Why compassion is essential to social justice

Why compassion is essential to social justice

November 21, 2018 0 By Katrina Fox

Our psychological wounds can cause us to lash out at ourselves and others, even those we’re working with for a common cause and whose values of kindness we claim to share. Acknowledging our personal and collective shadow is key to learning to embrace compassion for all, writes Katrina Fox.


“You’re a filthy little Arab who should go back to where you came from.”


So said my adoptive mother for the first time when I was age six, after I’d spilled crumbs on the floor from a biscuit I was eating. “No wonder your real mother didn’t want you.” The impact of this cruel remark was instant and lasted for decades. As humans are wont to do, I made it mean that I was unlovable and would never be good enough.


Factual inaccuracies aside (my birth father was Persian, not an Arab), it was—unbeknownst to me at the time—my first experience with racism. The idea that anyone who wasn’t a white English person was inferior was further solidified by my dad’s constant referencing of “bloody wogs” to describe black people.


I quickly learned to deny my ethnic heritage right into my 20s—if anyone asked, I said I was part Spanish or Italian. I even went so far as to have a nose job in 1993, partly to remove a small bump, but I can’t deny I was pleased the adjustment made me look less obviously half Iranian.


Around the age of 10, in 1976, I became obsessed with the women in the hit TV show Charlie’s Angels. I started a scrapbook, and asked my classmates to save any newspaper or magazine clippings featuring the trio of glamorous female detectives.


In addition, my best friend Susan and I told everyone we loved each other. It was an innocent enough comment, but a boy in our class said he thought we were lesbians. It was the first time I’d heard the word, and when he explained what it meant, without any judgment, I was happy to take it on.


But when I told the teacher I was a lesbian, she was horrified and told me not to say that word again or I’d be sent to the headmaster to be punished. This was my first experience with homophobia. And, in his typical uncreative manner, good old dad confirmed my suspicions that same-sex love and affection was bad by yelling “bloody poofs” at the TV screen whenever footballers hugged each other after one of their teammates scored a goal. Cue more disempowerment.


My first experience with sexism happened around a similar time, when I asked to play football and rugby and was told by both the boys and the teachers that I couldn’t because I was a girl.


So, before I’d even hit puberty, I’d learned that if you weren’t white, straight, and male, there was something wrong with you and you didn’t deserve to participate in life on an equal footing.


Essentially, you were “lesser than” privileged others, although I didn’t have the fancy language for it back then.


By age 11, I’d learned that animals had it even tougher. My jaw literally dropped open when I learned that the beef burger on my plate had once been part of a beautiful, living cow. While I was brought up on a council estate just outside of south London in the UK, I’d visit my cousin in the country occasionally where I’d climb over fences into farmers’ fields to stroke the cows and give them apples, with no clue that they would be trucked off to an abattoir and killed.



Learning that I’d been ingesting the dead bodies of these gentle creatures made me feel sick, and I became—without knowing the word at the time—vegetarian immediately.


Although I embraced feminism, queer rights and animal advocacy in my early 20s, and found a plethora of examples of culturally entrenched sexism, racism, homophobia, and speciesism, I didn’t make the connections between these forms of oppression until much later—almost a decade, in fact, when I was introduced to veganism by a schoolteacher on an anti-vivisection demo. It was finding out about the cruelty involved in the dairy industry in particular that made the light bulbs in my head start to go off.


I learned that in order to produce milk, a cow must be kept pregnant and lactating, a process carried out by restraining her in a head stall and artificially inseminating her; that shortly after birth, calves are torn away from their mothers, who bellow for several weeks with grief; that dairy cows are hooked up to milking machines—after suffering the agonising ordeal of having their horns and, on occasion, excess teats cut off with scissors solely for aesthetic reasons; that mastitis—the inflammation of the mammary glands—is the most common affliction affecting dairy cows around the world and causes them severe pain; that this relentless cycle of forced endless pregnancy, birthing, and lactation puts so much pressure on the reproductive systems of cows that they become spent—verging on dead at around four to five years of age, whereas naturally they would live for a couple of decades.


It was this moment that the connections between feminism and animal rights became obvious: how could I call for my own reproductive autonomy while actively supporting the assault on female non-human animals’ reproductive systems through the consumption of dairy?


As Shy Buba wrote on The Vegan Woman blog, “It’s contrary to feminism to defend one type of female body while using and abusing another.”


Fighting Back or Fighting Ourselves?


Over the years, I’ve been involved with both mainstream gay, lesbian, bisexual and sex and/or gender diverse communities, as well as alternative queer groups. Within both communities, there are passionate individuals and groups campaigning against one or more forms of oppression while perpetuating other forms.


For example, the rise of “black face” and other modes of appropriation of native cultures by white performers in queer feminist circles; sexism, racism, and misogyny within the animal rights movement; and speciesism in the majority of campaigns for human rights.


It both breaks my heart and frustrates me when my queer, feminist friends and colleagues speak out so passionately about homophobia, sexism or racism in one breath, while updating their Facebook statuses describing the sentient being they ate for lunch or serving the dead bodies or secretions of tortured farmed animals at events to celebrate equality or advancement for women or queer folk.


And when the issue of animal oppression is raised (in the same way that they attempt to gain support for their particular cause), reactions generally fall into two camps: “I know, but I don’t care enough to change my lifestyle to give up my gustatory delights,” or “I don’t want to know because I don’t want to give up my power and privilege. Besides, (insert type of creature here) tastes so good.”


Some are often accompanied by a patronising smile and a comment along the lines of, “Aw, your love of animals and vegan lifestyle is so sweet.” Imagine the reaction if you said that about their anti-racism work.


Unsurprisingly, such disagreements result in an interminable amount of infighting—in which I admit I’ve contributed my share. Activist movements are full of people who have experienced cruelty, oppression, discrimination, and often physical violence.


We’ve been told that we’re “broken,” “wrong,” “not good enough,”—not only by individual people, but through the perpetuation of overt as well as the insidious reinforcement of what is considered culturally acceptable or unacceptable.


Depending on the educational or emotional resources we have access to at any given time, many of us will live in a state of unconsciousness about our own or others’ oppression, reacting with anger each time we are triggered by others’ comments.


Many of us are fuelled by a deep-seated rage, which can on one hand be a motivator to take action against injustice, yet unchecked on the other hand destroys not only our own sense of peace but very often any power or leverage we may get to achieve our goals of liberation.


While we’re busy putting all our energy into fighting each other and our potential allies, it seems oppressors are finding new ways to hold onto and extend their privileges.


Integrating the Shadow Self and Embracing Compassion for All


In July 2011, my personal life was a mess. Despite being in a relationship of 18 years with a woman who loved me very much and living in an apartment that I co-owned, I was deeply unhappy and dissatisfied with my life. My career as a freelance writer and editor wasn’t bringing me the joy it used to; I felt like I’d lost my writing mojo and felt resentful and trapped. Up until that time, I believed that life happened to me, that my feelings ran the show and I was at the mercy of external circumstances—in other words, despite my obvious privileges, I was a victim.


Fortunately, a close friend offered a different perspective on my situation, one which suggested that I had a choice in how I acted, reacted, and behaved. At the age of 46, I was finally ready to hear the pearl of wisdom that personal development gurus had been spouting for decades.


I felt not just a light bulb but a whole panorama of bright stadium lights switch on in my mind. The following 12 months saw me devour books, audio recordings, and DVDs, and attend workshops and seminars, all of which taught me that the past only defines you if you let it; it is possible to consciously choose to move beyond it and decide who you want to become.


Now, I realise this may be all very well for a white-skinned, middle-class lesbian with certain privileges, and I’m not suggesting it’s easy (I still struggle with negative self-talk, but it’s lessening as I equip myself with the tools of self-awareness), but I have come to believe that compassion for self and others is the key to making a difference in the world.


As I allowed myself to be open to new possibilities, I found myself exposed to individuals who had figured out the importance of integrating our shadow parts into our lives, instead of running away from them.


Our “shadow side” is anything we dislike about ourselves that we’d rather others did not know about us. It can range from a sense of entitlement and righteousness to feeling incompetent, like a failure or a fake.


In 2012, I met and conducted an interview with author Andrew Harvey who coined the term “sacred activism,” a mixture of radical action/activism and spirituality.


What I like about Harvey’s philosophy is his acknowledgement of the need to do intense work around the personal and cultural shadow (our own private wounding as well the shadow cast by a society that is narcissistic, self-absorbed and utterly suicidal in its pursuit of domination of nature ” ).


Harvey believes that positive social change will not be achieved by activists fueled solely by anger or by “bliss bunnies” who meditate and do little else.


In addition to personal and group shadow work, one of the more confronting aspects of sacred activism is learning to love and forgive the perpetrators of oppression, cruelty, and horrendous injustices. This is a challenging one, and I am not sure I am quite ready to embrace this, yet intuitively it rings true.


“It doesn’t mean you don’t act against their policies,” Harvey told me. “Gandhi didn’t hate the British, but acted systematically to unseat them. Martin Luther King didn’t hate white Americans, but fought with sacred power to bring in civil rights.


“Not hating people, and instead forgiving them, doesn’t mean you let the policies or actions continue, but it does mean your whole action is not action against; it’s for a vision that includes [the perpetrators] and their healing.


“Gandhi believed the British were killing themselves by gunning down the Indians, so his action was on behalf of both. King understood that white Americans pretending to love Jesus while dishonoring their black brothers and sisters were destroying a part of their soul, so his actions were on behalf of White Americans and black people.”


It is a tough one. Attempting to love and forgive those who carry out the most heinous atrocities on people, animals, and the environment is not a place I have reached yet, but I am teetering on the edge of compassion, with the awareness that the perpetrators of violence, cruelty and destruction are acting from a place of fear, self-loathing, and unconsciousness.


When I was around nine, I deliberately killed a centipede. For no particular reason other than I could. I suppose I felt powerless, and this was a way I could feel powerful over another being. I felt guilty and ashamed for many years afterwards. I have also been reactive, unkind, and harsh to various people throughout my life—as most of us have.


We all seek love, significance, and belonging. In that search we may hurt others. It is because we do not love ourselves that our ego needs power over others, rather than empowerment.


As social change makers, we owe it to ourselves, and to humanity, animals, and the planet, to take action that comes from a place of compassion: for others and ourselves.


This  article is an extract from Circles of Compassion: Essays Connecting Issues of Justice, edited by Dr. Will Tuttle. It’s available from Amazon.





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Katrina Fox

Katrina Fox is an award-winning journalist, media and PR consultant, founder of the content and events platform Vegan Business Media. You can visit her websites www.katrinafox.com and www.veganbusinessmedia.com and connect with her via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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