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August 15, 2005

PETA wrong, but not racist

Steve Gilliard accuses People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) of racism. The animal rights organization is running a publicity campaign called "Are Animals the New Slaves?" As part of the campaign, PETA is sponsoring an exhibition that includes photos of African American lynching victims. The campaign is attracting criticism from civil rights activists, including Dr. James Cameron, curator of America's Black Holocaust Museum. Dr. Cameron is quoted as saying:

"They may have treated us like animals back then, but there is no way we should be compared to animals today," he said. "You cannot compare the suffering of human beings or the suffering that I experienced to the suffering of an animal."

Dr. Cameron has a legitimate point. American racists have a long history of depicting blacks as animals. However, these depictions were designed to denigrate their subjects and diminish their moral status. PETA is trying to do exactly the opposite--they consider the suffering of slaves and lynching victims to be a moral travesty on the level of the Holocaust. The ads are pointing to the worst travesty we can imagine and saying "the exploitation of animals is like that." PETA has not handled itself well. You can read the correspondence between Dr. Cameron and a PETA spokesperson. PETA's defense of the campaign is insensitive and intellectually sloppy. However, I don't think there's anything racist about the campaign or PETA's defense of it. Steve writes:

It's the same kind of ignorant cruelty Cindy Sheehan is facing. Newkirk is simply incapable, like most fanatics, of seeing any side but her own. And she is blind to the outrage this will cause. She has no idea of how her response is not going to go over with black people. Even her explaination is as tone deaf as George Bush. That may go over well with her donors and allies when she makes a mistake, but it will fall on deaf ears with black people. I dare her to defend this on any black radio show, or even Air America.

Now, not only is PETA refusing to apologize, as they did with the Holocaust ad, they intend to continue the tour, well until they're denounced on Tom Joyner and from church pulpits. To compare black people to animals is the gravest insult a white person can do, and no matter how "liberal" PETA says it is, this will dog it until their tour is cancelled. Because she is fucking with something she does not understand in any way, shape or form. Angry isn't the word. I'd be surprised if Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton aren't outside PETA HQ at the end of the week.

So, given that this is the mentality of PETA's leadership, do you think it's fair to call them racist, now?

PETA's point of view also deserves consideration. If you believe, as they do, that animals have the same moral status as human beings, then it follows that our society's treatment of animals is directly analogous to slavery. We own them, we use them, we kill them for food and sport. Like most people, I reject PETA's initial premise. Most animals don't deserve nearly the same moral status as human beings. I agree that it's wrong to torture a chicken for sport or mutilate it to pad a profit margin, but I see nothing wrong with raising chickens humanely and killing them for the table. Steve's right that the ad and the response are short-sighted. It's callous to think that you can use racially charged images without opening wounds, even if you're using them to make a non-racist argument. Perhaps PETA is being racist for pulling the earlier Holocaust campaign but refusing to pull the Slavery campaign. If PETA cares less about the feelings of lynching survivors like Dr. Cameron than it does about those of Holocaust survivors, that's racist. However, it may be that PETA pulled the first ad because its opponents raised a bigger backlash. PETA deserves to be criticized for being insensitive, and inept, but not for being racist.

Update: Julia suggests even more reasons to loathe PETA.

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Comments

I think it was downright thoughtless of PETA to do that. And I don't think that they can completely exculpate themselves from being labeled as racist.

Their's is a milder form of racism, one that refuses to treat the feelings of African Americans as important. They have not removed the offending ad from their website I have heard, so I question their sincerity.

There should have been more checking of the ad before it was released: but being an organization probably dominated by white people, this was not done. Nor did it occur to anyone, apparently, that the ad would be hurtful. They saw things from the point of view of a privileged class.

It's racism because they ignored the feelings of African Americans, not deliberately perhaps, but out of habit.

Julia's post doesn't surprise me at all. It's the natural result of cheap self-righteousness unconstrained by reality.

Do you read Animal Crackers blog? It is very informative about PETA and its activities. And you probably know my take on it from a couple of months ago.

I believe blacks and Jews reserve all rights to the particular images of brutality that we associate to the Jim Crow south and the Holocaust. For a usurper like PETA to drive home, uh, whatever, with these images, they just illustrate how their point is secondary to PETA's overall self-promotion. They do this (anything, really) or they become irrelevant. To me, this is the issue.

Now, if they shifted emphasis away from the carnage to the white "hands" who did/do these dastardly deeds, that would be something. PETA doesn't care about silly distinctions like this, though.

PETA believes that other animals have the same moral rights as humans. I personally don't believe in any kind of universal morality, whether anthropocentric or not. So to that extent, I agree with them.

OTOH I don't see much point in legislating the same rights for other animals as for humans; so to that extent, I disagree with PETA.

Anyway, I think I'll avoid the whole topic of who is entitled to be offended by which comparisons, for fear of offending everyone.

Surely you can all the point you need to about animal suffering with nothing but imagery of animals suffering. It doesn't need comparing to paradigm cases of wronging human beings to be seen for what it is: cruelty. Forcing the comparison makes you look like a Benthamite, as if X thousand penned veal calves added up to one toddler used for target practice by SS officers. Pushing the comparison to equation is a Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle (Cruelty to humans is atrocious, cruelty to animals is, so the one is the same as the other) or affirming the consequent. It's silly enough when the anti-choice do it with the forced comparison of Dred Scott and Foetus Doe. If we adopt right-wingers' habits of argumentation, which include not making valid arguments, we may end up as here sharing their habits of muddled judgment.

If we adopt right-wingers' habits of argumentation, which include not making valid arguments, we may end up as here sharing their habits of muddled judgment.

Just as will happen if we insist on treating all social ills as monadic, unconnected phenomena. Campaigning against them necessarily involves exploring how they came to be, and to examine ill done to any group without looking at the root causes of all violence - assuming such root causes exist - is very short-sighted.

Especially in this case, when there are strong statistical links between abuse of animals and abuse of people as sequential stages in the etiology of violence. Many of the people who target others for hate-related abuse, whether that abuse is racial or gender-based, start by abusing animals.

PETA blew it, and that's no surprise. But turning your back on the connections among issues serves no one except, indirectly, the perpetrators. You need not compare evils to acknowledge their relation one to another.

Especially in this case, when there are strong statistical links between abuse of animals and abuse of people as sequential stages in the etiology of violence. Many of the people who target others for hate-related abuse, whether that abuse is racial or gender-based, start by abusing animals.

Chris, if that was the kind of abuse that PETA spent all of their time campaigning against, that would be a valid point. But they don't. They talk about corporate farms as though they are the moral equivalent of Auschwitz.

Do you really think that all of the workers at corporate farms are treating the animals the way they are because that's how they get their kicks?

So what can you compare to slavery or the Holocaust? It is now safe to compare Rwanda to the Holocaust, but many people will get mad at you if you compare the genocide of Native Americans to the Holocaust. Heck, you can't even compare slavery to the Holocaust if you are talking specifically about the slavery practiced by the Founding Fathers.

Dick Durban learned recently that you can't compare the actions of American soldiers to the actions of Nazi soldiers, even when you are talking about the same actions. Chomsky learned that you can't compare East Timor to Cambodia, no matter what the body count.

I mention all these things because I see I simple rule at work in all these examples and the PETA cases: atrocities are only committed by other people, at other times. And if the victory over the persecuted was complete enough--as was the victory of the European kingdoms over the kingdoms of the Americas--the existence of the genocide may never be acknowledged.

If you simply look at the logic of PETA's argument, as Lindsay does, it is *obvious* that it depends on acknowledging the horrors of slavery, just as their previous argument depended on acknowledging the horror of the holocaust.

What should be obvious becomes occluded when people become constitutionally unable to admit that something godawful could be happening here and now, and that you might be complicit in it. Your neighbor returning home from Iraq couldn't have stood by while his Iraqi counterparts drilled holes in someone's kneecaps. The food on your table couldn't have come from a chicken that was never able to turn around, or groom, or have anything that might resemble whatever a good life for a chicken is.

In Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, the heroine asks us to imagine what it would be like if every time you washed your hands at a friends house the soap package said “Treblinka 100% human serrate.” You don’t have to buy the moral equivalence of humans and other animals to begin to see the real world this way. For starters, something like a billion chickens are slaughtered every year for food. If chickens had a thousandth of the moral status of people, you would still have something like a holocaust. But fuck the chickens: the gas that heated the water that washed your hands was also paid for in blood.

I don’t want to argue about Ingrid Newkirk or the exact merit of this comparison or that one. I just want to see an end to the double standards that blind us to real suffering, including especially the suffering of animals, which is more hidden than any.

Also, I've never seen anyone call Carol Adams misogynist for comparing the oppression of animals with the oppression of women in *the sexual politics of meat*. Is the exploitation of animals really not like the exploitation of Africans or Jews but a lot like the exploitation of women?

"The whole point of the ad was to depict the oppression of blacks as the epitome of immoral behavior."

On the question of racism, bull's-eye. The offensiveness that some people see in the comparison of exploited animals to exploited African-Americans depends on a belief that these animals are less than human. Of course, that is a pretty common belief; but it is precisely the belief that PETA seems to be campaigning against. If the ad is offensive, it is because PETA's cause is offensive.

The stories I read at Sisyphus Shrugged are something else. Some of it sounds criminal if true.

Chris, if that was the kind of abuse that PETA spent all of their time campaigning against, that would be a valid point. But they don't. They talk about corporate farms as though they are the moral equivalent of Auschwitz.

And many PETA members would readily admit that that's the point they're trying to make.

And I don't agree with them, I thought the ads were ill-advised, and I agree with the sentiment that PETA designed them to be deliberately offensive. But just because PETA is a bunch of schmucks doesn't mean we can't link the issues of how we treat one another and how we treat the other denizens of the world around us.

Do you really think that all of the workers at corporate farms are treating the animals the way they are because that's how they get their kicks?

Of course not. I'm trying to talk about larger issues here, and to explain that we get nowhere by blanket prohibitions on linking different manifestations of the same issue. Just because PETA did a spectacularly insensitive job of it, and for Machiavellian purposes at that, doesn't mean that there are no sensitive ways of examining the connections. That's all I'm trying to say.

I'm glad Lindsay brought up Abu Graib, because I think it really gets to the heart of the matter. What if one of those left-wing blogs had published the Abu Graib photos next to photos of elephants abused by Ringling Bros., and said that they were trying to show that the abuses at Abu Graib were just as bad as the abuse of elephants (and vice-versa)? That would lead me to question just how much the blogger valued the lives of Arabs.

PETA is willing to use lynching photos and Holocaust photos, knowing that they will outrage millions of Jews and African-Americans. PETA's response to the outrage is always the same: "Get over your self-righteous persecution complex. Can't you see that you're just as bad as the Klan and the Nazis?" That's more or less what Newkirk told James Cameron, who was nearly lynched himself.

Notice, though, that PETA won't use 9/11 photos in their campaigns. Somehow, they just can't bring themselves to point to white New Yorkers and say, "If you eat factory farmed meat, you are just as evil as the people who engineered 9/11." Is it because they recognize that the 9/11 attacks were more evil than anything that happens on a factory farm, or is it because they care more about the feelings of "ordinary Americans" than they do about the feelings of people like James Cameron? Aren't they just being racist, no matter how you slice it?

I agree with Lindsay that there's nothing racist about PETA's campaign. On the contrary, it's ANTI-racist. ("Look at this! Isn't it terribly immoral, the way these black people were treated? Well, here's another horror that should similarly outrage us.") But the campaign is DUMB, precisely because it winds up submerging the issue of animal suffering in arguments about whether PETA is racist. It gives people who don't want to confront the issue of animal suffering (because they don't want to change their eating habits) an excuse not to look at themselves in the mirror.
But I'd like again to raise Rob G.'s point: Would there be anything wrong about farming and then painlessly killing human infants or the mentally handicapped? (Let's clone them to avoid the upset-families problem.) Unfortunately, most animals raised to become consumable corpses do not live happy lives. You don't have to believe that non-human animals should be ascribed the same moral status as normal humans (neither Peter Singer nor Tom Regan believes any such thing) to recognize that there's an on-going, large-scale moral atrocity that we need to pay attention to.

When I was in University, there were anti-abortionists who ringed the student union building with pictures of aborted fetuses alongside pictures of holocaust and lynching victims. As you can imagine, there was anger.

If you give fetuses or farm animals, emotionally, the same status as individuals, then either of these campaigns may seem like an appropriate comparison to you. Unfortunately, you offend and ostracize a lot of people by jumping the shark.

I do not give either farm animals or fetuses the same status as individual homo sapiens. Images of destroyed lives are not going to change my mind or make me rethink my position on equating the two. Because of that, it's a crappy, inflammatory tactic: I write off the rest of the argument more strongly because the rhetoric has aroused my anger, but in the wrong direction. If it didn't arouse my anger - if I thought lynching or control of people was okay - then it wouldn't send the message that either PETA or the anti-abortionists wanted.

I'm not sure the tactic is inherently racist BUT - the fact that the majority of people who've recently died in horrible, totalitarian regimes are mostly non-white is indeed racist. I can only think of the Soviet gulags, off the top of my head, and I don't think the consciousness in the public is good enough to use that as an emotional in. I wonder if our relative ignorance of the gulags, our lack of attachment to that story, is racist in its denial? I can't parse that argument entirely.

I don't think 9/11 works because it's terrorism and not totalitarianism: the comparison is always to the evil overlords who commit heinous acts, not to the evil radicals who create terror. It's the controlled use of animals that PETA's mainly arguing - although I'm sure that PETA could make a hunting=9/11 metaphor. (I've actually heard that metaphor on a Canadian radio program).

There's an old internet saw - Godwin's law - that states: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." I think the tactic comes from feeling, in the main, unheard: you search around for something that will communicate your horror. It's the conversation stopper.

Arwen: interesting observation.

I can't help but think about how PETA cheapens the whole slavery/holocaust issue with its campaign. It was a habitual thoughtlessness, a genteel racism.

The moral bankruptcy of PETA's position is that they repeatedly attempt to equate animals with humans. When they tell us a chicken is like an African slave they 1.) make a ludicrous comparison and 2.) cheapen the value of the human being. They don't raise the status of the chicken: they lower that of the African American.

Why choose African Americans? On one hand, because slavery is an issue that makes many Americans see red (except for neoConfederates and their ilk who love to doubletalk). PETA hopes to snag the dubious prizes of sentimentalism -- the cheap tear, the easy moan. On the other hand, it is because African Americans are perceived as powerless. As I said above, PETA thought it could get away with this. And the NAACP called them on it.

If this is not "racism" in the perfect sense that some demand of it, it certainly smacks of classism. And it is perhaps high time for us to make that as repugnant a concept a racism: one's higher social status and power should not allow one to run roughshod over lessers in these perceived attributes.

Joel - I agree with you. BUT: I don't equate a chicken with a human being. I have known two militant animal rights people on campus who insisted that they wouldn't make the choice of saving a human vs. saving an animal when fleeing a burning building: unless it was to save the animal, to make a point about our rampant species-ism. (One of them even disavowed saving a KNOWN human, like their best friend, over saving the animal. The other backed away from such a statement.)

I s'pose that there are a few options.

1) The people behind the campaign do think that the death of a chicken is equal to the death of a person. In my books, they're crazy: but I think that if you can wrap your head around the fact that someone might really, truly hold this belief, then the comparison's not racist. In other words, the people making this argument don't see that the comparison's ludicrous or that it cheapens human life. They equate humans and other animals, and don't see the need to morally raise the status of the chicken: the chicken IS an equal. Hell, to the burning building activists, the chicken was somewhat superior by default. The problem is that they have no sense that there's more to making the argument than using victimized human beings as metaphors... People generally don't like being used as a metaphor.

2) The people behind the campaign are genteel-ly racist: I agree with your analysis. If you'd pick the human to save in the burning building simply because of his/her humanity, then at the very least your analysis is the case.

3) The people behind the campaign are more agressively racial or racist in that they're picking the African-American image *because* of the history of the racial images used against the group, and because, in some way, they see those attributes as true.

I imagine that the truth is that there's a little of everything in the PETA camp. Since I figure that very few who react to the campaign are going to pick up on or see the first idea - that the chicken is in fact equivalent to the human - then the net message is more racial than species-al. The PETA folks have lost touch, and the ad should be apologized for, intent notwithstanding.

Who would I rescue from a burning building? Hmmm...

Ok, if it was my mother vs. a random animal, that's easy. Mom wins.

BUT what if it was my mom vs. Bob, my pet tarantula. Hmmm...

There are cartoons from the period of grateful animals cheering Himmler because he made sure vivisection was outlawed.

The only reason the nazis could get rid of vivisection was because they could experiment on actual humans, nazi anti-vivisection stnace is like rpeublican religiousness, they use it as a politcal ploy when it works and not when it doesn't. I sincerly Doubt PETA is pro-human vivisection somehow, and that's a very cheap attack on them that should have aroused Godwin's law (but that only applies when Isreal and Republicans are being talked about doesn't it?)

And I do not believe you linked to that badly thought out peice of anti-PETA propaganda from sisyphus, well thought out propaganda maybe, even if she'd just linked and quoted the animal abuse scnadal and gone "hmm, indeed" but she had to go for the "They kill kittens and strays instead of stopping all death in the universe and releasing us all from the ravages of entropy" slant.

The black slave trade and lynchings are an instantly recognisable bit of iconography that gets their essential message across that animal abuse and testing is a moral abomination, they're not actually comparing black people to animals btw, just their treatment.

From within their own world view, this ad really isn't racist, and will get pulled when there's a suitable backlash, but until then and for everyone else it is kinda racist, but it does get PETA in the news, which is the point really isn't it? african americans who can sympathise with PETA will understand and overlook the racist slant, and those who can't probably aren't about to give money or aid to PETA anyway.

Shock Advertising, a win-win game when done right, when done like this.

It's racist - and it is racist - because every one of the humans in the display is black. If PETA really wanted to make the connection between animals and humans, they would have included examples of all varieties of humans, not just the ones that have traditionally treated as animals. PETA is in Virginia right? Isn't that one of those salvery states?

It's racist - and it is racist - because every one of the humans in the display is black. If PETA really wanted to make the connection between animals and humans, they would have included examples of all varieties of humans, not just the ones that have traditionally treated as animals. PETA is in Virginia right? Isn't that one of those salvery states?

Some of these arguments against PETA make no sense. The reason PETA doesn't try to make an analogy between white men and animals is because white men are not an oppressed group. That's their whole (stupid, by the way) point: they are saying that our treatment of animals is oppression as bad as the way that humans have oppressed other humans. They bring up the treatment of black people or Jews because those are examples of man's inhumanity.

So... are we saying that Jews are non-white? I always thought of Jews as being of the race they largely appear to be, because race is basically a shorthand for a set of appearances, rather than a specific set of genetic attributes or heritage, so Jews with peachy skin and narrow noses are white, Jews with dark brown skin and oil-less hair are black, Jews with light brown skin and narrow eyes are East Asian, etc. If we want to say that Jews are a seperate race different from white, black, Asian, etc, I'm fine with that. While I think racial differences have a biological basis, I think specific delineations of where one race begins and the other ends are arbitrary and have no biological basis, so if you want to create more races, go for it.

I sincerly Doubt PETA is pro-human vivisection somehow ...

They've made rumblings about testing things on prisoners instead of "innocent animals," which makes sense (I guess) if you feel that humans and animals are on exactly the same level, morally: after all, the prisoner is guilty of a crime, unlike the animal, and so making him or her pay an extra penalty shouldn't be that big a deal.

In the meantime, of course, what PETA is in favor of is letting millions of human beings die to save animal lives instead. Diabetics should refuse their insulin, which was originally derived from pigs ... unless, of course, you're the vice president of PETA. She, um, deserves to keep taking her insulin.

Here's a page of quotes from a New Yorker profile of Ingrid Newkirk, the founder and current president of PETA:

http://www.consumerfreedom.com/news_detail.cfm/headline/1865

I am an animal rights activist and a vegan. (Just to get that out of the way.) I don't love PETA. They do a lot of outrageous stuff that does not effectively help animals. (Sometimes, though they can make a difference still and in the past they have. I think they've been off the mark lately, though.) I do find it interesting how vigorously progressive bloggers have jumped on them. It bums me out actually. I don't expect everyone to be vegan or anything, but I do imagine that progressives ought to be able to see the connections between how we treat other sentient beings and how we treat each other.

I think that the level of disain that is being reserved for PETA isout of magnitude to their alleged bad behavior. I think it's because most people (progressive or not) of the mainstream do not really want to face the horrors that we put animals through. PETA doesn't always spread the word contructively, and they make people defensive, but their message is not wrong.

I would prefer a kinder gentler PETA that was more effective, but would you pay any attention to them?

I would suggest that people check their anti-PETA sentiments against a trith-ometer and see if there isn't (at least a little) animal cruelty defensiveness exaggerating your responses.

Is PETA racist? I don't think, so. I don't think the book, the Dreaded Comparison is either though. But, I'm white, so what do I know?

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