Thursday, July 24, 2008

How animal rights advocates should handle PETA

Following up on my post about the PETA situation (namely, that they're an ambiguous ally, at best, to supporters of animal rights):

I'd like to make a few suggestions on how those who don't like a lot of what that organization does (but also don't want to write off 2 million potential AR supporters merely because they're mistaken about PETA's efficacy at achieving their goals) ought to engage the situation. I've just read Saul Alinsky's infamous Rules for Radicals, so naturally I'm quite inspired with ideas. It occurs to me that the same sorts of practices that an advocacy group must use to engage and change systems they oppose can be used by members of a movement to engage and change advocacy groups within that movement. I don't expect this post will be met with adulation from all AR advocates opposed to PETA, but, hey, it's my blog.

PETA's major strategy for large-scale efforts has been to gather as much media attention as possible about specific topics. They choose specific targets and hit them repeatedly until they agree to negotiate some gains—typically not entirely significant ones. The point is that PETA works, as any advocacy group should, through pressure. What AR advocates ought to do with PETA is to also pick a specific target and apply continuous pressure until the group either admits their error or halts the practice.

This is the real world we live in. We can't shut our eyes and pretend that PETA, if vegans just ignore it, will stop being "the" animal rights organization. We can't pretend that they aren't the largest, most well-known group out there and that they are what the average person associates with animal rights. We cannot imagine that, magically, PETA's members are going to stop supporting them. Some vegans and AR advocates suggest we ought to simply write them off, start a new grassroots vegan abolitionist movement that is diametrically opposed to PETA's "new welfarism." I am highly sympathetic to this position, but I'm afraid it reeks of the factionalism that historically tears every broad-based leftist movement apart. We should not all go join PETA, to be sure, and we need not support them either, but our position toward them should be one of constant and positive criticism. We can, through the same pressuring efforts that this abolitionist movement would use to end the exploitation of animals, simultaneously pressure PETA to drift ever abolition-ward. Even if they are never "our" organization, they can become ever less an impediment to true animal rights, and in many cases, an actual expedient.

Here's how:
  1. Assume good intentions from individuals associated with PETA unless they prove otherwise. If we are to convince anyone that they are mistaken, we must assume that they want the right thing in the end, even if they're wrong about how to get there. And in my experience, this is almost always the case. I can't speak for everyone, but all PETA members and supporters I've ever talked to about this issue have fully agreed with me on what the ultimate goal is. They even fully agree that the strategies and methods I support (extensive vegan activism and campaigning for the actual halting of exploitative practices rather than modifications to them) will achieve it. The only thing they disagree on is whether or not PETA ought to also be doing the sorts of things it has become infamous for in the meantime. I have met PETA members who are highly critical of PETA's national tactics. PETA is not a monolith.
  2. Apply continuous pressure to specific issues. I read (and often even enjoy) the PETA Files blog. I also leave comments every occasion I see them congratulating animal exploiters or calling for vegetarianism rather than veganism and I have a minute to write one. To me, these are the two biggest mistakes PETA makes, and so I make an effort to call them out every time I can. I don't know what the blog's readership is, and it doesn't matter—this isn't an attempt to convince outsiders, but an attempt to engage people at, in, or sympathetic to PETA already. I want PETA members who read the blog to also read, every time their group gives an award to someone for their choice of veal or their method of slaughter, a criticism of the practice. I want the bloggers themselves to feel the need to justify every misuse of the word vegetarian and every "victory." This isn't because I'm a pedantic ass, it's because blogs are a discursive medium that ask for two-way interaction.
  3. When discussing PETA with people entirely unsympathetic to animal rights (or already hostile to PETA) only highlight the problems if you can explain the solution. Since the mainstream views PETA as "the" animal rights organization, and PETA members as the prototypical AR activists, there is something of a fine line to tread here. We must make it clear that PETA has problems. We don't want to make it seem as if we're bickering over trivial issues, or that PETA's sizable (and largely agreeable to our ends) membership are all fools, or that (god forbid) we're just jealous of their success, such as it is. I encourage AR people to frame PETA's difficulties as regrettable and avoidable, as though we really wish we could be on the same page with these things, and that maybe PETA can come around. Now, for me, this is the honest truth. I do feel a certain pang of regret that I can't approve of everything the group does. I want to be able to like PETA, because they have such potential and such support. For others, this may be putting things far more diplomatically than they would otherwise, but I think it is the smart strategic move to make. If, as I suggest, we want to use pressure to shift PETA's policies in line with our own, we have to leave that door open in the minds of both PETA supporters and critics—and ourselves.
  4. Don't lie. This is not entryism. This is not covert action. Those of us in the abolitionist core of the animal rights movement are overtly attempting to make more and more people see things our way. One element of this is vegan outreach. One element of this is pressure on PETA. This is the direct corollary of 3 above: we can leave the door open to future alliance with reformed PETA members without stepping through it before we're ready.
In summary, true AR advocates who hope to grow our ranks should see a flawed PETA as an opportunity, not an obstacle. Some PETA members may "convert" and leave. We may get the attention of those in positions of power within the organization. We can't know the future. But we can rest assured that PETA will be around for a long time, and we have to find a way of dealing with them that goes beyond ignoring them and hoping to be heard in their shadow, because the people we're trying to reach will always hear PETA's voice first.


  1. I would prefer to stage "home demonstrations" at PETA member's homes.

  2. If you were going for "radical animal rights activists are creepy and kinda dangerous," bravo, you really nailed it. Also, who is PETA member, and how many homes does she have?

  3. I would prefer that the whole animal rights movement be exposed for what it is - Not the world as it is, but the world as it should be-a "the biggest fairytale I've ever seen" (sorry Bill, had to borrow it) A movement that is to the detriment of humanity and denies animals their right to interaction with and direction from mankind. I will forward your blog to PETA anyways, always nice to sow disharmony amongst the animal lovers/human haters.

  4. I am quite sure that if I merit being on PETA's radar, I already am. I'm in regular contact with plenty of PETA members.