While I have shared in a great many Thanksgivings myself and participated in exactly this capacity, I have also come to realize just what has been taken for granted for so long in these traditions and why new ones must be forged. Seldom does anyone thank the earth for its bounty, for what it provides to nourish us and those we share its surfaces, oceans, and air with. If thanks is given it is generally superficial. It is a “thanks, but I’m still going to continue with my hyper-consumptive ways regardless of the consequences.” This has become the penance people pay for any guilt they may feel for their actions that they hear the demonstrator’s downtown or newscaster telling them to be concerned about. There appears a sense of absolution in the doing something ‘good’ with family tradition that should wipe clean all our other behaviours that continue to pollute, exploit, and disregard the suffering of others.
I do not mean to say that anyone is bad or evil because they are ignorant or willful in their neglect in attending to the experience of others while they indulge. However, reflection and intention to be thankful for the bounty that many of us have is rooted in us connecting to our actions on broader terms than our immediate surroundings and company. It is easy for a great deal of white privileged people to think nothing of the poverty and conditions others must suffer from their house on the hill. Similarly, it is relevant to speak to the anthropocentric way that we may often give thanks while completely invalidating and disregarding the life that was taken to gorge our bellies on for a night and a few left-overs.
As white people we must recognize our place as usurpers of a significant and great land, and as deniers of culture for a great many people. While we may give a tokenistic ‘thanks’ to First Nations by inviting them to recognize this as their land, but offering no other restorative compensation, we often are instructed to feel good about this gesture and carry on with our lives, set apart from their experience or culture. I don’t mean to invalidate the importance this gesture may have to many in lieu of a complete absence of this recognition; however, it is important to critically examine what even our best intentions entail. Our privilege should be to have an opportunity to learn, engage, and embolden others to assert their power and have a place in a shared community that is not definitively ‘ours.’ Our privilege should not be to embrace ignorance and reiterate the mistakes of generations before us. Are we privileged? Undeniably. Privilege is the mechanism upon which the manifold superfluous choices we have to contend with day in and day out convince us our lives are of such immense significance that we don’t have time to worry about the state of the world. Yes, we have a great deal to be thankful for while so many others are struggling for independence, sustenance, and existence. This does not make it okay to just be thankful and maintain ignorance.
Patriarchy is also a profound part of the perpetuation of these attitudes and exclusionary practices. Males dominate in the androcentric and anthropocentric world we inhabit and it is not a complete conversation without bringing gender into the fray because our conceptions of gender influence every aspect of our interaction with others. This in no way asserts that a world of equality between all genders will bring us a world where peace prevails and violence is forgotten. However, it is a starting point in the validation of the unique experiences and ways of being of others that are not white and male. For example, it may be a fairly new phenomenon to find a male preparing a meal at all in a family setting, let alone on Thanksgiving. We have probably all seen the ‘ideal’ traditional Thanksgiving dinner picture with the man cutting the turkey that has just been prepared with everyone gazing with anticipation at it with watery eyes. However, just as much a part of this traditional image is to disregard the work and contribution of the womyn as the preparer of the meal after eight hours in the kitchen, or setting the table, or inviting everyone. I have been to many Thanksgiving meals and a womyn has always prepared the meal, I have also always heard her be praised for her work. Yet, I can’t help but admit the glory and admiration goes often to the man as he makes the first cut and delivers the flesh to each plate. This action may seem simple enough, but the semantics embedded in it are profound. The male is shown as the provider, the meat is the gift of the provider and should be a display of his power or prestige based on the size of the turkey and his generosity to his guests. All he has to do is show up and deliver. This is just a small way that gender is significant to both the presence of meat on the table, the way we are influenced to think about our gender roles at a family gathering such as thanksgiving, and the degree of invalidation of the time, work, and knowledge of wimmin in just one role they may have taken on in that traditional depiction.
We must also recognize the heteronormativity in this depiction as well. Thanksgiving is still pictured by many as a time for people to go to mom and pop’s house with their partners and children. Yet, for many there is not an invitation present for those who do not identify in the heteronormative framework as ‘straight.’ This may be another awkward and invalidating family gathering for members of the LGTBQ community that are silenced about their sexuality or gender identity. Giving ‘thanks’ may exclude being grateful for those in the family who do not conform to these norms and instead may be a threatening reminder of the closed mindedness of those who are supposed to be closest to us in blood. What is given at these types of gatherings for many is contempt at once again tainting that ideal notion of how the picture should look and everyone’s role in maintaining its integrity. Oh yes…and we can’t forget about the turkey…
While I have been carrying on about the politics that subversively influence and shape so much of this holiday, I have purposefully waited until now to bring the turkey fully into it.
Approximately three million turkeys will be killed in Canada this year for the Thanksgiving holiday meal. That is about 1 for every 10 Canadians. These numbers are often overwhelming to people and similarly so are the feelings of revulsion they get when they are exposed to the way those turkeys are often raised for slaughter and killed. Yet, like so many other instances discussed prior, much of the population embraces the tradition regardless of how it gets to their table. The violence and blood spilled to get a turkey on the plate of millions of people in North America is astounding, yet you will never see an ad depicting this abject cruelty around the dinner table. No one will be shedding a tear for the lives spent or the suffering endured. Instead, the table becomes a closed off place for only the select few to indulge in a specific way that cannot be deviated from, lest the tradition be tainted and the superficial gloss be tarnished.
Now, it is pretty hard to thank someone who is dead, last I checked. You can certainly say it, but it tends to lack sincerity when you are sawing off one of its legs or reaching through its neck with a fistful of stuffing. Much like the other types of ‘thanks’ discussed prior, it tends to be used as a dissociative term to distance ourselves from responsibility to the event we are perpetrating. Much like the over used “I love animals” phrase that often coincides with supporting their mass slaughter. Many love the animals they are attached to at home such as their cat or dog, but see others as simply meals on legs. Once again, understanding the systemic nature of this and the other issues mentioned involves looking past our immediate experience and projecting our imagination into how each symbol and each word presented to us found its way before us.
The intersection of these events is important in stating the culmination of their power and ability to influence. Of course, Thanksgiving is a religious holiday from the 16th century that was brought to North America by settlers. What is seldom discussed is the impact that white settler culture had on the aboriginal population at that time and still does today. What did the settlers want? Land of course, to grow crops and farm animals. When we consider the violence inherent in animal agriculture to control the behaviours of animals and mold them into docile and obedient creatures, we must also consider what had to be taken from the people that had lived either on or transitorily on the land the settlers wanted to farm. This is not to mention the wildlife that was displaced or became commoditized for its value to the settlers. Might made right in most cases and when that wasn’t the method used, First Nations were coerced or manipulated into giving up large tracks of land for a pittance. History indicates that it was men committing this exploitation on both fronts, while womyn were used as tools to work the land, provide meals, and bear children to populate the area with more settlers. I don’t think many people need the history lesson, but I’m attempting to tie this all back together.
So, after all that, why Thanksliving?
Because it is time to give a mindful thanks to the people, non-human animals, and places around us by living in a way that is conducive to our values. It is much more difficult to give of yourself than to give ‘thanks’ for a day a year. Thanksliving is an acknowledgement of each other as sharing in a community we value, making decisions that do not bring harm or suffering to others, and holding ourselves accountable for the attitude and perspective we bring to our interactions with others. It is a gratitude for life, for love, and for the living that inspires us to do better, to see each other flourish, and lift one another up. It is also an appreciation for what each has to offer in their unique way in our communities, to value the differences as much as the similarities, and to celebrate publicly a new tradition that can make a real difference in the lives of all of us. Furthermore, let it remind us in a moment of silence that we do not sit alone as a group in this hall, but as a part of a much larger community where we have created a safe and positive space that did not exist before. I hope that when you join us at Thanksliving Oct 12th or if you have one of your own, that you feel the connection to those around you and the positive spirit they bring with them. That the food is nourishing not just of the body, but of the soul as well. Celebrate, dance, sing, and rejoice together! May this Thanksliving be the start of a new tradition of compassion in a culture already full of passionate, beautiful, and compassionate people that we share together every year and watch grow as we nourish it with our presence.
The Critical Cat