Recalling Missed Connections

About six years ago I co-organized a panel discussion on the connections between domestic violence, child abuse, and animal cruelty. The panel featured a professor of psychology distinguished for his work on the subject; an executive director of an ecofeminist and animal defense organization who founded a program addressing the issue being discussed; and a staff member of the area YWCA (where the discussion was held) who worked on domestic violence issues.

At the time I thought this panel discussion was "progressive" in addressing the interconnections of violence against women, children, and other animals. In hindsight, I realize the panel lacked a real commitment to anti-oppression, social change, or a true intersectional approach. There are many things that are problematic with the discussion's framework. For starters, the concept of "animal cruelty" really should have been questioned. According to the psychology professor we had on the panel:

Cruelty to animals can be regarded as a pattern of socially and culturally unacceptable behavior in which an individual takes pleasure in, or shows indifference to, the deliberate, unnecessary pain, harm or injury of another animate, vertebrate being. This cruelty may be physically or psychologically administered. The abused being is consequently motivated to avoid such treatment.

If cruelty to animals is "regarded as a pattern of socially and culturally unacceptable behavior," then speciesism – the very system of nonhuman oppression – is outside the limits "animal cruelty." Furthermore, by distinguishing "unnecessary pain, harm or injury" it protects the relationship of privilege and exploitation that the oppression is based on. So cruelty is the exception that proves that speciesism rules.

Not only does the concept of animal cruelty fail to address the oppression of other animals, it actually expands oppression in the form of the prison-industrial complex. Because animal cruelty doesn't address the structure of violence against other animals, it is the favored legal framework for the existing social order. That this approach centers a reliance on police, prisons, and the court system is itself problematic.

The fact that there is a link between violence against women and violence against other animals should be enough to give us pause about supporting the animal cruelty approach with its focus on law enforcement. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence points out that the well-resourced anti-violence movement's reliance on the criminal justice system to end violence against women doesn't work. INCITE!, in a joint statement with Critical Resistance, has called on "social justice movements to develop strategies and analysis that address both state AND interpersonal violence, particularly violence against women." The statement lists five points on why a law enforcement approach doesn't work to stop violence against women, and I believe it's worth considering what this means in terms of an animal cruelty approach to violence against nonhuman animals.

Many things were missing in that panel discussion. I wouldn't organize an event like that again without critically addressing how animal cruelty is a reactionary and destructive concept, how the reliance on the criminal justice system to address violence against women, children, and nonhuman animals is counter-productive, and how the intersection of race, class, sexuality, gender identity, ability, citizenship status, and age need to be considered.