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Boobs, not Bombs?

In an article titled "Boobs, Not Bombs" (VegNews, September-October 2008) author Rory Freedman (Skinny Bitch) writes that going naked at animal rights demos is an effective method of outreach. "You don’t expect to see naked people out in public, so when you do, they get your attention. And more important, they get the attention of the media. . . . if a group of empowered women are willing to strip for the cause, they’ve got my support, admiration, and gratitude."

She further complains "What I don’t respect is the denouncement of others’ efforts. Among other things, I cannot bear it when people write off PETA as being ‘radical,’ or HSUS as being ‘conservative.’"

All right, let me get this straight.  The reason there is not more compassion for animals is that there are not enough people running around naked in the streets, right?  And when animal rights groups come up with ideas that we don't agree with, we should just remain silent and grit our teeth rather than utter a word of polite criticism?

Let us pause for a moment of silence.

The good news is that she at least has rejected violence (preferring the "boobs" to the "bombs"). But the bad news is that first she recommends a disruptive and counter-productive strategy, then she wants to shut up any dissent about the matter.  

There is more to opening the hearts of people to the suffering of animals than just running around naked; you need to engage them in a dialogue. Going naked in public is sufficiently silly that I am (once again) tempted just to leave the question, "what is wrong with this approach, and why?" as an exercise in critical thinking for the reader.

I really don’t care whether going naked in an animal rights demonstration exploits women or not. It may, but the more important thing is that typically one does not talk to naked people (unless you’re naked yourself, in an appropriate situation). One stares, or one turns away in embarrassment. The way to change people’s minds is to open up a dialogue.

This is not to say that sex could not be used in humorous ways to get people to pay attention to a message.  I'm thinking of some of the videos Kris Can has produced to promote awareness of oil depletion.  But in Kris Can's case, sex is used in a humorous way, rather than in a dead-serious attempt to create a media event.  

The tendency of social movements in the modern world is towards polarization and extremes. This is not something unique to the animal movement; it is typical of modern America. Look at Bill Bishop’s recent book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. If you just go to his web site, you can get a summary of his thesis.

Over the last 30 years, communities have become increasingly polarized in the United States. Bishop documents that during this time, liberal communities have become more liberal, and conservative communities have become more conservative, and the number of "balanced" communities has declined. Comparing the close Presidential races of 1976 and 2004, the number of "landslide counties" -- where the winning Presidential candidate in that county got more than 20% than the loser -- has dramatically increased. While the overall political situation in 1976 and 2004 was roughly the same, people are clustering in liberal (or conservative) communities which are becoming more liberal (or more conservative).

Bishop mentions a study in which some people with anti-American sentiments were brought together by researchers. After they had talked with each other for a period of time, their attitudes were measured as being more extreme and more anti-American than when they had come in. Like minds, talking to other like minds, become more extreme in their point of view.

This is exactly the trap that Freedman (and much of the animal rights movement) has fallen into. The number of vegetarians in the United States may have increased over the past 30 years. The number of vegans has probably increased, but it has yet to really appear as statistically significant in the polls. What has happened is that the movement has become more radical. The transformation within the movement has created the illusion of a progress much greater than is actually manifesting in reality.

The sins of "group-think" are not unique to vegans. It is typical of modern-day America. There has been an explosion of fundamentalist Christian churches in America in the past decades. If you talked to an evangelical Christian in a typical mega-church, and asked what has happened in the last 30 years, you would probably get a glowing report on the incredible progress being made. Yet, if you look at Americans’ attitudes towards religion, Christianity, and the Bible, America has not actually changed that much. What has happened is that people are congregating in their own little groups, talking to each other, becoming more mobilized, more polarized, and more extreme in their opinions. The Christian right, like the animal rights movement, has made a lot of noise and thrown its weight around quite a bit, but it hasn’t really changed any basic attitudes.

And to make matters worse, Freedman doesn’t like the "denouncement" of other animal rights groups. Certainly disagreements should be conducted in a respectful way. But what exactly are we supposed to do in the event that PETA, HSUS, or Rory Freedman says something downright inaccurate or that I really, really disagree with? Should we just sit in silence on the sidelines, grinding our teeth, and hope that they’ll stop it?

During the past 30 years, I’ve seen a lot of changes. I’m grateful that we have all these soymilk and tofu products, that there are shampoos without animal ingredients, and that the number of vegans is almost statistically significant. But it is often harder to talk to nonvegetarians about vegetarianism or veganism than it was 30 years ago. 

In the old days, when the subject of veganism came up, people had no conceptual map on which to place you.  They didn't even know how to pronounce it.  (In the film Vegetarian World, William Shatner pronounced it "VAY-gun.")  Today, if you bring the subject up, in many cases they have heard of you already. They know who vegans are and how to pronounce the term. They also "know" that you are an animal rights activist -- and that you are probably angry, dogmatic, and not much fun to be with. You may even run around in public with no clothes. If you're a vegan, the noisiest elements within the animal rights movement have defined who you are. And if you disagree with this vision of veganism, they want you to please, kindly, just shut up.

This is exactly the kind of action that will have the effect of shutting down conversation between vegans and nonvegans, and also of shutting down any dialogue among vegans as to what kind of strategy would be better.  It is obviously counter-productive; we need a different approach.  Please put your clothes back on, and let's talk.  

Keith Akers
August 21, 2008