Author Archives: lindsayfalkenberg

Having compassion; Checking power

I didn’t eat meat for two years in high school. When asked my reasoning, I would say that I was choosing not to support the meat industry because of the human rights abuses committed against its workers, because of the environmental damage resulting from its practices, and because of the inhumane treatment given to animals. I did not, I would say, think it inherently wrong to eat animals.

That changed when a read a short story in Spanish modern lit. The piece, “Adios, Cordera!” by Clarín, tells the story of a rural family in the midst of an industrializing Spain who are forced to sell their precious cow for necessary money. Later, the boy is drafted into a war. While the piece is nominally realist, exploring the encroachment of mechanization into the rural environment (both the cow and the boy are taken away by the newly constructed train), a connection was evident. The cow, who had been a sustaining force both emotionally and economically for the poor and motherless family would be nothing more than a single meal to someone able to afford it (let it be known that while I am typing this piece in word, the grammar tool is telling me I should be using “which” as opposed to “who” in regards to the cow). The loss in war of a boy would devastate this family but would be an entirely disposable life for the royalty who enlisted him.

After recognizing this connection, I could not, in good conscience, eat meat.

Throughout history, we have taken steps closer to understanding that the exploitation of those less powerful than us for our benefit is wrong. But have we fully achieved and embraced this understanding? We outlawed slavery! We have a minimum working age!

But we still have Steubenville, in which a significant amount of the public has defended or rationalized exploitation at the expense of the exploited.

I recently wrote to two of my male friends who, in light of a conversation we’d had about the Steubenville rape cases, had expressed confusion and concern over the degree of responsibility held by someone who committed an assault while intoxicated.

I could see that their potential to harm someone else is scary to them, because they are compassionate human beings. I could see that the potential for them to be convicted of a crime they did not intend to commit was scary to them, because they are logical human beings.

To better understand the potential for either of these things, I urged them to think about power—physical and socio-political. I urged them to be aware of the ways in which their physical power can inflict harm on another, even without their intention and particularly when they do not have full control of it. I urged them to consider our country’s history of denying women political and legal agency and of skewing, pretty outrageously, what constitutes consent. This history manifests itself in a culture that empowers fewer than half of survivors to report their assault, and a legal system that results in 3-6% of rapists ever spending a day in jail (when accounting for unreported rapes—g

I told them that sexual assault is about power and control – even if you don’t intend to use that power for harm. Pledging not to assault means you check your own power, both physical and social. It means you resist the impulse to put physical gratification over your responsibility to ensure you do not inflict harm on others. It means you deny the permission much of society has given you to do so.

I now feel as though I could say virtually the same things in regards to the exploitation of animals.

In her piece “Animals as Vulnerable Subjects: Beyond Interest-Convergence, Hierachy, and Property,” Ani B. Satz asserts, “the suffering of animals in factory farms, laboratories, the entertainment industry, and households must be weighed against human satisfaction derived from the use of animals in these contexts” (7). The example she provides is whether or not human enjoyment in consuming a ham sandwich outweighs the profound suffering of a pig confined and immobilized in a gestation crate for the entirety of its life before slaughter.

If we are compassionate beings, we will say it is not. By killing animals purely for our enjoyment of their flavor, we are not responsibly checking our power. Beyond compassion, I think we all have a self-preserving stake in this mentality, because if we can have it towards another, we can surely have it towards each other.






Reality and the Ideal: How the space in between contributes to the prevalence suicide in men

The article “Medical Costs and Productivity Losses Due to Interpersonal and Self-Directed Violence in the United States” states that the most effective way to reduce the economic burden associated with violence-related injuries is to prevent firearm-related homicides and suicide among adolescent and young adult males. Injuries among men cause higher individual productivity losses (though the article concedes that this assessment may not be entirely accurate, as the value of homemaking, a major economic contribution by women, has not been properly estimated), but this recommendation is motivated by more than economic pragmatism about the economic value of individual. The American Journal of Preventive Medicine’s research has shown that rates of fatal self-injury among men are indisputably higher than those among women. While the overall rate of self-inflicted injury was higher  for females than males, fatal self-injury rates were three times higher for men. The article did not examine the reasoning behind this, and I was prompted to find out more about this glaring disparities along gender lines.

I found particularly compelling the commissioned research of Samaritans, a registered charity aimed at providing emotional support to distressed individuals in the UK and Ireland. They seek to go beyond the existing body of suicide research and the statistics, to extend suicide prevention beyond it focus on individual mental health problems to understand the social and cultural context in which people choose to take their own life. The key observation is that there is a large gap between the modern reality of life for men and the masculine ideal.  Such research  supports a key feminist tenet: rigid gender roles are damaging for everyone.

An expectation for men to be bread winners charges them with responsibility for economic hardship, though key factors such as national economic downturns are actually out of their control. Men are largely raised without sufficient emphasis on social and emotional skills, and often have more limited social support networks (resulting from companionship building that is more dependent on activity rather than verbal interaction). Men tend therefore to rely more heavily on their relationship partners for emotional support. The suffering that results from such relationships breaking down is more likely to lead men, rather than women, to suicide.

The impact of these processes has not been uniform across society; they pose challenges in particular to the group of men currently in mid-life, and these challenges are exacerbated when men occupy low socio-economic positions. Rates of suicide are particularly high among middle-aged men (and women, for that matter).  Such baby boomers are what Samaritans describes as a “buffer” generation. From childhood, these men were presented not with healthy emotional coping skills but with a “strong and silent” archetype. Today, we are moving, I would argue positively, toward a society in which the taboo on emotionality in men and mental health issues for all is slowly but surely being overcome. These contradicting concepts of masculinity are a potentially potent source of confusion and anxiety for men.

For those who have discounted the damaging effects of strict gender roles and societal expectations on the holistic health of individuals, I hope this research will raise the following questions: How do we set impossible standards for the performance of gender? How do we teach, or not teach, individuals to cope with their inevitable failure to reach them?