Friday, July 17, 2015

Decontextualize...

is a snazzy sounding word which means...according to this dictionary site: "to remove from a context." It's sort of in the vicinity of another interesting word, deconstruction, which has as one of its meanings: "the analytic examination of something (as a theory) often in order to reveal its inadequacy." Deconstruction also has meaning much beyond the one quoted above that you can find here.

Some time ago I was reading some writing by a young woman who works with survivors of domestic violence. She was noting that one of the arguments that is presented to emphasize how lightly or inadequately this very serious and awful issue is regarded is the statement that there are 3 times as many animal shelters in the United States as there are shelters for women and children who are victims of domestic violence.

I was sort of surprised at that data initially, in the way that such a decontextualed presenting of the information is apparently designed to accomplish. I first thought how unsettling that we have triple the facilities to protect animals as we do to protect women and children...but...my thinker didn't stop there. And...more digging by my thinker led me to see that there was something sort of hinky and manipulative in making such a statement...even though it was true...at least on the face of it.

A few days ago I was having an exchange online with someone wherein they were asserting something that I was having a hard time understanding, so I wrote them about some of my concerns. In their response they threw that same 3 times statement at me and asserted that it served to confirmed their stance. This time I did a little investigating.

Apparently that statement is based on some data from 1990, that can be found here, where it says there are 1,500 shelters for battered women and 3,800 shelters for animals in the U.S. Obviously 3 x 1,500 is more than 3,800 but this bit of data is close enough for presuming that this source is one basis for the 3 times assertion. More up to date data indicates there are around 5,000 animal shelters and around 3,361 providers of services for domestic violence victims. That isn't even close to 3 x...but...there are still more shelters for animals than resources for domestic violence victims. If you search for that 3x ratio, you find that it is used in many places as some sort of argument that we care more about animals than human victims of domestic violence. For instance, a page associated with Arizona State University touts this "shocking" bit of data.

That's really not the problem with the 3x meme...the problem is that it is thrown around without referencing context. You have to look at the respective size of the populations involved, as well as other factors, for the data to make any kind of useful sense...unless you're just trying to win a dispute and don't really care about accuracy and comprehension. Which, from what I can tell, is most often the context in which that notion is used.

One very important bit of information to take into account is the number of victims of domestic violence as compared to the number of animals who are at risk for violence against them. If we consider this additional information, the 3 x thing starts to look a little strange. For arguments sake let's presume that every female in the U.S. is a victim of domestic violence...that would mean about 150 million females (I'm including both adult and child females into this number) are theoretically victims of domestic violence...if we divide 3,361 (the number of providers of domestic violence services) into the number of victims we can see how many victims there are for each provider. That number comes to around 45,000 victims for each provider. (150 million divided by 3,361)

Of course not all females are victims...I'm using the biggest number possible simply to illustrate the rather fantastic goofiness that's present here.

Ok, let's do the same thing for animal shelters. One source says 10 billion land animals are killed each year in the United States...and that excludes how many sea animals (another 20 billion) are killed each year. If we use the 10 billion figure for increasing our understanding, we would need to divide that population by the number of animal shelters and that would come to 2 million. (10 billion divided by 5,000)

So, using the calculations above, based on a large overestimate of human victims and a big underestimate of animal victims we see that for each shelter for humans there are about 45,000 potential users and for each animal shelter there are abut 2 million potential users. Uh...that sort of makes the 3 x thingee look sort of...well...screwy.

And...that's not all there is to the context. When the term shelter is used for animals, that includes (I'm presuming) all the small and large taxpayer funded municipal and county type operations. Guess what happens to animals that end up there?  Most of them...sooner or later...unless the animal is rescued from the shelter...are killed. Shelter is a misleading term...these are (not all of them, but most of them) actually places where animals are killed for human convenience. And...most of the places included in that 5,000 animal shelters are just that type of death camp...the number of sanctuaries and/or rescues where animals are safe is much much smaller. I looked a little for a breakdown of safe places versus kill places and found that to be rather hard to find. You can do your own investigating of that if you're so inclined.

Maybe the best way to think about it is this...how many taxpayer funded shelters for animals are actually devoted to saving lives versus being devoted to scooping up non-human affiliated animals and killing them? There are none in my area...every tax funded operation around here is a place of death...if no human takes the animal out of the "shelter" then that "rescued" animal is killed.

One source says that 3.5 million of the 5 million "companion animals" entering "shelters" annually (that excludes those beings 'routinely' killed for "food") are executed. That's not much of a shelter...as far as I know...that's not what happens at places that provide services to human victims of domestic violence. So...not only are the numbers misleading...even the term "shelter" is misleading. Using screwy numbers and screwy language in the same statement...ouch.

I responded to the person who used the 3 to 1 ratio with only the information about population size...I didn't even add that using the word "shelter" for places of refuge for human victims of domestic violence versus that same word for a place of death for animals...and pointed out the error in the statement. The response I got back was...none...they just ignored the information.

Discussions or exchanges or presentations of information can be used to get closer to reality or truth or they can be used to try to get agreement...or both. I'm much more interested in trying to ascertain truths and/or reality than I am (usually anyway) in trying to achieve agreement. My notion is that truth/reality is the important part and agreement and/or disagreement regarding a perspective to that truth/reality is secondary. Agreement is nice...but jeez...if you're agreeing on an untruth that you're pretending is truth or mistaking for truth...well...there's way too much of that going on in human interactions for my liking.

Among other things, propaganda is designed to achieve agreement, marketing is designed to achieve agreement, flimflam is designed to achieve agreement...none of these three things are much interested in truth/reality except as a tool, sometimes, to get agreement. I don't particularly care for any of those three things...in fact...I get sort of offended when I'm subjected to them. 

When someone presents an assertion that is misleading and/or inaccurate (I include me in 'someone') and information is presented that invalidates that assertion...it's time to acknowledge error or inaccuracy and adjust whatever premises are based on that assertion. If such acknowledging and/or adjusting doesn't happen...in this case the additional information was ignored...it's my presumption that whomever I'm in an exchange with isn't interested in truth/reality, they're interested in their stance and they want agreement, reality/truth is secondary or immaterial to their goal. It's at that point that I pretty much lose interest in dialoguing with them.

Victims of domestic violence need places of safety...yes...but trying to garner support for this by using decontextualized numbers is a lousy way to go about it.

And...presenting another group of victims of violence as somehow getting "more" (and in the process spreading misinformation), that's just reproducing oppression, theoretically in the name of providing relief to victims of oppression. We can do better than that. Such stuff just plays into maintaining the astonishing culture of oppression that we all are subjected to...some extra thinking and contexting can sometimes help to opt out of participation in playing one group of victims off against another group of victims and in avoiding being duped by numbers.

So...if you run across the 3 to 1 meme...beware. All victims belonging to marginalized groups deserve protection...but touting misinformation and/or reproducing oppression is a lousy way to try to achieve that. And...anyone believing that more human effort and resources are devoted to "saving" our sister/brother Earthlings than are devoted to humans...well...they're way way way wrong.



8 comments:

Have Gone Vegan said...

Ah, you've touched on one of my pet peeves -- misusing stats. Statistics, as you likely know from your own work, are tricky dicky indeed, and can be used to prove or slant almost anything. (Sadly, I've written more than one research report in the past "proving" whatever the commissioning agency wanted me to prove. Which was one of the reasons why I left that line of work.)

And unfortunately, people tend to accept numbers and percentages as if they're objective facts that can't be argued. Not so. Context IS everything in this case, and as soon as you see numbers you also have to start asking questions about those numbers.

One number in particular that still irks me every time I see it (this is on my need-to-post list) is the 75% vegan recidivism rate that right away was accepted at face value without question a few years ago, and then so widely shared that it's now taken to be gospel truth. Grrr!

joan.kyler said...

This has little to do with this blog post, but I wanted to mention it. Russell Simmons, vegan and animal welfare activist, is in trouble with the Anti Defamation League for using the word 'holocaust' when talking about the abuse of NYC carriage ride horses and the usual day to day slaughter of millions of animals for food and other reasons. I find elitist suffering to be insufferable. Why does one group of people think their suffering is more deserving of compassion than another's? I would think that people who have suffered would be more compassionate than others. But, apparently not.

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting HGV. I vaguely remember when that recidivism rate thing came out...the one I'm familiar with was regarding vegetarians, not vegans and it was a poll referenced by an author writing on the Psychology Today website (link below). The author of the article had written a book I had read and found to be rather pitiful hence I didn't lend much weight to the article (and still don't). It's sorta lightweight words for lightweight comprehension...which is the way I experienced the book he wrote.

Your point is well taken that numbers can be "massaged" to suggest pretty much anything and should never be confused with genuine information unless they are pretty thoroughly understood. Ya gotta do your thinking and connecting or you end up trying to stand in mid-air and pretending you're on bedrock.

Here's the link...just to be sure we're referencing the same thing. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animals-and-us/201106/why-do-most-vegetarians-go-back-eating-meat

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting Joan. I really don't know enough about the controversy you're referencing to say anything that has much meaning about it. I've come to think that some of the comparisons we vegans often make that seem so readily apparent to us...may be oversimplified and under contextualized. I've stewed over responding to your comment because it touches on some things that really are more complex, in some ways, than they seem at first blush. I think I tried to struggle with some of those kinds of issues in this previous post. (http://veganelder.blogspot.com/2015/04/the-complexity-of-similarity.html)

I recently found a video that I've watched once, and will watch again, that does a good job of trying to grapple with some of the decontexting that vegans often inadvertently promote. I'll link to the video and if you take the time to watch it I would urge you to pay especial attention to the video clip Ms. Ross (the speaker in the video) plays showing a vegan demonstration on a college campus comparing human slavery to what is inflicted on Earthlings who aren't human and the reactions of some of the students who were exposed to some of the posters and arguments the vegans were using.

It's sort of like trying to get a handle on racism (or sexism or other systems of oppression). I could grab 10 white people tomorrow who are in my family and I can almost promise you that all 10 of them would be pretty confident they not only know what racism is but could clearly and unerringly identify racism when they saw it. I can also guarantee you that all 10 of them or at least 9 of them would be mostly wrong. Sure, if they saw a burning cross on the front yard of a black family...they would probably be able to see that as a racist act...but if you point out that poverty in the black population is directly related to racist governmental policies in mortgage lending and the redlining of neighborhoods as well as the discriminatory application of the provisions of the G.I. Education Bill after WWII...they wouldn't know what in hell I was talking about...and...the negative impact of those two factors on black U.S. citizens has been much more pervasive and devastating than any crosses burned on lawns over the past 60 years or 70 years.

Saying all that to say...this "stuff" is much more nuanced and tricky and decontextualized and requiring of lots and lots of feeling/thinking and information gathering than it might seem (at least it is for me...but heck...I just might be sort of slow and goofy...who knows?).

As I said in the beginning of this way too long response (I'll be writing more in the blog re these kinds of issues), I am inadequately informed to be able to feel comfortable in sussing out the hubbub going on between Mr. Simmons and the ADL spokesperson.

Watch the video and let me know what you think of it...I found the clip she showed of the students reactions to the vegan demonstration to be very moving and sad making. I previously was way too insensitive and oblivious to the trauma many black citizens struggle with daily and I was very humbled and embarrassed by that video excerpt. This is all hard stuff...hard in terms of painful and hard in terms of appreciating the complexity and power of oppression to proliferate all over the place even when intentions are pure.

Sorry for the length of this, here's the link to the video with Ms. Ross. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1e8bE_QFtLw

Christine said...

Concerning out of context statistics and using them to make unfair comparisons. I frankly can’t see what this achieves as suffering is suffering whether it is human or non-human. Besides the shocking reality of kill shelters invalidating comparisons along with the numbers context I don’t see that such comparisons are useful even if they were in context. Even if animals were getting more positive support pointing this out hardly changes the situation. Would such people be prepared to close down animal shelters and replace them with shelters for women and children? I don’t see it as helpful to sacrifice the suffering of one being for the sake of another but rather to ensure all beings both human and non human receive the care that they need. We should be striving to improve the lot of every being rather than selecting those we consider more deserving.

This argument is all to common and those of us who support non-human animals are often accused of caring more for animals than people when often this is simply not the case at all.

Have Gone Vegan said...

Yep, that was the article that seemed to get the recidivism rate ball rolling. And as you noted, the study involved vegetarians, not vegans. Unfortunately though, subsequent stats that I've seen using the same 75% figure (in itself odd as you would think that at least one study would come up with 68% or 71 %, not all 75% right on the button) seem to use the terms vegetarian and vegan interchangeably. Well, just as oranges and clementines may related, it doesn't mean they're the same.

Sadly, the Vegan Soapbox is no longer online, as I remember there was a post with excellent comments discussing and rebutting that very study. So at some point I'll see if I can write a post showing what kind of questions SHOULD have been asked before accepting that questionable number at face value.

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting Christine. I have a "friend" on facebook who always confronts anyone who accuses her of caring more for the non-human animals than the human ones. She asks them what activities they engage in that are geared to helping human animals. To date she's never received a reply. Most often those sorts of objections are sounds without substantive meaning.

veganelder said...

Thank you for your 2nd comment HGV. I look forward to your follow-up post on your blog.