It has long broken my heart that the protection of nonhumans is an afterthought in society. I wish for people to care about all sentient beings. Luckily, one thing that helps me feel better and be a better advocate is when I challenge myself to walk the walk.
Yes, I outshine many of my human peers in my empathy for a turkey or a fish, which I wish we all naturally expressed. But there are plenty of other areas where I have been ignorant, or blocked.
I was not born an animal activist, and thinking about what turned me into one can help me improve in other areas. So what happened? First, my teacher had us dissect squids and pigs, which was horrifying. After that, I spent time on animal rights websites. I went plant-based and I had early success eating differently from my family. This helped me see how great it could be if we changed to a more nonviolent food system. All of these new experiences allowed compassion to click in my 12-year-old brain.
Before those experiences, I had no idea what I was not seeing. Thus, I ask myself what am I not seeing now, at age 29? What new experiences can I create, that will unlock in me a deeper level of caring?
Walking the walk feels hopeful. It focuses me on what I can change—that is, my own thoughts and actions. And in the end, it’s humans we must empower to stop exploiting all the rest. The more kindness and solidarity we can show for one another, the more heart we will have left to extend to our fellow animals.
Here are some ways I’ve worked on opening my heart and mind so far.
Many small animals, including insects, are likely sentient. Yet, I often care less about them because of sizeism. I also feel less concern because of the inconvenience in doing so. It is all too easy to crush small beings by accident, or to feel they are in one’s way. Alas, our worth as individuals with feelings does not change whether we are tiny like a mouse or a five-meter-tall giraffe. As a privileged giant, I am tuning into the little ones more and feeling the compassion they deserve.
Extreme human suffering
Sometimes it is easier to empathize with a paper-cut than a gunshot. Certainly this has been the case for me when considering starvation, slavery, poverty, homelessness, war, others modes of violence, chronic pain, and fatal disease. It is tempting to only care about my well-off friends, and to forget those in greatest need.
The reality of extreme suffering is “inconvenient” to the rich and healthy. Why do we spend so much of our lives on luxury, and vanity? We could invest more time and energy into helping prevent agony. Helping those who are worse off or at risk is more meaningful than being able to say I had fancy things. I have had to become aware of my tendency to make subconscious excuses for horror. It could 100% be me going through that. And if it were, I would hope for those with power to stay conscious and caring of how bad life can get, so they’d be motivated to do and give everything they could.
Growing up, I was fearful for my own future. This made it hard to care properly about other LGBTQ people. Even though I was a transgender girl, I had trouble recognizing the fellow trans and gender-nonconforming people around me, feeling as if I was the only one. Queer men were easier for me to spot, but I avoided associating with them because of how it hurt to be viewed as a male myself when I just wanted to be seen as a feminine being (she/her).
I wanted to disappear into an illusion of “passability,” and forget who I was. This has made me a weaker ally to my lesbian, gay, bi/pan, trans, non-binary, and ace peers, as well as to myself. But it’s okay. It’s never too late to push back against internalized discrimination, and support those who are going through similar things.
Black people, Indigenous people, and others of the global majority have been hurt in so many ways by colonization and white supremacy. Since I did not taste this as a white youth growing up, it takes vigilance to bridge that empathy gap.
Although I can never know what it is like, when I hear a BIPOC experience of racism or cultural oppression I can try to put myself in their shoes. I can literally imagine it from the perspective of whoever is speaking, as if I were them. So far, this has been the easiest way to bypass my defenses, learn, and be more supportive of equality for all Asians and Pacific Islanders, folks from the Global South, and others who have been marginalized. My goal will be to keep helping myself care until I can wake up every day and feel just as connected to issues of cultural and racial liberation as I do to the ones that personally affect me.
I have had bias against those who are farthest from the thin, young, cheekbone-endowed “ideal.” My mind has often felt cluttered by my desperate hope to “be like the hot people.” What I do not know is how my looksist mindset has impacted others.
It may be unnoticeable to us when we treat other people as if their looks made them more or less worthy. But the differential treatment adds up. People notice. It effs with our self-confidence and our trust in one another. I know this firsthand, because I struggle to trust that people will treat me the same if I am “non-passing” versus if I look like a typical woman. It hurts, and I can’t stand making others hurt.
I will never be perfect, but I have made a practice of catching myself when I start to devalue OR idolize based on looks. I find one thing to appreciate in each person’s unique appearance. Then, I turn my attention to who they are inside—and how their life can be supported. I am taking time to celebrate fat beauty, wrinkled beauty, dark-skinned beauty, androgynous beauty, bald beauty, and all body types. It takes effort to counter the old conditioning of looksism, and to see everyone as normal and infinitely lovely.
Residents of the wild
Wild animals endure some of the worst experiences imaginable—such as starving, freezing, being eaten alive, or dying in a natural disaster. These are horrors we humans, too, have endured far too often in history. Natural does not mean humane.
It was hard for me to care fully about the victims of processes outside human control, and interconnected with ecology. However, we are not powerless in the slightest when it comes to helping wild individuals. We humans have already exerted our great power in destroying the environments of other animals. We can certainly take their well-being into account as we go about our conservation efforts. I recently learned of a top-ranked charity called Wild Animal Initiative that is encouraging us to study the complexities of wild animal welfare, and minimize suffering where we can.
Walking the walk
There are so many types of beings and situations for which I need to resist my ignorance, laziness, indifference, and fear… and learn to care. There are issues around vivisection, incarceration, abuse by authorities, and mental health. We need rock-solid rights for children, workers, refugees, disabled people, and countless others.
Since beyond-human persons are so unprotected relative to the average Homo sapiens, I am especially passionate about promoting their rights. However, being a good animal rights activist is just as much about being a human rights activist. As we radically raise the standards of well-being within our species, it gets harder and harder to ignore the other types of individuals who also seek protection. We feel more taken care of, and so it is easier to extend care to animals who are different from us.
Caring is only the beginning. But perhaps the more wholeheartedly and diversely we can care, the more likely we will be to take everyone’s needs in consideration and end up with less suffering in the world. We all have different pieces of the puzzle to offer. Instead of lamenting what other people do not seem to get yet, when I myself have so much to work on… I can focus on walking the walk.
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Photo: Joyce McCown via Unsplash