Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The PETA Effect

"Are you one of those PETA people?"

If you've done outreach for any length of time, this question will be familiar to you. It's usually accompanied with defensive body language and a frown. I'm sure that it sounds strange when I assure the people asking me that I probably dislike PETA every bit as much as they do, if not more. People are a lot more receptive once they hear this. This is because of what I've come to call the PETA Effect.

When you have small enough numbers and your goal is to spur a dialogue that motivates people into adopting major internal and external shifts, it helps to be at the top of your game. As vegans, we're supposed to be shining examples of excellence from head-to-toe but not too much because then the scale tips more toward "goody two-shoes sitcom parent from the 1950s" and that's just annoying. Vegan ambassadors are supposed to be great examples but the problem is that we're all, you know, human. As such, we all have areas of weakness. I know that sarcasm is my default coping mechanism, I'm quick to anger and my husband has told me many times that I could use a smidge more patience. Realizing that perfection is both unattainable and undesirable, I strive to just do better than my worst instincts would dictate if they were in the driver's seat. I do occasionally just hand my wild-eyed, unreasonable, sort-of-insane self the keys while my better self happily takes a break in the passenger's seat but it's rare these days. She's a maniac behind the wheel and I always end up having to apologize for her. She was not created from too many plant antioxidants or Morrissey albums: she is part of me with or without my veganism.

It's estimated that vegans in the United States are currently rocking out at one percent of the total population. While it makes my pulse quicken just a little to think of that many vegans in one place - imagine how much fun we would have swapping ghoulish tales of communal family Thanksgiving meals! - it still, really, is pretty paltry given that it can only mean that non-vegans are at about 99% of the population. There are scant few of us despite the exceptionally big splash we have made on the world at large, which is very encouraging, of course. Vegans are referenced in popular culture, are brought up in every day conversation, are a tiny demographic given a disproportionate amount of consideration by big business. Much of this is due to PETA's long shadow, but it is also because we're a dynamic, vibrant community of movers-and-shakers. We're culture builders, small but mighty. What other subcultures are given as much consideration? Do origami enthusiasts have so much influence on popular culture and public discourse? LaRouchians? Wiccans? Vegans are uniquely both apart from and of the larger communities in which we live and we leave our mark on these communities in countless ways: on menus, in public policy debates, on library shelves. Given this, and given that people in general have very short attention spans, whatever is said loudest is usually what is remembered. Thus, I would like to suggest that PETA's promotion machine just take a little retreat somewhere. Maybe they can go to Vermont or northern California for a long weekend, maybe even a week. While there, they can meditate until their last "go naked!" Tourette's Syndrome-like impulse has been purged from their minds, do team building exercises that do not include brainstorming novel ways to piss off herbivores and big game hunters alike, and come back when they're not spewing out an endless stream of random nonsense like the proverbial crazy guy on the park bench. Would that be too much to ask? They can learn to take deep cleansing breaths whenever they feel the urge to put up a billboard with an ill-conceived, sophomoric double entendre. They can learn to do finger mudras instead of hitting the send button whenever it's time to send out the latest Sexiest Vegetarian Alive contest press release. They can learn to visualize successful, creative and meaningful campaigns that don't involve shaming or exploitation. They will leave Vermont or northern California refreshed, revived, ready to use their millions effectively.

A woman can dream.

The problem with PETA is that they put the wild-eyed, unreasonable, sort-of-insane person in the driver's seat way too much of the time and the rest of the world's vegans are expected to apologize for this. Apologize for this while never apologizing for our own passionately held values. For every smart, creative and truly helpful campaign PETA creates, there are dozens more they release into the world screeching like fireworks, like feral, poop-flinging, misanthropic banshees. "Look at me! Listen to me! I don't even know what I have to say but I want you to listen to it! Look: boobies! Go veg, you disgusting, fat schlub! Aaaah!!! Vegetables will make you skinny! Booooobies!" Anything clever or useful gets buried under a barrage of ridiculous stunts. Why is this? Because somewhere along the line, like that self-centered jerk you broke up with as soon as you developed common sense, PETA decided that what works best for them is not only in their best interest, it is their main decisive interest. And what works best for PETA is to get their name in front of the public: it is not to save the most animals, to challenge prevailing attitudes, to create a less violent world. If it were, they wouldn't use lowest common denominator tactics (roughly 60% boobies, 30% insults, and 10% messaging of unidentifiable purpose) that cause so many people to reject their message immediately because they cannot abide the delivery. The ethical argument is handily on their side but because they use such abrasive, abusive tactics, they lose that clear advantage and place themselves instead on the side of bullies and tyrants. If other vegans are painted by the same brush by the public at large as PETA, and we are, so be it.

To the public mind, PETA represents the views of all vegans, thus we are always needing to undue their damage example after example. We inherit the burden of proving to the omnivorous world, as if they weren't already resistant to the idea of reevaluating their own privileges, that even though we are a mere one percent of the population, PETA does not speak for all of us or our values. We are not all feral, poop-flinging, misanthropic banshees. I have a dear friend who is Catholic: do I assume that she is bombing clinics and stalking abortion providers in her spare time? No, because she's not. The issue is that there are many, many more Catholics than vegans so even though the behavior of a few might create some presumptuous beliefs about Catholics, there are enough of them that they are perceived as unique, specific individuals. We don't have this same luxury as vegans.

This is not to say that we should all walk in lockstep. The more of us who can reflect to the world that we are unique individuals with diverse opinions and interests, the better. What PETA's doing is not this, though. They are in a truly bizarre position of being perceived as "radicals" while what they're really doing is reinforcing much of the status quo (fat people suck, they are stupid and lazy) and pushing for welfare reforms that are not too far removed from the prevailing attitudes. PETA is so predictable and lazy thinking with their attention-seeking escapades, usually the very antithesis of anything clever and penetrating, that they have created a white noise that they need to shriek ever louder above in order to be heard. And with their publicity seeking, they have also strategically painted themselves in the corner, unable to generate interest in nuanced, effective campaigns. This is entirely their fault. Consumption of animals is not lower than it was in 1980, when PETA was founded. This says to me that PETA, as probably the most well-known animal advocacy organization alongside HSUS, should be reevaluating their strategies.

I understand that a good many dedicated, hard-working people with heartfelt convictions work for PETA. They came to PETA to work on behalf of animals, to try to improve their lives. The beast that PETA has become, though, is different than the sum of its parts. Over the years, PETA has become a mirror through which we see all our cultural prejudices, obsessions and superficialities reflected back at us, just with a twist of vegetarianism. It is not PETA's fault that we live in a dumbed-down, misogynist and shallow culture: it is their fault that they adopt these same values with their outreach instead of trying to create an altogether new paradigm. Yes, they get media. Is this always good? If it makes people think that vegans are a bunch of flaky, half-crazed bullies, then my answer would have to be no. If their tactics were crude and mean-spirited but effectively managed to save a lot of animals' lives, I would have to evaluate that. With the prominent message one of shaming and exploitation rather than one that both challenges and encourages, they do not get much mileage past the initial attention they generate. This is a huge waste of a lot of money, time and dedication.

The PETA Effect has come into existence because they have cynically decided to not only accept the terms dictated by the worst aspects of the mainstream world, but to be a part of it. Instead of questioning misogyny, they wallow in it. Instead of thoughtful, insightful analysis, they have women citing statistics while stripping on camera. Instead of rejecting the notion that we all need to be young, slim, and, more often than not, surgically enhanced to be attractive, they embrace it fully, and they also tell us that objectification for the "cause" is a worthy endeavor. They tell a nation already deeply battered by this message that if you are not young, slim and conventionally attractive, you are worthless and disgusting. What does this have to do with compassion to animals? How does this improve a battery chicken's life? How does this make the skeptical public more receptive to questioning their values? It doesn't.

So, please, PETA, take a little retreat. You deserve it! The media will still be here when you return, I promise. Then you can try something new, something truly shocking for PETA: challenge the deeper privileges and attitudes that set the stage for exploitation, disconnection and violence. Can you imagine what you could accomplish with your budget and dedication? Maybe then you'll realize your potential and the PETA Effect will actually come to mean something else, something positive and powerfully forward-thinking. Until then, PETA, please remember the rest of us and keep the lunatic out of the driver's seat.


  1. Great post, Marla! And so timely. I recently had a long email exchange with a blog friend who was considering writing for elephant, the Buddhist blogazine. As a feminist, she was very conflicted about elephant's promotion of PETA and was not sure she'd be comfortable associating herself with such sexism and misogyny. I was quite honored that she sought out my opinion; ultimately, she did decide against writing for them.

  2. how wonderfully articulate and refreshing... i've only recently stumbled on your blog but love reading your posts - i echo your anger - treatment of vegans is pretty much the same here in australia...

    thank you sister! keep on weaving those beautiful words...

  3. Hey, VB, thank you and that's great news. We need to stand up to misogyny in all its forms. It's less tolerable from organizations that fight for compassionate treatment of others.

    Thank you, Allyson!

    Thanks, Proud Womon. I really appreciate your feedback. I wish things were different.

    Booobies indeed, Vanilla Rose. I just got a chance to see your blog. How fun! I can't wait to explore it a little more.

  4. THIS IS AWESOME! Marla, this is one of the reasons your blog is one of my favorites. You never cease to rock my socks off!

    Like my vegans, my 'point of entry' into animal rights was PETA. I actually credit them for making me 'see the light' because it was their film Meet your Meat that did it for both me and Cody. But...very soon after that did I come to despise them. Sexism, racism, hypocrisy, UGHG!

  5. Just discovered your blog. I like it very much, this post in particular. Tactics matter. PETA needs to learn that. Although, one has to admit, their strategy does gain a lot of attention...

  6. Hi, Tasha!

    I know: PETA was responsible for many of us. Meet Your Meat was the sort of solid, smart communications work that really broke through to people. Unfortunately, with them you are expected to take a whole lot of BS these days to get to anything of value. I'm just not willing to anymore. There are other organizations that do what they used to do well without all the baggage. :) You rock my socks off, too, VV!

  7. Hi, Elaine -

    Welcome and thank you for your kind words. Yes, tactics matter. I agree that they (as in PETA) gets attention, but at what cost. I would love to see a sociological study of the impact of PETA on attitudes about vegearianism/dominionism. For as many people as they enlighten about an issue, I'd love to see how many people they turn off completely because of their abrasiveness/misogyny. Anyway, Elaine, thanks again!

  8. I just spent much of the past weekend at the Chicago Green Festival, tabling for the vegan cause. PETA was there, too, with a (presumably) naked woman taking a shower while surrounded by a curtain around most of her torso and thighs. The point, I believe, was supposed to be that a vegan could take a shower all day and still not use as much water as someone who eats a lot of meat. It is a great statistic, and I have to admit there is a point to illustrating it out for people. But it didn't seem to meet its ostensible objectives.

    The Green Festival crowd is not the typical group of oogling bachelor party types that would be titillated by that sort of thing. Most people there seemed to be giving the booth a wide berth, not because they oppose veganism (we had great enthusiastic crowds at our booth), but because they felt a little embarrassed about the display or didn't want to be seen as un-PC. At any rate, It seemed like the intended message was lost in the display. Whether people were avoiding or oogling, they didn't appear to be focusing a lot of attention on the printed words on the wall behind her.

    I actually thought it was clever the first time PETA used nudity. It was the Go-Go's posing behind a banner with the "I'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur". It was kind of arresting, and, at the time, it was something new and different. But since then, they keep trotting out naked people (overwhelmingly young attractive females) for every issue.

    This seriously bugs me on two levels - first, the obvious: if veganism is a stand against the abuse and exploitation of animals, and we accept the notion that humans are animals, then trotting naked women out to be leered at is not, at its heart, vegan. In the farm animal world, the females get the worst of it. Egg laying hens, as a group, suffer more than anyone, and gestating sows and dairy cattle have it almost as bad.

    New vegans are often filled with very strong emotions and a profound desire to help right the wrong that is animal exploitation. While this desire is the driving force that has given the vegan community its outsized voice, it can also open up new vegans to the opportunity to be exploited themselves: "What can I do for the animals?" "Well, you have a cute body. You could take off your clothes and spend a couple of hours in this cage. It would really send a strong message to people about animal exploitation" "well, I don't know if I can..." "Oh, come on, it's for the animals. You don't want to hurt the animals, do you?" I doubt it's usually this blunt, but I equally doubt that all of these young women are natural exhibitionists. I once saw three PETA activists humiliated on the Howard Stern Show, and it made me sad for them, for all vegans, for all women, and for myself. Did that horrific episode save any animals? Is the world more enlightened because of the porno sites that have sprung up showing images of naked PETA protesters? Do they expect that the guy masturbating in front of his computer in the middle of the night is going to suddenly have an epiphany and become a vegan?

    The other reason it bugs me, which really gets to me almost as bad, is the tactics stunning lack of creativity. PETA has a lot of money and influence. There are so many better ways they could put this all to use than exploiting their own employees and volunteers. But when your only tool is a naked woman, every problem starts to look like a leering voyeur.

    PETA has done some wonderful work over the years. And they will do a lot more in the future. But they're not going to give up on the naked woman thing until they see that it's doing them more harm than good. Hopefully, this article and surrounding comments will help move things in that direction.

  9. Many salient points here, Johnny. Thanks for sharing. I actually do think that PETA IS that manipulative with their naked volunteers. I remember a photo from the Tribune a couple of years ago with a naked woman downtown; I remember the look on her face. She looked so nervous and scared and all around her were these leering, pointing, smirking construction workers. It was so sad and that photo pretty much summed up their very lost message.

  10. Great post!

    Thanks for your perspective (and for writing the truth of what many of us wish to say and haven't yet found the voice to do so).

    Rock on...

  11. Please click on my "Boobies!" link if you have time! There is a picture ...

  12. I liked your last article, but this one was so good, I might be a little in love with you right now. I've been researching veganism and haven't been able to find anything inside the US that isn't linked to PETA. Its been maddening. Every site, every article comes back to them somehow. I've been looking at stuff from the UK, just to avoid the PETA. Have you done a blog on alternative sources of community/information? Or might one be coming?

  13. Agree with everything
    Barefoot said, and than some. i joined your site and can't wait to share with friends.

  14. You write very well and I couldn't agree more with you. I swore that I am never going to donate a single penny to PETA. There are a lot more animal rights organizations in US that are much more diplomatic in their approach and that truly stand for what veganism means - no exploitation of whatever species.

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