Thursday, April 10, 2008

Life, Death and the End of the World As We Know It..

One of the fun but challenging things about being a parent of teens is that they are at the stage of life where they are starting to question and challenge everything. This often leads into long, deep discussions on the nature of Love, Religion, Power, Death and Rebellion.

I capitalized those on purpose, because at this point in your life, these are not personal, intimate issues, these are Big Ideas. My youngest teen is deep in the throws of this. She is intelligent and looking at the chaotic, messed up world around her with horror and feelings of frustration. She is also wracked by the storms of emotion and hormones that cry out for Action! and Change!- sitting quietly and waiting for an issue to resolve itself is anathema at this stage in life ( where do you think the term "angry young man" came from??). You can imagine the appeal that raddical activist groups were starting to have for her. The glory of damaging animal testing labs, the exhiliration of vandilism to shine a light on animal "haters", the ecstasy of driving stakes into trees to prevent logging!! ELF, ALF, PETA - she was starting to vibrate physically, she was so excited about the potential of other people who wanted to "strike back". Finally, I could stand it no more and had to stretch the limits of her philosophical development. We ended up in a more than 2 hour discussion on right action, peaceful protest, civil disobedience and why "any action in the name of a good cause" is NOT a good thing. She wanted to cry and kill me in the middle of the whole thing, but I hung in there and in the end, I think she actually gets it. We will see if it sticks, or if she starts plotting to free Guinea Pigs from Walmart again.

For those of you not certain why saving poor suffering animals by damaging testing labs across the earth is bad, let me do a quick summary of a 2 hour conversation.

1) Issues are not Black and White. Issues are rarely simple. Any arguement or advocacy group that boils them down this way is overlooking something. Animal testing as a case in point. Yes, I agree that testing animals for beauty products and our vanity is horrible. However, there are people that you know and love who would be dead today if someone had not done some medical testing on animals at some point. Is that a price you are willing to pay? Ahh... test on humans instead of animals? OK- which Humans? Prisoners? Because they are bad people? What about the ones in prison who we find out years later were actually innocent? Did they deserve it? OK- volunteers only? What if the volunteers only feel desperate, that they have no other choice? What if they were abused and maltreated as children? What if they were discriminated against? What if they are slightly mentally ill and just can not make it any other way? Is that still OK? Hmm... the ethical and moral decisions we have to make in modern human society ( and probably forever) are complex and hard and never simple. If anyone convinces you that a decision is easy, they have not given you all the information and you have research to do.

2)Impulsive, Radical actions rarely have the end result you wanted and often have unwanted end results and complications. You evaluated all the evidence, made really hard choices? Still want to take action. OK. Harsh reality:Getting together with a bunch of your friends, randomly freeing the animals from the test labs and using bolt cutters to cut up fences is NOT going to prevent animal testing.
a) premise #1 is "do enough damage to the testing labs, they will shut down" Reality is that you are fighting against Large Corporate Entities. Doing a few thousand dollars of damage to a testing lab is like a baby fly buzzing at a picnic. You can not do enough damage to stop this. If the testing contributes significantly to their bottom line, they will re-invest in it without a moment of contemplation. You want to make a difference- strike at their sales and profits, not at their cost of doing business.
b) premise #2 is " it is better for the poor animals to not be in the labs" Reality? Animals freed from a testing lab do NOT make good pets, are very hard to handle and often still do not thrive. Many of them are unadoptable. Many of them end up dead.

I use Animal rights here as an example, becuase it is one of the topics that we adressed, that is near and dear to her heart right now. But the general premises hold for any cause.

At this point she was not happy, she was struggling and frustrated with the complexities of hard problems, but she was convinced that there were limited sets where it was going to be resolvable. That is when I knew I had to stretch her hard. Here is the real point, the real issue, the one that breaks most people.

3) Taking Action at any cost in the name of a good cause now removes from you the ability to prevent other people from doing the same thing for causes you do not agree with. This is where her brain exploded for a while. She railed against the concept. "but they are wrong- that is why they should not do it" I tried the wrong tact of the worst case extreme example of people whose ideals you disagree with taking action- the KuKluxKlan and the Nazis. That proved to be too big, too much, we were just going to degrade into an argument and lose the concept. I back tracked and emerged into something smaller and easier.

You know in your heart of hearts that mistreating animals is bad, and you have decided that fur wearers are horrible and cruel and fur wearing has to stop. You thought through all the consequences and have invented special paint sprayers that can be carried anywhere and you and your followers will spray flourescent paint on every passer by you see wearing fur until everyone stops. You know that vandalism is wrong, you know some people might get hurt, but this fur wearing is so horrible that it has to be stopped at any cost. She was on board for this. (Actually, I think a part of her brain was starting to work on the design for the paint gun...) Now. If you carry this out- how can you condemn people who really believe that homosexuality is wrong and thus those two guys walking down the street holding hands deserved to be beaten up? What is the difference? But they are WRONG! She screamed. ( no. really. literally. screamed.) Her brain cells expanded and imploded in what would have made award winning MRI artworks. How is it different, I pressed, except that you agree with the premise and cause of one group and not with the others? If you have the right to damage personal property for things you believe in- so do they. What if they decide that that need to spray paint on the windows and cars of everyone who is agnostic ( her self proclaimed affiliation)? What right do you have to prevent this attack on yourself? She melted. I think ( I hope) she got it. I am sure we will have this discussion more than once. It is an amazingly hard concept to wrestle through. It will show great emotional maturity if she actually gets it.
Then I rejoiced in the SF protests, becuase I did not want to leave her feeling hopeless and powerless. We talked about civil disobedience, about how it is not ok to do wrong or harm to others or their property, but it is OK to sometimes stand up( or sit down) in the name of a cause- even if it is illegal to do that. We touched on taking personal risk and personal cost versus acts of terrorism.

Whew. Now do you understand why I live in a constant state of tired? Parenting is an exhausting job.. but she is going to be an amazing person some day and I will have the priviledge of knowing my time and energy helped that.


  1. Wonderfully written. Can I print this out and show it to some adults I know. They should use some sense

  2. Well said. The SF Olympic Torch protesters who irritated me were the ones I heard who were trying to protest via "any means necessary" - throwing themselves on the runners, tossing paint balloons, etc. They'd have equated themselves with what they protest against, IMHO. Chanters, sign-holders, fine. Violence-instigators, no.

  3. @Deepak Have at it. This goes hand in hand with the belief that I have to defend the right to free speech, even for people who I disagree with to guarantee my right to free speech. My Mom struggled and argued with me for years on that one. Oddly enough, it was watching the movie that made it click for her and she understood.

  4. @dan Agreed. Want to lie in the road and block the path of the parade. Cool. But do not physically throw yourself at the runners and try to stop them that way.