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.

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