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A Modest Proposal

Dear Mr. Rodman:

In a few brief blogs I have tried to outline my objections to PETA and its tactics.  Frankly, I am ambivalent about PETA.  There is much to respect in some of your accomplishments and much that dishonors your organization and its mission.  I initially intended to keep the blog light and dispassionate; my execution fell well short of those intentions.  My passions often got the better of me.

The blogs contain harsh words – hypocrisy, exploitation, objectification – but I believe their use is warranted by your organization’s tactics.  I also have charged that PETA often seems more concerned with the concept of animal rights than with actual animals, and that your organization often appears to be more concerned with its continued prominence than with its actual mission.  I believe these are issues worthy of your thoughtful consideration.  Self-analysis is critical to sustaining a vibrant and focused organization.

I outlined the specific changes PETA should make in my first blog and discussed those changes throughout the blog.  They concern openness about the real world implications of your animal rights philosophy, ending the practice of euthanizing animals (killing a healthy animal is not a compassionate act, no matter how its justified), and stopping campaigns that objectify women or exploit the suffering of other humans.  I would like to see these things accomplished immediately, but that might be too much to swallow in one bite.  I, therefore, offer a more modest proposal.

PETA leadership should create an ethical code of conduct to guide its activities.  Most organizations have them, whether they adhere to them or not is another question.  Such a code should reflect an ethical sensitivity to other groups, a commitment to honest, non-manipulative communication, a pledge to protect animal life, not just animal rights, and a commitment to non-violence.  One commitment I’m not suggesting is to obey the law.  Civil disobedience has a grand history in this country and it’s something in today’s climate that we need more, not less, of.

I recognize how difficult social change is, but moral persuasion is the surest route of accomplishing positive change.  People will pay attention to animal suffering.  It’s your strongest card.  Play it without alienating the people who will have to make the change you seek.  You clearly have a creative organization.  Stretch your imaginations and quit relying on tactics that offend those who could tomorrow be your strongest allies.

Respectfully,

Rin Blair

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With the speed and sheer volume of today’s electronic communications it’s not too hard to find one’s 15 minutes of fame.  Just do something outrageous to fill the inevitable gaps in the 24-hour news cycle.  What’s not easy is sustaining that temporary fame and notice over time.  In a clamorous world it’s difficult to get one’s voice really heard, especially when speaking of issues that require changes in social behavior and norms.

Being heard is a huge challenge for PETA.  They’ve concluded, rightfully, that information alone is insufficient to attract media and public attention.  PETA, therefore, resorts to “colorful and controversial gimmicks” and intends to “use every available opportunity to reach people with [their] message.”  A recent example is their ad exploiting Tiger Woods’ recent troubles to promote the spaying and neutering of animals.

 The problem is that many of PETA’s controversial gimmicks and ads draw a lot of attention to the organization but not to the intended message.  The controversy often swallows the message whole.  Although PETA has pretty strong name recognition, much of it is negative.  As a consequence, PETA’s message might be heard by more people if PETA wasn’t the one conveying the message.

Controversial tactics may be a necessary part of PETA’s arsenal, Mr. Rodman, but be careful how you use them.  Are you employing such tactics to maintain your organization’s reputation for being edgy and cool, or are you using them to protect the welfare of animals?  There is a tendency for all organizations to lose their way, to protect their continued existence whether or not they continue to fulfill their original purpose.  Reevaluate your tactics.  Make sure that you are not seeking controversy for the sake of controversy to sustain PETA’s reputation and contributor list.  Ask first what is in the best interest of animals and not what works best for PETA.  Above all, quit exploiting and objectifying others to advance your organization’s goals.  Such behavior creates opposition among people that might be otherwise inclined to support an animal rights agenda.

Patrick Henry’s excellent rhetoric aside, if we chose to prioritize our basic rights, life undoubtedly would be at the top of the list.  People cling to it in the most extraordinary circumstances, and few willingly give it up except in the most extraordinary of circumstances.  Apparently PETA sees things somewhat differently when it comes to animal rights.

PETA kills animals.  The organization has destroyed over 20,000 sheltered animals since 1998.  Although PETA doesn’t shout it from the rooftops or keep a running total on its website, it doesn’t hide that fact.  Frankly, it wouldn’t matter if they did try to conceal it because the web and blogosphere are full of anti-PETA individuals and groups that keep spreading the word (such as the website petakillsanimals.com, which appears to be funded by the food industry).   

PETA responds by saying that warehousing animals in shelters is no solution to the problem of pet overpopulation.  Animals confined to shelter life, caged or uncaged, live a miserable existence.  The real problem, from PETA’s perspective, is not that animals have to be euthanized, but that people abandon pets and aren’t responsible enough to sterilize pets or to obtain them from shelters instead of pet shops and breeders.  There are just too many unwanted animals and too few facilities to care for them.  Consequently, “as difficult as it may be for us [PETA] to accept, euthanasia is often the most compassionate and dignified way for unwanted animals to leave an uncaring world.”

A reasonable position, although they assume none of the blame for actually deciding to kill the animals.  The data on PETA’s practices, however, make one wonder if the organization is really interested in finding homes for sheltered animals or finds it to be too much of an inconvenience.  For example, in the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services records for 2008, PETA’s Norfolk shelter took in over 10,000 animals during the year.  Of those 10,000, more than 7.500 were reclaimed by their owners, almost 2,400 were euthanized, and only 59 were adopted.  Of the animals not reclaimed or transferred to another facility, 96 percent were euthanized and 2.4 percent were adopted out.

Looking at the data for all humane society shelters in Virginia, excluding the PETA data, reveals a very different pattern of activity.  Of the animals not reclaimed, transferred or that otherwise died while in the shelter, less than 40 percent were euthanized and over half were adopted out.  Comparison of the two data sets suggests there is something very different about the PETA shelter and its attitude toward adoption and euthanizing animals.

What it suggests is that the value of an animal’s liberation is more important than the value of its life.  It’s rather like being an ardent defender of animals and their rights as an abstract concept without caring so much about the animal in the flesh.  Euthanizing animals is an unfortunate but sometimes necessary practice, but everyone who makes a decision to put an animal “to sleep” should recognize that it’s a paternalistic act and most definitely implies ownership of that animal’s life.

If PETA wants to defend animal rights both abstractly and actually, Mr. Rodman, then it must treasure the life of the animal and recognize the animal’s right to exist.  It is pure hypocrisy for PETA to kill animals while it rails against others for killing animals, regardless of the context.  If PETA will not make a commitment to becoming a no-kill shelter, it should simply cease offering shelter and rescue services.  Others are certainly capable of filling the gap.

Genocide, Slavery, and PETA

PETA seeks to avoid controversy as much as Rush Limbaugh tries to avoid pomposity.  Its taste for controversy is understandable from the perspective that the organization is trying to change the world.  Making the case for animal rights and creating a revolutionary change in public attitudes and actions toward animals is a formidable task.  Radical animal rights activists essentially are trying to redefine the human-animal relationship.  Accomplishing that requires overcoming thousands of years of entrenched human belief.  In one observer’s words, PETA is struggling to “redefine accepted social practices into social problems.”

PETA, relying heavily on the animal rights theories of Peter Singer, places its struggle within the context of utilitarian ethics.  Loosely defined, that school of ethics defines morality in terms of what produces the greatest balance of pleasure over pain.  Thus, PETA grounds its mission in an ethical framework.  It is strange then that there is so little ethical reflection guiding so many of their campaigns.

Two campaigns in particular come to mind in considering PETA’s ethical numbness:  “Holocaust on Your Plate” and “Are Animals the New Slaves.”  In both campaigns, which consisted of traveling exhibits, PETA attempted to re-contextualize animal suffering in parallel with episodes of great human suffering.  Holocaust on Your Plate showed a series of large images of animals in factory farms juxtaposed with images of Nazi concentration camp victims.  Are Animals the New Slaves campaign was similar in form but juxtaposed images of animal cruelty with those of African-American oppression, from slavery through the civil rights era.  It didn’t take much imagination for an observer to conclude that PETA was equating animal suffering with some of the most extreme human suffering imaginable.  The campaigns brought howls from such organizations as the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The criticism was deserved.  The campaigns were pure exploitation of two terrifying episodes in human history for an end entirely unrelated to the suffering or experience of Jews (and other Nazi victims) and African-Americans.  While PETA might argue that the end sought – savings the lives and stopping the physical abuse of billions of animals – justifies the use of such means, even if those means are morally questionable.  Many if not most modern moral philosophers argue that the principle of justice must take precedence in any moral deliberation.  Exploitation clearly violates the justice principle.  Still, if PETA wants to operate on a consequentialist “ends justifies the means” basis, it should take into account the admonition of the philosopher Mortimer Adler, who believed that ends surely justified means: “If an action is morally bad in itself, it cannot really serve a good end, even though on the surface it appears to do so.”

 

Mr. Rodman, the use of materials in your campaigns that exploit any humans, especially groups that have suffered oppression and violence, is entirely reprehensible.  It calls into question the integrity of your organization, and it erodes the moral authority that any social change movement needs before it can succeed in effecting positive change.  Quit picking at the wounds of human suffering to make your case.  The suffering of animals is, in itself, sufficient for your purposes.

This picture of Traci Bingham evokes two images.  First, she is meat, although not of the edible sort.  This is to rivet our attention.  Second, she should not be thought of as meat (the edible sort), as in neither should an animal be thought of as meat.  While the ad ostensibly is supposed to naturally lead one from the first concept into the second, the concepts are disharmonious.  The first objectifies Ms. Bingham; the second is meant to de-objectify animals.  Objectifying to de-objectify is an interesting tactic, but I wonder which of the two is the most powerful and staying image?

For years feminists have roared at PETA for the exploitation of women in such ads.  Because animal rights and feminist groups share concerns about oppression, exploitation and liberation, they should be natural allies, seeking common understanding of issues and working together in a way that would strengthen both movements.  PETA, however, seems uninterested and in some ways hostile to accommodation.  The organization prefers, it appears, to go it alone, unconcerned whether it tramples on the views of other rights groups.  Two feminist scholars summarize the effects of PETA’s perceived obstinacy toward other rights groups and its reliance on gimmicky advertising in the following way: “PETA has a shortsighted vision; by framing their arguments in a way in which they embrace “selling” an idea, rather than challenging an oppressive system, they are accepting shortterm, moderate goals and they are damning any hope of a vision of society that actually values equality.”  This, I think, is a valid critique.

Rather than listening to feminist critiques and finding common ground, PETA seems intent on poking its fingers into their eyes and further infuriating them.  A case in point is PETA’s 2007 “State of the Union Undress” video.  It can be found HERE, and it contains full-frontal nudity.  In the video, a young woman, supposedly speaking before Congress, runs through a litany of PETA’s challenges and victories while stripping naked.  As she removes each piece of clothing, the video shifts to the applause of Congress, focusing largely on the clapping of older men.  The young lady states her purpose as capturing public attention and spurring debate about animal rights.  The video certainly does the former, but I question its effectiveness at accomplishing the latter, even though its concluding minutes contain images of animal abuse.

While I certainly see the humor and satire in the video, it takes PETA’s sexual objectification of women to a new level.  While I can’t know PETA’s motives for the video, it sure appears to be part of a game it is playing with the feminist opposition.  The only two redeeming features of the video are that it ends and that it ends with a quote from Martin Luther King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  PETA should reflect on what justice demands from them.

End the hypocrisy, Mr. Rodman.  If PETA is chiefly concerned with real social change, and not just being controversial, attracting contributions and surviving as an organization, then it must be concerned with human rights as well as animal rights.  This concern is especially important for the rights of groups who know what it is like to be oppressed and objectified.  If PETA really wants to make a radical difference, rather than playing games and being thought cool, get out of the sex business, concentrate on tactics that will bring about substantive social change, and be sensitive to the rights of all.

Veggie Love Banned Superbowl Ad

A syllogism: All mammals are animals.  All women are mammals.  Therefore, all women are animals.  Now that it is logically established that women are indeed part of the animal kingdom, one would expect PETA to extend its protective arms around women, shielding them from exploitation.  Part of that protection would be an insistence on not objectifying women or their bodies, sexually or otherwise.

Something is objectified when it is regarded merely as an object; something impersonal, external or in the background, removed from one’s self.  The author Barry Lopez, reflecting on the separation of human culture from the natural environment, writes, “We have turned all animals and elements of the natural world into objects.  We manipulate them to serve the complicated ends of our destiny…because we have objectified animals, we are able to treat them impersonally.”  This is why people can relish eating meat and yet gag at the thought of devouring their own pets.

PETA undoubtedly agrees with Mr. Lopez’s reflections and its consequences, but it doesn’t apply them to women.  PETA continuously objectifies women, often in a sexual manner, in its advertising and demonstrations.  This holds true from their Fur Is Dead campaign through their Vegan/Vegetarian campaign to their street antics and demonstrations.  Ingrid Newkirk characterizes these campaigns as sexual but not sexist, funny, and attention-getters.  To paraphrase one of her statements, no one wants to see pictures of animals being slaughtered but a lot of people want to see Alicia Silverstone naked.

furisdead.org

Ms. Newkirk also argues that women have a right to use their bodies to make political statements.  I don’t disagree, but women should also place such protests into the context of the centuries-old struggle for women’s rights.  Women have fought hard to be more than objects in a male-dominated society.  They’ve had to fight their way into property ownership, professions, suffrage, equal pay, and even the right to control the use of their own bodies.  Attention getting is simply an insufficient justification for moving the clock backward.

Mr. Rodman, I urge you to quit using women’s body, in titillating or any other fashion, to draw attention to your organization and its mission.  There certainly are other creative, non-exploitive ways of spreading your message.  Anyway, when people look at your ad of Joanna Krupa I’m certain their first, second, or third thought isn’t, “Golly, I really do need to rethink my specieist attitudes.

Your Burger Or Your Job

Life is tough right now for millions of households and families.  The economy remains in the tank, jobs are scarce, and many of those with jobs don’t feel secure.  There are almost 15 million workers unemployed in this country, and millions of other people have simply quit looking for work, are working part-time while seeking full-time employment, or are employed in jobs far below their skill levels.  All told, nearly one-in-five workers are either out of work or underemployed.  The recession has caused real human suffering, with both middle and lower income households being hit especially hard.

Earlier this year Memorial Hospital, a Catholic facility located in Chattanooga, TN, announced that it would no longer hire tobacco users.  According to the hospital, the ban is intended to protect workers’ health and maintain a healthy environment for workers, patients, and visitors. 

The dust barely settled on the announcement before PETA’s Executive Vice President, Tracy Reiman, penned a letter to Memorial’s President and CEO urging him to hire only vegetarians (non-smoking vegetarians, I presume).  Ms. Reiman concluded her letter with, “By hiring only vegetarians and encouraging current staff to go meat-free, Memorial will send the Chattanooga community an important message about healthy eating while sparing your organization significant meat-related health-care costs and saving the lives of thousands of animals.”

I’m beginning to picture job announcements popping up all around the country.

Help Wanted

Smokers

Meat-eaters

Woolgatherers

Fly swatters

Need not Apply

An Equal Opportunity and PETA-Approved Employer

 

While PETA undoubtedly would embrace the transformation of the entire human workforce to veganism, I don’t think we can take Ms. Reiman’s letter at face value.  Considering the organization’s self-confessed relish for gimmicks, the letter appears to be little more than an attention-getting ploy.  Given the current economic distress and the job-related fears of many people, both in and out of the work force, I find the gimmick insensitive to real human suffering.  Such insensitivity will, ultimately, hinder rather than abet PETA’s pursuit of its animal rights agenda.

PETA gimmick

To be successful, Mr. Rodman, all social change movements ultimately must capture the imagination of and support from the middle class, and I’m not speaking of the professional-grade, upper-income middle, but the common folk.  If the change PETA supports looks threatening to those folk – such as the idea that a job might be threatened or unavailable based on what one eats – their self-interest will overwhelm any concern they might otherwise feel about the treatment of animals.  PETA needs to be reminded that humans are animals too.  Its gimmicks should reflect that reality.