Good news first: the media is covering animals to a greater extent than ever before. A fortuitous convergence of responsible advocacy, advanced science (animal ethology), and consumer demand for animal-related content has fostered a more sustained emphasis on a wider range of animal issues. The bad news, of course, is that most of it stinks. I mean, to high heaven.
There are two main ways animal advocates can react to this stench: with anger or with sympathy. Anger sure feels good, and I’ve been guilty of indulging it. But it leads to snark and snark leads to divisiveness and divisiveness means that the mainstream writing on animals will never improve. After all, if I send a “you suck” letter to every reporter who gets the animal story all wrong, I create a situation for the reporter in which ameliorating the problem validates her own abuse. Not a promising strategy.
Sympathy is different. Have you ever been in over your head and had someone throw you a rope? Have you ever had this rescue happen without the person reprimanding you for getting into that situation but, instead, helping you figure out how to avoid it in the future? That’s the approach I’d like to take–the tone I prefer to assume–as I go about deconstructing a recent story, a real stinker, by New York Times reporter Lisa W. Foderaro. In any case, I’ll do my best.
Before proceeding, take a moment to read the piece here. Virtually every sentence in the article is marked by a problem–and often a fundamental one–but for the sake of brevity and readability I’ll focus on a few clunkers, doing so in an effort to highlight issues that, as they’re circulated in the social media, might bubble up to the reporters who make these mistakes and, one hopes, motivate them to write in a way that at least acknowledges they’re covering the lives of emotional and sentient beings, not objects.
Trouble begins in the first sentence, when Foderaro frames the issue in terms of swans being “an invasive species.” The problem with this characterization is that there’s never any indication of what it is that makes swans invasive–other than the fact they are not native to the region. Of course, by that standard, most of New York’s flora and fauna–not to mention citizens–would also be invasive and, in turn, have to be “destroyed”–the word Foderaro uses to describe what might happen to urban swans–on that basis. So, right off the bat, the article quietly tilts in a pro-slaughter direction, doing so based on an undefined but quite loaded term.
Perhaps by “invasive” Foderaro is implying that the 2,200 or so swans are creating substantial economic or ecological havoc (or both). If this were the case, she needs to make that premise crystal clear and, given that slaughtering sentient creatures is at stake, thoroughly back it up with factual data. (Of course, then we would ask another set of questions.) Instead, she merely writes that the swans are seen as “nasty” for “destroying habitat for native ducks and geese, attacking other waterfowl and people, and posing a risk to passenger jets.” This kind of statement creates compound interest for insidious cynicism: by assuming what you refuse to ground in the data of reality (the actual consequences of invasion) you perpetuate the idea that animals don’t have moral worth, despite the fact that all but psychopaths and Ted Nugent know they do.
Anyway, these claims are too casually made. Every animal has an impact on the environment. So, to what extent, we need to know, are swans destroying habitats for native ducks? Give us perspective on this–say, by referring to how this kind of issue played out in the Chesapeake Bay or elsewhere. Moreover, are other organisms interfering with the ducks as well (uh, humans)? This possibility goes unmentioned, although the piece notes that the swans are yanking up aquatic vegetation and clouding the water and disrupting food chains (but, again, is that such a big deal, really, given that ships and barges are plowing through the Hudson as well?). As far as attacking other animals goes, well, is New York planning to “destroy” other animals that become aggressive with their peers? Or will the city implement a policy that protects native bullying? As for passenger jets, are swans the only birds that pose a threat to airplanes? And if so, to what extent? And how does that alleged threat to flight safety compare to other threats, such as overworked air traffic controllers or old airplanes with freaking table trays that won’t properly lock? Aren’t there other, less lethal ways, to make flying safe? And as far as swans harming people, well, please. How many people do you know who have been assaulted by a swan?
The failure to address any of these questions dooms this piece from the start. What this false start means for the reader is that, before getting past the second graph, he’s already convinced, albeit without any evidence, that swans are an invasive animal destroying the Hudson, driving out native ducks, harming people, and posing a threat to airplane traffic. Get over your romantic attachment to these menaces! They deserve to die! All of this without a shred of context or supporting data. Those omissions strike me as bad journalism, the kind you could only get away with if you were writing about an animal without a formal voice on the matter and an editor who knew that geese weren’t going to picket his office or call his boss and complain. (Yeah, I know, I got a bit snarky in there.. . . )
The article gets worse when Foderaro recruits quotes to buttress what she implicitly presents as a fair article on a tough ecological issue. To support the “destroy” perspective, she quotes what appear to be a phalanx of expertise: a State Department of Conservation authority, an Audubon Society expert, a wildlife scientist at Cornell. Representing the anti-destroy position are, by the reporters own admission, “animal rights activists and park goers.” Needless to say, the use of the term “activist” here is code for “loony tunes” and, as for those park goers, these vagabonds are presented as sitting around “tossing bread and pizza crusts” to the swans. (Although one guy had a great comment comparing human immigrants with non-human ones, a point Foderaro might have explored). But, you know, how about quoting an animal ethologist who might be able to provide another explanation–a behavioral one–for what Foderara sees as so “nasty”?
Perhaps being pressured to lend at least some anecdotal support to her earlier suggestion that New Yorkers are under grave threat of swan attacks, Foderaro ends her piece by quoting a bird watcher who “recalled the time she was canoeing with her husband and young son and was attacked by a swan. She fought it off with a paddle.” But was this woman actually attacked? The terrorized woman explains, “It was hissing like crazy and tried to get in the canoe with us . . . they make themselves look huge.”
As do the misrepresentations in this poorly written article.
The media fails animals. All the time. Tragically. Part of this failure boils down to the fact that it can. And part of the fact that it can reflects the reality that animals cannot speak for themselves, at least not in the press. You cannot, for example, call up an animal to ask his perspective on what it’s like to be owned for the purposes of commodification.
And so what the media does, as Dan Frosch of the New York Times recently did, is project onto animals stereotypical assessments that ignore the most basic tenets of animal ethology. To wit, as a kind of toss off remark, Frosch writes that a cow up for auction “stared blankly out at the crowd.”
For anyone who knows the first thing about cows, this is almost too much to take. “Blankly,” of course, implies without emotion or thought. It implies that the cow didn’t know what was up, that she’s just a clueless fat beast that we needn’t feel bad about killing and eating. But does anyone–I don’t know, say, an editor–ask Frosch to provide a source for the implication that the cow was clueless?
Of course not–that cow is just an animal and, as our blinders ensure it, the cow does appear to exhibit a “blank” stare. So we let it go and take another sip of coffee. And, really, what kind of average reader would think to question the portrayal? Thus the self-serving stereotype is further normalized.
The common acceptance by the media of this kind of projection is why we need to wage a war on how animals are covered in the press. There is, after all, zero evidence that there’s anything blank about the cow’s stare. To the contrary, that stare harbors a world of emotion, a universe of doubt and fear. Frosch could have, should have, in the future must, call someone who has a clue about cows to ask what’s going on behind that stare.
Until he does, we need to push back. Hard. A brilliant example of how this push back might work appeared the other day at The Dodo. Not to pick too much on the Times (although its reporting is chronically insensitive to the animals it covers), but after Stephanie Strom wrote a deeply misinformed article on the rise of humanely raised pork, she was taken to the woodshed in a very productive way by none other than a pig farmer, a man named Bob Comis. You can find Strom’s piece and Comis’ response here. It’s worth reading in its entirety, both to appreciate how dreadfully wrong Strom got the story, her sclerotic reason for getting it wrong, and the measured tone of Comis’ response.
I suppose if we went back into journalistic history we could trace a line of enlightenment in the way reporters wrote about minorities, the poor, and the disabled. Before How the Other Half Lives was published, for example, reporters described the tenement dwelling masses as dirty and lazy. Few questioned this portrayal because (and this is the insidious aspect to today’s animal coverage) it conformed to a set of unquestioned assumptions. People basically didn’t know to question the stereotype.
Today, of course, the media covers the impoverished with considerable sensitivity to the hard reality and perspective of poverty. We must start working to ensure that a similar transition happens with the way animals are covered. (And, please, if you are about to yell at me for equating the economically disadvantaged with animals, just stop it.)
This war is urgent. Right now, Chipotle is undertaking a campaign to promote “humane” farming through tactics taken right out of the Big Tobacco playbook. There will be more on this issue to come. But for now note that through “native advertising” the company is working under the “Farmed and Dangerous” slogan to establish a broad cultural pretext to support Chipotle’s rise to fast food dominance. When a company spends millions on advertising and never mentions its name you should be very scared.
This rise cannot be covered by the media without a consistent reference to the suffering experienced by the millions of animals that fuel the company’s rise into rarified wealth through both ideological seeding and burritos stuffed with animal flesh. We need to let the world know that this flesh came form animals who did more than stare blankly into space. And that those seeds are toxic.
Pasture proselytizers mouth the mantra all the time: they are allowing their animals to indulge their animalness. The pigness of the pig. The henness of the hen. The cowness of the cow. All that jazz. It’s a line that goes over well with consumers who, while perversely wanting the animals they eat to have been happy, are ultimately just interested in the meatness of their meat.
Beyond this disconnect, there are other problems with a pasture-based farmer thinking that the environment he’s fabricated for his animals will be experienced by his animals as natural. Call it the Joel Salatin impact. You provide space and let the animals loose, rotate the critters every now and then from one pasture to the next, take pictures on sunny days–and then call the arrangement natural and charge a premium. Write books. Cash in.
But what’s natural by human standards might not in the least be natural to the animals. For example, hens without access to low lying branches and dense foliage become stressed. Left out on a pasture without access to forests, their cortisol levels increase. They’re stressed. But that’s not what we see. We can’t see their fear. Most farmers don’t give a flying cluck–if they did they wouldn’t slaughter them. They just want the scene to look as it should: natural.
It’s normal for those who care enough about animals not to eat them to be chided for “anthropomorphizing.” But isn’t the decision to put animals on pasture, to uncage them, and let them roam under the assumption that “that’s what I would want” also due to a form of anthropomorphizing? If so, we need to defuse the anthropomorphizing charge by noting that anyone who thinks about animal welfare automatically anthropomorphizes. Moreover, after acknowledging that all welfare concerns come from an anthropomorphic instinct, we need to draw a distinction between thoughtful and selfish anthropomorphizing.
Thoughtful anthropomorphizing doesn’t require a Mensa membership. It simply requires recognizing that we would rather not be exploited and eaten while our caring killers profit from our death. And, in turn, neither would animals. Thoughtless anthropomorphizing, by contrast, is essentially shortsighted, self-serving, and, most of all, selective. And it’s driven by the fact that a farmer owns an animal for the ultimate purpose of profiting from her body. This interest in an animal’s body ensures selective and destructive anthropomorphizing.
The selectivity of pasture based anthropomorphizing is perhaps most evident when small farmers–who share their opinions extensively at backyardchickens.com and other similar forums–go to great lengths to anthropomorphically project a set of seemingly compassionate desires on their animals (they want space, warmth, companionship, etc) and then, at the same time, not only eventually kill those animals, but kill other animals that attempt to interfere with his anthropomorphic love.
It’s one of the most conspicuous cases of arbitrary moral thought you’ll find, but if you ever want to hear an fathomable depth of bloodthirsty hatred, listen to a pastured chicken owner express his feelings for raccoons, hawks, snakes, coyotes, and even dogs. What’s strange about this vituperation is the fact that one reason that animals are pastured is to approximate more natural experiences. Isn’t predation natural? And why should the anthropomorphic instinct not be extended to raccoons? What about the racoonness of the raccoon?
The upshot of these inconsistencies is pretty simple: a well managed pastured-based animal farm is a constructed environment every bit as complex as a factory farm. At what this means is that ethical vegans cannot be condemned for anthropomorphizing, but only praised for doing it with moral consistency.
A brain dead Texas woman carrying a four-month fetus is being kept on life support in a Fort Worth hospital. This is being done against a court order (and the wishes of her family) on the grounds that the hospital must do everything in its power to protect the “unborn child.” (Story is here.)
This case obviously highlights the combative politics surrounding abortion in Texas and elsewhere. But what really grabs me the most about this situation–despite the obvious sadness of it all–is the quandary it poses for ethical vegans who support a woman’s right to choose while insisting that all unnecessary animal exploitation is morally wrong.
Under “normal” circumstances, this quandary is (more or less) resolvable: a woman’s choice whether or not to carry a fetus becomes a moral consideration that outweighs the fetus’ right to life. For many vegans, this right to bodily autonomy is an acceptable competing moral consideration against the fetus’ viability.
But in the case of the Texas woman, choice has been eliminated from the equation by complete mental incapacitation. She is now (as I understand her condition) a vessel being kept nominally alive by machines for the sole purpose of nurturing the fetus. To my knowledge, she feels no pain and, although cases such as this are rare, there have been instances where a fetus under such conditions has survived.
This is a tough one for anyone who is pro-choice and pro-animal rights. After all, to grant the family’s wish to take the woman off life support and kill the fetus would be to allow the unnecessary destruction of a (proto?) sentient being, an allowance that many vegans would not even accept for questionably sentient animals such as insects and oysters. To deny the family’s wish, on the other hand, is to align yourself with abortion foes who believe that a woman’s choice is irrelevant in determining the fate of her own fetus.
Update: this just in.
In the most recent New York Review of Books (February 6, 2014), there’s an exchange in the “Letters” section worth highlighting. Christof Koch, author of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist and a professor of biology and engineering at Cal Tech, wrote a terse response to Jason Epstein’s review of Dana Goodyear’s book on extreme eating. Koch wrote, “I was appalled that in Jason Epstein’s review . . .not a single mention is made of the fact that the penises, brains, hearts, and whole embryos that are now de rigueur to consume by our haute cuisine establishment derive from sentient creatures.” Thank you, Professor.
The NYRB has a habit of choosing the same writers to cover the same topics. That’s typically fine because, in general, they tend to be brilliant thinkers and writers. I’ve therefore always been curious exactly how Epstein got the foodie beat at a publications with the high intellectual standards of NYRB. I say this not to be snarky, but rather to confirm my general impression, honestly developed over several years, that Epstein’s reviews were thin soup compared to what appeared throughout the journal. To wit, he once praised one of Michael Pollan’s toss-off post-Omnivore Dilemma books on the grounds that, in following some of Pollan’s suggestions, he’d lost a few pounds. I’m pleased that Epstein lost some weight (I guess), but I hardly see how his body fat bears on the book’s intellectual meat, something that NYRB readers purportedly care about.
This is a long way of getting to the point that I was not terribly surprised to read Epstein’s response to Professor Koch’s letter. He wrote: “We are omnivores. We eat everything edible including ourselves. I deeply regret the suffering of animals but there are not enough vegetarians to solve the problem. . . I wish it were different but we are what we are.”* This is not made up, and it’s especially ironic that it appeared in a journal that first published Peter Singer’s work on speciesism in the 1970s. In any case , it does not take a great deal of mental elbow grease to realize that Epstein’s appeal to our innate omnivorism–”we are what we are”– totally evades the ethical implication of eating a goat’s phallus.
The fact that we are omnivores hardly means that “we are what we are.” To the contrary, it means that we are what we want to be. We have a choice. We do not have to eat meat, and many of us choose not to. Just as men are, in evolutionary terms, sexual opportunists with a capacity to rape, we have deemed it wrong to rape. There’s plenty of evidence that even animals, predisposed to commit violent acts, choose to temper their vengeful and violent instincts with more cooperative actions. How sad if, at whatever point in time habitual male sexual aggression was “debated” by our forbears, a consensus emerged to say “well, yeah, rape is bad, but there just aren’t enough non-rapists for this behavioral change to happen. I wish it were otherwise but we are what we are.”
Mr. Epstein says that he wishes humans did not cause animal suffering. I don’t believe him. Because if he was sincere in this wish then he would have taken Professor Koch’s question seriously, considered the viable option of choosing not to eat animal brains, and, rather than hiding behind an essentialist platitude that might go over well with the foodie masses, questioned Dana Goodyear’s deceptively cruel book for celebrating a form of exploitation that we have every opportunity to end.
*The ellipses leave out a reference to Hitler which, frankly, I could not decipher the meaning of.”
Last month, I wrote a short piece on the documentary “Blackfish” for Forbes.com, for whom I worked as a contributor. The piece centered on the documentary’s claim that orcas held in captivity become frustrated and may attack trainers as a result of their confinement. As a thinker and writer, I find such a proposition to be intuitively obvious, not to mention brilliantly documented in the film itself (and elsewhere).
I therefore had zero interest in pursuing (or even pretending to pursue) the disingenuous sort of “objectivity” that required a “fair and balanced” journalist to lend equal consideration to an absurd hypothesis, in this case the idea that orcas might actually enjoy captivity. As a blogger with a well-known animal rights perspective, I thought, why play that game? Why allow a corporation that profits from taking orcas from the wild claim that mantle of false legitimacy?
Twenty fours hours after being published, the piece generated more traffic than my previous twelve articles combined. For a while, it was the most viewed article on the website, attracting over 77,000 views.
Then I got some interesting news. My editor emailed to say that Forbes had taken down my story. A managing editor wanted to see three changes before considering whether or not to repost it. These included: a) a quote from SeaWorld; b) another source to temper the anti-SeaWorld perspective of one of my sources; and c) the inclusion of empirical evidence suggesting that Sea World’s popularity was in fact not being harmed by “Blackfish’s” acclaim.
Here’s an important point to keep in mind as I assess these requests: by the standards of journalistic convention, they weren’t necessarily unreasonable. Although it was the first substantial editorial intervention of any sort I had experienced at Forbes.com, I can’t really claim to be shocked by it.
But as I considered making the requested changes, a realization hit me like a lightening bolt: if I gave into these demands I’d be stepping into a trap every bit as confining as a SeaWorld tank. Whether or not Forbes.com was selectively flashing the “objectivity” card to reconfigure a story to serve an external interest remains an open question. But what’s perfectly clear is that making the requested changes would have legitimated the journalistic tactics that systematically prevent the inclusion of animal perspectives in the mainstream media.
I have no interest in being a bullhorn for the power elite. Nor do I wish to support the practices that support such a role.
So I quit.
On December 27, 2013, the New York Times published an article entitled “Turkey Legs Conquer Land of Mouse Ears.” The piece reported that super-sized turkey legs (containing 36 grams of fat and 720 calories) were currently all the rage at Disney’s theme parks. Following standard journalistic convention, the reporter included a variety of colorful endorsements of this increasingly popular snack.
“It’s a chance to channel my inner cave woman,” one Disney patron was quoted saying while she gnawed on a leg.
“I could kiss ‘em, caress ‘em, and sleep with ‘em all day and night,” a Yelp.com commenter was quoted as writing.
“Our guests have come to demand these legs,” said Disney’s executive chef.
“There is nothing like the smell,” an executive at another theme park was quoted as saying.
“[They have] plenty of room to stretch their legs,” the President of the National Turkey Federation, an industry trade group, was quoted as saying about the big toms whose legs patrons were eating.
But the piece never quoted an animal advocate. That perspective made its only appearance in a brief letter to the Times from Karen Davis, President of United Poultry Concerns.
Davis wrote: “Why are these Disney theme park turkey legs so big? Turkeys have been artificially bred to grow so large that their legs, big as they are, cannot support their body weight.” She continued, “In nature, turkeys are excellent runners whose favorite way of getting around is walking. Their domesticated cousins are sedentary cripples. What’s Disney-worthy about that?”
The Times turkey leg article is an ideal example of how poorly the mainstream media covers animal issues in general. Under the guise of objectivity, reporters solicit quotes from various parties who benefit from exploiting animals while ignoring the perspective of knowledgeable animal advocates whose dogs aren’t in that hunt. Even with a relatively benign pro-animal organization such as the Humane Society of the United States on hand to deliver neatly packaged quotables for reporters working on deadline, conventional journalistic practice in no way requires the inclusion of such a viewpoint. A letter or two from the fringe might help right the balance, but it’s usually too little too late.
My decision to quit Forbes over my SeaWorld story may seem drastic — media reports certainly made it seem that way. In fact it wasn’t. My editor and I parted on perfectly amicable terms, reluctantly respectful of each other’s perspective. More to the point, I ended up learning a valuable lesson: any future in which animals have a genuine voice in the media will require re-conceptualizing the meaning of responsible journalism. To that end, I want to explore in greater depth why I chose to walk away from the changes that my editors proposed.
a) The quote from a Sea World spokesperson.
In order to demonstrate Sea World’s disapproval of Blackfish, I quoted Sea World literature twice. So the last thing I thought my article required was an additional boilerplate remark from a SeaWorld spokesperson whose job it was to saturate the media with a pro-SeaWorld message. Instead, I decided it would be much more productive to involve Sea World in a substantive discussion on this specific question: did Sea World think orcas experienced stress in captivity?
With that goal in mind, I began to prepare a follow-up story by asking Fred Jacobs, a Sea World spokesperson, to comment on my claim that orcas became stressed in captivity. Next, I took his answer and asked the marine mammal biologist Dr. Naomi Rose to comment on it.
This “exchange,” which I ended up publishing on my blog, got several thousand views and was shared almost 5000 times on Facebook. In the end, it offers a far more accurate assessment of the essential question than a meaningless quote from a corporate spokesperson—obtained in the name of objectivity—could ever have provided.
b) An additional source to counterbalance my anti-SeaWorld source.
The ideal source for my piece needed to have deep knowledge of SeaWorld without being affiliated with SeaWorld. That source also needed a deep knowledge of “Blackfish” without being affiliated with “Blackfish.”
David Kirby fit the bill nicely. Kirby has worked for over 25 years as an investigative journalist, including extensive stints covering health and science for the New York Times. His most recent book, Death at SeaWorld, was widely praised for the rigorous quality of its research.
When I learned that Kirby was unaffiliated with “Blackfish,” but was well-informed about the film (he’s written about the documentary elsewhere), I consulted him to comment on the documentary’s assertions. His take on SeaWorld and the impact of orca captivity was unequivocal. “Blackfish,” he said, was dead on the mark.
The problem with Kirby, as far as Forbes was concerned, had absolutely nothing to do with his work on SeaWorld. No one there suggested that he had gotten a single aspect of that story wrong. Instead, it was his earlier work on the vaccine-autism debate that stirred up trouble. Kirby’s 2005 book, Evidence of Harm, in addition to his more recent coverage of a controversial debate, evidently rankled a Forbes health and science staff writer, who complained to my editor about Kirby’s role in my piece.
In and of itself, such a move doesn’t pose a problem. But a health and science writer’s assessment of Kirby’s past coverage of a vaccine debate could only be relevant to my current story on SeaWorld under one circumstance: if Kirby’s vaccine work proved Kirby to be a crackpot. Was this the case?
The world’s leading medical journal certainly didn’t think so. The Lancet, while acknowledging that Kirby was biased, still calls Evidence of Harm “engrossing,” says that it “contains all the requisite facts,” and ultimately praises it for “prompt[ing] us to dig deeper into this vital issue.”
In light of these considerations, I saw no reason to provide a competing—or even an additional—perspective to supplement Kirby’s sound assessment of orca captivity.
c) Include empirical evidence showing that SeaWorld’s popularity might have been unharmed by Blackfish.
In retrospect, the title of my article –“SeaWorld’s Popularity Tanks While The Blackfish Documentary Makes A Splash”–was poorly chosen. My error. The article itself never seeks to make such a connection.
To wit, I do not highlight the fact that, as a National Geographic headline explained, “Schoolchildren and Musicians Boycott SeaWorld in “Blackfish Flap.” I forgo mention of The Daily Beast’s claim that “‘Blackfish’ Prompts SeaWorld Mass Exodus for Bands; Boycott May be Imminent.” I left out of my article the story of a 12-year old girl directly inspired by “Blackfish” getting arrested for protesting SeaWorld’s presence at the Rose Bowl Parade.
Although I do mention that SeaWorld’s stock price had dropped in the wake of Blackfish’s release, I only do so to explain why the company recently took out full-page ads in major newspapers to counter what it deemed “inaccurate reports” swirling through the media.
Despite my article’s lack of attention to the impact of “Blackfish” on SeaWorld’s popularity, my editors pushed the hardest on this point. Specifically, they suggested that I include data showing that SeaWorld attendance rates did not correlate negatively with the rise of “Blackfish.”
In one sense, it would have been flat out strange for me to include such data. Again, the “Blackfish” impact on SeaWorld’s popularity wasn’t the concern of my article. More problematically, though, there were interpretive problems with using ticket sales as a valid measure of overall “popularity.” Ticket sales tell us how many people entered the park—and that’s really it. They could reflect a variety of unrelated factors, most notably weather. It struck me as sloppy to use increasing ticket sales to suggest that Blackfish was not causing a downturn in SeaWorld popularity.
If anything, my article indicated that SeaWorld’s popularity in the media (including the social media) had slumped in the wake of Blackfish. My emphasis on Blackfish’s popularity with a younger demographic, as well as Kirby’s assessment that SeaWorld was no longer “the media’s darling,” helped support that point, one that—barring a massive meta-analysis of online content—cannot be proven with hard numbers.
Forbes’s appeal to empirical data has the assuring ring of responsible journalism. But in this case—as in others in which the continued exploitation of animals is at stake—it’s inclusion would have led to the opposite outcome.
In the end, my experience coving SeaWorld for Forbes.com reminds me that it has never been easier for conventional media to use the basic standards of “objective journalism” to exclude animal interests while furthering those who profit from their exploitation. The good news is that (as sites such as The Dodo demonstrate) opportunities to pursue the kind of journalism that considers the interests of sentient animals are expanding rapidly. I don’t foresee any immediate journalistic revolutions on the horizon. But I do have faith that it won’t be long until you cannot write about turkey legs without writing about turkeys.
Sensible people take climate change seriously. We do so because, in a vague way, we care about the planet and, in a less vague way, we’re troubled by the conspicuous ecological devastation that results from a world set on slow simmer.
One of the more troubling consequences we lament when we broadcast our concerns over climate change centers on the issue of species extinction. As a rule, reasonable people don’t like the idea of a species gasping its last breath under their watch, especially when the driving force appears to be anthropocentric. When polar bears come under threat from melting ice caps, we get upset.
This all seems mighty obvious and appropriate. What’s less obvious and appropriate is the self-serving distortion that happens when environmentalists inveigh against the anthropocentric demise of another species.
You frequently hear vegan activists argue that you can’t be a meat-eating environmentalist. This carbon-calculator critique holds water. But there may be a more fundamental way to confront the meat-eating environmentalist: challenge the way he conceptualizes animals. This must be done because, as matters now stand, the environmental movement rests its anti-global warming stance on a conveniently deceptive view of animals.
Many environmentalists indulge in a kind of eco-tourist environmentalism. Despite having no real appreciation of an ecosystem’s underlying complexity, they make an earnest fuss about the demise of elephants, orcas, lions, eagles, and other “majestic” animals one might encounter while traveling on an eco-venture or watching a nature show.
Concern for these animals—and concern for the potential of their extinction—is certainly a good thing. But it also allows us to root a superficial notion of environmental responsibility in shallow aesthetic ideals represented by a species that–due to no fault of its own–embody an overly stylized concept of “nature.”
According to this strategy, we “care” about these animals not as animals per se, but because of what they collectively represent to us: the ability to stoke our awe for the natural world. We “care” about these animals not as animals per se but for the conceptual purposes they serve as noble “species” clinging to existence in the age of global warming. This props them up for our righteous outrage. But not our compassion.
Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with admiring these animals as a species. They are indeed majestic, awe-inspiring creatures who capture the imagination and, for many of us, bring us closer to the natural world. But it’s worth exploring the question that this admiration begs: if we love iconic animals as a species, why do we not also love them as individuals? After all, you can’t really do the latter without the former, or vice-versa.
Environmentalists will object to this charge. They will claim that they do love animals. But exactly how is this love manifested? After all, love rarely prevents environmentalists from shooting animals, eating animals, culling animals, domesticating animals, and wearing animals. As long as the beloved “species” is not unduly threatened by massive environmental exploitation, then the individuals within it seem fair game for exploitation. The implications of this inconsistency are rarely acknowledged.
But they’re worth exploring.
One could start with this question: Is there a problem with raging over the loss of polar bears’ habitat without raging over the loss of individual polar bears? The anger we feel over dying polar bears is an anger we couch in terms of “losing a species.” That’s safe, because it keeps the idea of a sentient being at a distance while allowing us to experience the guilty pleasure of high dudgeon. But is it the species that really tugs at our emotions? No.To lament the loss of a species is ultimately disingenuous. It’s to lament the loss of an impersonal collective phenomenon, sort of like lamenting the loss of an obscure language.
What’s really happening here is a process of abstraction that enables enviro types to publicly demonstrate their concern for global warming and its resultant species extinctions while continuing to exploit animals to meet our selfish little palate fetishes. It allows us to weep over the loss of a species while sharpening our knives to keep eating the chops and steaks that make our lives so happy and hypocritical.
“Now I know where my food comes from.”
This common pat-on-the-back typically marks the aftermath of either a do-it-yourself slaughter or the acquisition of animal products from an uber-local, off the grid source. The sustainable food movement, in its somewhat precious insistence that we dutifully investigate the source of every calorie we consume, has promoted this quest as a means of steering clear of the agribusiness-industrial complex and the processed crap it churns into the American food system.
In and of itself, that isn’t such a bad thing. But when our obsessive intimacy with how food is produced becomes the sole justification for slaughtering animals without exploring the ethical explanations, potentially serious ideas are reduced to paradoxical slogans that obscure more than they reveal. The original idea—know where your food comes from!—is thus cheapened to the point of meaninglessness. Well, at least for those who think about it.
You raise an animal. You kill an animal. You eat an animal. But no matter what your stance may be on these practices, these decisions are fraught with ethical tension. However, instead of exploring the moral implications of these acts, we too often tell ourselves that, because we were intimately tied to the means of production, we’re exonerated from confronting the morality of slaughtering an animal to satisfy an arbitrary desire. Participation is ipso facto absolution. And that logic is just plain whacked.
To wit: take another group of people who know where their food comes from: slaughterhouse workers.These men and woman are as close as anyone could possibly get to the crude logistics of meat production. They’ve stared into the maw of slaughter and they know the deal. Does their proximity to the essence of meat production—i.e., death—entitle them to some sort of special exoneration? They know their food as well as any tatted-up hipster strangling his chicken like a frontiersman. So are the slaughterhouse workers, too, off the hook of food ignorance?
The sustainable foodie who sings the virtue of self-sufficiency would have to categorically object to such a proposition, if for no other reason than the setting is a commercial slaughterhouse, a place where the “fruit” of the worker’s labor enters an industrial labyrinth that will not bring it back around to his plate, a place where state and federal regulatory agencies make the rules and issue the fines.
This distinction matters. Notably, it reveals the underlying reason that the backyard slaughterer assumes a more virtuous mantle than the slaughterhouse worker. It’s not only about knowing your food. It’s also about independence. It’s about controlling the cycle of an animal’s life and death and consumption without the explicit interference or oversight of external authority. This observation brings us closer to the hidden and more complicated meaning of “know where food comes from.”
I’ve read hundreds of accounts from backyard slaughterers who valorize their work on the grounds of “I did it myself.” No help required. In that valorization, the virtue of independence shines so brightly that participants are not only blinded to the ethical question at the core of their work (which is a problem), they are wedded to libertarian values that would make a Tea Partier wiggle with excitement (which might be a problem–keep reading).
I’m not saying that there is anything necessarily wrong with libertarian values (he wrote, possibly to placate certain readers). What I am saying, though, is that the ideology that obscures the ethics of killing behind the untouchable veil of localism and liberty is an all encompassing mode of thought–one that typically rejects state run programs such as the Affordable Health Plan, Food Stamps, Unemployment Insurance, and other top-down programs.
The localism of food production provides an incentive for small scale food producers to opt out of state and federal regulatory apparatuses designed to deal with larger institutions. It’s a trend that, politically speaking, aims to replace state oversight with individual responsibility. Again, this strikes me as a perfectly legitimate position to take (although it’s not one that I fully support). At the same time, though, it aligns locavores and do-it-youselfers with a Tea Party-ish political persuasion that precludes locavores from embracing most liberal/progressive political initiatives.
Returning to animals, this potential inconsistency in the locavore creed highlights the subtle permutations some people make to obscure the ethics of slaughter. People who believe the government should play a role in promoting basic social justice through taxation, legislation, and regulation want the same government to keep its hands off our food. Are locavores ready to part ways with traditional progressive values to pursue a way of eating animals that absolves them of all ethical considerations for animals? Are they ready to jump on the Tea Party chuck wagon? Because I bet my senator,Ted Cruz, would be happy shut down the USDA on their behalf and join the hootenanny that would ensue.
In the December 23/30 edition of the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin has a thoughtful “Talk of the Town” piece on the death penalty. In particular, he explores the weird circumstances currently surrounding the matter of how we kill death row inmates. The article ends with an arresting paragraph that, without in any way intending to, highlights the potentially illogical position taken by those who believe in the idea of “humane slaughter” for farm animals.
Toobin writes, “The oxymoronic quest for humane executions only accentuates the absurdity of allowing the death penalty in a civilized society. It’s understandable that Supreme Court Justices have tried to make the process a little more palatable; and there is a meagre kind of progress in moving from the chair to the gurney. But the essential fact about both is that they come with leather straps to restrain a human being so that the state can kill him. No technology can render that process any less grotesque.”
Toobin’s argument offers a remarkably uselful parallel to the ethical vegan’s argument that there’s no such thing as humane slaughter, no matter how “palatable” we try to make it. Indeed, that it’s an oxymoron. Similarly, Toobin effectively captures the idea that “humane” farming at least grants animals some measure of freedom before they’re offed–”a meager kind of progress.” Even so, there’s no denying that the end result–the unnecessary death of a sentient being–is “grotesque.” Thus, the question is raised: can you oppose the death penalty as “cruel and unusual” while supporting the “humane” slaughter of sentient animals?
I’m sitting here having a hard time seeing how you could identify a quality unique to humans that singularly justified their right to avoid the state sponsored killing of a human (no matter what the crime) while, at the same time, allowed for the humane-farmer killing of a sentient non-human. Perhaps I’m wrong in assuming that consumers who seek out happy meat are also people inclined to oppose the death penalty. But, if I’m right in assuming this rough correlation, I’d be eager to start a conversation about whether or not you can oppose the death penalty but support “humane slaughter” of animals.
In the course of over 18 stories on horse slaughter in the Unites States, the AP has continually botched the narrative.
Specifically, it misinterprets data in order to convey the impression that horse abuse has increased with the closure of slaughterhouses in 2007. In fact, as is explained in a remarkably well-documented open-letter to the AP by Forbes contributor Vickery Eckhoff, it’s the opposite that’s true. In essence, these 18 stories, which have been reproduced virally throughout the media, have radically distorted reality in a way that favors the meatpacking plants that would love to start killing horses in America.
In light of my own recent experiences with the mainstream media, Eckhoff’s tireless efforts to both highlight the AP’s errors and insist that they make retractions are inspiring, to say the least. I’m gradually reaching the conclusion that the mainstream media all too easily uses the rules of conventional journalism to protect those who exploit animals while marginalizing those who seek to speak to their interests. This is an issue that we need to confront.
In any case, Eckhoff’s open letter is here.