“It’s not about gender.”

The underside of a loggerhead sea turtle

Loggerhead sea turtle. Credit: Upendra Kanda

Sea turtles (superfamily Chelonioidea) are found in all of the world’s oceans except the Arctic. They spend the majority of their lives in the sea, but females return to shore to lay eggs. All seven surviving species of sea turtle are on the endangered species list. Like many marine animals, they are threatened by oil spills, pollution, and fishing (they are often accidentally caught in nets). They are also in danger of poaching, as their meat, shells, and even their flippers are sold in some countries.

Sea turtles are also threatened by climate change. Because they use shorelines as nesting areas, rising sea levels may destroy those habitats, and the extreme weather brought by climate change may decimate their nests and eggs. Further, as global temperatures rise, so does the temperature of the sand in which sea turtle eggs are laid. Studies suggest that higher sand temperatures can have devastating effects on eggs and hatchlings, causing more female offspring, more deformities, more deaths of eggs and hatchlings.

Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane

The Whooping Crane (Grus americana) is an endangered bird native to North America. Before Europeans colonized the continent, there were probably over 10,000 of them. By 1938, that number was down to 15 due to hunting and habitat destruction. Thanks to a sustained and expensive conservation effort, the population has now recovered to about 382. However, during the past two years, five Whooping Cranes have been illegally shot.

Imagine you’re a biologist specializing in sea turtles and the effects of global warming on them. You’re well aware that there are many species adversely affected by global warming, and even more species adversely affected by human activity in general. For instance, many species of birds are threatened by power lines, skyscrapers, and other things that they can accidentally fly into and die. This obviously isn’t an issue for sea turtles. But sea turtles and global warming is what interests you and what you’ve decided to study.

Now imagine that every single time you write a paper or give a talk or submit a grant proposal about sea turtles and global warming, someone–probably a climate change denialist–shows up to be like “Yeah well it’s not a climate change thing! Many other species are affected by human activity! Why don’t you focus on those? Why don’t you talk about manatees? Why don’t you talk about Whooping Cranes?”

You probably know where I’m going with this, right?

Men and women (and those who identify as neither) are all harmed by the patriarchal society we have created. Nobody–or very few lucky individuals, perhaps–wins this game. Everyone is screwed by gender roles. Everyone faces denial and victim-blaming if they report sexual harassment or assault. Everyone is threatened by bullying and exclusion if they step outside of their roles.

But men and women are not always harmed in the exact same ways or by the exact same facets of the system.

When I wrote about street harassment a few weeks back, a bunch of people showed up to inform me that this is “not about gender.” Men get harassed on the street too. Anyone can be harassed. Anyone can be subject to unwanted, creepy, objectifying, humiliating sexual attention. This is true.

But the dynamics play out in different ways. Because it happens more to women than to men, the cumulative effects–the fear and self-objectification and distrust–are different. Because so many women are socialized believing that their looks are all that matters, it’s different. Because so many men are socialized believing that they must want sex all of the time, it’s different. Because women are so much more likely to be sexually assaulted, it’s different. Because men are more likely to have learned how to fight back and defend themselves, it’s different.

It’s different.

Gender is undeniably a way in which we organize our social world. So it makes sense that gender could also be an important lens through which to analyze society and social interactions. Most things, in fact, are gendered in some way. Yesterday in my psychology of gender class, the professor noted that housework is a gendered phenomenon, unlike, say, walking into a bookstore. When most people picture housework, they probably picture a woman doing it–or, at least, they picture men and women doing different types of housework (cooking/laundry/dishes versus yardwork/plumbing/painting). Walking into a bookstore, on the other hand, is something you can easily picture either a man or a woman doing.

But what about after they walk in? Which sections of the bookstore do they go to? Which books do they buy? Do they read those books alone in the armchair or on the subway, or do they read them in a book club?

Gender is a useful and fascinating lens to use, but it is only one of many. You could also use race, or class, or nationality, or any number of other social distinctions. Many social phenomena are racialized or…classified? There has to be a word for that.

Even with these, of course, people will show up bloviating about how “we’re all human” and “seeing race makes you the racist” and “everyone has problems” and “it’s not about gender.”

If you take these claims in good faith, you might assume that people who say this just don’t care very much about examining social divisions and inequalities and would prefer to look at problems facing everyone. Even then, however, the problems that face everyone don’t face everyone equally.

However, no matter how well-intentioned these people are, what they’re doing (purposefully or otherwise) is supporting the status quo, in which these distinctions are kept invisible and treated as irrelevant–a practice that only serves those in power.

Gender is an analytic framework that interests me, so I use it. As a woman, I use this framework from a woman’s perspective; it’s not my place to speak about men’s experiences. (Plenty of writers, by the way, use this framework from a man’s perspective, such as Ally Fogg and Figleaf.)

The point of the opening analogy, by the way, was not to compare men or women to animals or to suggest that women are like sea turtles or men are like Whooping Cranes or even that human threats to animals are like patriarchy (although perhaps you could view it that way)*. It was only to show that sometimes, it’s useful to look at an issue through a particular lens–for instance, examining threats to sea turtles by looking at climate change. Both sea turtles and Whooping Cranes are harmed by human activity, such as poaching and habitat destruction. But if we had to pretend for the sake of argument that climate change does not exist and that all animals are equally in danger and that humans screw over all animals, we would miss a vital point about sea turtle eggs and warmer temperatures.

And, by the way, nobody would accuse a sea turtle expert of not caring about Whooping Cranes or of actively hating Whooping Cranes simply because they happen to be more interested in studying sea turtles. Nobody would accuse a biologist who studies climate change of not caring about poaching simply because they’re more interested in how animals are harmed by climate change.

So no, I don’t have to talk about men every time I talk about women. I don’t have to pretend that there are no differences in how men and women are affected by things. As far as I’m concerned, it is about gender–and about race, and about class, and about everything else–and feel-good platitudes about how “we’re all the same species” only have the effect of hiding these important phenomena.

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*Analogies Are Imperfect™, so please don’t derail the comments with discussions of the weaknesses of this particular analogy.

Agribusiness is Ruining Capitalism (Among Other Things)

Agribusiness is the reason we can’t have nice things.

The same industry that recently terrified consumers by including pink slime (or, euphemistically, “boneless lean beef trimmings”) in 70% of supermarket ground beef is now responsible for a new Iowa law that makes it a crime to misrepresent yourself in order to get a job at a farm. It had already been a crime in Iowa to record audio or video at a farm without the owner’s permission, but now that the organization Mercy for Animals has inconveniently shot footage of atrocious animal abuse at the Iowa egg farm Sparboe, lawmakers are upping the ante.

Oops, did I say lawmakers? I meant the lobbyists that have them on puppet strings.

The purpose of these “ag-gag” laws (as they’re being called) is obvious–it’s to make it harder for people to get access to farms and find out what’s really going on there. Agribusinesses may claim that these laws prevent them from being “misrepresented” and that the abuses filmed by activists were just a “one-time” thing, the truth is that if they had nothing to hide, they’d have no problem with people coming in and looking at their farms. As one hog farmer says, “We have a problem with a lot of undercover videos that go into livestock production facilities looking for things that might be out of ordinary and, I think many times, fabricating things that are not happening on regular basis.”
He does not specify how it is possible to “fabricate” something that, as he says, is simply “out of the ordinary.” (Which, of course, it isn’t.)

One might wonder why it would even be necessary to pretend to be someone else in order to get a job at a farm, or to film without the owner’s permission. Well, it’s because they won’t let you do it otherwise. All the books I’ve read about factory farming, such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and the companion book to Food, Inc., mention how difficult it is to obtain access to these farms.

Even assuming that a journalist manages to enter the premises without hiding his/her identity or intentions, many states have laws that make it extremely dangerous to criticize agribusiness. Consider this passage from Fast Food Nation:

Having centralized American agriculture, the large agribusiness firms are now attempting, like Soviet commissars, to stifle criticism of their policies. Over the past decade, “veggie libel laws” backed by agribusiness have been passed in thirteen states. The laws make it illegal to criticize agricultural commodities in a matter inconsistent with “reasonable” scientific evidence. The whole concept of “veggie libel” is probably unconstitutional; nevertheless, these laws remain on the books. Oprah Winfrey, among others, has been sued for making disparaging remarks about food. In Texas, a man was sued by a sod company for criticizing the quality of its lawns. … In Colorado, violating the veggie libel law is now a criminal, not a civil, offense. Criticizing the Greeley slaughterhouse could put you behind bars. (pg. 266-67)

So, it’s not very surprising that activists now have to go undercover to tell the truth about what’s going on inside factory farms.

Iowa’s new law wouldn’t be so bad if these films didn’t have as huge an impact as they do. Four of Sparboe’s biggest clients–Target, McDonald’s, Sam’s Club, and Supervalu–have stopped doing business with the farm since seeing video that Mercy for Animals created. Similar results came about for other farms due to whistleblowing films (see the fifth paragraph of this article for some examples).

Ag-gag laws like Iowa’s are now pending in seven other states, including Illinois, where I attend school and where I will soon be writing to my district’s state representatives.

One may debate the importance of animal welfare (well, I wouldn’t debate it, but many people would), but here’s something that most Americans probably consider undebatable: consumers deserve to know the truth about the products they buy so that they can make informed decisions about their purchases. Companies that cannot make products that consumers want to buy should either change their business model or go out of business.

But laws that protect agribusiness from public scrutiny turn this model upside down. Now industrial farms can produce food (or, I should say, “food”) using whichever methods are cheapest and easiest for them, regardless of what consumers would actually buy if they knew the truth.

Of course, the notion of companies hiding their manufacturing methods from the public in order to cut costs without sacrificing consumer loyalty is neither new nor limited to the agriculture industry. Controversies over conditions at iPhone factories and the safety of pharmaceuticals, for instance, are old news by now.

However, agriculture is different for several reasons. First of all, the fact that certain states depend so heavily on it means that agribusiness lobbyists can more easily bend state lawmakers to their will. Second, the increasing pervasiveness of industrial farms means that, without regulation, it is becoming impossible for ethical farmers to compete (except by pandering to the sort of consumers who shop at Whole Foods). Third, unlike iPhones or Nike sneakers, food directly impacts people’s health, making it that much more urgent for people to know how their food is produced and to be able to make choices based on that knowledge. Finally, unlike most other industries, agriculture affects every single person who eats animal products of any kind. To avoid products from industrial farms, you would literally have to become a vegan–or, at the very least, dedicate your life to finding out exactly where all those free-range hens and cage-free eggs are actually coming from, since product labeling standards are pretty lax for these things.

A free market isn’t really free if basic information about products is kept from consumers. Most Americans probably wouldn’t want to eat eggs that come from hens whose beaks are burned off to keep them from pecking each other in overcrowded, filthy cages. They probably wouldn’t want to eat beef from cows that were literally bulldozed into the slaughterhouse because they were too sick to walk.

The legislators who pass laws allowing for these flagrant abuses to be kept secret from the American public ought to remember who they were elected to serve.

Here’s a hint: it’s not the agribusinesses.

Update (3/15/12): Et tu, Utah?