Gary Yourofsky, renowned worldwide as one of the most prominent fighters for animal rights, will be visiting Israel again in December. Even among vegans and animal rights organizations, he sparks controversy for his uncompromising and militant stand, slashing style and advocacy of violence as a vital part of any revolution. Personally, I disagree with many of the things he says and proposes, but I believe he is an important figure on the ethical and political scene of the early 21st century; even those who do not agree with him should listen to what he has to say. Yourofsky takes people out of their comfort zone. Not only meat eaters and fur fans, but many vegans, too, are uncomfortable hearing him speak his mind.
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It is easy to remain indifferent to the suffering of animals. They cannot write newspaper articles or speak on the radio, and their screams are kept far away from our ears − or at least carefully attenuated, mitigated and moderated. Yourofsky has made it his goal to be the animals’ mouthpiece and to make their screams heard without any censorship. Listening to him, it is very hard to remain indifferent. One can obviously disagree with him (sometimes it is perhaps best to disagree with him), but Yourofsky forces us to seriously consider the fate of farm animals and to reflect on the possibility that the way billions of cows, sheep, pigs and chickens are treated by humans is a crime of historic proportions. This is why I was glad to have this opportunity to discuss things with Gary Yourofsky. I tried not to waste time on arguing but to attempt a better understanding of his views and his message. Following is a transcript of our discussion:
Gary Yourofsky: “My stepfather used to be a clown in the Shrine Circus,” he begins. “He took me backstage when I was 23. I saw three elephants chained to the cement floor in the warehouse of the Michigan State Fairgrounds. Sadness, hopelessness and fear were emanating from their eyes and their bodies. They were swaying neurotically from side to side. A monkey was screaming in his cage, grabbing the bars of his prison, begging to be released. Two tigers were pacing neurotically in their tiny cages. Cruelty was staring me in the face. I knew something was wrong. If you pay attention to energy, you can tell when a fellow being is in peril. The slave-show I witnessed made me question where my food and my shoes came from, what truly went on in an animal research laboratory, etc.
“I ended up going to Thorn Apple Valley pig slaughterhouse in Detroit for six weeks straight. I couldn’t believe my eyes. My heart hurt. Their fear was palpable. The screams were impossible to brush aside. I knew I had to make a choice. Was I going to be their friend or their enemy? Was I going to be a bigot (speciesist) and a hypocrite or ethically consistent? How could I condemn the abuse of elephants in circuses but not the murder of animals in slaughterhouses? Vegetarianism was my first step in ‘95. Then, once I was properly informed about how evil the dairy and egg industries were, I became vegan on July 24, 1996.
“I hear your eating habits were impacted by your research. What did you learn that influenced you to stop being a part of industries that enslave and murder animals?”
Yuval Noah Harari: “My own path to veganism began in 2000, when I went to a Vipassana meditation retreat, which made me realize that the question of suffering is the most important question in life. Later on, while writing a book on the history of humankind, I was exposed to a lot of studies about the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. Reading these studies with an open mind, I was shocked to realize both the immensity of the harm humans have caused animals and the callous attitude that most scientific studies take toward it. It seemed that the fate of animals is both the greatest crime in history and the greatest lie in history. One of the most paradoxical principles of propaganda and brainwashing is ‘the bigger the lie, the easier it is to believe it.’ When you lie on a truly massive scale, the lie covers everything, so it is more difficult to expose it. People simply cannot imagine that something that big can be a complete lie.
One of the reasons why many people have difficulty with the idea that animals are suffering is that the implications are just too terrible to contemplate. Our whole economy, our society, politics and religions are founded on the exploitation of billions of farm animals, while denying their suffering.”
Gary: “By sheer numbers alone, humans collectively have never suffered like the animals have. In the last 12 months alone, 60 billion land animals and 90 billion marine animals were killed by the meat, dairy and egg industries worldwide. Billions more are enslaved and killed by hunters, the vivisection industry, circuses, zoos, rodeos and the clothing conglomerates. When the numbers of animal murders that humans have committed over the last 1,000-12,000 years are added to this equation, I am pretty sure that we run out of numbers. We can’t count that high. So it’s true that technologically, humans are the most brilliant species that has ever existed, but ethically, we are on par with parasites, for we use technology and our capabilities to harm others. Man is responsible for the greatest species extinction ever, for polluting rivers and for deforestation − and our technological superiority is exactly what made us believe we’re superior to other animals and they’re worthless. This is ridiculous, not only because animals are conscious beings, equal to us in their capacity to feel and suffer, but because the animals don’t need technology to survive. We do. There’s never been any reason for the animal kingdom to advance technologically. The human species would collapse without air conditioning, heat, transportation, refrigeration, etc.”
Yuval: “Most up-to-date scientific studies are reaching the conclusion that all mammals and birds, and probably some reptiles and fish, too, have consciousness, emotions and the capacity to suffer. Going by the latest studies in animal cognition, there seems to be no evidence that homo sapiens has some kind of special consciousness or a greater capacity to suffer. We certainly have better technological abilities, and we are better at solving particular kinds of problems, but as far as the question of suffering goes, that doesn’t make much of a difference. As a historian by profession, my impression is that what turned humans into the masters of the world is our ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. One-on-one, a human has no marked advantage over a chimpanzee or a pig. But pit 1,000 humans against 1,000 chimps or pigs, and the humans will win easily, for the simple reason that 1,000 chimps can never cooperate effectively. There are species that can cooperate in large numbers, such as ants, but they do so in a very rigid way. There are species that can cooperate very flexibly, like chimps, but they do so only with a small number of intimate acquaintances. Homo sapiens is the only species on earth that can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. This is why we rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers, and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.
“What enables us to do that? Our ability to imagine things that don’t really exist, like gods, nations, money and human rights. Study any large-scale human cooperation, and you will find that it is based on imaginary stories that people invent and tell one another. You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death. Homo sapiens is the only animal that can believe such stories, and that’s our secret of success as a species (as individuals, we pay a very high price for this dubious ability). Homo sapiens is the only animal who can believe imaginary concepts such as “heaven.” The humanistic view, which sees humans as intrinsically superior to all other animals, is no different from the belief in heaven. It’s a fiction. But it is also the secret to our success as a species, for by believing in such fictions we build states, armies and corporations.”
Gary: It is so disheartening that our species has been transformed into walking zombies via religion, and government, schools and the media. Buy this product or go to this university, and you’ll be happy. Wear this cologne, and you’ll get laid. Eat these dead animals, and you’ll be a man. Believe in this invisible being in the sky, and you’ll go to a pretty place after you die. It is all so crazy. No lie can live forever. Injustice can’t last eternally. All oppressed beings receive their equality and freedom at some point. Sadly, it usually takes hundreds or thousands of years for this to happen. Many humans are still fighting to achieve their freedom and equal treatment under the law. And the animals are seeking the same.”
Yuval: “I am less optimistic than you. I don’t think we are necessarily progressing toward a better world. We are developing technologies that will enable us to exterminate or completely enslave most other organisms on the planet, while upgrading ourselves into powerful godlike beings. If and when the ecological doomsday arrives, humankind has a fair chance of surviving it with the help of novel technologies. This is exactly why we are not doing everything in our power to prevent that doomsday.”
Gary: “When the plants are gone, we will still find a way to photosynthesize. When the water is polluted and unfit to drink, we will create water in a laboratory and ship it to people in the pipes that are already connected to their homes/businesses. When the air is so polluted that it is deadly to breathe, we will create a way to purify it before inhaling it via some sort of headgear that sprays a mist of ‘cleanliness’ every second to disinfect the air before it enters our noses/mouths. Or build huge structures [to surround] cities and have clean, laboratory-made air pumped into it.
“But lies are eventually exposed, and that exposure leads to great change. The problem is when. When will the lies be exposed? It could take another 12,000 years, but it will end at some point. Justice will always prevail. But when evil is exposed, people eventually change, or the evil ones are killed off. Either way is fine with me. Change is a slow, drawn-out process, because the truth is never accepted overnight. It always has to pass through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. People always make fun of something they don’t understand, especially when it involves being kind to someone else. Second stage is denial and violent opposition. People refuse to accept that there’s an atrocity taking place and they fight tooth and nail to keep the status quo as is. Third stage of truth is acceptance. There’s no longer a need to explain it. We seem to be endlessly stuck in the first two stages when it comes to animal liberation, but one day the hate and animosity toward animals will end, and the animals will obtain their freedom.”
Yuval: “I think it is wrong to label our attitude toward animals as ‘hatred.’ Hatred is a very concrete experience. It is a particular physiological and mental state. I don’t think that the terrible suffering of billions of animals is caused by human enmity. In most cases, it is due to greed coupled with indifference. Most people who drink milk don’t hate cows. Meat-eaters don’t hate cows; they just don’t care about them. Humans have created a giant socioeconomic machine that is built on distance. It distances the consumer from the slaughterhouse. It enables people to indulge their desires for pleasure and comfort at the expense of other sentient beings, but without being aware of it. Most great crimes in history were born not of hatred, but of people not having to confront the consequences of their own actions. For example, most of the people who enriched themselves from the early modern slave trade never saw a slave in their lives. Most 18th-century Europeans who sweetened their tea and cookies with sugar grown in the American slave plantations never wondered ‘Who produces my sugar?’
“When we witness terrible suffering, we want to believe that it is caused by evil people. Because we are tempted to hate those responsible, and it is easier to hate evil people than indifferent people. But the problem is indifference, not hatred, and therefore there is also not much point in hating those responsible for it.”
Gary: “The problem isn’t indifference but ignorance. Not knowing that female animals are raped to impregnate them in the ‘food’ industries is an issue of ignorance, not indifference. Not knowing that hens are de-beaked with a red hot blade while they’re fully conscious in the egg industry is an issue of ignorance, not indifference. Not knowing that mother cows in dairy facilities have their babies stolen from them after birth to preserve more milk for human consumption is an issue of ignorance, not indifference. Not realizing that animals are rational, aware and intelligent is an issue of ignorance and flat-out stupidity, but it is certainly not indifference − it is ignorance and stupidity. But with all this being said, the issue still remains how we can make the masses care about injustice. How can people be galvanized into action? How can the lies be eradicated in order to make compassion reign supreme? Education, along with a dash of retaliatory violence, is always the answer. Education is the most effective way of freeing any oppressed group. Direct action (liberations), advertising and tactical violence are the next three most effective ways of achieving justice for all. Many civil rights activists in America also supported/used violence to end segregation (Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, Rosa Parks), and they were as essential to the movement as the pacifist [Martin Luther] King.
Gandhi’s followers killed British soldiers and rioted, but that didn’t prevent the world from supporting their push for freedom. Even Nelson Mandela was a proud proponent of violence. So the evidence is clear; violence is never counter-productive. Apathy, on the other hand, and playing political games, is!”
Yuval: “You are certainly right in pointing a finger at ignorance, but you might be letting indifference off the hook too lightly. All too often, indifference is the root of ignorance. If ignorance alone were the problem, then it would have been solved once people knew what was going on. Unfortunately, there are in the world many problems that people know well, and they are not solved, since there is an immense gap between theoretical knowledge and behavioral change. Smokers know very well that smoking is bad for their health, yet they go on smoking.
Humanity is aware of the damage it is causing the ecosystem and of the dangers this involves − yet we go on causing even greater ecological damage. As for the issue of violence, you wrote that ‘the evidence is clear; violence is never counter-productive.’ Now, you are certainly correct to point out that Mandela, Gandhi etc. − not to mention the Allies in World War II − used violence. It is sad to say, but violence is often useful in furthering all kinds of social and political goals. Yet I would not go so far as to argue that violence is never counterproductive.
There are many examples in history of violence that produced nothing of value. When the Jews rebelled against the Romans, the result was the destruction of Jerusalem and the slaughter, enslavement and exile of hundreds of thousands of Jews. In contrast, there are examples of great revolutions achieved with very little violence. Over the last decades, feminist movements and LGBT organizations have achieved great things without using almost any violence.”
Gary: “As for gays achieving liberation without violence, it is unfair to make that claim because gays have not been liberated in most parts of the world, including America. Women, too, have yet to achieve equality in most parts of the world. So saying that violence isn’t a necessary component in these groups’ revolutions is inaccurate. When they achieve pure equality/freedom everywhere, then that claim can be made. I wish violence didn’t have to be a necessary spoke in the wheel of activism. It sucks that retaliatory violence is an important factor to achieve substantive change. It is not the most important force by any stretch, but is a productive and effective force for change.”
Yuval: “If you agree that education is a key for changing our treatment of animals, wouldn’t you also agree that getting a foot into the education system would be a very important step forward? But working within the education system would require making some compromises. Would you be totally against any such compromise, even if it opens the door to kindergartens and schools?”
Gary: “I am opposed to compromises. I routinely decline offers to speak at high schools, middle schools and elementary schools if they won’t allow me to show a slaughterhouse video, and explain the graphic details of the meat, dairy and egg industries. My activism has proven that compromise is never necessary. All movements ended up using politics after they achieved their goals. They all defeated the enemy with logic, education, demos, violence and civil disobedience, not politics. Laws cannot be passed before the masses comprehend, and if for some reason laws are passed before comprehension takes place, the laws cannot be enforced. So talking politics now, during the animal liberation movement, is backward and ineffective. You can pass all the anti-animal cruelty laws you want, but until the masses understand why it’s evil to enslave and murder animals, the laws are toothless. Chicago outlawed foie gras years ago but never educated the people as to why it was outlawed. The restaurants ended up refusing to remove it from their menus, and food vendors started putting foie gras into hot dogs, pizzas and breads. It created more chaos. Also, California outlawed the sale of foie gras last year. So the restaurant owners said they were giving it away for free, and charging people $20 for the bread that came with it. No one bothered to explain that geese/ducks had steel poles shoved down their throats to force-feed them, which would have made people avoid it. Education first. Demos first. Violence first. Civil disobedience first. Then, politics/laws.
“The goal of politics/politicians is to deceive, create an image of caring, and to scam the masses into believing that the government will make things better. Governments are incapable of making the world a better place. The masses, on the other hand, can make this happen. When the masses change their ways, then society becomes more ethical, more loving, and more caring. Not one person the masses admire − Dr. King, Malcolm X, Mandela, Parks, Truth, Tubman, Thoreau, Gandhi, etc. − was a politician. They were activists. A few of them ended up being politicians later in life (Mandela and Gandhi), but their greatest achievements happened when they were activists.”
Yuval: “You seem to have a special animosity toward politicians. But I don’t really see how you can replace politics with ‘the masses.’ To be effective, the masses have to be organized. Organization requires funds, structures, and bureaucracy.
These, in turn, create interests that need to be protected and furthered. So you end up making all kinds of political deals. I am not familiar with any example of a mass movement that achieved its goals without establishing some kind of political structure and engaging in some kind of political activity. Obviously there are bad politicians, just as there are bad poets and bad doctors, but there is nothing bad about politics itself. On the contrary, it has a very powerful and positive element of truth. People who believe in pure ideals may sometimes find it hard to accept the fact that reality is complex and dirty, but it’s the only reality there is. The greatness of good politicians is their ability to see reality as it is and work with that. Very few revolutions in history managed to get going without good politicians to lead them. When revolutionaries refuse to dirty their hands with politics, the result is either failure, or worse, that some evil politician hijacks the revolutionary energy for his or her own sordid aims.
“I appreciate the merits of your uncompromising way, but I believe politics, as well, has an important place, especially since I believe that theoretical knowledge is not enough to bring about change. Many alcoholics know perfectly well that drinking causes them much suffering, yet they go on drinking alcohol. In the same manner, people may know that drinking milk entails enormous suffering to cows and their calves and still go on drinking milk.
“A far more promising approach may be to harness technology in novel ways. What do you think about the recent news of scientists growing meat from cells? The cost of the first hamburger manufactured in this way was $300,000. But given the proper investment, this could quickly be brought down. The economic and ecological advantages alone could be enough to cause a dramatic decrease in the number of animals we exploit and slaughter each year. What is your view on this matter?
Gary: “Since the foundation of animal liberation is solely based on ethics and compassion, if this allows meat-, dairy- and egg-eaters to live a cruelty-free lifestyle, then it is a positive turning point in the push for animal liberation. Having said this, I still think the creation of cultured ‘mock’ meat is backward and just proves how irrational meat-, dairy- and egg-eaters truly are because amazing-tasting ‘mock’ meat and dairy made from vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and spices have been around for years. Additionally, cultured meat won’t solve any health issues because it still has cholesterol, excessive amounts of fat, animal protein and trans fatty acids, which are the main causes of all major diseases. But I’ve always maintained that I am not the Health Police. So if people want to make themselves sick without harming animals in the process, then that is their right.”
Yuval: “Animal husbandry has been around for about 12,000 years, and over these 12,000 years the situation has only become worse and worse, both in terms of the numbers involved, and in terms of the level of cruelty. Why does it seem that things are changing now? My best guess is that in the 20th century, the dominant ideal was that of human universality: ‘All humans are equal, and all are part of the same global community.’ This ideal was the ideological basis for economic and political globalization. During the 20th century, the ideal of human universality had to struggle against competing nationalist ideals that focused on divisions within the species. Now that the universal ideal has won, we increasingly define ourselves not in national terms but in biological terms as a species, and so the frontlines are no longer within the species (nation vs. nation) but around the species. As we become more aware of our biological identity, we begin asking ourselves what defines this biological identity, and what are its limits. Hence, we are more interested in the relations between homo sapiens and other animals. Furthermore, the 21st century will probably witness the creation of superhumans, by means of genetic engineering, cyborg engineering, or the engineering of non-organic consciousness in computers. Ordinary humans will suddenly become obsolete. Most people will not have the money and connections to make the transition. They will remain just homo sapiens in a world governed by superior beings. Most people are not fully conscious of this yet, but they are subconsciously aware of the shifting winds. It is no wonder, therefore, that they have a lot of interest in the fate of beings that are not the superior life form on earth.”
Gary: “Israel’s awakening is truly remarkable. I am not sure why this is happening, but after speaking to more than 60,000 people, I have realized that those who have been oppressed − Jews, blacks, women, homosexuals, etc. − understand oppression more and − in most cases − do not want others to suffer like they have, or like their ancestors have. When Nazis rounded up Jews, babies were ripped out of their mothers’ arms. In the dairy industry, calves are stolen from their mothers after birth. Other animal mothers, such as sows, rabbits and ewes, have their babies taken within days, weeks or months after birth. All animals in the meat and dairy industries are branded with hot irons, or ear-notched with a numerical tag. Jews were sent to the concentration camps in the same extermination trucks that still send animals to slaughterhouses. The Nazis constructed human slaughterhouses to massacre millions, while these torture-buildings have been strategically built all over the planet to massacre billions of animals. Jews have been, while animals still are, treated like nothing, as if their lives don’t matter. You can also compare the two holocausts this way.
Go to the nearest cow or pig slaughterhouse and remove the animals and replace them with humans. You have now re-created Birkenau. If you travel back in time and remove the Jews from Birkenau and replace them with cows or pigs, a holocaust is still taking place. During my 2012 lectures in Israel, after showing a new slaughterhouse video, I asked thousands of people the following: ‘How come, if the animals in that video were dogs or cats, you’d be outraged? If they were kids, you’d be screaming bloody murder! Instead the victims are cows and chickens and fish and all of a sudden no one cares, it’s okay?’ So I’m a little confused here. Is the slaughterhouse a problem? Or is the problem who is getting killed in the slaughterhouse? It’s a house of slaughter. Why does it even exist? Especially in a country that loves to say, ‘Never again. It’ll never happen again.’ I got some news for you. The "Animal Holocaust" was happening long before the Jewish Holocaust, during the Jewish Holocaust, and it’s still happening today.”