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Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Compassion and anti-compassion

I am studying Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) at a college in London. I was aware before I started that there is a certain amount of prejudice against vegetarianism and veganism in TCM circles, but I was not prepared for the depth, aggression and overwhelming irrationality of the prejudice.

From my experience of treatment at the college’s student clinic, it appears that the nutritional knowledge of the practitioners consists of two statements, which are applied in a blind, absolute fashion: 1. Eat meat; 2. Don’t eat raw food. On the basis of these six words of nutritional information, practitioners are giving advice from a position of assumed authority to people who have come to them for help and compassion.

There is a concept in TCM called ‘blood deficiency’, which describes a certain conditions of the body’s bioenergetic systems. This concept is used as a weapon to attack vegetarians. Every practitioner I have seen so far, except one, has been desperately trying to diagnose me with ‘blood deficiency’, although according to my research I do not have any of the clinical signs of the blood deficiency pattern. The most extreme example of this was when one of them, after having examined my tongue and written ‘slightly purple, swollen, wet, toothmarked’, all of which is true and would indicate a condition of qi stagnation and qi deficiency, which I consider correct, noticed in my notes that I am vegan, asked to look at my tongue again, and wrote ‘pale-ish’, which would in some circumstances (although not those of a wet, swollen tongue) indicate blood deficiency. She had convinced herself that I must be blood deficient because I’m vegan, and so there must be some signs of blood deficiency, even though there weren’t. This is irrational in the extreme and indicates the strength of her emotional reaction against veganism, which she was repressing, or disguising with non-existent theory. It’s also important to reflect that knowing I was vegan told her almost nothing about my dietary habits. I could be living on sugar and white bread like her, or I could be eating a carefully considered wholefood diet, which in fact is the case. Whether a person eats meat or not is hardly the most significant factor in their diet, from a nutritional point of view. A meat-eater could have a similar diet to me with the addition of a small amount of meat (although in my experience it is very rare) or they could be living on pork pies; a vegan could be eating a high-quality wholefood diet or they could be living on refined vegan foods. In the case of this particular practitioner, who I can probably safely assume lives on toxic waste like almost all the rest, I had to give in to her ignorant assertions to avoid an argument. I was forced into the position where I had to accept her supposed authority even though she was obviously wrong, or assert myself and be regarded as aggressive. For a person who is supposed to be professionally tuning into my energetic nature and treating me with profound respect and compassion, this was hardly a good performance. The interview, and equally the eventual treatment, were more of an assault than a healing experience.

Whenever someone asks a vegan about protein, or, God forbid, calcium (a piece of nutritional wisdom I believe originates with a TV advert for Kraft Cheese Slices), they are unknowingly revealing that they know absolutely nothing about nutrition. This is entirely innocent in day-to-day conversation as it is based on a simple lack of knowledge which can easily be corrected with information. However, when it comes from someone who is claiming to have nutritional knowledge, to be giving nutritional advice and to be in a position of authority and trust, it becomes somewhat sinister. Another practitioner asked me whether I was getting enough protein in my diet. I replied that protein is not really an issue as almost all wholefoods contain protein. She insisted that she was correct, and again I had to back down. Again she was using assumed authority against me, and again on the basis of no knowledge whatsoever, whether of nutritional theory or of what I actually eat. There is no way she could have believed that she did have nutritional knowledge. She was not behaving rationally, but was insisting that she was rational. Again this was simply a prejudiced reaction against veganism. She was on a power trip, attacking me because I have different values to her. I’m not against her because of her values. I accept that some people have conservative and conformist values. The problem here was that she was not asserting her conformist values openly but was disguising them under a claim to authoritative knowledge that she did not have.

In other circumstances, I have received expressions of naked fear and hate from practitioners. One asked me if I was vegan for ‘health reasons’ (clearly praying I would say yes so she could still regard me as a human being because I would have the same bigoted values as herself, though deluded by faulty nutritional theories that contradict TCM culture’s 6-word theory). When I said I was vegan for ethical reasons she looked at me like I’d slapped her in the face, puckering her lips in that characteristic dog’s arse expression that certain extremely small-minded people make when they realise that they are forced to share their world with a person they regard as filthy scum who should be killed and probably will be when this country gets the strong leadership it needs.

Yet another very unpleasant reaction I have experienced (usually from the more experienced practitioners this time) is a horrible, sickly, patronising mock-sympathy. The poor boy has been so deluded, but we can help him. In a way this is a nastier attack than any of the others, as it is disguising hate as compassion, or rather as pity, which is a very different thing.

I accept that most people are not driven to change their behaviour by compassion for animals. This is not the problem. They have their values and hopefully we can discuss these issues at a philosophical level. The point where I find it unacceptable is when someone is actively opposed to veganism in an aggressive and irrational way because it reveals to them that there are people around who have a very different value system to them. I suppose they perceive that as a threat. Someone who has lived their entire life exposed only to mainstream, conformist values may get a shock when they realise that there are a few people around who do not share those values at any level. It’s rather different for someone who has values that differ significantly from the mainstream. We are constantly forced to face up to people who have opposing values to ourselves, because we are in a small minority, and because mainstream values are constantly reinforced by the mass media and advertising until they become implicit. Non-mainstream values have to be made explicit, whereas mainstream values are assumed as default. This means that non-mainstream values are much more open to attack than those which are ‘normal’. Veganism, for example, almost always has to be justified in some way, whereas meat eating does not because meat-eaters very rarely have to say “I’m a meat-eater”. In the same way, people who believe in mainstream political values very rarely have to say explicitly, “I believe in nationalism, Western technocratic supremacism, militarism, authoritarian government,” and so on, because those values are implicitly built into almost all discourse in the mass media.

Not only do these so-called healers have a deep, hate-driven, irrational prejudice against veganism, but they also abuse their position of assumed authority and trust to make political attacks on vegans and vegetarians. I have seen this on many occasions. I believe that the relationship of healer to healed is a sacred contract that must involve profound respect on the part of the healer, and a desire to deeply understand the person who is being healed. You do not understand me by dismissing my deeply experienced ethical and spiritual principles as a silly error or an offence against patriotic values. Perhaps it would do you good to realise that there are people who consider deeply the ethical consequences of every action, maybe even of every word and thought, and to ask yourselves why you have such an extreme irrational response to the existence of such people. It would do you good to have your hardened conservative beliefs thrown into contrast. I am forced by these experiences to question your motivation as healers. Is it compassion or is it money and power?

This has been an angry piece of writing. I can only say that my anger comes from frustrated compassion, but the power-seeking healer’s pity comes from hate.