The Punch, Katrina Fox; 3 August 2011
Animal rights activists get a bad rap. Reactions to those who dare to speak out against animal abuse reveal a level of vitriol rarely aimed at any other group of social justice campaigners.
They are assumed to be a bunch of unwashed, dope-smoking, dole-bludging criminals.
‘Extremist’, ‘terrorist’ and ‘militant’ are the stock standard descriptors churned out whenever animal advocates engage in various forms of activism that challenge us to shake up our thinking.
Last week on The Punch, Anthony Sharwood derided activists who carried out a protest against wild animals being used in circuses, accusing the demonstrators of “actively victimis[ing] the poor helpless children attending the circus with some of the most vile slurs imaginable”.
This week British singer Morrissey sparked outrage when he announced that the numbers of deaths from the Norway massacre were “nothing compared to what happens in McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried S—- every day”.
And People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) – a group that’s routinely called out on what many view as sexist adverts – has courted controversy once again for its new ‘Glass Walls’ exhibit in the US, which draws analogies between human slavery and genocide and cruelty to non-human animals.
Are these attacks on animal advocates justified? And why are they singled out for such harsh criticisms?
It’s fair to say that verbal abuse by any activist in the name of their cause is not helpful – yet neither is aggression towards protestors by members of the public or those working in the industry being protested against.
That’s not to say that animal advocates can’t be as sexist, racist, homo/transphobic, ageist, sizeist or ableist as anyone else. Just as those working in other social justice movements can be.
Morrissey’s comments last year that the Chinese are a “sub-species” due to their poor animal welfare record were the epitome of epic race fail and left many animal advocates mortified. But while his recent comments on the Norway massacre may appear insensitive, in terms of the numbers of deaths, he’s right on the money.
It’s true that making direct analogies between different forms of oppression can be problematic. As African-American author and academic Breeze Harper writes in her book Sistah Vegan, many black people in the US suffer from post-traumatic slave syndrome and react badly to their suffering being compared with that of non-human animals.
Yet Harper notes the same mentality that made it acceptable to conduct cruel experiments on black women by the ‘father of gynaecology’ Dr Marion Sims in the 19th century is the same mentality that continues to allow non-human animals to suffer heinous atrocities today.
It’s this idea of how all discrimination, exploitation and needless violence is wrong that PETA’s current exhibit is seeking to highlight. “Let’s stop thinking about whether one victim is more important than another, whether one act of gratuitous violence is more … They’re all horrible. We condemn them all,” the organisation’s President Ingrid Newkirk told Raw Story.
Newkirk puts forward a perfectly reasonable argument – one that many animal activists advocate – yet it’s a message that makes the majority of people uncomfortable to hear. So it’s unsurprising that they feel the need to couch it in controversy or take the approach that the louder a person speaks, the more he or she is likely to be heard.
Those working in the ‘animal industrial complex’, as well as governments, go to great efforts to silence animal rights activists. Last year in Australia a piggery tried to argue that the copyright for footage obtained by undercover activists from Animal Liberation NSW should be owned by the piggery since the activists entered the property illegally. A judge ruled against the piggery in March this year.
In the US, attempts were made this year (so far unsuccessful) in several states to introduce legislation (dubbed ‘ag-gag laws’) that would criminalise the shooting or displaying by activists of undercover videos showing cruelty and abuse to animals.
The US already has in place the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which has resulted in a harsh curtailment of free speech and civil liberties. Meanwhile, efforts continue in many countries, the most recent being Spain, to arrest animal activists engaged in legal, above-ground actions as ‘eco-terrorists’ because law enforcement agencies have failed to find those carrying out illegal direct action.
Attempts to silence or deride animal activists are a reaction to them making us feel uncomfortable about being called to account over our sanctioning of animal exploitation. They tap into a deep-seated guilt about our complicity in contributing to animal suffering for our own gain, and invoke anger at the idea that we need to drastically change our consumption habits to avoid being part of a system that has cruelty at its core.
Animal rights activists remind us of our need to evolve – as individuals and as a society. It takes a group of resolute people who are prepared to take a stand, no matter what the personal cost – be it ridicule or imprisonment – to instigate change.
From the suffragettes and second-wave feminists to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, it is those determined to offer alternative ideas to the status quo that have resulted in legal changes and protections being extended to marginalised groups – in these cases, of people – previously denied them. Originally perceived as social pariahs, as time passes their ideas become the accepted ‘norm’, societies progress and we wonder how we could ever have been so ‘backward’.
As history has shown, once you sanction the suffering of one group, it’s no great leap to do the same to others. An egalitarian society will never come about while sections of it are oppressed, whether on the basis of their sex/gender, race, ability or sexual orientation.
It’s about time we added ‘species’ to that list. Instead of going on the defensive, demonising and attempting to silence animal rights activists, we would do well to heed to their calls for compassion.