#MeToo and Wildlife Protection presented to The Wildlife Society, Cleveland 2018

by | Oct 17, 2018 | News


The importance of the #MeToo movement can be seen in a larger context in terms of its value to environmental and wildlife protection. This is not merely a social movement and reorganization of gender roles, #MeToo has far ranging implications as we begin to claim the inherent importance of relationality. For too long we have relied on the patriarchal structures of rules, laws, and regulations to define our relationships and behaviors towards each other and to the environment. This isn’t working. Environmental degradation and sexual abuse stem from the same source – the inability to develop relationships and make decisions based on empathy and compassion for “the other”. The #MeToo movement is an opportunity for people of all genders to engage “the other” from an inherent sense of responsibility and care, rather than through the distorted lens of outdated social constructs and norms.

The Shortcomings of Institutional Authority and the Importance of Relational Authority Epitomized by the #MeToo Movement

Alan Hamilton Ph.D.

Hello, my name is Alan Hamilton. I’m from Santa Fe New Mexico. I’m a clinical psychologist and have recently retired from 18 years of private practice. For the past 10 years I have also worked as the conservation director for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Wetlands Coordinator for Ducks Unlimited and the NMDG&F, and chair of the Intermountain West Joint Venture State Conservation Partnership. I’m often asked how a psychologist ended up doing conservation work for which there are many reasons. But this conference is a great opportunity for me add a psychological dimension to this important discussion on wildlife advocacy and the #MeToo movement. But this has been quite a challenge to bridge the three worlds of psychoanalysis, wildlife management and the #MeToo movement. I know this is a lot to get into a 20 minute presentation and there are concepts and language in here that you are likely unfamiliar with, but I promise you I did my best to make this accessible as possible to everyone.

Before getting started, I want to acknowledge my privilege in this conversation. As a white man I recognize that my experience of the #MeToo movement is as an outsider, and I do not understand what it means to say #MeToo, but rather I’m open to hearing, valuing and believing the voices of women in this movement. I also acknowledge that not all women who have had #MeToo experiences are able to share their stories and I support survivors in participating or not participating in the #MeToo movement in any way that is safe for them.

I want to start by talking about an important distinction that Freud made over 100 years ago in his work on the incest taboo. Freud, I think was influenced by Darwin and many of this theories are as much social anthropology as they are psychology. Freud recognized that there is an important difference between a prohibitionand an inhibition.Prohibitand inhibitare both verbs that mean to preventor to forbid. Both words have similar definitions but prohibitand inhibitaren’t interchangeable. In general, a person is inhibitedby internal feelings or instincts and prohibitedby an external source. In short, the motivation underlying prohibition is for control, while the underlying motivation of inhibition is toprotect.

An inhibition is best represented by the innate and protective instincts of the mother. Freud explains that a mother knows without question who her offspring and relations are, and these relationships are structured on inhibitions, internal feelings, and empathy. The relationship or bond between a mother and her offspring is symbiotic and characterized by protectiveness, profound devotion, and sacrifice. With elephants, whales, bears, moose, birds and so many other animals we see evidence of this deep maternal commitment to the protection of their offspring and relations. Under natural circumstances a mother is incapable of hurting her offspring and will protect them fiercely from others. Some birds will take on adversaries that outweigh them 200 to 1. You don’t get between a mother and her offspring.

A prohibition, Freud explains, is much more tenuous and abstract and is an offshoot of the father relation. Father’s don’t know who their children and relations are with the same degree of certainty as mothers. The father relation is a declared relationship. Consequently, fathers have had to develop and rely on abstract structures of history, genealogy and the development of rules, laws, and regulations to keep from acting out incestuously and inappropriately. Freud goes so far as to suggested that much of our civilization is based on the uncertainty and vulnerability of the father relationship and the need for an external structure to manage his libidinal impulses so that he won’t act out and hurt his relations.

The difference between inhibition and prohibition is incredibly significant. It is the difference between I will not harm,and I should not harm, or I will risk punishment. It is important to note here that the primarymotivation for both the mother and father is to protect their relations. But unlike inhibitions, prohibitions exist in the abstract as rules, laws, policies, and regulations that can be changed and used indiscriminately when they become detached from the primary intentions to do no harm. In other words,without the empathy developed through the intimacy of relationships, prohibitions can become disconnected from the morals and ethics inherent to care.

At best, the collective father position, or what is referred to as the patriarchy, uses the external structure of rules and laws to keep its libidinal impulses in control and in support of its primary objective to protect its relations. But this primary objective has been lost and even subverted to the point that rules, laws, policies have been institutionalized and are often considered autonomous having their own authority detached from the fundamental intentions “to do no harm”. Disconnected from its primary intention, and without the grounding of intimacy and relationality, patriarchal authority becomes inflated and can be used to justify or condemn any behavior.

Yet it must be remembered that this claim of superiority and moral high-ground is based – as most inflations are – on an underlying vulnerability; a compensation for the lack of certainty and truth found through relationality and experience. This inflation is evident now as our patriarchal institutions have been given prominence and ultimate authority in our culture. The rules, laws, and regulations that make up these institutions are administered now more for the consolidation of power for a few rather than for the protection of citizens and the environment.

Consequently, instead of being heard and supported, the outrage,anger, righteous indignation, and other passionate responses to sexual abuse and harassment are often minimized and delegitimized by institutionalized authority. In fact, we are now hearing that many of the demonstrations that have taken place over the past few weeks are being characterized as hysterical mobs mostly of angry women. Only a hundred years ago this same kind of emotionality was pathologized as “hysteria” for which the preferred treatment, performed by male doctors, was hysterectomy.

The #MeToo movement represents a return to relationality and the legitimate and authoritative position of the mother. Now I want to be clear here, when I’m speaking of the mother and father relations I’m not equating these with one’s sex. Although mother and father have some basis in biology, in one’s sex, these are very fluid cultural and psychological constructs. Although cisgendermen can’t give birth, nor do all cisgenderwomen give birth, we are allstill capable of mothering. And the #MeToo movement represents a cultural shift and a return to the mother position where abuse is more than just breaking a law, it is morally reprehensible and demands a personal and passionate response.

The passionate indignation at the heart of the #MeToo movement is a maternal response to the patriarchal culture of abuse where the perpetrators protect themselves by keeping the victims isolated from each other and by undermining the truth of their experiences by requiring them to prove their accusations beyond a reasonable doubt. However, this is changing as more and more victims of harassment and abuse are speaking out and their personal stories are being told and validated by others without the evidentiary burden of proof. We are starting to see a more relational authority emerge that is beginning to influence politics, and because of this our policies and laws will again serve more as the protective prohibitions they were originally designed to be.

The #MeToo movement also shows us a path forward in which we can harness the same moral outrage and demand for relational authority in the context of environmental and wildlife protection.Climate change, habitat degradation, extinction of species, and sexual abuse stem from the same source, an inflated sense of entitlement and the inability to develop relationships and make decisions based on empathy and responsibility for “the other”. Here I want to emphasize that relationality extends well beyond human relationships to the places we live, the plants, animals, and other beings with whom we share the earth. And more than just a response to sexual abuse and harassment, the #MeToo movement is a template for howto effectively engage with the abuse of the environment and wildlife from an inherent sense of personal responsibility and care. We need to return to trusting our personal authority that comes through these relationships rather than automatically defaulting to institutional authority and social norms.

The environmental crisis in this country started 300 years alongside the entitled patriarchal claims of manifest destiny, the selfish underlying impulse, to take, use, abuse, hurt and even destroy the other for one’s own position of power and satisfaction. Manifest destiny has been, and continues to be, a destructive force within our culture. All the progressive policies that have developed over the past 100 years for the protection of women’s rights, civil rights, Native American rights, human rights, and environmental rights all represent fundamental challenges to this patriarchal justification of using others for one’s own gain. The prohibitions and institutions created to manage and curtail these destructive impulses in the absence of natural inhibitions, have evidently been ineffective in holding in check the libidinal conquests and justifications of “manifest destiny”.

In the same way we are becoming intolerant and speaking out about sexual harassment and abuse we need to be more intolerant, outspoken, and actively working to change the patriarchal culture that is defiantly and recklessly abusing the environment. From climate change, to the drying of rivers and wetlands, to the mass extinction of species, to the pollution of air and water in our most vulnerable communities. This is not OK. It is not simply a political issue or a legal or legislative process that needs to be fixed. We must start looking for solutions beyond the paradigm that would have us believe that justice and change have to be sought within the same institutional structures that have enabled and justified this abuse and degradation in the first place.

The tectonic shift that #MeToo has ushered in, is in reclaiming the authority and power of community and relationality. It isn’t political (at least initially), it is deeply personal. Here the passionate indignation and moral outrage comes from a deep internal sense of responsibility for the integrity of self and other – a responsibility based not on convention or contract but on maternal instinct. Before the advent of social media, there was no similar platform where experiences of sexual harassment and abuse, and the moral outrage underlying these personal claims, could be shared and heard. The #MeToo and #whyididntreport movements reflect the re-emergence of personal truth and relational authority into the collective psyche; a clear challenge to the patriarchal authority and the insistence on the evidentiary burden of proof.

Over the years we have seen many important polices and regulations developed for the protection of women’s rights and for the protection of the environment. For example, we have the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Clean Water Act. We have Roe vs. Wade, the 19thAmendment giving women the right to vote, the Violence Against Women Act, to name only a few. But it is increasingly clear how tenuous many of these rulings, policies, and laws are. The degree to which those in power are isolated and un-relational is recognizable when the policies, rules and regulations created for the protection of our relations are being weakened and repealed. Having no real grounding, these policies and acts cease to be effective prohibitions and mirror only the prejudice and selfish ulterior motivations of those in power.

We have now entered the age of the Anthropocene, a new geologic period during which human activity is a dominant influence on climate and the environment. Because humanity and the environment are now so interconnected, the environment has effectively become a mirror in which we can evaluate our health as human beings. The destruction of the environment, the degradation of habitat, the extinction of species, climate change, contaminated air and drinking water, etc., are all reflections of us and how well we are doing as human beings and how effective our prohibitions are and have been.

We aren’t getting anywhere. At best we are sometimes holding our destructive impulses in check. The Endangered Species Act and Roe v. Wade represent two of our most progressive institutionalized prohibitions or policies and both are in danger of being repealed. When the patriarchy is blind to its relational deficits and idealizes, justifies, and perpetuates its selfish libidinal needs, we are in real trouble. Our executive, judicial, legislative and administrative institutions as they are now are obviously incapable of keeping these destructive impulses in check, and we have to quit pretending that we can merely legislate and administer our way out of this crisis.

Following Freud’s logic, I contend that our best hope, both for the environment and for humanity itself, is in prioritizing and fostering a sense of intimacy in ourselves and in others so more people are being guided by the authority of natural inhibitions and the responsibility felt for the protection of others, wildlife, and places we love – all our relations. Additionally, we must trust our personal authority, be more confident in our protective instincts and be more outspoken. (Think mother bear here). The challenge for us all is to continue to claim the importance of theseremarkable maternal skills, to develop more confidence in relational authority, and ultimately apply them to more situations while uplifting and empowering each other to do the same.

From the colonization of the Americas until now, the one obvious common denominator throughout is the fact that our culture has been unduly influenced and controlled by privileged, entitled white men. It is critical that our governing body become more diverse and more inclusive of the sensibilities of different cultures and genders that comprise our communities. The ethics of compassion and care need to find more expression in our governmental institutions so that the policies and decisions being made that affect millions of others, including wildlife and the environment, are informed by manifest empathyinstead of manifest destiny.

The same destructive patriarchal dynamics that are now becoming evident through #MeToo as misogyny and the abuse of women, have been responsible our most horrific cultural exploits and abuses over the past 400 years. These include the genocide of Native Americans, the institution of slavery, extermination of many native animals including wolves, bison, the Passenger Pigeon, and now climate change – to name only the most obvious. I want to be careful here not to make too much of a gender distinction even though most cultural, environmental, domestic and sexual abuse has been perpetrated by men. There are certain men and patriarchal organizations that actively engage in, support and perpetuate these many forms of abuse and they need to be actively challenged, removed from positions of power where they can continue to do harm, and even incarcerated when necessary.

The destructive patriarchal abuse of power has been an underlying driver within our culture since time immemorial. But we can’t simply attribute these destructive and abhorrent tendencies to other times, nor can we simply attribute them to others – especially other men. Many of us are already sympathetic to the suffering that has been inflicted on others and on the environment, and whether directly or by association, we too have been victimized by the many forms of selfishness and cruelty perpetrated by the patriarchy. And there are others who remain passively neutral while still enjoying the cultural privileges bestowed on them by the skewed patriarchal policies that inform many of our institutions and corporations. Whether we realize it or not, this leaves us stuck in a paradigm where we are either perpetrators or victims. And this may ultimately be at the core of this ongoing crisis.

There is no question that we need to weed out those who have been corrupted by power and actively perpetuate abuse in its many forms. But we simply won’t make any substantive changes until we locate the patriarchy within ourselves. All genders, not just men, need to critically examine how, whether consciously or unconsciously, we ourselves may be protecting our own privilege and sense of entitlement. Even without actively perpetrating the patriarchal culture of abuse, we may still be enabling it. The only lasting change that may arrest these destructive cultural trends may ultimately be found in the introspective work of identifying our own sense of disconnection, and the compensatory need for autonomy, power, self-importance and control.

Most importantly we all must start developing, trusting and finding value in our own relational capacities and responsibilities as caretakers of others and stewards of the environment. Hope for the future cannot be predicated on being more in control, powerful, and autonomous, but rather in our capacity to become more relational, connected to the earth, and to each other.