A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices. ― William James
The Indignity of Being Made Invisible
In April, I posted an essay describing the inherent problems of inviting Temple Grandin to be the keynote speaker at the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) 2015 conference which took place in Minneapolis earlier in July. The essence of my protest centered on the contradictions between Grandin’s longstanding career in animal agriculture, and values of the art therapy profession, such as facilitating healing, promoting wellness, and advancing social justice.
As a celebrity spokesperson and leader in animal agribusiness, Grandin promotes and participates in a system of oppression characterized by: (1) the unnecessary use and torture of nonhuman animals based on anthropocentric constructs that objectify and commodify nonhuman animal lives because they are deemed dis-abled (Nocella, Bentley & Duncan, 2012), and thus, not lives with inherent value; (2) gendered violence, such as the forced removal of calves from mother cows to take their milk, use of “rape racks” (an industry term) to forcibly impregnate cows used in the dairy/veal industry, and systematic, forced semen collection from bulls; (2) environmental destruction and injustices, including natural resource depletion, such as water scarcity, which more adversely impact low-income people of color (POC); (3) evidence suggesting an association between animal product consumption and lifestyle diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes, which also disproportionately affect POC; and (4) a mire of psychosocial ills, such as PTSD, domestic violence, and substance abuse, that affect low-income, disproportionately POC who are charged with committing violence against animals in the “cycle of objectification, fragmentation, and consumption” (Adams, 2010, p. 73) that puts “meat” on people’s plates. “Meat” is in quotes to emphasize that it is not a thing unto itself, but fragmented, disembodied animals; my intention is to make the “absent referent” (Adams, 2010, p. 66), present.
In short, animal agriculture is a steaming pile of interrelated institutionalized oppressions and structural violence, most notably, speciesism, carnism (Joy, 2012), racism, classism, sexism, ableism, consumerism, and environmental oppression. If you’re inclined to dig into that steaming pile, you’ll also find sizeism, ageism, lookism, heterosexism, colonialism, and nativism. Animal agriculture is based on oppressing others, so the surprise is less from the extent of the –isms, but more from the cultural conditioning that dissuades us from examining, challenging, and opposing it. It is worth emphasizing that these oppressions, as they manifest in animal agriculture, do not exist independently from how these oppressions exist elsewhere. For example, we cannot dismantle sexism as it is more commonly recognized (i.e. pay inequity, over representation of men in politics, regulating reproductive rights, sexual objectification of women, etc.), and declare society post-sexist, while animal agriculture depends on sexism to manipulate the reproduction of animals. As long as sexism exists in animal agriculture, sexism is culturally reinforced and will proliferate.
I know it’s a lot to take in, and “privilege resists self-examination” (Adams, 2010, p. 22). I fully disclose that becoming vegan turned my worldview upside down. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how I could be so oblivious to the devastating consequences of the roast chickens, salmon steaks, bacon cheeseburgers, and scrambled eggs I used to eat. I’m also still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I used to proudly, defiantly claim that I loved chicken too much to become vegetarian, but now joyfully share that I’m vegan because I love chickens too much. I was as much a victim of carnism as anyone. According to Joy (2012):
Carnism is the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals. Carnism is essentially the opposite of veganism; “carn” means “flesh” or “of the flesh” and “ism” denotes a belief system. Most people view eating animals as a given, rather than a choice; in meat-eating cultures around the world people typically don’t think about why they find the flesh of some animals disgusting and the flesh of other animals appetizing, or why they eat any animals at all. But when eating animals is not a necessity for survival, as is the case in much of the world today, it is a choice – and choices always stem from beliefs.
Despite the institutionalized “three Ns of Justification: eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary” (Joy, 2012), the fact remains that it is an ideological choice. However, it is not, as most people presume, a “personal choice” without consequences. As a point of comparison, whether you wear your hair short or long, or hang your toilet paper over or under are personal choices. All jokes aside about one’s toilet paper hanging preferences, these choices have negligible, if any, effect on others. When one chooses to eat animals and their products however, there are victims – human animals, nonhuman animals, and the environment. In fact, Joy (2015) asserts that one who consumes animals and their products is themselves a victim of carnism by not making choices aligned with commonly held values of compassion and not causing harm to others. They are also a victim of the systemic oppressions that are reinforced by engaging in the consumption of animals and their excretions, as well as a victim or potential victim of the negative health effects associated with such.
In addition to understanding how the selection of Grandin to speak at the AATA conference is a manifestation and reinforcement of carnism, which in turn, reinforces other systemic oppressions, the conflict between the values of art therapy and Grandin’s work in animal agriculture is evident when one recognizes that art therapy is used to address the psychosocial distress experienced by people with medical conditions associated with animal product consumption, most notably cancer. Art therapy is also a clinically relevant intervention for people affected by PTSD, domestic violence, and substance abuse. Not only does it become incoherent that Grandin, who is a leader in an industry linked to these biopsychosocial afflictions, was invited to speak to the professionals who have a responsibility to treat these conditions, but it is plausible to wonder if AATA unintentionally reinforced the system that contributes to the problems art therapists have a role in treating by implicitly endorsing Grandin.
Many questions emerge as I reflect on these multilayered contradictions, and the responses to my protests. How were the systemic oppressions that characterize animal agriculture reflected in the individual and organizational responses I received? With a good faith assumption that no one intended to reinforce the harms of animal agriculture by inviting Grandin, once they came to light, should the conference organizers be held accountable? Does an organization representing the art therapy profession have a responsibility to invite event speakers whose business practices and affiliations are not inherently harmful? If that is their responsibility, but they fail to fulfill it, do they have a responsibility to respond in the spirit of transformative justice, and if so, what does that look like? What does it mean when the culture of a profession that functions to make the invisible, visible, the indecipherable, translatable, systematically denies injustices perpetrated by its invited keynote speaker by denying the voice of one of its own, thus making them invisible, and reinforcing the invisibility of the victims of the keynote speaker?
By examining what transpired since I posted the essay in April, along with analysis and personal reflections, my intention is to get to the heart of these questions. I’m still trying to make sense of this situation, and expect its lessons will extend into the future, so I wouldn’t assert that I have clear answers. Furthermore, it would certainly be valuable to foster dialogue with others as a means of exploring answers. My experience engaging with others thus far has been quite mixed, but the more constructive instances leave me optimistic. In the remaining installments of this series, I will examine organizational and individual responses to illustrate how carnist bias manifested itself in microaggressions which I experienced as efforts to diffuse, silence, and ultimately invalidate my protests. This will inform a discussion of culture competency as it relates to veganism, which opens up a discussion about how social justice is conceptualized and embodied within the profession, and how inviting Grandin undermines intersectionality, with specific exploration of ableism. I will then offer some recommendations for moving forward, as well as parting thoughts about art and imagery as they relate to these complex issues.
My ultimate intention is to challenge colleagues to broaden their conceptualization of social justice to include animals and the environment because the unquestioned anthropocentric bias that underlies AATA’s decision to invite Grandin is at the root of the interconnected –isms that plague the world. It is imperative that the art therapy profession position itself to be part of the solution rather than the problem, but that requires a paradigm shift in how we frame our relationship to others – human animals, nonhuman animals, and the environment. In the interest of adopting a liberatory praxis, the art therapy community is urged to explore new, possibly challenging ideas about intersectional justice based on ecofeminism and critical animal theory, which requires an examination of power and privilege in order to expand our collective circle of compassion. Thus, the profession that uncritically endorsed Grandin, whose work is based on objectifying others, is encouraged to understand that its philosophical origins in anthropocentrist humanism which underlie this endorsement, present two ironies. According to Weitzenfeld and Joy (2014), the first is the:
Dogmatic, irrational adherence to human exceptionalism despite empirical evidence of a continuum and multitude of species capabilities. The second is the inhumane history of exclusionary violence arising from the ranking, ordering, and molding of humankind. What is called dehumanization is made possible by defining the essence of humanity over and against all other animals. The human-animal binary and hierarchy has historically produced and may continue to reproduce a bloody margin of subhumans, thus contradicting humanism’s premise of the universality of freedom and dignity. (p. 6)
It follows that if the art therapy culture remains dogmatically and irrationally committed to human exceptionalism, which the unquestioned commitment to Grandin suggests, then it will ultimately be undermining universal freedom and dignity. In the interest of advancing the profession to better meet the needs of a complex world in which freedom and dignity allude those with less power and privilege, it is time to more closely examine how the circumstances related to Grandin as this year’s keynote speaker are not in the art therapy profession’s best interest, and certainly not in the interest of those who enlist our services.
Due to its length, this essay will be posted as a multipart series.
Adams, C. J. (2010). The sexual politics of meat: A feminist-vegetarian critical theory (20th anniversary ed.). New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Joy, M. (2015). Beyond carnism and toward rational, authentic food choices. TedX Talk München. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0VrZPBskpg
Nocella, A. J., Bentley, J. K. C. & Duncan, J. M. (2012). Earth, animal, and disability liberation: The rise of the eco-ability movement. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.
Weitzenfeld, A. & Joy, M. (2014). An overview of anthropocentrism, humanism, and speciesism in critical animal theory. In A. J. Nocella, J. Sorenson, K. Socha & A. Matsuoka (Eds.), Defining critical animal studies: An intersectional social justice approach for liberation (pp. 3-27). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.