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.