Category Archives: Ableism

Art Therapy and Temple Grandin: What Happened, What Next? Part 2

Untitled image, accompanying article, 'Killing for a Living'
Untitled image, accompanying article, ‘Killing for a Living’

Art Therapy and Temple Grandin: What Happened, What Next? Part 1

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.

References

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.

Crossfit, Diabetes and Ableism: A Different Conversation

Crossfit is ableist
Crossfit is ableist

People with diabetes (PWD) are in a tizzy because Crossfit tweeted a disparaging joke about diabetes to promote its product. My Facebook feed has been filled with critical discussion and blog post links from people in the DOC who find the Coke bottle image offensive. The fact that I too am writing a blog post is not lost on me, but I’m not calling out Crossfit. I’m calling on PWD.

In my years of participating in the diabetes online community (DOC), I’ve seen this happen time and time again. A media entity – someone who’s famous, a business selling a product, a TV program, etc. – uses diabetes as a punchline. The DOC responds with angry tweets, blog posts, and online discussion via a variety of platforms. In most cases, nothing changes, and everyone goes back to business as usual until the next time diabetes is the punchline. Rinse. Repeat.

Here we are again. Since yesterday, I have seen countless posts about writing letters, blog links, video commentary, etc. People are angry because this image represents a misconception that PWD feel they are regularly trying to correct, the juggernaut of diabetes misconceptions: sugar causes diabetes. This is not to deny that lifestyle choices can be a contributing factor to a type 2 diabetes diagnosis in genetically susceptible individuals, but to misinterpret and distill that to “sugar causes diabetes” fails to capture the fact that diabetes is a physiologically complex disease, characterized by hyperglycemia, metabolic abnormalities, and marked risk for developing specific medical complications. Furthermore, pathogenesis varies depending on the type of diabetes, and as such, not all cases are known to be associated with lifestyle.

Thus, Crossfit falsely reduced diabetes to nothing more than a self-inflicted disease of overzealous soda consumption, so the image is indeed offensive, and the anger it has elicited is warranted. However, based on comparable past occurrences, I’m not convinced that this pattern of responding is effective in that it doesn’t lead to meaningful change. This social media response generates discussion within the DOC, offering the benefit of social support, which is valuable, but that’s an ancillary function. The presumed primary intention seems to be to educate the perpetrator, and in the process, the masses, so they will stop marginalizing PWD, but in light of the fact that this same dynamic is unfolding formulaically again, I’d like to suggest that this strategy is ineffective.

Instead of having the same old hashed and rehashed exchange about how PWD are victimized by misconceptions, can we have a discussion about how marginalizing people with disabilities is part of a larger oppressive system? The fact that we’re doing this yet again, the fact that previous incidents and the ensuing chorus of opposition from the DOC has not prevented this occurrence suggests that this is a systemic problem. As such, a systemic solution is in order.

First, let’s establish that the image tweeted by Crossfit is ableist, so it discriminates against people with a disability, in this case, diabetes. According to Withers (1), “disability is a social construct imposed upon some of us because we are considered unfit or less fit, unproductive or underproductive. Therefore disableism is a form of oppression, because of our social devaluation unrelated to who we actually are, or to our actual capabilities and incapacities as individuals.” I chose this particular quote specifically because Withers uses the term, fit, which under the circumstances, seemed apt. Also, for clarification, although Withers uses the term, disableism, I will use the term, ableism, which is considered synonymous.

Since we are no longer looking at this image as a single non-contextualized episode of disparaging PWD, but rather, indicative of the systemic problem, ableism, then let’s more broadly examine the perpetrator, Crossfit, to identify why they might use an image that is ableist. One could infer that the Crossfit culture, characterized by competition, which suggests domination, thrives on exploiting and marginalizing beings it frames as “less than,” or “unfit.” In fact, this inference proves true when a cursory web search reveals that Crossfit’s recommended diet is essentially a paleo diet, which, in its most popular form, relies on animal products (2). Thus, the CrossFit culture exploits animals through the paleo dietary regimen its adherents follow, so it’s not surprising that they are exploiting people with a disability. At least they’re consistent in applying a paradigm of domination and oppression.

How does naming this image as ableist, and contextualizing Crossfit’s ableism within a paradigm of domination that also creates animal victims change how we might respond? Instead of playing this never-ending game of whack-a-mole, perhaps we should consider closing the carnival where the game is open for business. In other words, by appealing to Crossfit to elevate its level of respect for PWD, PWD are engaging in a socially constructed game of assigning hierarchal value to beings. It’s inherent to the Crossfit culture to delineate who’s fit and who’s unfit, and instead of recognizing that everyone loses when beings are valued as fit or unfit, the current PWD response strategy presumes that PWD want to be recognized as fit. Responding to Crossfit with complaints is essentially saying, “We have value, place us higher on your culture’s hierarchy.” This completely overlooks that the hierarchy itself is a problem.

Is there value to responding to them? Obviously, I can’t say for certain, but I’m inclined to think not, partly because of the aforementioned point that ableism cannot be deconstructed by engaging in their game of assigning value to beings. Beyond that, there is the matter of how Crossfit representatives will respond, if they respond, to the complaints that are currently being directed against them. Like most cases of oppressed person(s) expressing opposition to being oppressed, I’m inclined to think that if the current deluge of complaints is on their radar, Crossfit representatives will roll their eyes, and come to the conclusion that PWD are too sensitive, and can’t take a joke, basically invalidating the opposition offered by PWD. It’s the same response that women receive when they point out sexism, and people of color receive when they point out racism. It’s the same dismissive, apathetic response directed at vegans who point out the systemic violence against animals, a response intended to silence and further marginalize an oppressed group and their allies/advocates. Publicly, maybe Crossfit representatives will completely ignore the complaints, which would be my guess. Maybe they’ll acknowledge a wrongdoing, but even in that best case, yet highly unlikely scenario, what has been accomplished? PWD are assigned value on the fit-unfit hierarchy, which reinforces ableism, and grants the Crossfit culture the privileged power to define who is fit or unfit? What kind of outcome is that?

It also seems that many PWD are now engaging in the seemingly never-ending type 1 diabetes (T1D) versus type 2 diabetes (T2D) debate, grounded in the current clinical assumptions that T1D has an environmental triggered autoimmune origin, while T2D has a combination genetic, lifestyle, and some research indicates, also autoimmune origin. Basically, the understanding of causal factors and pathogeneses is as clear as mud, which reflects the incessant mudslinging within the DOC. For anyone reading this who isn’t familiar with the DOC, let me assure you that this debate is as utterly exhaustive and unproductive as it sounds. That being said, as this debate pertains to the Crossfit image, PWT1D are more represented in the DOC, and as such, PWT1D have more power to control the debate about the Crossfit image, so some PWT1D take offense to the image because their diabetes wasn’t caused by drinking Coke. The implicit, and sometimes explicit suggestion is that Crossfit isn’t altogether wrong, but they should have specified T2D. Of course, this throws PWT2D under the bus by blaming them for a disease that, as much as it’s linked to lifestyle, is also linked to multiple systems of oppression – racism, classism, capitalism, consumerism, carnism, etc. which have intersected to create a society of food deserts, racial disparities in health care, government subsidized animal-based food products that have been linked to disease, as well as other societal problems contributing to the T2D epidemic. The end result is that PWT2D feel further victimized. Furthermore, this debate is also inherently ableist in its presupposition that one type of diabetes should be granted more privilege than another type, which only reinforces the very ableism everyone is blaming Crossfit for perpetrating. It’s a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.

That being said, do PWD want to continue with these case-by-case responses that never result in substantive change, or do PWD want to change the self-reinforcing, interconnected systems of oppression that perpetuate ableism? The more constructive, yet challenging response to this instance of disparaging PWD is perhaps less satisfying in the short term, but intended to get to the root of the problem.

Instead of contributing to this wave of responses to Crossfit, I suggest learning about and discussing ableism, and how it’s interconnected to other systems of oppression, like sexism, racism, heterosexism, speciesism, etc. We can more effectively identify strategies for advancing social justice for all beings, including, but not limited to people with disabilities, by reconceptualizing what it means to have diabetes in an ableist society. Otherwise, we are participating in the system without fully recognizing the harms it inflicts, as is the case for all unexamined systems of oppression. Rather than using words and actions to better position ourselves on any given hierarchy, we can identify the hierarchies on which we’re positioned as privileged, and then use words and actions to deconstruct those hierarchies. We can be role models for the hard work of changing a system, not by pointing fingers at and engaging with a company that’s exploitative towards all “unfit” beings, but by living values of justice and compassion towards all beings. If we don’t want others being ableist towards us, we can practice not being ableist towards other beings, including animals, who are victimized in countless ways for being perceived as less able. The fact remains that while it’s easy to call out Crossfit for being ableist because we feel victimized, until we reflect on how we are victimizing others because we perceive them as less able, we are only reinforcing the very system we should be working to deconstruct.

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Notes:
1: Withers, A. J. (2012). Disableism within animal advocacy and environmentalism. In A. J. Nocella, J. K. C. Bentley & J. M. Duncan (Eds.), Earth, animal and disability liberation (pp. 111-125). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

2: There are vegans who adhere to a veganized paleo dietary regimen, but it’s my impression that Crossfit adherents can be quite committed to the conventional animal-based paleo regimen. In fact, when GustOrganics, a New York City restaurant that had been very popular with Crossfitters, switched to an all vegan menu, the restaurant actually received hate mail according to its owners.