Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Feeding the hungry while caring for the animals.

There was a conversation recently in the Livejournal community Veganpeople that I found truly disturbing and indicative of an ongoing problem in a segment of the vegan community -- a lack of respect and compassion for non-vegan people. (Please understand, I do not suggest that this is characteristic of the vegan community as a whole, but I'm referring to the folks who give the rest of us a bad name.)

The question was raised whether it was ethical for a vegan to give money to a homeless person, knowing they may spend it to buy a hamburger. This is a valid question, of course, but it unleashed a good deal of privilege, stigmatic language, and apathy. I'm used to that in conversations about the homeless, but I suppose I just hoped that as a compassion-focused group, our vegan community would rise above.

Homeless kids, facing away to respect
their privacy, showing off the gifts they
received through The Humble Stitch Project
while the weather was still warm.
Depending on how you came to be reading this blog, you may know that I'm the founder of The Humble Stitch Project. In two winters, we've managed to make and distribute nearly 1,000 cold weather clothing items (handmade scarves, hats, and gloves) to the homeless of South Florida. We've accomplished this by relying on the compassion of individuals all over the world who have donated their time, their handiwork, and their supplies to make this happen.

The impetus for starting The Humble Stitch was to help restore the dignity of our homeless neighbors. We could have done a drive to collect used clothing, or a fundraiser for the local homeless outreach programs. Why handmade? Because a handmade item does more than keep the recipient warm; it shows them that someone cares. Someone chose to give them a gift, not just charity. (With a gift, the giver and the recipient can be equals. With charity, one is held above the other.) By giving a gift, by treating them as equals, we grant them the dignity that all living beings deserve.

Similarly, by allowing people to make their own decisions we treat them as equals. By taking that decision away from them, we diminish them. So while The Humble Stitch website FAQs state a preference for vegan fibers, we won't reject any item that's received. Why? It's not our right to make that decision for someone else. Who am I to decide for someone else whether they would rather wear wool or risk exposure?

The same principle applies to food. It is not for me to dictate to any person what they can or cannot eat, as though they were my child. It's patronizing and demeaning to do so, and simply foolish to suppose that doing so when you have someone over a barrel has any significant impact. As I pointed out in the Livejournal discussion, even if I were to accompany the person to a nearby store and purchase them something vegan to eat, what is stopping the store owner from using the profits from my purchase to restock the beef jerky? And what's to stop the person in need from going to buy that burger with the next dollar he or she receives? Focusing on that one meal is "straining out the gnat, but gulping down the camel." As advocates, we have bigger targets for which to aim. We need to worry about the food system that feeds a cow unnatural amounts of grain, or force-feeds fowl until their livers are about to burst, but starves the hungry and thirsty children of the planet.

But, my vegan friends may ask, how do I justify giving money that I know may contribute to animal exploitation? Unless your landlord is a vegan, and your dentist, and your hairstylist, you're unfortunately already in that situation. The money that you pay them feeds their families, does it not? Last year, a wise vegan friend said to me, in reference to giving money to the homeless, "Whether I give it to them is between me and God; what they do with it once I do is between them and God." Just as we have no right to make choices for others, we are not responsible for the choices they make.

Certainly no one is obligated to give money to every person in need who asks. But if you choose to do so, do so from compassion. Give it as a gift, not just charity. Afford the person the dignity of making their own decisions, and focus your energy where it can do real good - convincing others of the vital reasons to re-evaluate their food choices.

The change that vegan advocates wish to see starts in the mouths of men and women - not just with what we eat, but with what we say. This is why it's vitally important that we demonstrate compassion, not just for animals, not just for the disadvantaged, but for every person we speak to about veganism. If others feel diminished by our discourse, they will never benefit from it. We must recognize their right to make this decision for themselves, while we help them to see what the best decision is.


  1. That's the beginning and the end of it. Beautifully spoken, dear heart.

  2. I agree with you completely. Its wrong to withhold help because people don't believe the same things that you do. There are some extremest in every group that give the group a bad name. Like animal activist that attack scientist or pro-lifers who attack doctors. It seems hypocritical. Humans are animals too.