Critical Compassion // Jenny Hayse

I like to try to see the best in people. Even if someone has many qualities I don’t like, I always feel better when I am able to seek out and remind myself of their best attributes. I would like to believe that we as humans are very compassionate beings with a great capacity for empathy to all parts of life. And by that I mean to everything that is living or that supports life – not just humans, but humans and animals and even plants and the environment too.

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Throughout CTW 1 and 2, I have been challenged to think critically and be critical of my view of wanting to believe the best in people. That’s not to say that I have learned to be cynical or believe the worst of people, but rather understanding where, how, and why we fail to reach our best ability for compassion.

In CTW 1 fall quarter, a large portion of our class was about the factory farming industry and reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals. This book exposed the truths of meat and dairy farming and the ways that animals are treated for human benefit. I became a vegetarian two years ago, so as we began to read Foer’s book, I believed it would just support and reaffirm my reasons to not eat meat because it is immoral to eat animals. But, I was wrong.

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I mainly became a vegetarian because I did not feel right eating something that was once living and breathing like I am. I was so unaware of the ways that animals are treated in not only the meat industry, but also on egg and dairy farms.

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“The typical cage for egg-laying hens allows each sixty-seven square inches of floor space – somewhere between the size of [a book] page and a sheet of printer paper (Foer 47). Compared to egg-laying hens, chickens that are bred to be killed for meat are fortunate to have more space, however they are genetically engineered to grow about four times of their natural rate and are killed after around six weeks (Foer 48). These chickens are just one example of the unnatural, genetically manipulated, heartless actions that happen to animals so that we can eat meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy. While I did not make the transition to become vegan, these facts constantly resonate in my mind when I think about eggs and milk as I feel empathy for these animals and what their lives have become.

The book further shifted my views as Foer explored various family farms, reflecting the contrast to factory farms as animals on these farms are raised naturally and killed for meat after a full lifespan. While I used to feel uncomfortable eating anything that had once been alive, I now believe that I might be a more compassionate eater if rather than cutting out meat, I cut out grocery stores, and eat meat, but only from animals that I know have been treated fairly during their lives.

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To start off CTW 2 spring quarter, we watched Cowspiracy, a documentary by Kipp Andersen that continued the theme of eating and producing animal products, but this time by analyzing the environmental impacts. Andersen presents facts that show how factory farming and animal agriculture are the leading cause of environmental destruction, however leading environmental groups seem to deny or ignore those facts (Andersen). Andersen’s film calls us out to have compassion for the environment and prioritize it above our own desires for meat and dairy.

Andersen’s points really moved me to think critically and have more compassion and gratitude for our environment because we cannot exist without the earth. I think we can often become far too detached from the environment and its importance, and only focus on our needs, our desires, and ourselves.

However, I think that the final book we read and one of my last papers had the largest impact on me. We read The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty by Dan Ariely, which explores the ways that we cheat, lie, and deceive both ourselves and others, and the factors that perpetuate that. In one section, he focuses on how we often wind up in conflicts of interest, which reveal how “people don’t need to be corrupt in order to act in problematic and sometimes damaging ways,” we can often just end up in situations where we act in our own, often financial, interests, and prioritize ourselves over the well-being of others (Ariely 70).

I explored this concept in an essay I wrote about the recently released Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why. Netflix is a very successful company and the show was very popular. The show follows the main character, Clay, as he listens to 13 tapes left behind by Hannah Baker, his classmate and friend who committed suicide (Sheff). However, when I surveyed college students and read articles by mental professionals, there was strong opposition to the show, its graphic and triggering scenes, and its insensitive treatment of the topics of mental health and suicide.

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Main character, Clay Jensen, with an overlay of Hannah Baker’s face

While I found a multitude of responses and articles that opposed the show and called Netflix out, I found minimal responses from Netflix. In what I found, the production company argued that the show was beneficial to opening up honest conversations about mental health and that they were protecting viewers by putting warnings on the show. However, they failed to address any of the passionately angered responses and did not take any actions to effectively keep people, especially vulnerable viewers, from watching the show.

To someone vulnerable to self-harm and suicide, seeing others take these actions can intensify some of their incentives to do so as well (Saint Louis). As someone who strives to see the best in people, I would hope that Netflix would prioritize the safety and health of their viewers over revenue and attention from their popular show. However, the company’s lack of response has showed minimal compassion for their viewers. It was only after reading some of Ariely’s book and having in class discussions about it that I really became aware of how Netflix, and many other companies, encounter conflicts of interest that lead them to be detached from anything other than their own interests and benefits.

As Ariely stated, conflicts of interest can lead people, who are not necessarily cruel at heart, to act in ways that appear apathetic and inconsiderate. This conflict of interest appears to be very present in how we approach food and money – two things necessary to our lives. I still try to believe the best in people, and I do not think that we all intend to lack compassion. However, I do think we do not want to admit that we are self-seeking and lack compassion, because we want to believe the best of not just others, but of ourselves too. So, we detach ourselves from the animals we eat, so we don’t have to think about what they endured for our benefit or stop eating meat. And we detach ourselves from the environment and exactly how crucial it is to our lives, so we don’t have to change our ways of life or go against the norm. And, finally, we detach ourselves from the people that we don’t have to interact with face-to-face, so that we can focus on ourselves, and what we need, and not worry about how it might be impacting others out of our small bubble. But imagine what a world this might be if we stepped out of those bubbles, and we all developed compassion for one another and for all life around us. How would our lives change?

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Works Cited

Andersen, Kip, and Keegan Kuhn. Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. 2014.

Ariely, Dan. The (Honest) Truth About DIshonesty. New York: Harper Perennial, 2013. Print.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Back Bay /Little, Brown, 2009. Print.

Sheff, Nic, Jay Asher, and Brian Yorkey. 13 Reasons Why. N.d. Netflix. Web. 07 May 2017.

Saint Louis, Catherine. “For Families of Teens at Suicide Risk, ’13 Reasons’ Raises Concerns.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 1 May 2017. Web. 02 May 2017.

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