Hello, all you beautiful beings!
I was planning to make an upcoming video on this topic, but I’ve been thinking that it’s too big a topic for that, so I’m going to write about it here.
Namely, I wanted to address effective activism, and the question of whether or not it’s productive to have an “anything goes” approach to activism.
This seems to be a mindset that’s gained some popularity among those in the vegan movement, especially vegans on YouTube. Popular vegan channels on YouTube gain attention through creating controversy, whether through click-bait titles about celebrities or specific people or groups or through purposefully controversial content.
You get the idea.
In actuality, this phenomenon is not that different from the antics of perhaps the most infamous animal rights organization, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
I touched on this in my last video, but PETA is well-known for its controversial campaigns and stunts, including….
- Comparing animal slaughter and exploitation to the Holocaust, black slavery, and lynching of black people;
- Got Beer? A campaign targeted at college students claiming that beer is better for the human body than milk;
- And, of course, comparing the American Kennel Club to the KKK.
The following are images are a small sample of their plethora of body-shaming and/or objectifying ads:
“PETA’s mission is to get the animal rights message out to as many people as possible. Unlike our opposition…PETA must rely largely on free ‘advertising’ through media coverage. We will do extraordinary things to get the word out about animal cruelty because we have learned from experience that the media, sadly, do not consider the terrible facts about animal suffering alone interesting enough to cover. It is sometimes necessary to shake people up in order to initiate discussion, debate, questioning of the status quo, and, of course, action.”
Again, this is not very different from controversial vegan YouTubers and their defenders; PETA sees stirring up controversy as not only justified in getting the vegan message across, but needed. They continue:
“Thus, we try to make our actions colorful and controversial, thereby grabbing headlines around the world and spreading the message of kindness to animals to thousands—sometimes millions—of people. This approach has proved amazingly successful: In the three decades since PETA was founded, it has grown into the largest animal rights group in the country, with more than 3 million members and supporters worldwide. We have also had major groundbreaking successes, such as bringing about the first-ever cruelty conviction against an animal experimenter in the case of the now-famous Silver Spring Monkeys; orchestrating the first-ever raid on an agricultural facility (a factory farm in upstate New York that raised ducks for foie gras under horribly cruel conditions); and convincing more than 200 cosmetics companies to permanently abandon animal tests.”
Let’s break this down a few ways.
First of all, I don’t want to discount good things that have been done for animals. It’s certainly good that there was some measure of justice brought about for animals who were victims of vivisection and the foie gras industry, and it’s great that there are cosmetics companies willing to drop animal testing entirely. However, I think it would be a mistake to use this “ends justify the means” mindset (especially since a good number of people recognize the inherent cruelty in animal testing and the foie gras industry without seeing controversial or provocative ads).
Secondly, it is true that animal rights/vegan activists must rely on “free advertising” to get our message out, just like, to some degree, all justice activists do. This is why social media and YouTube have become outlets for activists to do just that, and I don’t think that’s inherently a bad thing. I’m of the belief that we can’t count on those in the corporate media to care about justice (because it would disrupt the status quo, which is not in their interest), so we have to “be the media.”
However, I do see a problem with this notion that any press is good press because it gets attention (similar to thinking more YT subscribers/views=more vegan converts). It’s clear from PETA’s reputation and the popularity of the aforementioned vegan channels that yes, controversy does garner more attention. The real question is two-fold:
- What about it is getting more attention? The message itself, or the means of conveying it?
- Is more attention always a beneficial thing?
Let’s take a couple, more recent examples of PETA’s acts.
In July of 2014, PETA made an offer to the residents of Detroit who struggled with water bills. They offered to pay the bills of ten select Detroit families on the condition that they adopt a vegan diet. This news story has been reappearing in social media circles with another city in Michigan, Flint, currently experiencing a water crisis.
I really shouldn’t have to explain this, but people require water for basic day-to-day survival; to drink, to cook, to clean, for hygiene, to run businesses, and so forth.
Don’t misunderstand; I want more people to go vegan, but what I don’t want is to essentially have people associate vegans and veganism with people who make offers to help them obtain a basic human need with strings attached.
Another example: In September 2013, it was announced that inmates within Arizona’s Maricopa County jail system would be only given two meals a day, for which they had to pay out of pocket, and that the meals would eventually be made meat-free. This movement was decreed by Sheriff Joe Arpaio (self-described as “America’s toughest sheriff” and known for his racial profiling of Latinos, as well as his brutal treatment of pre-trial inmates), who described it as a means of saving money.
Anderson was quoted as saying “I believe people can be rehabilitated from the inside out… Jails are full of people wanting to change, to make amends, to learn healthier habits and understand compassion and empathy.” A well-intended statement, but misinformed and somewhat callous nonetheless (Anderson made this comment seemingly assuming that the jail is full of violent criminals, even considering that the United States has the highest prisoner per capita population in the world, and much of that population is made up of people arrested for drug charges and other minor offenses).
As much as I wish that were the worst of it, it’s not.
After the current events blog ThinkProgress reported on the Sheriff Joe/PETA story, PETA President Ingrid Newkirk responded with this email:
“That’s right, slam PETA for praising something good that saves animals’ lives and is healthier for those incarcerated than the “mystery meat” usually served jail inmates. Under your rules, only pure people and pure institutions can be praised for anything, meaning there will be no news as even saints, now long dead, had flies on them. Under those rules, no one who works to stop any abuse to man or beast dare praise a living soul or agency for any step forward, no matter how large or small. That isn’t thinking progress, it’s negative thinking that provides no incentive for moral growth. A more helpful mindset would mean you can join in the celebration when our flawed society inches forward in any regard, whether human rights, animal rights, environmentalism, health, you name it.”
This sort of thing is not my idea of effective activism, no matter how attention/media-grabbing it gets.Nor do I think more attention necessarily means more effective; YouTube vegans like Freelee the Banana Girl and Vegan Gains have many views on their channels, but they are not without their detractors, especially for their more controversial videos. Gary Yourofsky’s speeches have reached millions of people, and gained him a large following, but does that really excuse any of this?:
Throwing large groups of marginalized people under the bus (and rape apology) isn’t really my idea of effective activism.
In all honesty, I don’t know whether I have the ultimate answer to what is or isn’t effective vegan activism, and nor am I claiming to. But I do think vegans who want to be effective should strive to not be so alienating. Let’s be honest; the vegan cause is still a small one, and the last thing it needs is to push people away, and just assume it doesn’t matter, because “there’s no such thing as bad press.”