Intersectionality in Animal Rights

Last night I had the most stressful job interview in the world that also happened to be an interesting discussion. I was interviewing with an animal rights organization, and one of the questions that they asked me was how the animal rights movement might be able to grow/what they should change. I responded that I believe intersectionality was important, and that looking for ways to work with other movements was a good way to move forward, especially in terms of diversity and equity in race and gender.

My interviewer responded that as an organization they’ve made it a point not to take a position on anything but animal rights because they have a diverse membership and don’t want to alienate people who have come to a pro animal rights position through a different path. Of course this makes sense as a stance for an organization to take, but the more that I thought about it, the more I think that any vested interest in treating animals with respect requires us to take a hard look at how we treat every creature, including other human beings.

While I do think it’s possible that one could come to a position of animal rights through a religion that says animals require our protection, I also think that we have to look at the science and the logic behind our positions and that it’s important to be consistent in what we’re saying and believing. If someone says that they believe we should reduce the harm that animals suffer, they are logically saying that they also believe we should reduce the harm that human beings suffer. All of the science that we currently have points towards the fact that human beings are simply part of the spectrum of animals, with no hard and fast distinctions between us and the rest of the animal kingdom.

In order to reduce the harm that comes to animals, we also have to look at the science of pain and consciousness to understand how animals feel, what they feel, and what causes them pain. Even if you are motivated to care for animals by a religious belief, you still have to look at the actual world around you to understand what it means to care for animals. And science tells us that animals can feel pain, can identify themselves as individuals, can make friends and feel love and empathy, and generally have a rich emotional life.

And if you believe that violating these things causes pain and harm, and that causing pain and harm is something that we should not do, you have to apply these understandings to human beings as well. Now each of us gets to apply our values in the way we choose, and we may decide that there is another value that trumps causing no harm (like God’s word that homosexuality is sin), but the only other values that we can derive from the same premises as animal rights are the values that promote negating harm for all creatures wherever possible based upon what we can learn about what causes harm.

Here are things that we do know cause harm: sexism, racism, homophobia, cissexism, ableism, classism…and we know that they do so in subtle ways, including through simple language or jokes, through objectification and exotification, through discrimination or lack of access, through speaking over and ignoring experiences, through rape culture, through the prison industrial complex, through lack of job opportunities and poor wages…many of these things are directly tied to meat eating, such as the low wages for workers in the meat industry, or the symbolic ties of meat to masculinity.

At the very least, listening when people tell you that something you’re doing is hurting them seems like it needs to be a part of your value system if you want to be ethically consistent while prioritizing animal rights. Over and over we hear people saying that ignoring these elements of life harms them and leaves their lives harder and more painful.

I am not suggesting that every animal rights activist needs to put their current activism on hold and jump into all of these other debates. However you should take the time to consider how these fit into your professed set of values and be willing to back up those who ask you for help or consideration when their requests fit within your values. And it is clear that the values that underlie veganism and vegetarianism when it is pursued because of animal rights demand that we treat human beings with respect.

So while politically it makes sense for an organization not to take any stances that might alienate their membership, I also believe that it’s disingenuous to profess a belief that we should minimize the harm our lives create, respect others, and improve the world, while not at least mentioning issues like discrimination, abuse, racism, sexism, and all the other isms that plague our world at the moment. This does not demand that we take specific political positions (after all science and logic don’t lead us clearly in one direction all the time), but rather that we acknowledge that there are many things that harm both humans and animals in the world today and state unequivocally that we do not tolerate discrimination, abuse, cruelty, or violence in any of its forms.

I believe this is one of the areas that we need to take a longer view: while it may be beneficial to gain members who don’t truly believe in respect and minimizing harm but who will help you achieve your goals, this is not going to help the longer goal of fostering empathy and compassion for everyone, animal and human.  In the end, it might undermine your goals: if a church changes its position you may lose those members, but if you gain members because they have come to an ethical conclusion through their own rationality, they are much less likely to change their opinions based on the teachings of others. We may be watering down our message in order to appeal to more people, when we should be strongly advocating for respect on all levels.

Religion and Good People

I have a confession: I love watching crappy TLC shows. I have no shame about it. Say Yes to the Dress, Sister Wives. I am all about it. Lately I’ve been binge-watching 19 Kids and Counting, a show about an extremely religious family that subscribes to things like purity culture, homeschooling, and missionary work around the world. And while I find this as entertaining as the rest, there are a few trends in the show that I feel need to be called out as real trends that people in these traditions tend to follow. Many of these involve acting in ways that they feel make them a “good person”, or at the very least that portray them as such to others, however many of them seem to me to be completely irrelevant to goodness or morality.

The first one of these has to do with gratitude. In 19 Kids and Counting, the youngest daughter, Josie, was born nearly 4 months premature. The family wasn’t certain if she would survive infancy. She did, and throughout the season of the show that I was watching they were continually expressing gratitude for her life. This seems wholly appropriate. However what seemed odd to me was that they were expressing gratitude to God without once expressing gratitude towards the doctors and nurses who clearly worked incredibly hard to keep their daughter alive. No mention of the NICU where she stayed, no mention of the good people who helped her or their family, no mention of the hard work that scientists have done to allow a baby like this to survive. These are people who are living with their daughter on oxygen every day so that she can remain alive and healthy, and they choose to say nothing about the other human beings who made this possible.

Of course if you believe in God it makes sense to be grateful to God, but if you want to be a good person you should also express your gratitude towards the people who have helped you, people who could hear and NEED to hear about the difference they’ve made in your life. It seems odd to me that these people can express such deep gratitude to their God and ignore the time, sacrifice and effort that other human beings have made for their family.

A similar example comes in their service work. The Duggars speak often about the value of service, and how they want their children to enjoy serving others. This is a great value! I applaud it. However all the examples that I have seen of their “service” are simply proselytizing. They volunteered for a local aid organization, however the only aid that this organization provided was Christian materials dropped from planes. They went on a trip to Central America to help remote villages without water or electricity, however instead of bringing much needed supplies or helping build a well, they brought Christmas presents, Bibles, and put on a Christmas pageant.

“Service” is not just doing something abroad or for a nonprofit. Service has to involve actually helping other people…serving them. You have to do something that they need or want in order for it to be service. You need to actually be providing a service to someone, not simply forcing things on them that they don’t want. Proselytizing is not service, and acting as though it is will give your children an extremely skewed vision of what it means to be a good person.

Choosing God over other people does not make you a good person. The Bible has a lot of bits about loving your neighbor in it, and it seems to me that if you want to show love for God you should do more than simply talk about your gratitude to him and actually go out and do something for other people that helps them. I realize that for some people, exposing others to God is something that helps them, but maybe we could show them some mercy and gratitude in this life too.

 

Internalized Prejudice

Society’s prejudices and assumptions are tricky. They can sneak in in all sorts of ways you don’t expect and wish you could get rid of.  It’s nearly impossible to grow up without internalizing some sort of prejudice or judgment, and it’s incredibly difficult when you realize that the assumptions you grew up with are wrong. Doubly unfortunately, many of those judgments often intersect with our oppressions: e.g. I have a great deal of internalized fatphobia thanks to my eating disorder, which is incredibly difficult to control and combat. Another example of this might be radical feminists who vehemently oppress trans women. When you’ve been oppressed, you often end up with a lot of hatred towards other people or even towards yourself. But the most interesting examples of internalized prejudice (at least to me) are the times we actively work against ourselves in ways we would never do to others.

It’s often easiest to recognize our own prejudices by how we treat ourselves. Oftentimes our behavior towards ourselves is far more honest than our behavior towards others. Our behavior towards others is more often moderated by societal norms, group expectations, shaming behaviors from others, and empathy. Interestingly, many people appear to find it easier to express empathy towards others, whereas towards themselves they rely on rules and “shoulds”. We fall back on the things we’ve internalized because trying to inhabit our own emotions can be more difficult than inhabiting someone else’s.

But the ways that we treat ourselves in comparison to others can reveal a lot. If you have a great deal of privilege and treat yourself super well and think awesome things about yourself while you simply treat other acceptably, that says something. Or if you treat yourself like crap over things like weight, gender, or mental health status, this might reveal some internalized prejudice. Oftentimes these are things you don’t even notice at first. But if you take the time to examine each judgment and negative thought you have about yourself, you might realize that it rests on a myth about how people should be.

As an example, I’ve been incredibly insecure for some time about my sexuality. I don’t have a high sex drive and I’ve often felt that I’m broken or that something is wrong with me when I’m not actively attracted to someone that I love and want to be with. I’ve often avoided thinking about it out of fear that I have some sort of trauma in my past that I haven’t processed, or that I don’t really trust people. It was only after reading a number of websites about asexuality that I realized that some people are simply wired to not have a strong sex drive. There’s nothing wrong or broken about it. The judgment that I had towards myself was actually reflecting an attitude about anyone who differentiated from the sexual norm. I was even medicalizing my own difference, telling myself that asexuality was a mental or physical defect, or that I would get over it when I was healthy. While I thought that I was simply making a judgment about myself, a closer examination revealed that I had some assumptions about what sexuality should be that were highly offensive and erased the experiences of many people (including myself). Many of us have experiences like these.

So what do we do when we make realizations like this? I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with the fatphobia I know I have because of my eating disorder. It’s hard. You don’t know how to treat yourself or others, and you certainly don’t know how to convince your mind that it’s wrong. How do we argue against ourselves? How do we learn to treat ourselves better?

In general I am not a huge proponent of guilt. Generally if you’re feeling guilty you already know you’ve done something wrong, the guilt has already played its role to tell you that you have behaved inappropriately, and from there on out it just turns into self-flagellation. Particularly with internalized oppressions that are directed towards yourself, I can very rarely see guilt being helpful (I can just imagine someone feeling fatphobia towards themself, feeling guilty about it, hating themself even more, and then proceeding to link fat with shitty once again).  When you turn oppression and stigma against yourself, it does not help for either you or others to guilt you or tell you how shitty you are or how you don’t understand. You are the one suffering here, and while your suffering is contributing to negative conditions for others, you do need to take yourself into account. Here are some suggestions:

1.Sympathy towards yourself and others.
Cut yourself some slack! Cut other people some slack! Now I know that this borders dangerously on telling people to just calm down and let prejudice and stereotypes and oppression go cause it’s no big deal. That is not what I mean. I mean that if someone is already struggling, feeling guilty, and really working to improve their actions and mindset, then you don’t need to beat it into them any further. You can offer them praise for things they do well or simply tell them that yeah, things suck.

2.Imagine whether you would do these things towards other people.
Oftentimes we’re far more willing to be jerks towards ourselves than towards others. I call myself horrific names I never would call others, and expect ridiculous diets out of myself that I would tell others they should never engage in. It can be helpful to spend some time imagining what your reaction would be if the offender was someone else. Sometimes I have to imagine that I’m speaking ot my best friend instead of myself so that I can understand how cruel I’m being.

3.Try to explain why you’re mad at yourself so that you can see what myths you’re using.
This might seem somewhat useless, but it can be incredibly helpful. Taking the time to examine what you’re actually saying about yourself, to read up on some of the social justice literature surrounding some of your issues, and to really dismantle the hidden assumptions that you have can make it much easier to fight back. Once you put those assumptions into plain English it’s often obvious how stupid they are. From there, you can remind yourself of these myths when you start to beat up on yourself again.

4.When calling someone out who is the victim of their own stigma, try to be more gentle than you might otherwise: they’re probably fighting a really hard battle.

It’s incredibly hard to recognize our own prejudices and to act against them. It’s particularly hard to fight them in our own lives. Unfortunately we rarely talk about these internalized elements of oppression, and they can be one of the fastest ways that oppression reproduces itself. Let’s start that conversation.

How to Not Know

A lot of questions that have been floating around in my mind for long periods of time have finally been coalescing into clear concerns and questions, and this blog post is about one of them. I have long been bothered by the nonchalant attitude that many people take towards questions that truly and deeply disturb me, and I think I’ve finally hit upon why. In a piece at alternet, Greta Christina addresses one of the main tenets of skepticism: “If we don’t know the answer to a question, it’s better to just say, ‘We don’t know.’ And then, of course, investigate and try to find an answer. We shouldn’t jump in with an uninformed answer based on our cognitive biases. And we definitely shouldn’t assume that, because we don’t know the answer to a question, the answer is therefore God, or something else supernatural.” In general, I agree with this principle. As a skeptic it seems perfectly logical. But there is a problem with this mindset, which is that sometimes we really do need to know the answers to things in order to continue to act in our lives.

Greta says this quite clearly when she asks:

“What do you do if the question on the table is one you really need an answer to? What if the question isn’t something fairly abstract or distant, like, “Why is there something instead of nothing”? What if the question is one with an immediate, practical, non-trivial impact on your everyday life? Something like… oh, say, just for a random example, ‘What are my chances of getting cancer, and what should I do to prevent it and detect it early?’”

This paragraph is fascinating to me. Most people are understanding that you want more answers and that you will struggle with trying to be a good skeptic while also continuing to find appropriate ways to act when your questions are things like Greta’s concerns. These questions are very clearly life and death, and people understand that you want the best possible answer to act in the best possible way when your life is in the balance.

What I don’t understand is why people are not willing to extend some of the same sympathy when you feel the same sort of emotional gut-punch from abstract, philosophical questions. What I really don’t understand is how people assume that things like philosophical questions can’t have huge real world impacts for someone. real world impacts like…oh, say, just for a random example, whether or not you walk through your life with overwhelming depression every second of the day.

For most people things that are abstract like “why is there something instead of nothing” don’t lead to anxiety or impact their day to day lives in any major way. It’s the kind of question that you can go through your life being fairly uncertain about without it gnawing at you or without it causing any major fear. Or at least that’s what everyone tells me. Everyone SAYS that it’s the sort of thing that shouldn’t bother you, the kind of thing that doesn’t affect how you live your life, the sort of thing that is just a philosophical exercise.

Unfortunately for me, it’s not. I cannot understand how people think that it doesn’t or shouldn’t have a direct impact on your life whether or not there is a reason we’re here, how our morality is formed, how much access we have to reality. I cannot understand how people feel that it’s appropriate, logical, or acceptable to go through life without any sort of answer to these larger questions, because without these larger answers, we have no overall guiding compass that puts all the rest of our actions into a context, a scope. Answers to the deep philosophical questions are what should be guiding us through each choice we make in life. I don’t know how to make decisions without answers to some of these questions, just like someone who doesn’t have all the information about their cancer diagnosis would have a hard time pursuing appropriate treatment options.

Some people might tell me to simply learn to ignore these questions, learn to live with the uncertainty. I would love to be able to do this and I have been struggling to do this for quite some time. However philosophical meaning and existential crises are deeply tied into my mental illness, and when I just ignore the purpose of my life, I tend towards suicidal ideation. For some people, these questions have serious consequences, and I am one of those people. It is just as life and death for me as the question of cancer is for Greta.

The number of atheists who are happy to just shrug off these questions with a “we don’t know” is upsetting to me, not simply because it ignores a fascinating question, but because it actively ignores something that deeply affects my life, and it tells me that the questions which are extremely important to me are trite and silly. It tells me that I shouldn’t be at all worried that I don’t know about something that affects my life. While I do need to learn to accept what I don’t know, it is unhelpful and dismissive to tell me that the struggle is unimportant. Just as it would be entirely disrespectful to tell Greta that she should just get over the worry of whether or not she might get cancer, it’s disrespectful to me to tell me that I should just get over the worry of whether I am going to be depressed.

There’s a reason I become so upset when people tease about being a philosophy major, or imply that philosophy is just an academic circle-jerk. I went into philosophy not because I wanted to use big words or nitpick about semantics, but because it was a matter of my life quality. Trying to come to grips with real, deep questions is not an exercise: it is a process of self-acceptance. The abstract is very real to me. It hits closer to home than many literal discussions about real-world problems. Some people may not be able to relate to this, but I still deserve the basic respect that says my concerns are worthy of time and discussion.

I have a request for the entirety of the non-religious world: please stop telling me that the questions that drive my life are unimportant, or that it makes no difference if we just have to accept that we don’t know. Not knowing about something that is upsetting or confusing to you is difficult and it sucks, and it’s not easy to just create your own meaning. While this may not be on par with the possibility of cancer that Greta faces, it does play into my own serious illnesses (depression and an eating disorder). Saying that the questions are abstract tells me I’m making a big deal out of nothing, when in reality the meaning of my life is anything but abstract for me. This is gas-lighting on a movement wide level. Stop.

Sex is Disgusting

I have recently been obsessed with disgust. Weird? Yes, but so am I. Disgust is an emotion that we don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about and understanding. Very few people question where disgust comes from or why it exists. I’ve been doing a lot of reading around these topics, and in this reading I stumbled on a question that grabbed me: can something be sexy without an element of disgust?

I’m sure a lot of you at first glimpse will say “duh yes, I love my partner and find them very sexy and am not disgusted by them in the slightest”. But I think to get at the heart of this question we have to get at the roots of what disgust is: most current theories suggest that disgust is a reaction to things that remind us that we are animal and thus mortal. Obviously we have disgust towards things that might contaminate us: bodily fluids and the like (generally termed primary disgust), but most other things that cause us to feel disgust are things that remind us we’re fallible: gore, destruction of our bodily envelope, or things that make us feel someone is acting in an inhuman or bestial manner. For more on this theory of disgust, check out Paul Rozin or Martha Nussbaum. I’m not going to spend much time here arguing that this is the appropriate theory of disgust so if you want to hear more about it do some reading on your own (there are a good number of studies supporting it).

Behind this theory of disgust is the idea that we as human beings are afraid of our own mortality and that we cannot live every day with the full knowledge and awareness of our mortality. Realizing we are like animals (particularly animals that we see as fallible) reminds us that we are mortal. Reminders of birth also remind us of death. These things place us squarely in front of our own mortality, and so we try to shy away from them so that we don’t have to be confronted with them. One way that we as human beings often deal with our own mortality and animal nature is by creating a group that elicits disgust (e.g. Jews in Nazi Germany) and imbuing them with all the qualities of animals and ourselves that we find unacceptable. We then use them as a buffer zone between ourselves and our mortality. They are people who are not quite human but not quite animal: they are less than we are, and if we keep ourselves pure from them, then we are safe from the contamination of things that remind us of our animal nature.

Sex reminds us that we have bodies. Sex reminds us that our bodies are not all the way in our control, and is associated with the life and death cycle. So sex is disgusting on some level. It is inherently an animal act: it is something that we do that could contaminate us and that reminds us in an immediate way that we create life and we die and we are mortal. Don’t tell me it’s not disgusting. You know when you’re all finished and out of the moment you look around and you’re all sweaty and sticky you feel a little eensy bit grossed out. And if disgust is the feeling we get when we’re reminded that we’re animals, you sure as HELL feel a little disgusted after sex.

Does this mean that everything associated with sex has some disgust associated with it? Can the fact that sex and disgust might be inherently linked tell us something about negative attitudes towards sex? Let’s explore further dear readers.

As a caveat, I have exactly 0 evidence for most of what I’m going to talk about next. This is primarily theoretical and is more an explanation of possible connections between ideas, emotions, and behaviors than a proposition of a fully fleshed out theory. I would love to hear reactions and feedback.

I suspect that in order for something to turn us on, it has to remind us that we have a body. While there are probably some people out there who get turned on exclusively by intellectual things (I won’t deny that I may or may not have masturbated while reading philosophy before), the moment you start to get turned on you have an immediate reminder of your body, your bodily fluids, and your animal nature. Your desires start to take over. It is an incredibly animalistic place to be. For something to be sexy, it has to be something that will give your body a reaction (I’m talking sexy in the very literal sexual sense, not “a sexy car”). Sexy is always and inherently related to your body, whether you’re turned on by a touch or a word or a thought or an idea.

If disgust is what we have made it out to be, this means that in all sexiness there is an element of disgust. I’m not sure if others have experienced this, but I often find myself shying away from the loss of control that comes with getting turned on, with the way my body pulls me to be present when I feel it reacting. When that first blush of “mmm, sexy” hits, I turn my mind away from it. That moving away or pushing away is the basic disgust reaction. It’s the desire to avoid contamination. Even if you do not have a moment of pulling away, you are still being reminded of your body. There is likely still some element of your brain that wants to remain “pure” and unaffected by the animal body.

Now this may not be true for people who are more at home with their mortality and their animal nature. I’m not sure if these people exist or not, but I will add that if you feel no worry about death or about being out of control or contaminated, then there is probably no element of disgust in sexiness for you. But for those of us who feel disgust, I suspect that there has to be some element of that revulsion with yourself and your body in order for something to be sexy. Likely it’s not a major element or you would shy away too hard, but some purely intellectual part of yourself that wants to be immortal is not down with the down and dirty.

However I would argue that disgust heightens sexiness for many people. Disgust is an extremely powerful reaction. It viscerally reminds you of your body. It can elicit physical reactions, like vomit or the hair standing up on your arms or the back of your neck. When it is paired with a desire to move towards the object of disgust, you can have an extremely powerful feeling. This is something that people interested in kink often play with.

Interestingly, disgust is a learned reaction. Small children are willing to touch or play with primary objects of disgust (feces, vomit, etc). Only after time do they learn to feel the deep revulsion towards these things (theorists suggest that there is still a biological component though, much like with language). In their youth they seem quite interested in and fascinated by them (children playing in mud, anyone? Bugs?). Perhaps this fascination comes back in our sexuality when we can go back to the innocence of being young and unaware of our own mortality. Perhaps the sexiest thing is intentionally embracing and forgetting mortality all at once. It seems that we do have a draw towards things that are “disgusting” and when we recognize this and move back towards a youthful point of view, we might have a stronger pull towards them.

But more often than not we cannot forget all the fears of our lives. They peek in here and there. Many of us try to sterilize sex: we turn off the lights so we can’t see each others’ bodies, we trim and clean ourselves so that we don’t smell or look animal, we try to keep the act controlled or only about intimacy and love. But no matter what, at the end of the day, sex reminds us that we’re animals. This is frightening for many people.

And here is where we find the connection to the taboo and to misogyny. For much of human history, women were deemed disgusting. Disgust is a reaction that asks us to distance ourselves from the object of disgust, to cast it out. However men’s sexuality and women’s sexiness makes this impossible. The proliferation of the species is a constant reminder to men that they will die and that they will not be in control. Sex is one area in which you are always and ever reminded that you are not in control of your body. And so perhaps turning the other into the object of disgust allows men to distance themselves from the disgust or contamination they might feel towards themselves in the sex act. Misogyny may in part stem from the fear that men feel towards their animal nature (I am in no way saying women don’t feel this too. I suspect the brute strength of men allowed them to enforce their disgust a bit better than women though. Also being the penetrative partner tends to make others think of you as disgusting. See: homosexuality).

Perhaps this is where much sexualized violence stems from: it is an attempt for some people to distance themselves from the sexuality that disgusts them. We tend to kill or hurt the things that disgust us. That is the most control we can have over them, and the most distance we can put between them and ourselves. When we combine violence with our sexuality, we may be able to fool ourselves into taking the disgust out of the act by putting all of it onto the other person and only feeling the power and anger of the violence. Foisting the disgust of being human onto someone else protects you, particularly if your disgust is only for women, because it makes you different from the mortal, the animalistic, and the disgusting. But female sexuality and the boners it causes in the menfolks are a constant reminder to men that they cannot control their bodies and that even if they try to foist the disgust of sexuality onto women, some of it remains in them.

In addition, this may be where some of the fear of sexuality and the desire for purity comes from. Sex and death have long been associated in many cultures (The French word for orgasm means “little death”), and it’s fairly clear that the desire for sexual purity seems to come with a fear. But a fear of what? Some people might suggest God’s judgment, but I suspect that the disgust that comes with sex is the larger motivation. Many people think that sex is nothing to be disgusted by, but if we break down what elicits disgust, it may actually be an appropriate reaction. Perhaps this is why purity culture is still so strong. Sex is a reminder that we are not Godly or perfect, in control, immortal, or clean. For those people who dream of being this way (which tends to be the religious), sex is the ultimate reminder that they cannot be purely spiritual beings without bodies that will die. It is the ultimate fear: it reminds us of the oblivion after

However simply because something elicits disgust does not mean we should legislate against it or judge it morally. We cannot avoid reminders of our mortality forever, and simply because something “grosses us out” doesn’t mean it’s actually bad or wrong. Disgust is not an appropriate emotion on which to base moral judgment. Martha Nussbaum argues quite persuasively in her book Hiding From Humanity that disgust does not tell us whether an action has harmed another person, it simply tells us something about our fear of death or about how we perceive something as animalistic. If we take a rational approach to morality, we should look at what harms others, and disgusting things do not harm others (I am excluding things like nuisance laws here in which you inflict something disgusting on another person or primary disgust that is aimed at something which might actually contaminate you or bear disease). Just because something may elicit disgust does not mean it’s bad or wrong. We are all free to do as many potentially disgusting things as we want, and perhaps it’s time to start embracing some of the disgusting things we do: we’re human, we will die, and we need to accept that.

In other realms we’re willing to temporarily suspend disgust. We sometimes play in the mud like little kids and we get great joy out of it. Why is sex any different?

So perhaps sex is disgusting. Perhaps it’s disgusting to be sexy. And maybe, just maybe, that shouldn’t be a negative judgment of sex.

Will Follow Rules for Rights

“FOLLOW OUR RULES AND YOU WILL HAVE YOUR FREEDOM” IS THE BIGGEST LIE OPPRESSED PEOPLE ARE TOLD IN THIS COUNTRY

 

This morning I was looking at the twitter explosion over the Texas abortion bill and ran across this tweet from @rare_basement. I don’t know how to explain what this tweet means to me or my neuroses. I don’t know how to explain how this sums up all the intersectionality of my gender and mental health. But I’m going to do my best.

 

This is the lie I’ve believed all my life. No, I am hardly the most oppressed person in the world, but I grew up in the 90s, when girls were told that “you can be anything if you believe and work hard!”, despite the fact that sexism is still alive and well and making life incredibly difficult for women. But boy did I fall for that line. I still believe it, despite trying to make myself grow up over and over again. Because you want to know what happens when you buy into a cultural myth that disappoints you repeatedly, one that tells you that you’re responsible for your disappointments? You begin to think you’re the problem.

 

The line that oppressed minorities are fed is that hard work will get them whatever they want, including the rights and freedoms that have been denied to them in the past. This is the myth of meritocracy. Unfortunately, it’s not true, and minorities simply are denied rights and freedoms, as well as opportunities, because of their status as oppressed. But the myth puts all of the responsibility for these problems back on the oppressed: it tells them that they haven’t followed the rules appropriately or they have not worked hard enough.

 

This is the worst form of victim blaming because it can make everything an individual’s fault, and it can obscure from the individual the larger forces that are at work. And in my mind, the most insidious part of it is that it essentially sows the seeds for mental illness. One of the traits of many people with mental illness is personalization: thinking everything is either your fault or aimed at you. This myth directly tells you that everything is your fault. It builds personalization from the ground up and repeats it over and over until it’s been hammered into you. What’s worse is that it doesn’t just wait around until something bad happens and then tells you it’s your fault. It points to structural inequalities that already exist, and when those begin to affect you it tells you that you should have known better and followed the rules so that you didn’t make these problems for yourself. It retroactively blames you for problems that were there before you were born, so you are suddenly responsible for a disturbing amount of things.

 

An additional problem with this is that the “rules” for oppressed populations are contradictory and impossible to follow. No matter what you do, you’re doing something wrong and thus don’t deserve rights and freedoms. An example of rules for women: Be good looking but not shallow, and definitely not overly sexy, and definitely don’t flaunt your body but don’t be a prude either.

 

Is it any surprise that we have a generation of girls who have grown up thinking that they are constantly not doing enough, not right, or need to be perfect? A generation of girls who catastrophize everything? If you were told throughout your whole childhood that you’ll be treated with respect, dignity, and liberty if you follow the rules and then are NOT treated with those things no matter how hard you tried, doesn’t it seem logical that you would conclude that you had done something wrong? What amps up the anxiety of this is that you don’t know what it is you did wrong. You can’t figure out what went differently between the times when you got what you wanted and the times you didn’t (hint: the difference was probably not you, it was the circumstances outside of your control), so you get paranoid that at any point you might be doing something horribly wrong and you don’t know it. You might be messing up the rules which can have disastrous consequences. And if you don’t follow the rules exactly perfectly, if you don’t get straight As and no detention ever and dress modestly and act politely, then it’s your fault if you get raped or harassed or if you get denied a job.

 

This is an enormous amount of responsibility and guilt for any individual to take on. It leads almost directly to a paranoia about one’s actions, to a sense of personalization about everything, to perfectionism and to anxiety. For a while I wondered why nearly every girl my age was a budding anxious perfectionist, but this quote makes it so clear to me: we are because we know we have to be in order to be deemed acceptable and in order to try to keep ourselves safe.

Another problem with this message is that it tells minorities that their feelings are not valid or right. When your rights are denied, you have every right to be angry and upset, but this myth tells you that feelings of anger are always wrong because you are always at fault. You don’t get to be angry ever, except with yourself, because society can never do you wrong if you play by the rules. This undermines so much of an individual’s identity, confidence, and emotional understanding that you can be left with no conception of what an acceptable feeling is. In DBT when we talk about the circumstances that can trigger a mental illness, an invalidating environment is one of the first things that comes up every single time.

 

It’s no surprise that oppressed populations have some mental health problems different from those of privileged groups: they’ve been put into a situation where perfection is expected of them, everything is personalized, and their feelings are invalidated. It’s the perfect storm, and yet we sit around wondering why women feel so bad about themselves. This is somewhat akin to leaving tripwires everywhere and then asking why people keep falling.

 

We as a society need to start discussing and addressing the mental health effects of these expectations of women and other oppressed individuals because they are creating mindsets that are rife for mental illness. They are creating expectations of perfection in individuals, they are telling individuals to personalize everything, they are heaping guilt and responsibility on individuals who should be looking at the societal discriminations for their difficulties.

The Disgust of Dirty Food

Note: this post has a lot of thoughts packed together that have not been clearly pulled apart. I’m really intending to write more about this, and a lot of these thoughts are preliminary attempts to work through some ideas that I think are extremely important. Any insights are welcome.

 

In my DBT group we’ve been talking a lot about emotions recently: how to identify them, what they do for us, how to regulate them, etc. One of the emotions that we went over which was a little surprising to me was disgust. I suppose that somewhere in my mind I knew that disgust is an emotion, and actually a fairly common one, but as I looked at the prompting events of disgust, the physical symptoms of disgust, and the interpretations of disgust, I realized that disgust is a hugely important element of eating disorders, and that there is a wide body of literature that discusses some of the roots and backgrounds of disgust that never gets touched on in eating disorder treatment. It’s pretty clear that people with eating disorders often feel disgust towards themselves or disgust towards food, but what is disgust? Where does it come from? What purpose does it serve? And what can this tell us about eating disorders?

 

So what is disgust at its most basic? In general, disgust is the feeling we have towards things that might contaminate or poison us. Likely we evolved this feeling for a really good reason: to avoid things that would kill us if we ate or touched them. In many ways, disgust has to do with bodily boundaries. You want to keep the good things on the inside and make sure that the bad things remain on the outside. We are disgusted by things that break down our boundaries: things that can come in through our mouths or ears, things that come through our sexual organs, things that break our skin and leave us without a boundary, or things that can get inside our body through our skin in some fashion or other. The purpose of disgust is therefore beneficial: it can keep us safe from potential pathogens, from sexual fluids, or from things that may invade our bodies. We want to remain pure, because purity will keep us safe and keep our boundaries intact.

 

However disgust has expanded from these origins into moral and religious contexts. Particularly in the Abrahamic religions, this moral tint to disgust came from Judaic purity laws, which mixed together the disgust emotions of purity with other moral issues in order to strengthen both. Judaism extended conceptions of purity and boundaries from literal filth into things that they believed would keep them spiritually pure, as well as keep their society as a whole safe from contaminants. Holiness was equated with purity, because purity is health and safety. If you look at Leviticus or other law books in the Old Testament, most if not all the laws are about keeping different things from mixing together, or from keeping impure and bad things out. A clear example of this is that a woman on her period is expected to remain separate from the community, and anyone who touches her must ritually cleanse himself (Leviticus 5:19-20). In general, blood is considered a pathogen. It’s not something you want to touch. However in order to enforce that boundary, religious law was invoked to create an ethical and moral consequence to becoming impure.

 

So early religions often had purity concerns as a way to enforce this sense of disgust and keep individuals safe. However these purity concerns grew into much more than that, and they took the sense of disgust and expanded it to apply to anything that was considered unethical. Again however we see a lot of questions about purity. When someone lies, you are not likely to feel a whole lot of disgust (even if it’s about something pretty horrible). When someone is raped, or brutally murdered and mutilated, or even humiliated, we feel a great deal of disgust for the perpetrator. These are instances in which someone’s boundaries are violated, either literally with rape, or their body’s boundaries are destroyed in the case of mutilation, or their boundaries of self-respect and self-identity are violated in the case of humiliation. This might be part of the reason we find sexualized immorality more disturbing and disgusting than other sorts of violence or crime: because sexuality is nearly always associated with penetration of some sort.

 

So we have these conceptions of boundaries, and this idea that we need to keep certain things in and other things out, and when things get inside our boundaries or threaten our boundaries we feel disgust. What does this have to do with the disgust of an eating disorder? In my opinion, everything. Eating disorders are all wrapped up in the concept of disgust. If you’ve heard someone with an eating disorder talking about food or about how they feel after they eat, they tend to use words like sick, gross, icky, nasty. They are words that connote disgust. Many eating disorder patients act as if food is unsafe or will hurt them in some manner. These together seem to indicate that people who are avoiding food they deem disgusting to keep themselves safe are concerned with keeping their bodies pure.

 

Food is one of the few things in our lives that we have to put into our bodies. We feel disgust towards eating things that might be a danger to us, and many religions have put purity taboos on certain foods. Food is all wrapped up in questions of boundaries and what is acceptable to put into our bodies. Particularly in modern America, there is a narrative about good food/bad food, which paints certain foods as toxic. These could be foods with chemicals or foods with fats or foods with sugars, but the language around them generally labels them as poisonous. In conjunction with this, there exists the idea that women in general need to be pure. They need to be saintly. They must be morally good, sexually good, and they absolutely can’t let bad things into their system because it could ruin their beauty and worth. If you look at the sheer number of cleaning commercials aimed at women, you might have some indication of how cleanliness is apparently the basis of our self-worth.

 

For many people with eating disorders, the food becomes a question of worth, of morality, and of saintliness. The less you eat, the better you are as a person. The more saintly you are. The more pure you are. This rhetoric makes perfect sense in the context of disgust: we feel disgust at things that come inside us, at things that are foreign in our bodies. If you begin to identify food as something foreign that you can choose to let into your body or as something that you can keep out, you begin to think that you can keep yourself safe, just as religions with certain food rules do, by keeping the bad things outside of your body and by being in control of the boundaries of your body. That sense of bodily integrity is one of the most important feelings of control that we get as human beings. The most important thing we can control is how our body interacts with the world around us: what we put in it, how we keep others out. These are the most important for our safety, as well as for our sense of individual identity. When these things are violated, of course we feel disgust. And when you’re barraged with the idea that the world outside of you is dangerous, dirty, and bad, and that you need to be clean, this feeling of disgust can get out of control.

 

If an individual is feeling as though their boundaries are violated often, or they feel as if they have no control over the safety of themselves as an identity or as an individual, they may take radical action to make themselves feel safe by keeping out the bad. This can take the form of an eating disorder. And the feedback loop on it is strong: you feel disgust towards something, you don’t eat it, and you feel safe and secure because you didn’t die. This is also given a moral element by stories of asceticism. Keeping the whole world out of your body has come to be equated with spirituality, with purity, and with saintliness. It apparently makes you better than other people if you keep your body clean from anything associated with the world (because the world is dirty). Restricting taps into this cultural conception, and allows you to feel morally superior for every time you skip a meal. It also tells you that you’re protecting yourself from anything that is unclean or dirty.

 

We don’t often think of America as having a strong purity culture, and our purity rules are not clear: we have a variety of different rules that are not always consistent. It’s no surprise that many people feel confused about what is appropriate with food and purity. It’s no surprise that with all the shaming that happens around food, some people feel that the only way to be safe is to cut food out entirely.

 

I believe that there are important insights to be gained from the disgust towards our own bodies as well, and that these might have ties to sexuality, sexual morality, boundaries, and the world as dirty. I’m hoping to do two follow up posts to this one, on identity and purity, and on sexuality and purity.