Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Graphic Animal Suffering, Secondary PTSD, and Abolitionism

The Secondary Trauma of Witnessing Violence against Other Animals

Yesterday morning I finally caved to the hype and watched Blackfish against my better judgement.  Of course, I ended up in tears, I got a headache, and my entire day was ruined.  All I could think about were the suffering orcas and the exploited workers (including many women) (and also that sea lion on the ice that was killed by a pod of free-living orcas and gleefully filmed by some violence-obsessed man who mocks female onlookers, telling them to "get out the kitchen" if they can't take the heat.)1

In the mid-2000s, I was president of the Nonhuman Animal rights group at Virginia Tech, and one of the officers had set up a public viewing of Earthlings.  Because the movie had just been released, I didn't know what it was.  Going by a vague description my officer provided, I really had no idea what I was in for.  Within the first 5 minutes I was a complete mess.  Many persons got up and left, but feeling obligated as president to see the event through to the end, I somehow managed to survive the entire movie.  I was an absolute psychological wreck for at least a week after that experience.

Some vegan authors have noted that activists can suffer from Secondary Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a phenomenon often experienced by the families of military veterans.  Make no mistake, the violence we witness causes real psychological damage.  While I think it is important that we have a knowledge about the institutions of speciesism, I question whether or not repeated exposure to this violence is healthy.

Neither do I think it is necessary.  While a graduate student in Bernie Rollins' "Animal Rights Seminar" in 2009, he instructed us that we must actually go visit a slaughterhouse so we can understand exactly what is going on and how to fight the suffering of other animals.  The thought made me sick.  Knowing I simply did not have it in me to do such a thing, I began to question my integrity as an activist.  I then posed the question to Gary Francione, who supported Rollins' suggestion.

I have been physically present in situations where an animal's life was at stake, and if I am powerless to stop it, the emotional damage is severe.  Specifically, these instances mostly involved fish, and no amount of arguing or crying or anything, really, will convince most people to release their victims (though occasionally I am successful!).  I can recount each and every instance where I have seen fish pulled from the water, struggling, frightened, desperate, and, in some cases, crying (Virginia has a species of fish known as "Croakers" that many "fishermen" use as bait) before death by asphyxiation or disembowelment.  These memories are fresh and unrelenting; I will carry these horrors with me all my life. My bearing witness without being able to act is psychologically devastating.

Violence at the individual level with at least the small possibility of successful intervention is traumatic enough, so I can only imagine if I was present in a slaughterhouse, where hundreds of cows, pigs, or chickens queue up for death.  There is no doubt in my mind that I would either go into a psychotic rage and attempt to disrupt the machinery or disarm the man holding the bolt-gun and ultimately land in jail, or, I would have a nervous breakdown and be committed to a hospital indefinitely.  Neither place would be good for me as a person, the movement, or Nonhuman Animals who will have lost me as an advocate.  I know that my mind and body are simply not capable of handling such a situation.

Abolitionists, Welfarists, and Intimate Knowledge of Speciesist Systems

I don't think we need to have first-hand experience of the inner workings of animal oppression to fight against it.  If I am working to promote veganism and end speciesism, why do I need to know the nitty-gritty details of violence against animals? Because welfare reform is just that, reform, advocates who seek to modify the system would indeed need to know the intricacies.  If reformers like Temple Grandin want to streamline slaughter, then, yes, she would need to know exactly how a slaughterhouse line works and what type of bolt-gun is being used and how the workers are trained, etc.  For abolitionists like me, it is enough to know that Nonhuman Animals are being tortured and killed.  That's all I need to know to work against it.

Reformers who want to abet the system will need to know the system as intimately as those who profit from it. In many ways, reformers become one in the same with the owners:  both know the operation inside and out and seek to make it more efficient.  Abolitionists, however, are not interested in improving the system, so we aren't necessarily interested in the intricacies of the system.  We simply know that it exists, it is unjust, and we must fight it.
Grandin's design for improved slaughter.
The work of the industry? Or animal rights?  Is there a difference?
Healthy Activism, Guilt, and the Androcentrism of Animal Rights

Do these films have importance for non-vegans?  Absolutely.  Morally shocking imagery like Blackfish, Earthlings, or a visit to a slaughterhouse often challenge one's awareness, and the emotional reaction can encourage meaningful behavior change.  But for those of us already fighting for liberation?  I don't think it's necessary.  I get the feeling that people expose themselves to this emotionally draining material out of guilt, and I don't think we need to be feeling guilty.  Guilt is wasted energy.

I also suspect that intentionally repeated exposure to this imagery could reflect the movement's fear of the feminine.  The androcentrism of animal rights activism has necessitated a disassociation from female "emotionality" and the embracing of violence-tolerant masculinity. Perhaps some, in attempting to "prove" their worth as activists in this male space, seek to demonstrate that they can "take it."  If it makes me a "sissy" or a "girl" because I don't want to see blood and gore and because I don't want to be distraught and emotionally tortured, fine. I don't think it's appropriate to be using the feminine as a pejorative, however.  Neither do I think we should be dishonest or dismissive about the real mental health implications of exposure to violence.

1. The quote may have varied, but I refuse to rewatch for the correct phrase.  It is also worth noting that, while violence surely occurs in the natural world, documentaries about nature tend to center violence, though  most of the nonhuman world is peaceful and symbiotic.  David Nibert and others have suggested that this social construction of nature works to naturalize violence, thus excusing human violence against humans and other animals.  Vegan feminists have suggested this also normalizes male violence and patriarchal rule.  That is, it's "natural" for males to be aggressive, and nature is so violent and dangerous, women and animals need "protecting."