PETA vs. the Feminist Blogosphere

Offended yet?

Periodically, animal advocates get torn to shreds for daring to suggest that the suffering of animals deserves our consideration alongside the suffering of humans.  Last year, Natalie Portman had the audacity to ask, “If we don’t tolerate rape, why do we tolerate meat eating?”—and was promptly pounced upon by feminist bloggers.  More recently, twitter called my attention to a feministing post saying “Fuck you very much” to a PETA display that pointed out the eerie similarities between contemporary justifications for animal abuse and past justifications for slavery, eugenics, child labor, and women’s subjugation.

I’m not surprised to see that the PETA display received such a negative reaction.  When a group I helped found, the Princeton Animal Welfare Society, brought a similar exhibit to campus my junior year, I was labeled a “racist” by numerous student groups—groups which had repeatedly ignored my attempts to reach out to them and hear their objections prior to the display coming to campus.  As a result, I’m sensitive to the kind of attacks being made on PETA, which is why I feel the need to launch into the blogosphere my own explanation of why, even if you don’t care at all about animals, you should think that comparisons between the justifications for animal and human abuse are appropriate and defensible.

Part of my problem with the kind of objections feministing raises is the complete lack of empathy it suggests—not empathy for animals, but for animal advocates.  If you take the inferiority of animals to be axiomatic, comparisons between animals and humans are offensive, because they entail dragging humans down to the level of animals.  But even a half-hearted attempt to put oneself in the shoes of an animal advocate makes it obvious that this is not what we are trying to do.  PETA’s goal is to raise animals up to the level of humans: displays like this are not “quite literally dehumanizing”, as feministing insists, but “quite literally humanizing.”  Even if animal rights activists didn’t have the slightest concern for women’s equality or racial justice, there still would be no conceivable reason for them to make any argument that debases women or racial minorities.

What disturbs me more about the recent outrage, though, is the parochial attitude towards social justice it suggests.  As one blogger, Anna North, wrote about Natalie Portman, “I cannot hear meat-eating and rape in the same breath without feeling that the enormity of the rapist’s crime is being minimized.”  North admitted that Portman was probably not trying to trivialize rape—but she nonetheless felt that Portman was upsetting a hierarchy of wrongs that insists that time spent worrying about animals is time spent not addressing more important, human issues.  What bothers me, though, is the suggestion that our commitment to justice for one group detracts from justice for others; that compassion is something finite which must be hoarded for our own particular, pet causes.

I submit that our concern for the suffering of one subjugated group is precisely what makes us likely to reevaluate our prejudices towards another.  Is it coincidence that movements for civil rights, gender equality, gay liberation and—dare I say it—animal rights emerged around the same time?  Or is it perhaps that the same activists’ involvement in one cause led them to think critically about their preconceptions towards another?  With that in mind, how, exactly, does my being vegan make me a less effective advocate for social justice for humans?  If anything, abstaining from animal products reminds me—three times a day—to challenge the received wisdom of which kind of inequalities and injustices are natural and unchangeable.

All this is very different from arguing about whether comparing the slaughter of cattle for meat to murder or the milking of cows for milk to rape is tactically effective.  It probably isn’t.  There are some injustices about which we cannot be rational: the visceral reactions of people of color to comparisons between factory farming and slavery, or that of Jewish groups to analogies between slaughterhouses and gas chambers, should be respected, even if—as a privileged white male with no oppression to speak of in my personal history—I cannot entirely undertand them.  But my own experience as an animal activist makes me aware of why these tactics are inevitable: because most people—including many, many people on the left—are completely unwilling to challenge their own biases towards animals, and simply dismiss arguments out of hand.  To those continuously outraged about PETA’s attention-grabbing (and, yes, at times sexist and misguided) tactics, I offer this paraphrasing of JFK: those who make thoughtful advocacy for animals impossible make stupid, offensive advocacy for animals inevitable.

10 thoughts on “PETA vs. the Feminist Blogosphere

  1. Why frame it in terms of humanizing versus dehumanizing?

    Life is good–a statement not of stoned affirmation, or a meaningless aphorism, but an inarguable statement. One you have to take on faith, because you can’t prove it. You can only believe.

    If it is good, then harming and destroying it is bad. That is the positive joy that underlies all the debates. The issue that life feeds on life and is consumed by it; the undeniable fact is that life will be killed and eaten, the question that is posed by our humanity is whether we will do what is necessary, or what is possible.

    I was always struck by that guy – I forget his name, he was in Tower, right-wing, brilliant, a Rhodes scholar, I think – who wrote a response to one of your articles in which he pointed out that we are different from animals, because we have the ability to think.

    This was part of his reasoning for why veganism was not requied, or why meat-eating is morally defensible, or something; I don’t quite remember, and I feel that those who take on the argument against veganism rarely actually put forth any kind of alternative, positive argument for ethical eating. It’s usually just a criticism of vegan arguments. If that guy did put forth a positive argument, I apologize to his memory. Whatever.

    Point is, I felt like he proved your point. Eating meat is natural. carnivores and omnivores do it. We are omnivores, and the proof is in our teeth. But mere animals don’t have a choice, can’t think about it, and we do and can.

    Which begs the question of what we are going to do with that.

    Not that you and I haven’t had this same conversation, or something similar. I just miss your ass and I am sitting by a pool with a dead phone and no charger, so I can’t call you up.

    Look up some bikes and get ready for the weekend–I am a backup for the First Friday slam, because people signed up while I was out of state. Hard to regret that. But I’m sure someone will fail to show, and worst case scenario, someone volunteered to drop out so I could practice for nationals. I am excited to show off, to strut my stuff, and then get my butt kicked on a bicycle.

  2. Did you see this recent flap about Morrissey comparing the Norway shootings to the fast food industry? Here’s his statement on a fan site clarifying a remark he made to that effect at a concert:

    I have a hard time seeing the killing of animals as motivated by the same kind of *ideology* that seems to have motivated Breivik–rather, it seems as if the killing and eating of animals is done *thoughtlessly*, and that this precisely is the problem–but regardless of whether the parallel is exact, Morrissey’s argument seems pertinent to what you’re talking about here.

    1. I actually thought about the Morrissey remarks when I wrote this, but decided not to comment. I think they’re pertinent, but not quite the same. What bothered me about them was that they actually seemed to trivialize what happened in Norway (“it’s nothing compared…”). Honestly, though, I might just be splitting hairs – whether PETA’s campaigns are tactically unwise, what Morissey said is REALLY, REALLY, REALLY ill-timed.

      I do like his explanation, though: If you quite rightly feel horrified at the Norway killings, then it surely naturally follows that you feel horror at the murder of ANY innocent being. You cannot ignore animal suffering simply because animals “are not us.”

      1. Yeah, and I think in a way you helped to clarify/rescue his remarks: it’s not about trivializing the deaths of all the people in Norway; it’s about treating the deaths of animals with the same sense of gravitas and horror.

        Re the comments below: I see why someone would use rape as a metaphor for harvesting animal products like milk that don’t involve killing the animal, but I don’t think it’s accurate. The object of milking a cow is to get the milk–not to do violence to the cow’s body or to exert one’s power over the cow *for the sake of the power*. In thinking about how to respond to the arguments of people who eat meat, I think it’s important to build in an understanding of the ends-focused nature of animal slaughter and meat-eating.

        All this said, while I understand the PETA perspective, I feel obliged to note that I have not actually been convinced by it myself. I feel as if I *should* feel a visceral sense of horror and empathy at the killing of an animal for food, but I don’t. If there are questions of strategy at work here, I don’t think that at least in my case the present one is working. (Though I have been very persuaded by sustainability arguments, and that has led to significant changes in my diet/lifestyle.)

      2. I think you are right that the motivations for rape are usually more complex that personal gratification, though I think that’s part of it.

        I’m not surprised that you aren’t convinced by the analogy, though – most people aren’t, no matter how you argue it. I can’t figure out if that means that the argument is weak, or if there’s just some intrinsic barrier to seeing another species as meriting the same moral concern.

        I hear fairly often that the sustainability argument is more compelling. It certainly was for me – I became vegetarian not because ‘meat is murder’ but because I was blown away by the use of natural resources that our diets entailed. In my experience, though, sustainability arguments are not, well, “sustainable.” The people I know who have really committed, long term, to a change in diet seem to have a moral – rather than environmental – basis for their decision.

  3. That was great Alex, I’m glad you wrote that because I wasn’t offended by the PETA pictures but I couldn’t articulate why. One thing I will ask though. Why would Natalie Portman compare eating meat to rape? It struck me as needlessly provocative because it doesn’t actually seem anything like eating meat. Is the old adage ‘meat is murder’ out of date now or something? Is murder just not as edgy as rape?

    1. Well, I think she was speaking to other feminists, for whom rape simply strikes a chord more than murder does. That said, here’s why I think there is a certain truth to the analogy:

      Rape is essentially one person using the body of another, without his or her consent, for their own personal pleasure. Eating animal products is one person using the body (or milk, or eggs) of another sentient being, without his or her consent, for personal pleasure.

      This doesn’t say that the two are equal in gravity. But it’s the same idea.

  4. It’s funny. She said this to PETA and also signed a petition in support of Roman Polanski, child rapist. So she DOES support rape?

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