I’ve had this pet theory, for a while, that capitalism only works if we silence and eschew the animal parts of us. Think about it, sitting at a desk for 8 or 10 hours a day is completely counter to our animal instincts to be in motion. Doing menial tasks (making widgets, if we want to get all Karl Marx up in here) that don’t directly relate to the care and feeding of ourselves or our loved ones makes no sense until we introduce the fear of poverty (and thus hunger, lack of shelter, etc) if we don’t comply.
But instincts are hard to suppress. They’re literally the most base reaction we have. In fact, they’re there whether we heed them or not. That’s how powerful they are. So how does a system that relies on quashing our animal selves counter something so powerful? With shame, perhaps the most powerful motivator there is.
I was recently interviewed by a university student writing a paper on a particular issue in my field and the topic of shame came up. This student asked if shame can ever be a force for good. Absolutely, I said. Shame is one of the ways that we moderate unacceptable and dangerous behaviour. Shame is based on losing in-group status. Humans are immensely social creatures who need acceptance and community to survive. So the threat of losing your connections and community due to hurting another, for example, is a very positive use of shame, teaching people not to hurt others until they can internalize that lesson.
But the power of shame is rarely used for the benefit of the collective in our neoliberal, late capitalistic clusterfuck. Rather, it is used to shut down all of the signals that tell us that what is going on is unacceptable. It is unacceptable that most of us do work that is not only spiritually unfulfilling but is actively harmful for the earth and for humanity. It is unacceptable that most of us live in some form of economic insecurity. It is unacceptable that many of us don’t have access to fresh, nourishing food and instead rely on hyper-palatable, low-nutrient play food for the majority of our nutrition. It is unacceptable that one in three women* and one in two trans people will experience sexualized violence in our life times.
But you can’t start with the big violations and hope they’ll stick. You have to start with the small pieces of animalia that you can tame. We wear clothes because we are shamed for our nudity (I mean, there are practical reasons for clothes as well, but if I strolled down the street naked tomorrow no one would be objecting on the grounds that I wasn’t protected from the elements). We wear deodorant and perfume because it is unacceptable to smell like the animals that we are (this, by the way, is very culturally specific). We hide our emotions at work because we aren’t supposed to “make a scene” by reacting honestly to rude customers or over-bearing bosses like the animals we are.
And when we routinely over-ride our instincts we stop trusting them. Introducing the element of doubt is an incredible tool for controlling someone. This is an issue that impacts everyone, certainly, but it is also exceptionally gendered. Think of all the ways women (and other people socialized female) are taught to ignore our instincts: we are taught to distrust our hunger, routinely. Whether that’s through extreme calorie restriction, or the mind-games so many of us play as we try to negotiate down our hunger (“Am I physically hungry or emotionally hungry? Maybe I can just have some celery and hope my stomach will stop growling. Maybe I could have some gum instead. Maybe I’m just thirsty!”).How many times have you been told that “we often mistake hunger for thirst”? Ten? A hundred? Coming up on a million? Have you ever stopped to consider how ridiculous of a statement that is? If you took it out of the context of women’s continued disavowal of hunger it makes literally no sense. You’d never tell someone that has to poop that they actually need to pee and have just mistaken the two. Or that someone who is complaining of being cold is actually dehydrated. If someone is hungry they’re hungry.
We are taught to ignore our gut in favour of politeness. I tell my clients constantly, “your gut is smart. Trust it.” How often do we override that niggling feeling because we want to be “nice” (one of the most toxic words in the English language if you ask me)? On the bus, with that creepy guy who won’t get out of our space. Walking home with that dude who’s been behind us for too many blocks and turns. On a date with a cute guy or girl who keeps pushing minor boundaries? With the roommate situation we knew immediately wouldn’t work out?**
We are also taught to ignore our basic comfort, from the clothes that we wear (ever notice how many women change into sweats or pjs the second they walk in the door while their male partners are perfectly comfortable in their un-restrictive pants and shirts?), to the shoes we teeter in, to the absurd and painful lengths we go to remove the body hair that is our god-damn birthright as animals.
I’ve been doing a lot of personal work lately, including going back to therapy after almost a year break. And what I realized today is that almost all of the work I’ve been doing is allowing myself to get back to my animal self. It has been about trusting my gut, honouring my instincts, trusting my body, and seeking embodiment.
I recently had a dating situation where someone did a couple things that threw up yellow flags. Not red flags. They weren’t “DANGER WILL ROBINSON” infractions. They were “psst, hey, Will Robinson, maybe make a note of this, it’s a little hinky.” One yellow flag is something to mind but not a deal-breaker. But in quick succession there were three or four yellow flags on the field and I was suddenly flooded with anxiety. Not because I felt unsafe, but because I was at war with my gut. My gut was telling me “you know about boundaries. You literally teach workshops on boundaries. You tell your clients every day to trust their gut. You can’t talk the talk if you won’t walk the walk.”
I had a really clear signal from my gut that there were too many yellow flags on the pitch but I was fighting it because I didn’t want to “overreact” or “be rude.” Despite being in possession of the world’s best early alert system I was fighting something I champion because I’ve spent my life being subtly and overtly trained to ignore it for fear of shame–god forbid a woman “overreact” be “hysterical” or “a bitch” to a man who is over-reaching his bounds.
This personal work has also included embracing my hunger without questioning it or trying to barter it down, and listening to my body’s signals that it needs movement or rest.
Recognizing when we are safe or not, when we are hungry or not, and whether we are tired or not are literally our birthright as animals (ever seen a cat that’s feeling any of those? They don’t fuck around. They get their needs met whatever it takes), and yet we are taught from a very young age that all of those instincts are wrong (let Creepy Uncle Jerry kiss you, you don’t need seconds, go to bed even though you’re not tired). And so our work as adult humans is, in many ways, to get back to our animal selves.
*This is a contentious statistic for a whole lot of reasons I’m not going to go into here, related to disclosure, shame, measurement, etc. This statistic comes from Stats Can in 1993, the last time they did a Violence Against Women survey. The commonly cited American statistic comes from RAINN and is one in five. My instinct is that that is a low estimate.
**Oh do I have stories. And for every bad roommate story I have a matching story of ignoring my gut instinct.