Last weekend in Los Angeles marked the 2nd Annual Fair Trade Fashion Show fundraiser—born as a way to promote both the economic empowerment of vulnerable women living around the globe and ethically made apparel that doesn’t harm people, animals, or the planet.
As an invited panelist, I had the opportunity to discuss why I supported the event. Since the focus was on empowering and telling the stories of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo specifically, I referred to my work in Congo as a medical consultant for Physicians for Human Rights, where my colleagues and I work toward ending impunity for sexual violence. Through my work in Congo and other areas of Africa, I’ve seen firsthand how economic empowerment and independence are critical to protect the health and well-being of women and girls.
I also appreciated the fashion show’s emphasis on intersectionality—specifically the critical links between human rights, animal protection, and environmental conservation. As I’ve written before, through my work as a physician and human and animal rights advocate, I’ve come to realize that there is important common ground occupied by those working on behalf of people and animals.
In preparing for the event in Los Angeles, I was reminded that we live in a strange time, an era marked by contradictions. In a relatively short period of time, tremendous strides have been made toward social justice. However, the world still continues to unravel with stories of human trafficking and slavery and industrialized cruelty toward people and animals in exploitative places like sweatshops and factory farms.
What has given rise to these contradictions? Why are so many still suffering when awareness about their suffering is growing? Is it perhaps because of our reluctance to examine the root causes of violence and suffering?
If we look closely, there are common themes to much of the cruelty that plagues society. Domination, exploitation, and abuses of power—often fueled by prejudice—are the pathological explanations for much of the violence and suffering around the world.
Violence extends beyond physical abuse; it also involves mental abuse. Domination and oppression – as causes of violence – deprive individuals of their fundamental need for liberty, justice, and opportunity, which can lead to physical and mental suffering.
But these themes are not new. For centuries to millennia, marginalized bodies have been captured, abducted, enslaved, exploited, and abused simply because of their color, shape, size, or bend. These bodies and minds have been robbed of their freedom, sovereignty, love, justice, and promise. Our historical record of violence is now on repeat, tripping over itself, playing the same phrase over and over again – birthed and bolstered by many financial, political, and legal institutions and systems.
As many of us know, the pathological effects of violence are deep and far-reaching, leaving scars on our individual bodies and minds, and on society. Some researchers have described a “cycle of violence,” much like a heritable disease, whereas others have described the contagion of violence, much like a communicable disease.
Something deeper than the heritability or contagion of violence is at work, though. And, as with other diseases, we need to understand the entirety of the disease of violence – root and branch – in order to prevent and eradicate it.
To understand the roots of violence, we also need to understand the links between the oppression and abuse of people and animals. For example, a history of animal abuse is one of the most significant risk factors of who will become an abuser of an intimate partner, child, or stranger. Women and people of color are also often compared to animals, in efforts to debase them.
Each of these links underscores the importance of addressing the deepest origins of dominance, oppression, and abuse – including violence directed at animals. Otherwise, violence can take root like a metastatic form of cancer, spreading across the invisible lines we’ve created.
Peter Singer has pointed out that it is difficult to reject one form of prejudice and oppression while accepting and practicing another. As Singer told George Yancy, “If we think that simply being a member of the species Homo sapiens justifies us in giving more weight to the interests of members of our own species than we give to members of other species, what are we to say to the racists or sexists who make the same claim on behalf of their race or sex?”
Ultimately, a culture of disrespect, cruelty, bias, and contempt underlie pathological cultural constructs like misogyny, racism, child abuse, and animal abuse. Any form of prejudice, oppression, or abuse fosters an illusion that a free, sovereign, and just social order can be broken.
So what can we do to change things?
At times throughout history, violence against vulnerable people and animals has been treated as one problem. In the nineteenth century, cruelty toward people and animals was seen as a slippery slope. As a result, causes to protect vulnerable people and animals developed a common moral ideology and vision, and respecting animals was viewed as a first step toward civilization.
At the same time, we must not turn our backs on problems like racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia. The struggle isn’t over.
As the Fair Trade Fashion Show event showed, we aren’t in a zero-sum game and many solutions are universal.
After all, what do we have to lose by addressing the heart of the problem, particularly if everyone wins?