“How can we live and act in this world? How can we think the unthinkable without going insane? How can we speak of the unspeakable without lapsing into babble? The planet is in peril. Suffering surrounds us. How can we feel our feelings about that without being overwhelmed or immobilized by them? We need the motivating energy of those feelings. We need not to waste energy shutting them down. We need to find a way to manage and channel them. We need to make peace. We need to do this here and now, as damaged animals in a damaged world.” ~Pattrice Jones, Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World, a Guide for Activists and their Allies
Any animal activist knows exactly what Pattrice Jones is getting at when she writes that “sometimes the truth is sickening,” that “sometimes facing the truth feels like a punch in the stomach, leaving you temporarily breathless and immobilized” (Jones, 193). We acknowledge daily a truth that is physically painful to contemplate. It is the reason that we act. Once we accept the extent of pain and suffering endured by animals with every passing second, we run headfirst into a new and frightening dilemma: the need to cope. It is a need that continually re-arises as we struggle to save lives and create change. It is a need that we often push below the surface, opting instead to focus our energy on a cause. It a need, a consequence, an inevitability that Jones explores in detail in her incredible book, Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World, a Guide for Activists and their Allies.
I finished reading Jones’ book while traveling to the Animal Rights 2007 Conference in LA. Strapped into an uncomfortable plane seat, engrossed in the reading, I could not stop thinking of all the people that I wanted to share it with. I thought of animal rescuers I know who are dealing with post-traumatic stress, of fledgling vegans battling depression, of activists who give up when confronted with burnout. Activism invites a certain vulnerability. It often includes risks and acts of selflessness. Yet sacrificing our health and sanity to the cause is not only unnecessary, it is counterproductive.
Taking care of other activists is and should be a part of activism. “Every social change movement,” writes Jones, ‘must embrace an ethos of empathy for all – including ourselves” (Jones, 147). As an activist, our bodies are our tools. Speaking at the conference, Jones instructed us to invest in brain function. To get enough sleep and stay hydrated.
Jones describes a movement as an ecosystem. As a system of social relationships that draws strength from biodiversity. Disregarding these relationships between individuals will always be detrimental to the cause. Unhealthy relationships, she warned, will decimate the effectiveness of any organization regardless of its financial situation. A movement is only as healthy as the joined efforts of the people who comprise it.
This metaphorical ecosystem is not exclusive to the animal liberation scene, but rather is interwoven and overlapping with other social change movements. At the conference, many speakers, including Jones, addressed the urgency of allying the animal rights movement with environmentalism. Yet Jones was one of the few to bring human exploitation into the discussion.
Jones does not differentiate sexism from speciesism. While these “problems” are typically understood “as separate albeit overlapping,” Jones insists that “they are just different aspects of our nameless violation” (Jones, 173). “They are,” she continues, “justified and perpetuated by the same ideologies and practices” (Jones, 173). “Our ideas about daughters and dairy cows evolved when both were the property of husbands” and therefore “the characteristics we ascribe to female humans and domesticated animals refer to and reinforce one another” (Jones, 175).
The sexualized violence that humans perpetrate against other humans has inescapable parallels to the sexualized violence perpetrated against nonhuman animals. As Jones points out, “sexualized violence [is] hidden in plain view within such normal acts as eating meat and advertising goods with women’s bodies” (Jones, 171).
Less public yet more flagrant is the control over the reproduction of farmed animals. A dairy cow, for instance, is forcibly impregnated. Mere hours after birth her calf is stolen away (if a male he will be locked into a veal crate) so that her milk can be used for human consumption. All of this violence so that humans can drink cow’s milk, a product that is not only unnecessary but is in fact linked to many human diseases. “No one wins,” Jones reminded me, except the corporate power that profits from the exploitation of these animals. She offered me a single sentence to encapsulate the connection: “Eating meat is exploiting the body of another being without their consent.”
Unfortunately, some animal welfare organizations continue to demean female bodies as a means of promoting an animal-friendly agenda. Some people within the movement exhibit sexism in their speech and actions. And, much to my own bewilderment, most feminists are not even vegetarian.
As Jones told us, if division is the problem, then connection is the answer. “Since the 1970s,” writes Jones, “we have come to see how forms of discrimination,” specifically “race, sex, class, sexual orientation, and ability”, “compound and support one another” (Jones, 199). What needs to happen now is the integration of “animals into the analyses of social justice activists and the concerns of social justice activists into the agenda of the animal liberation movement” (Jones, 199). As Jones concludes: “People talk a lot about building bridges between movements. I say there’s no time for that: We have to be the bridges right now” (Jones, 200).
And while coalitions are being forged and alliances formed, activists need to take time to take care of themselves. We shouldn’t forget that our own bodies are as worthy of respect and care as the bodies of the animals we are fighting to save. Animal liberation is, after all, a movement born out of compassion. It is about time that we allow our compassion to extend to its full potential.