Animal Rights 2012: Overload of the Senses

I’ve been at the Animal Rights 2012 a little over 24 hours now, and it is absolutely incredible. In addition to being a gala of “who’s who” in animal rights – every group from HSUS to PETA to FARM is represented here – hundreds of dedicated animal rights activists (meaning, vegans!) are milling about, showing proof that our passion and fervor is alive and well.

Last night we heard from a wide range of AR activists: Nathan Runkle of Mercy for Animals quoted MLK, Jr: “The art of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” while Doll Stanley of In Defense of Animals cautioned us in using “pet” versus “companion animal” and “owner” versus “guardian.” Even the slight changes in our speech can make a world of difference in the cause for animal rights.

I saw, and heard, the first vegan forest ranger I’ve ever known of! An inspiring man from El Paso, see Greg Lawson’s speech from 2009 here.

And Gene Baur from Farm Sanctuary had a riveting speech covering all the aspects of that group’s work, as well as showing us progress: corporations are making changes to their food supply system, vegan options abound across the country, and, somehow, the number of land animals slaughtered for food in this country is actually going down! Baur had a USDA slide that documented this, but I have yet to find it (suggestions?).

Today was the first day of breakout sessions, including some very interesting talks by Alex Hershaft, FARM‘s president, on the psychology of “winning hearts and minds” as well as some very heavy “personal development” discussion. Hershaft engaged the audience as we discussed Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and the idea of the most effective activist reaching the top level, that of “self-actualization.”

Also today we heard from Representative Jim Moran, who, for being a politician, definitely seems to “get it” when it comes to animal rights. He covered all the issues and discussed the trials and also successes of what bill he’s been able to co-sponsor and push through on capital hill. Moran introduced the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act in 2011, a bill that if passed would severely limited and restrict many of the cruel circus practices that groups like Ringling and others so routinely sell as “family fun.”

I also heard from Melanie Joy – whom I hope will make carnism a mainstream term – along with Bruce Friederich and Nick Cooney (Farm Sanctuary), and Matt Ball of Vegan Outreach. Each speaker brought something different to the table: their take on the movement, where we’ve come, and how we proceed from here. Many used their time to issue a call to action, thanking us for being here, but asking us to go use the compassion to inspire and reach out to others.

We’re over a day in, and with two more full days of talks, tabling, and vegan food, this conference is a lot to handle! I’m tired, sick (probably due to the chaos leading up to this show last weekend), and a little worried I’ll miss all the good talks (today, Plaza C with Melanie Joy was literally packed to capacity!). But, so what? The energy here is everywhere – it doesn’t matter if I’m up in my room with five other animal rights activists, at the lunch buffet, or hanging out on the shuttle bus with some vegans I’ve never met before. To see hundreds and hundreds of animal rights activists all here, doing their thing, showing that our movement is making a difference and growing so rapidly: that’s what inspires me. As many speakers have said in so many words this weekend: animal rights is the most important social justice issue of our time. Let’s make it happen, by any means necessary! 

We Who Are Not As Others

Great piece by Sam Harris a few weeks ago on his blog where he interviews researcher Bruce Hood about his new book, “The Self Illusion: How the Brain Creates Social Identity.” Hood argues, as the hypnotic Sepultura song quoted in the title does, that we may not be who “we” think we are:

There is conscious awareness of the present moment that he called the “I,” but there is also a self that reflects upon who we are in terms of our history, our current activities and our future plans. James called this aspect of the self, “me” which most of us would recognize as our personal identity—who we think we are. However, I think that both the “I” and the “me” are actually ever-changing narratives generated by our brain to provide a coherent framework to organize the output of all the factors that contribute to our thoughts and behaviors.

Hood goes on to summarize that while this realization may not be as fun as coming to term with Achor’s happiness philosophies, it’s necessary: “[b]y rejecting the notion of a core self and considering how we are a multitude of competing urges and impulses, I think it is easier to understand why we suddenly go off the rails.” This leads into some deep thought quickly: who are “we?” who am “I?” Are we a mirror of our five closest friends, as some have suggested, or merely “competing urges and impulses?”

Moreover, Hood has some interesting ideas about social networks and their capacity to form us. Naively, I believe that Facebook, Twitter, and the like allow us to become exposed to new ideas and spread interesting ones. While I don’t always seek out opposing views, they’re still present, albeit sometimes “hidden.” Hood argues we subconsciously associate and group our ideas conservatively, with extremity being the result:

There is evidence of homophily – the grouping together of individuals who share a common perspective, which is not too surprising. More interesting is evidence of polarization. Rather than opening up and exposing us to different perspectives, social networking on the Internet can foster more radicalization as we seek out others who share our positions. The more others validate our opinions, the more extreme we become.

My partner and I like to joke, “validation?” whenever one of us says something remotely emotional. But this isn’t a joke on the Internet – with every like and re-tweet we receive, we are both consciously and subconsciously being validated about our beliefs, whether those beliefs are good, bad, or somewhere in between. Again, this is a lot of meta-talk about a status update, but I found Hood’s point intriguing. In the admirable quest of activism, with its heavy online component, are merely becoming more militant, and exclusive? I like to think not. What’s your take?

Photo: Marcus Vegas

5 Things You Should Post More Of On Facebook

Given that the average user spends upwards of 15 hours on Facebook per month, and that negative reinforcement doesn’t really work, what if we tried to post more good stuff on Facebook, instead of less bad stuff? I figured somebody would have taken this route already, so I searched for “things to post on Facebook” or “top 10 things to post on Facebook” and Google immediately inserted “top 10 things not to post…” etc. Apparently everyone wants to know what not to post, but is there a guide to what one should? No? Well, allow me:

Note: the examples are obviously going to be a bit skewed as they relate to my (vegan-centric) life and my friends, but they are real examples. Extrapolate and come up with your own ideas!

1) Positive affirmations about your life: did a friend do a favor for you? Are you excited about moving into a new home? Post it! Keeping things positive not only reinforces your good mood, but effects others. If someone thinks you’re bragging, they probably just wish they were as genuinely happy. Example:

I’ve had two cups of yogi tea today, both with similar messages: Feel good, be good, and do good AND Feel great, act great, and approve of yourself. The message is clear.

2) Causes you care about, with a little tact. Fact: a lot of people think I’m a preachy, militant vegan, and while I disagree, as a fellow user of Facebook I can see where they get the idea. It’s so easy to go overboard from “hey, check this out” to “HEY, CHECK THIS OUT, NOW!” Even as one who fully believes in the rightness of a multitude of progressive causes, there’s a better and worse way to promote them. The better way can lead to people reading, liking, sharing, and messaging you to learn more; the worse way can lead to them posting crazy shit on their wall about how much they “hate” the cause. Lead by example:

As some of you already know, I am particularly fond of donkeys (not sure why) so this really pulls at my heart strings. Please take a moment to sign the petition. Thank you so much!

Join my cause: Help us stop the Villanueva (Spain) horror /Aiutateci fermare l’orrore di Villanueva/Spagna

3) Sincere reminders of your friends’ awesomeness: It’s one thing to shower everyone with “i luv u!!!” and pokes, but it’s another to thank someone, publicly, for doing something nice. It makes them feel good, but more over, it shows you have the confidence, and self-love, to thank someone else, to be grateful, and to be compassionate. This is also about not taking life, and your friends, for granted. If the post makes the receiver feel weird (or embarrassed!) then they need to learn how to take a compliment. Expressing your joy of someone else’s existence is enriching for you, them, and the mutual friends you two may have. Example:

These people are awesome!! Thanks for traveling and rocking animal costumes to speak up for animals. :) — with Joseph Trubey and 2 others.

4) Events by you, with a focus on fun: Do you get overwhelmed by event invites like I do? I have about 20 right now that are “pending” – I haven’t bothered to click yes or no because I just don’t care. But whenever I get an event invite from a friend, with a title of something like “Board game night!!!” or “Let’s do something awesome!” – I’m there. If a friend takes time out of their life to plan something fun, and invites their friends, what could be better? We get bombarded with shows, art exhibits, and retreats – not that there’s anything inherently wrong with those – but after awhile you start to go numb. Create an event that showcases what you like: an ultimate frisbee game, kickball, board games, or even just hanging at a coffee shop. We all use Facebook to plan our lives anyway, so why not plan something that helps foster our friendship? Here’s an example of an invite:

I’m coming to town, and I’ve got a penchant for adventure. I haven’t booked my flight yet, but I’m planning on visiting within the last couple weeks of May. A couple years ago, several of us went to The Beach water park and had an awesome time. I’d love to do something like that again. The Beach is closing this summer, but I’d love to run around and get rowdy at somewhere like King’s Island or Holiday World.

5) Make Facebook a positive extension of the real world, not a replacement: Despite all the bullshit that occurs on that site, Facebook can serve a legitimate purpose. It can connect us, empower us to act by exposing us to things we might not hear about, and gives us data to use in the real world. The non-profits that use Facebook find it invaluable, as do I to keep up with former class mates, friends, and even some family. These are good things, but they shouldn’t replace real life. Research Sherry Turkle calls this “life-mix,” and it’s a strange, new way of living in the 21st century.

How does one apply this? Well, that’s up to you (“an exercise left to the reader” as my old math books used to say). Post things on Facebook that you want your circles (or entire friend group) to see, and engage with you about in the real world. A friend of mine is particularly fond of posting random facts about his daily goings-on on Facebook, and when I see him, I’ll strike up a conversation about those. He’ll laugh, but engage me right back. This brings us closer, even though the catalyst was a virtual world, a “fake” interaction online. Use Facebook, like the examples above, to coordinate, plan, and anticipate future events with you friends, but don’t rely on it for the sole interaction.

We choose these endless techno gadgets – Facebook, Twitter, smartphones – to make our lives easier, right? Or, because they’re fun. The moment they cause stress and anxiety, the only people winning are the advertisers (unless you have AdBlock!). Social networks and all their facets are great, and let’s use them for good by strengthening relationships, empowering individuals, and planning the next “big thing” in our lives.

This post was inspired by an article I saw linked from CNN a couple months ago, namely “10 tacky things to avoid posting on Facebook.

Photo: Scott Beale

A Week Off The Internet: How I Did It, Observations, and More

I’m returning to the blogopshere, twitosphere, Facebook, e-mail, and so forth after a much-needed seven day break. It was, and still is, a glorious experience, for the books I read, the time I spent away from a screen, and the countless observations I had during the time. How, in our tech-obsessed world (where I am quite “connected,” in a digital sense) did I survive? And why would I do something like this voluntarily, for an entire week? Read on…

The quest was sponsored by a few factors, one of them being pure timing and convenience – it was my school’s spring break (I teach math at a local college) and there was little need for me to get online to e-mail students or receive notifications from the administration (or so I thought). We primarily communicate through e-mail, both students and faculty, as the course is largely online with a once-per-week in-class component, so they e-mail me with questions, post in discussion forums, and thus, internet access is paramount. A week without classes was the perfect time to stay away from e-mail and the anxiety it can often bring. But moreover, I needed a break: a break from the stress of being online all the time, of constantly checking Twitter and Facebook, of having my phone beep, whether text message, Instagram notification, or e-mail. I hear the naysayers already: “just turn the notifications off! put your phone on vibrate; turn your computer off…” and so on and so on. Sure, those are good ideas in theory, but as most of us know, much more difficult in practice. It is very difficult to completely disconnect, because the world doesn’t stop. Our friends don’t stop updating Facebook just because we’re not there, nor does e-mail stop coming, nor text messages continuing to arrive. For me, moderation is the not the course, because I’m not very good at it (at least, not yet – this break may have changed that). I need to go cold Tofurky to really have an impact on my life, and that’s exactly what I did (with a few minor errors) for seven days.

Last but not least, I wanted to relax: I wanted to lay around the house, read books, take excessive naps, eat excessive food, play with the dogs whenever, and not feel the obligation of my inbox, waiting there for me to read, act, and worry about whatever its contents may be.

That’s exactly what I did, and it was awesome. Seriously. I was a little bit skeptical I would get bored and crave the web, but that really didn’t happen. I craved human contact, social interaction, and activity, but not status updates or @ replies. I found that really, all I needed was cool stuff to do, whether that be reading a good book (getting information!), mountain biking (camaraderie, fitness, and skill improvement), or simply eating vegan pizza with friends (food, activism, inner growth). The internet can definitely facilitate that, but is hardly necessary. And while most of us would agree with that statement in principle, it’s a lot harder to put into practice.

Here were my self-imposed rules for the last seven days, along with some of my minor transgressions (most brought about through unforeseen obligations):

  1. No computers: no laptop, no desktop, no internet cafes (do these even exist in the US anymore?) With this came:
    1. No Facebook
    2. No Twitter
    3. No Google (Try not looking anything  up online, just for a day – it’s hard!)
    4. No Wikipedia (see above)
    5. No Google Maps (how do I get anywhere?! just kidding)
    6. No e-mail
    7. No internet TV, downloaded movies, etc.
  2. No cell phone, meaning:
    1. No texting (or reading of texts)
    2. No access to my contacts, or phone calls (though I subverted this a bit with the help of my fiancee)
    3. No Instagram, tweeting on the go, looking up things while out, calling my fiancee, etc.

In addition I sort-of imposed a “no TV” rule, though I broke this over the weekend catching up on Game of Thrones and Shark Tank. The justification was my partner was going to watch these shows anyway, and I just happened to be there anyway. Cheating, maybe? But rather than focus on how I failed at the week of “no-tech” I focused on all the awesome things I learned.

The two major rules, were, of course, broken, but not due some addiction to Facebook or calling up friends: work intervened, as (un)expected, and in order to confirm which classes I was teaching this week, I needed to contact them directly. While I did make a stop at the school on Wednesday to address this planned consequence (and just to check-in), the information I sought was not there, so I had to e-mail, and call, on Thursday and Friday. Frustrating, but such is life. In addition I had to “fix” our server in order to facilitate some Game of Thrones watching (seriously, have you seen this show? Exceptions can be made…) and update a eBay buyer who I had made a commitment to prior to the tech-break. Commitments, even about eBay auctions, are very important to me, so I wasn’t going to let that dwindle for seven days.

For my friends, family, etc. I did my best to inform them of the break, and used a Tim Ferriss-style auto-response to assist with that. I had no idea what transpired throughout the week, trusting my e-mail would be dealt with by the following announcement:

Hi, and thanks for your e-mail. I’ll be unavailable by e-mail until Monday, April 30 at which time I will respond to all queries in a timely fashion.

If this is an urgent matter, please leave a message with my fiancee at 502-XXX-XXXX.

Thank you for your consideration. Sincerely,

Samuel Hartman

As it so happened, no messages made it across to my fiance, meaning that either 1) there was nothing urgent to discuss with me that couldn’t wait until April 30, or 2) no one wanted to take the time to make an extra phone call (which probably means it wasn’t that urgent). Now, I’m under no guise that my advice and assistance is so integral to the productivity and well-being of my cohorts and their tasks. I’m not the CEO of some company that needs to sign 10 different strategic plans every day, but I do have my responsibilities, and obligations, namely to places like the Veg Club and to my band. In addition, I have reasonable expectations about my friends when it comes to responding to e-mail, voice-mail, or text messages, like we all do. Consequently, being absent for a week might agitate a select few, no? But in all reality, and given the fact that my partner was still in touch with the world, things proceeded as usual, with little upset. I visited a friend at his house to confirm some plans (to which he responded “didn’t you get the text?”), confirmed many of my week’s plans on the Sunday before, and when something didn’t go according to plan, I let it go. This is both uncharacteristic and difficult for me to do, but I forced myself to let go and let things unfold as they may, not rush for the nearest communication device to try and fix the problem. This was a healthy and much-needed change.

I also modified my voice-mail to alert callers that I would not be responding to messages until today, and while I haven’t heard the ensuing messages (this post needed to come first!), I doubt there is much frustration. The fears and worries of, “but what will happen if my friends can’t call me?!” fade quickly as you realize that life goes on even if you aren’t in the front seat, tweeting your way through it. This need not be depressing (“well then why even try!”), but liberating: we can take a break. We can put our phones down at bed time, and not even check them again until 10am the next morning! Ferriss advocates, in his quest to one e-mail check per week, to whittle down the times to noon and 4:00pm, as no one responds to e-mail first thing in the morning anyway. Even using an auto-response – such as “I’ll be checking my e-mail at…” to alert those trying to reach you that, hey, I’m a busy dude, but I want to get back to you and will do so at this time – can help make the transition easier for your friends and co-workers. Trust is a beautiful thing here, and we should trust the people we associate with to do the right thing even in our absence. This applies more so to job situations than friendships, but the thing to remember is that we can take a break. We need not be connected 24/7, or hyperconnected as CIO guest columnist Irving Wladawsky-Berger puts it. In the article, he writes, quoting MIT professor Sherry Turkle:

She believes that our smartphones offer us three gratifying fantasies: that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; that we will always be heard; and that we will never have to be alone. “And that third idea, that we will never have to be alone, is central to changing our psyches. Because the moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device.”

So, will we be able to adjust to this hyperconnected phase of the Internet, just like we seem to have adjusted to the initial connected phase by finding a reasonable balance between the physical and digital worlds? We now have to find a reasonable balance between paying quality attention to the people around us and being able to respond to the little devices constantly vying for our attention.

That’s exactly why I took a break. To put the attention back on myself, my friends, my partner, and the quest to find knowledge in some “old fashioned” ways…like reading! A few books that helped me “get through” the week are the following, and I highly recommend you check them out:

  1. The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. An absolutely incredible read about defining morality through science. Harris doesn’t have all the answers, but he makes a powerful philosophical case for why, in a world where there are clearly lives that are better and worse than others, we can use science to determine the proper course. There’s an illustrious critique of religion, and a lot of discussion on free will and brain states, as well.
  2. The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. I was turned on to Achor through a TED Talk where he outlines his premise that happiness inspires productivity, work, and success, not the other way around. His book is about the burgeoning field of positive psychology, and while it contains data from animal testing (boo) and success stories of greedy capitalists (banks, insurance companies, etc.), Achor is an inspiring writer and motivator. Just reading the book made me happy!
  3. Evasion “by” CrimethInc. It’s hard to describe this book, but many of the stories of it are enthralling. The author sprinkles his train-hopping, dumpster-diving life with various politics and occasional vegan straight-edge anecdotes which add variety to the book. While it doesn’t flow as well as some of the other CrimethInc works, it represents a very powerful ideology in the anarchist world; that of contributing nothing to capitalist society, and taking whatever one wants.

All in all, I was very excited, but a little anxious, about returning to technology this week. While I look forward to getting caught up on some news, the latest Groupons, and  countless e-mails (some of which are quite positive, I bet!), at the same time, the freedom to do “whatever” without an obligation of technological interference, is desirable. My goal now is to find some sort of balance, perhaps less cell phone usage at night, a ban on Sunday, or simply a reality check: when free time comes and the decision is to be made, go the opposite way of Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk. After all, they are nothing but digital interpretations of our lives. Shouldn’t we strive to live our real lives first?

There were quite a bit of revelations and smaller aspects of the tech break I left out, as this post is quite long already! If you’re curious about a specific aspect of it, please leave a question in the comments. For another look at the problems of hyperconnectivity and smartphones, see this article: “Do iPhones Make Us Narcissists?

Photo: Hugh MacLeod

Bank of America Responds to the 99%: This Is Your Bank (Updated)

Bank of America Announces “Your Bank of America” Campaign, Partnership with Taxpayers to Revamp U.S. Banking
Date(s): 18-Apr-2012 9:00 AM

As future clouds, opportunities arise for public synergy

CHARLOTTE, N.C.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Apr. 18, 2012– Bank of America today announced the launch of an unprecedented campaign to reach out to the American public for guidelines on how banking should happen. The campaign, Your Bank of America (www.yourbofa.com), leverages the American public’s disaffection with today’s banking practices into a full suite of real banking solutions.

“We may not have all the answers, but we’re confident that those answers exist,” said Brian Moynihan, Chief Executive Officer of Bank of America. “We want to make sure the American people are well positioned to assert control and implement changes in the direction of banking, in the eventuality that such control becomes feasible.”

“Bringing in the public sector is a good strategy for earning buy-in at a difficult time for our industry,” said Moynihan. “But this is not just a PR campaign: as the public uses our new website to share ideas of how banks should be run, we will see many ideas that are quite far ahead of the market norm. Running a bank in a sane and common-sense way isn’t rocket science—and that’s something the customer knows best.”

Wow. Call me skeptical, but is crowdsourcing really the way to go for banking? The site is live, at yourbofa.com, and includes some doozies such as this one (why would they admit this?)

Part of our Bank’s strength has come from our predominance within key industries. From 2009 to 2010, for example, we invested more than $4 billion in coal, more than any other bank. This has led some to claim that we are responsible not only for exacerbating the global climate crisis, but for contributing to thousands of deaths due to cardiac and respiratory diseases, as well as 1.6 million lost work days due to heart attacks, chronic bronchitis cases, asthma attacks, and the like.

But the best part is of course the “your ideas” section, which features a fully-functional “Enter your idea here” blank with voting up and down arrows. Some at the top of the list include…

 I want my bank to pay bankers a reasonable amount (not exorbitant amount), and require they are tied to community by residence or other factors.

I want my bank to disavow and remove itself from all illegal money laundering, financing of violence and militarism, drug trading, ponzi-scheming, and theft of houses through foreclosure on properties

Bank branches should give temporary shelter to foreclosure victims.

What do you think? Brilliant PR campaign? Scam? Last-ditch effort? Regardless of the outcome, the 99% and those at Occupy Wall Street have changed the conversation for good.

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