Saturday, August 22, 2009

On Our Apparently Complicated Inability to Avoid Stereotypes

Actually, the inability doesn't really seem to be that complicated a thing. As humans, we lump everything into categories for the sake of convenience and for the easier processing of information. It's pretty straightforward and is particularly true in this day of information overload where the idea of having to sift through facts and ideas and think critically in doing so is daunting to far too many. After all, there are only so many hours in a day. So what happens when we let others do our thinking for us, whether overtly or stealthily?

An abolitionist friend shared a link to this piece by Maiken Scott which appeared on NPR this past Thursday. It's called "Pet, Dinner, Research Subject: Our Complicated Relationship with Animals" and manages to make it clear, with its title alone, that Scott's short article involves our relationship to animals we call 'property'. The piece is introduced with a reference to the recent scandal surrounding Michael Vick, making the general statement that "[a]nimal rights activists are vowing to continue their protests against [him]" and then using that as a starting point for Scott to supposedly "set out to understand the passion of animal rights activists" while "getting a lesson in ethics along the way".

So how does this all play out? Scott basically interviews and quotes four different people. The only voice for animal rights presented is that of Maria Pandolfi. She's summed up as being an art teacher who's grown up with learning disabilities and who "feels[s] that it's wrong to kill". Scott adds that "Maria champions an animal that elicits about the same level of compassion as bugs - RATS". Words like "love" and "compassion" are used in describing her reasons for being a vegan animal rights activist, and Scott makes sure to add that Pandolfi allows rats to wander freely in her home. (Please note that a friend of mine involved in animal rescue and who knows Pandolfi has informed me that she does amazing work through her Rat Chick Rat Rescue group.)

The three other people interviewed are not pro animal rights and are all academics. One is James Serpell, an animal welfare professor at the University of Pennsylvania who admits that he both eats animals and keeps them as pets, and that he purportedly struggles with how he continues to "categorize animals". The second academic quoted is a University of Pennsylvania animal researcher / experimenter, Adrian Morrison who self-identifies as having been the victim of an animal rights activist break-in and who presents himself as having had "internal debates" about his animal experimentation until he assuaged his guilt by asserting to himself that experimenting on nonhumans "is the way medicine progresses, and medicine has helped children, and there is a difference between a cat and a child". The third academic interviewed is Villanova University ethicist Brett Wilmot, whose purpose is basically to assess what may be going on when animal rights activists protest:

It's easy to look at somebody protesting outside a lab and think they are nuts, says Villanova ethicist Brett Wilmot:

Wilmot: We become very complacent when we're in an environment that for the most part reflects our sense of order, and justice and reasonableness, and then when other people are in that same environment and find it appalling and react that way, our first reaction is to think "wow - what on earth is wrong with them" when again, they may be simply exhibiting the same kind of reaction we would under different circumstances.

Er... Huh?

So there you have it. The sole animal rights voice belongs to a woman who is very much portrayed as basing her activism on emotion, and as being open to the idea of destroying property. The other three voices are all those of men who are academics and who are portrayed as being quite rational. Pandolfi is described as engaging in a "passionate struggle" while Scott makes it clear that (Wilmot aside) "[f]or the other two, the struggle is a quieter one, an ongoing conversation and balancing act". How could anyone not walk away from the piece thinking that AR activists are all pro-violence flakes who "lurv animals FTW!!" while those who justify their continued use as property are reasonable, quiet, learned men who aren't the reactionary types that the ethicist at the end talks about quite meaninglessly?


Adam Kochanowicz said...

Yes, whenever a news source says something to the tune of "according to animal rights activist...[name]" I just have to brace...oh my science, who did they get...

Luella said...

Yep. I admit that before I was vegan/vegetarian, I stereotyped vegetarians as the way that woman is portrayed. I often tell people that I didn't really care about animals before I became vegan... I still think of the phrase "animal-lover" as being loaded with patriarchal stereotype.

Thanks, Mylène, for calling this sexist stereotype to attention.

Mylène Ouellet said...

The whole thing was so ridiculously awful, wasn't it?