Monday, November 23, 2009

Shocking People into Short-Term Change (a.k.a. Animal Advocacy Fail)

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.


Brandon Becker said...

Without pictures and video of atrocities, speciesist indoctrination from corporations that "everything is fine, animals are happy, you need our products to survive" and the cultural norm that "animals are ours to use, just don't cause them too much suffering" supercedes all other concerns.

In order to break through the walls built up to keep the public consuming, non-vegans need to be shown the reality of speciesist oppression. Industry keeps their cruel and unjust practices hidden (slaughterhouses and vivisection labs are highly guarded), because they know exposure of the truth will cause loss of support.

When talking to others, I focus on moral arguments about other animals' interest in life and liberty and how they should be free from exploitation by humans. I don't get into much discussion about abusive conditions unless asked, but I do always make sure to have literature on hand to allow them to witness reality.

OhSoooSara said...

I became vegan immediately after seeing a movie that showed slaughterhouse footage and found myself very quickly connecting with the vegan abolitionist movement, it just made sense. So thankful for the Vegan Freak podcast which helped me develop and clarify my stance in terms of veganism and lead me to Gary Francione. (Gary put me on to your awesome blog :D)

I appreciate this post because I often think (and am totally dumbfounded) by the fact that my best friend, the one who gave me the movie about going vegan, who watched the same footage of the slaughter house and dairy farm, continues to be an omnivore. Her sister, who also watched the movie, was a vegetarian (maybe) for a couple months and then went back to being an omivore. I often think..."how the fuck can you guys eat this shit after seeing the same shit I saw?" (excuse my mental language)

I think seeing the truth and viewing the violence with your own eyes is very important, but obviously for some people it is not enough and they are still able to shut themselves down when it's time to eat. My friend and I like to get together and cook though, usually once a week. If anything, I think the delicious all vegan meals that we prepare will get her to cross over to the bright side eventually. She always says how "meaty" the mushrooms are.

Bea Elliott said...

Interesting post. I think it's hard to judge what is "enough" or "too much" regarding imagery as advocacy. But as long as the end message addresses ending ALL exploitation to all nonhumans-"shocking footage" can sometimes be effective. It definately has a place if it advocates for abolition and not regulation...

Philip Steir said...

How did you become vegan?

I think the above question is your answer...

I once...played in a band that toured all over the world and we talked veganism and explained animal rights using abolitionist language and sentiments in all of our interviews and at concerts.
We managed to get a lot of people talking about animal rights...for sure.
I agree that teaching people with words.... and using non violent education about why living vegan is the only route that will end non human animal slavery.
It's extremely wonderful to engage with language about why it's wrong to kill animals who do not wish to be killed.
However, once my band started to show video images of slaughterhouses on stage during our performances it changed EVERYTHING!
People could not escape the reality of that footage...could not make excuses anymore regarding the unnecessary violence that their chicken or steak dinners were born from. They could no longer make jokes about how unimportant it seemed in being an animal rights supporter was.
Some people no doubt will be changed through introspection and contemplation...some by moral arguments given by others with convincing words yet... some by seeing the truth with their own eyes.
I've had countless ongoing contentious conversations with friends who once they finally sat down and saw with their own eyes...Meet your Meat or Earthlings..... had really imagined that THEY were on the winning side of the animal rights issue.
Once they viewed what it was I was talking about... it changed them forever...most have gone vegan.

Also...important to note that showing people footage of the reality of what happens to animals being killed for food is not "violent education"...It's a way of proving that something exists to the in denial crowd or the psuedo intellectual human chauvinists types by utilizing documented evidence..
Like footage from German concentration camps... shown to holocaust deniers...or documented surveillance video of a crime scene....shown to a jury.... Or....the extra proof that finding fossils has given to Darwin's original argument for evolution by natural selection.
When it comes to changing peoples hearts about animals... let them SEE what they would never want to put in their own mouths.
Confronting humans with visual proof is not shocking and in no way short term.
Allowing people to escape the violence by protecting them from seeing the truth is akin to the Bush admin... not allowing photos of returning coffins coming home from Iraq.Pathetic and dishonest.
Seeing is believing and is knowing.
Seeing is also in most instances game changing.

Veganly yours,


Vanilla Rose said...

"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."

Interesting. I wonder if she was actually waving her arm about near the turkey in the hope it actually would peck her??????

M said...

Sorry that I haven't responded to comments. I've had a house-guest for the past couple of weeks and have been staying off the interwebs. I'll try to make time over the next few days.

I just wanted to leave a quick comment, though, to say that my main point with my post was to emphasize that using graphic imagery alone in no way guarantees that you'll change anyone's mind about consuming/exploiting animals. We had to educate them as well, using words and using reason.