On the PETA porn site

When I was in seminary, there were several students who were interested in questions of animal rights. Such an interest is surely to be expected in the extremely liberal environs of Chicago Theological Seminary. More noteworthy to me, however, was the reaction from the black students whenever another (invariably white) student brought up animal rights. They rejected such concerns while so much work remained to be done to combat the mistreatment of other human beings and suspected that some students had embraced animal rights as a way of “skipping over” those concerns.

That is certainly unfair as a general statement about animal rights activism. At the same time, things like the PETA porn site make one wonder.

Interestingly, another concern that frequently came up in such conversations at CTS was that advocacy on behalf of animals would somehow detract from the continuing struggle of African Americans to be recognized as fully human after centuries in which they were so often classified as subhuman or animalistic. I was never sure how the two were connected — would people say it was okay to call African Americans apes, since we now respect animal rights? — and yet here again, the PETA campaign appears to fulfill those expectations in terms of old stereotypes of women. Women have historically been painted as somehow more “fleshly” than men and as passive sexual objects, and a huge part of women’s liberation has been to push back against those stereotypes, for instance by emphasizing women’s intelligence and sexual agency. The PETA porn site directly mobilizes those stereotypes in the service of animal rights.

If PETA can fight against the reduction of animals to usable flesh precisely by turning human women into usable flesh, then perhaps the notion of a similar campaign that would fight against the notion of animals as subhuman and therefore less important by mobilizing stereotypes of African Americans as somehow subhuman.

That is to say, there can be something sinister about animal rights activism, because there demonstrably is something sinister about the direction PETA is taking. More broadly, though, I’d say that there’s something potentially sinister about any rigorously single-issue type of advocacy.

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5 Responses to “On the PETA porn site”

  1. zunguzungu Says:

    I bet you could make an ever better catalog of abuses in the field of “conservation,” where protecting animals so quickly becomes a shield for elite interests and — especially in places like East and Southern Africa — garners a ton of nominally well meaning western support from people whose deep love of African animals not only contrasts with their disinterest in human existences, but actually comes at a real human cost.

    To your last paragraph, I’d say the problem is particularly acute with groups that attempt to “speak for,” a problem that animal rights people have, for obvious reasons, in spades. Advocacy groups that work with actual human beings get messy, because that’s what human beings are. Advocacy groups that turn the object of their advocacy into perfect, faultless fetish objects of virtue — something “pro-life” gets into — have a much smoother course towards self-righteous derangement.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The analogy with pro-life is a good one.

  3. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    PETA garners very little respect amongst animal rights advocates. I’ll let Craig deal with this though. I think not having an ecological/animal rights/biodiversity element to any radical politics leaves you open for all sorts of problems that are equally bad as PETA’s stupidity.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I believe that I guarded sufficiently against a false dichotomy in the original post.

  5. Craig McFarlane Says:

    Thanks, APS. I was just going to say something like you did. But, for those who care: there is a deep distrust among animal rights activists of the major organizations, especially PETA and HSUS. I won’t bother with HSUS because they tend to put Michael Vick on a pedestal rather than a bunch of naked 18 year olds–not quite what is under discussion. For most of us, you cannot have the end of “speciesism” without also having the end of sexism and racism. Carol Adams is especially good on this point. (She’s also a Christian, for what it is worth.) See her Sexual Politics of Meat. There’s also a few books on the Holocaust and animals as well as slavery and animals. Anytime these criticisms are addressed at PETA they use standard porn industry defences: adults, mature, individual choices, etc.

    While we are at it: PETA is not generally classified as an “animal rights” organization; they are usually classified as “new animal welfare.” After all, you can’t have an animal rights organization that endorses Kentucky Fried Chicken!


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