Thinking Like a Community

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the disappointing, but not unexpected, outcome of Happy the Elephant’s case. Taken with similar attempts to imbue animals with legal personhood, this can induce a lot of despair: fringe legal philosophies have not produced the change we’re hoping for.

But perhaps there is another way to go, which learns from contemplative and deep ecological perspectives. At 5:30am on election day I rode my bike to the polls and was treated to a magnificent dawn chorus of San Francisco’s diverse and colorful bird population. A thought flew through my mind: The birds don’t know and don’t care that there is an election today. Much of what we will vote on (transit, construction, garbage collection) will directly affect their lives, but they are not involved in this process–they live adjacent to it, oblivious of what it may bring in its wings. Who will speak for their interests at this election? 

I’m obviously not the first person to introduce contemplative practices into ecology and animal rights. In their 1988 book Thinking Like a Mountain: Toward a Council of All Beings, John Seed, Joanna Macy, Pat Flemming and Arne Naess propose a blueprint for human decisionmaking that takes all perspectives in mind. Through transformative, contemplative practices, a Council of All Beings invites humans to deeply adopt and articulate the perspectives of nonhuman entities in decisionmaking. I participated in one such Council as part of a facilitator training; I spoke for a mushroom and some of my fellow participants spoke for parrots, rocks, and blades of grass. It was a profound immersion in the interests, if they can be called that, of nonhuman entities.

This transcendent notion of perspective taking has migrated from deep ecological theory to the legal realm, with some expressing optimism for its potential for transformation. In his article We Are the River, my colleague and friend David Takacs offers some examples: The New Zealand Parliament has recently granted the Whanganui River and the Te Urewera mountain ecosystem rights as legal persons, with a Māori governing board to speak for the nonhuman entities, based upon traditional cultural precepts. Similarly, governments in Australia, Colombia, Ecuador, Bangladesh, India, Uganda, and the U.S. have also declared that rivers and other living systems have legal rights. While these initiatives stem from  disparate historical, philosophical, and legal backgrounds, and pursue disparate goals, they all seek to enshrine in the law the fundamental symbiosis between human and nonhuman ecological health, and to empower suitable stewards who will nurture that symbiosis. As Takacs explains, newly vested spokespersons for nature–often indigenous populations, who savvily position themselves as more authentically empowered to speak for natural entities–can, and sometimes do, turn novel legal theories into real legal work that protects human and nonhuman communities. 

So, perhaps the solution to our failure to effect real change through animal personhood is to eschew performative (often prosecutorial and anthropomorphized) rhetoric on behalf of animals and give some careful thought, through discerning political considerations and contemplative experiences, to two important questions: what are the genuine interests of nonhuman animals and who should be vested with the authority to represent these interests? As I explained here and here, and as Justin Marceau explains so well here, deep engagement with the true interests of nonhuman animals does not and should not include a reliance on incarceration. The answer, perhaps, is that criminal courtrooms are not the right places for deep, thoughtful perspective-taking. This is not to say that meditative retreats or multiparty government meetings would be completely free of anthropomorphism: any humans speaking for nonhuman entities necessarily translate very different lives to their own into human terms and might, manipulatively or carelessly, twist or convert these into their own interest. This is why it is essential to identify speakers for animals who are truly curious, knowledgeable, and sincere. 

When we understand on a deep level what animals want (they are more similar to us than we might think, as Larry Carbone explains in his treatise on laboratory animals), the solutions are up to us. Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute often explains that the true solution to the horrors of factory farming lie at least partly in the hands of the market: we must create substitutes to animal products that taste the same or better, and cost the same or are cheaper. Would factory farmed animals provide us with this solution? Naturally not. This is an entirely human solution, derived from an entirely human conceptual world, for the genuine problem nonhuman animals face–the horrific reality of exploitation and torture that is the CAPO industry. What Friedrich’s solution shows us is that, when we set out to comprehend the unmediated experience of our fellow living beings, with as little imposition of our own agendas on it as possible, we can then fashion human solutions to these problems. I resolved to participate in (human) elections and vote on measures that humans introduced, and on human candidates, while “thinking like a mountain” at the ballot box.

But we can find even more uses for thinking like a community, such as in physical and mental health matters. Recently, I read and enjoyed Will Bulsiewicz’s Fiber Fueled and listened to this podcast with him, in which he explained that we should think of our eating habits as eating not just for ourselves, but for a whole community including trillions of microbes. What I eat is for them as much as it is for me, or for whatever “me” is (not that easy to parse, with so many microbes in the mix, right?) So, when you crave a mountain of nutrition-empty things, consider that there’s an emotional aspect of “you” who wants them, while there are many aspects of “you” – the physical, biological, mental “you”, that needs other things. Think of the cliché of pregnant women “eating for two:” we’re all eating for trillions.

There’s also a psychological aspect to this: I’m enjoying Richard Schwartz’s No Bad Parts, an excellent introduction to family systems theory in psychology, which is all about the notion that we contain multitudes. It is useful to give a voice to neglected parts of the self, even if one believes there’s some “core self” (a better fit for western psychology than for Buddhist psychology.)

Next time you’re involved in decisionmaking, for yourself or for others, try thinking like a community and see how it feels.

Meaningful Ways to Support Animal Liberation through Criminal Law

Happy Return of the Light to all my readers! I hope the lengthening days and multifaith holidays of light are giving you some hope, even in the face of some difficult challenges we face (I’ll talk about some of the newest developments regarding COVID in prisons in my next post.)

I’m using this post as a way to organize my ideas for a new chapter in an anthology about animals as victims of crime. One of the most common advocacy paths in animal rights has been an effort to enhance the statutory structure of cruelty to animal laws: creating more offenses, raising sentences, and pursuing prosecutions. As Justin Marceau explains in Beyond Cages, this agenda–which hopes to change the lives of nonhuman animals for the better–tends to target, most of the time, a demographic that is already suffering in serious ways: impoverished people trying to take care of their pets (as I explained elsewhere, the landmark decision State v. Newcomb, in which the Oregon Supreme Court found that removing a dog from the household and testing his blood is not a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, involved precisely that scenario.)

My views on the punitive animus behind so-called progressive movements are well known; in the last few years, I have been alarmed by the amount of mobbing, vindictiveness, and shrill calls for Draconian punishment in the guise of seeking social justice, and this regrettable phenomenon shows no sign of abating, even as more and more people are vocal about how fed up they are with it and how, again and again, it targets the wrong people. More prosecutions deployed against the low-hanging fruit of poor people, as opposed to against the vile factory farm industry, are not the way to go. But there are several ways in which we can support animal liberation through criminal law tools.

The first thing we should consider is what “victim status” actually means–legally, culturally, and symbolically–when said victims don’t actually “use their voice.” Rather, a variety of spokespersons try to assume the role of speaking for the animals. This reminds me, to some extent, the ways in which the parties in a homicide trial try to bring forth the decedent’s perspective, which is of course tragically missing from the trial–but at least there they can rely on the decedent’s history, what they might have said or done when alive. This is not something we can do for animals, though we can and should be enlightened about the extent to which animals can and do suffer, physically and psychologically. Nonetheless, I don’t think that it’s useful to think of the problem of serious crimes against animals through the common formulation of criminal law’s importance for victims–getting “justice for A” by “punishing B.” What would “justice” mean to a nonhuman victim? In one of the most recent conversations about crime survivors and criminal justice, the high-profile trial of Brock Turner, much of the conversation revolved around Chanel Miller’s victim impact statement. What would be the equivalent of such a statement on behalf of an animal? And, more importantly, what would it mean to a nonhuman animal if there were ways to present their perspectives in court?

As you can tell, I have serious doubts about using the “justice for A by punishing B” framework even for human animals, but it seems pretty clear for me that, for nonhumans, symbolic victories of this nature are meaningless. It seems to me that the goal of pro-nonhuman-animal criminal law reform should be making actual, practical headway in animal liberation as well as in animal protectionism. Because of this, I propose the following avenues for reform:

If seeking status for animals in criminal law, we should emphasize ways in which this status actually promotes welfare for animals–such as recognizing harm to animals as “harm to someone” to provide animal rights activists and open rescuers the necessity defense. I think that the common law definition of necessity already supports this interpretation and urge courts to clarify it.

We need to develop better ways to help folks who participate in animal exploitation and abuse as part of a cultural tradition that is important to them (I’m thinking of Katie Young’s ethnography of Hawaiian cockfighters, but Passover lamb slaughter rituals and the U.S. traditional consumption of turkey during Thanksgiving would also count) interrogate their own assumptions about the personhood/sentience of the animals. These questions can be very difficult to explore and we need to find ways to make inroads in these sorts of situations. This also matters when looking at criminal defendants clearly suffering from mental illness, such as animal hoarders, who often believe they are caring for the animals they abuse. Insights that go against the grain of cultural traditions and mental health landscape are very difficult to develop in the context of an adversarial trial, where one is already antagonized by the very fact of being a criminal defendant.

In the area of companion animals, one way to prevent prosecutions before they even happen is to provide people who live in poverty dignified ways to care for their animals, which would be good for the humans as well as the nonhumans. Expanding on the work of Paw Fund and Pets of the Homeless is crucial, as is the financial assistance program of the San Francisco SPCA.

It is surprising how little attention is given in conversations about animals in criminal law to the exploitation of animals in law enforcement. We talk about the racial symbolism of using horses to quell protests for humans (see here also) but not nearly enough about the appalling aspect of involving these horses in human conflicts in this brutal manner (so much of human warfare has relied on animals–you’d think this would be a topic of conversation already.) Contrary to what activists may think, one conversation here does not have to come at the expense of another. This conversation has to go beyond labor rights for police animals (a great example of animal personhood that actually has practical importance!) to questioning their use in the first place.

In Beyond Cages, Marceau proposes shifting the prosecutorial focus from impoverished individuals to corporations; I understand where he’s coming from and empathize with his perspective, though I think that this proposal suffers from the same problems as many anti-carceral proposals: they don’t go far enough–merely expanding the population of “defendants we care about” and leaving the last bastions of carcerality (corporations, rich people, white supremacists, cops) in place. Instead, I think it is wiser to let go of the criminal framework even for corporations, choosing instead to pursue civil liability strategies involving monetary damages, which can potentially incentivize changes in industry standards. The threat of civil action can go hand in hand with the kind of business incentives that Leah Garcés discusses in her book Grilled and Bruce Friedrich promotes at the Good Food Institute.

Does any of you have other ideas for ways in which criminal law can promote animal liberation without the punitive/carceral focus?

Book Review: Karen Morin, Carceral Spaces, Prisoners and Animals

My two biggest research interests–criminal justice and animal rights–come together in Karen Morin’s new book Carceral Spaces, Prisoners and Animals (New York: Routledge, 2018.) Morin, a geographer by discipline, applies insights from carceral geography to both human and nonhuman confinement contexts.

Carceral geography is a growing area of scholarship that examines prisons through a lens of spatiality. Building on work by Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben, carceral geographers problematize the overly simplistic notion of prisons as carceral spaces, arguing that prison boundaries are porous and that carceral ideologies of domination through confinement permeate spaces beyond the prison–beyond the formal dichotomy between “inside” and “outside.” Some themes studied by carceral geographers include spaces within prison and how they affect the experience of incarceration (“public” and “private” spaces within the prison; the impact of prison on the body); the interface between prisons and surrounding communities (prison towns, family members, transportation); mobility within and between prisons; and prison architecture and design. Carceral geography is directly relevant to my current research project, which is a book in progress about the COVID-19 catastrophe in California prisons; I rely a lot on the idea of prison permeability, which brings together notions of carceral boundaries, logics of opportunity (for people and for the virus,) insights from situational crime prevention, and miasma theory. In addition to this, I’m deeply interested in animal rights, and am working on a project involving the criminal prosecutions of animal rights activists who break into factory farms to release suffering animals.

In many ways, my interest in liberating nonhuman animals is an obvious extension of my interest in alleviating suffering in prisons. But the comparison is socially fraught from many directions. I often hear prison reform activists and abolitionists criticize prisons for treating people “like animals,” as if treating animals this way is fine; I’ve also heard animal rights activists criticize experimentation on animals, proposing to experiment on prisoners instead (Justin Marceau criticizes the myopic assumptions of the latter phenomenon in Beyond Cages.) I’ve also had to contend with people who find the comparison deeply offensive. Morin is well aware of these emotional and political landmines and writes:

I recognize though that the politics and ethics of making comparisons between racialized and classed human lives and that of nonhuman animals in respective carceral spaces can be problematic and fraught. It is challenging for humans who are embedded in violent, racialized, and criminalized human histories and spaces to not be offended by posthumanist comparisons to animal suffering. As noted above, the category of ‘human’ is contested in any case, and it is important to not move too quickly ‘beyond the human’ without acknowledging the continued exclusion of many human lives from full incorporation within it. And yet thinking particularly about race and animals together is important, precisely because of the way that racialized people have been and continue to be animalized in carceral spaces (Chapter 3). Moreover, the carceral logics of domination are intertwined across human and nonhuman groups. To take one more example, as Deckha (2013b) has shown, animal anti-cruelty legislation has the double effect of selecting certain animals for protection while targeting the behaviors of certain minoritized populations of people as deviant and transgressive. Meanwhile, industrial practices involving the dominant culture – as well as the abuse and killing of most animals – remain immune from critique.

Morin, Karen M.. Carceral Space, Prisoners and Animals (Routledge Human-Animal Studies Series) (p. 15). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

This avenue is deeply productive, not only because the analogies and similarities are analytically interesting, but because solidarity across movements is essential for success. Morin’s analysis ties together the prison-, agricultural-, and medical industrial complexes, showing the intricate connections between them and the profit logics that underpin them.

Morin’s book proceeds to analyze a series of contexts in which she sees parallel developments between human and nonhuman carceral spaces. She compares execution chambers and slaughterhouses, discussing the notions of “humane” slaughter and of death sentences that are supposedly not “cruel and unusual.” She discusses the intersection of the medical and carceral spaces in the context of medical experimentation. She even asks difficult questions about prison boundaries when discussing zoos and supermax facilities. The book also makes an important contribution to two seemingly unrelated growing literatures: the one about forced labor in prisons and the one about the possibility and structure of labor rights for nonhuman animals. Throughout these topics, Morin shows deep sensitivity to the broader social structures that allow cruelty to persist.

My favorite part is Morin’s comparative analysis of prison towns and cattle towns. She shows how the introduction of an exploitative industry into a “company town” shapes the economy and the tenor of the entire town, without granting much in the way of economic benefit to the town itself (by contrast to the industry that exploits the town.) Morin doesn’t explicitly say this, but a big thing here seems the creation of a municipality that is collectively impermeable to compassion, which I think is a serious issue even when the industry is profitable.

We often talk about dehumanizing conditions in prisons. But perhaps the question is not whether or not we’re all human; the question that should matter is whether we are sentient and whether we suffer. A few years ago I read Michael Dorf and Sherry Colb’s Beating Hearts, which compares the logics of sentience underpinning the pro-life and animal rights movements and finds a way to reconcile them into a cohesive pro-choice and pro-animal perspective. I think there’s a way for advocates and activists to find peace with Morin’s comparison in a way that allows them to support both movements.

Morin admits that she has not analyzed all the scenarios that her comparison speaks to, and I found at least two that I would like to read future works on. The first has to do with the concept of overcrowding. Morin discusses issues of caging in depth, but the book does not delve into the movement toward humane farming and “cage-free” chicken facilities. Now a major selling point for eggs and for pig meats, the notion of no-cage or no-crate is deeply misleading, and some states, such as California, use various parameters to try and measure overcrowding. I’ve seen parallel developments in the context of prison population reduction orders. It’s no big secret that I think the measuring yard used in Brown v. Plata–percentage of design capacity systemwide–was deeply shortsighted, and a more careful calculation of minimal per-person area, as in other countries, would have helped us mitigate the COVID-19 catastrophe we’re experiencing right now.

The second issue I would want to read more about has to do with movement strategy, and with the reform-versus-revolution debate in the prison advocacy community. There is a parallel debate–quite a heated one–in the animal ethics community, between animal welfarism and animal liberation. Movement strategy and tactics, attention to incremental reform, and the use of the criminal justice process to challenge cruelty and obtuseness are relevant to both movements, and I think there’s more room to write about this.

These two issues notwithstanding, the book makes a fascinating read. Unfortunately, Routledge has priced it quite prohibitively, but prospective readers should know that you can rent it from Amazon for a reasonable price.

Uncomfortable Telling your Child that Meat Comes from Animals? Don’t Eat Animals

I try to be patient with the travails of parenting. Trust me, I have plenty of my own. But massive hypocrisies get my last nerve. See this parenting column from Slate:

Our sweet, funny, VERY sensitive just-turned 4-year-old daughter loves animals—and is right on the verge of figuring out where the meat we eat comes from. To be clear, we have never deliberately hidden this from her, but she has never expressly asked about it, and there’s no good way to randomly segue into “By the way, your dinner used to be alive.” She avoids eating chicken and turkey, and we’ve realized this might be because they’re called “chicken” and “turkey.” She does eat (with great joy) meats that don’t have the same name as their source animals, such as bacon, steak, and pot roast, but it’s clear from her comments that she doesn’t have a lock on what they’re made of. (“Dad, wouldn’t it be funny if bacon came from a pig like the ones that oink?!”) At some point soon, the jig will surely be up, and it is not unlikely there will be a lot of tears, some deep existential horror, and feelings of betrayal directed at us. If that’s the case, she’s also going to feel sad and mad about her conflicting feelings about whether to eat some of her favorite foods or not. How can we address this honestly while minimizing her distress? It seems like we should be preemptive about it, but how do we bring it up? For the record, we will tell her about vegetarianism and would be happy to stop feeding her meat if she asked (while ensuring that she gets enough protein and other nutrients, of course). We also do make an effort to purchase cruelty-free meat whenever possible, but I’m not sure that “Hey, the pig had a pretty nice life until someone killed it so we could have it for breakfast” is going to impress her.

And see the “great” advice to facilitate the hypocrisy:

I know I don’t have to tell you not to dismiss her feelings when she discovers the truth about her meals. I do urge you to be truthful with her about how you feel about eating meat. I think being honest with our kids, always, is foundational to being good parents.

The bottom line, though, is that you can’t really minimize her distress, and, as much as we want to protect our children from pain and sorrow and conflict, we shouldn’t protect them from all pain and sorrow and conflict. If we do, they’ll never learn the coping skills all people must develop to deal with these feelings. The best thing you can do is sympathize with her and be supportive. If she tells you she is going to be a vegetarian from now on, talk to her about how you’ll have to make sure her nutritional needs are met by finding other sources of protein that she likes eating. (This could be a fun project, trying new foods and cooking together. I know it was for us.) Your job as a loving parent in this situation, I believe, is to support her decision, whether it lasts a few days, weeks, years, or forever.

I remember this coming up, with some nervous chuckles, in parenting groups I attended when Rio was little: people embarrassed when their kids pointed out to them that they use the same word for the nuggets they are served and for the cute farm animal (“chicken.”) A breathtaking variant is the person who doesn’t like the animals on their plate to look like what they are, which is animals.

Conflicted? Embarrassed? Giggling about your own hypocrisy? Facing your child’s tears upon learning that you are participating in something horrific for animals and for the planet? Go no further! I have some advice to offer you, offered in all caps for those who need special clarity:

IF YOU ARE UNCOMFORTABLE SHARING WITH YOUR CHILDREN THAT MEAT COMES FROM ANIMALS, DON’T EAT ANIMALS.

IF YOU FEAR YOUR CHILD WILL BE DISTRESSED WHEN THEY LEARN THAT THEY ARE EATING ANIMALS, DON’T FEED THEM ANIMALS.

IF IT EMBARRASSES YOU TO TELL YOUR CHILD “HOW YOU FEEL” ABOUT EATING ANIMALS, STOP EATING THEM, AND THEN YOU’LL FEEL FINE.

IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT TO TELL YOUR CHILD ABOUT EATING ANIMALS, DON’T EAT THEM, AND THEN TELL THEM WHAT I TELL MY SON: “ANIMALS ARE OUR FRIENDS AND WE DON’T EAT OUR FRIENDS.”

That’s fucking it.

A few recommendations for books to read with your child:

Essential viewing for you:

Also, enough already with the fucking protein. It’s not the struggle/challenge that people make it out to be. Kids need 1-1.5 g protein for every 2 lbs of weight. If you feed them good food, they are getting enough protein. Kids all over the world happily eat beans and tofu and their parents don’t fret about protein. Why don’t the animal eaters ever ask themselves about vitamins and fiber?

Thanks for listening to my TED talk.

Nonhumans Suffer In Our Conflicts

There is a gorgeous ritual, devised by John Seed and Joanna Macy, known as the Council of All Beings. Participants embody a nonhuman entity or species and speak for it. There are lots of ways to participate, ranging from mask-making and embodiment to speech; the idea is to offer, in a humanly understandable form, some insight into the ways in which human activities are affecting nonhuman life.

With so much human suffering embroiled in my work–prison suffering, plague suffering, fire suffering, protest suffering–it is easy to get caught up and forget that the conflicts that now seem vitally important to us are completely irrelevant to most of the natural world, and yet they affect it in horrendous ways. In many ways, the upcoming election is a desperate fight for the future of the planet by the one species with the power to destroy it all. But sometimes my attention is drawn to the suffering of nonhumans swept–as victims, as unwilling participants–in our all-too-human brawls.

Last week, my heart broke about the dead chicks caught in the war to preserve the post office. True, the chicks were destined to go to farms, where their lot in life would be miserable, but can you, for just one second, let your heart beat like the heart of a suffocating chick, terrified and overpowered and without any understanding of what is happening?

Today, I hear from my parents and friends about how the Israeli police has been using police horses to tame and overpower the protesters against Netanyahu. There’s a lawsuit arguing that the horses–wild, free, beautiful–are extremely stressed and frightened in these roles, and that driving them into crowds, noise, and violence is anathema to their nature. The very use of horses by police is sickening to me. What are police doing with horses anyway? Are we in the 1300s? What in the world is this medieval shite?

Nonhuman animals should never be used as pawns in the hellish situations we humans devise for each other. Animals should not be coerced into servitude, especially not in the service of these horrific institutions/situations.

Readings in Deep Ecology and Interconnectedness

Lately I’ve been thinking about environmental ethics quite a bit. I came to it through noticing patterns and values in vegan and animal rights groups, and partnering with my brilliant colleague and precious friend David Takacs to put together and teach our environmental criminology seminar has greatly deepened my interests. Early on in our work together, David and I had fascinating debates about animal ethics, in which he expressed an ecocentric worldview, whereas I took mostly a biocentric perspective. I found the logics and contradictions of my own position interesting, particularly in our debate about trophy hunting regulation, which I recounted here. Long story short, I found myself in the complicated, but ethically juicy, place of trying to reconcile my sense that each individual lion’s life is sacred and nothing short of a complete ban on hunting would reflect the purity of this fact with my understanding that the path toward protecting lions as a species and the indigenous communities that protect them might be regulation and the sale of expensive licenses. I still can’t get over the stumbling block that the lions’ lives are not ours to sell. We have created rules and economies that are alien to the way the world runs, and alien to the way in which we used to live in nature.

I’ve spent the last few months working through Joanna Macy‘s writings and attending two wonderful webinars in The Work that Reconnects. I’ve also been spending a lot of time in nature, experiencing plants, animals, and other natural kingdoms in a reverential and playful context that my pre-COVID life did not have space for. We have grown vegetables and herbs in the garden for years, but now, for the first time, I’m immersing myself in mycology and growing mushrooms (so far from kits, but it’s so interesting nonetheless.) Here’s a great documentary about the marvel of the fungal kingdom:

The theme that emerges from this work, which is enriching my mindfulness meditation teacher training, is interconnectedness-both as a scientific concept and as an immediate, natural, somatic understanding of relationships, cause and effect, cooperation and responsibility.

It was this sense of somatic interconnectedness that brought me to the animal rights world in the first place. I had been vegetarian for many years, interrupted by a couple of years of eating meat because I believed my endurance swimming practice required it, and then went to see Judy Irving’s marvelous documentary Pelican Dreams. The film’s starting point is a brown pelican, found starved and disoriented on the Golden Gate Bridge; Irving follows Gigi the pelican to a pelican sanctuary, and learns more about their lives on between Catalina Island and the Bay Area. Here’s the trailer:

Pelican DreamsTrailer from Shadow Distribution on Vimeo.

Along the way, Irving learns that many pelicans sicken and suffocate from large surplus fish parts that commercial fisheries through back in the water. It was then that I realized that the evils of commercial consumption of animal products, and the cruelties of factory farming, were linked to evils to wildlife and the biosphere in ways that I no longer wanted to be part of. In the six years since watching the film, my family (with the exception of the cats, who, as obligate carnivores, did not choose to live with us and do not do well on vegan cat kibble) has shifted to a completely vegan diet. We cook and bake better every day and are very proud of our home cuisine, into which we bring our heritages as well as dishes from around the world, which we pick up from friends and books. My academic work on animal rights, which includes my book in progress on open rescue activism, comes from my deep personal interest in animal ethics.

A lot of the discourse in the animal rights world revolves around anthropomorphizing factory farmed animals, in much the same way that the rest of the world anthropomorphizes pets. I’m not sure that imposing our sensibilities in that way is 100% accurate, but within the limitations of human perception and language, I understand it as valuable shorthand to speak of animal rights. Many friends are shaken (in a good way) when I tell them that chickens can do math and that pigs are amazing problem solvers. But as much affection and love as I have for our nonhuman friends, my deep commitment to veganism and animal rights comes from my gratitude for the natural world as a whole, and from my deep sadness that we have grossly overstepped our place in the interconnected web of life. Animals have to feed on each other; as Peter Godfrey-Smith explains in Other Minds, interacting with each other as predators and prey was an important shift in the evolution of consciousness. But this applies to the overall sense of balance in our ecosphere, in which animals hunt and kill what they can and need to eat and no more. Our bloated, cruel apparatus of animal farming is so removed from that reality that I recoil whenever someone tries to tell me that ordering a plate of bacon or a steak is “natural.” There is nothing natural about how we do this, nothing sustainable; to refer to our horrific food supply system as part of the “food chain” is beyond offensive; and because it is so deeply out of step with everything I believe, the only resort I have is to opt out of it completely.

To be more versed in the scientific and spiritual aspects of natural interconnectedness, I’m doing a lot of wandering, and watching, and growing food, and also reading. Here are some of the books I’m enjoying lately:

Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

Robin Wall-Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

Sy Montgomery, Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness

Paul Stamets, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the Planet

Peter Wohlleben, The Secret Life of Trees 

Peter Wohlleben, The Inner Life of Animals

Peter Wohlleben, The Secret Wisdom of Nature 

David Abram, Becoming Animal

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous

Chris Johnstone and Joanna Macy, Active Hope

Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown, Coming Back to Life 

John Seed and Joanna Macy, Thinking Like a Mountain: Toward a Council of All Beings

Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder: A Celebration of Nature for Parents and Children

As a postscript, I’ll mention that much of the passion behind my work to save lives of people behind bars from COVID-19, and much of my deep outrage about the three federal executions yesterday, come from befuddlement and grief. At a time in which we are seeing so much tragic destruction of human life, it is perplexing and distressing that not all of us awaken to the realization that all life, human and nonhuman alike, is sacred and calls for reverence and protection.

Stretching Compassion to Difficult People: Is Abolitionism Only for People “We” Like?

Fifteen years ago, the LGBTQ community in Israel was reeling from a vicious stabbing attack by Yishai Schlissel, an Ultraorthodox Jewish man, at the Gay Pride in Jerusalem, which claimed the life of 16-year-old Shira Banki and injured several others. Some friends and I–legal scholars and members of the LGBTQ community–were invited to participate in a public panel whose goal was to advocate for broader criminalization and increased punishment for violent hate crimes. I found myself wondering: isn’t murder already a crime? Would more decades in prison for Schlissel bring Shira and other innocent victims back? And what does that say about our commitment to other progressive goals, such as humanizing (or defunding) law enforcement and decreasing (or eliminating) incarceration? Are we single-issue fanatics or do we see the bigger picture? Are we only aboard the abolitionist train when we talk about people we like?  And when people we dislike are on the agenda, are we part of the carceral problem we so vehemently disavow?

These internal contradictions have been on my mind for many years, both in Israel and in the U.S. The last decade of punishment and society scholarship has seen an expansion in the circle of blame for mass incarceration in the United States. There certainly is plenty of blame to go around; even with the salutary recession-era turnaround in incarceration rates, the American correctional colossus continues to dramatically eclipse incarceration rates in other countries, its human rights crimes, racially discriminatory policies and outcomes, and financial unsustainability still in plain sight.

Where Are Progressives in the Carceral Blame Game?

Traditionally, the blame for mass incarceration was placed squarely upon the shoulders of conservative Republicans. A subsequent wave, which we see in some newer works as well as in progressive public discourse, pulls centrist Democrats—from Kennedy and Johnson to Clinton, Obama, and Biden—into the circle of responsibility, either through federal legislation such as the 1994 Crime Bill or through “tough on crime” posturing for centrist voters.

But even with these patterns, social movements of a more progressive bend have been granted a “pass” from the blame circle. This is fair when talking about the traditional categories of people subjected to the evils of mass incarceration: poor people of color, whom civil rights advocates and activists seek to help and protect. That these populations are disadvantaged and marginalized is an important argument against mass incarceration (and for abolitionism, for those who identify as such.) But three recent books argue that progressive movements have wrongly excluded from our circle of compassion several categories of people whose criminalized behavior is unpopular–even reviled–in progressive circles: people committing animal cruelty, sexual assault, and domestic violence. All three books provide an extremely valuable service to progressive communities in outlining the broader, negative implications of making crime control the rallying cry of progressives. Moreover, reading all three of them together raises the question I asked when I defined, and wrote about, progressive punitivism: have all Americans, including progressive ones, marinated for so long in carceral logics that we are unable to view the social problems we want to solve through non-criminal paradigms?

After summarizing each of the three books, I will discuss the ways in which they are particular iterations of progressive punitivism, which reveal common mechanisms of progressive carceral activism and policymaking; provide a few theoretical frameworks for understanding progressive punitivism; and raise questions about the viability of an overall abolitionist, or anticarceral, progressive milieu, examining the application of anticarceral perspectives to who I suspect might be the last bastions of criminalization: police officers and white supremacists charged with homicide or assault.

“Abuse an animal—go to jail”: Justin Marceau’s Critique of Carceral Animal Rights Advocacy

In Beyond Cages, Justin Marceau critiques the animal rights movement’s convergence around criminal justice as a vehicle for animal protectionism, encapsulated in the slogan, “abuse an animal–go to jail.” Marceau finds the consensus around this mentality surprising given the diversity and conflict within the animal rights movement; under this mentality, he argues, “the reduction of the suffering of animals is something of a zero-sum game where the increased status of animals is in tension with a less punitive, less carceral approach to criminal justice” (6). But this strategy has strong drawbacks:

Carceral victories do not meaningfully enhance the protection of animals, they do not make humans safer, and the efforts to align the movement, at least at a conceptual level, with the policies and logic of mass criminalization, come at a cost. Propagating the dehumanizing violence of incarceration is not a viable solution to the inhumane treatment of animals. Such a view of the movement – that incarcerating rogue animal abusers will dislodge longstanding social norms about animals – is empirically unfounded and conceptually dangerous (6).

As Marceau explains, from its inception, the animal rights movement’s success came from criminal prosecutions. Stories of abuse of pets, in particular, have been the “low-hanging fruit of outreach and fundraising” (19). Before wide animal cruelty legislation, successes came from a patchwork of litigation, including creative use of customer protection laws. These efforts received rebuke from courts, who steered animal rights organizations toward criminal prosecution as the appropriate path.

As a consequence, the animal protection movement has come to see criminal convictions and harsh sentencing as the hallmark of its success. To guarantee favorable legislation, the movement plays an active role in drafting criminal codes, adding animal cruelty offenses, and raising sentences for violations of these laws. The advocacy for these punitive laws Touting low enforcement rates, that are actually higher than rapes and murders etc.A major success has been raising animal cruelty to the level of a felony, and there is wide support in the movement for mandatory minimums and for charging juveniles as adults. Marceau describes amicus briefs supporting warrantless searches and seizures (primarily through the expansion of the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement), as well as partnering with other organizations to remove minority rights in cases that are primarily motivated by racist animus; Marceau mentions efforts to argue that double jeopardy allows charging a defendant with multiple counts of animal cruelty for the same scheme involving multiple animals—of no benefit to the animal, but allowing for lengthier incarceration.

Relying on harsh animal cruelty legislation, the movement spends enormous resources on prosecution: Animal rights groups provide trainings and advice to prosecutors. The groups pay for expert witnesses and consulting experts, they draft pleadings, they provide hands-on services to police, and in many organizations the interest in securing convictions is part of the strategic conversation. Litigation that implicates law enforcement or that might attract the ire of prosecutors is disfavored, and potentially subject to a pro-prosecution veto. The organizations give awards to prosecutors. In some cases, animal rights organizations bankroll prosecutions by effectively hiring and paying the salaries of members of the prosecutorial team—a practice infested with conflicts of interest. More commonly, animal rights organizations do the investigative legwork behind prosecutions.

Marceau’s critique of this policy is threefold. First, he explains, by expressing punitive sentiments toward people whose empathy toward animals has eroded, “the movement appears to be losing sight of whether it is eroding its own empathy by seeking ever more carceral solutions to animal mistreatment” (13). The punitive coalition tends to target primarily poor, disenfranchised people, absolving the greatest agents of animal cruelty–factory farms–from responsibility, and deploying incarceration and collateral consequence toward disempowered people–including loss of housing and employment and, in cases of undocumented slaughterhouse workers, even deportation. This is not only callous, but ultimately ineffective: There is little reason to believe that animal welfare would be better protected in destabilized communities with entrenched socioeconomic deprivation. Indeed, the movement purports to speak punitively on behalf of animals (whom are found by robust scientific research to be far more forgiving than humans!) only in the context of cruelty to pets, whereas no such punitive assumptions are present where police abuse of companion animals is at stake: “Law enforcement is always right, and they side with animals only when and to the limited extent necessary to advance the incarcerating power of the State” (47-48). This principle is even more salient in the scant support the movement offers to radical activists conducting undercover investigations in factory farm or forms of direct action like open rescue of sick animals. In other words, “[i]n the carceral view of animal law, animals win when prosecutors win” (48.) This shortsightedness as to progressive interests other than harsh prosecution plays out in other legal contexts as well, such as a landmark case in which the movement tried, but failed, to limit abhorrent videos of animal abuse, relying on rationales that would help this single issue but hurt free speech in general, positioning them “in the unique role of a civil rights movement that has consistently urged narrowing interpretations of the fundamental  rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights” (78.)

Second, Marceau highlights the racial underpinnings of the collaboration between the animal rights movement and the carceral state. Animal rights groups, whose membership is “still overwhelmingly white”,  risk alienating people of color further, because “African Americans are not leading the animal protection movement, and the enthusiasm for tough-on-crime policies. . . has an unavoidable racial inflection” (42.) The movement selectively centers and ignores the suffering of racial minorities: even as it relies on analogies between human slavery and the exploitation of animals, which sound tone-deaf to potential allies of color, it supports carceral policies, and pursues individual cases, that exacerbate the stronghold of the racism on the carceral machine. Not only that, but some of its alliances and chosen battles trivialize the suffering of people of color and create a false dichotomy between the interests of humans and animals. In addition, there is a perception that animal cruelty prosecutions are somehow different than other types of crime because they are not tied to race; this misses a strongly racialized history of animal cruelty legislation and enforcement.

Finally, Marceau obesrves that much of the punitive animal rights rhetoric relies on the idea of what he calls “the LINK” theory: a hypothesis that animal abuse predicts violence toward humans. Marceau marshals secondary literature disproving “the LINK” offers a critical assessment of the studies that posited it. He concludes that, while animal abuse is surprisingly common among both violent and nonviolent people, it offers precious little prediction of violence toward humans. Animal rights organizations obfuscate the true scientific consensus, relying on a popularization of “LINK” theories in their plea for harsh punishment. The irony is not lost on Marceau: to say that incarceration is not a mechanism that alleviates this purported propensity for violence is an understatement. Moreover, Marceau argues, when the movement espouses abuse of humans, not only through harsh sentencing and consequences but also through obtuseness and downright ridicule of extenuating circumstances like poverty and mental illness (which correlate with animal abuse), it cannot in good faith claim that it cares about humans.

#BelieveWomen: Aya Gruber’s Critique of Carceral Feminism in Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault

Aya Gruber’s The Feminist War on Crime articulates and critiques the uneasy alliance between feminism and carceral logics. Gruber begins by observing the inconsistencies between feminist protectionist positions toward commercial sex by marginalized women and the puritan approaches (consistent with calls for formal and informal harsh punitive measures) toward sexual misbehavior of men. She explains:

The tension between the over-the-top sexuality and intolerance for imperfect sex reflects contemporary feminists’ struggle to embrace sexual liberation while simultaneously critiquing a hazardous sexual terrain where the burdens of open sexuality fall disproportionately on women. Unfortunately, the existing criminal law discourse of devastating victimhood, righteous indignation, and punishment as ‘justice’ provides a ready-made vocabulary for women’s unease with the disparate nature of sexual liberation. The existing criminal system provides a ready-made remedy in the form of prosecution, conviction, and prison. Condemnation of men’s newly branded criminal conduct and calls for just deserts multiply on social media until feminists’ thoughtful efforts to grapple with a complex issue appear as little more than pitchfork-bearing vengeance, demonstrating that #MeToo has lots its way (15.)

Lest her readers see carceral feminism as a recent product of entitled young, white third-wave feminists participating in online cancel culture, Gruber demonstrates that feminism has shaped and has been shaped by the penal state as early as the Progressive Era. Contrary to the received wisdom that second-wave feminists adopted criminalizing methods out of lack of choice, she finds more complex narratives of criminal culpability and penological appropriateness. Alongside disturbing cases in which rape victims were disbelieved, mocked, and demonized for unchasteness, she finds women prosecuted for adultery and fornication, but also criminal legislation prescribing, and criminal courts imposing, capital punishment for rape, particularly against poor men and men of color. Rhetoric in favor of temperance reflected an animus against druknenness as a precursor to domestic violence and consumption of prostitution services, and was rife with disapprobation for loose sexual mores (such as, for example, in dance halls.) Among the achievements of the white, middle-class movement that combined radicalism with purity was raising the age of consent “so that tolerated seductions could be converted into easily prosecutable rapes” (26.) Particularly, the participation of early feminists efforts to criminalize “white slavery” was drenched in racial assumptions and hierarchies, as efforts to rescue white women (and a small number of Chinese women) from “foreign men, low-class criminals, and ethnic minorities” (28)–a concept which marginalized black slavery and oppression. The result of this successful campaign, the Mann Act, was weaponized in infamous and controversial ways, particularly against men of color. Alongside marginalized women who claimed rape and were ignored because of their identities were white women falsely–and successfully–claiming to have been raped by black men (sometimes fabricating these claims out of thin air and sometimes masking consensual, but frowned upon, interracial liaisons.) Such cases culminated not only in harsh sentencing, but also in rape-based lynching. The “rape-race nexus” (39) continues to loom large in American mythology, relying on stereotypes against immigrants and racial minorities.

After the progressive era, punitive energy in the feminist movement waned. Second-wave feminism emerged initially as a radical, antiauthoritarian reaction to the Vietnam war and oppressive capitalism, and its initiatives mostly reflected mistrust of the police–an arm of “the Man”– and sisterhood assistance (for example, through the establishment of battered women shelters as an alternative to the state.) Even the antirape movement, characterized in the late 1970s by Take Back the Night (TBTN) rallies (and fueled by terrifying, albeit rare, stranger-rape cases), was not carceral in nature, and sought more funding to empower and assist women against a variety of “violences”–systemic, social, and institutional. In some cases, however, the portrayal of rape victims and sex workers as modern-day slaves overlapped with conservative sex-panic discourses. Within a few years, second-wave feminism largely shifted its position to advocate for more law enforcement and prosecution. Gruber uses domestic violence activism to highlight this transformation. She describes the shelter activists of the early 1970s who sought to “upend[] the patriarchal structure of marriage” (50) and the establishment of the National Coalition against Domestic Violence; the radicalism and separatism of these organizations was an uneasy fit for women of color because of its blindness to intersectional issues, and the enforced separation from batterers that they advocated offered little benefit to poor women who depended on male partners for subsistence. Gruber then describes the battered women’s movement, whose punitive position toward individual abusers was epitomized in class action lawsuit Bruno v. Codd (1976), in which feminist lawyers argued that domestic violence victims have a right to police assistance and intervention. In the 1980s, feminist efforts to obtain accountability dovetailed with the shifting national politics under the Reagan administration to paint marginalized populations as perpetrators of their own misery, with domestic violence and sexual victimization as powerful examples.

The feminist depictions of police officers as patriarchy-supporting brutes failed to acknowledge the more complex (albeit still masculinist) ambivalence of community-minded officers who saw domestic violence as indication of deep-seated problems they felt unable to address in a typical police-like manner. In targeting individual male offenders, feminist lawyers’ depictions of the domestic violence problem deviated from those of family violence researchers, who identified socioeconomic and psychological dimensions of the problem, and who examined women’s violence as well as men’s. Legal feminists touted (and, as Gruber argues, overclaimed and somewhat misinterpreted) a study conducted by Lawrence Sherman and Richard Berk, which advocated for arrests as a solution to domestic violence. This advocacy led to the adoption of mandatory arrest policies, despite new studies that shed doubt on their efficacy; the advocacy for mandatory arrests and harsh punishment took on “a troublingly racialized tone” (91). Gruber’s epilogue to this transformation describes Sherman’s 2015 followup to his 1988 study with Berk, in which he found that the arrest of a partner for domestic violence led to heightened morbidity from a variety of causes among the female victims.

The chosen rhetorical and cultural vehicle for feminist advocacy was victims’ narratives and rights. Because the public was more receptive to some victims’ narratives than to others (rape by strangers versus date rape, for example), feminist narratives tended to rely on poster-children victims who received more public sympathy: white, middle-class, attractive victims of stranger crimes who sought severe punishment. Feminist lawyers made paternalistic assumptions about what was best for victims, believing “that they knew how to manage victims’ safety better than the victims themselves” (105). Even more symbolically powerful was the narrative of the child victim of the sexual predator, which fueled various punitive laws, including sex offender registration, notification, and housing restrictions. Anti-rape and anti-prostitution activists, such as TBTN protesters, relied on fear of violent stranger attack to support their cause, even though acquaintance rape is far more common, and on controversial depictions of the commercial sex industry.

In some cases, the second-wave feminist framework of sex-as-coercion, such as in the context of egregious cases of adults exploiting children, characterized the legal response; in other cases, such as the gradual criminalization of date rape, the liberal feminist framework of consent carried the day over the previous standard of force. Within the framework of consent, feminists sought to expand the meaning of consent beyond cases in which the victim said no. “Instead of the messy endeavor of divining the complainant’s mind-set from the totality of the circumstances, fact finders could simply look to whether there was a ‘yes’ or functional equivalent” (131.) Gruber demonstrates the difficulty in affirmative consent standards through an analysis of cases, in which relying on the victim’s affirmation can be as confusing and ambivalent as relying on her denial. The idea that obtaining verbal, explicit consent is easy flies in the face of sexual conventions and commonly opaque interpersonal communications. Any effort by the defense to tarnish a victim’s credibility through her pre- and post-event behavior was explained away by trauma, raising serious questions of how to test credibility and bolstering the myth that rape “ruined” women–a myth that also has pernicious race and class implications. Gruber points out the role that affirmative consent plays in expanding prosecutorial discretion, which infuses charging decisions with class and race biases–against both perpetrators and victims from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The strongest chapter in Gruber’s book examines  campus sexual assault regulation reform in the 2010s. A pivotal moment in the fight to remove due process protections for alleged sexual abusers was the publication of a Rolling Stone article about gang rape, which was later found out to be completely fabricated. Nonetheless, a movement had coalesced after the article, generating sex panic on campus. Gruber recounts an interview with the author of a campus sexual assault survey, showing that the survey was designed to furnish evidence for the magnitude of the problem by categorizing a wide range of sexual behaviors (ranging from force to emotional manipulation) as rape and sexual assault. Arguments asserted as fact by campus advocates and carrying weight in their advocacy–such as the theory of campus serial rapists”–rely on questionably applicable survey data, and any risk-avoidance suggestions to women, primarily in terms of alcohol consumption, is excoriated as victim blaming. Gruber’s analysis concludes with a critique of the recent campaign against Brock Turner, a Stanford athlete who assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, which was expanded to a successful recall campaign against Judge Aaron Persky, who followed the recommendation of the probation department in sentencing Turner to six months in prison. Gruber’s careful analysis of Persky’s sentencing record is disheartening–his rulings generally followed probation recommendations. Nonetheless, not only did he personally become another victim of a misguided #MeToo campaign, but his recall fueled increased punitivism by judges fearing similar consequences (explicitly so, in at least one case that Gruber cites), as well as more Draconian campus legislation.

Gruber offers three “neofeminist” recommendations for feminists seeking to navigate the gap between “toleration of private male violence and complicity with the penal state” (192): adopting a framework that eschews the entanglement between feminism and mass incarceration (such as, for example, those who universalize the experiences of white victims of stranger assault to all women); withdrawing support for existing and future carceral programs purporting to support victims that do not advance justice (such as “yes means yes” legislation and aggressive campus criminalization proposals); and diversifying feminist participation in the debate to include voices and programs that address gender justice as well as oppose mass incarceration.

Throwing the Book at Domestic Abusers: Leigh Goodmark’s Critique of Criminal Justice Approaches to Intimate Partner Violence

There is a certain topical overlap between Gruber’s argument and Leigh Goodmark’s Decriminalizing Domestic Violence, though the two books are considerably different: Goodmark’s book is set mostly in the present time, and therefore less expansive on historical account and more expansive on policy analysis. Goodmark dates the problem of domestic violence policy to the exponential increase in criminalization, arrests, conviction, and incarceration resulting from the enactment of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. The new law led to a dramatic change of the criminalization landscape, mirrored by astronomical growth in VAWA grant money devoted to criminal enforcement compared to housing and other social services: “In 1994 62 percent of VAWA funds were dedicated to the criminal legal system and 38 percent went to social services. . . . In fiscal year 2017, VAWA’s two largest grant programs combined to provide $266 million to the criminal legal system. By contrast, VAWA allocated $30 million to housing, despite repeated studies showing that housing is the single greatest need identified by people subjected to abuse.” (3%.)

Despite this expenditure, there is little evidence that criminal legal interventions have curbed domestic violence: “Since 1994 rates of intimate partner violence in the United States have fallen—but so has the overall crime rate. From 1994 to 2000 rates of intimate partner violence and the overall crime rate decreased by the same amount. From 2000 to 2010 rates of intimate partner violence dropped less than the overall crime rate. No reliable social science data ties the drop in the rates of intimate partner violence to criminalization or to increases in funding and criminal legal system activity spurred by VAWA. Crime has declined and the funding to address intimate partner violence has increased, but the problem persists” (3%). Indeed, while the punitive approach toward domestic violence grew in lockstep with mass incarceration, postrecession criminal justice reforms, which scaled back other aspects of the carceral state left the punitive policies toward domestic violence perpetrators untouched. Instead, as mandatory minimums were slashed for drug offenses, they were created for intimate partner violence. In short, “[a]s a result of these law and policy initiatives, the criminal legal system is the primary response to intimate partner violence in the United States today” (3%).

Goodmark opens the book with a critique of the carceral paradigm for solving domestic violence. in a nutshell, she finds little merit in exclusively focusing on criminalization:

[The criminal legal system is ineffective, focuses disproportionately on people of color and low-income people, ignores the larger structural issues that drive intimate partner violence, robs people subjected to abuse of autonomy, and fails to meet the pressing economic and social needs of people subjected to abuse (5%).

In her summary of the criminal model for addressing domestic violence, Goodmark shows that mandatory arrest policies were adopted without sufficient data to support their role in recidivism reduction, and that their implementation ignored mixed results. She also demonstrates how no-drop prosecutions developed in lockstep with neoliberal economies. While Goodmark agrees that, in serious cases arrests and criminalization can stop dangerous situations (she has recently disavowed this position on Twitter, arguing that she has moved further into abolitionism since publishing the book), she also offers that these disproportionately target the people who are targeted by the system anyway. In a Wisconsin study she cites, “men of color represented 24 percent of the population but 66 percent of the defendants in intimate partner violence cases, a disparity attributed in part to policing practices. Most intimate partner violence offenses are prosecuted as misdemeanors, and rates of misdemeanor prosecution are much higher among men of color. Arrest and conviction may have particularly negative consequences for men of color; finding employment after incarceration is difficult for all men, for example, but much more so for men of color” (11%). Notably, Goodmark maintains that the destructive impact on offenders is matched, or even exceeded, by the impact on survivors. Given that domestic violence has largely been perceived and analyzed through the lens of patriarchy and gender domination, Goodmark importantly argues that women have also been harmed and overly criminalized as a consequence of mandatory arrest polices, especially dual arrests, and of child custody consequences (which largely intersect with race and poverty.) The only acceptable victim under the criminal model, Goodmark argues, is a punitive victim: the system ignores, infantilizes women who have ambivalence toward the process. Indeed, victims who refuse to cooperate are themselves criminalized. This is all especially true for marginalized communities, in which the motivation to cooperate with the police is already low given the broken trust. Indeed, “Women of color frequently have negative, abusive, and even deadly experiences with police officers who are called to respond to intimate partner violence.”

In addition, Goodmark points out that criminalization also has detrimental effects on community, in that it “shifts the responsibility of policing intimate partner violence from the community to the state. While that initial move grew out of community failures to sufficiently protect people from abuse, the result has been to relieve communities of any responsibility for or ability to hold community members accountable without resorting to the criminal legal system.”

Weighing the penal rationales, both retributive and utilitarian, against the costs of the criminal model, Goodmark finds that domestic violence behavior do not seem to be deterred through arrests and convictions, though, as she points out, measuring deterrence is difficult because new arrests capture only a small part of recidivist behavior. Goodmark is concerned that carcerality and collateral consequences might outweigh the benefits of criminal enforcement, both on the individual level and on the level of communities and neighborhoods. Even the benefits of criminalization–the resources brought to the movement, safety of victims, and expressive value of criminalization–are muddled because they are not spread evenly across the population.

The remaining chapters of Goodmark’s book shine spotlights on alternative frameworks for understanding and addressing domestic violence: economic, public health, community, and human rights models, respectively. Goodmark finds that the lion share of domestic violence costs, already correlated with preexisting poverty and material deprivation, is borne by the people who are subjected to abuse—and that these costs stem not only from the violence itself (in the form of medical and mental health as well as economic abuse), but also from the state response to it: for example, survivors’ inability to find and keep secure housing is associated with domestic violence, most perniciously through evictions for nuisance (the nuisance itself being either the violence or the police response to it.) Financial literacy programs offer some relief, but are themselves grounded in corporate capitalism. For people who abuse, the economic hardships that flow from a state response to domestic violence, particularly the emasculating aspect of losing one’s job, can trigger escalation in violent behavior. Goodmark also finds benefits to a public health approach, which views intimate partner violence as a preventable problem and emphasizes preventative efforts in the form of education for men and boys, as well as–importantly–the prevention of adverse childhood experiences, which correlate with perpetuating the cycle of abuse in adulthood. She also examines community interventions, including a range of restorative and transformative justice approaches, and argues that community-based responses could shift societal norms around intimate partner violence and provide meaningful justice for people subjected to abuse. Goodmark is somewhat less sanguine about relying on an international human rights framework for domestic violence prevention and response, arguing that the vague formulations of protections in international and regional treaties could intersect poorly with the primarily-criminal domestic framework in the U.S.

Goodmark concludes that a balanced policy approach to intimate partner violence would work better than a predominantly carceral model. She recommends introducing legislation addressing economic abuse and financial empowerment and literacy programs for survivors. She also recommends adopting public health preventative measures and community-based alternatives, and relegating the criminal legal system to a last-resort role for serious cases.

Common and Divergent Themes in Progressive Punitivism

I want to be careful in arguing that the three stories in the books I review here are iterations of the more general trend toward progressive punitivism. First, by no means do I argue that the authors have failed to suggest generalizations of their respective case studies or that their choice to describe a particular scene of progressive activism, to the exclusion of others, is an oversight. On the contrary, all authors, most explicitly Marceau and Gruber, see their subjects not as outliers but as warning signs of a broader phenomenon. Marceau asks that his book be taken not only as “a specific critique of carceral strategies pursued in the name of improving the lives and status of animals”, but also as “a more general case study about the limitations of relying on the criminal law as a vehicle for progressive social reform.” (2-3). Similarly, Gruber warns about uneven, racially discriminatory enforcement in other areas, not only those near and dear to feminist activists: “Take, for example, hate crime legislation, a perennial progressive carve-out. in the face of accumulating evidence that defendants of color are disproportionately subjected to hate crime enhancements, incarceration critics are beginning to realize that criminalizing identity-based animus is a double-edged sword” (184). Marceau explicitly cites Gruber and Goodmark’s works to point out similarities.

Moreover, each of the three books tells a story with importantly distinct characteristics. The particular histories of criminal justice encroachment in each of these cases matter, not only because they highlight carceral tactics, but because they reveal different stories about the internal struggle in broad movements between those who support and oppose carcerality. While Marceau’s story reads more as a surprising carceral consensus among animal rights advocates, Goodmark’s and, to a greater extent, Gruber’s, unveil how trends and strategies vary over time, with the carceral animus ebbing and flowing along with local politics, regional differences, and the particular personalities of advocates.

I argue that we need both detailed case studies and a generalized bird’s-eye view: the narratives have value on their own as well as cumulative value when read together. Seeing progressive punitivism as a broad phenomenon is important for several reasons. First, I suspect that single-issue advocates may fail to see the way in which the undesirable application of punitive principles to targets of “other” movements might educate them as to the choices they make regarding their own targets. There is much that progressive movements can learn from each other if they set aside the unique features of their respective pet causes and listen. Second, as Gwendolyn Leachman and I argued elsewhere, sometimes progress for one progressive cause can spill over and hamper the progress of another. Progressive advocates have much to gain from coordinating their strategies in ways that do not sabotage other important struggles. And third,  reading accounts of progressive punitivism in tandem can offer some insights about the extent to which punitive policies are openly chosen, or merely swept, consciously or unconsciously, into the current of the punitive zeitgeist. These insights can be deeply uncomfortable for progressive activists, who earnestly take on causes in an effort to bring more justice and compassion into the world, but they are crucial if we are to develop a broader vision of the world we’d like to see. Here, then, are a few of the common themes I find in all three books:

Who Subjugated Whom – Progressive Movements or the Carceral State?

All three accounts offer reflections on the extent to which carceral advocacy was an an explicit choice, and are sensitive to the fact that what seems like a terrible choice in hindsight could have emerged from a perceived lack of choice in the past. Trying to provide support for beings whose health (and sometimes their very existence) is threatened and precarious is a difficult task. Marceau recognizes that “the attraction to criminal punishment might be charitably viewed as an act of desperation by persons and organizations seeking a foothold in a legal world that has proven itself hostile to recognizing animals as deserving of meaningful consideration or protection” (10.) Gruber situates Progressive Era reformers, such as the leaders of the Temperance movement, within their race and class identities, arguing that their perception of women different from them, whom they sought to protect, colored their notion of the appropriate policies. Similarly, Goodmark provides a nuanced account of both community justice initiatives and international treaties, pointing to the sincere beliefs of their advocates that they would provide holistic, not-necessarily-punitive solutions to the problem.

Nevertheless, to a contemporary reader, it seems that the relationship between progressive advocacy and the punitive animus is a symbiotic one. In all three examples, the carceral state seems to have gained at least as much from coopting progressive campaigns as progressives gained from embracing carceral principles. Examples of this trade-off abound in all three accounts. Marceau’s irate description of the free-speech-limiting remedy sought in Stevens explicitly alerts readers to the frightening erosion in constitutional protections that could have resulted from a narrow victory to the animal rights camp. Gruber shows the extent to which the Reagan administration, and later the Bush administration, benefitted from adopting the women’s rights cause as their own and contributing to imbuing it with carceral “flavor.” And Goodmark shows how neoliberal approaches to poverty and housing, which essentially flout any responsibility for the basic needs of people at the bottom of the social ladder, benefit from carceral approaches; her account is particularly heart-wrenching when she describes how landlords are often victorious in courts when evicting women who are abused by their partners on the basis of “nuisance”–the nuisance being the very calls to the police that these women are encouraged to make.

At the same time, none of the books absolves the activists of responsibility. The choices of poster-children and “pet causes” in all three books seem very deliberate, and geared to find sympathy among broad swaths of the public not generally inclined toward progressive change. Appealing for support for highly anthropomorphized pets (but not for the factory-farmed animals that most Americans consume, oblivious or obtuse to their suffering) or for white, attractive, middle-class victims of stranger assault (but not for sex workers or other victims/survivors whose behavior is ambiguous) is a strategic choice designed to form a coalition with the prevailing punitive forces, rather than, say, with the far more marginalized advocates of animal rights or sex work reform. We receive intelligent, nuanced accounts of strategic collaboration and tactical choices that are effective on one hand but destructive on the other.

Criminal Law as a “Conversation Starter,” Not a Problem Solver  

Related to the genesis of carcerality is the question of the goal of pursuing carceral outcomes. Because, in all three books, carceral policies are adopted as one strategy among other options, these accounts highlight the ways in which the movements hope to leverage the successes in the criminal realm onto broader achievements. Gruber’s account of second-wave feminists’ efforts to place the issue of domestic violence, and later acquaintance rape, on the map, to make them visible, demonstrates how criminal prosecutions were supposed to frame these issues as important social policy matters. Goodmark, too, explains that the criminal model of domestic violence serves a symbolic function, not merely a retributive or utilitarian one. And, as Marceau explains, animal cruelty prosecutions are perceived as raising the profile of animal protection as an important societal program: “over time,” many senior figures in the animal protection world think, “these prosecutions and longer sentences, it is argued, will result in a widespread acceptance of animals as enjoying a more significant legal status” (96).

Flawed Intersectionality: Oppressing Marginalized Populations in the Name of Social Justice

Relatedly, all three books highlight the ways in which moving to criminalize, convict, and punish a wide swath of behaviors results in the usual patterns we see in punitive criminal justice: targeting and overrepresentation of marginalized people, particularly along the dimensions of race and class. This is evident in Marceau’s account of behaviors that are and are not criminalized in animal cruelty laws. For example, of all the animal entertainment practices, states have banned the racialized and class-identified practices of dog and cock fighting, as opposed to the similarly cruel practices of penning, hunting, and fishing, which are associated with white people. Similarly, along the class dimension, Marceau points out the hypocritical web of legal exemptions from prosecution of factory farms; these exist in forty states, and in twelve of them the exemptions were created in tandem with the raising of animal cruelty crimes to felony level. But even where discretion is allowed by law, Marceau shows the disproportionate impact on racial minorities and undocumented workers. He criticizes the movement’s “jubilation over the prospect of incarceration for immigration offenses and support for deportation proceedings” (6), and argues that the message of giving a voice to the voiceless falls flat when it “completely ignores the power dynamic between an undocumented immigrant and his corporate employer” (17.) It is also a counterproductive strategy from the animal protection perspective, because it is “heedless of the possibility that such prosecutions may ultimately allow the industry to scapegoat precisely these low-level employees” (45).

Both Gruber and Goodmark’s accounts provide a wealth of data to show that statutes criminalizing men’s behavior against women are disproportionately enforced against people of color. Gruber’s historical account of the connection between feminist causes and carceral practices demonstrates the seemingly protean quality of race discrimination: not all rape victims were equally mocked and disbelieved. While women of means and social capital succeeded in claiming rape–primarily against men of color, even when the accusations were false–poor women and women of color were treated much differently. Gruber’s account adds important race and class dimensions to the race-neutral (but deeply racialized) advocacy on women’s behalf. This trend continues throughout Gruber’s narrative, culminating in her excellent chapter on campus sexual assault, in which she shows how eroding due process protections in university regulations most harshly descend upon defendants of color, whose access to higher education is already tenuous.

Similarly, Goodmark provides data to show how well-meaning (or less well-meaning) interventions purporting to help women result in serious harms to families–both men and women. In one of the strongest chapters of her book, she analyzes the economic impact of arrests and convictions. Not only do these often leave women who are abused without economic means (and then ignore their pleas of leniency so that they can subsist), but they also threaten men’s jobs; this latter observation is especially important because of the correlation between unemployment and domestic violence. Because people in poverty are more vulnerable both to abuse and to harmful interventions, these economic deprivations exacerbate class differences and prevent mobility for the entire family. Goodmark explains how housing restrictions hurt especially those who rely on low-income housing programs, and how statistical evidence clearly shows a systemic preference for prosecuting and incarcerating men of color for these offenses.

You Can’t Handle the Truth: Misuse of Science and Misguided Notions of Credibility

Progressive activists often criticize conservatives for touting values over facts, ignoring science, or misleadingly portraying scientific evidence to support punitive reforms. All three books show that conservatives have not cornered the market on obfuscating the truth. Marceau’s analysis of the use of dated “LINK” studies, and the misuse of the many studies that refute them, to bolster harsh consequences for animal abusers, is a case in point; he demonstrates how activists organizations persist in “LINK” messaging despite being made aware of the fact that the “LINK” is causally tenuous at best and meaningless at worst.

Similarly, Gruber’s account of the struggle to limit the range of permitted cross-examination of sexual assault victims is telling. Gruber does not question the inappropriateness of asking a victim-witness about her sexual behavior, but rather points out that the ability to inquire into a witness’s behavior before and after the crime was allegedly committed is one of the most important methods to challenge credibility in criminal trials. She demonstrates how any and all victim behaviors and choices have been attributed to trauma, without sufficient scientific backing.

Both Gruber and Goodmark discuss the emergence of mandatory arrest policies in domestic violence cases, and demonstrate how activists and organizations ignored, or misrepresented, the ambiguous findings as to their efficacy. These policies–particularly dual arrest policies–were adopted without sufficient data supporting their role in recidivism reduction, and subsequently implemented in the face of subsequent research that, at best, found mixed outcomes. Similar unscientific assumptions have underpinned arguments on behalf of lengthy prison sentences for perpetrators. Goodmark highlights the overall unsavory effect of incarceration on recidivism, and Gruber shows that the assumption that incarceration would at least separate couples (and thus incapacitate assailants) flies in the face of the many women that continue to visit and support their male partners in prison.

Due Process and the Presumption of Innocence Are Only for People We Like

Generally speaking, the rights of defendants in substantive and procedural criminal law have been line with goals that progressives overall enthusiastically endorse: humanizing the defendant, creating a fair and predictable criminal legislative framework, and providing the defendants with tools to mitigate the unbalanced effect of confronting, as a private citizen, the state’s law enforcement machine. All three books highlight a disturbing readiness to discard these important principles when the defendants happen to be people disfavored by the movement. Punitive legislation proposed by activists errs on the side of eschewing elements of the offense to facilitate conviction. Marceau points out the gradual diminishing mens rea requirement in animal cruelty law, from intent to neglect, and sometimes even efforts to enact strict liability cruelty laws. Gruber devotes considerable effort to describing the evolution in the actus reus elements of rape, from force to consent to affirmative consent, explaining how the new standard can be as vague and problematic to enforce as the old one, and how the interpretation of the affirmative consent requirement can be irrelevant to everyday human communication patterns.

Another example is the common understanding that children differ from adults in terms of their criminal accountability and potential for rehabilitation. After decades of treating, and trying, juveniles (particularly poor teenagers of color) as adults, the last fifteen years have seen a renaissance in our understanding of childhood, mostly inspired by advances in neuroimaging and resulting new understandings of brain developments. But the importance of treating children like children is sometimes set aside by zealous progressive advocates. Marceau notes this problem particularly in the efforts to prosecute teenagers who abuse animals as adults, exposing them to “sentences that may be grotesquely long relative to sentencing practices dictated by a system that is supposed to recognize the reduced culpability of juveniles” (29-30.) Goodmark similarly observes that a harsh criminal framework, which waits until after the crime is committed (by a juvenile or by an adult) to punish, ignores the immense preventative potential of public health interventions with teenagers on mutual respect and acceptable behavior in dating and the importance of identifying and intervening to mitigate adverse experiences in childhood–both scientifically proven to minimize experiences that strongly predict intimate partner abuse.

Classicist and Conservative Criminology: Retribution, Deterrence, Incapacitation

All three books also show a deliberate effort to frame criminality according to the traditional tenets of classical criminology: as a consequence of evil individual choice and nothing else. Contrary to the perception of progressives as “bleeding-heart liberals” who ask for compassion for offenders because of their disadvantaged backgrounds, the movements depicted in these books portray the ideology behind seeking Draconian punishment as squarely classicist, devoid of sensitivity to contextual factors. Animal mistreatment, argues Marceau on the basis of sentencing arguments by prosecutors and movement messaging, is portrayed as “the result of corrupt, depraved individuals, not a predictable result of child abuse, family strife, or other issues, and the solution to such personal failures is always a more robust penological response” (118). Similar portrayals of offenders as monsters, irredeemable except through interminable incapacitation, are present in Gruber and Goodmark’s books. Gruber devotes a chapter of her book to discussing the rhetorical “weapon” of the feminist war on crime: a deliberate and carefully crafted good-versus-evil narrative that contrasts innocent, “ideal victims” (94) with monstruous, incorrigible offenders. Goodmark highlights how the notion that domestic violence, with or without interventions, inevitably escalates to homicide flies in the face of empirical support for successful interventions with violent men.

In terms of the aims of punishment, the perception of criminality as divorced from social context can feed into several rationales for lengthy incarceration usually endorsed by conservatives: retribution, deterrence, and incapacitation. The Achilles’ heel of retributivist arguments, for example, is that reasonable minds can and do differ on the appropriate punishment for a particular crime, but when the targets are disfavored by people across the entire political spectrum, there will be consensus that the longer the sentence, the better. As Goodmark explains, lengthy incarceration not only affects individuals and their families, but also on communities; widespread, lengthy incarceration of men for domestic violence offenses (among other crimes) disproportionately affect low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods populated by people of color, which raises the question of just deserts as they apply to the entire community. Gruber also raises the issue of just desert-head on in her discussion of the campaign to recall Judge Persky. How one measures the appropriate length of sentences given by a particular judge depends on the political lens through which one examines their sentencing record, and as Gruber explains, the data was deliberately portrayed to support the campaign, obfuscating the best explanatory variable: accepting the recommendation of probation officers. Similar certainty that sentences are not long enough is also evident in Marceau’s account: “When the maximum sentences for cases of severe cruelty to animals are less than five or ten years, the leaders in the movement are quick to complain – as one group did in a fundraising letter in 2017, remarking that ‘the animal cruelty statutes are in desperate need of updating.’ Newsletters and fundraising material frequently communicate that months or even just a couple of years simply ‘isn’t adequate for the worst cases of animal cruelty’” (25.)

Similarly lacking is the assumption that harsh sentences will result in effective deterrence in these cases (as opposed to other cases, in which progressives tend to view deterrence with suspicion.) Marceau shows how the LINK logic supersedes any “[c]oncerns about poverty or racism, which may correlate strongly with animal abuse and human violence. . . and instead we are told with an almost religious zeal that incarcerating animal abusers will make society safer. More aggressive cruelty prosecutions, the public is told, will result in fewer mass shootings, less serial killers, and an overall drop in violence” (193-194). Gruber’s account of the tone-deafness of 1970s white feminist activists to the concerns of feminists of color, who viewed the criminal justice system with suspicion, is similarly jarring. And both Marceau and Goodmark remind us that lengthy incarceration is unlikely to make anyone less violent–toward animals or toward people.

The Intersection of Formal Justice and “Cancel Culture”

Marceau and Gruber’s books (and Goodmark’s book, to a lesser and more nuanced extent) point out the link between the formal criminal justice apparatus and the informal shaming machine, as they amplify and egg each other on. Gruber’s account, particularly in her discussion of horrific crimes against children, highlights the perverse effect that community notification and residence requirements has had not only on the basic human living conditions of sex offenders, but also on their recidivism. It is fascinating to see this technology migrate from one context to another; Marceau discusses the establishment of animal cruelty registries, borrowed from the sex offender context, which exacerbate the penal consequences through the informal public shaming machine.

More generally, both books highlight the ways in which mob shaming, particularly through the context of social media campaigns, amplifies and influences the punitive criminal process. In Gruber’s book, this is especially evident in her narration of the aggressive campaign to recall Judge Persky. Gruber highlights the lack of context and nuance in the recall campaign, as well as the deliberate reliance on the identity-driven “privilege” angle (which was true for Turner and Persky, but not for the probation officer who provided the recommendation.) Tweets from the campaign, quoted by Gruber, are jarring and disturbing. Gruber also examines the transition in perspective by the victim, who skewed more punitive as the campaign gathered steam, to the point of appearing in People Magazine and publishing her own book. The farcical nature of social media mobbing is even more pronounced in Gruber’s account of the Aziz Ansari affair: an anonymous young woman, “Grace”, provided Katie Way, a reporter for Babe (a “Rupert Murdoch-funded news-tabloid website dedicated to ‘girls who don’t give a fuck’ and ‘the pettiest celebrity drama'” (12)) with an account of a date gone sour with nationally famous comedian Aziz Ansari. The article unleashed a high-profile controversy about the limits and excesses of #MeToo–even as, Gruber explains, under affirmative consent standanrds, “the text of many current sexual assault statutes makes what Grace said Ansari did a crime” (14).

Similar dynamics were in place in high-profile animal cruelty cases. In one case of abuse of a cat, relates Marceau, “it was eventually acknowledged by the prosecutor that ‘behind-the-scenes’ advocacy by animal protection groups had influenced the prosecutor’s exercise of discretion and prompted him to refuse to offer any plea bargains to Robinson. As the reporter put it, the ‘activists and the pressure they have put on prosecutors have made the defendant’s life, and case, much more complicated.’ After a Facebook page was created to provide updates about the cat, Robinson become a household face” (52). This dynamic took on a racist spin in the context of Michael Vick’s conviction for his involvement in dogfighting; after a prison sentence, a heavy fine, public speaking against dogfighting, and empathy workshops… “Theorists and activists alike agreed that he should never be able to resume a normal life, much less a well-paid career as a football star” (178.)

In both sexual assault and animal cruelty cases, Marceau and Gruber both highlight crowd-baiting techniques straight out of the conservative playbook: “This is the normal cycle,” explains Marceau, “use a terrible act of abuse as an opportunity to fundraise, and pass harsher, more far-reaching criminal sanctions” (51.)

Goodmark’s account of informal justice processes is more nuanced. In her chapter about community justice, she describes the principles of transformative justice in detail, and in the conclusion to her book, she exhorts community justice facilitators to insist that perpetrators accept responsibility and efforts to make amends, rather than manipulate the other participants in the process. Overall, Goodmark sees growing community involvement as a positive development, in that it would return responsibilities to the community that have been relegated to the state, but she does express concerns about the extent to which urban, heterogenous communities will carry weight in bringing a domestic violence issue to a satisfactory outcome with buy-in from the parties. She also mentions concerns about community shaming, though not to the extent of preoccupation that is evinced in the other two books.

A Good Victim Is a Punitive Victim

Finally, many critical works on the rise of mass incarceration highlight the impact of the victims’ rights movement on public attitudes on crime and punishment, and on various aspects of criminal justice policy, ranging from law enforcement to courtroom practices to punishment and parole. But again, conservatives have not cornered the market on what Gruber refers to as the “deification” and “veneration” of victims. For punitive movements, be they conservative or progressive, a good victim is a punitive victim. All three books point out the toxic dynamic of viewing the victim and offender perspectives as a zero-sum game. An ideal domestic violence victim, Goodmark explains, is one that seamlessly cooperates with the law enforcement project and participates in the investigation and trial of her own partner; women who are reluctant to complain or press charges are, at best, treated with paternalism, and at worst forced to participate in a criminal process that does not reflect their initiative and wishes. In some jurisdictions, prosecutors follow “no-drop prosecutions,” which can result in subpoenas to testify; if women violate these and refuse to testify against their partners, they can find themselves criminalized and incarcerated, as well. Even in jurisdictions in which prosecution is optional, prosecutors might assume that they know better than victims what is good for them, and assume a punitive stance at sentencing with the purported goal to protect the victim from the perpetrator.

A similar dynamic is present in Gruber’s account of sentencing hearings. In theory, she argues, “victim impact statements could benefit defendants if victims called for compassion in sentencing. In practice, however, victims often ‘are angry, depressed, and mourning,’ as one victim of the Oklahoma City Bombing explained. Victims’ rights discourse, as law prrofessor Elizabeth Joh observes, netihger “generates [n]or tolerates narratives in which victims’ families can exercise mercy, kindness, or forgiveness toward defendants” (99).

The effort to assume a punitive position on behalf of–but not on behest of–the victim assumes a more stark form where nonhuman victims are concerned, as the victims are unable to speak for themselves. Nonetheless, as Marceau explains, the default position is that punitivism is for the animals: “If we don’t punish (and punish severely) the human who harms animals, regardless of race, age, socioeconomics, or mental health, then we devalue the non-human animal. To imagine that an animal abuser should get treatment, community service, or strict probation terms instead of incarceration is regarded as tantamount to disrespecting the entire animal rights agenda” (7). But as he explains, this position assumes that the animals themselves would wish for this punitive outcome. In one of the most remarkable passages in his book, Marceau delves into zoological to ascertain whether this assumption has any basis in reality and finds that “it is not clear that court-appointed human advocates are particularly well-suited to speak for the animal victims. Ethologist Marc Bekoff has described animals as ambassadors for forgiveness, and Frans De Waal has documented submissive behaviors and kissing among chimpanzees as a token of forgiveness in the immediate aftermath of some gruesomely violent encounters. In fact, some consider the almost mythical ability of dogs to forgive and move on after even the most horrific acts of abuse or neglect an inspiration for the betterment of humanity. At the very least, it is far from obvious that every animal would reflexively prefer incarceration to treatment and rehabilitation. If advocates could truly decipher the wishes of their animal clients, they might be surprised to learn that the animals might frequently prefer forgiveness to a degree beyond that of which many humans are capable. Put differently, whether one judges an animal’s propensity for forgiveness as a sign of a higher or lower biological status, the fact remains that they might be more forgiving than their human-appointed advocate” (81.) Marceau sees it as a “terrible irony” that “by inserting a human “voice” to speak for the animals, courtroom advocates would once again be using animals to serve characteristically human interests in revenge or in the name of preventing future violence against humans” (82.) Thus, in all three examples, at the same etime that these movements “deify” and “venerate” victims, they appropriate their voices (whether vocal or nonexistent) and subjugate them to the ultimate goal of the carceral apparatus.

What Makes Progressives Punitive? 

There is a robust body of scholarship devoted to parsing out public punitiveness, which consistently finds a correlation between punitive attitudes and political worldview. In particular, white men of low income and low education, with a pessimistic outlook on their economic situation, tend to endorse punitive positions, such as lengthy incarceration and the death penalty. These findings characterize not only studies of potential legislation, but also mock jury experiments. And, generally speaking, conservatives tend to endorse more punitive positions.

Progressive punitivism is perhaps better understood through Gruber’s concept of a “carve-out”: the overall positions of progressives are less punitive–anticarceral or abolitionist, even–but there are important exceptions. If conservative political worldviews explain punitivism, what explains the progressive carve-outs?

One way to look at this is through theories of group dynamics and processes. In The Rules of Sociological Method, Durkheim–true to his functionalist framework–posits that crime and deviance perform an important social service. When someone flouts a value that the rest of the community holds in high respect, the community coalesces in indignation and bears witness against the offender. The excitement generated by the crime quickens the tempo of interaction in the group and creates a climate in which the private sentiments of many separate persons are fused together into a common sense of morality. In other words, deviance acts like a natural disaster in that it highlights the interests and values that the community holds in common, and serves both as a reminder and a clarifier of the “collective conscience” of the community and its moral priorities. Even in “a society of saints, a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals,” some rules, even trivial ones, may emerge–solely so that crime may occur once in a while, to remind people of their values, clarify them if they have been blurred and forgotten, or offer them an opportunity to modify them.

In the context of U.S. political divisions, which are increasingly polarized, each political persuasion subscribes to Tajfel’s social identity theory: they tend to exaggerate the commonalities among them (the “in-group”) and the differences between them and the opposite side of the political map (the “out-group”). Tajfel sees this occurring in three steps: categorization (identifying the in-group and the out-group), social identification (adopting the identity of the in-group), and social comparison (comparing the in-group favorably with the out-groups.) In other words, group identification yields tribalism and demonization of other groups. Durkheimian rituals of shaming and punishing deviants would act, therefore, to unify the members of the group and solidify their values; this is why even the self-perceived “perfect cloister” of progressive, anti-carceral activists needs its demons.

Elsewhere, I examined a different possibility. Americans of all stripes, I argued, are so steeped at this point in punitive marinade that every problem appears to them as a criminal problem. With this pervasive conditioning, progressive punitivism could simply be the consequence of lack of imagination: if the only tool you have is the criminal justice hammer, everything looks like a crime nail.

A third possibility I am thinking of now relies on Paul Bloom’s Just Babies. Drawing on his experiments in infant moral cognition, Bloom deduces that infants at a surprisingly early age are capable of judging the goodness and badness of others’ actions, feeling empathy and compassion, soothing suffering beings, and possessing a rudimentary sense of fairness. At the same time, we are naturally hostile to strangers, prone to parochialism and bigotry. It may be that everyone–albeit to different degrees–needs to satisfy this innate sense of justice, or fairness, sometimes through punitive sentiments.

The Future of Progressive Anticarcerality: Will Cops and White Supremacists Be the Last Carceral Bastion? 

Even Durkheim and Bloom would agree that it is possible to overcome our punitive tendencies; one of the transformations Durkheim predicted was from repressive to restitutive law, and Bloom thought that, as we grow and evolve, we can overcome tribalism. This may be the moment at which progressives wake up from their own punitive blind spots. It would have been difficult to imagine a book like the books reviewed here emerging from within the progressive movement just a few years ago. And yet here we are. Perhaps the excesses of these movements have now exceeded their benefits to the point that they are difficult to ignore.

And still, I have to ask myself if this progressive awakening will sweep the entire movement, or retain some last bastions of punitivism. As I write this, hundreds of thousands of people nationwide are participating in protests to express their understandable anger at systemic racism and the overcriminalization of police. These protests evince a complex and interesting duality, which has characterized previous waves of protests against police killings and white supremacist violence, albeit perhaps not to the same extent. The protests are almost always triggered by a horrific incident of killing, usually across racial lines, and the subsequent the legal system’s failure to act appropriately. This makes sense–it’s pain, grief, and anger, that drive people to the streets. At the same time, protesters correctly perceive the triggering incident not as an isolated occurrence, but as part of a long pattern of police violent misbehavior disproportionately directed at people of color. Even as protesters call for a systematic overhaul of the police–defunding, reorganizing, abolishing, which mean different things to different people–they are invested in a resolution of the particular criminal case. Success and failure are measured via traditional criminal justice metrics: criminal charges, convictions, and long prison sentences.

An additional wrinkle to this complex message is the movement’s approach toward protests. The debate about violence and harm to property by protesters (framed as “protesters or looters”) predictably divides people along political lines; now, there’s a debate about police violence toward those participating in the process, divided along the same lines.  Ilhan Omar, voicing the sentiments of many progressive activists, tweeted: “We need to criminalize violence against protesters. Pass it on.” Indeed, thousands “passed it on,” even though homicide, assault, and battery are already criminalized. The appetite to criminalize something that is already a crime–several crimes, in fact, and serious ones at that–even as the same movement decries the excesses of the criminal justice system–highlights the complicated messaging of the protest: on one hand, much of the animus for drastic changes to policing comes from the understanding that policing in the United States is mired in a toxic culture of racist masculinity. On the other hand, the trigger for these sentiments has often been the criminal justice system’s reluctance to prosecute, convict, and punish individual police officers involved in such incidents.

At this moment, it seems impossible to imagine that the anticarceral animus driving works like Beyond Cages, The Feminist War on Crime, and Decriminalizing Domestic Violence will be applied in the context of criminal expressions of white supremacy: killings through hate crimes and police killings, especially of people of color. Indeed, these books themselves position racialized violence as the last bastion of punitivism. Race is ever-present in these critiques of punitivism: one of their common major arguments is that using criminal enforcement to support women and animals tends to disproportionally target people whose plight in the carceral state is at the forefront of progressive thinking: poor people and people of color. In each of the three books, movements are criticized for their whiteness and elitism. And in each of those movements, activists are chastised for pinning their hopes on the police. If so, what anticarceral arguments will we marshal in a situation in which enforcement targets the people who are themselves victimizing poor people of color, and moreover, do doing so as the front workers of the carceral state itself? It might even be be tempting to distinguish the movement to hold police accountable from the movements to hold animal abusers, wife batterers, and sexual assailants accountable, by arguing that the first of these is the only truly progressive movement–one that directly takes on the carceral apparatus–whereas the others compromise by aligning themselves with conservative principles and agencies.

And yet, the rich conversation around police abolition/defunding/reform reveals openness to anticarceral perspectives and reveals real possibilities even in this difficult and controversial arena. In When Police Kill, Franklin Zimring argues for the need to reform police training and practices to prevent use of lethal force, and expressly devotes a section to discouraging advocates and activists from resorting to criminal charges against cops as the preventive/deterrent strategy. It won’t work, explains Zimring, and the problem is systemic, not individual. Similarly, Kate Levine argues that resorting to prosecutions of police officers is a lost cause because of the embedded conflict of interest. Even though #DefundThePolice is a slogan, open to a range of interpretations in our collective imagination, it is a call for diversifying our approach toward social problems away from the single focus of law enforcement. It would be complicated to exclude from this argument those who participate in law enforcement itself.

A few posts ago I relayed another personal anecdote here: when I worked at the Military Defender’s Office in Israel, despite my broad perspective of the occupation as an aberration, I never had moral difficulty defending soldiers who looted Palestinian homes. Beyond the obvious fact that, like everyone else, they were people, and as such should not have been excluded from due process protections, I had a strong conviction that there was nothing uniquely evil about them. Like the prison guards in Haney and Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment, they were placed in a situation in which their dehumanizing activities were not only tolerated, but lauded and encouraged by their commanding officers and their government. I think it’s fair to say that the rot in police organizational culture is much deeper than individual pathologies. I think progressives recognize this–not only in their heart of hearts, but in their voices when they call for real change. And I think we know that real change–if not for all people, then for most of them–does not begin and end with cages.

The Judean People’s Front vs. the People’s Front of Judea

There’s a wonderful scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which the titular character meets the People’s Front of Judea. Or, at least, that’s what he thinks. It’s best to let the scene speak for itself:

My book in progress about animal rights activists who open rescue animals from factory farms looks at how a social movement seeking to transform the law uses its own criminalization as landmark litigation for animal liberation. You’d think their major challenges would come from outside the organization itself–say, from a society habituated to the exploitation of animals, ridiculous criminal charges, a hefty lobbying machine, and the like. But these pressures seem matched by destructive conflict from within–not so much between different animal rights organizations, though that’s a factor, of course, but between the existing leadership and disillusioned former members turned fierce opponents.

I have a lot of thoughts about the particulars of the conflicts I’m seeing in my case study, but it made me ponder the role that bitter personal acrimonies play in the life of progressive organizations. It’s hard to keep a movement going with allegations flung back and forth. Some folks soldier on; just a few months ago we saw DeRay Mckesson trash Shaun King and King publicly reply. It’s hard to tell how much damage these accusations do to an organization that overall does very laudable work.

The interpersonal conflict aspect doesn’t get enough attention in social movement literature, and I think we should remedy that, because accusations, hatreds, gossip, and splintering cause real harm: it deprives movements of valuable contributions. As Jo Freeman noted in her legendary essay about trashing in second-wave feminism, people who survive this sort of vicious interpersonal stuff tend to “hang around the fringes of the movement” or peel off, often internalizing the effects of the harsh interpersonal burn. Of the women she met after she was trashed, who met up later and vowed to get together more often, she says: “Instead we each slipped back into our own isolation, and dealt with the problem only on a personal level. The result was that most of the women at that meeting dropped out as I had done. Two ended up in the hospital with nervous breakdowns. Although all remained dedicated feminists, none have really contributed their talents to the Movement as they might have. Though we never met again, our numbers grew as the disease of self-destructiveness slowly engulfed the Movement.” That is such a shame, and I suspect that today this is exacerbated because everything is publicly aired on social media, as Jill Filipovic discusses here. Cancel culture can flatten the often complex backgrounds for these acrimonies and cause real havoc in organizing. They also tend to linger in awful ways: I’m reading and appreciating Starhawk’s The Empowerment Manual, which addresses the interpersonal conflict as a big part of what happens in collaborative spaces. Starhawk has decades of experience with cohousing, progressive spiritual organizing, and other collaborative movements, and it’s telling that she prefaces her case studies by saying that “[m]ost will have names and details changed to protect the privacy of all involved – and to keep me from spending my golden years dealing with hurt feelings and bitter attacks from those I might offend.” Which, even as she is optimistic about the possibility of overcoming these difficulties, tells you something about how resentments over this stuff can fester for decades.

It’s important to think about where these conflicts come from, why they happen, and whether they are inevitable. Because so much of our organizing these days is identity driven, many of the internal conflicts within movements and organizations have to do with identities. Here are a few grounds for conflict that I’m noticing in the organizations around me:

Perceived betrayals of the cause. These often have to do with some members or leaders compromising over values that other members perceive as essential to maintain without compromise, such as coalitions with moderates or conservatives, seeking personal comforts when others are making sacrifices, or eschewing a personal habit that some members perceive as essential to the movement.

Identity revelations and authenticity issues. I’ve seen this come up a lot in context of race and sexuality, where even organizations who ostensibly declare that identity is not a barrier for entry become Petri dishes for criticisms about members and spokespeople who are “not black enough” or “not queer enough” to speak for the membership. I’ve also seen versions of this crop up in organizing around sex worker labor rights.

Not giving credit where credit’s due. This becomes especially objectionable when a member takes credit for an idea or a contribution of someone from a disadvantaged group.

#metoo accusations. This deserves a category of its own, because I often see accusations of sexual misbehavior–not necessarily criminal offenses, even being a jerk in a romantic context suffices–flung on both sides of interpersonal conflicts. The “allegation-as-fact” characteristic of some of the #metoo discourse amplifies the serious nature of this, because to dispute the allegations is to incur an additional negative mark, that of minimizing and disbelieving women.

Financial malfeasance. Organizations that are driven by vision and charisma are not always 100% clear, to begin with, on how raised funds will be allocated, and as a consequence there could be bitter disputes about how the money was spent or shared.

This mini-typology is just the beginning–I’m hoping to come up with a more comprehensive framework for understanding this. I’m also hoping to figure out whether this stuff is inevitable, and is simply part of the life cycle of any collaborative effort.

Part of the issue with these identity-driven conflicts is that, in progressive organizing, we tend to subscribe to the notion that “the personal is political.” But if that’s the case, aren’t personal conflicts and their destructive aftermaths also political? They certainly have political impact, in terms of splintering organizations and paralyzing progressive action. As many folks have observed, shaping political action through identity is a mixed bag, in that it can stand in the way of diversity. Starhawk writes:

Some kinds of diversity are not meant to work together: if our goal is to ban the growing of genetically engineered crops in our county, we’re not going to work well with Monsanto. Yet we should also beware of drawing too tight a circle. If everyone in our group has to be a vegan, polyam-orous, non-gender-specific advocate for peace, we’re going to lose. To win, we need a coalition of conventional farmers, organic growers, ranchers, vineyard owners and environmentalists who might hold widely divergent views on gender bending, gay marriage and foreign policy but agree on the food system they want to see.

Starhawk. The Empowerment Manual (p. 32). New Society Publishers. Kindle Edition.

This seems like an application of the more general problem that Francesca Poletta discusses in Freedom Is an Endless Meeting, which looks at participatory democracy through a historical lens. While Poletta is overall sanguine about the potential of collaborative processes to produce real change–she discusses the real successes of depression-era labor educators and Mississippi voting registration workers–she finds that when organizations model their political structure and process after cultural models that don’t work–“familiar nonpolitical relationships such as friendship, tutelage, and religious fellowship”–they face the sort of issues that are a bug, not a feature, for these relationships, but become a bug if one wants to be politically influential: problems of inclusivity and procedural murkiness.

But I suspect there’s another reason why these conflicts become so acrimonious. Working for many progressive causes, such as environmental and social justice, comes with a heaping helping of despair. It is draining to see the suffering and destruction on such a massive scale, and it often feels insurmountable even to the most committed activists. Without solid resourcing tools to contain and sit with the sorrows of the world, a lot of this frustration and despair can fester, looking for a “hook”, and attaching itself, tragically, to the people who might be closest to the sufferer. I don’t mean to suggest that the complaints are always or often baseless. Regardless of their credibility, they evince some channeling of more general, existential despair. It’s the sort of thing that makes all of us, in these scary times, channel our inchoate fears toward lashing at each other for noncompliance. Imagine this happening to a group of people who, on a permanent basis, are facing boulders of fear and grief about the planet as political “first responders” to the griefs of environmental destruction, economic inequality, racism and injustice. That this is deeply upsetting stuff goes without saying.

Which brings me to the real question: Is any of this inevitable? Can we learn to process our grief and outrage, with ourselves and others, in a way that brings about growth and prevents long-term resentments? Is it possible–if not in all cases, than at least in some–to overcome these conflicts and bring people back into the fold? Or is it just the nature of human collaborations that they have a life cycle, and personal stuff poisons the well at some point?

I don’t have an answer yet. I’m thinking about this as I see this unfold in my case study and elsewhere. I want to believe that nothing is insurmountable, but I see a lot of negative examples. Tell me the story of your organization, and how you overcame (or didn’t) a season of interpersonal anger and strife.

A Gift to You on Mother’s Day

When I became Río’s mom, my dear friend Sarah and I, in the throes of sleeplessness, milk, and diapers, started an ongoing conversation and bond that stays strong and joyful to this day. One of our recurring gags is an ongoing mockery of parenting books, their jargon, pretentiousness, and dogma. In the baby years, it was child-led-this and play-based-that, you know the drill. When we were looking at preschools, we attended open schools about parent-involved-this and developmental that. At some point I quipped that I would become the devout groupie of whatever educational method would get us off the waitlist. We often fantasize about writing a parenting book titled “Do Whatever the Fuck Makes Sense to You.”

But this morning I realized I did, however, come up with some sort of credo. I offer it to you with love on this Mother’s Day, whether you are a mother, a daughter, or both; whether you are near your mother or you miss her; whether she could or could not be fully present for you, in person, in body, or in spirit; whether you’ve had to make hard choices about the timing and form of your motherhood; whether motherly love is easy or difficult for you right now; whether you are mothering a human child, animals, plants, colleagues, friends, students, and/or mentees; in whatever form mothering energy manifests in your life.

1. I see my child every day with fresh eyes.

I wake up every morning to the miracle that this little boy is a member of my family. It is a miracle that he is alive–just as it is a miracle that all of us were babies once. Even when things are hard, there is deep appreciation and love of the opportunity to spend the rest of my life being his mom–and the incredible gift of love from Río’s birthparents, who chose us to be his parents.

2. I am with the journey moment to moment

Neil Gordon’s beautiful article on children and the dharma starts like this:

One night when he was perhaps eight months old, my son woke me, not by crying but by gurgling and laughing. He was in an extraordinary mood. Fully awake, his face broke into a wide smile as I came into his room, his eyes glistening in the glow of the moon above the Brooklyn rooftops. His movements, still uterine, as though he were weightless, were clearly giving him great physical pleasure. And the attention he was directing toward me, the central object of his massive happiness, was as powerful an experience of primal love as I had ever known. Basking in it, stroking my son’s hair, I found a nearly unbearable sensation of regret come over me.

What was it? I asked myself, standing in the moonlit room. Why was such pain attendant on such massive love? The koanic opening line of Yeats’s short poem had long haunted me as an enigma: “A pity beyond all telling/is hid in the heart of love—” koanic because I sensed its truth intuitively, enigmatic because the list of anodynes that followed—regular, everyday occurrences, from markets to clouds—did nothing to explain what that pity was. This night, the poem’s enigma seemed to me more urgent than ever. What is the pity that hides in the heart of love, and why was it overpowering even the magical immediacy of my child’s joy?

Already, I saw, my daughter had transformed from a wondrous baby into a curious, cheerful, intensely imaginative little girl. Already she had friends, interests, secrets. These moments with an infant in a crib—moments stolen from sleep—were likely the last such moments in my life.

I was more right than I knew. My son never again awoke laughing—at least not loud enough to wake me—and soon that eight-month-old face was two years old, then three, and the fat cheeks had smoothed to show my wife’s cheekbones, and the thin baby’s hair had grown into the thick bangs I once had as a boy. And from that night and for a long time after, my experience of my children came to be infused with this pity of love. So much so, in fact, that I thought it was something very like depression. But as I became more versed in this emotion—and particularly as I watched it in my practice of meditation—I became more and more convinced that this pity was not pathological but existential; that there was within it a dharmic insight.

And Mary Talbot writes about awakening to the Four Noble Truths through her children, and awakening them to impermanence and change:

Motherhood—and its corollary, childhood—in their current optimistic models are relatively new historical constructions and haven’t always had such a good rap as pathways to liberation. Until as recently as the 1930s, maternal mortality rates in the Western world were as high as at the time of the American Revolution. And throughout most of human history, infant mortality has been so widespread that well into the 19th century, American parents didn’t name their children until they hit toddlerhood, when the chances for the kid’s survival began to increase. The probability of child death was too extreme to risk developing parental bonds. For anyone who has had a miscarriage or given birth (I’ve done both, twice), fatality feels—is—viscerally close. It’s a painful, perilous business and an ear-splitting wake-up call to the unreliability of this body, this life, these relationships.

Experiencing a child’s life through a parent’s eyes deflates the myth of immortality in other ways, too. Most of us nurse the illusion of having an expansive life because the murky backward stretch of our own childhoods creates a perception of having lived for a very long time. But watching a child grow up explodes that sense of personal timelessness. When my children were in nursery school, I would come across things in the back of my refrigerator that were older than they were. The very phase of life I remembered as stretching out for an eternity was, in fact, over before I could use up a jar of capers packed in sea salt.

Río is now at a phase in which he is upset at time’s one-directional flow. He eats a banana, and then wants it back. I offer him another banana, and he cries: “No! I want the banana I already ate!” A tower of blocks collapses, but he rails against rebuilding, because even if we build a tower that looks the same, it won’t be the same tower that fell down. Whenever we talk about how we can’t bring things back, I see my own grief of impermanence in him–the grief I felt holding one of his baby suits and knowing that he will never be that little again. Thinking about our children’s past (nostalgia) and future (hope) takes us away from the only mothering moment we truly experience–the one that is happening right now. The fourth of the five remembrances in the Upajjhatthana Sutta is, “I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.” A thousand separations happen every day; our children grow more independent; they leave home; they move far away; we quarrel and put distance between us. And all of them foreshadow the last and final separation that death–ours, theirs–will bring. We are assured of this final loss–we cannot prevent it. What we have is now. And it makes now, which is only now–not before, not after, never to come back– precious and special.

3. Through my child, I love the children of the world.

When I started studying dharma and mindfulness, one of the most impenetrable doctrines was the “doctrine of the no self.” But through Thich Nhat Hanh’s Interbeing and through Joanna Macy’s Greening of the Self, as well as through vision quests and journeys, I learned that the separation between the self and the rest of the world is false and malleable. The miracle that is my child is part of the overall miracle of life. Through the joys and pains of my child I feel the joy and pain of other mothers–human and nonhuman alike. It is through this profound understanding that the separation is false that the courage to fight for the life and dignity of all children emerges. Macy interviews ecoactivist John Seed about what motivates his work:

He replied, “I try to remember that it’s not me, John Seed, trying to protect the rain forest. Rather, I am part of the rain forest protecting itself. I am that part of the rain forest recently emerged into human thinking.” This is what I mean by the greening of the self. It involves a combining of the mystical with the pragmatic, transcending separateness, alienation, and fragmentation. It is a shift that Seed himself calls “a spiritual change,” generating a sense of profound interconnectedness with all life. This is hardly new to our species. In the past, poets and mystics have been speaking and writing about these ideas, but not people on the barricades agitating for social change. Now the sense of an encompassing self, that deep identity with the wider reaches of life, is a motivation for action. It is a source of courage that helps us stand up to the powers that are still, through force of inertia, working for the destruction of our world. This expanded sense of self leads to sustained and resilient action on behalf of life.

Working for human rights and for animal rights, for the liberation of life, is part and parcel of being a mother.

4. I let the self grow as it will.

Many of us are in the habit of boxing ourselves in rigid beliefs about who we are: “I’m not the sort of person who…” As our children’s personalities start taking shape, it is tempting to box them, as well. So many preschool admission forms I filled out ask you to “describe your child.” I can describe my child today. I don’t know if the description will fit tomorrow, or even an hour from now; the self is flexible and boundless. I leave room for my child to surprise me every day.

5. I bring the miracle of compassion into my child’s life.

Earlier this year I found myself facing a difficult situation in my law school class that involved some cruel interpersonal behavior between students. As I was contemplating the unappetizing prospect of “giving a stern lecture,” whatever that means, I thought to myself–why would anyone whose empathy muscles are still growing learn kindness, when our government offers so little in the way of role models? But I was also struck with the poverty of cruelty as a go-to approach to the world. Why would you want to experience the small, petty cackle of the small self, when you can laugh with sympathetic joy and embrace with compassion? I don’t know how to “deliver a stern lecture” on that. All I know is that it has to be experienced. So I offer my son as many opportunities as I can to experience what it feels like to be compassionate–from cheering up a sad friend with a handful of blueberries at daycare to rescuing an errant spider from the tub, unscathed, and gently transporting him outside. We talk about our diet and consumption as choices that come from the desire to live as compassionate a life as possible. It is his choice what to take from this to his future life, but I trust that the experience of compassion itself, which is so rewarding, will be palpable for him.

6. I listen first.

There is a phenomenal children’s book I might have mentioned in a post before called The Rabbit Listened.:

I try to be like the rabbit. It is very tempting to superimpose my own interpretation of the situation, but I am not the one experiencing it. My aspiration is to make as much space as possible for Río to sit with what arises for him, without jumping to offer solutions or framing it in some way. I can help with descriptions, which is also an opportunity to learn how to define feelings, but I need to give the feelings as long as they take to process.

7. I let joy and sorrow grow side by side.

Río’s grandparents, who adore him, live far away from us, in Israel. They visit us for weeks at a time, which are times of joy for both Río and them. When it’s time for them to leave, it is very very hard to say goodbye. I insist on goodbyes in person. Feeling the sadness of parting with a loved relative is a gift. It teaches us that we can contain sorrow and grief, that sadness is a part of life, and that we are accepted and loved all the time, not only when we are happy. It has occurred to me that many of us were not given the gift of being allowed to feel sad by our families, and that’s why we don’t know how to pay it forward. It is very difficult to contain the sadness of someone we love. But it is a precious coping skill that I try to nourish from infancy, so that Río learns not to be afraid of the depths; Khalil Gibran reminds us,

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises
was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,
the more joy you can contain.

When you are joyous,
look deep into your heart
and you shall find it is only
that which has given you sorrow
that is giving you joy.

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart,
and you shall see that in truth
you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Nurturing a great capacity of love also means building a receptive container for the joys and sorrows of life. Offering compassion allows children to develop self-compassion.

8. I open doors to grow.

One of the gifts of adoption is that we don’t automatically assume that our child will have our affinities and interests. He is who he is. It turns out that, by contrast to this bookish/weird parents, Río is a natural athlete who enjoys ball games and skateboarding. Who knew? He might grow up to enjoy going to a symphony concert with me, or he might not, but I open doors to the things that interest us as well as to the things that interest him. Through him, we’ have learned a lot about ball sports and about moving around in ways that were less interesting to us before Río joined our family. I think the lesson can be extended to biological parents as well–our children are vast, open canvasses for the world, and the more doors we open, the more curiosity and exuberance they will find. I acknowledge that the ability to enrich and open doors is largely an accident of birth; because I want all children to grow, not just my child, I work to bring about equality and justice so that other people who love their children and want to open doors for them are able to do so.

9. I build a village.

My friend Ifat Matzner-Heruti, who is a parenting coach, recently wrote on Facebook:

It takes a whole village to raise a child. You are not a village. You can’t be. You can’t do it all, it is simply impossible. You can’t care, and work, and teach, and clean, and cook, and train, and launder, and contain, and listen, and educate, and create, and dance, and jump, and write, and breathe. You are not a village and you never will be. You can’t do it all.

She’s right–and I wrote some thoughts about this a couple of weeks ago. The upshot of it all is that, in the absence of paid preschool or caregivers, I realized that we have an unbalanced life. I don’t need more paid care so that i can work more. I need a shorter workday–we all need that, actually, parents and non-parents alike–so that there is more room to be with my child and raise him. Yesterday, out of the blue, Río said, “I don’t want to go back to the teachers. I want to be with you and Aba at home all the time.” That may not be entirely possible or desirable (and I won’t live with him at his college dorm!) but it conveys a deep, strong sentiment that needs to be honored. Love requires time, and if I don’t have all the time in the world, I want to fill this time with loving extended family, friends, and neighbors.

10. I mother myself.

I apply all of the above to my own life. I appreciate my own present body, mind, and spirit, even as I work daily to grow. I cultivate love for all beings and aspire to put that love into action every day. I listen to myself, I let myself feel sorrow as well as joy with self compassion. I accept the self as malleable and changing and open doors for transformation. And I cultivate a village around myself and my family, at the same time as I aspire to be part of your village.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of you! May your mothering path be filled with love and compassion.

Progressive Punitivism in the Animal Protection Movement

Juno the Dog
Image result for juno dog oregon newcomb
Juno, the dog from Oregon v. Newcomb. Image
courtesy BarkPost.
A while ago, I read and commented on Oregon v. Newcomb, a Fourth Amendment case involving animal cruelty charges. The case was very interesting both from an animal rights perspective and from a search-and-seizure perspective: A cop was called to a woman’s house following complaints of abuse and neglect of her dog. Upon arriving, the cop found the dog emaciated, seized him, and took him to the police vet. The vet took a blood test, found out there was nothing wrong with the dog except he was being starved, and charges were filed against the woman. She filed a motion to suppress the blood test results, arguing that it was a warrantless search of her property.
The Oregon Supreme Court wrote a wonderful opinion from an animal rights perspective: Even though the Fourth Amendment protects people’s “effects” from unreasonable search and seizure, some “effects” differ from others in that they are sentient. From a Fourth Amendment perspective the decision was more nebulous; it is unclear whether the court meant that the blood test was not a “search”, or a permissible search due to exigent circumstances because of Juno’s condition.
But there was one thing that caught my eye as I was reading the decision, and I highlighted it in my review:

It’s not difficult to read between the lines in Newcomb, even though the Court doesn’t really do that. Newcomb said to the police officer that she fed the dog WinCo food bought in small packages. WinCo is a low-grade kibble that sells in bulk at Costco, chock-full of grains, chemicals, and artificial fillers. It’s telling that the defendant did not buy the kibble in bulk, but rather in small packages: poor people can’t afford to spend on bulk and reap the savings, which is true for every product. As Yesim Orhun and Mike Palazzolo found in a study based on Nielsen data, frugality is hard to afford.

Hastings is located in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, which is a window into the lives of people ravaged by extreme poverty. We frequently see folks who live in the streets with pets, which almost always seem groomed, well-fed, and very much loved. But since homeless people’s lives, by their very nature, are exposed to the eyes of strangers, the ability to detect animal welfare and neglect is heightened, to the point that the police might intervene more frequently than when it gets reports of neglect in houses. Obviously, Newcomb was not homeless. But the reason she provided for the dog’s emaciated condition is very telling, and might also explain the police’s zealousness in following up on the complaint.

Don’t get me wrong: I think the court’s decision is 100% correct. The rights of an animal that is mistreated should trump the “ownership” rights of whoever owns him or her, regardless of social class. But I think it does raise questions as to whether we enforce these laws equitably, and whether we should develop means to report and expose animal abuse and neglect in other settings.

Happily, my colleague Justin Marceau from Denver University has addressed this issue much more thoroughly in his excellent new book Beyond Cages. Marceau’s main argument is that, amidst the diverse and varying opinions and philosophies underpinning human enthusiasm for protecting nonhuman animals, the movement, such as it is, tends to coalesce around the lowest common denominator: crying out for harsher and harsher punishments for animal cruelty. And, just so that we understand, this rarely manifests in thorough investigations against corporate giants propagating animal cruelty, such as Smithfield Foods or Sunrise Farms (suppliers of the so-called ‘humane meat/eggs’ to Whole Foods and Amazon): much more common is taking out our collective ire at individuals, because, as both Marceau and Sherry Colb argue, this allows us to keep engaging in everyday complicity in cruelty to animals (via consuming animal products, visiting zoos and circuses, wearing leather, etc.,) while pretending that cruelty to animals is an aberration, a personal pathology of deranged, psychopathic individuals who abuse and neglect the animal we most care about as a society: our beloved, anthropomorphized pets (for a fascinating critique of pet ownership, see Jessica Pierce’s fantastic and thoughtful book.)

One of my students wrote a marvelous seminar paper last spring about touch deprivation in the lives of the homeless and, among her other arguments, she highlighted how we dehumanize homeless people while purporting to care for the welfare of their pets. I’m not 100% on board with her (well made) arguments, because I don’t see the animals raison d’être as providing companionship to people, but I loved that she problematized the criminalization of poverty through arguments of animal cruelty.

As an animal rights person, I am so glad people are making this point, because I think this recurrence to punitivism weakens, rather than strengthens, the animal rights movement; but it seems that Marceau sees this as an aberration of the animal rights movement compared to other civil rights movements. Marceau writes:

The animal protection movement – on an organizational and individual level – regard the fight to secure protections for animals as a civil rights issue. Analogies to women’s rights, LGBTQ legal victories, and even the abolition of slavery and the fight against racism are common tropes. But is the movement seriously interested in civil rights and broad social change? Incarceration is a most unlikely ally for a movement that might earnestly desire far-reaching social reform. Never has a social change or civil rights cause been so thoroughly immersed in the coercive, prosecutorial arm of the State. Indeed, the animal protection movement’s commitment to ever harsher criminal punishments and more aggressive enforcement of the criminal law may serve as a case study for understanding how other movements should conceive of their relationship with the carceral state.

Unfortunately, if other movements have not managed to co-opt the “coercive, prosecutorial arm of the State” for social justice ends, it’s not for lack of trying. As I explain here, here, here, here, and here (coming soon to a database near you via Vol. 68 of the Buffalo Law Review), a considerable thrust of the social justice struggle’s energy has been devoted to shaming, discrediting, obliterating, calling for prosecution and incarceration of, and taking away due process protections from the people these movements dislike. The latest example (for shame!) is the absurd and obscene persecution of Judge Persky; the scorched-earth mentality knows no bounds and has followed him off the bench as well. If anything, the animal rights movement is an example of what happens when this animus, which enjoys considerable success in destroying and ruining people’s lives via the cyber-guillotine of social media, is coupled with state cooperation.

Indeed, that we see this phenomenon operating in distinct and separate activist spaces such as the animal rights movements and, say, #metoo, is proof of what I argue in my Progressive Punitivism piece: that this is not some isolated pathology of the left, but rather part of the collective disease we all suffer from–across the entire political spectrum–as a consequence of marinating in the carceral state logic for the last fifty years. When we’ve been consistently taught, since Nixon (and perhaps even before), that all problems are criminal justice problems, and that all of them can and should be solved by locking people up, is it really any surprise that we see this logic operating in entirely different spheres of the social activism world?

Precisely because the animal rights movement regularly makes comparisons to other social justice causes (which I, for one, see as perfectly apt and insulting only if one views them through a speciest lens), it should lead the way in seeking to liberate, not to incarcerate. The true meaning of intersectionality lies in finding common ground and uniting struggles, not in hairsplitting the left apart. If this movement wants to expend energy in the direction of the criminal process, it must do so by providing strong support to open rescuers arguing for a necessity defense; for people who are facing the carceral state, not propping it up.