January 12, 2009

Ingrid Newkirk and PETA

I watched the interesting, rather grotesque documentary, I Am an Animal: The Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA. The only reason I'm commenting on it is because it's been stuck in my brain ever since--thanks in part to my moral/ethics class at Kwantlen. The documentary followed PETA founder, Ingrid Newkirk, through her daily activities, from the grassroots level to the more controversial, international campaigns. We all know about PETA right? Probably more famous for having celebrities pose nude for their cause than anything else. But let's not forget throwing buckets of red paint on fashion models wearing fur coats or setting up strategic protests in front of high-end fur stores. PETA is a strange mix of narcissistic publicity and well-intended morality.

In John Vaillant's The Golden Spruce, the point is made by the author that as consumers, North Americans take an ignorant, and therefor superficial satisfaction with the products we buy. We never consider the means and components involved in a product's manufacturing. He's speaking of wood products in this case, but it completely translates to our consumption of food as well. I've met some pretty intelligent people who seem completely retarded when it comes to food. They'll eat anything, almost in hedonistic fashion--in complete hypocrisy to their intellect. At times, I fall into the same camp.

What made the PETA documentary so effective was the behind-the-scenes look at fur hunting, slaughter-houses, farms etc. The kind of stuff a lot of you probably have already read about in Fast Food Nation. I watched footage of wolves being killed by having their heads stomped on, only to be skinned alive and left bleeding on a heap of likewise treated animals. Gore everywhere, I watched pigs killed by farmers with crowbars, cattle being left to die in six inches of blood. It created a visceral response, one of repugnance and anger. Anger because when I watched what people were doing to these animals, the unnecessary savagery of it, the satisfaction they seemed to get from it, I recognized a quality in them I could not reconcile with my own ethics.

Here's the rub: we can argue to the death about whether or not meat is healthy for human consumption--and I love the taste of meat. But, the real question, and there is no way getting around this, is can a thinking person, one who considers them self moral and considerate and conscious of the world around them, consume products from companies that allow these sorts of practices? The answer is, of course, no. Even if the argument can be made that the footage I saw was of isolated events (which I doubt), the same question is still raised.

To be fair, PETA has always made the fundamental mistake of passing a sort of universal indictment on the meat industry. I grew up close to farms, have seen cattle butchered for meat, and it was not the horror show I saw in this documentary. It was civil and clean, bearing no resemblance to the assembly-line mechanism PETA indicts. And there are plenty of farms like the one near my childhood home. But this doesn't actually justify eating meat does it? It would be the same universal error I claim PETA makes. I can't say that my childhood experiences are enough for a blanket endorsement of slaughterhouses nation-wide. Each side of the argument has its exceptions.

No, the real answer lies in being aware of where my food comes from. As I said before, I've always eaten meat--though it's mainly chicken and fish these days, and I've never spent a lot of time thinking about its source, about the process it goes through to get to my dinner plate. The HBO documentary convinced me I need to be more conscious in this regard.


Anonymous said...

yay Harry!!!!! I wish more people would take the time to think about this too- just for a minute!!!
(And p.s. if you don not want to become a vegetarian -free range chicken is MUCH more flavorful)


Harry Tournemille said...

We've been eating free-range chicken for quite some time...though not consistently. What makes it difficult is the cost to the consumer and the fact it's not readily available in all markets.

Sam said...

Nicely balanced article, Harry.

It's not fair to ;abel consumers mindless and uncaring because they buy products whose genesis they're unaware of. Companies do everything possible to hide that from them. Cigarettes are a good example.

Given a choice between buying a coat made from a wolf who has been skinned alive and had its skull bashed in and strangled with its own entrails and its ass stuffed in its mouth so it chokes to death on itself...versus a wolf who passed away gently in the hospital after a long full life, any sensible consumer would make the right choice. But the demand for shit goes up, quality goes down, and fortunes are made because people don't ask.

Free range chicken and turkey is great, but like you mentioned, who can afford that? Does it make sense to put that in, say, Campbell's soup?

Mind you, even vegetables are expensive. And the way THEY're treated, don't even get me started. Have you heard the cries of the carrots? For us, October is harvest season. For them, it's the apocalypse...

Harry Tournemille said...

I only eat free-range vegetables that die in nursing homes.

Only you could have thought up the whole "ass stuffed in its mouth thing". And I agree that companies will go to great lengths to hide unsavory details about their products. But I'm not convinced that gives consumer's free license to consume whatever they please. I don't know where the line is. For me, it's a matter of taking what I now know and applying it. That's all.

Sam said...

But consumers DO have "free license to consume whatever they please." That's what freedom is.

Companies promote an illusion that their products magically appeared--that all the chemicals in cigarettes are inherent in tobacco products, etc. PETA has an important function in disrupting that illusion. But at a certain point the goal becomes not release from that illusion but the substitution of a different illusion--"I'm making the world better by obeying PETA."

I've worked in two animal-product businesses. I know that the smell of a cow is different than the smell of the shrink-wrapped cutlet you see on display at Safeway. I'm under no illusions on the matter, but if I choose to consume that, it's really none of PETA's business.

Dostoevsky says in Brothers Karamazov something to the effect that the man who insists that he loves mankind usually has a long list of individual men that he hates. And I think that animal-rights activists, while exemplary in some respects, treat other peoples' rights and freedoms as theirs to decide. The head of PETA is a classic case of this, and someone who, from my meager readings on the subject, has in some cases set back the animal rights cause quite a bit.

Anyway, it's a good post and a subject worthy of more contemplation.