Thursday, September 06, 2007

Monty: Feminism Meets Animal Rights -or- On Personal Criticism...

First: The thread that started it all...

Two interesting responses, from zuzu and Jill.

There's a lot of comments there, and even trying to do justice to the width and breadth of the comments would be a lesson in futility, so I'm going to leave it to you to really get into the meat of that argument, while I go all meta for a moment before returning to the point.

I think that arguments like this one are interesting in the frequency with which they seem to come up. In discussions about everything from clothes to makeup to sex to... well... just about anything you can come up with, the phrase "the personal is political" is probably applicable. Unfortunately, the inverse of that statement seems to be just as true- the political is, all too often, very personal.

Without weighing in on the issue of animal rights yet, I think it's worth noting how personally people in general take criticisms of potentially politically charged actions. Even when they're not directed specifically at them. When we have a personal investment in something, it can be easy to take criticism of that thing- whether it’s an object, an action, or a belief- personally, even if the criticism was intended more broadly.

This is hardly the first time this has happened, I just noticed that there was a pattern to it this time. Find a thread where someone is critical of just about any activity, and you’re bound to find at least a couple of comments along the lines of “But I do that, and I’m still a feminist!” or a comments defending the action in question because of who the person partaking is. There’s some general resistance to criticism being directed at the actions of the people we like, as SarahMC points out:

Yeah, it’s “the personal is political” where feminism is concerned, but not dog breeding because someone we like bought from a breeder and it’s not cool to criticize.
People on “our side” pass judgement on people’s behavior all the time. Usually sexist, misogynist behavior, on feminist blogs. There’s nothing wrong with that. Or is it only acceptable where feminism, specifically, in concerned?

And, ultimately, I have a hard time arguing against that- it’s a good point. Even still, it’s not like I don’t understand why people resist criticism. Sometimes people will clarify: “I’m not attacking your right to do X, or you, personally, I’m questioning something broader/bigger than that” but a lot of times, I think it’s hard not to take those comments a bit personally, even when you know it’s about a broader issue, and not just you. I know that I sometimes find myself feeling defensive when, say, video games are discussed, or when someone makes a comment about “what men do.” I think that’s natural.

Blogger Elaine's comments seem to have led to exactly this kind of result, though. Hers is the eighth one in on the thread:


Monty is adorable and I don't mind some puppy time on this blog, but as a feminist on a feminist blog, I think you owe your readers at least a cursory feminist analysis of your choice to treat another living being as a product of consumption.

I'm not familiar with most of the Monty posts- I might glance at the pictures (and, yeah, Monty is a cute puppy, no doubt!), but I don't usually read the comments, because... well... I figured they'd mostly be "Aw! He's so cute!" I gather that Elaine has apparently attempted to engage with Jessica about this in the past, but I haven't read those posts. Now, I'm sort of loathe to think that any blogger really owes any reader anything, unless a specific debt has been incurred, but, that quibble aside, I didn't think that Elaine's comment was really that outlandish or demanding. I gather that I'm actually sort of in the minority there, though.

The really interesting thing here is how familiar the general form of this conversation is.

Here's how I break it down: Blogger posts some personal statement, x, of like/dislike. A responds with questions/criticisms about X. B responds in annoyance at A. C responds agreeing with A and dismissing/attacking B... ...G responds by calling A's (or B's, or Blogger's) feminist cred into question: "real feminists don't x"/"I thought that feminists were against x?"

The topic changes, but the conversation is the same, in a lot of cases. Whether you're talking about pornography, or children, or, apparently, pets. I haven't even been in the feminist blogosphere that long, and I'm seeing this- have others noticed this pattern, too? I have to admit, it's very frustrating to see in action.

From that thread, I get the impression that animal rights are a pretty major part of for Elaine, ngrey, SarahMC, et al's personal identity (apologies aplenty if I've misread any of you!). For some people, animal rights and human rights aren't different. Human beings, after all, are animals, so, the logic goes, how can we separate the two?

So, this makes sense, right? You're a person who cares deeply about animal rights. For you, animal rights can't necessarily be neatly separated from feminist issues. There's an overlap. You go to a site of a feminist author that you respect, and she's engaging in an activity that you find questionable.

Can we really, in good conscience, expect a person for whom animal rights are important to stay silent? Do we expect them to just shut up about it? I’m not sure, but I suspect not. I don’t expect people not to call me out on things just because I try to be good. If I say something sexist or racist or homophobic, I would hope to be called on it. The difference this time is that Elaine’s argument is that there some aspect of speciesism or human exceptionalism instead of some other ism.

There was a comment on the feministing thread that basically said: Aren't we allowed to just enjoy stuff, or do we always have to question people about their actions? Aren't we allowed to make our own choices?

I hate to bring up past kerfuffles, but, well... like I said, a lot of this sounds familiar. In particular, I'm thinking about posts regarding people of color, but I think it also applies to some of the posts about sex-work/pornography, and probably to other topics, too. In the end, I think that the answer is that, no, you can’t really just enjoy stuff, sometimes. Sometimes you have to accept that your actions may carry political weight beyond what you thought or wanted, and that sometimes you’re going to get taken to task over things that you didn’t think were political actions. You can choose to engage those questions, or you can choose to ignore them, but they’re still going to be there.

I think that the thing that bothers me about these conversations is the ways that another person's concerns and criticisms are sometimes casually dismissed and hand-waved away in ways that we wouldn't accept feminist concerns being dismissed. Every so often, we see MRAs or just anti-feminists coming into threads and dismissing feminist concerns. A particularly sexist ad might be getting critiqued, when some guy will come up and tell everyone to chill out or relax, or suggest that it's "all in good fun." That kind of comment (rightly) gets ripped apart.

Midway through the thread, SarahMC takes some people to task for the thread:
Why is it OK for feminists to protest stuff that harms women but not OK for animal lovers to protest behaviors that harm animals? Seriously. These, "But that's what I want to do and nobody can stop me!" arguments are the same types of arguments used by anti-feminists all the time!
"But I like porn so nobody should examine or criticize it!" etc.
How can anyone be offended by this discussion? None of us advocate outlawing buying from breeders (I don't think). So nobody's being "oppressed" here. Listening to our opinions/viewpoints is not hurting you.

Which struck me as a pretty fair point, and even though I don’t find myself agreeing with everything that the animal rights crowd on there is saying, I found myself rereading some of their comments, and trying to see things from their point of view. Unfortunately, the thread sort of degenerates rapidly from that point...

There are a lot of things going on in that thread, and some of them I'm still struggling to come to terms with. At one point Elaine compares animal ownership to slavery, which prompts a number of comments along the lines of "That's incredibly offensive." It inspired Zuzu’s post, and has been pretty generally torn apart. And while I understand and agree with much of what Zuzu says in her post, I’m not all the way there yet.

See, the problem I’m having is that there’s Slavery, and there’s slavery. I’ll totally grant that Jessica’s owning Monty is not on the level of “someone whose ancestors survived the Middle Passage only to be sold at auction and kept in bondage for the rest of their lives.” That would be Slavery. Of course, I don’t think that the guy working the counter at McDonald’s is really experiencing that kind of oppression either, but I don’t know that I’ve seen much outrage over the term “wage slave.”

I sort of take it because there’s a recognizable difference between slavery and Slavery. You can be a slave without having undergone the level of torment and torture that happened during Slavery, and I just can’t see the value is trying to suggest that any conversation about slavery as a form of oppression has to involve oppression on the level of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

Nor do I think that there’s value in assuming that people on the animal rights side are arguing in bad faith or are racist jerks just because PETA has a bad track record, which is part of what I think might be happening. This, even after Elaine clarified: The definition of slavery is to treat another as property. Property is the essential concept of slavery. Property. The only way you can be offended is if you think it's OK to treat non-human animals as property.

Does an elephant in a circus that’s whipped and beaten, that’s forced to do strange tricks and perform at the whims of the ring-master suffer on the same level as that person who was kidnapped and brought across the Middle Passage? Maybe not. But is that elephant still being treated as a thing? As property? Is it being forced to do things that it would likely otherwise not want to do? Is it being kept in bondage for the rest of it’s life? Absolutely.

So, maybe not Slavery… but I have a hard time being overly critical of someone calling it slavery. After all, I think that people can and do torture animals, even if the torture never reaches the levels of the Spanish Inquisition. (And, I have to wonder, what happens if we discover, for example, that dolphins or chimps do meet the requirements for sapience? That they are “people” in a moral sense?). I’m still mulling this one over, though. Zuzu’s point about the history of racism and the ways that, in particular, POC have been Othered through the use of animal imagery isn’t lost on me… Like I say, I’m still mulling that over and running it around my brain.

I also found Jill’s take on the blow-up pretty interesting (and the comment thread looks to have been pretty good, too) although I can’t completely agree with her when she responds to Elaine’s comments with “I’d pick a human stranger over [an animal] simply because a human stranger is human, even though I think of my dogs as family and the closest thing there is to human.” I haven’t read all of Elaine’s comments on Animal Rights, but I think that there’s a difference between saying that it’s wrong to treat animals as property, and suggesting that every human being should regard every animal as being of exactly the same worth or value as, say, your own mother.

I don’t value all people the same. I’d pick my immediate family over most of my friends. I’d pick my friends over most of the bloggers I read. I’d pick most of the bloggers I read over a total stranger. I think that’s probably pretty normal- to have different levels of value for the different humans in our lives. For that matter, I value children and adult humans over fetal humans. It’s not that I don’t think that fetal humans have value- if you want a child, I think that your fetal offspring is probably pretty valuable to you- it’s that I think that born humans have greater value.

So, ultimately, suggesting that you’d pick any particular human or even any human over, say, a dog… well, it doesn’t seem to me to be much of a response against the claim that it’s wrong to treat animals like property. One doesn’t really have much to do with the other.

Maybe I sound like I’m being a little bit too critical? I don’t know… maybe I am being too critical. The thing is, animal rights are still a controversial issue, and there are a lot of people who are trying to raise awareness and do work on animal rights, and I just hate to see their issues being derided and ignored in ways that anti-feminists deride or ignore the issues that matter to me.

Mostly, I guess I’m just starting to notice this trend, and I’m not really sure if there’s a way to break out of it, or if we’re sort of doomed to repeat these sorts of arguments. Is there some way that we can try to raise questions about each others behaviors, and respond to those criticisms in a way that doesn’t feel quite as… I don’t know… antagonistic? Maybe there’s not, but I sort of hope that there is.


donna darko said...

Animals are not people so they can't be slaves. But animal breeding is bad so she should have just said sorry I'm not perfect and left it at that.

You'd take friends over bloggers you read? Wah!


Jaclyn said...

I'm glad you're talking about the meta question of how we talk with each other.

There's so much going on in these interactions. We need to remember that bloggers are people too: that is, they can be insecure and flawed, they're inclined to stand up for their friends, etc. They're also in no way immune from the phenomenon where criticism sounds so much louder than praise.

What I mean is that, from a commenter perspective, it would seem like the easiest thing in the world for Jessica to just respond respectfully to respectful criticism, whether she agrees with it or not (not all the criticism has been respectful, but it does seem like much of it was). After all, she's the powerful/famous one with the giant readership and the book and the speaking gigs and all.

But I've got to say, as someone with a position of some power (though in a much smaller way than Jessica), it doesn't always feel that way. Sometimes it feels like the more you stick your neck out and try to make change, make community, the more you come under fire. And that if you did less, you'd be better off.

Because the critics are almost always more passionate than the fans. And they're not always gentle. I know if I'm passionate about something, and I see someone who I perceive to have more power than me do something that runs completely contrary to it, I'm sure as hell not always polite.

I guess I'm saying: I have empathy on both sides. It's crucial that people in power in our movement learn to accept and respond to criticism productively, even when they don't agree with it, even when it's not expressed "nicely." Because a lot of the time it's just not going to be. But also, we should all try to remember when criticizing people in power in our movement that they're people too, and take all the care that suggests.

Shorter what I'm saying: we all need to do our best to get out of the way of our own egos. Because the more time we spend fighting amongst ourselves, the less we spend dismantling the fucking patriarchy. Bottomline.

Jaclyn said...

On a side issue, I can't let the "slavery/Slavery" issue go without mentioning that there are still Slaves today. Many thousands (millions) of actual human slaves, doing sex work and other manual labor all over the world, including in this country. Right now.

More info here and here

jeff said...

I think you're right on with almost everything you're saying here, Roy, though I haven't followed the whole thing, only some of it from a post zuzu made on Feministe.

And, though I have absolutely no blog power at all, I think I can see that jaclyn is making a great point here--I'm thinking back to some comments on feministing when Jessica first showed the cover of her book and there was a lot (a lot!) of criticism. Thing is, I think there was a lot of fair criticism that she never really responded to, but at the same time, I can understand her feeling overwhelmed because of the sheer amount and bitterness of the unfair criticism. I guess I'm trying to say that I appreciate jaclyn's points here.

Mostly, though, I appreciate your discussion of the tendency toward being dismissive--I don't think feminists (or bloggers) are the only ones prone to this, of course. We are all prone to it when we feel strongly about things, from time to time at least. But that is one benefit of the blogging world, I think: We can call each other on our bs, on our blindspots, on our bad decisions. It would just be nice if we could do so without dismissing each other so often.

Stupendousness said...

"Is there some way that we can try to raise questions about each others behaviors, and respond to those criticisms in a way that doesn’t feel quite as… I don't know… antagonistic?"

In what way do mean antagonistic?

Some people feel that any sort of questioning of behaviors or beliefs is inherently antagonistic. This is when you get the response "Hey now, everyone's entitled to their own beliefs."

I see that response so often now that I have almost completely stopped participating in discussions. I want to be able to talk about the reasons why I disagree with someone without others jumping in and claiming that I'm being antagonistic.

But on the other hand, I know, from my own experience, that disagreeing with a person's beliefs or behaviors is sometimes necessarily a criticism of that person.

For instance, I believe that a person who is okay with animals living in pain and suffering caused by humans has less empathy than me. If a person can look at a dog dying in the street from being hit by a car and not give a crap, then that person is *lacking* in empathy. Some people would frame this as "being cold-hearted." I wouldn't, because I don't think that such a person is necessarily lacking in empathy for other people. I don't think lack of empathetic behavior towards animals is immoral. I don't think it means you're a bad person. But, this belief of mine means that I am necessarily making a statement on a person's character...right?

And even though I don't intend any offense, that doesn't mean I'm not being offensive.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people who would say that it's perfectly natural for a human being to not have empathy for other species. It's just not in our DNA to have empathy for animals. And they would say that those people who do care about animals have too much empathy. Sometimes that's framed as "being too wussy." Is this camp of people passing judgment on me?

I'm also conflicted about separating behaviors from the person. I don't worship BF Skinner, but certainly a large part of who we are is our behaviors.

People with good intentions do bad things. We're imperfect, and we will inevitably make mistakes.
Also, a person may consistently act like a jerk in one way, but be totally awesome in all other ways.

But it just doesn't seem right to me to say that a person who treats black people like scum but is super nice and charitable to all other races is, overall, a nice person.
I guess it depends on the behavior and my levels of tolerance and own biases.

There was a thread on Feministing some weeks ago in which the poster asked for people to talk on what they were judgmental about. This thread bothered me in lots of ways. For one, "judgmental" was never defined. Did the commenters think the perpetrators of unsavory behaviors were stupid? unfeminist? evil? Was the judgment for the whole person for all of time?

(The main reason I didn't like that thread is that the commenters thoroughly demonstrated their inability to see shades of grey or to put themselves in other people's shoes. What kind of judgment am I therefore passing on them? I'm not sure.)

donna darko said...

Gray areas. Racialicious recently asked about the differences between feminism and anti-racism and I said I liked Beverly Tatum's illustration of different degrees. You're not sexist if you're not feminist because there are obviously gray areas. You're either walking on a moving walkway, standing still, or walking backwards on the walkway in the opposite direction of the walkway. Most people are just standing still but still moving in the direction of sexism or racism. Feminists are walking in the opposite direction so that they're actually moving backwards against the status quo. This black and white thinking -- you're with us or against us -- gets us stuck.

I never cared about the cover maybe because I care more about words. There was this bizarre avalanche of criticism for a week after the book came out that can only be explained as sexism. There were posts at Feministe. I actually brought forth history and theory to redirect the criticism because people had been attacking her personally.

Stupendousness said...

There's also discussion about the personal/politicial question in the fat-acceptance community right now. See posts and comments at Shapely Prose, Not a Pretty Girl, and The Rotund.

Kate Harding argues that she's "talking about dietING, not dietERS," but other people, including fat-positive supporters who are trying to lose weight, disagree.

I just don't know. I can certainly feel offended by comments about behaviors I engage in. It's so hard not to think about this without strong bias.

Roy said...

Jaclyn: Oh, absolutely. I know, from my own experience, that it doesn't necessarily matter how many people say "Great job!" when you've got people saying "You suck!" It only takes a couple of people being critical to drown out the voices of the people that are being supportive. Then again, I think that, at some point, we, as bloggers, have to figure out how to accept criticism or questions as criticism/questions without assuming that it's an insult. I'm quite sure that's not easy to do, but I think it's probably important, even if we'll all fail at it sometimes. The reality is that we expect other people to do it all the time. I'm expected (rightly!) to check my male privilege and not to take it as an insult if someone points out an example of it. That can be really hard, but I think that's totally right and fair. I may not think that the other person is right, but isn't it important that I think about it, and not take it as a personal insult?

Also: Thank you for the comment about slavery/Slavery. You're absolutely right- slavery is, unfortunately, still a huge problem in the world today, and I think that largely gets forgotten in some ways. Thank you for bringing that up.

Jeff: I'd be lying if I said that the book cover stuff hadn't occured to me, too. The conversation is strikingly similar in some ways, isn't it?

Stupendousnes: regarding "antagonistic". I think that what I mean is exactly what you're describing- that tendency to personalize things and get angry when someone is questioning broad behaviors.

To use your example: We ought to be able to discuss whether it's important to help hurt animals without someone responding with "I don't help hurt animals, and that doesn't make me a bad person!" Saying that you think people ought to help animals shouldn't be seen as offensive, unless you're also saying "Anyone who doesn't help animals is an asshole and a bad person." I think that it's a bad idea to have unsafe sex- that doesn't mean that I think every person who has ever had unsafe sex is a bad person. One ought to be able to talk about the action without having to make value judgements of individuals who've engaged in the behavior, right?

Donna: I'm also a fan of the walkway analogy in some ways. I usually think of it more in terms of a sidewalk, though. A lot of people are just standing around. Sometimes they get in your way, sometimes they don't. Some people are assholes, and they'll intentionally get in the way, try to trip you, push you, etc. And then, there are other people who are awesome, and they'll try to help you. They'll give you a hand if you stumble, they'll intentionally move out of your way if you're carrying things, they'll help pick up your things if you fall.

I'll have to read up on those threads, btw, Stupendousness. Thanks for providing linkage.

N1nj4G1rl said...

"And even though I don't intend any offense, that doesn't mean I'm not being offensive."

I think that quote summarizes what a lot of issues in discussions like this. Often people simply aren't willing to believe that what they said could be offensive simply because they didn't mean it that way. So when someone gets called out on it, explanation after explanation comes forth about how it wasn't meant in that way, it was meant in this way so if you took offense it's your issue not the person who said it.

Completely O/T - I dunno if I've posted a response before, but I just wanted to let you know I think your blog supplies some excellent reading. So thanks for all the effort.

Stupendousness said...


That statement also reflects the struggle between a person and their behaviors I talked about.

I don't completely dismiss people's intentions, but I put more weight on behaviors. Intentions are thoughts, and I have no clue what you're thinking, so what can I do about it? (And even if I could do something about it, I wouldn't because that would be infringing on personal autonomy). Plus, people can lie about their intentions.

So, regardless of intent, I think a person's harmful actions should at least be pointed out to that person. We should say, "Hey, you say you didn't intend offense, that's great, but you still need to recognize that you did in fact make a mistake and work to not do it again."

That's hard to hear. It hurts the ego. And we hate when our intentions aren't portrayed correctly to the outside world, so then we feel that people don't know the true person within. Dealing with the ego is part of the solution to the question Roy posed about not responding to criticism with antagonism.

Elaine Vigneault said...

I think you've given the issue some good thought and brought up some important points. Thank you for thinking about it and for taking the time to write about it.