Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The PETA situation

I've got a bit of a problem. See, I can't help but pay attention to PETA. As the most recognizable and infamous animal advocacy group, PETA has an obligation to advocate for animals, one would think. And as someone who is very concerned about animal rights—concerned enough to be vegan—I feel it is my duty to keep up on such things. So I've posted about PETA here and on The Red Scare many times before, but I wanted to make a post where I fully laid out my case, both for and against them.


I am generally impressed with actual PETA members, employees, and volunteers on a personal level. I mean, it is clear that, as individuals, the majority of PETA supporters do genuinely care about animals and want to see the best case scenario play out in the end. They're committed enough that I've never really come across a "closeted" PETA member—they're generally out and proud, and visibility never hurt a cause. It takes some fortitude to stand up for animals in the social climate of the world today, and to declare oneself a member of a group that many laypersons actually think sponsors radical animal-rights terrorists (!) is at least a measure of one's devotion.

PETA's web presence is comprehensive and fairly useful content-wise. They have pages and pages of information about animal cruelty, and the sites are updated frequently. I've heard anecdotally that PETA's website alone has greatly influenced several people to become interested in animal issues, along with their video collection. I even enjoy reading the PETA Files blog, even though I don't always agree with everything they post there.

PETA's core message is a good one. Their stated motto, that "animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any way" is absolutely correct. PETA has notoriety and occasionally highlights issues of importance, and even runs many campaigns that directly target the use of animals and call for the abolition thereof.


PETA can't bring itself to say vegan. OK, fine, if you poke around for long enough on their site, you'll find the word here and there. But go to a food-related PETA demonstration and what will you see? "Go vegetarian." "Go veg." "Get a free vegetarian starter kit." Look at their main site pages, where you'll see stories about vegans with headlines referring to vegetarianism instead. A blog post about vegan athlete Carl Lewis refers to him as vegetarian. The example of Oprah's very public vegan experiment encourages readers to "go vegetarian." Even the vegetarian starter kit mentioned above is actually a vegan starter kit, deliberately mislabeled.

But isn't veganism just a type of vegetarianism? Well, no. The words have lives of their own, and it is an unavoidable fact that "vegetarian" means "eats eggs and dairy (and to some idiots, fish)." It is logically incoherent to say that you believe in animal rights, such as the basic right not to be property, while consuming animal products that require animals to be property. Combined with the fact that even free-range, cage-free, organic eggs and dairy are complicit in the torture and slaughter of animals for meat (a fact PETA's own sites proclaim), it is simply absurd to claim to be opposed to the abuse of animals while encouraging vegetarianism. Vegetarianism directly contributes to the use and abuse of animals. Veganism does not, except in unavoidable ways. An animal rights organization need not require its members be vegan, but veganism has to be the official position of the organization if it claims to be in favor of substantive animal rights at all.

Right now, PETA Files has a post about a "Vegetarianism in a Nutshell" podcast episode, with a link to "the impact of vegetarianism"...on a "" site, the actual name of which is "veganism.asp." It's total doublethink. Veganism is not vegetarianism.

Related to PETA's avoidance of actually asking people to stop exploiting animals is their routine celebration, promotion, and award-giving to animal exploiters. PETA proclaims victory when KFC Canada starts only using chickens that were gassed to death after their shortened, tortured lives. PETA gives awards to Wolfgang Puck for choosing less cruelly raised veal. They make animal exploiters feel better about getting signed off on by "the animal rights organization." PETA runs Sexiest Vegetarian contests when, as we see above, vegetarians exploit animals.

PETA's campaigns are often narrowly-focused and advance trivial issues of welfare improvement at the expense of the actual exploitation involved. While their "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" campaign clearly targets the use of fur animals entirely, they then go on to protest the treatment of chickens in fast food chains that must use chickens even to exist. It's not that the treatment of these chickens is not abhorrent, it is. But the real problem is the use of chickens in the first place. There is no practical "endgame" to a protest at a KFC short of a multibillion-dollar corporation actually shutting down entirely. "Winning" cages an inch wider is not a meaningful victory for animal rights any more than convincing a wife-beater to use an open palm rather than a closed fist is a great victory against domestic violence. It is a PR boon for the exploiting corporations, however, who can now sell PETA-approved slaughter to their customers and increase profit.

Finally, PETA undeniably uses sexist imagery in some of its campaigns. I've waffled on this, and ultimately I come down on the side that I don't mind their naked activities. I don't mind using the body as an attention-grabber and a form of protest. I think the World Naked Bike Ride is groovy. I think Spencer Tunick's glacier photos for Greenpeace are rad. So it's not that PETA "uses" naked women (and men) that is sexist. I don't even think some of the most commonly cited examples—the women with beef cut diagrams drawn on them, the women in cellophane as meat, and the pregnant woman in a cage like a sow—are actually sexist. They are satire; we're meant to think, "Ugh, treating a woman that way is sick." That's the whole point. Whether they effectively carry over to thoughts of animal treatment is another story.

But PETA does have sexist undertones to several campaigns. For one thing, they don't shy away from not using mere nudity, but specifically female sexuality as their hook. They encourage people to think of their female models as "bikini babes" and "hot chicks," in contexts that have nothing to do with comparisons to animals. There is a big difference between saying, "Hey, we're naked because animal rights are important enough for us to throw caution and shame to the wind," and saying, "Hey, come ogle some sexy broads! (also, go 'veg')." Their notorious "Fur trim. Unattractive." ad didn't exactly promote a positive female body image, either.


So PETA is a mixed bag for me. I have no real hope that they will ever embrace genuine vegan outreach and abolitionist campaigning, but they are—for better or worse—the face of animal rights activism to the general public. I can't help but think of many individuals involved with PETA as allies, even as their organization uses its platform to indirectly aid those who we mutually oppose. But such is the inevitable result when a radical group achieves some level of mainstream success. Once you start to taste victory, victory soon becomes more important than values. PETA is willing to ask for things it doesn't want simply because it can win them, and that's unfortunate. So I'll continue to think of the PETA folks as misguided comrades, and keep asking for the things I actually want... even if I never get them.


  1. I posted this comment in response to a post on the PETA Files blog, it ties into the above, and I'm rather proud of it:

    While modesty prevents me from thinking the second paragraph was entirely influenced by my recent prolific spate of comments, I have certainly been critical as of late. Please indulge me one somewhat more lengthy comment here and I will try to keep them brief and pithy in the future.

    My critique of PETA's "victories" on this blog (and elsewhere) has always been predicated on one simple notion: it is morally and strategically incoherent to advocate animal rights while celebrating, awarding, and congratulating people who violate those rights. I oppose the perpetual conflation of "vegetarianism" and "veganism" not etymologically, but because it congratulates people for adopting an animal exploiting lifestyle. I oppose giving awards to e.g. Wolfgang Puck for his choice of veal not because I would rather he torture animals more, but because it celebrates an animal exploiter for continuing to exploit animals. I oppose ending boycotts in response to welfare improvements not out of opposition to improving animal lives, but because it gives the impression of a fresh PETA "seal of approval" to carry on consuming the products so boycotted.

    If the Myanmar junta started giving its political prisoners beds rather than concrete floors, I wouldn't expect Amnesty International to issue a press release congratulating them and giving them a "most improved dictatorship" award. I merely expect the same sort of consistency from PETA and any other group that claims to be in favor of actual rights for animals.

    This is not to imply that welfare improvements don't mean something to animals. It is not to imply that vegetarians aren't doing better than omnivores at avoiding the infliction of harm. It is rather a matter of overarching policy and vision. I expect PETA to get endorsements from vegan celebrities, for what they're worth. I expect PETA to celebrate when an exploitative practice is actually ended, such as a circus ending animal use, or a clothing company halting the use of fur. These are consistent with advocacy for animal rights. They are real, solid, meaningful victories--not PR victories for companies who can now sell "humane" death to people whose consciences have been cleared by PETA's congratulations.

    The world will not stop seeing animals as property to be used and abused overnight, or likely even in our lifetimes, we agree on that much. That's why it is all the more important for caring people with a platform--PETA and its bloggers, for example--to encourage people to genuinely opt out of that use and abuse, and to do so transparently, calling a spade a spade; calling a vegan a vegan. It means that when our side wins a welfare improvement, we ALWAYS follow it up with the statement that it is nowhere near enough, and that we NEVER give awards to those who continue to do the things we oppose. It's simple, honest consistency I ask for, nothing more.

    I enjoy the PETA Files. I'll keep reading, and I'll keep commenting. Always on topic, always constructive. We're on the same team here, and we can stand side by side and fight the good fight while continuing to challenge each other when we have differences. Thanks.

  2. Hi Ryan. To me there are two ways to look at this. One is that as long as animals are horribly abused, tortured, treated like commodities and raised only to be brutally slaughtered, then there will always be a need for PETA and other high profile animal rights organizations. There are the de facto leader of the movement -and the most visible AR organization, they do alot of good and i am glad they are there. Two is i often wonder if they are fast becoming the Greenpeace of the animal rights movement. As you have pointed out some of their campaigns silly and go beyond a typical AR focus. And i find this bit of glorifying vegetarians and meateaters to no end in their campaigns to be disiingenuous, dishonest and downright harmful and a slap in the face to everyone who knows the difference and knows better. But the bottom line is they are there when you need them and they are good at what they do. They have to try to reach people however possible and spread the message of animal rights and compassion to anyone that will listen. And for my money vegetarian is the same as vegan, i always have to explain these differences anyway as most people don't know, don't care, don't understand or have media inspired misconceptions that they believe to be true, they let the media do their thinking for them. So it really makes no difference.

  3. And for my money vegetarian is the same as vegan, i always have to explain these differences anyway as most people don't know, don't care, don't understand or have media inspired misconceptions that they believe to be true, they let the media do their thinking for them. So it really makes no difference.

    It may or may not make a difference for the general public, but the difference for those who are supposed to know better (like PETA) is huge. PETA doesn't claim to be an animal welfare organization, they claim to be the animal rights organization, and as such they ought to promote choices that respect animal rights. The problem is that if they get 100 people to "go vegetarian," that's still 100 people who are exploiting animals through eggs and dairy that now think they've "done their part" because they're copacetic with the crazy radical PETA people. If they just asked people to go vegan from the start, they might find progress slower, but those that did it would be actually respecting the rights the organization claims to stand for. If activists should feel free to ignore our values in the name of expediency, PETA may as well declare it OK to eat meat—after all, they'd get a lot more support that way!