Comprehensive Violence Prevention: Towards a Connectionist Perspective

Connect the Dots LogoSeveral years ago, I wrote an essay for a book that my friend and colleague, Stacia Mesleh, and I put together addressing the links between human, animal, and environmental well-being. The book has been passed on to a publisher and will come out under a new title and editor, including most of the wonderful authors who originally contributed essays to our project. Along the way, I promised my friends and colleagues that if my essay didn’t make it to the final version, I’d share it nonetheless, as a sort of personal manifesto, an explanation of who I am and where I come from. Here it is, updated only slightly to maintain its original feel. Had I not done much work with Connect the Dots and written an essay for Defiant Daughters, this essay would have been one of the first times I so publicly shared my “connectionist” approach. Posted in its entirety here and below, I trust it will provide insight, raise questions, and provoke thought.

Contact me to continue the discussion.

Comprehensive Violence Prevention: Towards a Connectionist Perspective

Ashley Maier, MSW

I do not want to write this essay. Why? I have learned the hard way that what I am about to discuss is not something people within the mainstream, normative, violence prevention and social justice movements want to talk about. For years I have intentionally kept quiet and not challenged the status quo to maintain jobs and professional relationships. I hesitate to write this essay because in doing so, I publicly present myself as a critic of current violence prevention efforts. In this essay I advocate a truly comprehensive approach to violence prevention and anti-oppression work that incorporates a keen understanding of the links between human, animal, and environmental manifestations of oppression. When I refer to today’s violence prevention and social justice movements as normative, I mean that they operate within a norm of human supremacy and exclusivity. So how did I get here and why is this place so threatening? I invite you to join me as I expound upon my connectionist perspective.

Towards Feminism and Beyond

Before I go any further, I must honor the “F” word. Feminism. It was what introduced me to the idea of dichotomous thinking, the fact that our society constructs reality in terms of binaries. Either/or, right/wrong, male/female, night/day, good/bad, nature/civilization. Feminism also taught me that there is no hierarchy of oppression. No “ism” is worse than any other. Racism is not worse than sexism. Sexism is not worse than classism. Classism is not worse that ableism. And on and on. All “isms” are destructive. It is through this lens, rejecting false dichotomies and hierarchical thinking, that I now view the world. What I argue for, however, is to expand this notion beyond currently accepted boundaries that operate from a hierarchical perspective, placing highest value on purportedly human-exclusive concerns.

My journey towards feminism and beyond began in a local domestic violence shelter in my hometown. My mother volunteered there, and I began to join her as a teen. This experience drew me towards college classes focused on sexism, community health, and oppression. A fresh awareness that our society is not a meritocracy, that we do not live in a just world, and that bad things do happen to good people, ultimately informed my decision to focus on violence against women in graduate school and my ensuing career.

Beyond volunteering, I have formally worked against domestic and sexual violence in various capacities for the past 13 years. My focus within this work shifts, just as the movement itself shifts. I began as an advocate for women experiencing abuse, training professionals and the community, and now I focus on social change. This move away from working directly with victims was no accident. In graduate school I included a focus on prevention in my concentration. I am uncomfortable with waiting for the problem to take place and then intervening: I want it to end. I want to stop violence before it occurs. Indeed, how can we expect to end violence in society, in our communities, if we cannot end violence in our own homes?

It took some time, and a lot of courage, but several years ago I realized that social ills such as sexual and domestic violence will not end until we reframe our focus to include the violence that takes place in all domains of our existence. So what happened years ago? Though a vegetarian since I began college, I actually started paying attention to our society’s institutionalized violence against animals. I mean really paying attention—putting effort into learning about the conditions of exploited animals and defining exploitation as it applies to non-human animals. For years, I listened to and bought into laments about the fact that there are more shelters for animals than there are for women. For years I listened to peers telling me that my choice to avoid consuming animals or their products was simply “going too far.” But as I learned more about our treatment of animals, beyond the fact that I refused to kill one for my dinner or wear makeup tested on them, I uncovered a basic truth. It’s all about power. It’s all about control. The very same power and control those of us within the movement to end violence against women use to define domestic violence! How could I ever expect to end violence towards human beings if the very culture in which we live, so many of our daily actions, are built on the premise that might makes right and we tell our children that power over others for personal gain is okay?

A real epiphany.

Commonalities and Connections

Human rights movements, including the movement against domestic violence, have used the term and talked about the commonality of oppression, but the discussion is always limited to an experience one targeted social group shares with other humans who experience the same or a similar oppression. Feminist scholars have criticized the idea that there is one common experience of oppression and have, instead, pointed to the intersectionality of oppressions. From this perspective, we acknowledge that a middle class white woman, for instance, will not have the same experience as a low income black woman. Though they both experience sexism as women, it is false to assume that they share the same experience of oppression because racism and classism intersect with sexism to create a different experience for both.

Along these lines, the National Organization for Women (NOW) proudly asserts that it has been “Connecting the Dots…” for years, stating that “NOW is one of the few multi-issue progressive organizations in the United States” and that NOW “stands against all oppression” (http://www.now.org/about.html). However, as the past president of San Diego Central NOW, I question that our work stands against ALL oppression. I remember the night at the 2006 National NOW conference when I stood with one other vegan, asking for what we called a “non-violent” meal. Okay, we didn’t have to call it that, but did we really have to become the unofficial entertainment that night? Work by organizations such as NOW is certainly a piece of the puzzle. I argue, however, for an expanded notion of the links between all manifestations of oppression, inclusive of humans, animals, and the environment. In essence, I contend that we need to go one step further.

In my work, I often come across the idea of a continuum of violence. Violence isn’t just physical violence, the injuries, assaults, and homicides that we see on the news. Men, women, and children of various identities, living in different communities and countries, face violence that extends from the immediate physical threats of unsafe neighborhoods and homes to political persecution to less obvious threats from stressors resulting from oppression, such as inadequate responses by major social institutions and lack of access to resources. It is overwhelming to think about the vast amount of violence individuals face, as well as the impact it has on the health of society.

In the mid to late 2000s, there was a big push to focus on violence across the lifespan in addressing violence against women. Researchers such as Vincent Feletti and Linda Chamberlain contributed greatly to our understanding of how violence across the lifespan leads to adverse health outcomes and a cascade of related problems. For example, we now know that exposure to lifetime violence can significantly affect an individual’s ability to cope with other injustices, such as domestic violence. Therefore, we advocate the need to protect children from exposure to violence. Yet what violence do we aim to protect them from? Exposure to domestic violence, exposure to gang violence, exposure to community violence. Though clearly important pieces of the puzzle, these pieces alone will never complete the picture.

At some point in childhood, most children learn that it is okay to hurt animals for personal gain. We initially learn that we must be nice to animals, but then one day the message changes: animals can bring us pleasure, so we can take from them, even their lives. Why? Because we can. Because we have more power. We learn of a hierarchy in which we, humans, are on top. Might makes right, so if we want to kill animals for their flesh or other resources, we can and do.

Hurt animals? Do children really learn that it’s okay to hurt animals? Yes. We may raise our children to know never to hit a family pet or even to kill mice, but many children see the bodies of animals on their plates at least twice a day. Have young children ever asked you where the meat on their plates came from? What did you say? Did you lie and tell a child that the animal died of old age (I’ve certainly seen this tactic in action!). Did you tell the truth? Understandably, you may not know the real conditions in which animals raised for food suffer. Many people don’t. Regardless, children know that these were once living beings. They may not know the particularities, but they do know that somehow the animal stopped living. Many of them know the animal was killed. Depending on our answers to their questions, some might know how.

My concern here is not necessarily what we are feeding our children. Everyone has different options available to them and healthy, cruelty-free options are not as readily available as they should be. In fact, there are many organizations and individuals out there working towards accessible, plant-based options for all people (for example, Project Lean and Green Kids). What I have come to realize while working to prevent violence, however, is that our children see violence in many more ways than most of us ever imagined, many more times a day than we ever thought. And to make some sense of it all, we force them to engage in a dangerous rationalization that we would never apply to violence against their friends, family, or community members: Well, this violence is okay because you have power over these “lesser” beings. Might makes right.

Clearly, food is only one example. In many other ways we express to children that it’s okay to mistreat an animal, to limit his or her freedom, because we classify the animal as weaker than ourselves. How else might this happen? Remember the last time you took a child to the zoo. How did you explain the concept of captivity? Did you say it’s for the good of animals? We’re really trying to protect them? That may make us feel good, but we know that zoos do not really exist to serve as animal sanctuaries. If that were the case, we would not be able to oogle an elephant pacing a 30-foot enclosure while on our way to the zoo’s McDonalds for lunch. Try as we may to create excuses, one message stands out to children: I want to look at these animals. If someone didn’t put them in cages, I couldn’t look at most of them. Therefore, because it brings me pleasure to look at them and because people can catch them, we will put them in cages. Messages like these contribute to a rationalization of the use of power and control that ultimately leads to violence. Moreover, with these daily actions and similar messages about animals, we expose our children to insidious, subtle forms of violence daily. Exposure to lifetime violence does not happen only when a child sees a friend shot or hears a mother being beaten. Looking only for such obvious forms of violence is taking the easy way out.

The normative approach towards animals in mainstream American society is itself inherently violent. Jessica Valenti, author of Full Frontal Feminism, illustrates this normative, standard approach towards animals (though I am fairly sure she did not intend a connectionist perspective) when she states that, “Dehumanization is what makes people able to commit violence against each other.” Because it’s okay to hurt animals. Indeed, at a training I attended a few years ago, Dr. Jeanne Kilborn stated, “Turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step to justifying violence against them.” Because it’s okay to hurt “things.” If we really want to make change, this is a piece of the puzzle we cannot afford to ignore.

Violence Towards the Planet?

In addition to our treatment of humans and animals, a third component to the connectionist perspective is our treatment of the environment. This is the last piece of the puzzle I grew to understand, to connect. I can thank two individuals for helping me complete my worldview. My mentor, Cathy Blair, taught me everything I know about violence against women. I was very shocked, therefore, when shortly after I moved from St. Louis to San Diego in 2006, I learned that she essentially left the anti-domestic violence movement to work on environmental projects. In fact, Cathy was one of three individuals from Missouri who Al Gore chose to be trained for his Climate Project. Now, as I explain below, this move makes complete sense to me. The other person, Dani Dennenberg, introduced me to humane education (Dani now runs the Portland Program of HEART). I had always been concerned about pollution, recycling, and other mainstream foci of the environmental movement, but really focusing on the environment just was not my thing. I remember quite vividly watching her present to children at a school in San Diego. Maybe I shouldn’t admit it, but her presentation covering topics like water and energy use, aimed at elementary students, sealed the deal for me in terms of incorporating environmental justice into my perspective. I knew about the issues she and Cathy were working on, but I had not yet seen them as integrally connected to the human and animal-focused issues I so desperately cared about.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s fair to say I am like most people in that I love taking showers! I love taking hot showers! But when it comes down to it, those hot showers use an awful lot of resources. Think about where the water comes from and what it takes to make it so hot. Just because those resources are there, doesn’t mean I should use them (and use them up I did, to the very last drop of hot water). Maybe it is just the circles I run in or the fact that I lived in Oregon for a few years, but it seems to me that we as a society are getting better at reducing our consumption of the earth’s resources, or at least we are more aware of the fragile health of our planet. I still know plenty of people who do not recycle. And I kid you not, the number one reason they cite for not recycling is a lack of a recycling pick-up service (meaning they do not want to take their items to the recycling center themselves). A lesson from Behavior Change 101: if it’s not convenient, they won’t do it.

Shaming of non-recyclers aside, the point is that I used to use resources like water as much as I wanted. The message here: It’s the environment and I can use my power to take from it indiscriminately. We all know that just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should. Isn’t that what we want to teach our children? Environmental realities like the water and oil shortages have forced most of us to examine how we consume resources. But I still question to what else, environmentally, we are exposing our kids.

I have quickly learned not to talk about environmental violence and, instead, refer to environmental exploitation. I understand the resistance. People who work against violence towards humans (remember, I am one of them) often consider the violence they are working against as the worst form of violence. They don’t want it watered down. This is the hierarchical thinking that feminism taught me to reject. I know many who work against violence against humans certainly reject the hierarchy, but it’s still there. It is present when these same anti-violence advocates lament what they consider the abundance of animal shelters and scoff at the idea of violence against the environment. There are myriad explanations for their opposition, but I think it ultimately boils down to fear. It’s threatening to admit that a whole new realm, ‘the environment,’ can be a target (and tool) of violence. Especially when we have all been taught that the primary value of the environment is its usefulness to us. Are we really behaving violently towards it? I think so.

Kids see us tearing down trees and paving land to build new houses. They draw on paper and get more when they need it. Don’t worry, I am not arguing that we should not give kids paper to draw on. Basically, children see how we treat the earth and they are living with the consequences of our violent and exploitive mindset towards it right now. And they may inherit that mindset to pass on to the next generation. To understand how things got this way, how we may be fighting wars over water when they are adults, they learn that we took because we could. Our might made right and this is where it led us. Simply put, we used the power we had over the environment to hurt it, to hurt others, and ultimately, we hurt ourselves. And even with a new awareness and knowledge, we still keep at it. Drill, baby, drill! Children hear that chant and those conversations. It may not be the bloody violence we typically think of, but it is violence none the less.

Some within human and animal rights movements recognize the interconnectedness of environmental and other issues. For example, many human rights activists acknowledge how the environment is often used against marginalized communities, leading to poor health outcomes. Animal rights activists, also, have long pointed out the massive amounts of CO2 released into the air and the contamination of ground water from factory farms. So not only is the environment subject to abuse, but it is also used as a tool to abuse.

Entitlement, Norms, and Hierarchies

Everything I’ve just mentioned reeks of entitlement. Advocates have long recognized the role of entitlement in domestic and sexual violence. Entitlement to control your partner, entitlement to women’s bodies… Many theorists posit that the belief in entitlement stems from social learning: those with social power learn that they are entitled to get what they want from those without social power. These theorists point out that in our society men hold unearned privilege over women and receive messages from a very young age that dangerously define their roles as “real men.”

These messages place men in relation to women, defining women as less-than and in the service of men. Does this sound familiar? Fill in the blank: I am entitled to get what I want from ______. From animals. From the environment.

In my experience, when discussing solutions to violence, particularly to violence against women, the movement promotes norms change as imperative. For example, a leader in the primary prevention movement, Prevention Institute, puts forth five norms that support violence against women: 1) traditional gender roles for men, 2) limited roles for women, 3) power, 4) violence, and 5) privacy. In general, norms are standards for behavior accepted by society. So if we need to change the standards for behavior in our society that contribute to violence, why aren’t we addressing the norms that tell us it’s okay to harm animals and the environment, as well as our fellow human beings? Why aren’t we addressing the norms that tell us it’s okay to have power over those we deem as “others”? Many anti-violence experts have come to realize that we can’t simply change one norm and expect violence to end. It is a whole network of interconnected norms that need to change. For example, changing norms relating to gender roles alone will not end violence against women because norms regarding violence, power, and privacy will still maintain some of the necessary social conditions that allow the problem to thrive. And do society’s’ norms about violence and power not inherently include our treatment of animals and the environment? Can we afford to ignore these components of harmful social norms?

I believe that we’re almost there. The foundations for a truly comprehensive approach to violence prevention lie beneath the surface of our human-exclusive anti-violence and anti-oppression movements. For example, those who work against domestic and sexual violence discuss the need to connect domestic and sexual violence to other forms of violence. Those other forms of violence, however, are human concerns, such as gang violence, wartime violence, child abuse, and the like. In fact, even when we do connect violence against women to seemingly disconnected forms of violence outside of a human-exclusive focus, we still do not go far enough. For instance, some work has been done on the connection between domestic violence and animal abuse. Though on point, this work focuses largely on pathology of batterers, the fact that children who abuse animals often tend to grow up to be violent towards adults, and the fact that many batterers abuse animals as a tactic to control their partners. I would like to see this work go further by focusing on violence towards animals in society as a whole, not just a narrow focus on violent individuals. Another interesting point is that this work originated out of the animal rights movement. I think this is no small matter, as it highlights the phenomenon I’ve observed wherein animal rights and environmental rights organizations are much more open to exploring connections beyond their own exclusive concerns than those within human rights movements.

Another indication that we are almost there is the push to look at battering within the context of oppression. One of my favorite quotes regarding domestic violence comes from the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. In their 2007 report entitled LGBT Communities and Domestic Violence, they state that, “Attempting to work on domestic violence without working on other oppressions is like attempting to move a rug one is standing on.” Their reference to “other oppressions,” refers of course to human-exclusive oppression, such as racism, sexism, homophobia and heterosexism. Yet this quote acknowledges a growing recognition of domestic violence and other forms of violence against humans as a result of an “other” mentality. For example, when Jessica Valenti, Dr. Kilborn, and their colleagues refer to dehumanization as the cause of various forms of violence against women, they essentially state that to be able to hurt women, you must take their humanity away, fundamentally turning them into animals, the “other.” Rather than maintaining this mentality, as we currently do, suggesting that we simply must not let humans be compared to those “lesser” beings it is okay to hurt, why not address the fact that this mentality extends clearly into the environmental and animal realms? Such a mentality, so pervasive and causative of violence, must be eliminated in all realms in order to create a peaceful and just world.

Let me be frank. My perspective suggests that with just one or two more steps, we’ll be there; we’ll truly end violence through a connectionist perspective and comprehensive approach. While I do believe in essence this is not a monumental change in consciousness, I know this is a challenging task. What I have laid out in this essay is simply not accepted. To talk about animals and the environment (in my experience, animals especially), in the same sentence with words like “domestic violence” takes courage. Why? The movement to end violence against women and many other human-focused social justice movements operate on false dichotomies. They openly approach animals and the environment as “the other.” Sure, you can choose to be a vegan or vegetarian (if you bring your own food to events!), but if you incorporate an animal rights perspective into your work, that is not appropriate. After all, humans are more important. I argue that the movement as a whole, knowingly or not, embraces this hierarchical thinking.

At the same 2006 National NOW conference at which my comrade and I asked for a “nonviolent meal,” I observed a disturbing reaction to a leader of the feminist movement. During an event to honor founding members of NOW, Elizabeth Farians took the stage to be honored and selflessly used the time to encourage the audience to consider the links between feminism and animal rights. Tellingly, I had not heard about the organization she co-founded, Feminists for Animal Rights and was very excited to learn that some feminists cared about animal rights and were clear about its connection to women’s rights. This excitement, however, quickly dissipated when I watched and listened to the reactions of my fellow audience members. Though many honored Elizabeth’s contributions to the feminist movement, the overall response was the same that I heard all the time from my fellow violence prevention colleagues. She was simply “going too far with the animal rights stuff.” This was about women, after all. Following the event, I spoke with Elizabeth and promised her I would continue to work on the connections

Connecting the Dots

The solution to all of this?  Quite simply, movements need to think outside of their comfort zones and work with non-traditional partners. Human, animal, and environmental-focused movements are compartmentalized. All movements need to realize that their goals are not exclusive. Though they focus on different manifestations of oppression, they all want to end it. Many in the movement against violence against women recognize that we need to work in partnerships and foster coalitions and networks. We have materials and trainings on this very issue. While we have clearly done so within the human rights arena, connecting issues like poverty and violence, we need to go beyond those walls and reach across seemingly disparate movements to environmental and animal rights groups.

I sign all of my emails with the following quote from feminist scholar Audre Lourde:

I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.

My journey towards a connectionist perspective has been long and as I look back, the road behind me does not appear particularly dynamic. In fact, sometimes I feel that I have waited too long to speak out and share my vision. Without a doubt, the status quo feels safe, but I assume that I am not the only feminist, anti-violence advocate, social justice activist, sister, teacher, etc. who has ever felt that uncomfortable dissonance telling her to take one more step, to journey just a bit farther. I didn’t want to write this essay. Surprisingly, the very theories and approaches I criticize in this work gave me the strength to do so.

I used to teach Psychology 101. Once, while perusing the class text, Psychology by Schechter, Gilbert, and Wegner, I stumbled upon a very simple quote: “…when cultures exemplify peaceful behavior, aggression decreases.” I thank you, the reader, for the courage to critically examine our culture.  I ask you to take that extra step with me towards connection, towards compassion. Together, let’s connect the dots.

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