Back in the Eighties, I used to be a huge fan of the British alternative rock band The Smiths. Their songs of angst and irony and pain were, in some ways, the anthems of my youth. I was an alienated teenager growing up growing up in Reagan-era suburbia, out of place in my high school, where I skipped classes more frequently than attended out of boredom and unhappiness. Not much spoke to me in the way of pop culture, but The Smiths proved to be one of the few exceptions.
The Smiths broke up long ago (1987) and they haven't gotten back together, not even for a reunion concert. I've moved on (though I confess: I still listen to their music, although it does seem a bit - how can I put it? - whinier than it did when I used to listen to it). And the lead singer of the band, Morrissey (real name: Steven Patrick Morrissey - he goes by his last name only) has moved on to other solo music projects, gaining some acclaim along the way.
Morrissey is a very controversial figure. He's a classic iconoclast and contrarian. He loves to offend. His views have always been anti-establishment. He was a fierce critic of George W. Bush's administration and the war in Iraq. He has spoken out against British PM David Cameron and he's even knocked the Royal Family. He's made a number of controversial statements about a broad range of issues. In other words, he's not afraid to live life on the edge.
Good for him. Too many people prefer that mushy, warm middle, right on top of the fence, where they don't have to speak out or feel strongly about much of anything at all. Compared to the masses of colorless dullards in the world today, Morrissey can often be like a breath of fresh air.
Which is why I so regret what he said in the aftermath of the recent massacre of innocents in Norway. At a concert in Poland this last Sunday, Morrissey ranted into the microphone:
We all live in a murderous world, as the events in Norway have shown, with 97 dead [sic]. Though that is nothing compared to what happens in McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Shit every day. (Source)
On the heels of such an appalling loss of human life, Morrissey's words were, at best, misguided. The message is clear: So a few human beings perished? So what? That's nothing compared to what animals experience on a day-to-day basis.
Well, yeeeeeeeaaahhh, but...
The picture is more complicated than that. Unfortunately, those of us who are ardent supporters of the Abolitionist Animal Rights position, which includes living a vegan lifestyle at its very core, often have to deal with absurd accusations of being anti-human or misanthropic. Just look at the response to Morrissey. The Blogosphere and the comments section of online newspapers has lit up with a bright, flashing "TILT" sign of angry responses. Many are predictable: The animal rights "types" don't care about human life the same way they care about human life.
You've heard it all before. You get the picture.
It's not surprising that many of us frequently feel distressed, horrified, revolted and saddened by what our species is doing to other living beings. Who among us doesn't look at the mass murder of innocent animals and hang their head in shame? This history of human-animal interaction has some noble moments, but most of it is a history of savagery and cruelty in the extreme.
But our realization that animals are being murdered en masse does not mean we have to abandon our humanism. In fact, it should reinforce our reverence for the sanctity of the lives of all sentient beings.
Perhaps a better thing for Morrissey to have said - and I know it's hard to give long speeches at concerts (they'll boo you off!) - is that the loss of life in Norway is appalling and sad. Each of those Norwegians - beautiful young men and women in the prime of life - died a horrible, violent death, and each deserves to be mourned. The world is a lesser place without them. Their families deserve our deepest sympathy and support. BUT: It is also true that the very impulse that drove Anders Behring Breivik to murder all of those innocent human beings comes from the same disregard for the preciousness of life that too many human beings have exhibited toward animals for far too long.
Consider one of Breivik's victims: 14-year-old Sheridyn Meegan Ngahiwi Svebakk-Bohn (right). She was the youngest victim to perish in the deadly, nonstop volley of gunfire at Utoya Island. She was one of 76 people killed in this most ghastly of terror attacks. Consider the unimaginable grief her parents are feeling. Their baby girl is gone and she can never, ever be replaced. She had her entire life ahead of her.
Born in New Zealand, raised in Norway, she went to that camp out of a love of humanity, to see if she could learn something about improving the world in which she lived. She was murdered before she had a chance to leave her mark on the world. And when her family learned the news, it is impossible to imagine the shock and grief and emptiness and rage and utter and complete anguish they felt. Multiply that by 76. Imagine the collective grief.
Is this how we should remember Sheridyn: Well, it's sad, but it's no worse than the horrors in a KFC or McDonald's? Surely we can do better than that.
Just as Sheridyn came into the world 14 years ago, an innocent newborn, the animals that come into the world who are slaughtered to become meals at KFC and McDonald's also met a violent end, and they, too, were unable to live long lives to the fullest. They, too, fell victims to a way of doing things and a worldview that disregards the sanctity of life.
But why does it have to be an either/or proposition, as some animal rights advocates insist? Why do we have to care about either the innocents who are murdered in Norway or the innocents murdered in the slaughterhouse? Is there not room enough in our hearts to weep for both?
I hope Morrissey keeps fighting the Good Fight. And I understand his disenchantment with the human race. But part of that disenchantment grows out of an awareness of the depraved things that human beings are capable of doing to other human beings, in addition to the depraved things they are capable of doing to nonhuman animals.
To live a richer and fuller life, and to create a world with any hope of decency prevailing, it seems to me that connecting the suffering of human beings to that of animals is essential. All lives matter. No species is more important than any other. Ending violence, and promoting peaceful coexistence - among different peoples and different species - is the only hope to save a world where a stark disregard for the sanctity of life, which is woven into the apocalyptic and nihilistic philosophy of Anders Behring Breivik, is the only other alternative.