- The “It” in Our Midst
BBC TV notoriously produced a series of programs titled “Kill It, Cook It, Eat It” (BBC, 2010). The impersonal “It” consisted of a range of largely farmed animals killed and eaten for food. In most episodes, a selected audience were allowed to view (through glass) the killing of farmed animals, such as pigs, cattle, and sheep. It was, it should be said, slaughter at its best, if one can speak of such a thing. The animals were unhurriedly led into an area where they were stunned through the captive bolt method or by an electric shock and then dismembered pretty quickly. A veterinarian was in attendance. The reactions of the audience were then discussed.
It was of course a contrived experience in every sense. Only one or two vegetarians or vegans were invited and they seemed to have extraordinary difficulty in articulating any kind of moral objection beyond stating their feelings. And those meat eaters who did find the scenario disagreeable likewise felt unable to record anything beyond emotion. Thus the scene was set for those who could face the real world of killing required by eating meat, and those who just had emotional reactions. Soon after, the dismembered animal was treated to handling by a notable chef, who showed how to expertly cut this or that limb or joint, all the while waxing on the flavor and tastiness of the animal concerned. Then came the eating: Meat eaters were served some restaurant standard meat dish, while vegetarians and vegans enjoyed an empty plate. As an example of cynical media manipulation it couldn’t be bettered. One might be forgiven for saying that it should have won an Emmy for making the unpalatable palatable.
What do we learn from all this? The first and most obvious is that the media in all its forms predominantly reflects the vested interests of the day. Despite the many high-sounding phrases about public service broadcasting and public education, the range and variety of broadcast media are still remarkably narrow. And, when it comes to the print media, it can only be guessed that, with an increasingly shrinking daily readership, [End Page v] advertisers have more influence than ever. Despite all its obvious shortcomings, social media retains a kind of freedom of enquiry (at least for the time being) un-encountered elsewhere. Animal advocates need to be cognizant of these realities. There never was, and still isn’t, a level playing field.
Secondly, it follows that animal people must become more media savvy than ever. Given that the odds are so uneven, animal organizations in particular need to become more expert, more professional, and more dedicated than ever before. Those who want to squash rational, informed debate always have the upper hand. Note, for example, how in the aforementioned BBC program, no academic who could give a reasoned account of why meat eating was morally problematic was even allowed a look in. The whole thrust of the program concerned people’s emotional reactions devoid of rational argument. Every time emotion becomes the argument animals lose out.
Thirdly, without being self-serving, the rational case for animals has never been more important. Every time an animal advocate screams, yells, cries, or seeks to emotionally bludgeon an opponent, a disservice is done to the cause. Of course we all have emotions and strong emotional reactions are understandable, especially in matters relating to killing and cruelty. Not all emotional reactions should be decried. They can, after all, be the spur to moral reflection. But they are not sufficient either for ethical judgment or satisfactory for public discourse. When emotions are engaged in the media, they give ammunition for the other side to write off the cause as simply “emotional” or about feeling, not reason.
All this is more than tragic because the rational case for animals is actually one of the strongest in contemporary ethics. Most animals are sentient, that is, they experience pain and pleasure, and possess complex means of cognition and awareness. They can be harmed in similar ways to human beings, and experience not only pain, but also fear, foreboding, distress, anticipation, trauma, stress...