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Animal rights and the mainstream media

Authors Jon Savage and Simon Frith claim [1] that the role of academia is to tell us 'what we do not know' whereas the role of the commercial intellectual - the class of journalists, commentators, watchdogs, etc. - is to tell us what we do know. In other words, commercial intellectuals often serve to reinforce common ways of thinking whereas the role of the academic, the academic worthy of his name, should be to challenge the construction of thought. If we wish to see the commercial intellectual reinforcing faulty thinking - no less erroneous because it is widely held - we need look no farther than the animal rights debate.

As news watchers know, it is very rare indeed that a journalist has anything fresh to say about the animal question. Article after article rehashes comfortable cliché without any trace of embarrassment. Even those who try soon retreat to a haven of idiocy (witness Gary Young in the Guardian, Feb 24, whose promising start rapidly declines into a weak conjoining of fleas with cows as though there has ever really been a difficulty for the modern animal rights activist in differentiating insects from mammals).

It is not so much a case that journalists debate the animal rights issue as much as it is a case that they studiously avoid it with the employment of lazy thinking and easyspeak. Such abounds: babies matter more than rats, nature is red in tooth and claw, civilisation would ground to a halt without vivisection, etc. What should be condemned to the appendices of a Dummies' Guide to animal rights is, sadly, as rigorous as media commentary on animal rights gets.

Animal abuse is, unfortunately, so pervasive in our society - and so many have a vested interest in its perpetuation - that it spans all traditional 'groupings', from class to intellectual capacity itself. The most intelligent person will offer arguments unworthy of the most stupid when defending the abuse of animals. We see this time and time again [2]. When talking about animals and the animal rights movement, thinking outside of the box is strictly optional for our 'commercial intellectuals'.

Should this surprise us, we who have taken a vow of peace with animals? Perhaps not. We must appreciate that it is often a distorted caricature of what the animal rights activist represents that is being 'opposed'. An awful lot of criticism of animal activists, and animal rights, can be - if one is so inclined - laughed off as a simple ‘fear of ghosts’; said ghosts being the stereotyped image of an animal rights activist. For the mainstream media, animal activists must be either sandal wearers or terrorists: these are the standards that are often utilised to classify our being. If we are not long haired, overly emotional and vociferous when protesting outside say, KFC, then we must be plotting its bombing.

The mainstream media has shown itself to be thoroughly incapable of understanding the ethics of animal protectionism and, in addition, offers a simplified picture of animal activists themselves: if it cannot position animal activism within the demeaning and patronising realms of terrorism or anthropomorphism then it will, usually, be ignored. As some have suggested, this multiple 'perceptual attack' - as I call it - is because we are a genuine threat [3]. Steven Best claims somewhere that ours is the power to stop production. Without wanting to enter into a discussion here about the science of knowing, I would cordially suggest that Best, although correct, does not go far enough. If we want to know why the State, with its media lapdogs, is so hostile to animal rights it is, surely, because we are one of only a few counter-ideologies still remaining in the West. We are the most potent threat to fixed, one-sided thinking in that we are indifferent to the usual sources of activism: class, gender, race, etc. We are the first social movement not defending a vested interest. Further: We mount a new and worthy challenge to the established ‘knowledge’. We are a new way of thinking; a new vision for the future. We ally ourselves with the greatest revolutionary not because we want to change society, but because we want to change Man.

How we are perceived is important. Faced with the claptrap that passes for commentary in our papers, on our airways, across our idiot's boxes, how do we respond? We can, out of hand, reject our rejecters. But I suggest that we should engage with our critics. To this extent I have been paying special attention to the media this week for coverage of the animal rights issue. One deceptive article in the Sunday Herald - it's a Trojan horse, folks - by Vicky Allen, titled 'The Mild Bunch', is worth a second reading.

Allen, rightly, points out that the "consistent face of the animal rights movement" - peaceful, calm protest - is not that which makes the headlines. But she offers her readers no analysis of the green scare behind that which makes the headlines. That the vast majority of activists settle for legal, tenacious open resistance can hardly be construed as a revelation. What we want is serious commentary - why is it that her 'fraternity' - the servile press- always exhibit greater hostility toward compassionate masked liberators than it does, to say, an out of control government with the murder of many thousands of innocents to its name that is increasingly dragging us toward a Brave New World police state? (Here is our war call: when the media acknowledges that its propaganda offensive in the march to war in Iraq was a violation of the Nuremberg and UNESCO Charters on journalism, then we might find its lampooning of the Loving Defenders of Animals less ludicrous).

This is not to make a cheap political point. Her piece fails to see that, not only is the protester on the street a harmless sort, but so, in fact, is the demonised 'monster' breaking the windows, and whatnot, of animal abusers. It is far more acceptable to offer a corrective to unbalanced reportage - to refocus on the majority of campaigners who operate within the law - than it is to question a wayward ruling class that, in Blair's words, regards animal liberation front (ALF) activists as "political terrorists" whilst said ruling class is busy bombing children to death, without censure from the bulk of the corporate press. There is a move afoot, driven by the animal industry no doubt, to collapse any distinction between what the PeTA's of this world do – sensational media stunts - and what ALF activists do. This move is not particularly sophisticated and Allen is right to resist it. But while the word 'terrorism' is bandied about to describe an 'organisation' whose core tenet is non-harm to all life - animal and human writers like Allen seem to be missing the pink elephant for the green scare.

Allen also lets lots past the bullshit detector. I think Allen should be praised for a generally sympathetic article but she should be criticized for allowing absurd charges pass unchallenged, such as the claim that "anti-vivisection arguments seem to be purely emotional". Here we return to Savage and Frith and the role of commercial intellectuals. I wrote to the editor of the Sunday Herald to spell out what the real academic should aspire to. I quote from that: "The author of this article should have challenged the wild card of rejecting emotion as a basis of morality. The burden of proof should be put squarely on the pro-vivisectionists - who constantly make this claim - to show that 'emotion' cannot be of moral significance. Many highly complex moral systems draw from intuition - virtue ethics, for example. Many of the West's best philosophers – [Arthur] Schopenhauer [4] being a leading example - regard the human capacity to empathise as the root of man's morality".

"It is rather simplistic to assume that emotionality has no, and can have no, part in a moral system, as it is to suggest that rationality and emotionality are contradictory. Allen should have highlighted how empty this charge was - it is no more than evasiveness. It is an argument lacking substance... it seems to me that scientists play to emotion as much as anyone does: e.g. we'll all be dead without vivisection. E.g. wheeling out disabled babies (she lives! Oh, vivisection!). The author of the article could have pointed this out and also could have criticized the mainstream media's tendency - encouraged by vivisectionists, no doubt - to furnish a simplistic emotions versus progress itself paradigm"

Having highlighted the scientific case against vivisection, I concluded my letter to the editor with this: "Not only must pro-vivisectionists substantiate the implicit claim that thought through 'emotions' is a poorer source of morality than (to characterise in extreme) blind, cold-hearted 'rationality', but they must prove, what, in fact, they simply assume: that 'emotions' are actually the principal motivator of animal activism - something that remains mostly mythical. Even on the terms of their own argument, they beg the question".

I would suggest, then, that animal activists should seek to prompt 'commercial intellectuals' toward being 'academics' - in the sense identified above - by exposing the negatively stereotyped caricature that the media often uses to misrepresent us. I have read many articles this week, and seen a few vox pops, that shamelessly debate with soundbites and shadows of their own creation - although here I have alluded to just the one.


End Notes

[1] Savage & Frith, Pearls and Swine: Intellectuals and the Mass Media (1993). 

[2] The well known animal rights FAQ, a very useful and eloquent document, is instructive of this in that it is a response to one stupid 'question' after another. 

[3] Simply eschewing 'meat' can be thought of as a threat to the established mode of thinking - because refusing to violate the corpses of animals, at the very least, lodges a complaint against the reigning (speciesist) perception of animals.

[4] Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788 – September 21, 1860) was a German philosopher. He is most famous for his work The World as Will and Representation. He is commonly known for his form of philosophical pessimism that saw life as being essentially evil, futile, and full of suffering. However, upon closer inspection, in accordance with Eastern thought, especially that of Hinduism and Buddhism, he saw salvation, deliverance, or escape from suffering in the contemplation of art and beauty, sympathy for others, and abstinent living.


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