23 January 2012

PETA: Futile efforts and destructive consequences

It is true that any social movement succeeds in stages. The time necessary for a society to see an issue as a problem, to see how their actions contribute to suffering of others, requires a long-term strategy. Small successes lead to large real victories. There are effective ways to approach social protest, and then, there is PETA's approach.

PETA's messages are inconsistent, disrespectful, and precisely the reason the public is distrustful of their organization -- and mocks the efforts of the committed animal advocate. PETA trivializes animal cruelty with their cartoonish protests and ridiculous stunts. Their unwavering focus on single-issue campaigns confuses people, i.e. fur is bad, but leather is ok? One type of meat is unethical, but another is humane? Credibility is critical to any social movement, and without this trust, any message will fail to connect with anyone who's remotely willing to listen. This is why PETA, after an apparent promising beginning, has become a caricature of the animal advocacy movement. Education to those who do not share their views is entirely absent from their efforts.

Presenting logical arguments that appeal to our emotions and intelligence, educating us in a respectful manner is what motivates change. The animal advocacy movement, inexorably intertwined with the message of veganism, is only as strong as the individuals who make up the effort, and these individuals will collectively force change at the highest levels -- in businesses and legislation. Thus, the only way animal advocacy can succeed is to gain the respect of the individuals of society. One of the greatest challenges for the animal advocate is to communicate the message of veganism impartially, logically, and respectfully -- without this effort, success is impossible. Speak in anger, relying on histrionics, theatrics or with an argument that is obviously biased (or based in absolutes) and you've no possible way to convince the omnivore to consider veganism. There will be an appropriate place and time to debate passionately, but when you are working to communicate a message, it is the facts and an impartial approach that wins minds and enables action.

Activist organizations exist primarily, I would argue, to disseminate a message with the goal of creating change in society. Such a movement must connect with individuals on an emotional level with its message, but it must also associate that emotion with an action -- accomplishing this means that the message must also be logical and it must feel necessary to the individual. Without both sides of this connection, the movement will never succeed in creating a substantial argument for change that the average person will take seriously. For the activist movement, staying on track means a constant critical eye, and avoiding the tunnel vision of their objective. Focusing strictly on the "goal" means losing sight of what the activist group compromises to get there, and forgetting that how they succeed is as important as whether their message succeeds at all.

Accomplishing half of this will gain you the support of those who fundamentally agree with your cause; these individuals need little convincing, but whom will not be enough to make your message a "mainstream" movement. To create change, such a movement must garner the support of those who do not yet understand the need for change -- it is critical that the methods of the activist reach these people, and herein lays the most significant crux. Introducing the concept of change to the average individual is complex, as creating all sorts of reasons why we need not alter our current view of the world (and by extension, denying a proposed transformation to our behavior) is a specialty we all share.

Successful activist movements have a clear, rational and consistent articulated message. It is universally true that when accosted by a message, we cling stubbornly to our beliefs or simply dismiss the messenger as mentally unbalanced. When was the last time you stopped and asked the person with a "The End is Near" sign to back up their message with facts? Similarly, a protest centered entirely on a logical argument requires time and discussion to make your point -- which is why you never see that same doomsayer with a sign that reads,
The End is Near, because despite the numerous benefits that nanotechnology offers humankind, there are consequences that science haven't been fully vetted. Prior to the implementation of nanotechnology in environmental applications, such as waste cleanup (particularly relevant to the recent BP disaster,) proper governmental regulations are necessary as the threat of infinitely reproducing biotech nano-workers would (SEE BACK and/or take a BROCHURE…)
It is never ideal to attempt a complex argument, no matter how logical, in a protest setting -- no one would give you the time to make your point and those who do won't be open to a rational discussion. Protest, when the public views you as that person on the street, with an "end is near" sign, is futile. This is where many activist groups breakdown -- unable to understand how to communicate their message in a lucid, consistent and logical manner so that the public is open to education. Alternatively, some activist groups do understand that fact, but lack the demeanor, patience and/or desire to create change -- and thus settle for the spectacle and the illusion of result.

We're skeptical of anything that challenges our beliefs, especially those long-held and deeply ingrained, but provided an effective argument we're willing to consider change when that behavior stands in opposition to our moral beliefs. Personal experiences are anecdotal, but I am an example of someone who chose veganism for those exact reasons -- an argument took hold and proved my actions opposition to my ethical beliefs.

Before I went vegan, animal products made an appearance with every meal, I wore leather, wool -- I was not awash with guilt at this. I readily associated vegans with PETA, and saw veganism as a freakish practice consisting of eating primarily lettuce, and throwing things at people wearing fur. I was the epitome of someone who thought veganism unimaginable because I "just loved meat and/or cheese so much!" It's not that I didn't like animals; everyone "likes" animals (no rational person wants to see an animal suffer,) as long as the animal is a) cute, and/or b) in a movie and a derivative of point a). I never questioned advertising admonishing the very suggestion that an animal anywhere suffered for my choices, such messages just kept me unaware and unthinking. I never questioned the consequences to our planet, bodies or ethics. The human cost of factory farming was not even an issue to consider (and still, one that isn't often discussed in vegan campaigns,) the slaughterhouse employees who have the highest risk of injury, job turnover, and deal with substantial psychological trauma associated with their work.

The cost to animals was a habitual disassociation. Despite the many instances viewing factory farm footage that revealed, if only a moment, the reality of animals place in our society, the effect was fleeting. It's simple to push the thought away in time for my next latte, sandwich, steak or clothing purchase -- rationalizations flooded my mind, it can't be that way at every farm, surely, there are laws that keep that monitor that sort of thing? So much of what the vegan cannot forget, the number of animals killed yearly, their treatment in the food production industry, is not more than meaningless numbers to the non-vegan. We fiercely maintain defense mechanisms, and easily consider the horrific treatment of animals as abstract and remote, until we have an experience that forces personal context. Every single one of us has the necessary facts for epiphany, bouncing around in our minds, just waiting for that context. My context was, to say the least, unexpected. If no one or nothing challenges our logic, we will never consider change.

Those who would fight for social movements do so out of a complex mixture of emotion and logic, aided by timing and human variables -- there is no blueprint to follow that guarantees success. This is the reason why so many find themselves unable, or unwilling, to work for change. It's the reason that many activists, or potential activists, doubt success to the degree that they find half-measures and perpetual compromise so attractive. Unfortunately, when acceptance of inadequate measures are laid on the table, the only side willing to compromise is the side of which is fighting for change -- the opposition has no reason to change, and it places the activist at a place of weakness. This is why we see PETA and similar groups claiming "success" when they've convinced pig slaughterhouses to phase out gestation crates on some far off date, only when it would have become economically unnecessary to continue when cheaper, more profitable alternatives are on the horizon. The only success in such instances is one of public relations, organizations like PETA can send emails claiming a "win," and slaughterhouses can grow its profit by attracting the omnivore who can now feel positive about eating meat -- as far as their concerned, they have the approval of animal rights groups.

Omnivores do not see this as a victory for animals; they see it as a way to eat them without feeling guilty. The PETA'd vegan or omnivore are the only individuals who judge such an event like cage-free eggs as a success for animals. A cage-free egg facility moves the chicken from a small cage to a single large cage. Thousands of birds in a single room, each of whom have their beaks burned off to prevent them from pecking each other to death. Because, that's what you do when trapped in a room with hundreds of others for months, years on end.

PETA argues that by encouraging a reduction in animal suffering in stages -- cage-free eggs, "I'd rather be naked than wear fur" campaigns, more efficient slaughterhouse killings, elimination of gestation crates for pigs and on and on -- the public will eventually stop eating or wearing animals through an apparent paradigm shift in consciousness. Except, PETA never explains how this will happen, nor do they discuss the logical course of events that would lead to such a dramatic change of mindset in the average omnivore. On their website, PETA is strangely vague with what constitutes a "success."

Those in favor of welfarism often see the only alternative to their methods is inflexible veganism, or attempting to coerce omnivores to give up animal products overnight. This is not accurate. Using veganism as the behavior benchmark, the goal for which we should work towards, is not the same as telling the open-minded omnivore that their reduction in eating animals is useless. Choosing logic over fallacies, understanding the issues and working towards phasing out animal products is incredibly simple in 2012. Working towards veganism is a personal timeline, and it won't happen overnight for everyone. As long as the desire to minimize the harm you do is the goal, just start somewhere, and you will get there.

If PETA was truly interested in honest, logical and meaningful protest they would work to educate the public with a consistent message, not a myriad of divisive, nonsensical campaigns. Instead, PETA wastes efforts attempting to "sneak" the message of protection for animals in Dr. Seussian-like single-issue campaigns. As is possible to discern, PETA expects efforts like painting a nearly nude woman in fake blood, lying in a shrink-wrapped "meat tray" to plant a seed of vegan epiphany in the minds of the passing truckers. In such a protest, which is all too common for PETA, the extent of education, of any attempt to communicate are phrases like, "All Meat Comes from a Corpse," printed on their protest signs.

Promoting veganism as the answer to a myriad of complex, serious economical, environmental, human and ethical problems is the best and only successful method possible. No social movement has ever succeeded by using single-issue inconsistent messaging campaigns to work towards a larger goal. These methods have no context for those remotely interested in your message; the crass and intellectually lazy nature of PETAs approach piques nothing but revulsion from the strange use of sexual violence (a bloodied, near-naked woman imitating a piece of meat, really?) Visceral imagery creates disgust, but not association of disgust with eating or wearing animals. You've only succeeded in making your actions disgusting. This is PETAs approach to "targeted" protest, attempting to appeal to our base nature with sexuality, but without any intellectual or logical substance behind their intent. PETA is the Kim Kardashian of social protests.

Stockholder activism is another method of PETAs that has gained attention over the recent few years. Owning stock in companies that are counter to the goals of veganism and animal advocates, PETA states that they invest in these objectionable companies to "change" them from the inside is an illusion of action/result. Their initial attempts, shown on their Shareholder Campaigns page, gives an impressive list of 19 chemical and pharmaceutical companies, including Dow, Monsanto, Merck & Co, and ExxonMobil, of whom PETA and their supporters own stock to negotiate elimination of animals used in research. Each animal testing resolution introduced by PETA failed to accomplish these goals, gaining just enough votes to reintroduce them in the following year…that was 2007. There hasn't been an update since.

Undeterred, PETA tried this tactic with the fast-food restaurant industry. The objective argued is to improve the conditions of animals in factory farms before slaughtering to craft into Big Macs and chocolate shakes. Stock purchases in Burger King, Carl's Jr., Hardee's, McDonald's, and Denny's, claim major concessions from the campaign. As of now, this major effort resulted in a small percentage of eggs purchased from cage-free facilities (i.e. 3%,) and a 15% maximum of slaughtered pigs from gestation crate-free factory farms (i.e. any unknown number under that percentage.) This is a classic move by PETA, and one that confuses the message of veganism -- blaming the industry, deemphasizing education, and making no effort to change how the consumer thinks or eats. In the end, the message is that it is perfectly fine to eat PETA-approved animals from PETA-approved factory farms and fast food restaurants.

If PETA had an interest in real change, putting their investment dollars towards companies like gardein or Daiya (legitimate, healthy alternatives to eating animals) is a productive step towards reducing demand for meat and dairy, and eventually reducing the death of animals in factory farms. The publicity may not be as good, but it’s an actual step towards changing eating habits. Instead, PETA invests in the industry that, by its very business model, depends on PETAs failure as an animal "advocacy" group. PETA won't invest in companies actively providing a viable alternative to animal products because it’s a long-term solution.

However, this particular debate ignores entirely PETA's questionable choice to invest in such companies to begin with. Where is the judgment in purchasing stock, and profiting from the actions of companies like Burger King or Monsanto? It's true that PETA isn't buying shares directly from Monsanto -- publically traded companies work by buying and selling shares from other stockholders. Yet, by purchasing Burger King or McDonald's stock, PETA plays a role in keeping their stock value up, and the CEOs (those individuals directing the company's actions,) stay in bonuses, profit, and have no incentive to change the way that they do business. PETA can argue their case for improved conditions to other shareholders, but they are the same individuals for whom PETA doesn't "waste" time trying to educate on the issues, or present a rational, sane message.

Here is the true irony, even if PETA managed to convince a majority of shareholders of a company like Monsanto to vote along their shareholder resolution, Monsanto is under no obligation to implement the resolution. Shareholder resolutions are simply suggestions for the company -- they are not binding and will have no affect on Monsanto's or Burger King's business methods or profitability. Despite what PETA would have you believe, shareholder resolutions hold little financial or legal powers, and often disregarded by companies. In 2004, the Harvard Law Review considered this very topic, in The Case for Increasing Shareholder Power. PETA, of course, is all too aware of this fact, but you won't find that inconvenient truth of shareholder resolutions on their campaign successes page. In return for placations of which have little effect on the corporation or improvement to the lives of animals, Carl's Jr. or Burger King gets the blessing of PETA and all of the free publicity they could desire -- courtesy of the world's largest animal-rights organization. PETA molds this into a press release for their members, updating them on all of the good their annual donations accomplish.

PETA, by their own hand, is in a position where they cannot make a consistent message of veganism or campaigns of education on the issues. They profit too readily by placing the blame on the factory farm and/or fast food restaurant. After decades of publicity seeking, PETA stumbled onto the formula that provides them the perfect equation for the delusion of effectiveness, used frequently to justify their shock campaigns. Promoting veganism as the only objective that truly minimizes harm to animals would alienate much of PETA's membership and celebrity support, as it would require that PETA actually ask that they work towards meaningful way behavioral change.

This would prove problematic, as PETA would no longer be the group of endless cheap absolution to those who want to feel good about eating animals, wearing them, or otherwise contributing to their suffering and death. Such accountability would mean that animal activism would no longer be a fun, trendy way to spend an afternoon; they would no longer be a meaningless exhibitionist thrill machine, they would not be the tool for vapid celebrities to mock animal advocacy by making it their next Kabbalah bracelet. They would make the idea that the individual is responsible for their choices and actions -- the awful factory farm machine exists because we keep it alive. In short, PETA would become a serious, intentional, clear-headed advocacy organization.

It's much simpler to create endless campaigns targeting single aspects of harm to animals. Without a willingness to educate or rationally discuss the importance or veganism, such individual campaigns, like their shareholder activism, have no meaningful impact. This approach ignores entirely the critical need to connect with the individual -- if we do not understand the reasons for change (as well as exactly what we need to do to create change,) the only result is applauding nonsense like cage-free eggs, and no comprehension of the argument against eating them at all.

The problem? We easily talk ourselves out of change (also known as the "humane meat" reflexive justification -- the greatest stroke of genius marketing since cigarettes were good for you) when an argument only appeals to our emotions. Humane meat is incredibly attractive, and why wouldn’t it be? It offers those who are looking for any reason at all to avoid change -- and they have justification to continue eating animals, guilt free.

Today's demand for meat, eggs and dairy is gargantuan, and it forces production to such an extreme that it has tremendously hideous consequences. It is impossible for the USDA to monitor the billions of pounds of beef, chicken, pork, gallons of milk, and eggs consumed yearly. The CDC estimates 1,300 die yearly from food-transmitted pathogens like Salmonella, Toxoplasma gondii (toxoplasmosis,) and Listeria monocytogenes. Another 1,600 die from unspecified pathogens. That's about 3,000 every year. The demand for meat is so massive the USDA is considering privatizing inspections—starting with chicken in 2012. To put this into perspective, phobia of "chemicals" in skin care and cosmetics has spread like wildfire over the internet and media, with people everywhere convinced that death perpetually stalks them via their moisturizer and lipstick. Despite this nonsense, not a single person anywhere has died, or suffered harm from normal use of their skin care and makeup (no, drinking your sunscreen doesn’t count.) This is an excellent example of our ability to rationalize any behavior we don't want to change -- the furor over scary-sounding chemicals, despite no harm to a anyone, anywhere, compared to the thousands who die yearly from eating tainted animal products.

PETA prospers on the appearance of action, our willingness to fool ourselves, and the illusion of "successes" that make no progress towards improving the life of animals. Rather than speaking honestly and respectfully to the omnivore, they instead choose to dedicate themselves to protests that exist purely for the sake of perpetuating notoriety. PETA is aware that such effort -- protesting outside a KFC, Lettuce Ladies handing out veggie dogs, "cooking mama: Mama Kills Animals" video game, will never change a single mind on the issue of animal advocacy. The tools used to convey the message are so inflammatory they succeed only in ridicule, or fascinatingly bizarre, neither of which helps any animals. As a vegan, I understand the analogizing of the near overwhelming horror of a world that we've created for animals. However, as a former omnivore, I understand PETAs methods won't connect to those who haven't come to this seismic shift in consciousness. The omnivore will only see the crass vehicle for PETA message, and regard it with suspicion and disgust.

I get it. For the animal advocate, the overwhelming nature of the fight is exhausting. It makes one sad to see such vitriol and lack of respect for endless hours of work advocating for animals. PETA let this exhaustion, frustration and sorrow build-up like moss on our efforts -- muddling the message with endless compromises, confusing the public, and stealing the respect hard work for animals deserves. Squandering the greatest opportunity in decades for communicating the benefits of veganism to our planet, health and ethics, by supporting welfarism we've wasted time by perpetuating myths of humane meat, and holding the word veganism in disdain. This is what PETA has done with its early potential, thirty-some years later -- traded their veracity in exchange for headlines so many times like excessively printed money; its value has dropped to a near worthless state.

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Nathan Rivas | Twitter | Facebook
Seattle, WA Nathan is a passionate animal advocate and vegan in the Seattle-area, and a contributor to This Dish is Veg. He lives with his partner, Troy, and a band consisting of: a defiant dachshund, a ginormous Maine coon and a judgmental shorthaired black cat. Nathan graduated with a Bachelors of Science (summa cum laude) from Northeastern University last spring, and is currently in his Masters of Science program. Nathan is at any time, 17% coffee, a slave to his Kindle, and a lover of science and mathematics.

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