Reflecting on how the seemingly puny life of an insect helped channel big realizations about the value of all creatures, Anat Pick links an early childhood memory to her current academic work, and the idea of “vegan scholarship.” Connecting the dots between past and present, and between her personal, professional, and moral life as a vegan, extends – and complicates – the meaning and potential of “activism.” Part story, part essay, this piece challenges us to think about the lies we sometimes tell ourselves to avoid discomfort or shame, and how uncovering them can sharpen our understanding, and strengthen our commitment.
by Anat Pick
Animals change everything.
For some, change happens slowly, or not yet. Mine took place before time began, like an ancient molecular turbulence: animals have always been my old friends. Yet, changed or not, we all make our way in the world partly knowing, partly shaded from truth.
Heaving summer nights in Tel Aviv brought scores of brown cockroaches cascading through windows. They darted across the floor, or lay exhausted between the enameled boulders of the bathtub. Unwanted visitors, they often met their end under the sole of a shoe or from the smack of a rolled-up newspaper. But what I remember most is the red and white canister with the scary picture of a spindly, long-antennaed roach.
I was four or five, and indignant. To avoid my ardent campaigning on those hot summer nights, my parents said that the spray didn’t kill, only “put the cockroach to sleep.” Looking back, I must have known it wasn’t true. To alleviate childish distress, parents offer what feel like empathic solutions. But what appeared sound at the time sowed the seeds of guilt and mistrust. It takes two to be lied to. The success of this particular parental strategy hinged on my tacit complicity, on the promise of comfort with which my parents sensed my five-year-old self would collude.
First fibs set one up for a lifetime of negotiation, remuneration, and compromise. By going along with the falsehood, I was conceding to a mature existence of convenient untruths. Some known things are left unsaid just so we can get through the day. To suspend niggling doubts about the way the world is, we do not just avoid inconvenient truths, but make up convenient lies. We may not always know it, but those little adjustments come at a price. Unwittingly, the lie opened inside me and dug its roots deep into my flesh. It was shortly after that I began to fear the quick-legged intruders. I feel that fear still, when recalling the tickly whiff of the spray, or the cockroach flipped on his back, six legs clawing at air before folding up neatly across the thorax, like a Catholic.
If I never forgave my parents for drawing me into the silent agreement, it was with my own self-deceit that I had to contend. Since that first lie, I colluded with others, little white lies, for consolation and comfort, to smooth over the facts or put off having to think about them for later.
I became a vegetarian at 10. Animals were still changing me in all kinds of imperceptible ways. I brought home stray after stray, and my parents gave in and helped rehome them. Sometimes at night, I’d awake to the squeals of a feral cat trapped under a car, or the howl of a lost dog. I slept like a dog, one ear perked up and ready for action. I got bitten and licked, dreamed of becoming a vet, learned about evolution, and cherished the notion we descended from apes, even if the comparison put us to shame. I preached at home, at school, to my neighbors and friends. It was my vocation, my hobby, my personal signature.
Adulthood agrees with some, inhibits others. It took me all this time – from going to college to teaching in one – to make a connection between my academic profession and my ethical life that sought a response to the violence, at times too awesome to contemplate, inflicted by humans on billions of animals. Animals change everything, but though, while teaching film at university from 2003, I was already vegan, I wasn’t yet sure what veganism meant for my writing and teaching. I had almost forgotten my earlier self, that alert adolescent, pulling kittens from underneath cars at three in the morning.
To be a successful adult, show and garner respect, and act collegiately, it can seem hard to teach from a committed vegan position. In many ways, academia is no different from other places of work. But unlike an office or a commercial firm, universities trade in the intangible, and, despite heavy marketization, liberal arts education still carries the hint and hopes of noble intentions, the postwar pedagogical dream of creating better persons and more virtuous citizens.
As I published more work on animal ethics, my confidence grew. There was no need for white lies or subterfuge. But it was still complicated. The problem was, and remains, figuring out the connection between ways of thinking and living, and how to communicate them to students whose lives and thoughts differ from mine in numerous ways. There is understandably suspicion about “advocacy” at work. But if you believe in the connection between what is and what ought to be, and between thought and flesh, then advocacy and rigorous inquiry are not divorced. It’s important that my students and colleagues know that I’m vegan, and know it for all that it is: not a lifestyle or diet, but a vision that filters my life choices and knowledge. As Mariann suggested in her Our Hen House piece “The Church of Veganism,” ethical veganism can’t be siphoned off from other areas of life. Being vegan shapes our view of the world. My own veganism cannot be separated from my scholarship any more than my being alive in this moment, in this part of the world can. It’s the most universal and personal fact of my life.
Although it isn’t particularly elegant, I refer to my work as “vegan scholarship.” So much of our time is spent at work – it makes no sense to check commitment at the door and collect it again on our way home. For a time now, I’ve been trying to work out what it means to “do” vegan scholarship, to teach, research, and interact with colleagues as a vegan.
I’ve learned a lot from animal activists in the last couple of years. Activism is uniquely efficient in getting the message across, but it can sometimes gloss over complications, contradictions, and – most of all – negativities. One thing that approaching veganism through art and philosophy can do is to creatively dwell on the impasse. In the classroom, my experience has been, as Our Hen House puts it, “indefatigably positive,” precisely because students like to ponder the dark side and are willing to face tough questions and inconvenient truths. It might seem counterintuitive, but in class impasse can be productive, not restrictive. For example, the pessimistic idea that we do what we do to animals simply because we have the power to do so may not gain much traction as an activist argument. From a philosophical perspective, however, it can be transformative because it teaches us something about ourselves.
When these unsavory truths unfold in a pedagogical context, when what drives their disclosure is a passionate but inquisitive spirit, they are more easily considered and accepted. I suppose what I’m saying about the white lies we all tell – even as activists or advocates – is that they are valuable if, in uncovering them, we fulfill that old philosophical wisdom of know thyself. My childhood memory of choosing to know untruthfully is psychologically indicting, but also revelatory.
If I’m a vegan at work, this is not for the zeal with which I deliver to students animal-centric educational content, but rather for the often indirect ways in which veganism permeates everything I say and do. I make it a point at work to be an “out” vegan among my colleagues, but it’s no great effort to tie veganism to my teaching because, in my case, teaching film is in no small measure teaching my students how to look at and frame the world differently. The act of framing is fateful when we look but don’t see those worldly things, ourselves included, that are more-than-just-human. It is only when others enter the frame that cinema begins.
Education, like other collective endeavors, is directional. It needn’t be dogmatic, but it needs to be heading somewhere. What goes by the name of a “balanced” discussion is often neither neutral nor benign, but leaves students and educators alike in limbo. Veganism gives an orientation to my work: vegan scholarship is committed to engaging with other animals, in idea and in practice, in pursuit of the nonviolent good. This doesn’t mean I’ll end up where I started, or expect that others agree, only that I know that I’m moving.
What of the tale of the sleeping cockroach? Can’t I come up with other, more formative moments? Sure, but they don’t capture the quiet force of half recollections pieced together over a cup of tea or while rummaging through Word files looking for a missing citation. Veganism turned out to be the enduring vigilance born of that early conundrum: the first lie that taught me something about my own limitations, and commitments.
Anat Pick teaches film at Queen Mary, University of London, United Kingdom. She is the author of Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film (Columbia University Press, 2011) – check out OHH’s review – and coeditor of the forthcoming Screening Nature: Cinema Beyond the Human (Berghahn, 2013). Anat has published essays on animals in visual culture, and ethical veganism. Listen to Anat on Episode 117 of the Our Hen House podcast.