June 10, 2007

Wherein I use a rape analogy and contradict myself

Posted in abuse, animal advocacy, rape, rape analogy, vegan, veganism at 4:31 pm by nevavegan

So, yesterday was hectic and as I was running up the stairs with an armload of laundry some stuff knocking around in my brain came together into something resembling a coherent thought.

I’ve said for a long time that even as we bring more attention to issues like rape and domestic violence there are still people out there who don’t know as much as they should, or don’t understand the underlying issues. However, we have made significant progress in that most people do seem to recognize women as independent human beings who don’t deserve to be hurt. There are exceptions of course, but there is increasing understanding.

Then I thought about some old journals and stories that I read while in undergrad and how it had struck me then that as little as a 100 years ago many people didn’t think marital rape was possible. This was because rape wasn’t seen as a crime against a woman (though people might have sympathized with the woman); rape was seen as a crime against another man by dishonoring him or devaluing his property. To rape an unmarried woman was a crime against her father who then might not be able to marry her off, and must also endure the shame the rape brought upon his family. To rape a married woman dishonored her husband and devalued his property, his wife. But for a man to rape his own wife seemed impossible. She was his wife after all, how could he possibly rape her? No other man was being dishonored. He owned her body after all, you can’t steal what you already own.

Slowly attitudes in society changed and many people came to realize that women are human beings with their own will, their own needs, and their own rights. They came to see that some men terrorize their wives or partners through sexual violence and the threat of sexual violence. But none of these changes would have been possible without first recognizing that women belong to themselves. We own our own bodies; nobody else owns us.

Even today, there are some people who don’t understand the concept of marital rape, and it’s more difficult to prosecute than stranger rape, a crime people have a more ready understanding of.

But even as the attitudes about ownership and about rape shifted, a strange secondary prejudice slipped in that allowed many people to ignore just how widespread domestic violence and sexual violence were. People started saying “If it’s so bad why doesn’t she just leave?”

I encountered this attitude at work when two male co-workers discussed in front of me their opinion on a highly publicized domestic violence case, concluding that the woman had gone back to her abuser several times so she must like the abuse. I was so shocked and even hurt by these words that I wasn’t able to interject myself into the conversation to clear up that misunderstanding.

Connected to “why doesn’t she just leave” is an assumption that someone who has been abused will show it in obvious ways, which allows people to believe that their neighbors and co-workers aren’t at risk. I’ve heard people say of domestic violence cases “but she doesn’t look hurt” or “how can she be telling the truth when she seems fine.” We like to think violence is so rare and so horrible that we will be able to immediately tell victims from “normal people” and likewise that we should be able to tell who is an abuser, because they certainly won’t look like us.

These are problems with public perception that many groups are working tirelessly to combat and we do seem to be making some real progress on them.

However, and now for my dreaded hypocrite moment, I wondered if such blind spots also applied to our perception of animals. I really do think the same fallacies in thinking are huge problems in making people aware of how badly we treat animals in our culture. First there’s the problem of property. If you are raising chickens to produce eggs and someone else kills your chickens, that’s a crime against you and that person would be prosecuted, not for hurting the chickens but because hurting the chickens hurt you, a person, the owner. However, if some of your chickens die because you continue forced molting too long or the cages are too crowded, that’s not a crime, because you damaged your own property. Therefore, you’re a bad farmer, but not an abusive monster. See the problem?

(Oh, and see the recent Compassion Over Killing case for further evidence of this)

Many groups are desperately trying to make the public aware of the harm being done to animals and to tell people that animals matter and shouldn’t be made to suffer. So we start to make some slow progress with public attitudes, but we are far from the finish line.

Now the other fallacy comes in: “If it were so bad the animals would all die and the farms would fall apart.” This is what the industry tells us. Even though investigation after investigation shows nightmare conditions, egg-laying hens living on top of the dead bodies of their sisters, pigs that can’t ever turn around, cows with open bleeding sores, and so on… Even with all of that, the industry tells us “It can’t be that bad, if we mistreated the hens they wouldn’t lay eggs, if the cows were suffering they wouldn’t produce milk, the fact that you have a ham on your table proves the pig was treated well.”

Sigh, and yet we all know this isn’t true, and yet people buy into it. How do we fight this misinformation that allows people to feel good about their choices, and lets them keep living in a fog, blocking out the truth?