A Comment on “Blood and Guts” Advocacy

Dear Colleagues:

Animal advocates often debate whether to use gory materials in their educational efforts. For example, should advocates show videos of slaughterhouses or other brutal situations?

I am not sure that there is a right or wrong answer here but I do want to offer some thoughts for your consideration.

First, some people will just not watch or look at gory materials and they walk away from your table or leave your lecture. You then lose the opportunity for interaction and education.

Second, we live in a society in which people are used to seeing extreme violence and gore all the time–in the movies they watch, the computer games they play, and on the nightly news. In a sense, we are a society that has become numb to terrible violence. We should not overestimate the impact of videos and materials that we think are shocking.

Third, gory materials almost always tend to make the viewer focus on the treatment of animals and not on their use. That is, show someone something that portrays terrible treatment and the almost automatic reaction is that the treatment should be improved, and not that the use should be stopped altogether. The usual response is something like “yes, that’s terrible; they really shouldn’t do that, but surely we could make it more ‘humane’?”

This is precisely why large welfare organizations almost always do “blood and guts” advocacy; it is their goal to get support for a change that will, they claim, make animal exploitation more “humane.” They will show the horrors of a chicken slaughter facility to get support for gassing the chickens; they will show a conventional battery cage operation to get support for cage-free eggs. The message is clear and explicit: let us show you how horrible it is but, with your support, we can eliminate the “worst abuses,” and make it better. Indeed, the various “humane label” programs that are supported or sponsored by these groups show that the focus is treatment and not use.

Some advocates say that they use these videos but then follow up with a message about abolishing animal use. Although that is better than not doing a follow-up, the problem, of course, is that if you are showing a film or presenting materials that are part of an overall message of reform and regulation, it may be difficult to counteract the welfarist message that is usually explicit in these materials. You appear to be arguing with the material that you are showing and that confuses people.

Fourth, in my view, it is imperative to get people to think about the fundamental injustice of animal use. That is why I start almost every presentation that I give on animal ethics with a discussion of our shared acceptance of the moral principle that it is morally wrong to inflict “unnecessary” suffering and death on animals, and that any coherent understanding of the concept of necessity must exclude suffering and death imposed for reasons of pleasure, amusement, or convenience. I then explain how 99.99% of our animal use can be justified only by considerations of pleasure, amusement, or convenience. Most people have never really confronted their own inconsistencies in the way that they think about other animals. Most have never thought about the view that those who consume animal products have no right to assert the moral high ground and criticize Michael Vick, for example.

I then explain that, putting aside the fundamental moral issue about animal use, the treatment of animals cannot be improved significantly because animals are property and the economic concerns will always serve to keep welfare standards very low Indeed, welfare reform may actually be counterproductive because it makes the public more comfortable about consuming animal products. The burgeoning “happy meat” movement is compelling proof of the problem.

To the extent that I use any videos (and I rarely do), I use materials that are explicit about animal use. For example, Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary has some excellent material exposing the failure of welfare reform. The PPS materials make clear that the solution is not to use animals at all.

Sixth, one of the most effective pieces of video I have ever seen is the clip of the two cows waiting to enter the slaughterhouse. There is no blood or guts in the video–just a very clear and powerful message that these cows are nonhuman persons and that no whim of the palate can possibly justify our use of them–however “humane” the treatment might be. That video is 3 minutes long. I cannot tell you how many people have told me that it’s one of the most compelling things that they have ever seen.

In conclusion, I understand that it is important to educate the public about the realities of contemporary animal exploitation. But it is also important to make clear that even if we got rid of every factory farm and had only the family farms that some welfarists characterize as ideal, or even if every laboratory adhered scrupulously to every law and regulation concerning vivisection, animals would still be being tortured and made to suffer all sorts of deprivations. If we take the position that animal use, however “humane,” cannot be justified morally, we may startle people initially because they are used to hearing the welfarist message. But if we are ready with the follow-up arguments that support vegan abolition, the result may well be more productive and meaningful in terms of behavioral change.

The reality is that we are never going to see any change until we shift the paradigm away from violence to non-violence; away from “humane” treatment to the abolition of use.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione