PETA Gets Fishy
PETA and Joaquin Phoenix have recently conspired to draw attention to fish sentience. Fish, like the cows and pigs and chickens that we unthinkingly eat, matter. They deserve moral consideration. The video driving this point home shows Phoenix sinking into a body of water, panicking, and downing. Phoenix’s 40-second demise into the aqueous depths is hard to forget. So much so that last night I had a dream/nightmare in which I caught a salmon off a bridge and was unable to get the hook out of the fish’s mouth. I guess you could say the message left an impression. Here’s the video.
Such PETA ads are common. They tend, moreover, to evoke a great deal of chatter within vegan circles. Do they work? Who do they intend to reach? Why focus only on fish? Why does PETA have such a celebrity fetish? How does Phoenix’s hair manage to look so good even under water? You know, big and important questions.
When I first became involved in vegan activism I found myself spending a lot of time, and doing a great deal of reading, trying to figure out ways to deconstruct (slam) PETA. I did this even though, in my wallet, there sat a PETA membership card. As many readers are likely aware, there’s sort of a cottage industry within the “vegan movement” that trades in PETA bashing. For a while I found it a useful industry. For the record, I’ve written some pretty harsh stuff about PETA (and, when warranted, will continue to do so).
Over time, though, I’m coming to a conclusion that’s becoming part of my foundation as an activist. I’m reaching the conclusion that, while every organization dedicated to helping animals is bound to have serious flaws, our time as activists can be better spent than condemning those organizations. I realize that many activists will look at (for example) PETA’s record of slaughtering unwanted sheltered animals and, then and there, deem the organization the essence of evil. This, as I have come to see it, is the easy, black-and-white response. A far more difficult emotional and intellectual task is to balance that dismissive response with the potential number of people Joaquin Phoenix’s fake drowning may have convinced to start thinking about fish suffering. Who else is out there doing that kind of work with such a high-profiled reach? Such tradeoffs are what activism, not to mention life, is all about.
I’m neither supporting nor condemning PETA. Mainly because I don’t see the point. A far more productive approach, in my humble and admittedly inexperienced opinion, is to acknowledge that institutions qua institutions are always going to disappoint and, with that in mind, criticize PETA when it does something rankly stupid and praise PETA when it does something nobly effective, like having a famous movie star fake a drowning in order to draw attention to a cause that very few omnivores ever considered to consider.
tomorrow: what Marxism can teach veganism