Samantha Friedman, writing for Boston's Daily Free Press, took the opportunity today to explain (in a really, really roundabout manner, I'll admit) why nonviolent vegan education is the only sensible method to use to lead people to commit themselves to living the remainder of their lives without exploiting nonhuman animals. What Prof. Gary L. Francione describes as "blood and guts" advocacy can sometimes miss the mark altogether. As Friedman writes:
PETA, also known as People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, is responsible for the reason I can no longer stomach a beef gyro. You see, PETA has conducted an array of investigations on the management of slaughterhouses throughout the United States, and I was lucky enough to learn about their studies. Given little time for mental preparation, my health class began showing clips of animals all mutilated in the process of mass meat distribution. Before that, my theory was, “If you don’t have to meet it, then why can’t you eat it?” However, this video greatly challenged my ability to continue turning the other cheek. I realized that these helpless chickens and cows had families, careers and homes, all beyond our understanding.Friedman then proceeds to write about her ensuing period of vegetarianism and how she spent all of it drooling all over herself with her near-madness-inducing cravings for the flesh of dead animals. Until the day a turkey pecked her and purportedly gave her an excuse to eat turkeys again. I'd hate to see what she'd do if a toddler slapped her shin or her cat stepped on her arm in her sleep.
Now, obviously Friedman's piece is none-too-serious. I suspect that she wrote it with her fork firmly lodged in her cheek, bent on writing something titillating in time for Thanksgiving. However, I thought that her PETA example provided a good opportunity to address the issue of using violent imagery to discourage people from maintaining the daily habits that leave them, in turn, participating in the cycle of violence that is the continued exploitation of nonhuman animals. As Prof. Francione points out in his piece "A Comment on 'Blood and Guts' Advocacy", there are many ways in which using violent imagery becomes problematic when one is engaging in animal advocacy. First, you risk alienating some people (thus losing the opportunity to educate them about veganism) since some will flat-out refuse to look at the images and shut themselves off altogether. On the other hand, thanks to overexposure to graphic imagery on the telly, at the movies and so on, attempting to shock people out of consuming animals could be met with a shrug of indifference.
The most problematic aspect of using graphic imagery to advocate for animals, however, is that it can often turn the focus away from use and instead leave it on treatment, as if the fact that nonhuman animals were being raised to be slaughtered would somehow be more acceptable if the images were of "happy" animals. Take, for instance the Humane Society of the United States' (HSUS) recent investigation into the treatment of calves at Bushway Packing, Inc., where they claim to have discovered signs of "shocking" cruelty at this one location. As Wayne Pacelle states in his A Humane Nation blog:
It’s always deeply disturbing to see the mistreatment of animals, but there’s something even worse when the victims are babies and seem so utterly vulnerable and frightened.The footage is indeed shocking, but it's not exactly breaking news. Every single nonhuman animal bred and raised for human consumption is forced to live an existence that is "disturbing", where he or she is deprived of living a life according to his or her own interests; every single nonhuman animal bred and raised for human consumption is merely shuffled and shoved according to whatever is most convenient and cost-efficient until the day comes when his or her life is taken. And what for? To end up with pieces of his or her cooked flesh on a plate. Every single animal bred into slavery as part of a cycle that leads to his or her consumption by humans is "utterly vulnerable and frightened". This is not the exception--it is the norm.
So HSUS presents its "shocking footage" and instead of taking the opportunity to inform the general public that this is, indeed, the status quo for most animals we call "food" and to press for the general public to disengage itself from this cycle--to stop providing the demand that perpetuates this cycle of slaughter, it uses footage such as this to prompt people to continue funding its anti-cruelty campaigns seeking to regulate what is ultimately the continued use of animals. As Prof. Gary L. Francione has illustrated and explained repeatedly over the years, regulating the treatment of nonhuman animals is beside the point:
We certainly ought to make clear to the public the nature of the treatment of the animals we consume. But we also should make it clear that this system cannot be fixed in any way that would address the fundamental moral concerns. We should not promote the idea that some of this is “abuse” and some is not. It’s all abuse. It’s all morally unjustifiable. We should never use the word “humane” to describe any component of this machine of violence, torture and death.There is really no such thing as "humane" treatment and images such as those captured by HSUS in this (and numerous other investigations) are the bona fide norm, and not exceptions that can somehow be "fixed" by HSUS or any other welfarist or new welfarist organisation. As Prof. Francione states, "We have got to get away from this fantasy that it is possible ever to produce animal products without torture. It’s impossible. [...] Consuming animals necessarily means that we support torture."
The bottom line is that violent video footage may shock some people into making changes in their lives, but those changes may be the wrong ones. And even if they are the right ones, there's no guarantee that the shock won't wear off sooner than later, particularly if the imagery ends up associated with treatment instead of use, and that any false-impression given that treatment has improved won't lull humans back into that same sort complacency that allowed them to turn a blind eye to the cycle perpetuated by their initial demand in the first place. The truth is that many welfarist groups use violent imagery as a tool to emphasize the need for further regulation of the continued use of animals and that the general public is most often exposed to those images within that context and with that subtext.
The current paradigm can only be shifted by making people understand why it needs to be shifted. The only meaningful, unequivocal and lasting manner in which to convey to people how and why sentient nonhumans have the same right not to be treated as things as sentient humans is through nonviolent and creative vegan education. You cannot rely on images alone without explanation, and for advocates seeking the abolition of the use of nonhuman animals to really make a difference in the lives of thos nonhuman animals, that explanation needs to address the immorality of using animals as things in the first place.