For most of us, going just one day without being able to use our voice is a struggle. So imagine the determination required by James Aspey, a vegan and animal rights activist, who in aid of raising awareness of the plight of helpless (and voiceless) animal victims, took a vow of silence for a whole year.
Tell us about the Voiceless365 project…
I had an idea to do a vow of silence during a 10-day silent meditation retreat but I didn’t know what cause I would do it for. At the time, the only thing I was really passionate about was helping animals but at that stage I was only a vegetarian, not realising the horrors of eggs and dairy. So, I started planning a trip around the country, funded from my own savings, and in that trip I planned to take a vow of silence, write a blog about my experience, and hopefully write about some of the stuff that I was learning about animal rights. Soon I realised that if I was going to bring this issue into the public spotlight then I needed to find out about animal rights and it was almost immediately I found out about dairy and eggs. I thought, okay I need to go big or else I’m being completely inconsistent. I’m against all cruelty not just some cruelty to some animals. So my campaign launched at midnight on January 1st 2014.
I spent that year going around the country. It was amazing actually because not talking you’d think you wouldn’t be able to advocate very well, but almost every single person that I came into contact with throughout the year wanted to know why I wasn’t talking. I was able to communicate with people through body language, miming or mouthing words, or pen and paper. Being voiceless was an incredible way of sparking conversations. I also wrote a blog and I wrote about my experience volunteering at a few rescue farms. I spent time going into factory farms and seeing the cruelties for myself. My campaign really was to promote peace and to promote veganism, and to show people through my blog just how easy veganism is.
What was the reaction from your friends and family when you said, firstly, “I’m going vegan,” and secondly, “I’m not talking to you for a year”?
I went vegetarian when I was working on a cruise ship. I was running the gym there and I’d been a personal trainer for nine years, always believing that you could not be a healthy vegetarian because someone that I respected in the industry told me that once and I took it as word. I never looked into it. Then someone on the cruise ship, a very wise man, told me that eating animals was bad karma, which made perfect sense to me. So I went vegetarian to see how I felt. I felt amazing cutting out the meat from my diet because I ate so much meat before, every single day and every single meal. I felt so good and I was excited so I was on the phone to my Mum and told her I went vegetarian and she couldn’t believe it. When I got home we watched Earthlings together and she and Dad went vegetarian the very next day. Then when I learned about eggs and dairy I was able to share what I’d learned with them and they were more than happy to go vegan as well. But when I told them I was going to do this vow of silence they begged me not to do it. They tried to come up with other ideas for me to do, they just hated the idea.
Most of my friends thought it was pretty crazy and I knew it was pretty crazy, but I also knew that it was the right thing to do. I had asked to do this; I had put out to the universe that I wanted to be an instrument of peace and truth. I’d said I’d do whatever I had to do to be that because that’s what I wanted to contribute to this world and then this idea came to me. I knew it was my calling and I knew it was what I had to do. The only thing that would have stopped me would have been fear, and I’ve tried very hard not to let fear dictate my life.
When I realised the only thing that was stopping me from doing the vow of silence was the fear that I might fail, or fear of people rejecting my ideas, I knew that they weren’t reasons to stop. I knew I was doing this regardless, even if every single person I told about it didn’t think it was a good idea. But you know, when they all saw that I didn’t go crazy doing it and they saw that I was getting some good feedback from people reading my blogs, and people were actually making changes and going vegan, they got really excited about it. And now they’re very proud and they’ve changed their tune a bit.
Some of the biggest and best things we ever do, will be the most ridiculed things we ever tell people about, you know, but you’ve got to just take those leaps of faith. They always pay off, I think. If you come from a pure place, you will always soar rather than fall.
How has this experience changed you as a person?
Well, I feel like I have a new value for life, for all life, even an ant’s life. Before I really didn’t, I tell you, I didn’t care about animals. I didn’t feel for them. I didn’t even really care about my own dog. I didn’t know what animals were. I didn’t realise humans were animals and I thought animals were just these moving objects. I didn’t understand that they were sentient. I didn’t understand that they valued their life just like we do. I didn’t get any of that and I didn’t get it even when I first went vegan. What I did know was that I was against violence and I was against oppression. I didn’t want to harm others.
It was only after spending time with animals that I could look at them differently and think, ‘You guys are people. You’re not human people, but you’re non-human people’. And wow, I just never saw that before so I value that so much. To be able to value life so much more and appreciate it is such a beautiful gift. And it’s not just non-human animals; I value humans more now as well.
I also feel a lot more peace, a lot more peace inside of myself. I’m not feeling conflicted with some of my fundamental core values anymore. I value helping others and I value being compassionate and being loving, and lifting people up. When I realised how conflicting my actions were when I was paying people to torture and kill animals and I addressed it and I stopped contributing to that, it just created this peace inside me. That peace is not only in me it is something I can now put out to the world as well and share with others. The world can be a better place if we can all share this but first we need to generate it inside ourselves.
Animal rights activists have got a bit of a bad rep in the mainstream media, but your brand of activism is working to convert people. What advice would you give to other people that feel just as passionate as you, who want to increase their effectiveness?
I understand exactly why people get angry. I think we’re just trying to do what we think is best. We’re all just trying to convert as many people, to wake as many people up as we can. If I thought that the best way was to go around grabbing and shaking people that’s what I would do. I tried blaming and shaming people and it didn’t work. Maybe there’d be one or two people that’d get the message that way, but the vast majority of people don’t get that. They just shut off and get defensive and they don’t want to hear it. When that happens that’s your opportunity for conversation closed.
I’ve now come to a place of understanding. We’ve all been conditioned this way since birth. We’ve been told that we have to kill some animals to eat and we love some animals as pets. We’re told that certain cruelties are wrong, like dog fighting, and certain cruelties are fine, like castration and keeping animals in tiny in cages. We’ve been conditioned to believe this so, we’ve got to understand that most of us vegans, we weren’t vegans for a long time, and we’ve got to remember that when we’re talking to these people, the best thing to do is just be a shining example of a healthy, happy, positive, enthusiastic, educated vegan.
You’ve got to know your stuff. You’ve got to have the answer for all of those excuses, or all of those questions people bring up - What about free range? What about humanely slaughtered? What if I have my own cow in the back yard? What about protein? You’ve got to know the answers to that stuff and I think you’ll find that sooner or later they’ll run out of things to say. It’s not about blaming people, it’s not their fault. Even if they’ve seen the movies and seen the documentaries, they’re still fighting against years of conditioning and brainwashing that are still going on today. It’s so prevalent. For vegans I think it’s a real privilege to be able to see what’s going on. Like Einstein said, “If you have the privilege to know, you have the duty to act.” So, we should act and we should speak up against this stuff but we’ve got to do it in a way that’s going to be effective.
I think the effective way is to be a shining example, to talk to people in an understanding way. Just try to meet them where they’re at and just plant a seed and hope it grows. Or help them grow that seed but don’t expect someone to go vegan after one conversation, because I doubt most of us went vegan after one conversation. Just do what you can in a positive way, keep the lines of communication open and help people to realise that they already believe in being vegan; they already love animals and they are already against animal cruelty.
So overall, what’s been the impact of your three hundred sixty five days of silence?
During the year I learned so much about veganism and animal rights because I jumped in the deep end. That forced me to study and to learn, to really go into it and that aided me as an activist massively. So, I feel like I’m a confident activist now. My blog, where I wrote every few days about a different topic, got the message out there and that was read by thousands of people. Along the way, I was communicating with people even though I wasn’t talking and we would have a lot of good discussions about veganism and a lot of people made some changes and went vegan through the year.
But the biggest impact came after I started talking again for the first time, which was on Australian television. It was on the most popular morning show, on primetime television. The first thing I said was a vegan message: ‘I went voiceless because animals are voiceless, or at least I thought they were voiceless. But then I realised that every time they cry in pain and scream in terror, they’re trying to tell us that they’re suffering. The problem is we’re not listening’. I also said that we’re all the same and we’re all against animal cruelty and love animals but when we’re purchasing animal products, we’re causing serious harm to them. It’s time we started listening to these animals and being vegan is extremely healthy and delicious.
So I said something pretty much like that on primetime television and the people who were interviewing me had no idea that that’s what I was going to say. They were sponsored by a pig company and the woman who interviewed me, all her family were farmers. So they cut the interview short, which was fine with me because I had said everything I needed to say. And that three minute segment was placed on the internet and has been seen over a million times now. I couldn’t tell you how many people have contacted me since - possibly thousands. So since then it’s just been huge. There’s been a lot of new vegans, a lot of inspired vegans and I have been doing talks ever since. There’s more coming up, and I like speaking to a crowd because I’ve got a story to tell now. I kind of think that’s where my future’s going. So yeah, it’s going really well.
Do you have anything else you’d like to share with readers?
I’m proud of every single vegan. People keep coming up to me and saying ‘Thank you, you’re so amazing’, and I’m like, ‘You are amazing too!” I’m just doing what feels right for me. I feel like it’s my duty to speak up about this and that I’m a good person to do it. The thing is, I couldn’t not do it, I’d feel like it’s a slap in the face for the animals for me not to utilise who I am and make the best of that. Other people do it in their own way; some people are good at cooking and some people are good at getting on the streets and talking to people one-on-one. I think it’s all equally important and as long as you’re just doing what’s right for you, you’re being true to yourself and you’re doing what you think you’re going to be best at, all these things help the cause.
I’m just stoked to be a part of the vegan movement and I’m so grateful to the pioneers who laid it down before me; those who were vegan and showed the way even when it was so incredibly hard, when there wasn’t any vegan food around and people had so much criticism about it. I just think, ‘Wow, what heroes, what absolute heroes’. It’s amazing and people who dedicate their lives behind the scenes who don’t ever get seen and they just do it for the animals…there’s so many heroes out there.
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