“Vapid”: Animal Ethics and the Mainstream Media
April 23, 2012 13 Comments
This morning I was running with a friend—and an accomplished scientist—who declared my ethical justification for not eating animals to be “vapid.” Pressed to explain this response, he refused to discuss the matter in any further depth. It should be said that my friend has worked impressively over the past year—largely as a result of my own influence– to cook vegan for himself and his family. However, he only wants to hear about the health justifications for his choice. The ethics remain irrelevant to him.
My skin is thick. Thus, the vapidity comment didn’t leave a mark (well, maybe a little one). What’s lingered all day, though, is the depressing reminder that virtually every aspect of society is structured to prevent rational discussions about animal ethics. I’m reminded of Bob Torres’ book Making A Killing: The Political Economy of Animal Rights. In it, he argues persuasively that “Most of us give the consumption of animals and their products as much thought as we do the oxygen we breathe.” The reason, Torres adds, is that “speciesism is woven into our mental, social, and economic machinery.”
It’s also, I would add, an integral part of something much less mechanistic: our culture. As with any problem, what we don’t see is just as important as what we do. What’s conspicuously amiss in our contemporary media-saturated environment is an accessible discussion of speciesism and animal rights. These discourses are certainly thriving, but they’re doing so in the more distant corners of cyberspace and, to a lesser extent, in some academic journals. These venues reliably serve the interests of those who have already lent their minds to the matter. They generally do not, however, reach into the intelligent mainstream of modern culture and shake up pre-existing conceptions. This, as I see it, is a huge problem, one that vegan writers, artists, filmmakers, and social media experts must collectively address.
Oh, and what a barrier we face. Big media generally relish stories that challenge the status quo, but here’s the rub: only so long as advertisers aren’t threatened. I’ve heard from several reliable sources—one of them an editor at a major magazine—that advertisers have become so dominant in print media that they’re now insisting their ads run next to “upbeat” stories. Ever wonder why foodie magazines dedicated to the world of cuisine won’t go near an article questioning the ethics of eating animals? Advertising would vanish. One editor who’s published some of my writing on-line has claimed that my articles would “sink” a mainstream print magazine. I realize this may be old news for an adbuster generation, but it bears repeating.
Plus, it explains so much about my friend’s “vapid” comment. He’s hardly alone in being a highly intelligent, Ivy League educated, professionally successful individual who won’t go near the issue of animal rights. But he’s also hardly alone in that, should the issue eventually escape into the mainstream, and stay there long enough, he’d be the first to spar with it. I’m no media theorist, but here’s the critical thing about how culture structures knowledge: when the “legitimate” media ushers a topic into the limelight, that topic is not only legitimated, but it’s knocked around enough to the point that it becomes part of an educated public discussion. This is a necessary step in the long journey to end the exploitation of animals for human wants.
As a writer, I believe deeply in the power of words to shape ideas in the public sphere. This is why I’m always trying to put stuff “out there.” It’s a struggle. But here’s what I know: it must be done with tact as well as conviction, passion as well as reason, and patience as well as raging desire to elevate, rather than evade, our discussions about animals, sentience, speciesism, and ethics.