If you missed my last guest blog on Viva La Vegan, here it is!
Through slang terms, idioms, insults, and standardized grammatical constructs, language reflects current social inequalities. It is packed with the vestiges of a culture’s history of domination, exploitation, and discrimination. In this way, language not only reflects inequality but also has the potential to oppress. In using problematic language, we reinscribe abuses and inequalities. However, by simply not using such language, we can free our own words of exploitation, forcing others to confront these issues when they hear us speak.
In this post I will focus on how language oppresses (and how we can liberate that language) as it applies to nonhuman animals and speciesist ideology. Importantly though, as I will describe below, it is impossible to discuss speciesist language without also discussing racist and sexist language, as they are all interlinked by a prevailing structure of inequality that operates within most institutions, belief systems, governments, and cultures globally.
Language oppresses in various ways. In relation to animals, the most notable ways that language reinforces and solidifies inequality is through pronouns, the use of “mass terms,” inaccurate language, derogatory terms/insults, and culturally specific idioms and adages.
pronouns. One of the most obvious ways that the English language oppresses is through the de-sexing and objectification of animals with pronouns. Many of you have seen the wonderful advertisements to promote veganism, which show an image of a “farm animal” with copy that reads: “Someone not something.” This distinction between subject (someone) and object (something) is extremely important for changing the way that people think of nonhuman animals. It is in the objectification of other animals that we deny them sentience and personhood so that we may use their bodies for sport, transportation, entertainment, clothing, food, work, or whatever else we humans please.
This transformation of other animals from subject to object, happens quietly through the use of pronouns. Animals are “it,” not “he” or “she;” they are “that” and “which,” not “who” or “whom.” Rendering an animal sexless, classifying him or her as “it that” rather than “s/he who” takes away a crucial aspect of the way in which the English language identifies (human) subjects.
Making the shift to “s/he” rather than “it” is simple but very powerful. If you don’t know someone’s gender, just do what authors do when talking abstractly about humans—switch back and forth between he and she. Never use “that” or “which,” always use “who” or “whom.” This is a very easy thing to do in your speaking and writing and for many animal advocates it will likely feel good and become natural rather quickly. More important than its being easy, it will be noticed. Sentences will just feel “off” to listeners, as this is technically not “correct.” Your spell-check will try to correct you and if you write professionally your editors will, too. But as you persist in speaking accurately about nonhuman animals, people will notice and be forced to confront the issue in their own thinking.
mass terms. This objectification of other animals via language also occurs through what Carol J. Adams identifies as “false mass terms.” This phrase refers to the lumping together of many individuals into one undifferentiated group (“mass terms”), thereby erasing individuality and establishing an inaccurate (“false”) sense that all in the group are one in the same. One way to think of it is as an extreme stereotype or profiling.
As Adams explains in her article A War on Compassion: “Mass terms refer to things like water or colors; no matter how much of it there is or what type of container it is in, water is still water…Objects referred to by mass terms have no individuality, no uniqueness, no specificity, no particularity.” This is a problem, because, “…humans make someone who is a unique being and therefore not the appropriate referent of a mass term into something that is the appropriate referent of a mass term” (emphasis added).
The way this works in regard to animals is through the identification of classes of animals and species of animals as if it stands in for any individual animal, and such that any individual animal stands in for the whole group. For example, by making someone a “farm animal” we classify her as a type of animal that can be killed for food. Further we often identify animals by species, as if all in that species are the same. This also allows for us to abuse animals en masse for the purposes of food and clothing. It also allows for policies to be set in place that are not in the best interests of some animals. If any cheetah is one in the same as the next cheetah, then trapping and caging some of them for “education” or conservation efforts in zoos becomes acceptable. If each cheetah matters, though, kidnapping any cheetah would be (rightfully) unacceptable.
We use false mass terms when we rely on inaccurate binaries as well. The most prevalent and harmful is human/animal. This is an us/them construct, which establishes a hierarchy that asserts that anyone not like “us” is not as valued. It is nonsensical since humans are also animals, but by establishing all nonhuman animals as “them”, it masks the fact that we are similar to them and they to us; in this way what we do to them can more easily leave our consciousness.
False mass terms are just another way we thing-ify living others, thereby linguistically masking their value as individual living beings. When we use simply “animal” in our language rather than “other animal” or “nonhuman animal” we fall into this trap. By seeking to identify the individual nature of other animals in our language, we better serve our cause.
insults. Derogatory phrases reflect those whom a society devalues (either in the past or present) and highlights racist, classist, abilist and speciesist ideology. Phrases like lame and cunt are insults, as such they devalue those whom they are associated with—people with differently abled bodies and women, respectively.
Animals and animal-related phrases are often used as well to establish the devaluation of others. It is here that we can see how racism, sexism and speciesism are intertwined. Throughout US history, there are two things in common about whichever ethnic minority is being blamed for social problems. First, is that people in this group will be the ones doing the most labor, the hardest labor, and receiving the least pay or legal protection. Currently, these roles in the US are filled by Mexican immigrants (and similar others, i.e. Latinos) as well as by nonhuman animals (who certainly do the most labor and receive nothing in the way of compensation, not even having their lives spared).
Second, there will be derogatory terms linking individuals in this group to animals. African slaves were kidnapped and brought to the US from the 1500’s to the 1800’s. They worked, were tortured, murdered, and raped—all without pay. They were likened to monkeys in images and language, literally being called “monkey.” In the mid 1800’s Chinese immigrants were recruited in the US to build the Central Pacific Railroad. As they built infrastructure for the development of the Western US and the realization of a “manifest destiny,” they were likened to rats. They were portrayed as rats on trading cards and in advertisements, and they were said to be “like rats”—which stood in for meaning they were dirty, untrustworthy, and unintelligent. Today, Latinos are working in the least desirable jobs and if they are “illegal aliens” they often have no legal protections and are paid inhumane wages. Latina women are said to “breed” like dogs or rabbits, other slang includes “border bunny” (referring to illegal border crossings), pollo (Spanish word for “chicken”, what the border patrol calls Mexicans at the border), and mule (refers to drug mules, insinuating Latinos are drug dealers), to name a few.
Epitaphs to degrade women by likening them to animals also abound: women are sexualized (and objectified) through being likened to nonhuman animals (e.g. chick, fox, vixen). Annoying women are bitches or they “henpeck” their husbands or “brood” over their children. Unattractive women are cows. As Joan Dunayer highlights: “Likening women to nonhuman animals undermines respect for women because nonhuman animals generally receive less respect—far less.” She goes on: “Viewed through speciesism a nonhuman animal acquires a negative image. When metaphor then imposes that image on women they share its negativity.” This use of metaphor that relies on the assumed inferiority of nonhuman others, works to both insult the human target and degrade the moral status of other animals.
When you start paying attention, you may be shocked at just how prevalent “animal” insults are. By refusing to use these terms, and being vocal about why you do it, you not only refuse to propagate these abuses, but you can actually subvert the dominant ideologies that support multiple inequalities.
idioms. Idioms are culturally specific expressions and adages are short memorable phrases. Both are used as shorthand to express a message, a lesson, or a moral. “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” “kill two birds with one stone,” and “don’t’ look a gift horse in the mouth,” are all examples. These phrases often play on a culture’s understanding of animals as inferior, as property, or as existing to be used or killed by humans. It can be difficult to stop using them as they slip out easily and have utility as they are typically understood by the majority of a culture.
Idioms are one of my favorite ways to liberate language because the listener will always take notice and a lot can be expressed through these shifts. For example, “Free two birds with one key” is just as descriptive as “Kill two birds with one stone,” and it totally reorients the expectation of who birds are (individuals to live free vs. objects that are acceptable kill). Because the phrase harkens to the original idiom, the listener will call that old idiom into question as they consider the alternative you have provided.
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau has an amazing podcast on this topic, if you want to hear more. At the end of this post is a list of some possible replacements for old idioms and adages from various sources, including many of my friends and the cookbook Vegan Vittles. If you are ever in a pinch, though, you can check out this very clever, “Randomly-Generated Animal Friendly Idiom Editor” by Chris Marcum.
inaccurate language. Inaccurate language is normalized in such a way that it, in turn, serves to normalize the animal abuse itself. Slaughtered individuals are rendered into “food” and described as delicious or expensive or over-cooked or salty instead of as kind orplayful or tired or clever. People wear the skins of others and call it “fashion.” People are said to “own” companion animals. We call those who were killed for food “meat.” A hamburger not a cow. When people eat chicken or fish, the language is still inaccurate as these words are being used as a mass term, much like “racing animal” or “circus animal.” We need to stop using inaccurate terms to define the world we are living in. People will tell you that you are alienating yourself if you say things like, “Do you sell any jackets that are not made with cow skin?” But who cares? Animal exploitation and abuse is so normal precisely because it is not questioned.
In talking about disadvantage, sociologist Michael Kimmel tells us that “privilege is invisible.” What he is referencing is the fact that a man is a man is a man, unless he is a poor man, or a black man or a gay man. All “inferior” identities are described. As Melanie Joy points out in her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, the same is true for vegetarians. She subverts this by labeling people who eat dead animals “carnists,” I borrow form Steve Best and call them necrovores.
When we label what we are seeing honestly we take the privilege of invisibility away. We re-center our own language to be compassionate, which calls out normalized cruelty to animals.
a daily practice. Every day language is used that plays off of the normalized nature of violence against animals. It is insidious but typically goes unnoted for the fact that it is so normal. Queering your lexicon means to deviate from what is expected or the normal in terms of the words you use to communicate. It is a beautiful personal act of daily resistance to animal exploitation. Liberating your language of animal abuse adds to the daily practice of veganism to establish a foundation of compassion from which advocacy and activism on behalf of other animals can begin.
|Speciesist Idiom/ Proverb||Cruelty-free replacement||
|There’s more than one fish in the sea.||There’s more than one leaf on the tree.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Kill two birds with one stone.||Free two birds with one key.||vegina|
|Slice two carrots with one knife.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Opening a can of worms.||Opening a can of spaghetti.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Land of milk and honey.||Land of sweet abundance.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Running around like a chicken with its head cut off.||Running around in circles.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|It’s raining cats and dogs.||It’s raining rice and beans.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|There’s no use crying over spilled milk.||It’s no use weeping over burned toast.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Don’t put the cart before the horse.||Don’t slice the bread before it’s baked.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.||Don’t put all your vegetables in one soup.||Megan Wagner|
|Never put all your berries in one bowl.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Slippery as an eel.||Slippery as oil.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Packed in like sardines.||Packed in like pickles.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|On a wild goose chase.||Out chasing rainbows.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for life.||Give a man a bean and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to garden and you’ll feed him for life.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|It’s no use beating a dead horse.||It’s no use watering a dead rose.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|He that would fish must not mind getting wet.||He that would garden must not mind getting soiled.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|One man’s meat is another man’s poison.||One man’s treat is another man’s trouble.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Talk turkey.||Speak vegan.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.||You can’t make granola out of gravel||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|There’s more than one way to skin a cat.||There’s more than one way to peel a potato.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|There’s more than one way to cook/fry a piece of tofu.||Alicia Pell|
|There’s more than one way to catch a crook.||Rose Palmer|
|There’s more than one way to fool a furrier.||Robyn Hicks|
|You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.||You can’t make wine without crushing grapes.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Never fish in troubled waters.||Never fly a kite in a storm.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.||You can sow fertile seeds but you can’t make them sprout.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.||Don’t look for bugs in a flower bouquet.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.||You can catch more smiles with nice than nasty.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|You can’t get blood from a turnip.||You can’t get water from a stone.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|You can’t sell the cow and have the milk too.||You can’t sell the orchard and keep the apples too.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Ants in your pants.||Pepper in your pants.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.||Don’t count your bushels before they are reaped.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Don’t count your beans before they sprout||Jovian Parry|
|Walking on eggshells.||Walking on broken glass.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|You are no spring chicken.||You are no spring onion.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Neither fish nor foul.||Neither greens nor grains.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Don’t let the cat out of the bag.||Keep it under your hat.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|He who steals a calf steals a cow.||He who crushes an acorn kills an oak.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.||A berry in the hand is worth two in the bush.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Kill not the goose that lays the golden eggs.||Don’t fell the tree that yields the sweetest fruit.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.||Sauce for the peach is sauce for the plum.||Joanne Stepaniak in Vegan Vittles|
|A wolf in sheep’s clothing.||Dahmer in a nice suit||?|
|Bringing home the bacon.||Bringing home the Benjamins||Ryan Bethencourt|
|Get to the meat of the issue.||Get to the core of the issue.||Rose Palmer|
|If you lie down with dogs you get up with fleas.||If you lie down with bankers, you get up with no heart.||Robyn Hicks|
I recently had the pleasure of writing an article on Viva La Vegan. If you didn’t get a chance to see my post there last week, I am reposting it here. Make sure head over to Viva La Vegan–there is a lot of great stuff going on including an extremely diverse array of articles and a vegan mentorship program.
Veganism is a necessary condition for animal liberation. On a systemic level, there is a possibility that swelling numbers of vegans will allow us to have a critical mass that can drive culture and politics. On an individual level, it is how people take personal responsibility by refusing to be a part of the violence around them. It is a way to queer the food chain and it is the foundation of an animal liberation praxis. It is also, for many, the gateway to activism. Veganism is a must, but it is not enough if saving animals is the end goal.
Some tout veganism as the solution to end mass suffering of nonhuman animals. They say things like, “The world is vegan if you want it.” But that is just not true. The world is vegan only if we actively, systematically, aggressively, and consistently fight for it. If you want to do something to save animals’ lives, you actually need to do something. Veganism is about abstention, not action. The few of us who are vegan are not driving the production of meat down and we are not reinventing culture, we are simply acting according to our basic moral code and abstaining from a practice we know to be wrong.
Yes, being vegan is important and so is vegan outreach and advocacy. It is a vital part of our movement. But the choice to be vegan in and of itself is only a foundation and a gateway to a path of animal liberation.
Celebrity dieters such as Oprah and personable cooks and bakers such as Isa Chandra Moskowitz, have helped spread veganism to new populations and have made it a trendy enterprise. Veganism becoming a trend exposes the idea to more people, which is a wonderful thing. However, we must remember that trends don’t last. While it is better to have someone go veg for some period of time than not at all, veganism as an industry has the potential to overshadow and make us forget veganism as an ethic. Obviously this doesn’t always happen, but examples of it do abound.
On the west coast of the U.S., Veggie Grill is a vegan restaurant chain that is popular and expanding quickly. But you will not find a single piece of animal rights or vegan literature, nor will you see the word vegan mentioned anywhere (except for once on the menu where it says “vegan mayonnaise”). The Facebook page of the owner of Doomie’s, a popular vegetarian restaurant in Los Angeles, features him several years ago posing with a dead fish from a fishing excursion and an ear-to-ear grin; clearly he is not concerned with what this is promoting, and he sees no issue with this picture being public while he runs a vegetarian restaurant. Apparently, the message got lost in the pursuit of a niche market. (I emailed him about this photo last week for his explanation, but to date have had no response).
When veganism becomes the end goal, the focus becomes the food not the animals. It becomes tempting for animal advocacy groups and vegans to promote veganism as a type of “cuisine,” rather than as an ethical choice. In this way it is easier to spread veganism, but it does not promote animal liberation. People forget about the animals that are not present in vegan food, just like they forget about the animals that are present in other cuisines. Veganism becomes something that people “go out” to, rather than a way of life or an ethic of justice. This sort of thinking has also lead to the promotion of concepts like “flexitarianism” and “semi-vegetarianism”—diets in which animals still die. Any diet in which animals die are not diets people who care about animals should be promoting.
Veganism, as it is often promoted today, is also heavily invested in the very system of capitalism that is driving animal exploitation in the first place. It supports capital enterprises surrounding food, even meat production. Veganism drives Tofurkey, Gardein, and Tofutti into the marketplace, but it does not drive meat and dairy out.
Animal exploitation enterprises have learned to expand their profits by catering to the vegan population. The factory farming system is driven largely by the fast food economy. Companies such as Chipotle and Kentucky Fried Chicken have developed vegan options and, in doing so, have won the praise and money of vegans. In a stark example of this in 2008, two vegans allowed their wedding to serve as pro-KFC propaganda when they were married at a KFC in Canada to celebrate the addition of vegan options and KFC Canada’s agreement to use controlled atmospheric killing as a slaughter method. Vegans are putting their money into the very companies that are driving animal exploitation in gratitude for the convenience of a vegan option and “nicer” ways to kill animals.
And yes, I get it. Promoting veganism as something even omnivores can do makes it more approachable. Having more vegan options makes veganism more attainable. It means we can now honestly tell people that being vegan is easy and convenient. But this should not be the crux of what we are striving for and it cannot be our end goal. I don’t know a single committed vegan who became vegan because they realized vegan food tastes good, or who would stop being vegan if there weren’t cheese substitutes and options at drive-thrus. People who only go vegan because it is easy will not stay vegan, and they certainly won’t contribute to the real struggles of animal liberation.
People like to cite numbers about how many lives being vegan will save. Some people go to great lengths to quantify this number. And this number does have a point. It can excite people to go veg. It can force people to think about their food consumption in relation to actual lives. But it is only a tool and a symbol. Vegans need to know that these numbers are figurative; no lives are actually saved. The few of us that are vegan are not driving the shift in the number of animals that are killed.
As the number of vegetarians and vegans in the U.S. has slowly climbed, demand for meat production has increased while per capita meat consumption has declined. There is debate as to which is a better measure, but in the end, what matters for me is that the number of animals slaughter has reduced. Why is this not evidence enough for me that veganism is the answer to animal liberation? First, meat consumption is largely tied to finances and US families have not bounced back from the financial crisis and high unemployment. Since demand is higher, the number of animals killed to meet that demand will likely climb again. Second, there are still over nine billion land animals being killed for food every year in the US alone. This is a state of emergency; more needs to be done and veganism alone is clearly not doing it.
When people claim to be animal rights activists based only on the fact that they are vegan, they are engaging in rhetoric to absolve feelings of responsibility to actually act on behalf of animals. Saying you are an animal activist because you refuse to kill animals is like saying you are an anti-rape activist because you refuse to rape people. I am not saying everyone has to be an activist, I just worry when people misconstrue the act of not eating animals—a morally necessary choice to refuse to murder needlessly—as an act of activism that might actually lead to the liberation of animals.
I do not say this to shame people. I say it to push our community to be more critical of what our goals are and how we can achieve them. Someone can be vegan and stop there; that is totally fine and I am happy to have one less murderer wandering the streets. But at the same time it is important to remember that veganism is an exercise of passive abstinence, not active engagement.
If we want to help animals our sights need to move beyond seeming like pleasant and energetic vegans so people will learn by our example not to kill animals. We need to move beyond the ruse that not actively killing an animal actually saves an animal. If we want to help animals we need to challenge oppression, force people to confront their behavior, and be unrelenting in our pursuit of justice. And this takes more than veganism. This takes a revolution and, while what we choose (not) to eat may be an empowering political and ethical statement, it is not a revolution.
On March 11th, 2012, U.S. army sergeant Robert Bales made headlines when he went on a killing spree in Kandahr, Afghanistan, killing 17 civilians. In another infamous military tragedy, military personnel working at Abu Ghraib routinely abused, tortured, raped, humiliated, and assaulted prisoners. Once exposed, 11 soldiers had charges brought against them, and a few were sentenced to some jail time. Earlier this year, six Butterball employees and one state agriculture official were arrested on charges of animal cruelty for abusing turkeys in factory farms. Preceding this, in September 2010, Billy Joe Gregg, Jr. received an eight-month prison sentence for savagely beating and torturing cows on Conklin Dairy Farm.
What all of these cases have in common is that a select few abusers took the fall for failed and violent institutions. Unfortunately, their punishments appeased most people, leaving a satisfaction that justice was somehow served or is being served. However, in letting these people take the fall and bear the burden of the guilt, a number of truths are masked and the violence is allowed to continue.
making the ordinary appear extraordinary
These prosecutions distract from the fact that these sorts of actions are normal within these institutions. It is the job of the military to systematically terrorize and kill others. Soldiers must learn to view the subjects of US imperialism as “enemies” and to deindividualize them. In seeing each individual as one and the same, it becomes feasible to kill them. That is what all armed conflict does, it strips the personhood from individuals and makes them a collective enemy so they can be detained, controlled, defeated, and killed. It makes sense that some people, trained to enact violence on others, cannot switch back and forth between when, where, how, and against who it is okay to use violence or to kill.
The cases discussed here were only addressed with symbolic reprimand because they could not be hidden from the public. They were punished not for what they did but for the fact the public found out about it. Rather than changing these institutions to prevent such atrocities, great lengths have been taken to prevent other public exposures. Whistle blowers such as Bradley Manning are punished for sharing military abuses publicly. Ag gag bills are popping up around the country, attempting to make it illegal to conduct undercover investigations on farms. (It was undercover investigations that exposed Conklin and Butterball).
The punishments doled out are tokens intended to appease and pacify us, while thousands of others are paid with or subsidized by our tax dollars to enact similar abuses on a daily basis, leaving billions tortured and murdered every year. Every time you pay your taxes, you pay for the tortured cows at Conklin, the prisoners held without charges and violently abused at Abu Ghraib, the millions of baby boy chickens thrown into grinders at meat packing plants, the environmental degradation of meat production, the murder and starvation of innocent civilians worldwide, and the list goes on. We pay taxes to maintain our privilege but our privilege comes with the exploitation, torture, and murder of others. And the people charged in the above-mentioned cases, are the people we pay to do this since we cannot bear to do it ourselves or to collectively do what it would really take to make it stop. When Abu Ghraib happens or Conklin Dairy Farm footage is released, we are forced to confront ourselves, and what is happening without our consent, but on our behalf. It is all too easy to accept the punishment of a few workers as a resolution to these problems. But these people are acting normally, within their circumstance.
Gregg was expected to subdue and move animals who weigh hundreds more pounds than he does. When they lie down he cannot move them. If he cannot move them he cannot get paid. His actions are unforgiveable, unexcuseable, unacceptable. However, given his constraints—the violent system in which he is entrenched, the fact that he kills hundreds of innocent beings on a normal day at work—his actions are not surprising. The system must be changed. To change the system, we need to keep our focus on the big picture and not be pacified with his prosecution. The supervisors who let him take the blame, the owners who profit off of mass murder in the first place, and the government who takes our tax dollars to subsidize this horrific industry—these too are the ones who need the be blamed.
While a few token Butterball employees took the fall for the abuses animals regularly and normally face in the factory farming system, the higher up the chain of command the less blame a person had. While some workers were fired, the government official who tipped the plant off as to when inspections would occur (allowing for these abuses to go unmonitored) received little more than a slap on the wrist (two weeks suspension from work, a year of probation). Then, in a laughable twist, Butterball was actually rewarded for a safe working environment shortly after when five awards for worker safety were handed out by the American Meat Industry. The chickens and turkeys in Butterball plants are the true proletariat, the real working class. In this context, a safety award for protecting workers is beyond laughable.
the villain is a victim
In our fervor to punish these abusers, we also forget that they are victims. In their punishment, their victimhood is erased; further masking the system that instigates these violent acts and benefits the powerful few at the expense of the majority.
Most of these people ended up in their jobs as a result of their disadvantage. (Not all of course—Bales used to be a stockbroker, though being sent on four wartime tours did, arguably, make him a victim). This landed them in these positions to start, and made them particularly vulnerable to the control of their employers and the system that fostered their violence. The US military targets young kids with few opportunities and positions the military as a way out of their neighborhoods, financial worries, and other struggles. It becomes a viable option for steady employment, travel, and education possibilities for those who grow up in circumstances where they are disadvantaged by their families, income, a bad neighborhood, inadequate schools, or mistakes made in their youth. Rich kids are simply less likely to become combat soldiers, or factory farm workers for that matter.
The combat soldier and factory farm worker are at the bottom rung in their industry. They do the hardest, most dangerous, and most violent work—and they take the least pay. They must victimize others for their paycheck, and that can (and should) make a person crazy. They are monsters for what they did, but they alone are not to blame; we can’t forget that or it will never stop.
The few who are punished serve as the fall guys to protect those who profit and benefit from these actions. The term scapegoat refers historically to animals who were literally cast out of cities and towns to symbolically carry the sins of the townspeople away. Fall guys are not as innocent as these scapegoats; unlike the scapegoat they did in fact commit horrific vicious unforgiveable acts. However, like the scapegoat, they are straddled with the burdens of others, who will be absolved of their responsibility as soon the fall guy is prosecuted. That is, unless we demand more than the prosecution of these few individuals.
If you train and pay someone to be a murder, she will be a murderer. If you monetarily reward someone based on his ability to conquer and kill others you will by necessity have someone who embraces violence and murder and who might strive to excel at it. Expecting these lessons to be enacted only when “the boss” says so is asking too much, particularly when there is often no logical justification for or discernable pattern to when and where the boundaries are, beyond the financial interests of a select few in power. “The boss” needs to be held accountable as well. In our hatred of these abusers our sights hone in on the fall guy, the most powerless among the abusers. We focus only on the ones who wielded the sword, not who gave them the weapon, trained them to use it, and placed them into psychologically traumatizing situations.
On another day, Bales might have received a medal for slaughtering human beings. Gree and the Butterball workers probably saw their superiors or coworkers viciously torturing animals as they did. I am not denying that these people have agency, that they are culpable for their violence, that they should not have done what they did, but I am calling attention to the fact that they did these things within systems where their actions were normalized and at times rewarded. We need to attack the system as well as the abuser.
All the abusers mentioned here deserve to be punished. And they deserve to be punished more harshly than they were. But that is just one screw loose in dismantling the machine of violence and oppression that these industries really are. The punished workers are expendable, unskilled, and replaceable to those in charge. Other workers have filled their place already and some are likely acting as they did. The machine will keep running. We need to remember that these injustices will continue to happen unless we start holding those in power—the ones who get to sit behind a desk and send others to do their killing—are held accountable and punished.
People profit off of a system where lives are rendered into objects, physically and ideologically. Lines are drawn between human and non-human, US-citizen and foreigners. We have constructed the boundaries of nationhood and species as if they are boundaries to our moral and ethical limits of care. However, they only exist to preserve systems of power and capital gain via institutions premised on violence and the success of the few at the expense of many. This system only works if the less privileged masses stay pacified blaming each other for the crimes of the powerful and never demanding that the real villains, the ones who drive this insanity but assume no risk, are held accountable.
A couple weeks ago marked the 39th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. This Supreme Court ruling gave women in the US the ability to have legal abortion, within limits. As many celebrate the anniversary of this landmark court case decision the religious right and political conservatives are in the middle of an assault on women’s bodies, trying to strip away our rights to and control over our health, our bodies and our families.
What seems to be misunderstood by some, particularly in my cohort and younger, is that the Roe v. Wade does not mean women have a legal right to an abortion, specifically. Roe v. Wade is a legal precedent about how to interpret the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution regarding due process and the right to privacy between a woman and her doctor. Further, because it is a Supreme Court ruling, it is long and detailed and involves a lot of language that might become challenging in the future. For example, the ruling limits abortion to embryos/ fetuses that aren’t “viable”—as technology advances the very language in Roe v. Wade could make it obsolete as a protection for women’s right to choose how to control their fertility.
the risk is real
A number of liberals I have spoken to do not acknowledge or actively combat (though maybe it is just that they can’t truly fathom), that this is a real and urgent issue. There is a true attempt to criminalize abortion and other types of fertility control. It has gone under the radar to some degree because those running for office who promote such policies (ahem…the republican presidential hopefuls) are not talking about moral issues; they are talking about job creation and the economy. They keep scrutiny off of the moral and social control they want to impose on the bodies and in the lives of women and other minorities by keeping the focus on the economy.
In a recent article, Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, highlights data from the Gutmacher Institute that underscore how drastic our situation is:
“[I]n 2011, state legislatures passed more than triple the number of anti-women’s health provisions than in 2010 — the highest ever. Twenty-four states enacted 92 new abortion restrictions last year, shattering the previous record of 34 adopted in 2005.”
Women my age have always had a right to privacy with their doctor, which feels like—and has been misconstrued as—the right to be able to choose having an abortion. When I discuss abortion with pro-choice people my age, instead of the discussion being about securing this right for all women, in the long-run, conversations are often about the decisions people would make in their personal lives. But, while the personal is political, the individual may not always be. Our sights need to turn back toward the bigger picture. We need to get out of our arm chairs and put on our riot gear because our rights, our liberty, our health, our wombs, our families, and our freedom are at risk. This is a real risk and this is an urgent matter.
inequality and mother-blaming
Woman in the US are living in a culture that already disadvantages women, especially mothers. Our society does not adequately support women financially, medically, psychologically, or socially—much less pregnant women, and especially not mothers. Financially, women are at a disadvantage in this society. Women make less money for the same work as men. The price of motherhood is even greater, with mothers incurring an average 3% wage penalty per year of absence for maternity leave or childrearing.
Even so, women are also expected to be the primary caregiver. A deadbeat dad might seem crappy, but he is not the type of villain that any woman who is not a perfect mother becomes. Women who do become mothers are often held to culturally impossible standards. Among the socially advantaged, mothers who work may be vilified as abandoning their children. At the same time, if a woman chooses not to work to be more available for her children she is seen as lazy, a social welfare pariah—unless, of course, she is independently wealthy or finds a partner to support her, stays home to rear her children, and is completely fulfilled (but not overly consumed) by this role. There is really no winning. Add to that the financial, emotional, and physical burden of pregnancy and motherhood. We treat these as personal issues so that those in power can refrain from providing social or fiscal support for childbearing. At the same time, our society judges women for their choices in their personal lives should they not be perfect pregnant women or perfect mothers.
It is in this context that women are expected to want to have children, even in situations when a pregnancy is unintended, unwanted, or unhealthy. We cannot force motherhood and childbearing if as a culture we don’t adequately support children or mothers.
anti-choice goals are anti-woman (and they also happen to lead to increased abortion rates)
Anti-choice goals are particularly insulting in light of the fact criminalizing abortion does not actually save lives or reduce abortion rates—if successful it will certainly kill more women and increase abortion rates. A reduction of abortion rates and women’s safety during abortions are tied to abortion being legal and accessible and women having access to and proper knowledge of contraception. As Susan A. Cohen of the Guttmacher Institute explains, abortion rates do not decrease when abortion in criminalized—criminalizing abortion just increases the rates of unsafe abortions. Rather, it decreases when contraceptives are used:
“[I]t is not the changes in abortion’s legal status that can explain the decreased abortion rate worldwide, since many more countries liberalized access to abortion than restricted it. Significantly, though, during this same period, contraceptive use worldwide increased and unintended pregnancy rates fell. Where contraceptive use increased the most, abortion rates dropped the most… Where contraceptive use is high, abortion can be legal and widely available, and still relatively rare. The lowest abortion rates in the world can be found in western and northern Europe, where abortion has been legal for decades but access to contraception is widespread.”
The anti-choice goal of criminalizing abortion results in more abortions and many women being forced into medical, familial, economic, and interpersonal situations that can be dangerous and even deadly. Promoting abortion restrictions is laughably unstrategic from the anti-choice perspective; it is not a way to help women, zygotes or fetuses.
Pro-choice activists are not “pro-abortion.” We would rather see sexual health education, access to birth control, and other health and family planning measures made available to preempt unwanted pregnancy in cases when women have a priori control. The only thing we currently have going for us is the hope that in the new insurance plan developed under the current administration, insured women should be able to get the birth control pill. However, anti-choice advocates and many of the conservatives currently in or vying for political power would also like to see even these choices outlawed.
personhood for who?
In an attempt to control the bodies and sexual activity of women, a number of conservative politicians are now pushing for Personhood Amendments. Personhood laws grant fertilized eggs personhood. In at least 22 states personhood proponents are working on some sort of effort to put a personhood amendment up to debate. These amendments highlight how immediate and aggressive the anti-choice threat really is.
Mississippi’s failed personhood amendment reads:
“Be it Enacted by the People of the State of Mississippi: SECTION 1. Article III of the constitution of the state of Mississippi is hereby amended BY THE ADDITION OF A NEW SECTION TO READ: Section 33. Person defined. As used in this Article III of the state constitution, “The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” This initiative shall not require any additional revenue for implementation.”
Personhood is being defined in such a way that the personhood of women is placed second to the personhood of a zygote. This could make it illegal to even use the birth control pill. No, I’m not joking. It failed in Mississippi, one of the stronger attempts for the amendment, but it did not fail by enough to feel comforted—just over half (55%) voted against the amendment. That means almost half of all voters either supported or simply did not care if a zygote—regardless of whether it is viable or not—has more rights than a person.
Personhood amendments define woman’s bodies as tools that can be regulated, subordinate to the potential life of a fetus. Under these laws, women can be legally liable for any injury to that fetus. In a culture of misogyny and mother-blaming, this is likely to open the floodgate to the persecution and prosecution of women who miscarry. That this regressive idea is even being entertained and put on the political agenda should be ringing the alarm bells—we need to acknowledge that these are attempts at regressive sex-based laws and take the threat seriously.
Many proposed definitions of personhood identify insemination as the start of “biological life.” This could arguably make some of the safest, most effect forms of birth control illegal because the pill and other hormonal birth controls do not prevent insemination, just the implantation of an egg into the uterus walls. I suspect that this is part of the plan, at least for the more insidious among anti-choice advocates; it’s a clear attempt to chip away at sexual choice and reinscribe outdated and sexist moral codes that tie women to sexual contact only in the confines of marriage and with the expectation of motherhood. Essentially, women are being told that if they want to have sex, they should be prepared to be mothers.
Personhood is currently up for a vote in the Oklahoma Senate and some Democratic senators highlighted its absurdity and sexist nature by placing men in the same position of blame and control as women. One senator wrote a bill making the sperm contributor financially liable for the resultant child. Another, Constance Johnson, added language making masturbation and other sex acts not intended to procreate illegal. The amendment she proposed states, “[A]ny action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman’s vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.” She says she did this because “The Personhood bill would potentially allow governmental intrusion into families’ personal lives by policing what happens to a woman’s eggs without any similar thought to what happens to a man’s sperm. My amendment seeks to draw attention to the absurdity, duplicity and lack of balance inherent in the policies of this state in regard to women.”
As previously discussed, women’s lives are saved and abortion rates decline when abortion is legal, there is access to trained abortion providers, and contraception is widely available. If personhood advocates could step away from their confused moral and religious dogmatism and sexist ideologies of control over women’s bodies and actually look at the real world data, they would need to acknowledge that the call for a personhood amendment is antithetical to their goals; particularly as it could criminalize access to contraception, the best preventative measure for unwanted pregnancy.
What pro-choice activists are fighting for is women’s right to control their own bodies, their own health and their own families. We are against a government, particularly one that is Eurocentric, male dominated, and organized and maintained by economically and socially advantaged people, having control of the bodies and choices of all women in their reproductive years. We cannot afford to wait until our rights are stripped from us and our persecution begins; we need to fight this now because it is real and it is happening.