Taken-for-granted violence

I’m thinking a lot about violence lately. Specifically, that violence of the taken-for-granted kind. I’ve been aware, at a theoretical level, of pieces of this for a while.

I first encountered the term vegetarian ecofeminism when writing an essay for my ethics class. In short, vegetarian ecofeminism recognizes that the violence that we human beings do to each other in our hierarchical political and economic relationships is the same as the violence we do to the environment and to non-human animals.[1] All of it is based on a notion, to put it in Kantian terms, that the environment and other sentient beings may be means to an end, and each form of violence inures us to the others with the consequence that we cannot imagine living in any other way than the way we do.

I am realizing, more and more, just how profoundly violent a society this is, and I am coming to understand how insidiously this violence has affected me. Yesterday, I wrote, referring to an abusive racist who had been sentenced in part to sit in a public place with a sign declaring that he was a bully,[2]

in my heart of hearts, as a deeply wounded child who has suffered violence that has insidiously compounded itself in physical, economic, and verbal forms throughout my life to a point where it is disabling in important ways, I feel that Aviv deserves every bit of the humiliation that the judge has subjected him to—and more.[3]

There is more I wanted to say about this, but it diverted from the point I was making, and so that phrase, “a deeply wounded child who has suffered violence that has insidiously compounded itself in physical, economic, and verbal forms throughout my life to a point where it is disabling in important ways,” compresses a lot.

I am realizing that the theoretical is uniting with the visceral. And so it is important to see how the continuation of taken-for-granted practices exacerbates my situation, how even people who are close to me are deepening my wounds, even as they shelter me from other forms of abuse.

And I think it is important to see how we wound each other with our acquiescence to these practices.

There is a proverb that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But this is not always true. In my case, a wounding that began with abuse from my father from the time I was born—my earliest memory is on the side of a road, having just been whipped, and understanding my father to tell me not to get back in the car—until my mother kicked him out when I was fifteen, was compounded by the incessant verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse I endured from other children.

For me, C. J. Pascoe’s description of homophobia at a California Central Valley high school as not being so much about sexual orientation as it is about the enforcement of gender norms hits home. As a lesbian applying critical analysis, she was, I think, socially extraordinarily well-positioned to notice that which I had not given a second thought.[4] I was never interested in football, never interested in contact sports, bored by physical education, never even remotely considered date-able by girls, ambivalent about many of the things that boys take for granted. I was teased mercilessly and occasionally beaten up. In junior high and high school, a couple boys had singled me out, and pursued me relentlessly. Any time I was not in class, I was trying to avoid these boys.

As an adult, I again started off on the wrong foot. My father, concerned that I lacked direction, had steered me towards computer programming, and so I graduated in 1979 with an A.A. in Business Data Processing. It was an understandable choice, but it was not the right choice, and by 1985, I was burned out, beginning a long working class existence, working for the sort of employers who relish the leverage they hold over human beings they view as infinitely replaceable.

I accepted this violence as just the way things are. But it is violence:

Structural violence usually has the effect of denying people important rights, such as economic well-being; social, political, and sexual equality; a sense of personal fulfillment and self-worth; and so on. When people starve to death, or even go hungry, a kind of violence is taking place. Similarly, when humans suffer from diseases that are preventable, when they are denied decent education, affordable housing, opportunities to work, play, raise a family, and freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, a kind of violence is occurring, even if no bullets are shot or clubs wielded. A society commits violence against its members when it forcibly stunts their development and undermines their well-being, whether because of religion, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference, or some other social reason. Structural violence is a serious form of social oppression. And it is regrettably widespread and often unacknowledged.[5]

I noted yesterday a

binary that protects the rich and that stigmatizes and criminalizes the poor, the same binary that divides the world into good and evil, male and female, human and non-human, white and black, deserving and undeserving, and many others,[6] . . . . It is a binary in which wealthy white males are, with only exceedingly rare exceptions, the only consistent winners, a binary that forever divides “us” from “them,” the “other.” It is a binary that places beings on one side or the other of socially constructed borders. It is a binary that functions to oppress. It is a binary which is violent, verbally, economically, and physically, and not only in all the ways that I have personally experienced.[7]

Though I am white and male, I am poor. I am among “‘them,’ the ‘other,'” the ‘undeserving’. I am not among ‘us’, the ‘deserving’. Even as I pursue a Ph.D., I have been denied employment for nearly five years. I have been forced to move back in with my mother and to accept her assistance. I have been ignored and humiliated. For whatever talents I may possess—and surely as I close in on that Ph.D., I must have some—I have been left on the side of the road like so much trash. Is this violence? Of course it is. And I am most certainly not stronger for it.
But it is violence of a kind—a taken-for-granted kind—just like the kind we so routinely engage in against our environment and against non-human animals. We humans have altered the land surface of this planet beyond recognition.[8] And we are unfathomably brutal toward animals, even as we justify eating meat with a pretense of humane treatment, even as we make a show of closing slaughterhouses caught in sadism above and beyond slaughter, in videos we increasingly seek to label as the work of terrorists.[9]

One of the odd things many vegans do to each other on social networks is to share those videos, the videos of incredible violence toward animals. I generally have not watched them. I can’t bear to. Because it is violence of a kind, that same taken-for-granted kind, that I have been expected to endure in my own life as the ‘slings and arrows’ of ‘normal life’. That same kind that is, according to that proverb, supposed to make me stronger.

And when my mother, who insists that she “can’t” go vegan, fries her bacon, fries her chicken, broils her beef, I am wounded further. Because the violence I have suffered is inextricable from the violence she participates in, bound up with an indefensible imagination that some sentient beings are entitled to choose to exploit, humiliate, murder, and even consume other sentient beings.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “The inevitability of speciesism,” December 7, 2012, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2012/12/07/the-inevitability-of-speciesism/
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Binaries, Bullying, and the Boston Bombing,” Not Housebroken, April 15, 2014, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=6255
  3. [3]David Benfell, “Binaries, Bullying, and the Boston Bombing,” Not Housebroken, April 15, 2014, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=6255
  4. [4]C. J. Pascoe, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (Berkeley: University of California, 2007).
  5. [5]David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002).
  6. [6]John R. Belcher, Donald Fandetti, and Danny Cole, “Is Christian Religious Conservatism Compatible with the Liberal Social Welfare State?” Social Work 49, no. 2 (2004): 269-276; Kristina Cooke, David Rohde, and Ryan McNeill, “The Undeserving Poor,” Atlantic, December 20, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/12/the-undeserving-poor/266507/; Herbert J. Gans, “The Uses of Undeservingness,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 85-94; Carol L. Glasser, “Tied Oppressions: An Analysis of How Sexist Imagery Reinforces Speciesist Sentiment,” Brock Review 12, no. 1 (2011): 51-68; Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley, “Traditional versus Social Values as Antecedents of Racial Stereotyping and Policy Conservatism,” Political Behavior 14, no. 4 (December, 1992): 395-421; Michael B. Katz, “How America abandoned its ‘undeserving’ poor,” Salon, December 21, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/12/21/how_america_abandoned_its_undeserving_poor/; Edward McClelland, “You call this a middle class? ‘I’m trying not to lose my house’,” Salon, March 1, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/03/01/you_call_this_a_middle_class_i%e2%80%99m_trying_not_to_lose_my_house/; Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004); Joan Walsh, “Paul Ryan: Randian poseur,” Salon, August 12, 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/08/12/paul_ryan_randian_poseur/; Joan Walsh, “GOP is losing on unemployment insurance — and running scared,” Salon, January 7, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/01/07/gop_is_losing_on_unemployment_insurance_and_running_scared/
  7. [7]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works’,” March 15, 2012, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2012/03/15/we-need-to-know-how-it-works/; David Benfell, “A Colonized Academy and a Colonized People,” November 22, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2013/11/22/a-colonized-academy-and-a-colonized-people/
  8. [8]David Benfell, “No longer an ecosystem with which to live in harmony,” So I’m Vegan. Now What? March 5, 2014, https://vegan.parts-unknown.org/?p=134
  9. [9]David Benfell, “As if they voluntarily accept their fate,” So I’m Vegan. Now What? March 29, 2014, https://vegan.parts-unknown.org/?p=156

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