Popping Our Bubbles of Denial

By Tariq Khan

Besides being a pioneer of Christian anarchism and one of the most brilliant novelists of his time, Leo Tolstoy — best known for writing War and Peace and Anna Karenina — was also a vegetarian who described the practice of killing animals for food as immoral and unnecessary in a modern society. Tolstoy was a great teacher, finding good-natured, simple ways of imparting meaningful, complex lessons to those around him.

Christian Anarchist and author Leo Tolstoy

In her book Tolstoy: A Life of My Father, Tolstoy’s youngest daughter Alexandra tells of one such teaching moment when her aunt, who thought vegetarians were bonkers, came to dinner:

“Auntie was fond of food and when she was offered only a vegetarian diet she was indignant, said she could not eat any old filth and demanded that they give her meat, chicken. The next time she came to dinner she was astonished to find a live chicken tied to her chair and a large knife at her plate.

“‘What’s this?’ asked auntie.

“‘You wanted chicken,’ Tolstoy replied, scarcely restraining his laughter. ‘No one of us is willing to kill it. Therefore we prepared everything so that you could do it yourself.'”

Being a lady of the old Russian nobility, Auntie was properly taken aback by the idea of the brutality of personally taking a knife to a live, innocent chicken.

Tolstoy was not simply being a prankster, jerk, or smart-alec. He was actually making a profound point about the need to pop our bubbles of denial and willful ignorance. These are bubbles that we use to protect ourselves from that uncomfortable moment when we face the meaning behind our mundane, everyday actions. Popping those bubbles, and facing reality forces us to make a choice; we can 1) change our behavior so that it is more in line with our highest, most noble feelings and ideals, or 2) we can continue with our same old behavior, in the full knowledge that what we are doing is harmful, unethical, or immoral.

Many people dread being faced with such a decision, hence the anger and outrage of some people towards animal rights advocates for showing pictures or footage of the everyday business-as-usual cruelty taking place behind the fences and walls of factory farms and fur farms. A man may be angry at the animal rights crowd for showing him a disgusting picture of a pig being tortured and killed, yet, he will go to a fast-food restaurant and happily, obliviously eat the product of that torturing and killing. A woman may believe it to be “inappropriate and in poor taste” for activists to show footage of foxes being anally electrocuted or skinned alive, yet she will find nothing inappropriate or in poor taste about wearing a coat made from the skin and fur of those same victimized foxes. It is much more comfortable to think that our meat and fur come from the store than it is to think about where our meat and fur really come from.

A cow is hoisted by slaughterhouse workers

I offer a plea to the human race to embrace the discomfort of having our bubbles popped. It is in facing that discomfort and courageously facing the uncomfortable decisions that our bubbles protect us from, that we progress as individuals and as societies. As a father of two small children I have noticed that sometimes for young children, growth spurts can be quite uncomfortable, evidenced by the extraordinary fussiness and difficulty with sleeping they exhibit during such spurts. The children are not uncomfortable because something is wrong with them, they are uncomfortable because they are growing. Likewise, periods of individual or social growth are often uncomfortable times for individuals and societies.

Instead of getting angry at animal rights advocates for attempting to pop our bubbles, let us thank them for inviting us to progress, and save our anger and indignation for the industries that profit from cruelty. A comfortable society living in cowardice, willful denial, and self-imposed ignorance cannot progress in any meaningful way. Let us be courageous enough to face reality and welcome the decisions that reality presents to us.