Our Privilege to Look

A link going around Facebook is asking:

Should animal advocates use graphic images of animals suffering or cute pictures of happy animals to get their message across? What simple techniques make people twice as likely to donate money or volunteer their time to help animals?

And come to  think about it, that’s mainly what one sees in animal advocacy: graphic images of animals suffering or cute pictures of happy animals.

Meanwhile, in real life, animals are doing much more than suffering and being cute. In their countless and varied communities, they lead lives of infinite richness.

Consider the “simple techniques” question, posed by someone in another area of social justice. By way of illustration, imagine someone in an immigration advocacy group asking:

Should refugee advocates use graphic images of refugees suffering or cute pictures of happy refugees to get their message across? What simple techniques make people twice as likely to donate money or volunteer their time to help refugees?

When I worked in migrant advocacy, I noticed a photo of the same emaciated child and mother on various fundraising websites. Refugees and asylum-seekers live and move in many roles. They might be homeless; they might be teaching international law. How do they feel when seeing refugees portrayed over and over as mouths to feed, while the fundraising campaigners who use the images have no idea what their lives are like or what their talents are?

Maybe the child and mother whose faces keep appearing, if they are alive somewhere today, are highly skilled people; in any case, these refugees are more than their victimhood.

I’ll get back to the “cute pictures of happy animals” in a later post. But real quick: For an advocacy group or sanctuary to depend on baby-faced animals to solicit funds parallels the conduct of zoos. Circuses, commercials and comedy hours often show chimpanzees smiling, though the smile on the chimpanzee’s face is a signal of fear. Pandas’ big eyes are there not to attract human caregivers; rather, as George B. Schaller writes:

The eye patches enlarge the panda’s small, dark eyes tenfold, making the stare more potent. In addition, a staring panda often holds its neck low, a position that not only presents the eye patches to an opponent but also outlines the black ears against the white neck, in effect presenting two pairs of threatening eyes. Conversely, to show lack of aggressive intent, a panda averts its head, covers the eye patches with its paws, or hides its face…

In other words, pictures that signal vulnerability, whether intended to raise funds or to move people to join a campaign, may inadvertently defy reality and respect for beings, or whole groups of beings, who are represented as helpless, perpetually needing rescue.

MasksThe “simple techniques” for drawing donors and supporters involve short-cutting: The animal advocate who uses shocking pictures and employs emotional words that require no thought (a high percentage of alerts include “cruel” or “horrific” or “barbaric”) can get by with limited understanding of ethical, environmental or political issues. That can be convenient when membership drives, a petition full of signatures, or fundraising take over as goals. It can also fail to respect the audience, and fail to accord genuine respect for the individual or population with interests at stake.

Even the gentlest, most painstaking and studious advocacy films interpret others’ lives through the camera’s lens. Often, the photographer or videographer was a passive witness to a harrowing event, infusing a disturbing element to the very process of obtaining the imagery.

Watching animals is normal for us. We were carefully and frequently taught as children to regard other animals as spectacles. So it takes a conscious awareness to question our privilege to look, and our prerogative to do what we like with the images.

image source

Is a Vegan Humanity Possible?

Life on Earth is getting stranger. When the vegans started out in 1944, they noticed that our population, even then, weighed heavily on the planet. In seventy years, we’ve gone from two to seven billion human beings, with the number of animals bred into existence to feed many of these people—the land animals alone!—numbering in the many tens of billions.

The easy thing to do is be pragmatic and figure other animals are losing their habitat forever as fast as we can grab it, that we are incorrigible domesticators, and that life is everywhere commodified, so the best we can do, given that other animals are always going to be in some sort of relationship with us, is to be as easy as possible on all the other animals we control.

And yet I feel sure a world with room for animal rights is a world that’s still possible. Our dominion will be overthrown at some point anyway. Should we exhaust our planet, the force of life will rearrange itself accordingly.

The question for us, then, is whether we want to swim with the tide—with conscious awareness. Whether we grasp that we—scared little primates with big weapons, as Harold Brown has called us—are not in charge of this planet; whether we acknowledge that our lives unfold within a bio-community; whether we value, and will strive to increase, our capacity to respect other communities on this Earth.

Animal law generally misses these questions. It’s become part of North American social and educational life, with the model often involving pressure for courts to recognize, as animal law professors tend to put it, other animals’ true value and special place in our homes. But to me the radical hope was expressed when law professor Catharine MacKinnon (in the 2004 essay “Of Mice and Men: A Feminist Fragment on Animal Rights”) called for a new way of understanding animal advocacy, observing that the primary model of animal rights to date “misses animals on their own terms.”

Vegans have risen to the occasion and refused to be consumers of animal commodities. This general opting-out is the broad base for dissolving the for-sale status of other animals, and (because being vegan isn’t just about what we don’t want) letting them thrive on their own terms in untamed spaces.

Consider the free-roaming horses. They, at least in the United States, are continually rounded up and auctioned off. Some have been trained as border guards, others for display in circus-like shows. Some have been sent to die. Many animal advocates are focused on closing horse-slaughtering plants. From the vegan perspective, confronting slaughter makes sense—but only as part of a broader, autonomy-seeking perspective.

Nor is the answer to impose birth control on free-roaming horses while cattle ranches expand.

There is a law—the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971—that set out to let free-roaming horses and burros do just that: roam free. It hasn’t worked out. What horse advocates need, I believe, is to link to a vegan ethic: the permanent boycott of flesh and dairy products so animal agribusiness doesn’t push these horses and burros off the land.

An enormous segment of the human economy is based on taking habitat out from under other animals, yet each one of us has the power to change this structure. What’s more, we all know and constantly encounter other people with this same potential. People can and do respond to reasoned optimism.

May we stay mindful of the ideal and strive for it, so that wolves, coyotes, horses, bison, deer, elk and moose may freely roam their habitats. So that bears flourish, bees flourish, and horses live freely on Chincoteague, Assateague, the western ranges…Nova Scotia and the Nemaiah Valley. So that no one is calling for roundups, because the products of cattle ranching are no longer in demand. So that jaguars, pronghorn, and nectar bats, humans as well, have the right to move across the face of the earth. So that Earth’s CO₂ balance is restored, its wildlands are recovering, its air and its waters are clean and clear. So that pesticides are things of the past and the only lethal traps, snares, birdcages, guns, fishing poles and spurs left in the world are in antique stores.

Love and liberation,