Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Trading Breasts for Rights: The Hypocrisy and Pyrrhic Victory of Objectification


What a reassuring word to my ears, three little syllables in a row, intricate but with a potent little punch at the end. It is also clearly a loaded word, one that carries a lot of cultural biases and baggage: depending upon the interpreter, the word brings a whole host of presumptions that touch down on everything from the state of one’s armpits to one’s attitudes about men. I know that I’m weird but despite society’s often negative connotations with the word, I have embraced it ever since I first heard it.

This is where things get muddled, though. Unlike veganism, which has a pretty specific definition and application (though still a myriad of differing views and approaches), feminism is much more open to personal interpretation. In other words, it can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Ask ten self-identified feminists what the word means to them, and you are likely to get as many unique answers. Women are judged by some as selling out to the patriarchy for wearing lipstick while those who don’t are often considered angry and strident by others. (Hilariously, lipstick and body hair seem to still be the main cultural identifiers through which society discerns “how far” one takes her feminist convictions.) As women - whether we are mothers or not, whether we are feminists or not - we really are damned if we do and damned if we don’t, but that is a different story for a different day.

This is all to say that I don’t claim to have the final word on what is and what is not feminist behavior. I only have my word. I know what works for me and what makes me uncomfortable and that is pretty much my barometer and compass. Thus, with so much being subjective and personal in this realm, speaking about feminism is a challenging undertaking. I can only speak of my views but, as a feminist, I also trust that they have value and merit.

Could I just get to the heart of it, already? Yes, I can. I need to talk about objectification, specifically in the vegan movement, and how being in a liberation movement with people who still believe that objectifying women is acceptable deeply hurts.

This is spurred by something written by a man who I respect quite a lot for his measured and consistently thoughtful posts. Because of this, frankly, those words felt like a punch to the gut. In a post about misogyny in the vegan movement, he posited that “…perhaps it’s overly ambitious to take on the evils of speciesism and sexism at once, especially if a little sexism can help alleviate a lot of speciesism.” What? What? Insert the word racism: is this statement still acceptable? Given how consistently focused on justice and equality most of his work is, this felt like a true betrayal. Being rather used to disappointment in my fellow humans, it is rare that I cry about such things but I cried about this one. This was a fellow vegan, a thoughtful one, too, and he was waffling about sexism for “the greater good.”

This is the part where I think I will start coming across as angry, I fear. There is little that I dislike more than arguing with people but I am hoping that this will help facilitate an honest dialogue about the subtle and overt diminishing of one another that we still engage in as people who should be helping to bring about a deeper consciousness that is not framed in objectification.

Objectification is the same pathway through which we allow living beings to become burgers and nuggets. Objectification segments. It reduces. It removes a being from his or her own agency and turns them into products for another’s use. With an objectifying lens, Jews become devils, gays become perverted predators, children become property. With this same lens, women become breasts, thighs, and assorted parts and so do the animals people eat. History has shown that when a group has been objectified, any treatment of them is justifiable, from bullying and harassment to rape and systemic murder.

Why are women always fair game? What is this twisted poker game we are allegedly playing? “I’ll raise you some breasts if you’ll visit this website”? What is the process through which that vegan transformation allegedly happens? Is it something like, “Hmm. Nice tits. She’s telling me to stop eating meat. I think I will.” Is this the trajectory we’re supposed to believe takes place? Is that how veganism – a liberation movement and radical reframing of how we regard one another as whole, sovereign, equal beings - is supposed to take hold? The more I think about it, the more nonsensical it becomes, and the more I think about it, the more my heart aches for what should be a movement of people leading the way to challenging the privileges of the status quo. The notion that we can trade one groups objectification for another’s is a mirage and it’s an oppressive one, too.

Do you know what happens when feminists bring up the hypocrisy of objectifying some to other vegans? We are told to shut up. We are told that we are a bunch of whiners. We are told that we're prudes. We are told that it is small potatoes compared to what the animals face. We are told that we don’t matter. How many men have accosted me and countless other women because we live in a culture that reduces women to the sum of their parts? When the guy sitting next to me on the train was rubbing his crotch with one hand and trying to lift my skirt with his other, why did I just shrug this off as a normal part of the daily experience? How many women have been raped because we have only been valued by our worth to the rapist? Objectification tells the viewer that the observed are not autonomous beings of their own worth – they are whatever you want from them. Well, I’m here to say that we matter. Objectification harms, objectification kills and we matter.

I have dedicated my life to making life better for the animals. I became a vegetarian in high school and a vegan in 1995 because this matters so much to me. We need to get clear on something, though. A liberation movement that encourages or accepts the objectification of some is not one I will be participating in. And when women are fair game for being reduced into consumable parts, guess what? We are still looking through the binary lens that allows for valuing some over others and segmenting whole, complex beings into consumable parts. This is the lens through which some can see a bucket of chicken and not see the individual birds stuffed inside. This is the lens through which dairy becomes isolated from the mother cow who produced it for her calf. This is the lens through which we say that another’s agency is an acceptable sacrifice if we get what we want out of it.

No, “a little sexism” is neither acceptable nor is it a trade that works. We are worth much more than that. Our movement deserves more than this, too.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Worthless and Invisible: the Economic Erasing of the Animals We Eat

Years ago, I read something that struck me and has stayed with me ever since. It went something like this: if fish could talk, “water” is the last word they would use to describe their environment. What we are immersed in, we don’t notice. From my conversations with people who eat animals - good people, kind people, aware people - I find this adaptation to using animals for our ends to be so fully integrated, it’s not even noticed, like the air around us. When we are so surrounded by a prevailing set of beliefs from birth on that we internalize it as a universal law or truth, we scarcely notice it. What humans do to other animals, and our self-imposed position on the hierarchy of importance, is one of those things we take as a given human right. The essential conceit that animals are ours to use as we wish is often invisible and unspoken yet is as omnipresent as the air we breathe so it’s not surprising that most fail to notice it. When this is underpinning the privileges we enjoy and want to continue to enjoy with an untroubled conscience, it is all but imperceptible to our eyes. 

One of the most glaringly obvious examples that should give people pause is how animal products on the market are priced compared to those items that are without them. Vegans notice this because we have a different lens through which we view the world but it is not something I see acknowledged by those who consume animals. What I am referring to here is this often complete devaluation of the animals humans eat. The instances of this are too numerous to cite here but here are just a few examples I encountered in a conventional grocery store, a natural foods grocery store, and a couple restaurants. What does this say about us? What does it say about our values? What does it say about whom or what we 
value? What are the deeper implications?


We see that potato chips with sour cream cost the same as potato chips with salt and pepper. The milk products added to the sour cream variety pass no costs on to the consumer. To produce the milk that humans consume, heifers are forcibly impregnated and their calves are taken from them very shortly after birth so the milk produced for their babies can be sold at our markets. The female calves will be born into the same captivity as their mothers, and the male offspring will largely fuel the veal industry. The females will continue the cycles of forced impregnation, gestation, birth, and milking until she is no longer deemed profitable to the industry and then she is killed for meat, too. The sour cream variety of Kettle brand potato chips has been priced equal to that of salt and pepper. This means that the experience of the female cows born into this cycle of exploitation and violence, and that of her calves born into the same kind of subjugation, is either of no additional cost to the industry and consumers or is considered the same value of salt and pepper. Actually, since the sour cream variety already has salt in it, the milk from a cow is equal to pepper.

Still on the chip aisle, we see the same phenomenon: dip with beans and tomatoes cost the same as queso, made with cow’s milk. Keeping in mind the costs of the animal foods industry on our taxpayers and quality of life - the overflowing fecal lagoons, diminished air quality, climate change attributable to the industry and so on - makes this same price confusing. Considering that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that animal husbandry accounts for 18% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, and how deeply the steep financial and personal costs of climate change will be felt for generations to come, the
fact that dairy milk costs no more than another product seems hard to accept.

Think it’s just the cheap dairy? Think again. Please keep in mind that dairy cows on organic farms are kept in the same cycle of forced impregnation-to-milking until they are no longer deemed profitable and the male calves still are born to the same fate as their conventional dairy counterparts. 


Whether these bagels are simply plain or have added egg, they are same price here: .59 cents each. This means that the eggs have no added cost to the consumer and are presumably inexpensive enough for the producer to not have to recoup the expense of that added ingredient. Layer hens are often considered the ultimate devalued beings: they are maintained as virtual egg factories, most commonly de-beaked, kept in overcrowded, unnatural conditions, often put through a torturous forced molting to prolong their egg-laying capabilities and killed for cheap meat when they are considered “spent.” Male layer chicks, worthless to the industry whether they are organic or not, are killed through whatever means are easiest - suffocation, gassing, crushing - shortly after they are born. Despite their suffering and the damage egg production wreaks on local ecosystems as well as the global repercussions of the industry, there is no difference in cost between an egg bagel and a plain bagel here.  Egg or no egg, you pay the same. The hens and all they went through to produce their eggs, all the killed male chicks and captive female ones, are erased from the experience altogether. 

Even pastured, so-called free range eggs from local farms may have no value added. These hens lived and died to satisfy our taste preferences and habits yet their eggs weren’t worth anything. 

Chickens on a "free-range" farm.

Surely an animal’s actual dead body must have some value, though, right? 


Not necessarily. These beans with bacon and vegetarian beans cost the same price despite the addition of animal flesh in one. To create the bacon humans eat, pigs are often castrated, have their ears notched and their tails cut without anesthesia. Breeding sows are impregnated, their piglets are removed from them shortly following their birth and they receive some early milk through the bars of a farrowing crate before they are removed in order to maintain meat production; most breeding sows are kept in gestation crates for nearly their entire adult lives until they are killed. Whether they are given organic feed or not, pigs are still bred and killed to satisfy our taste preferences. Despite the feel-good message of the organic and "free-range" meat industry, there is simply not enough land mass to give the animals people eat for food any decent quality of life given global consumption habits. It is a mathematical impossibility. It is an elitist, unrealistic product still entrenched in violence.  

Large concentrations of animals also cause tremendous ecological damage: waste runoff from hog and chicken farms pollute our waterways with nitrogen and phosphorus, which cause algal blooms that deplete the oxygen necessary to support marine life. The Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast, once a flourishing estuary with a diverse variety of species, was identified in the 1970s as one of the first marine dead zones. The cost of cleaning up the bay was estimated at $19 billion, $11 billion going toward “nutrient reduction.” Today, there are more than 400 dead zones throughout the world, yet these beans with bacon cost the same as vegetarian beans. 

The "Big Stuff" crackers with cheese is still the same price as the regular crackers with peanut butter.  

Eating out, we see the same principle of devaluation again and again. 

At Subway, their “value menu” of $5.00 sandwiches includes the Black Forest Ham, B.L.T., Cold Cuts, Egg and Cheese and Veggie Delight. All include cheese, vegetables and condiments. For a vegan, the cheese would be omitted from the Veggie Delight. Even though these other sandwiches contain animal flesh or eggs, they cost no more than the Veggie Delight and they can also include all the same other components. In the case of this $5.00 menu, either the meat and eggs are of no added monetary value or those who order the cheeseless Veggie Delight are unfairly subsidizing another’s purchase. Perhaps both factors are at play here. 

Subsidizing the industry is nothing new: it’s been happening in the United States since the 1933, when President Roosevelt signed the Agriculture Adjustment Act, a regulatory system aimed to support farmers hurt by the Great Depression. On a personal level, when we order a vegan sandwich at Subway that is priced the same as those that include meat and animal products, we are, in essence, helping to financially float the person after us who is ordering the B.L.T. On a societal level, we are also deeply subsidizing meat and animal products with programs that include industry bailouts (the federal purchase programs) and the marketing of commercial products, which is a big part of why a sandwich with animal-derived ingredients can still cost the same as those without. Between 1995 and 2009, the U.S.D.A. distributed more than $246 billion to subsidize commodity crops, such as soybeans, corn, wheat, sorghum, barley and oats, crops which are primarily used to feed animals in food production. (It is estimated that only 6% of the worldwide soybean crop is grown for human consumption.) Between 1995 and 2009, the dairy industry received $4.8 billion through various subsidization programs offered by the U.S.D.A., which included $1 billion during that time to compensate for low market prices. By law, children at public schools, regardless of whether or not they have lactose intolerance, receive a carton of cow’s milk if they participate in the School Lunch Program. The Chicago Public School system spends $92,000 a day for 400,000 mandatory cartons of milk, up to half of which are thrown away. This is just one example of the federal government’s buttressing of the industry and erasure of the experience of dairy cows. 

At this independent restaurant, the chicken, steak and chorizo burritos do cost more than the vegetarian ones: .05 cents more. This was what their lives amounted to, presumably. The shakes here cost the same whether they are made with water or dairy milk (cow’s milk is the same price as water) but are .45 cents more with soy milk. 

There are other costs, too. With heart disease, stroke and obesity linked to the Standard American Diet, health care costs go up and productivity declines. Antibiotic-resistance due to overexposure through eating animals routinely fed them has created “superbugs” that leave us vulnerable to infections and this is estimated to cost $30 billion a year. (Eighty percent of the nation’s antibiotics are used in animal agriculture.) Even those who avoid eating animal products are vulnerable to food-borne illnesses like E. coli, a bacteria found in animal manure that can find its way onto produce through applications of manure-based fertilizers or exposure to agricultural runoff. Estimated costs associated with E. coli in the United States are $405 million. Why aren’t these deeper costs factored into what people eat? How does the industry consistently avoid being saddled with these costs? 

The next time you buy something to eat, look at these jars of marinara and beans, bagels and sandwiches. Did those sensitive beings deserve to be born into enslavement and turned into "products" for our cravings and habits? Certainly, there is no amount one could assign to these lives that would justify how we treat them, but should they be entirely worthless? Should their lives and experiences - the suffering, the forced impregnating, the separating of mother and baby, the denial of comforts, natural habits and sovereignty - be completely erased, even in the price tag? To me, this is the ultimate statement of our devaluation of animals in society, worthless to us yet essential to our habits, their lives and deaths just the price of not having been born human. What crime did they commit to deserve what we do to them? 

The change is up to us. We can refuse to participate in another's suffering and devaluation. We can live with our habits in alignments with our values. Do it for them. Do it for you. Do it for all of us.