Movements for social change of all varieties often find themselves up against insurmountable odds. Environmentalists fighting for stronger emissions standards and labor activists pressing for improved working conditions in developing world factories unsurprisingly come up against rich industrial lobbies that have the ability to outspend and outmaneuver them. The most prominent and successful movements have involved campaigns that relied on mass education and mobilization.
In the fight against environmental toxins, Rachel Carson’s pioneering book Silent Spring played a pivotal role in scaring a generation of political leaders to implement higher standards. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, President Kennedy was ruffled enough by the scientific establishment’s ringing endorsement of Carson’s work to ask his Science Advisory Committee to investigate the matter. The Committee’s report eventually led to tighter national regulation of DDT and its eventual ban. The more lasting contribution of Carson’s work was to inculcate her concern among a generation of future leaders like Al Gore, who attributes his early environmental consciousness to Silent Spring.
Two more observations about Silent Spring are important to note. First, it was a highly contested work and remains so even today. The early rebuttals were often tainted with misogyny, aimed at Carson’s gender. But, the set of criticisms that eventually dominated the debate involved questioning her fundamental thesis against DDT. They argued that DDT had benefits, most notably controlling malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses, that were given scant attention in the policy response that followed her book. Second, Carson was up against powerful corporate lobbies that felt deeply threatened by her work, much like the determined opposition activists today face. Her New York Times obituary describes the high profile campaign Monsanto launched against her, satirizing her work. Her response was a reiteration of her argument’s nuances, namely that she did not oppose the very concept of pest control but the harms of indiscriminate and senseless spraying.
Next Monday, Cornell students will take on PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) Vice President on the use of sex and celebrities in promoting social change, including their use in PETA’s fight for animal rights. After digging for arguments to use next week, I contend that there are two main lines of criticism against the type of highly sexualized, celebrity-driven campaigns that PETA runs.
The first is that the campaigns demean women. The traditional response from PETA, which tends to assert that the photo shoots in question were entirely consensual, falls short of the mark. The thousands who are forced to witness these ads do not deliver any meaningful consent to the discomfort and the exaggeration of stereotypes these ads result in. It is true that this society and others do not offer any right against being offended. However, it is unclear why a movement advocating for a social cause should not have to offer a rigorous defense against its weakening of other equally important social movements. In the case of PETA’s most controversial ads, including those that invoke scenes resembling domestic violence, any defense is unlikely to be sufficient.
The second line involves questioning claims of the efficacy of such tactics. Even if we leave aside for a moment the moral critiques against PETA’s methods, are they successful in furthering its agenda against animal cruelty? PETA’s website explains that the tactics are “necessary to shake people up in order to initiate discussion, debate, questioning of the status quo, and, of course, action.” PETA President Ingrid Newkirk puts forth in a 2010 editorial for The Guardian that her organization, “could just hand out lengthy tracts about ethics, but how many people would stop and take one, let alone read it?”
However, this is a false dichotomy. The choice is not between the listless handing out of dense scientific literature and the campaigns currently employed by PETA. The middle ground includes, for instance, the intelligent advocacy of the kind Carson engaged in. Silent Spring is not an isolated relic of such cultural production. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and the Academy Award nominated documentary Food Inc. did more to persuade me of the brutality and filth of modern meat production than PETA’s posters. Food Inc. let it be known that it provided space in the movie for food giants like Monsanto to respond but that they declined. This measured response to the movement’s powerful opponents does more to shame them (much like Carson’s response did all those years ago) than PETA’s escalatory, at best silly and at worst deeply offensive, strategies.
Not only do PETA’s shock tactics fail to invoke any deep introspection on the part of most people, they refocus the animal rights debate towards the character of the movement itself. These meta-debates about appropriate forms of protest are important but PETA’s persistent emphasis on these methods silences other forms of discourse. This is markedly different from the debate that followed Carson’s book. Those who felt most threatened by Silent Spring responded with counterclaims about the effectiveness of DDT in reducing disease transmission. These attacks certainly included a lot of derision but the industry had to respond with a substantive counter claim, explaining its position. In the case of PETA, such a reaction is often not necessary — ridiculing the campaign itself often proves to be enough.
The per capita consumption of meat in the United States has never been higher. PETA might be able to claim some success in increasing the number of vegetarians and vegans but more animals are caged and slaughtered than ever before. Studies by the National Institute for Health reveal that changes in meat consumption have largely involved a shift from red meat to poultry, not an overall decline in consumption. Meat prices, links between meat consumption and chronic health problems and breakouts of Mad Cow Disease remain the real determinants of how much meat Americans consume. Animal rights concerns do not show up as significant in these studies. I look forward to seeing how PETA defends these campaigns against accusations of offensiveness and misogyny. Even if they succeed in doing the impossible there, what these campaigns have achieved remains an object of my deepest skepticism.
Kirat Singh is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at email@example.com. Evaluating the Discontents appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.