that it's imperative to love animals and humans, that's when we'll see real progress.

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