Empathy is a concept that has been misconstrued and entirely unutilized in human society.
We are a taught as children that anything and everything is deserving of compassion, but this seems to reach a limit as soon as we risk our comfort or the comfort level of someone else. Once we, as individuals, pass our security threshold for the sake of another being, we are labeled as extremist – someone who took empathy too far.
But why is there a cap on our benevolent values?
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand the feelings of another. It does not say, “…the ability to understand the feelings of another human.”
Love, fear, pain, compassion, and self-awareness are not solely human characteristics, but people are so terrified to think they may operate on the same cognitive level as nonhuman animals. This scientific fear of anthropomorphism (assigning “human-like” characteristics to nonhuman animals) stems from an even more problematic trait that makes up the very foundation of humanity: speciesism.
Speciesism is the assumption of human superiority over animals; the belief that they have been put on earth only for human consumption. This idea is distasteful to most people – not because they don’t embody it but because they don’t want to be accused of it.
When people are introduced to the concept, their immediate response is to reject it outright, just as they would reject being accused of racism, or any other -ism for that matter. But there is no denying that in order to justify our blatant torment of other creatures, we must believe they are beneath us in every way. This is a worldview we are raised with and it has been so entrenched in our brains that most people have never recognized its hypocrisy.
Empathy is the natural combatant of speciesism. When you see a mother cow screaming for her newborn calf as it is being carried away, there is no doubt that she feels grief. Yet, you tell yourself animals cannot feel emotion the same as us, this way you feel better when eating your morning cereal. That is a lack of empathy and the dominance of speciesism.
Why are humans and nonhuman animals believed to be unequal? Even more baffling, why are nonhuman animals believed to be unequal to each other?
Even lobsters have been proven to process fear and anxiety the same as humans, but they are boiled alive, ripped apart, and sold as “luxury.”
We would never do this to our beloved cats and dogs, but anyone who points out this double standard is labeled as too extreme. Why? Because it interferes with a lifetime of conditioned thinking. That tranquility that stems from pushing things to the back of your mind.
Compassion has branded vegans as “radicals” in most countries. Australian authorities have even gone so far as to accuse them of being “domestic terrorists.” All because they are trying to stop the immoral and unsustainable bloodshed that is leading the earth to an inevitable collapse.
I hate to say it, but the view of vegans as extremists has not been completely unprovoked. It has been partly brought on by vegans themselves. Ethical vegans who constantly battle for animal sanctuary have closed down banks, formed street blockades, and refused to attend family gatherings where meat was served.
Well-intentioned animal activists are hitting nerves and not always in a way that is helpful to the cause. Their actions may be perceived as radical because their traffic-stopping tactics are more effective at grabbing headlines than generating long and lasting animal-welfare laws. It certainly garters attention, but it de-normalizes veganism.
Resorting to “extreme” protests and cutting-off family and friends that still consume meat enforces this idea that in order to be a vegan, you have to turn your back on your own species.
The goal of all animal activists is to create a peaceful world where no animal has to suffer for human exploitation. So why are people who are invested in the salvation of the planet and all its lifeforms labeled as too extreme? Why are they perceived as being too angry or aggressive? Why do they put themselves at risk to rescue animals from slaughter?
It is because they are living with empathy – and empathy hurts. All vegans – activists or otherwise – have made the difficult decision to remove their blindfolds and see the world as it is. They have stepped down from their pedestals and humbled themselves, realizing the ground is equal between all creatures, and not skewed in a human’s favor.
We take the pain and suffering of the world on our shoulders because others won’t. This pain cannot be overlooked – someone must carry it so the world can evolve and change.
But this is where empathy needs to be employed by vegans towards non-vegans. Even though it may hurt us deeply to see others eating dead animals, the second we let our emotions dominate us negatively, we push people further away from the idea of a plant-based diet.
Protest has brought a lot of attention to the issues in animal agriculture, but we can’t always let our empathy push us to extremes. Shock garners attention, but it does not enforce action.
Action is led by compassion. Intense animal-rights protests do serve a purpose, but the recent rise in veganism can be better attributed to this new image that has been circulating; this view of veganism as a holistic and cruelty-free lifestyle one can aspire to, instead of an unrelenting guilt trip.
Empathy is better triggered with images of a cow that has been set free than a cow that has been systematically tortured. We must use methods that help normalize veganism and not criminalize meat-eaters. Once we call someone a murderer for eating a big mac, their ears are officially closed to anything else you have to say.
This is a disservice to our compassionate nature and a disservice to the animals we are trying to save. Understand, empathy is a double-edged sword; one we need to calmly hold from both sides until it finally brings an end to their suffering and bridges the gap towards a more sustainable future.