Continuing the conversation about the choice to have children from Part One, I wanted to write a post specifically about having children and animal activism. I was at a NARN (Northwest Animal Rights Network) meeting this weekend and one of the speakers asked us to remember that we can all make an effort to be more compassionate and less judgemental when interacting with non-vegans and those outside the animal rights community. No one in the room, after all, was born vegan. Becoming vegan for all of us was a process and being compassionate and open-hearted is always a more effective method of interacting than being judgemental and self-important. This comment did get me thinking about being more compassionate (as was intended), but it also got me thinking about being born vegan. Most of us were raised eating meat and dairy.
I believe that teaching children to eat meat in the United States is an act of violence. I know this might sound radical and I certainly don’t think it’s an intentional form of violence — it’s the result of nutrition guidelines influenced by the meat and dairy industries, it’s the result of “Got Milk?” and “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” campaigns, it’s the result of an extremely long history of thinking meat eating is healthy, and it’s generally the result of tradition. But at some point or another, children find out that meat comes from an animal and this, I think, is where the real violence occurs. Many children I’ve encountered were/are disturbed to find out that a burger comes from a cow or that that nugget they’re eating was a chicken. Children have to be taught the belief that it is ‘okay’ to eat certain animals; children do not innately understand this. Part of this, of course, is due to our level of disconnection from our food. Most of us are not farmers and so do not grow up understanding what is involved with producing the food we eat. But, drawing on my dissertation research, even children raised on farms (where animals are raised and slaughtered for food) have to be taught how to relate to animals as food. This is one of the main underlying functions of 4-H programs. Practically, 4-H teaches children the ins and outs of raising an animal and farming animals, but one of the major moments of 4-H is when the time comes to sell the animal the child has raised. At this point, the reality sets in that this animal that the child has cared for so carefully and proudly will be sold for slaughter and that this is just “the way things are”. That it’s just part of “growing up” to accept that certain animals are “here to be eaten”.
I think a lot of children have experienced some kind of meaningful connection with animals and many families readily acknowledge the value and richness of living with animals in our homes (dogs, cats, etc). Thus, I think it’s disingenuous for parents to say to children that it’s okay to eat certain animals because “that’s what they’re here for.” This indoctrinates children at an age before they really understand what’s happening into the violent system of exploiting animals for our taste preferences. It also indoctrinates children early on into the widespread institution of discrimination – children are taught that it is acceptable to discriminate (and use at will) an ‘Other’ based simply on their species membership.
This is a long way around to talk about the choice to have children or not as an animal advocate (or any kind of activist, really). From my experience, it seems that a majority of animal rights and environmental justice activists choose NOT to have children and I’m really not sure if this is good or bad. There are many different (good!) reasons for this choice, I think. Certainly, from an ethical standpoint, having children (particularly in this U.S. culture of over-consumption) can put undue strain on the environment by bringing another consumer into the world. Having children versus adopting children brings up a similar ethical issue to the breeding animals versus adopting from a shelter (in other words, why breed more when there are so many without homes already?). Raising children can certainly take time and energy away from activism and I think this is not a trivial matter. We have such a small amount of time here on the planet to make a difference and do good and spending time raising children inevitably means that a huge portion of your time and energy is occupied by activities not related to working to end human or animal suffering.
On the flip side, raising children could potentially be a wonderful form of activism in itself. To raise a child with more evolved values about human/animal/environment relations could make a huge difference if that child grew up to believe in those values and be an activist him/herself. To raise a child who is sensitive to the plight of animals AND humans, who is raised to lead a more compassionate life…this could be a great gift to that child and to the world at large. But of course, there is always the chance that the child grows up to be a hummer-driving, meat-eating, neo-Nazi…we really have no control over how our children turn out. We can do our best to instill values of compassion, open-mindedness and love, but the world is a crazy place and kids grow up to be their own people. I think, then, the choice to have children cannot be dependent on who we hope they will grow up to be. We have to be prepared to raise a child and have them reject every value we’ve taught them and be okay with that. With this unknown, there remains the ethical question of whether or not we can justify bringing someone into the world who might do more harm than good.
Another factor I think about, too, is the impact on the child of raising them with environmentalist, vegan, animal/human rights values. I know how much pain and heartbreak I’ve experienced personally confronting the realities of humans’ capacity for oppression, cruelty and violence. But that’s been my choice to confront this stuff. I was already here on the planet, sucking up resources and so I think, for me, it’s unequivocally a positive thing that I started to think about these realities (better to confront this stuff than to ignore it or pretend we don’t have a responsibility to try to make a difference). Bringing someone into the world who will be raised to learn these truths is a somewhat depressing thought. And while I think it’s certainly better than indoctrinating children into supporting and reproducing a system of violence through meat-eating, etc., raising children with this knowledge and teaching them (in age-appropriate ways) to face the harsh realities of the pain humans cause is a kind of violence in itself.
I’ve talked to a few animal rights/environmental justice activists who DO have children and who firmly believe that more activists should raise children. More advocates raising children (adopted or not) ‘grows the ranks,’ as it were, and creates a larger community of people with shared values. If Eric and I do have children, this is something I think about a lot – developing a sense of community with other like-minded people and raising children together could be a wonderful thing.
As usual, lots of pros and cons and things to think about and nothing conclusive from my end. I honestly feel a bit exposed writing about this topic because, in some ways, the thought process feels very personal to me, but I’m really appreciating the conversation the last post generated and I’m eager to hear more of your thoughts.
What do you all think?