The internet’s warring factions briefly found common ground this week in mocking a tweet by the frequently maligned animal rights organization PETA. Reactions were swift and contained multitudes, ranging from jokes making fun of vegans to serious outrage over PETA’s priorities to conspiracy theories that PETA is a meat industry psyop. Even Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch got in on it, sharing a video of himself eating bacon to own the vegans.
But for those of us familiar with animal rights ideology, nothing in this tweet is extraordinary. Choosing not to use language that evokes violence toward animals is fairly standard-issue, albeit typically low-priority, stuff. As the controversy flared, I looked for a book my mom gave me when I first decided to upgrade my 20-year vegetarian streak to veganism — it’s called the Vegan’s Daily Companion by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, and alongside chickpea taco recipes and heartwarming stories about mother-and-calf reunions there are dozens of suggested swaps for phrases like “a chicken with its head cut off.”
There’s also a helpful section titled “avoiding arguments online,” which I have clearly chosen to ignore.
Let me get this out of the way: I have made an effort to change some of my own habits when it comes to violent animal language. And if you think hurting animals for human pleasure is kind of a fucked up thing to do, perhaps you should consider it too. When you choose to treat nonhuman animals with basic respect and dignity, talking about beating their dead bodies just doesn’t sit well. It may not hurt animals directly, but casually referring to them as if their pain is meaningless is part of the culture that allows animal cruelty to thrive. PETA’s playful suggestions for what phrases to use instead of the sad ones drew the most laughs, but I thought they were cute and I am definitely going to use “bringing home the bagels” from now on.
I trust that most people mocking PETA don’t want billions of animals to live lives full of pain, and deep down they understand that the way we treat animals in factory farms is indefensibly immoral — not to mention the vast environmental consequences of the meat industry, or the slaughterhouse workers coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. But y’all really like the way meat tastes, and rather than follow your empathy to its natural conclusion, you’d rather look away and snicker at the silly vegans.
PETA’s viral tweet also introduced many people to the concept of “speciesism” — a term popularized by the most influential book in animal rights history, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. Singer made the case that while we often justify treating farm animals with incredible cruelty by noting the differences between humans and animals, the most important ethical measure — the capacity to experience pain and suffering — suggests that humans and animals are not really that different at all. The ethics of torture, by this logic, shouldn’t be concerned with whether animals use tools or have an advanced sense of self, but primarily with whether they feel pain when we dole it out. That could be the physical pain experienced by a chicken too fat to stand on its own two legs developing infected sores, or it could be the emotional pain of a pig stuffed into a tiny gestation crate and slowly going crazy over years of confinement.
This connection between the pain and suffering experienced by animals and humans alike also leads to what many consider one of PETA’s most significant blind spots. Critics point out that the organization has often compared its work to anti-racist movements, which is a criticism I can understand. It’s never a good idea for movements to use metaphors evoking other movements — l hate it when white feminists compare the struggle of being a woman in patriarchy to the struggle that people of color experience in white supremacy. Both can be bad without them being the same, and making that kind of comparison is rarely useful.
But the point remains: Most people don’t have any basic understanding of what animal rights philosophy actually espouses. And as unfortunate as some of the analogies made by imperfect activists are, comparing the struggle of animals to that of people is never meant as an insult in this context — animal rights campaigners really do believe animals are deserving of the same basic considerations that people are.
A few months ago, during a thoughtful discussion about this on Twitter (yes, they happen!) a woman told me that animals are treated better by white people than black human beings are. My heart hurt because I knew exactly what she meant — I remembered seeing folks lose their minds over the death of Cecil the lion, a wild animal hunted like thousands are every day, during the same week that a grand jury indicted a police officer over the killing of Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black man whose death drew far less attention. “A late-night television host did not cry on camera this week for human lives that have been lost,” Roxane Gay wrote in a heartbreaking column on the two killings. “He did, however, cry for a lion and that’s worth thinking about.”
Even here, it’s worth understanding speciesism. People certainly don’t cherish the lives of all animals the way they cherished Cecil’s. Our relationships with different types of animals differ in a way that bears no relationship to their actual capacity to feel pain or joy. I have friends who post about homeless cats in kill shelters, desperate to see them adopted, then post about an incredible burger they just ate, all in the same day. People with an outspoken love for bacon protest a dog meat festival in China. We kill more than 50 billion chickens every year, and the vast majority of them lead tortured, painful lives before they are ground into nuggets. We care for some animals and discard others, and the reasons have nothing to do with morality and everything to do with our own human-centered view of who’s useful, cute, or majestic. That’s speciesism.
And while PETA was being teased for playfully suggesting that some idioms might need to evolve, another group is taking a much more serious approach to policing language as veganism grows in popularity: the meat and dairy industry. The dairy lobby has spent the last couple of years trying to sue almond, coconut, and soy milk manufacturers, demanding they stop using the word “milk,” which they claim can only come from a (likely artificially inseminated) cow, whose baby calf was likely taken away 24 hours after it was born — the “natural” way that milk should be made, apparently. And those plant-based Impossible Burgers you’ve heard so much about? The Cattlemen’s Association is asking the Department of Agriculture to narrowly redefine words like “beef” and “meat.” Big Mayo went nuts over mayonnaise that doesn’t contain eggs and successfully pushed for the makers to change their labeling.
Much like mocking PETA, people across the partisan spectrum support policing this category of language and upholding the honor of mayonnaise. Last year, Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin — the number-three recipient of donations from the dairy industry — introduced a bipartisan bill called the “DAIRY PRIDE” act (it stands for “Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, milk, and cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Every day Act”).
So far, these battles are mostly being lost — it seems that vegan (or “plant-based” in the newly popular parlance) food has finally started to take hold, and that the tides might actually be shifting. This isn’t just because people are suddenly soft for animals, though: One of the biggest motivators is the increasing awareness of the environmental impact of animal agriculture. And while veganism may be on the rise, so is a kind of comical defensiveness among aggrieved meat eaters — it’s impossible to do so much as post a vegan recipe online without receiving trolly comments like “where’s the bacon?”
When I look at animals, I see fellow beings who cry when you hit them, who care for their families (biological or adopted), and who wish to live rather than die. I can’t know exactly what they think or feel — one of the things that does make animal activism so different from other social justice causes is that those being oppressed are not able to fight for themselves — but I can make an educated guess, trust my instincts, and do my best to ensure that my own actions do not contribute to their suffering.
I know that most people — though certainly not all — feel the same way when they look at animals, but they make different choices. Most of you know that what we do to animals to achieve cheap meat at massive scale is wrong, but then you eat the meat anyway. Maybe this is why it’s so appealing to draw attention to vegans and animal activists who seem kooky, annoying, and tone-deaf — it’s a way of changing the subject and of keeping away the creeping feeling that you just might be on the wrong side of history.