At the very core of every injustice is the belief that existence is founded upon a hierarchy of power and entitlement instead of an inborn call towards compassion and ethical moral duty. We are born onto this planet with little security, and as we become embedded in our society, we seek to compensate for our existential insecurities by developing defense mechanisms against the natural world. We build literal and metaphorical walls to protect ourselves, we strive to cure mortality with medicine and science, and we place faith in religions that promise a way out – one big EXIT sign to fixate upon in order to avoid the claustrophobic hallway of our pain, grief, vulnerability, and even the terrifying depths of our joy and love that our psyches equate to eventual loss. Separating ourselves from the natural world allows us the illusion of immunity to it. Throughout history, this struggle to gain control over our environment and our selves has led to wars, environmental destruction, and mass social injustice. Feminist philosophers argue that the view of “self” as of the mind but not the body is responsible for laying the foundation that enables such damage, and the correlation must be drawn between our denial of the body, of the natural world, and subsequently to the billions of animals exploited each year in America alone for human use (Browning). As long as we are separating the mind from the body, we are inviting oppression against the feminine and against nature and entitling ourselves to disregard the value of non-human sentient beings. The psychological disconnect that allows the human species to exploit non-human animals is a result of the patriarchal view of self, and its mending lies in feminist ethics.
In order to understand the damage done by this disconnect, we must look at the consequences of our actions. It is nearly impossible to go one day without condoning, supporting, or witnessing the
exploitation of animals. For a society who claims to view pets as family members, the hypocrisy and ignorance of such exploitation is alarming. If we treated a household pet the way animals are treated in order to feed, clothe, entertain, or “cure” us, we would be considered criminals and find ourselves in jail instead of safeguarded by our justifications for such abuse (Hodson). Isn't it our ethical duty to take responsibility for our actions? With eyes and ears closed, the gates to cruelty, environmental destruction, human health issues, and worldwide oppression remain wide open.
According to the USDA, 9.1 billion animals were slaughtered in 2013 alone ( "Farm Animal Statistics: Slaughter Totals : The Humane Society of the United States."). While the meat and dairy industry would love us to believe that their animals graze happily in pastures of green grass, clear blue skies, and under the care of Farmer Sally donned in overalls, the reality could not be farther from the grotesque truth. Welcome to the factory farm. Animals are crammed so tightly into cages that they cannot even turn around, let alone walk, breathe fresh air, feel the warmth of the sun, or live one mere moment of their lives free from suffering. Their living conditions are deplorable; animals are covered in sores, feces, and chickens' beaks are cut off at birth to stop them from eating each other due to the stress of overcrowding. Animals are raped by machines in order to breed as many offspring as possible, or profitable I should say, and their babies are ripped from them as soon as they are born. For baby cows, if they are to be used for veal, they are immediately locked into a tiny wooden crate that shuts out all light, and are made immobile to purposefully hinder the development of their muscles in order to produce the desired meat quality. Cows and pigs alike are shot and then hung upside down, throats slit to drain their blood, and then they are gutted and skinned. There have been countless documentaries of undercover footage showing the animals remaining conscious throughout much of this process . A factory farm worker once told the Washington Post that the animals “die piece by piece” (“Animals Used for Food”). This is not the exception; this is not rare. This is where your food comes from.
We also kill animals for fur, leather, and sheepskin each year. Animals in fur farms are kept in
similar conditions to factory farms, and are often skinned alive, if clubbing or bludgeoning fails to do the trick. For some reason, leather slips under the ethical radar of most consumers, probably because the animal hide is treated so extensively that we think of it more as a fabric than slimy, once-bloodied skin. Every year, the world slaughters over a billion animals for leather alone (“Animals Used for Food”). The tribal days of killing an animal for survival, and then using every part of its body in an effort to honor the being and avoid wastefulness are long gone, at least in the modern world. Make no mistake: these means of violent abuse are not justified by their end, for when the issue of survival is off the table, we must use Ethics as a guide.
The beauty industry conceals not only skin blemishes, but the ugly practice of animal testing for make-up and body products. This entails testing toxic chemicals on the skin, eyes, ears, and insides of animals, not simply letting a mouse try on different shades of lavender. Animals used in testing for cosmetic and household products and medical research are stripped of their value and become nothing more than a science experiment. Making animals sick is justified by the promise of making the lives of human's better. We perform experiments on animals that are deemed cruel and unethical to perform on humans, and the believed inferiority of the animal kingdom, and therefore nature, justifies such. Does not our capacity to reason, which is used by critics to prove we are somehow “better”, make us responsible for said reasoning, and should we not reason through a lens of ethics instead of speciesist greed? The philosopher Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, states that “What we must do is bring non-human animals within our sphere of moral concern and cease to treat their lives as expendable for whatever trivial purposes we may have” (Singer 20).
It's not enough to eat, wear, and experiment on the beings we share the Earth with, but we also find entertainment in making them perform as if they were humans. Like a scene from King Kong, we pay to watch animals do tricks in circuses, living lives in captivity where their worth is only seen
relative to human amusement. This performance, this false view of reality and the so-called “loving”
relationship we have with animals, is seen in zoos when families take their children to gaze at lions going mad in metal cages and artificial habitats. Even our closest perceived bond and appreciation for animals is tainted: household pets are considered “family”, yet the love is relative (Hal Herzog). Millions of cats and dogs are killed in shelters all over the country because of puppy-mills and breeding. We call the dog that we bought from a breeder “family” while we cook steak for dinner (Hodson). The contradiction is yet another reflection of our severed relationship to the natural world, and consequently, our selves.
Of course, justifications for animal exploitation are just as excessive as the extent of which it occurs. It is difficult to heal a wound when you are not convinced of the injury itself. The use of animals has been a vital part of society since the start of humanity, and critics of “animal rights” argue that it's for good reason. While few people would choose to align themselves with the abuse that occurs in factory farms, the idea that using them is just a part of the “cycle of life” is a widely upheld belief (Scully). Humans' dependence on animals is a sign of our cultural and interpersonal connections, they argue, with the fulfillment of animal-involving traditions woven deeply into a society's identity. They point out that many cultures around the world have beautiful rituals of honoring the animals they use- nothing like the thoughtless cruelty condoned in America with fast food restaurants and factory farms. For many families, eating or wearing animals is necessary for their well-being. Furthermore, they find ties to their ancestors in taking part in such rituals, as well as a sense of community, and expecting such changes to be made in other cultures is a denial of their own value and a result of cultural relativism fueled by privilege. Expecting animal products, or the work of animals, to evaporate from a culture's landscape is like expecting a lung to evaporate from a human body, yet leave the body fully functioning.
The most stark contradiction that strikes me in this argument is the assumption that in today's
world, especially in America, survival is a valid reason for our treatment of animals, as if we are all
running around in the forest, starving, and in desperate need of any source of nutrition. Clearly, that's
not the case at all. Our use of animals is not for survival; this is not some Pocahontas-themed result of just how connected we are to nature or our culture. After all, I don't kill in order to connect, do you? The fact that we participate in such contradictory practices is proof of how disconnected we are from nature, and since cultures evolve throughout time, shouldn't our ethics evolve with them? For this is not a call for improving animal welfare in attempt to soften our guilty conscience-it is a call to question the validity and moral value of the beliefs we affirm as truth when we exploit animals.
In an attempt to persuade people to alter their lifestyle, I could go into depth of how using animals is destructive to humans, as the animal agriculture industry produces more pollution than all worldwide transportation combined, and animal products cause more harm than healthfulness to human bodies(“Meat and the Environment”). Brilliant minds such as authors Peter Singer and Gary Francione have already thoroughly made the case against animal exploitation with logic and common sense, using already accepted moral standards to shine the light on the the dark contradictions of the consumer. Yet still, the disconnect. Our ability to disengage from the natural world, to find comfort in speciesism, and to seek alibi through ignorance is what I find most concerning. We place a dangerous distance between ourselves and accountability when we deny our communion with the physical and animal world. This denial has been heavily criticized by feminist philosophers who see the root of all oppression and injustice as the patriarchal view of self (Browning).
In her essay Body, Mind, & Gender, Eve Browning Cole seeks to present the effects of Western philosophy and its belief that the “self”, “soul”, or “consciousness” is entirely separate from the physical body. The body is viewed as a machine with the mind as its operator. This simple viewpoint, she argues, sets up society for automatic oppression and justification for mistreating those seen as “of the body”, or “animal”, and not of the mind (Browning). The 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes
played a large role in this mind vs. body sense of self. In his mission to discover the truth of self, he
withdrew from society and used “doubting” to deconstruct, and therefore compartmentalize,
the elements of his existence. After doubting the reliability of his senses, he came to the conclusion that he is of a “certain existence, but an uncertain body” (Browning). Like Plato, he believed that the body is an instrument the soul uses, with the soul, or mind, being superior.
Feminist philosophers point out that this method of analyzing self is illogical since the sharing of knowledge and social norms begins in society. They argue that we are of society, not in spite of it. And furthermore, that we are of the natural world, not an exception to it (Browning). It is imperative that we look to our relationships when becoming curious about the makeup of our psyche. The referral to a self that is isolated comes from gender socialization and enforces patriarchy. In the past, men went out into the world, worked, and spent time with the family periodically, so the male learned to distinguish himself, to view himself as “other” and “separate from”. While the female, on the other hand, was constantly with the family, and served as the primary caregiver, which led her to identify herself through her relationships with others (Browning). Therefore, feminists explain, the view of self as “isolated” is masculine, and such a belief automatically makes that which is feminine inferior.
With the body and the feminine accepted as interconnected, it is easy to draw the conclusion that little to no value would be bestowed upon nature as well. As author Ynestra King so bluntly explained: “Patriarchal humanity declared war on women and on living nature” (King). We even refer to the natural world as Mother Nature, and so the associations with inferiority persist. The ethics of feminism combat this hierarchy by insisting that the “more connected the self is to others, the better the self is” (Tong and Williams).
In accepting the body as of equal worth to the mind, we allow for a shift in our orientation towards nature and animals (Peek et. al). When filtered through this relational mindset, the idea that our ability to use “logic” gives us dominion over animals is extracted at its root. Ability no longer
justifies the action. In the book Signs, Josephine Donovan says, “Out of a women's relational culture of
caring and attentive love, therefore, emerges the basis for a feminist ethic for the treatment of animals.
We should not kill, eat, torture, and exploit animals because they do not want to be so treated, and we know that. If we listen, we can hear them” (Donovan 375).
The solution to the patriarchally-driven disconnect between self and nature (mind and body) is simultaneously difficult and easy to apply; it requires personal responsibility to be taken by each individual. While people may scoff at the notion, dismissing it as impossible to implement, now that we have found the direct connection between the empowerment of the female and the degree to which animal life is valued, we can work to bring awareness, appreciation, and acceptance to the body. This spread of knowledge that ultimately causes social change through activism has been evident in every civil movement, including the civil rights movement, the first-wave feminist movement, and today it is evident in the movement for equal rights for gays and lesbians. The solution is not a government program that promises to fix a glitch in the system, but a complete (although often times gradual) redesign.
From an early age, women are taught to suppress their very femininity, and their worth is only measured relative to external standards, usually contrived by men. Women face constant judgement over the way they look and how they act, with every pore of their being absorbing the message that they are “not enough” (Browning). We are conditioned to believe that things that are feminine, again, of the body, such as menstrual cycles are not to be spoken of or acknowledged, heaven forbid celebrated. The same is evident in the ridiculous debate over breast feeding in public. The message is clear: if it's natural, if you can't control it, then deny it. Any nature-given aspect is a threat to patriarchy because it reminds us that we belong to nature- it does not belong to us.
Feminist philosophers urge us to see this fact as liberating instead of oppressive, as a cure to our psychological distress instead of a problem that needs fixing. Women must make the choice to be
women, in every sense of the word, to promote an “embodied self”, with no apologies. It starts with
literature, with organizing sources of support for women. It starts with how we guide our children to a
healthy relationship with their feelings, so that we view our bodies as friends instead of enemies. It starts with education in our school system that does not perpetuate shame in being female, but that gives boys and the girls the tools to make conscious decisions for themselves about their own bodies. It starts with bringing into awareness the true science of sexuality, not the story told to us by religion, and with women demanding ownership of their sexuality.
When we deny our self the freedom of embodiment, we deny the natural world. If we truly wish to eliminate the animal suffering that is a result of exploitation, we must reevaluate what it means to be animal, to be a body, and to be a self.
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