Monday, November 29, 2010

PETA's Problem

When I read criticism of PETA, like this at Feministing, my first instinct is to defend PETA. The animal rights organization is an easy target, and people are, I think, rather comfortable lambasting animal rights advocates as extremist weirdos. And PETA is, after all, fighting the good fight, even if their tactics are questionable. Animal rights/welfare advocates face such a daunting task and resistant society that I feel we should try stick together and defend each other.

But, of course, Vanessa at Feministing is right. Advocating for animals does not require objectifying women. PETA doesn't need to offend or trivialize in order to actually promote its message.

I've long thought that PETA has two primary goals--help animals and promote PETA--and it is sometimes unclear which goal is #1. But I think I see why self-promotion is so ingrained in PETA's DNA. PETA is a somewhat older animal rights organizations, and when PETA began, the issues being raised by animal rights and animal welfare advocates may not have been very vivid in mainstream discourse. These issues were new and strange, and promoting the idea that animals exist for reasons other than human exploitation faced (and of course still faces) fierce resistance. As the primary organization devoted to such issues, self-promotion was actually a necessary strategy for the other goal of, in the short and long term, improving the lives of animals. By making people aware that there even was an organization devoted to the ethical treatment of animals, PETA was making people aware of some of the ethical concerns with how to treat animals. In that sense, any publicity is good publicity, and raunchy, shocking, and controversial advertisements and protests were effective in raising awareness.

But, in part because of PETA's work, many of the issues that PETA now highlights (don't buy fur, don't test on animals, don't eat animals, etc.) are well-known issues. People today are, I think, more aware of the ethical issues surrounding exploitation of animals than ever (which doesn't mean that exploitation doesn't continue rampantly, but people are aware of the issues). There may no longer be a need to be shocking and sensational to get people to look at an issue--in fact, shocking and sensational may actually hurt the cause by making advocates look like, well, extremist weirdos.

And there's the problem: PETA never grew up.

I think PETA still operates on the idea that self-promotion of PETA is good for animals, and still operates on the notion that any publicity is good publicity, because it brings attention to the issues. But a lot of this publicity actually harms PETA's reputation, including among people who might otherwise be receptive to PETA's messages. And a lot of this publicity actually offers nothing, nothing at all, new to an issue with which people are already aware. Does this provide new perspective, or give positive encouragement, on the issue of fur? I'm doubtful.

An organization that is more mature, that advocates in a provocative but serious way, is Mercy for Animals. Ads like this and this advocate without self-promotional sensationalism or offensive sexism. My hope is either that organizations like Mercy for Animals become the more prominent, influential, and visible animal rights organizations, and/or that PETA matures and advocates without sensationalism for the sake of sensationalism, without sexism, without such overt self-promotion.

I'll continue to support PETA, and I'll continue to defend allies. But spreading the message itself is difficult enough: we don't need to use advocacy strategies that themselves turn otherwise receptive audiences away.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A system of cruel indifference

Thesis One: an animal is a conscious being capable of suffering.
Thesis Two: an animal is a being whose suffering should be of concern to humans.

Via, The Human Society has a new video about the treatment of turkeys in industrial agriculture. A telling line from the Star Tribune article on the matter:

"Willmar [Poultry Co.] said much of what the video shows is acceptable industry practice..."

When we see video like this, we are not seeing unique aberrations of cruel indifference: we are seeing evidence of a system of cruel indifference.

And this is where things get fundamental: for animals to be treated the way animals are being treated in that video, people must either fail to see animals as conscious beings that can suffer, or they must fail to see the suffering of animals as something that should matter. It's quite obvious that a system in which this is "acceptable industry practice" fails to accept at least one of those two theses above. And for consumers/eaters who view such video, the consequence of accepting the above theses should evoke a desire to no longer support such a system.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Small Government Violence

In today's political discourse, the rhetoric of "small government" is entirely divorced from state violence, and evidently makes no reference to it.

If you rail against the incompetence of government, but support the death penalty, then you have faith that the government will be mistake-free in investigating crimes, prosecuting the guilty parties, and carrying out executions.

If you say that government cannot solve problems, but support a massive defense budget and interventionist wars, then you believe that the government can solve problems through the use of government military force.

If you decry government tyranny over the individual, but support torture, then you want government officials to have power to inflict devastating harm on the individual.

In other words, if you support many forms of state violence while decrying the size and power of the state, your rhetoric is empty.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Conscience and Public Policy

At NPR, Kathryn Jean Lopez implores Barack Obama to make "permanent and universal" a policy that calls for "No federal taxpayer funding of abortion, period."

She argues:

"You and I don't have to agree on the morality of abortion to keep my money out of it. [...] It would show you respect the moral consciences of many Americans — and that you don't view us as enemies."

As a pacifist, I am intrigued by Ms. Lopez's line of argument. I believe war is morally wrong. Since Ms. Lopez believes that government money should not be used on activities that violate citizens' private consciences, I am certain Ms. Lopez would also support a ban on using federal taxpayer funding on foreign wars. After all, we don't have to agree on the morality of warfare to keep my money out of it.

I am also intrigued by this argument as an animal rights advocate. I hope Ms. Lopez would join me in supporting an end to government subsidies for animal agriculture and a ban (or very significant limit) on government funding for scientific research using animals. Such a policy would show that those in power respect the moral consciences of many Americans.

It may be that sometimes good public policy violates the consciences of individual citizens. But if it is the case that we will tie the use of federal taxpayer dollars to individual consciences, perhaps the government should cease funding any activities that violate any citizens' consciences, even if it doesn't violate others'.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Torture and Impunity

Amy Davidson, in "Torture is Free" at The New Yorker:

"Maybe what is meant is that torture is illegal but you don’t actually get punished for it..."

Torture is the philosophical cousin of war. When you convince yourself in the pursuit of a given end, inflicting violence on human beings is an acceptable means, you have war and you have torture. When you believe that an enemy is so fundamentally not like you, and thus is not worthy dignity or rights, you have war and you have torture.

Why won't torturers ever be punished, even though torture is illegal? Why can they boldly confess and defend torture? Because, I think, the same impulse that convinced (and convinces) people that war is justified (or at the very least can be carried out in good faith) convinces people that torture can be justified (or at the very least not a crime worthy of punishment).

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

On the need to out ourselves

Here is a generalization, but I think it is true: most people feel very comfortable publicly expressing contempt for animal rights groups, disdain for PETA in particular, and derision for vegans and vegetarians. I've certainly heard it plenty. And I think one reason is obvious: people expressing such attitudes don't think that anybody actually holding any animal rights views could possibly be in their company. Most people, in most situations, seem unlikely to say they hate a group in front of members of that group, or to claim that anybody holding such views is crazy. At least in most polite, sociable or professional situations.

And that's why I think it is worthwhile, in the company of those we are often around but who may not know us well, to out our vegetarianism, veganism, animal welfare, or animal rights views. I think there's value in showing people that somebody quite near to them, and maybe somebody who doesn't seem radically different from them, and probably doesn't appear to be crazy, might hold such views. That people right around them, friends, family, coworkers, teachers, students, readers, might be members of PETA, might choose not to eat meat, is something they might not expect (I've seen the looks and heard the sounds of disdainful surprise). It might be good to show people that a reasonable, calm, maybe even "normal" seeming person might hold views they hate (for some reason) or consider crazy. Or maybe I'm reaching to think I might seem "normal" to anybody.