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
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
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
August 21, 2008