PETA has to be one of the most high-profile animal rights organisations in the US, which is quite a pity, because it’s also one of the most actively irritating and offensive. The work of groups like the Humane Society of the United States, the Fund for Animals, and American Humane gets pushed aside by whatever the latest PETA horrorshow is. Because PETA is a horrorshow, which is unfortunate, since the group’s hamfisted attempts at advocacy touch on a number of important issues, like the abuse of farm animals, animal experimentation, cruelties of the fur trade, and more. Humans treat animals terribly and as they cannot speak for themselves, they need humans to advocate for them — and in the case of PETA, though, those ‘allies’ are doing more harm than good.
The organisation seems to believe that being deliberately provocative will help it score political points and accomplish the goal of animal abolition — the group defines itself as radically abolitionist, to the point of running high-kill shelters because it views pets as ‘slaves,’ and really it fights right in with much of the rhetoric used by noted jerkweasel Peter Singer. Yet, all it really does is infuriate people, including the very people it’s supposedly trying to reach. As a former vegan and someone who cares passionately about animals, I can say that this isn’t as simplistic as ‘man, every time I see a PETA ad, it makes me want to eat bacon,’ but organisations attempting to conduct education and outreach to encourage people to reconsider the way they view animals might want to start with not being terrible people.
In recent years, this has really flourished in the arena of public policy, with PETA trying to draw attention to itself by throwing itself into very high-profile public causes. In Detroit and Flint, the group showed up to save the day, and ended up alienating and infuriating people with its shocking disregard for human welfare and the severity of environmental crises in order to score cheap political points. Sure, send vegan jerky to white supremacists occupying an Oregon wildlife reserve as a tongue-in-cheek response to their request for snacks, but don’t interfere with situations that involve people’s lives — because when your life is on the line, it’s actually not very entertaining or pleasant to find yourself used as a political pawn.
In Detroit, where a water crisis left many people unable to pay their water bills, PETA offered to pay the way — if, of course, people went vegan. As if this wasn’t offensive enough, the deal came with fine print. The organisation required people to submit water bills within a limited deadline and only agreed to pay bills for ten families in a city that was undergoing a major collapse of public utilities infrastructure. When Flint faced a crisis of violence, PETA helpfully showed up to suggest that the city should ‘stop the killing,’ starting with animals. Because that will definitely help.
These are very serious real-world issues for communities that need help. Because of a collapse of government supports and assumptions that charities will magically fix the problem, many are being left in the weeds, relying on the kindness of others to get by — something I have a lot of thoughts about. It’s not uncommon for charities to make support conditional on adhering to a values-based judgment, like Christian charities that will only offer support to Christians or to people who agree to go to Bible study or church. This is not okay, because charitable support should be about helping all people in need, not just those who meet an arbitrary standard of moral goodness — humans are all deserving of equal treatment, and times of need are no exception. Forcing the hand of people who are desperate for help is despicable.
PETA, though, isn’t just making support conditional. It’s using these moves as political stunts to draw attention to itself and ‘the cause.’ Apparently the group thinks that it can force communities to go vegan, or make members of the public rethink their position on animals, if it inserts itself into crises like these. PETA has tremendous resources and could actually have helped in Detroit along with a number of other charities — if nothing else, it has a huge team of litigators they could have donated pro bono to help people fight injustice. During Flint’s struggles, the organisation could have turned to the community itself to see if people could benefit from any expertise or support it could offer, though what that might be is unclear.
But these kinds of actions — marching onto the scene to make a grand political statement by using people’s horrific circumstances to get media attention, are vile. I’m always saying that we should try just not paying attention to PETA, but that’s hard to do — both because the media keeps reporting on them, and because they keep doing things so terrible that to leave them unremarked is to condone them. For vegans and animal rights activists in particular, there’s an understandable desire to distance from PETA and to retake the movement from the group’s extremist and often actively harmful tactics. And it’s really disappointing to see high profile celebrities putting their oar in on PETA campaigns — especially when they claim to be concerned about social justice issues.
I keep hoping that PETA will fade away in favour of more progressive groups, or that a shakeup in the organisation will change the way it engages with the continuing very real problems of mistreatment of animals, but this is unlikely. These issues are structural and institutional, not the work of a handful of people in the upper ranks. It’s also clear that PETA refuses to acknowledge that their actions are doing more harm than good.
Image: PETA (Kristen Johnston), Kelly Garbato, Flickr