The thread on the latest PETA post has gotten long. Very, very long. And then I fell off of the grid for about a week, and no longer feel compelled to post my thoughts there. That doesn't mean that I'm not compelled to answer the questions my continually hounded friend asks, though, so I'm going to once again use him as a jumping off point to write a blog post. My friend ponders,
I was wondering if you think it's equally offensive when Peter Singer compares animals to black slaves, or when he compares apes to the mentally handicapped (another traditionally marginalized group).
I haven't read Peter Singer since sophomore year of college; without the text in front of me (or a strong memory of that text), I'm unprepared to make a judgement about whether or not it is equally offensive, or even offensive in its own right without needing a comparison with PETA. I would hazard to guess that Singer's own comparisons would in all probability be at the very least slightly offensive, for the same basic reason as the PETA ads: it takes a group of people, a group traditionally thought of as deficient or less in some shape or another, and turns them into objects in the course of furthering one's own cause. It is at best a "greater good" argument, and I'm not a big believer in the "greater good"; utilizing some populations for the greater good still leaves those populations being treated as simply tools, and that is unacceptable. It is unacceptable because in order for there to be a workable greater good, then the individual must be recognized as being a vital part of that good. It can't just be the individuals liked best by one organization or another, or the individuals fought for by one organization or another. The greater good is simply not a moral 'good' if individuals or groups are left behind in order to facilitate that victory. In the paraphrased words of one of my favorite characters, "Me and mine gotta be objectified so you can live in your better world?" I don't think so.
This is a problem that has been present in political and social organizations probably since the start of political and social organizations. That does not excuse the practice. Again, I have no recollection of Singer's allusions. But the problem with PETA is that while it may be true, as my friend contests, that:
Often, PETA’s goal in producing these ads is to compare the objectification of people to the objectification of animals – trying to link racism or sexism to “species-ism,
PETA is utilizing that objectification to further its own cause. The problem is that PETA is taking advantage of already present social inequities in order to make their point. This is an issue, because although their goal may be to link racism and/or sexism to species-ism, they are still complicit in creating and distributing sexist and racist images. They are still playing upon those social ills with no conscious - or at the very least public - recognition that by doing so, they are perpetuating those same social inequities. Their goal may be to draw more feminists and anti-racists into the fight against 'species-ism' - ignoring, for a moment, that feminists and anti-racists are more likely than not to have at the very least pondered these connections even if they have not accepted those connections' veracity - and their intent may not be to directly contribute to the continued sexist and racist images and lines of thought that are present in society; nevertheless, intention has very little impact on what is actually imparted. They create racist and sexist imagery, and there is no disavowals present in regard to those images. Which leads directly to this question:
Is there something about the nature of advertisements that makes these comparisons more offensive?Without comparing the images or advertising to anything else, the medium - and how that medium is used - does go a long way to making the advertising offensive.
PETA's ads are like when hipsters (or others) 'ironically' use racist terminology; it is cloaked in the idea that because the person or organization using the terminology is 'progressive' or 'with it' or 'hip' or 'cool', then somehow the meaning behind the original terminology or image simply fades away or becomes unimportant. The opposite is more true. Being 'progressive' or 'with it' or 'hip' or 'cool' means recognizing the power of those images and that terminology, recognizing how intent does not shape the work independent of the societal reading of such a work, and recognizing how utilizing that terminology or image for one's own ends is the very opposite of progressive, or hip, or with it, or cool. And in both the hipsters' case and PETA's case, I suspect that knowledge is very much present - but that they feel they can play both sides of the fence on the issue.
While PETA claims to be drawing a line between racism and sexism (as well as racialized sexism) and their pet project of species-ism, they are also happily trading in on the titillation of those very images. In short, they are trying to pull in the progressive groups they are objectifying, as well as those who will not see the images as sexist or racist in the first place - or who won't care. A good friend of mine (heretofore known as My Good Friend - or MGF for short) put it best when he said, "When I see the ads of the lamb with leprosy, I want to help. When I see the ads of the hot women, I want to help to meet hot women". Like hipster racism (using racist words/imagery ironically disparage others' racism but to also get away with being racist), PETA is involved in activist sexism/racism. And that is the problem.
Part of it is definitely a media problem; it would be hard to both use a naked body to draw parallels to one's own cause and also disparage the use of such a body as well in a 8 1/2" by 11" glossy. That doesn't mitigate the problem, though. PETA chose the format; PETA chose the message; PETA chose, through certain ad campaigns, to further degrade their cover of simply trying to draw that line between oppressions. PETA chose to use the pictures they use, with no evidence of even trying to deconstruct the traditional pin-up model. Instead, they play quite cogently into that image with nary a hint that isn't exactly what we as the audience are supposed to take away from it. PETA designed the campaigns like PETA Striptease Quiz. My friend (not MGF, though I certainly consider him a good one), continues with this:
You have to place the ad in the context of PETA's larger argument, and that argument isn't racist by any means. In fact, it's an argument against marginalizing and dehumanizing certain groups. PETA is holding up the dehumanization of black slaves as an example something that's wrong - and that we should all recognize as wrong. That's the starting point.
Where is that point in the Striptease Quiz? When has PETA ever tried to continue the conversation past its original, sexualized, imagery? Where is the progress of thought? PETA's larger argument is flawed for a myriad of reasons, but none strike quite so quick as the fact that there is no larger argument presented in their images, in their ads, or in their demonstrations. They begin and end with the exploitation of marginalized bodies; without a continuation of that idea - in the places everyone sees - the 'larger argument' isn't one. The 'larger argument' loses its viability. Because the larger argument then becomes just a skirt to hide behind. If PETA's end goal is to broaden the conversation, then it is also partially PETA's responsibility to keep moving that conversation forward. They have continually failed in that duty; they have continued to simply pay lip service to the idea that the argument is "against marginalizing and dehumanizing certain groups" while marginalizing and dehumanizing the same groups that are and traditionally have been among the most vulnerable. That is PETA's problem. I doubt they are going to solve it any time soon.