This is a post about teaching (that impossible work to which I’ve devoted much of my adult life). This is also a post about animal rights (a topic some readers would prefer I leave alone). But mainly this is a post about writing: about the sheer force of the written word, when it is written well.
I came to animal rights through my head, not my heart. I care about animals, but my decision to stop eating them involved less pining over their suffering than thinking my way through the ethics of using them as commodities. It entailed a lot of reading, discussion, and thought. Ultimately, my conclusions seemed not only clear, but inevitable: If a being can suffer, it isn’t ethical to cause or contribute to that suffering. Period. I’ve read hundreds of books and articles on the topic since I came to that conclusion, and I’ve never read a thing that convinced me otherwise.
I’m proud of the fact that I’ve built my choices on a solid ethical foundation—rather than sentiment. In the university course on animal rights I’m teaching, I’m determined to bring that foundation to my students. I don’t want to just make them cringe at the thought of animals being tortured on factory farms—that’s easy—but to get them to think deeply, ask questions, and come to their own answers, whether or not those answers are the same as mine. Feeling is important: But thinking is essential. So I was surprised at what happened one morning before class.
Just before I teach, I review the assigned readings one last time. I was doing this when I came across a passage I hadn’t paid much attention to before. It was written by Depression-era feminist author Tillie Olsen in her novel, Yonnondio. It describes a slaughterhouse.
Abandon self, all ye who enter here. Become component, part, geared, meshed. . . Hogs dangling, dancing along the convey . . . To the shuddering drum of the skull crush machine . . . Geared, meshed: the kill room: knockers, shacklers, pritcher-uppers, stickers, headers, rippers, leg breakers, best and aitch sawyers, caul pullers, fell cutters, rumpers, splitters, vat dippers, skinners, gutters, pluckers.
All through the jumble of buildings, of death, dismembership, and vanishing entire, for harmless creatures meek and mild, frisky, wild—Hell.
My emotions took me by surprise. Olsen’s writing hijacked me, sent me careening into sadness and frustration and anger. There they were in front of me—the sights and sounds of the kill room, the fear and pain, the torture, the killing, the “harmless creatures.” I sat paralyzed by the stun gun of Tillie Olsen’s words, overwhelmed with sorrow. Me: the person so proud of my intellectual approach. Olsen’s writing had cut right through to my heart—had dismembered me.
Class was starting in 15 minutes, and I was a wreck. I picked up another article, and forced myself to read, trying to focus, to think about what I was going to cover, pushing back the images Olsen had infected my brain with.
The new article was by a Christian feminist scholar named Kristen Largen—a strong work presenting compelling arguments against the killing of nonhuman animals for food and clothing. Another argument, I thought rather bitterly as I read, that most people would never hear of, and others would ignore. Yet Largen seemed unfazed by that inevitability. At the end of her article, she writes,
I know that many remain unconvinced by any of the arguments I have proposed . . . I know this is true today, and I know it will be true tomorrow—and yet, I continue to actively hope for change, trusting that God has a different vision for us, that the Holy Spirit is at work . . . [that] God has something wondrously, radically different in store for us in the kingdom. And this hope both encourages and inspires me to live differently, to live as though the vision I hope for were really true now.
I am not a Christian—I don’t know what to call myself any longer—but this passage was so full of hope, so luminous with optimism, that I immediately felt lighter. The images of suffering that Tillie Olsen had planted in my brain were still there, but next to them, there was something radiant and courageous. Maybe there is a force for good in the world. Who knows? Maybe there is change afoot. Maybe there is something “wondrously, radically different in store for us.” Those words were what got me through, got me to stand up and go to my class, and teach.
Tillie Olsen, Kristen Largen. Words that broke my heart, and words that healed it. All in the space of a few minutes before class one morning. This is the power of good writing.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...