Matt Ball: Belief on the Right Side of History

It doesn't matter where we live or the history of our upbringing, most of us believe that we are good people. Most of us don't really want to cause harm; but little about our society makes it easy to do otherwise, including our often deep attachment to the traditions and habits and beliefs that we've developed over decades. And it's so much easier just to go with the flow -- to embrace the status quo surrounding us. After all (almost) everyone else is doing it.

In his beautiful and powerful essay, "Belief on the Right Side of History," Matt Ball shares the story of the three events that led to his awakening from the fog of culture surrounding his choices about eating animals. Here's an excerpt:
"The second event was reading the book Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Goldhagen. This book disproved the common myth that the Nazi’s extermination of Jews, gypsies, atheists, and others was done without the support of the German people. In reality, the Germans knew what was going on, and, except for a relatively small proportion of the population, supported it.

Now I had always been horrified by slavery in our country. The idea of people treating other people as mere property, and that so many people would fight and die for the “right” to do so was both shocking and appalling. Simply and utterly bewildering.

But Goldhagen’s book about Germany showed something more – a society that turned on its fellow citizens and methodically exterminated them.

Obviously, the normal reaction is to assume that I would have been a part of the Underground Railroad, protected the Anne Franks of the world, etc. But…really? Did I really, honestly think that I would have gone against the overwhelming majority of my society? If I had been raised in a slave-holding household in a slave-holding society, would I really have stood up? Did I honestly think I would have been different from nearly everyone else?

And if all these millions could fully believe things that, today, are so obviously absurd and repulsive, well, how could I assume everything I currently believed was absolutely right? If so many would willingly support gruesome atrocities, how can I possibly think everything today is morally pure? Even if I’m not chaining up a slave, or leading my fellow citizens to the gas chambers, isn’t it possible – even probable – that I am at least tacitly supporting another horror – one that future generations will also look upon with bewilderment?"
Matt ends his essay with a realization about the importance of examining our values and questioning both our own choices and those of our society. He says:
"We each have to ask the question: what kind of person are we? Will we accept what our society dictates today, or will we write our own story? Will we rationalize the status quo or thoughtfully make our own decisions? Will we oppose cruelty or support slaughter?

Slowly – very slowly – I came to realize there are more important things in life than accepting the status quo and taking the easiest path. Choosing the road less traveled does not necessitate denial and deprivation. Making our lives a part of something real, something larger than ourselves…this expands our life’s narrative, enriches our existence, and allows for real meaning and lasting happiness.

History shows that questioning society is necessary in all times, and today, choosing not to eat animals makes a public, powerful, ethical statement – not just about the lives of animals, but about the nature of our character. It shows that we are honestly striving to be truly good, thoughtful people."

Read the complete essay.

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