In this interview with the animal rights campaign group ANDA in Brazil, Clare Mann shares her work in animal social justice
You may know about the Cube of Truth public rallies in cities around Australia. As part of a global movement called Anonymous for the Voiceless, animal advocates don masks and create a physical square in a public place whilst holding TV screens with images of undercover animal cruelty in abattoirs. Reports all over the world say that most people stop to see the footage and ask for more information.
We all know how difficult it is to get friends or family to see graphic images of animal cruelty. They often resist seeing videos of cruelty and refuse to even talk about it. When we raise these issues, we’re criticised for being fussy eaters or telling people what to do. Why is it easier for people to view animal cruelty in the Cube of Truth than listen to friends and family about where their food comes from? I believe it is because people are in a social trance i.e. the societal programing they don’t even realise they’re part of.
Living in a Trance
Existential philosophy is the study of what it is “to exist”. Existential writers talk about ‘trance-like’ behavior and how it limits us in how we live our lives. Heidegger talks about the “They Self” and Nietzsche “The Herd”, both showing the power of society on how we see ourselves and others. In The Myths of Life and the Choices We Have I call it the Group Myth (Mann 2012). The Group Myth is the unquestioned assumption that, “It’s better to be part of a group than be an individual”.
Our family influences from the moment we are born and the ideals, values and expectations we learn there continue to follow us throughout our lives. The Group Myth is so powerful that we can lose a real sense of who we and others are. The following quote by Cooper (1972:11), although written in flowery existential language, sums this up:
“One of the first lessons one is taught in the course of one’s family conditioning is that one is not enough to exist in the world on one’s own. One is instructed in detail to disown one’s self and to live agglutinatively so that one glues bits of other people onto oneself and then proceeds to ignore the difference between the otherness of one’s self and the self-sameness of one’s self. This is alienation in the sense of a passive submission to the invasion of others, originally the family other”.
The Power of the Group Myth
In conversations, body language like tone of voice, facial expression and gestures all add meaning to the words we use. When we have a vested interest in a relationship, we tend to automatically interpret their body language based on assumptions of our shared history and past conversations.
In conversations with family members, you might regularly hear them say, “Here we go again!” when you raise your eyebrows. When you do this in a conversation about veganism because you’re unsure about someone they said, it’s likely that they’ll unconsciously react to your subtle facial changes and say, “Here we go again!” In a fraction of a second, their attention moves to the interaction and shared history with you rather than what you’re saying. A button has been pressed and the conversation becomes emotionally charged.
You’re likely to unconsciously realise this and automatically change your behavior to get them to focus on what you’re saying. Automatically, you adjust the tone, content or urgency of your message. This then triggers a reaction in them which you pick up making you feel judged, criticised or laughed at and the whole interpersonal dance continues. The person you’ve been speaking with shifts their attention away from the emotional content of the vegan message to the emotional energy in your interaction. The result is that the listener shifts their attention to how they feel about you rather than how they feel in relation to the animal cruelty.
The Cube of Truth enables someone to consider animal cruelty without relationship dynamics getting in the way because the:
- Exchange between activist and observer is impersonal.
- Person holding the screen is anonymous behind the mask.
- Masks and body language are symbolic of a social trance.
- Observers experience their emotional reactions alone.
- Facial expressions of the person behind the mask can’t be seen.
- There is a perception of watching the material in isolation.
Anonymous for the Voiceless is an apt name for this movement, since people holding the television screens are totally unknown to the public who aren’t able to identify the activists who could be their mother, brother or neighbour.
As the person watches the screens, they can’t see the micro facial expressions that would exist even in the most non-judgmental activist. The result is that the observer experiences their own feelings in relation to the animal cruelty footage, something they’re often able to avoid if a conversation with someone they know becomes heated.
I believe that in this unique social exchange, the non-vegan doesn’t feel judged, the trance is momentarily broken and they are challenged to consider their existing beliefs about where their food comes from. The reactions then switch from, “I have a right to choose what to eat” to “I can’t believe this is happening” and often, “What else don’t I know?” When they reach this conclusion, the guard is lowered and they’re more likely to want answers to their questions. The un-masked activist in the crowd can then step in and discuss the issues as if they too have been duped.
Anonymous for the Voiceless is a unique opportunity to challenge people’s experience of what they currently believe is “normal”. In face to face exchanges, we don’t always have this opportunity in the same way. This shift in interpersonal complexity is key to understanding the depth of the vegan’s trauma. In conversations about animal cruelty, we want them to connect emotionally with the effect of their food choices but often their emotional reactions are outside of the confronting material itself. Anonymous for Voiceless momentarily enables a person to escape the trance and more easily see the truth
The experience of being a vegan is existential in nature and the notion of the trance shows why vegans experience this existential angst. This is something I have named Vystopia (2017) i.e. “The “Existential crisis experienced by vegans which arises out of an awareness of the trance-like collusion with a dystopian world. It’s the awareness of the greed, ubiquitous animal exploitation and speciesism in a modern dystopia”.
A dystopia is an imagined place of darkness, greed, competition, cruelty and totalitarianism. It is the opposite of Utopia in which there is joy, kindness, happiness, abundance and compassion. Vystopia is a vegan dystopia and exists within the knowledge of the trance of society which stops people following the crowd and resisting change and enlightenment.
If you have following symptoms, you’re likely to be suffering from vystopia:
- Intense grief at the enormity of the ubiquitous animal abuse.
- Frustration at being unable to wake people up from the trance.
- Feelings of alienation from non-vegans.
- Loneliness within groups you previously felt part of.
- Despair and hopelessness that things will never change.
- Feelings that everything you believed to be true is lies.
- Powerlessness to effect change on a global level.
We’re reminded of our vystopia every time someone resists the vegan message. People may openly discuss the merits of a plant-based diet but resist discussing the darker side of animal agriculture. We often think they don’t care when maybe it has more to do with their awareness that when they know the truth they’ll have to change their eating habits. If they change their eating habits they’ll face powerful social and family norms and potential rejection from groups they value being part of.
Social norms – collective, allegedly shared, agreed ways of behaving in a group – are powerful determinants of how someone behaves. Individuals who act in ways counter to these norms become subject to enormous pressure to change their behaviour. These pressures may be direct and imply expulsion from the group if they don’t conform. They may be covert, and involve alienation, non-involvement in or access to group activities and exchange of information. The individual has a choice – they can stay and conform or leave because the pressure to conform becomes too powerful. The non-vegan faces a dilemma like the vegan has before. The vegan has become excluded from groups they previously valued and the society they no longer feel part of. They live in an existential vystopia except when in their own global vegan family.
Is there a cure for vystopia?
The cure for vystopia is a vegan world that extends beyond the non-exploitation of animals to include the non-exploitation of humans. Exploitation of humans will always exist whilst we are part of a machinery that maintains us in a state of trance where we don’t even question abuse. This may sound like an unachievable Utopia. However, all positive steps in human history arise out of people coming together and holding a vision which is very different from their current reality. It takes leaders to share this vision and ‘walk the talk” of their conviction so others say, “We can do better than this and we will!” We are the new leaders in creating this brave new world where all sentient creatures are respected and yet our everyday vystopia can be debilitating.
Tools to Survive in a Vystopian World
- Practice exquisite self-care with good diet, exercise and regular down-time.
- Surround yourself with others who care and understand.
- Choose to be compassionate to non-vegans living in the trance.
- Improve your communication skills to talk more easily about veganism.
- Join vegan groups where you can make a difference to the world.
COOPER, D. (1972) The Death of the Family. 2nd edn. UK: Pelican
HEIDEGGER, M. (1962) Being and Time. US: Harper & Row Publishers Inc.
MANN, C.E. (2012) The Myths of Life and The Choices We Have. Australia: Koromiko Publishing.
MANN, C.E. (2017) Vystopia: The Mental Anguish of Being Vegan in a Non-Vegan World. Australia: Communicate31 (in pub)
NIETSZCHE, F. (1983) Thus Spake Zarathustra. R.J. Hollingdale. Harmondsworth: Penguin 1961
This original article was edited and originally published in the fifth issue (Nov/Dec 2017) of The Australian Vegan Magazine. This magazine is intended to reach both vegans and non-vegans through the latest news and research, hard-hitting issues, vegan celebrity interviews, animal welfare stories, and loads of other vegan lifestyle features. This magazine is available throughout Australia and more information about the publication and a list of outlets can be found at http://www.tavm.com.au
Natasha and Luca from That Vegan Couple run regular podcasts on becoming vegan, staying vegan and creating a light and minimalist lifestyle.