On Norms: A bulldog…with a knife.


I have to admit that I don’t wear a lot of message tees.  When I do, it’s because I got them for free.  Or because they are part of a campaign I helped create.  It’s not that I don’t like them – I’m just not one for any kind of logo or message on my clothes, usually.   I’ve just never seen myself as an effective walking billboard comfortable with the attention that brings.

One shirt I will be wearing regularly, however, is the new Arm the Animals shirt that my friend sent me as a surprise gift.  When I pulled it out of the envelope, my first reaction was, “Oh, it’s so cute!  Look at that adorable bulldog!”  I have a thing for brachiocephalic dogs…

My second thought was, “Oh, crap, how will people react to this?”  That’s problematic.  As I explain often, I work within the human-exclusive social justice realm, specifically in violence prevention.   We tend to police each other for putting out anything that in any way implies violence.  To the extreme.  So much so that my friend, who does the same work as me, said, “I saw it and thought of you but I hoped it wasn’t too violent.”  My response was,  “If I ever see a bulldog carrying a knife, I’ll think about the message I’m putting out there.”  It’s a bulldog carrying a knife.  A bulldog…carrying a knife…

Hey, I fully believe we need to attend to the messages we put out there.  After all, we have to create environments that support health, peace, safety, and justice.  To do that, we have to promote the good stuff, right?  We have to create strong communities that are inhospitable to violence, inequity, and other manifestations of oppression.   But again, it’s a bulldog….with a knife.

What do you think?  In my work, we talk a lot about shifting norms, often unspoken standards for behavior.  Does this shirt promote/support a norm of violence?  No one person is going to perceive the message in the same way, and that’s what makes social and behavioral change so hard…and so nuanced and exciting.

When I look at this shirt, I get a message that the world would look quite different if non-human animals, who are horribly exploited by humans, were able to fight back.  I don’t get triggered by a traumatic experience I had in childhood.  I don’t see an ACTUAL call to arm bulldogs with knives.  I don’t even see a “meet violence with violence” message.  But that’s just me, my lens.  What do you see?


Categories: Animals, Connectionist Perspectives, Public Health

6 comments on “On Norms: A bulldog…with a knife.

  1. Thanks for this post!
    I agree that it is always hard to know how and when a message will be perceived in a negative way by someone else. I guess for every message it’s different and you have to decide for yourself the importance of the message against the potential interpretation by others and see which outweighs the other. And if you decide, say, to go ahead and wear the shirt, just be prepared to have that discussion with others who may find it violent/offensive/etc. I don’t think there is any clearcut answer!

    • Stacia Mesleh on said:

      Hi Amber! Thanks for your comment. Yes, agree that it is very hard to tell what another’s interpretation will be. I would lean towards wearing the shirt as a pajama top because I think that it does potentially send a message that violence is a legitimate solution to problems.

  2. HAROLD BROWN on said:

    I don’t know if it reinforces the norm of violence but to me it create a portrayal that for one does reinforces the English Bulldog as the dog of war via the second world war and the English and Winston Churchill. On the other hand it suggests that animals should be anthropomorphized as beings in need or wanting revenge. It is like the arm bears bumper stickers. It is as if we want or need to draw non-human animals out of the natural order and insert them into our hierarchies of power found in the world of humans living outside the natural order.

    • Stacia Mesleh on said:

      Hi Harold! I love your comment. So much to think about in so few words. I’m not aware of the dog of war for WWII or how it is related to Winston Churchill and the English. I tried to google it, but I didn’t figure it out. Your second critique reminds me of reading an essay by Mark Twain where he asserts that man is the lowest species because it is the only one that will kill more than it needs to eat just for fun. It seems like the shirt’s message could inadvertently work against animals and the people who care about their fates because it projects the worst parts about human society onto the animal realm. Violence begets violence is so short, sweet, and true, yet we don’t get it generation after generation.

  3. Jo Stepaniak on said:

    Although I find the message on point and even humorous, I am not comfortable with the manifest implication that violence is an acceptable response to violence. It seems to be more of an “inside joke,” and those of us who support animal rights get it. But what message is it sending to others? I believe advocating violence on any level, even that which is unrealistic or perhaps even bordering on the absurd, is inappropriate among those who champion peace and compassion.

    • Stacia Mesleh on said:

      Hi Jo! Yeah, I am definitely leaning towards that line of thinking. Ashley asked me if it was appropriate to post the blog because the shirt could be seen as promoting violence. I told her that I thought it was a great post because she was asking what people thought about it and not telling them how to think about it. It is a great way to spark conversations about what messages are appropriate in social justice and what messages, even comic ones, could inadvertently work against what you most want to achieve.

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