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Cecil the Lion and Our Moral Isolation

Cecil the Lion
Cecil the Lion

Cecil the Lion. He’s everywhere on the Internet. I can’t bring myself to look at most of it. It’s something like what I felt in the years I was reading about the Holocaust. At some point, my reading threatened to overwhelm me, and I had to stop. I had to put a distance between myself and that story. I know it’s there. I know what happened. I just can’t come that close to it anymore and continue to live a productive life.

I first became vegetarian over 50 years ago. The reality of being the only vegetarian in my world through much of my life made it exceptionally difficult, and I went back and forth a number of times over the years. No more back and forth during the last twenty years.

There were many reasons for my vegetarianism, and I’ve written about some of them in my blog. The primary reason was that I felt it was moral cowardice and irresponsibility to purchase meat in plastic and styrofoam at the local grocery store. If I were going to eat meat, I should slaughter the animal myself, directly accepting responsibility for the life I was taking. That would never happen – because I don’t want to kill other creatures. Period. So why would I buy and eat the flesh of another creature just because the whole process happened out of sight?

My vegetarianism was based on a statement of Adelle Davis, that she eats only the products that animals give us without suffering. Turns out that in today’s world, there are not products animals give us without suffering. I started moving toward veganism a couple of years ago, and that is the basis of my comments about Cecil the Lion.

I’m finding this transition to veganism difficult, partly for health reasons, partly for social reasons and partly because I love cheese and eggs and am not a fan of substitute foods. I read a lot, and I experiment with cooking. I take every opportunity I can to make and share vegan foods with others so I can build a social network that still enjoys my food. I try to immerse myself in vegan culture online, because I know how acculturation works. For reasons I mentioned above, though, I keep some of the horrific pictures of animal suffering that some vegans post out of my view. I know it’s there. I don’t want to be overwhelmed.

One day when I was reading, I came to an ad about vegan boots. Vegan boots?! I read more as I thought about my new leather clogs, the first new shoes I’ve purchased in 10 years. I thought about the (two) leather belts in my closet.

But what I thought about most was that as thoughtful as I am about veganism, the whys, the wherefores, the hows of it, the fact that I wear leather shoes simply escaped my attention. I didn’t think about that.

Since then, I have thought a lot about that disconnect. It occurs to me that we all have a tendency to disconnect. The places where each of us disconnects are different, but it’s there. Sometimes it’s a conscious disconnect, as I did from the stories of Cecil. Most of the time it’s unconscious, like me believing whole-heartedly in the importance and necessity of veganism in today’s world yet wearing leather shoes.

I’ve debated what to do with those new shoes, the first in ten years. I considered giving them away and buying some vegan boots. There is a principle in my religion of not wasting the fruits of the earth. I decided that since I already have them, I will wear them for another ten years until they wear out. They will be a testament to my human imperfections and contradictions ¬†and will keep me humble.

I continue to think about why I had that disconnect. I mentioned acculturation. I was born into and grew up in a world where the norm was to use animals for our purposes. It was sanctioned by religions, although if you read between the lines of the Bible, which is the religious literature I know best, you will see that even animal sacrifice is in part expiation for fellow creature-killing. Rabbinic commentaries suggest meat-eating was permitted after the flood as a channel for human violence. But the fact is, it is permitted, and it was a normal (and pretty much unexamined) part of every day life.

I was also born into a suburban world, a world where most of us, at least in this country, were no longer farmers and were no longer directly connected to the cycle of life and death that results from being closer to nature or living in rural, farming environments. We got our food from the local grocery store, already neatly packaged and separated from its source. Culturally we had no awareness of sources, not for food, not for clothing and not for much of anything else we used. Remember, I’m talking more than half a century ago.

And things changed so dramatically over the last half century. Grocery stores are huge compared to what they were. Fast food and cheap clothing is what we expect. And the source of those products has changed so dramatically. Factory farms have entered the landscape. Our numbers have increased, but so have our appetites. Everything became mechanized while we weren’t watching. And our separation from the issues of survival and the process of life and death is total, with devastating effects to our spiritual state and our emotional state.

It’s hard work to reconnect. It’s step-by-step work, work I feel I need to do — but I also don’t want to get overwhelmed by the suffering in the world, the suffering and pain we endure and the suffering and pain we inflict.

Maybe some moral isolation is a necessity to live productive lives. Incidents like killing Cecil the Lion remind us, though, that it’s a luxury we can’t afford. It’s not enough to condemn the action of a man who killed a beautiful creature for “sport.”

Concerned people have¬†heard the stories and seen the pictures of what allegedly goes on at factory farms. I wrote a post titled “5 Reasons Vegans Shouldn’t Publish Disturbing Animal Pictures.” These pictures are just too disturbing, and I wonder what they accomplish.

Can we live in a world like this and not become morally immune? I did. I didn’t notice my shoes.

A friend of mine, Pauline Yearwood from Chicago Jewish News, shared this comment on FaceBook, and it seems appropriate:

From Gary L. Francione, The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights

If you are upset about the killing of Cecil the Lion and you are not a vegan, then you are suffering from moral schizophrenia. There is no difference between Cecil and all of the animals you eat who value their lives as much as the lion valued his.

I have been a moral schizophrenic in my life, and to an extent, I probably will always be one. But for my own spiritual health and for the health of the planet, I will work every day to be less of one.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.