Transcript of Animal Rights Talk

The power(lessness) of words and art in animal advocacy
By Calvin Neufeld
Animal Rights National Conference 2015
Washington, D.C.

Thank you for having me. I am delighted and honoured and humbled to be here. My name is Calvin Neufeld and I am the editor and publisher of the book Suffering Eyes: A Chronicle of Awakening, written by my mother, the wisest and kindest person I know, Franceen Neufeld.

Now there’s a great deal that I want to say today and we have very little time, so for more information about the book and about how we are using the book to support farmed animal sanctuaries, I will refer you to information that I’ve put in packages which are by the door. So as you leave, grab a package, take it with you.

When my fellow panelists and I were assigned the topic of our workshop, “The power of the written word and illustration in animal advocacy,” I found myself with a dilemma. What power do they have? I think that before we can arrive at an understanding of the power of words and art, we must first come to terms with their powerlessness.

So, like Robin, I’m going to begin with a story. A few weeks ago it was Pride Day in my town of Perth, Ontario (Canada). And of course I was there. I’m a transsexual, I was born female, and I do education around sexual and gender diversity. So I got a table at Pride and I used it for my mother’s book. Why not bring animal activism into queer activism, eh? I also used it for a little children’s book that I had created as a fundraiser for sanctuaries as well. I called it Sanctuary: A children’s story for all ages.

So there I was at my table, and a woman came up, and she was drawn immediately to my mother’s book. She looks at it, reads the title, and just as immediately turns away. She went instead to my children’s book, perhaps thinking it would be safer, and she opened it right up to the page of my drawing of a face on a steak. She says, “Oh, these books aren’t going to make me feel bad about eating meat, are they?” I didn’t know what to say. I told her, “I suppose that’s up to you.”

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Because the words are out there, the art is out there, and either people look and turn away, or they look, they see, they hear, and yet the armour surrounding their hearts remains intact. So words and art in themselves are powerless. What then makes the difference?

This question is nothing new. Philosopher George Steiner explored what he referred to as the psychology of aesthetic reception. He describes the power of art – he says, “The encounter with the aesthetic is the most ingressive, transformative summons available to human experiencing.” But, as he so poignantly asks, “How does the graft onto our being take?”

His answer: “We don’t know.”

And in fact this is a core dilemma of Suffering Eyes. I’m going to share with you a few readings that capture this. There are many threads in this book, and I’ve drawn out just this one for our purposes today, exploring the tension between the power and the powerlessness of words and art.

I will begin with a reflection aptly titled “What has the power?”

From that point of searching, we must go further. We find my mother at the point here, in this reflection, wrestling with the futility of words. She wrote this reflection after watching a documentary about orphaned elephants in Kenya. It’s called “Feeble.”

From that place of futility, we must go further. Turning the page we find my mother’s reflection “The day I broke.” And for that one she saw fit to include only the news headline, which you will remember: “South Korea buries one million pigs alive.” The rest is silence.

Turning the page, we find my mother at a place beyond searching, beyond futility, to despising words. This reflection is called “Your torment.”

From that place of despising words, we must go further. To where my mother comes to the end of words. That’s the title of this reflection.

So we have deconstructed our way, all the way down to the very blasphemy of words and art in the face of suffering. Imagine standing right in front of a suffering animal and responding to that by “I’m going to go write about this, I’m going to go paint a painting.” It seems blasphemous in that context of being face-to-face with suffering. So when words and art lose their blasphemy, it is a sign that we are already disconnected from the suffering. But, just as my mom goes on in her book after coming to the end of words, so must we.

From here we can begin reconstructing. Now we can ask the question, if words and art in themselves are powerless, then what power do they have? I found an answer among the opening quotes of my mother’s book. It is a Hasidic tale.

That is their power. We must have words and art at the ready, planted into or onto every heart. In whatever big ways or little ways we are able. The woman at Pride Day – who knows how long the image of the face of the steak will linger in her mind’s eye? And when children see my drawing of Piglet in a hotdog bun, the reaction is universal: it’s sadness. How can that image not resurrect itself in them the next time they’re handed a hotdog?

We have no power over the power of words and art. All we can do is have them at the ready, everywhere, in every way, and then set ourselves to the task of tending to hearts. Our task is not to break hearts – we have no power over that – but to tend to hearts. Healthy hearts must be our priority, because what does the healthy heart do? In my mother’s words again: “Hearts that are well do what hearts do when faced with the suffering of others – they break. By observers, and even by the one experiencing the grief, this may be perceived as a kind of sickness. But in reality it is the only healthy response.”

We must make hearts healthy. Then they will break.

So the question we are left with is: what makes a heart healthy? Perhaps again we can arrive at an answer by exploring the opposite. What makes a heart unhealthy? I believe with all my heart that it is disconnectedness. Disconnectedness from animals is what makes us capable of abusing them. And disconnectedness from one another, in our human relationships, further hardens our hearts and makes us immune to the power of words and art.

So it is my conviction that connectedness is our highest priority in animal advocacy.

In the packages which I again will remind you not to forget to grab as you go out, I have included a talk that my mother gave last year at Vegfest Guelph on connectedness, and she goes deeper into just how radical and radically important connectedness is.

So what’s the moral of the story? As I see it, the full circle of our responsibility as animal advocates is this: to put the words and art out there, while preserving connectedness, which is the only way for hearts to be healthy, which is the only way for hearts to break, without which our words and art are powerless.


Mother and son, Franceen and Calvin Neufeld

 With good friend Jo-Anne McArthur of We Animals