this is a piece written for T.O.F.U. Magazine’s 12th issue on mental health & veganism. lots more of fantastic pieces to be found there, all at pay-what-you-can, so check it out.
AND there is an online chat about this writing, and 2 others, happening November 25th – for details, click here.
It is different for different people, but you just know it when it happens.
That lightbulb moment, tasting some epiphany, enlightenment, apotheosis, conversion; or whatever term fits your fancy. When your perspective on life broadens, deepens, dramatically enough for true insight to shine through – leaving no possibility of ever forgetting this meaningful revelation.
Think of Alice finding Wonderland: her curiosity about a mysterious white rabbit has her leaving behind the old for somewhere else, completely at odds with everything she thought she knew.
And this is what this writing is all about: new perspectives on old ideas.
Most vegans are familiar with this experience, in one fashion or another, witnessing their sense of self-bloom with change. Our relationship with animals, other earthlings, and to ourselves undergoing a murky transformative process that is both beautiful and tragic. The whole trip demands of us to reassess core values, basic habits, and general priorities in life.
And it is the very same when one gets sick.
Our brain, a bodily organ, becomes unwell with an illness that forbids any possibility of ever returning to life as we once knew it. Sometimes this looks like experiencing new audio-visual sensations, paranoia or hallucinations, changes in moods like detachment or exaggerated feelings, or else just general difficulty coping and relating to people and situations. Whatever the precise symptoms, and whether manifesting as a mood disorder or psychological trauma, maintaining healthy emotional habits and relationships always requires a great deal of perseverance to rebuild and exist.
“I know who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.”
So for all its parallels, one might expect more overlap between efforts to challenge oppression across species and differently abled communities. Unfortunately though, unpacking anthropocentric privileges tends to remain predominantly steeped in ableist mentalities. Sick vegans, animal advocates, continue to be excluded from most community efforts struggling for earthling liberation. This may very well be itself a product of the complex and nuanced relationship between these two cycles of oppression, with their patterns of corruption and exploitation always mutually reinforcing one another. In the simplest of terms, the relationship between the two can be differentiated along lines of the practical and the playful – the former concerning how politics are negotiated externally with non-vegan communities, and the latter being about how basic priorities and identities are understood amidst vegan culture internally.
In other words, veganism is practised and portrayed to the outside world in ways that abide by nearly every facet of systemic institutional ableism, conforming its cultural norms and activist tactics accordingly. Similarly, veganism is played out and imagined as a revolutionary perspective of existence only as far as the standards set by capitalist colonial society, thereby restricting its very potential before it has even begun.
Practically speaking, social change around animal rights is driven by a crisis-oriented agenda, where petitions, workshops, and rallies all tend to be reactionary in tone and intention. Not only does this undermine its effectiveness, but it also enables more capitalist-based value systems where activists self-define those of us who are the most stressed and exhausted as the most committed and successful. This explains the origins of, more blatantly, incessant emphasis on marketing veganism as a happy-go-lucky “healthy” consumer alternative. When you’re sick, however, subscribing to veganism as a health-based solution to mental illness is both inaccurate and unhelpful.
Otherwise, veganism tends to be practised as militant activism across social media – dominating public spaces and community forums, which tend to garner the most legitimacy and social capital among unique communities like vegans. But when you’re sick, entering high conflict spaces with many toxic emotions (all trolls aside) is as appealing as you might expect. Such aggressive, [self] abusive atmospheres forgo the possibility that one could “show up” with any vulnerability outside the thick skin required for guarding our emotional baggage and prejudiced assumptions that we all carry.
Playfully speaking, this dangerous dilemma is rarely recognized for the threat that it is, operating on a deeper psychological level that thwarts expectations of what progress and success actually mean. As an example, dominant cultural narratives teach us that happiness and liberation exist in a physical place (an afterlife; a utopia; a gentrified immigrant-less city), a time (retirement; the rapture; a stable economy; a nostalgic previous era) or an identity (a white, able-bodied/minded person, adhering to eurocentric standards of beauty, achieving the amerikan dream). But none of this requires a fascist with a moustache or bad haircut, nor any ominously mysterious transnational corporation – because these narratives now operate with enough momentum, relying upon social forces designed to uphold a status quo, including us, the people, who are so naturally inclined towards routines, traditions, and the familiar. Through both formal and informal methods of socialization, we ourselves are the fuel source for oppression, unable to escape the cycle of actively participating in perpetuating injustices. Thus, regardless of how we identify along the spectrums, oppression clings to all of us, turning our realities dull and grim, and making self-loathing despair easier than it ever should.
And that is a scary honest truth: evil, or whatever way you describe oppression in its rawest form, is simply banal and orthodox. There is very little about it that is exciting or compelling – outside the occasional events of candid hate that bubble to the surface (only to provoke the same superficial reactions by mainstream media). This is why every vegan activist effort seems doomed to fail: because it ignores the foundations of oppression (which also support other pillars of violence, commodification, objectification, and mass consumption) and so ultimately cannot challenge the reality in which we, throughout every moment of our existence, deny, comply, and rely upon relationships of exploitation to feed a sense of privileged entitlement over animals, the sick, and others.
Any hope of some radical transformation, therefore, rests beyond token rhetoric about inclusivity or diversity, but somewhere deeper, among minds that are sick and animal.
“We’re all mad here.”
among mad cats
Considering how society engineers conformity, to fit into boxes of control and labels of definitions, it becomes obvious how Wonderland is an antithesis of this – where people, animals, and logic naturally defy the predictable and ordinary. Their madness reflects the freedom inside this fairy-tale land, where a healthy chaos is nurtured to the delight of most children reading.
But for those of us still inside the matrix, these qualities are discouraged on the basis that unpredictability brings instability, because opposing versions of reality have a habit of inviting anarchy and collapse, and falling down rabbit holes is more empowering than we realize.
Unpacking this further warrants a firm clarification to not confuse this with trumpian alternative facts and the double-speak “war is peace” mentality of contemporary corporate tyranny. Rather, becoming Alice, so that we too can receive direction from magical Cheshire cats, is really about reclaiming imagination, coupling the naïve trust and curiosity of youth with the skills and wisdom of experience. Easier said than done, of course, because learning to wonder again requires a courage and intention to manifest such visions – by consuming less and creating more, activism can become art.
Accomplishing this feat – making it a regular habit of provoking new perspectives towards something familiar – is essentially the goal of every artist. Art itself is the expression of effort to make others become conscious of what we do not already perceive or pay attention to, helping us find clarity in the strange.
Whether channelled through spoken or written word, still or moving pictures, acted or improvised performances, the emphasis is on creating space for exploring truth and subverting expectations. Sometimes experienced best individually and other times better collectively, the results must evoke transformation either on a community level or else as personal growth. Always, art is about engagement as much as it is escape or entertainment. It is trusting that we can turn inwards to confront our own fears, uncertainties, and contradictions, while still deserving to be seen, heard, and respected.
Meaningful art, while always needing to remain open-ended enough to allow for varied interpretations, aims to convey wholeness – teaching us to not resist change, but to leave behind what no longer helps us grow, to affirm our struggle and still keep hoping when we have every reason not.
Visionary art, the kind that deliberately seeks out and feeds alternate realities for more to find and join, requires abandoning the fast and straight yellow-brick highway, daring us to wander lost, to forgo fragile vanities and become reacquainted with creative anarchy.
Political art, whatever its context, is about nurturing our own capacity to relate and empathize with the proverbial “other”, exposing ourselves to different situations that compel us into adventures across both real and imagined boundaries.
Art in every medium begins with imagination, and the more radical the imaginings, the more transformative the results may be, both internally and in its capacity to change societies.
Art is activism when it inspires actions that bring our environments and ourselves closer to hopes and dreams – using abstract ideas to topple social hierarchies or telling stories to help us unlearn privileges borne of ignorance. Without the imaginations of peoples from other positions of privilege and oppression, there risks overlooking important insights, especially the assumption of a single truth existing. And there also risks continued failures of social activism seeking change through campaigns that imagine truth can be conveyed by appropriating traumas (like plantation slavery or genocides) and competing against other forms of oppression (like transmisogyny or Islamophobia).
A radical change of the basic social order is about destruction as much as it is creation, simply because destruction has a habit of bringing fertility for change. But we know this already, in how you need ruins first to find treasure, need darkness to witness the night stars, need a phoenix to burn before they can rise from their own ashes.
This destruction looks like divesting from mainstream “art” more than anything else because the system’s media products always perpetuate dominant narratives. Even in the contemporary information age of youtube and twitter, there remains little need to ban books when people have stopped reading, or little need to censor information when we are constantly bombarded with more data than we can fully comprehend. The trivial and superficial elements of the mainstream seek to reduce us into identities of passive narcissism, imagining lottery wins and revenge fantasies. It preoccupies us with distractions that continue to hypnotize, misleading us with illusions of celebrities, make-believe dangers, and chasing after monopoly monies. Stop living in the dreams of the rich and powerful, where nightmares of hate and violence are assumed to be all part of the natural order of things, having “always been that way”.
Learn again to see things as they truly once were (not the colonial histories of school textbooks), still are (not the panics spread by the nightly news), and how they might otherwise become (not the hopeless futures of doom) – recognize that change is both possible and inevitable. The status quo depends on silence and fear, our isolation and apathy because finding relationships that inspire and space to dream are the most powerful weapons we can ever conceive.
“How long is forever?”
“Sometimes just one second.”
Now, more than ever, a deep upheaval is required of ourselves – not by consuming one “cruelty-free” product over another, but by turning inwards to unpack the forces attempting to dictate our sense of self, attaching our ego to possessing material consumer goods and chasing lies that promise false security.
Release your own grip on beliefs and opinions about the way, things are – try to become comfortable in the foggy haze, those lonely paths that take us across into new worlds. Watch the walls you made, to hide within, crumble and fall to reveal everything you need, both joyous and suffering. Trust yourself, your struggle, as legitimate enough that you can still honour other people’s experiences too.
Then, when you feel like you might implode with everything you witness, channel it into something – wild expressions of consciousness as it felt in that moment. And that is art.
But remember, whether you are the creator or the audience, the author or the reader, know that it is never about trying to “fix” something. Art is to remind us how what is happening now has already happened before, in some form or another, to someone somewhere at some time. Yes, your fear, anger, confusion, and more precede your existence and will continue long after your expiration too. So it becomes clear enough that the greatest challenges of our lives, the situations we so often try to elude, repress, and escape are precisely the same experiences that connect us with one another, across place and time, whatever our reality.
Find whatever makes you wake up, today, and do it without apology or hesitation.
Breathe out the fear, breathe in the hope. Breathe out the rage, breathe in the passion.
Breathe out – breathe in.