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The Dialectic of Discomfort.

The dialectic of animal rights extends as far back through history as the idea of justice and political theory itself. Many philosophers have devoted time to the discussion of the status of animals: these included Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Descartes, Marx, Nietzsche, and Kant (Clarke & Linzey, 2004). More recent philosophers such as Peter Singer, Tom Reagan, and Steve Sapontiz have made arguments in favor of animal rights. The various philosophical arguments made in support of animal rights include the sentience of animals, utilitarianism, and the inherent value of living beings. These arguments have spawned the development of organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Animal Liberation Front (ALF), Farm Sanctuary, and Vegan Outreach. Independent of the content of the arguments made for or against animal rights, who has made them, or the time period in which they occurred, one fact remains: The relationship between humans and animals is one defined by dominance and power.

In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno explore the development, maintenance, and cessation of power relationships and humankind's movement towards and away from enlightenment. This article examines the evolution of campaigns seeking to further the animal rights movement through the lens of critical theory, specifically using Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic. Ultimately, critical theory presents a deeper understanding of the relationship between humans and animals and suggests a means for reconciling the power differential between them. Humans have always sought to dominate nature; knowledge is power and power is limitless in its exertion over both nature and human beings. In mythological practice, human efforts to exert power over nature manifest themselves through a deference for gods, demons and spirits, religious rituals, the medicine man, and the priest. In positivistic practice, humans exert power over nature by stripping away the character ascribed to it through mythology. Without uniqueness of character or distinctive qualities, nature becomes something only to be classified and quantified. This manner in which humans dominate all things results in an ever-increasing distance between the oppressor and the oppressed. Enlightenment, understood in a broad sense, has sought to close this distance to liberate the powerless from the powerful. (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002)

A particular form of domination of animals developed in synchronicity with the modern domination of humankind by industrial labor. As Americans moved from small, rural towns into engorged cities to work long hours in factories, they moved farther away from their sources of food and clothing, thus leaving fewer people to produce these goods. Accompanied by rural labor shortages, the increased demand for farm products in the 1920s (especially wheat and meat) ultimately resulted in the implementation of business practices borne of the success of urban factories (Fitzgerald, 2003). The process of industrialization primarily served economic motives of those in the position to profit from it: the financiers and business owners (ibid., p. 24). Powerlessness is a logical consequence of industrialized society (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002); industrialization necessitates the negation of identity and uniqueness. Both animals and factory workers are now merely a powerless collective to be controlled and existing only to serve the interests of the powerful. Power was taken away from the artisan--what was once the product of expert craftsmanship is now manufactured by machines, and power was taken away from the farmers --to grow enough products they are forced to buy expensive, modern equipment and alter their farming practices. The creation of this modern system of domination and power in agriculture gave birth to what is pejoratively known as "factory farming." For the purpose of this article, "factory farming" refers to a large-scale, industrial model of farming that employs mechanized practices to produce increased amounts of product (food or clothing) at a decreased monetary cost.

Death and Misfortune

The economic benefits of the industrialized farm system are counterbalanced by ethical consequences that do not affect net income or gross domestic product. The nature of this reciprocal relationship is expressed in Dialectic as "All birth is paid for by death, all fortune with misfortune" (ibid., p. 11). Factory farming is conceptually synonymous with the exploitation and commodification of animals. This abhorrent treatment of animals on factory farms is the consequence of operating an agricultural system with only economic interests; as explained by Horkheimer and Adorno, "... the economic apparatus endows commodities with the values which decide the behavior of people" (ibid., p. 21). To gain insight into the endowed value of animals as commodities, one simply has to consider behavior, and the behavior of Americans is to consume animals at a rate of 270.7 pounds per person per year, with only Luxembourg's appetite exceeding our own (Barclay, 2012). In addition to what is farmed and consumed domestically, in 2011 the United States imported $583 million worth of hides, skins, leathers, and furs; by September of 2012, the United States had already exceeded the 2011 figure by $80 million (Census, 2012).

Horkheimer and Adorno (2002) offer insight as to why the mistreatment of animals as a result of factory farming goes largely unnoticed in mainstream society; our silence is bought by the fact that the potentialities present at birth will be formed into goods that will meet the demands of the market. Cattle will become beef and leather; chickens will lay massive amounts of eggs; pigs will garnish our breakfast plates; meals will be constructed around turkeys on Thanksgiving, and mink, fox, and rabbit will adorn our bodies. We insatiably consume these products without knowing the source and with reckless disregard for the birth and death which must precede them.

Instruments of Power

Those in a position to benefit economically from the commodification and exploitation of animals have used many tactics to implement and perpetuate factory farm models and to maintain the prerequisite power relationships. In their discussion of the cessation of these power relationships, Horkheimer and Adorno (2002) discuss "instruments of power" which are "language, weapons, and finally machines--which are intended to hold everyone in their grasp, must in turn be grasped by everyone" (ibid., p. 29). In their state of oppression, animals are at a distinct disadvantage; as pointed out by Wright (1990), they can never exert leverage, and those that work on their behalf must be extraordinarily compassionate. In spite of this dismal projection, there are many compassionate people who vehemently fight on behalf of animals. Just as the instruments of power in the industrial revolution led to the modern enslavement of animals, animal rights activists have used Horkheimer and Adorno's "instruments of power" to affect change in the minds of individuals, as well as in the political system. For it is the collective attitudes of individuals that form the opinion of the public (Turner & Killian, 1957). The formation of this collective opinion is necessary to achieve the final stage in any revolutionary movement: the institutionalization of the movement, where belief becomes law (Hopper, 1957). As instruments of power led to the modern enslavement of animals, others have been used in the cmsade to set animals free.

Tactics to Awaken the Masses

For Horkheimer and Adomo (2002), the unenlightened subject is only awakened upon the realization that power is the principle of all relationships. In the case of animal rights, the subject to be awakened to this fact is the oppressor, and various tactics have been employed by the animal rights movement in America in an effort to accomplish this end. The 1975 publishing of Animal Liberation by Peter Singer was followed by a surge of interest in animal rights, and the number of activists and organizations grew exponentially (Finsen & Finsen, 1994). According to Munro (2005), the media has largely portrayed the animal rights movement as one fraught with acts of domestic terrorism and violence, but the extreme tactics of notorious groups like ALF are the exception, not the rule.

Taking the stance that a social movement dually consists of what it does as much as why it does it, Munro asserts that the animal rights movement is dedicated to non-violent action that includes methods meant to draw attention to the movement and disrupt the status quo (ibid.). From Turner and Killian's (1957) tactical mechanisms in social movements, Munro (2005) identifies the two primary tactics used by animal rights activists: persuasion and facilitation. While facilitation includes strategies such as active vegetarianism and veganism, persuasion includes tactics such as petitions, speeches, direct mail, writing books and articles and poems, information stands, hanging posters and banners, and pamphleteering (ibid.).

The use of such instruments of power is central to the work of animal rights activists and their efforts to enlighten animal oppressors. Over time, the implementation of these instruments has evolved significantly, gradually becoming both more effective and more prolific over the thirty-year life of the modern animal rights movement in America.

The Evolution of PETA

In the movement against the commodification of animals, the instilments of power employed have evolved alongside shifts in media technology. The most salient example of this evolution has been documented in the news media for over three decades through the simultaneous praise and vilification of what is arguably the most successful animal rights organization in the world, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Founded in 1980 by Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pacheco, PETA now boasts over 3 million members worldwide (PETA, 2012b) with assets of over $18 million and an operating revenue of over $32 million in 2011 (Saggar & Rosenberg, 2011). In 2011, PETA spent over $10 million dollars on educational campaigns, the publication of printed materials including factsheets, booklets, fliers, posters, and PETA's official magazine, as well as website features, blogs, social networking, public service announcements, and campaigns bolstered by the participation of celebrities (ibid.). In 2011, more than 40 million people visited PETA's websites, while PETA's Communications Department booked more than 4,500 radio, television, and print interviews. Similarly, the organization received press coverage in mainstream media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Times, The Atlantic, TIME, Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell, Hannity, Today, and many more (PETA, 2012a). The climate at PETA is markedly different today than in May 1981 when Alex Pacheco used nothing but a diary, some photographs, and expert testimony to bring attention to the inhumane conditions faced by a group of primates in the laboratory of Edward Taub (Jasper & Nelkin, 1992). Though the initial conviction on cruelty charges was overturned, Taub's funding from the National Institute of Health was discontinued, and the publicity that followed would inspire the formation of animal rights organizations across the country (ibid).

As a result, those fighting on behalf of the powerless now grasped the instruments of power. Though these instruments--language, weapons, and machines--manifested in different forms of media over the last three decades, the results were the same: decreasing the distance between the oppressor and the oppressed.

The increased distance between humans and the sources of their food and clothing brought about a convenient disregard for the manner in which those commodities are produced. Ignorance of the ethical consequences of the factory farming model necessitates that the instruments of power employed by animal rights activists be potent, and at times uncomfortable. As Horkheimer and Adorno (2002) put it, "Only thought which does violence to itself is hard enough to shatter myths" (p. 2). Atkins-Sayre (2010) suggests that the success of PETA can be measured in several ways including by its membership base, its success in persuading companies to implement policy changes, but even more so by its success in drawing attention to the animal rights movement. Though PETA's mission statement encompasses the rights of animals on factory farms, in the clothing trade, in laboratories, and in the entertainment industry, here I will focus on their campaigns against the commodification of animals for food and clothing.

"Fur Is Dead"

PETA earned its notoriety not only by virtue of its many successes in favor of animal rights, but also through its calculated involvement in controversy. For example, PETA's long-running "Fur Is Dead" campaign has engaged direct confrontation of fur-wearing individuals and disrupted fashion shows where animal furs and hides were exhibited. More recently, PETA's "We'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur" ad campaign is said to be their most successful publicity effort to date (Phelps, 2007). The advertisements feature male and female celebrities in the nude, discreetly posed, accompanied by one of PETA's anti-fur slogans including "I'd rather go naked than wear fur," "Ink not mink," or "Wear fake for animal's sake" (PETA, 2012e). The most graphic of these advertisements bear the slogan "Here's the rest of your fur coat," with celebrities such as Shirley Manson, Sophie Ellis Bextor, and The Veronicas holding up the skinned carcasses of animals commonly used for their fur (ibid.). The "naked" campaign received much criticism in the media (Andrews, 2009; Damton, 1992; "Fur Flies Over Flier," 2004) and has also been the subject of feminist studies of media which criticize PETA for commodifying women in place of animals (Pace, 2005). "Industrialism makes souls into things," (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002, p. 21); In this case the "things" so objectified by factory farming are animals themselves, and the animal rights movement seeks to return to those "things" the qualities and characteristics of which they have been stripped.

The advent of the Internet has transformed the tactics available to PETA to further their anti-fur campaigns. Harnessing the power of the medium, PETA's use of graphic images depicting animal rights abuses in their print literature is a fast and effective method of persuasion (Atkins-Sayre, 2010). The dread objectified in the image is a symbol of power and dominance itself (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002). Static images are still used in PETA's fight against fur, but the capability of the Internet to distribute video to massive audiences has made the reality of the fur trade more tangible for consumers, especially concerning fur farms in China where there are no animal cruelty laws (PETA, 2012c). One video shot on a Chinese fur farm by undercover investigators shows raccoon dogs being bludgeoned on the ground and skinned alive. One animal in particular is filmed after being discarded on a pile of carcasses as it lifts its head and looks directly at the camera (Protection, 2009). The images are extremely graphic and shocking, but the video has 2.9 million views on YouTube (ibid.). PETA's YouTube channel has over 44,000 subscribers and nearly 26 million video views (PETA, 2012d). The domination over these animals and the implied hierarchy indicates the concentration of power of the privileged (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002). The goal of enlightenment held by animal rights groups, such as PETA, seeks not only to expose this concentration and abuse of power, but ultimately to effect change in the relationship between animals and industry.

From Protest to Law

PETA's campaign against factory farming practices has gone through a similarly tactical transformation with no less degree of scrutiny from the media. The instruments of power used in the battle for the rights of animals used for food are similar to those utilized in the anti-fur campaigns. However, 2012 brought a new type of success for PETA and other animal rights activists. Though PETA and other animal rights groups have been influential in the enactment of animal welfare laws in America, the recent ban of foie gras in California is indicative of a new stratum of success for PETA in their campaigns against the use of animals for food.

In an interview with Robert Wright (1990), Ingrid Newkirk was quoted asserting that Frank Perdue is the animals' Hitler, following the idea that there is an ongoing "animal holocaust." More than a decade later, PETA launches its "Holocaust on Your Plate" campaign that used a travelling display to juxtapose images from concentration camps during the Holocaust to images from factory farms (PETA, 2009). In America and Canada, the campaign was met with condemnation from the media and the general public (Chiasson, 2004; "Group blasts PETA 'Holocaust' project," 2003), as well as from academics (Kim, 2011), and was eventually banned in Germany (PETA, 2009).

More recently, the aptly named "Meet Your Meat" campaign has included demonstrations with humans covered in fake blood wrapped in cellophane to look like packaged meat. The campaign also distributes free vegetarian and vegan starter kits, restaurant and cooking resources, and produced videos narrated by Paul McCartney and Alec Baldwin that take viewers inside factory farms and slaughterhouses. PETA's "Go Veg Campaign" filled more than 650,000 requests for their vegetarian/vegan starter kits in 2011 (PETA, 2012a). With over 54,000 views on YouTube (PETA, 2012d), the powerful are brought closer to the powerless thanks to digital video, a potent instrument of power by which viewers are shown why McCartney says, "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian." The viewer is confronted with images of chickens being debeaked, a turkey having its head twisted around as a farm worker attempts to break its neck, veal cows being sold at auction and unable to walk because their muscles have atrophied, and baby pigs squealing as they are castrated, their tails cut off, and ears mutilated without painkillers. Agencies of mass production impress behavior on the individual as the only natural and rational one (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002), and these images bring the hideous truth about mass production to light with the hopes of altering culturally constructed behavior and sparking thought that is violent enough to shatter myth.

In the United States, PETA's most recent and unprecedented success against mass production and factory farms came in the form of a ban on the sale and production of foie gras in California. Foie gras means "fatty liver" and is produced by force-feeding ducks and geese. The methods of foie gras production have been the subject of debates throughout the world. PETA has used various instruments of power to bring attention to foie gras farming practices, most notably graphic images of ducks and geese crammed into small cages without room to turn around and being subjected to force-feeding. According to Horkheimer and Adorno (2002), images are translated into script; we read from their features, which in turn reveals false truths (ibid.). The false truth in the case of foie gras farming is that the "delicacy" can be produced humanely; this untruth is made evident in visual media produced by PETA. Fourteen countries have banned the production of foie gras including Germany, Norway, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Finland, Poland, Italy, Argentina, England, and Israel, as well as all European Union member states (Post, 2012). In 2006, Chicago was the first city in the United States to ban the sale of foie gras, but the law was repealed only three years later. In 2004, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a ban on the production and sale of foie gras which would not go into effect until 2012, thus giving the industry seven years to change its practices to be more humane (ibid.). On July 1, 2012 the ban went into effect, but not before Californians participated in unprecedented foie gras gluttony with restaurants serving seven- course foie gras meals and consumers stocking their freezers with the delicacy (Leibowitz, 2012). Since the ban, restaurants have been attempting to find loopholes in the law, such as offering a complimentary side of foie gras when another menu item is purchased. In November of 2012, PETA sued California restaurant Hot's Kitchen for offering a complimentary side of foie gras to customers who ordered "THE Burger;" PETA's general counsel Jeff Kerr says it is a transparent attempt to evade the law (Lowery, 2012). The bans in Chicago and California represent the first time in American history that the production and sale of a food has been banned because of inhumane practices regarding animals. In the foie gras debate, justice for animals based the ethicality of their treatment on factory farms which resulted in the enactment of formal regulations, an illustration of Horkheimer and Adorno's (2002) assertion that "Justice gives way to law" (p. 12).

Discarded Meaning

Animals, at one time, held a distinct status--the artisan-crafted clothing from their skin--and the farmer had small herds and flocks that were tended to by hand, not by machine. The Industrial Revolution and consequential mechanization of farming stripped the significance from those practices and the characteristics from the animals. As Horkheimer and Adorno state, "On their way to modern science human beings have discarded meaning" (ibid., p. 3). Whether or not individuals subscribe to the idea of animal rights, the success of the movement in America since the 1980s demands attention. Serving as a modern-day example of complete dominance and power, the relationship between humans and animals is one in which the distance between the oppressor and the oppressed must be decreased in order to change the value currently assigned to animals that we use for clothing and food. Horkheimer and Adorno's instruments of power, once used to hold the powerless in their grasp, have taken on new forms and are now used in efforts to liberate. However, the economic interests of the powerful continue to manifest and exert themselves in ways that seek to silence those who seek to expose animal cruelty, thus compromising the opportunity for enlightenment. In the face of recent "ag-gag" bills which criminalize the documentation of factory farming practices, activists must continue to fight to reclaim the instruments of power in an effort to continue their quest to awaken and enlighten the masses.


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Jennifer H. Helman

Doctoral Candidate, Comm. Media & Instructional Technology

Indiana University of Pennsylvania; Indiana, PA
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Author:Helman, Jennifer H.
Publication:Journal of Communications Media Studies
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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