After decades of viewing a vast assortment of photographs, video and other visual depictions of animal cruelty, I’m increasingly repelled by activism that mostly consists of sad, shocking, graphic imagery—continuous replications of tormented pigs in a factory farm, a cow chasing her calf that’s been whisked away, writhing bodies of animals hung upside down in a slaughterhouse or a speared bull in a bull fight.
These types of images, meant to be expressions of rage and defiance, appear over and over again on my Facebook newsfeed. But it begs the question: Are they aimed at the best audience? When I asked why someone batters animal advocacy followers with such imagery, one person said evidence will end the abomination, as though the visuals are being aired on network news, which they’re not.
My sanity is disrespected in this quagmire.
Animal rights proponents are apparently expected to receive a steady diet of sadistic imagery. The words that accompany the images say that when one eats meat, they’re complicit in this violence. I agree, but it feels more like punishing people instead of inspiring fundamental change.
I told one Facebook follower I didn’t welcome seeing another abused farm animal photo—but I understand those whose efforts use these visuals to reach the uninformed. But I think the danger is they won’t absorb the activist’s point because the pictures are too gruesome; they will just avoid the visual collision altogether because it overwhelms them with despair.
Through discussions with those who study media, law professors and Michael Harris, Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program director, we learn that when people see grotesque visuals, most don’t remember the underlying message. Plus, repeatedly witnessing violence can desensitize us to it.
That view counters some activists’ insistence that when dealing with the public, grab their attention anyway they can. However, while one’s mind might be engaged, the message of not consuming animals for food or fashion could get lost. For example, a professor at the Denver Law Clinic told me he conducted a survey with law students showing them a sexually-charged ad from an animal advocacy group under the guise of shunning fur. The upshot was that the students were left without an anti-fur message, but a recollection of nudity.
Gary Francione, professor of law and philosophy at Rutgers University Law School, also says: “Violent imagery is problematic because it tends to focus people on the issue of treatment—and not of use. That is, if someone sees some violent scenes of animal treatment, their usual reaction is to respond by wanting to improve treatment. That is why the large welfare groups constantly use this imagery. Although property status means that the standards of animal welfare will always be low, the point is that exploitation—however supposedly ‘humane’—cannot be morally justified. We must oppose all animal use.”
So what’s an activist to do?
The right kind of visuals can change attitudes, provide hope and make people feel empowered. But words and conduct matter too.
For example, animals used for fur or those hunted are individuals who could experience dynamic lives if not for trade in their skins, or a warped excitement from stealing their lives. Portraying these animals as energetic beings with families as opposed to dismembered victims allows others to appreciate and relate to their wildness and shun the industries that robs them of their freedom. Visuals of farm animals flourishing in their own way at sanctuaries rather than inside the meat industry’s confinement can be powerful.
Such imagery can guide people to envision an entirely new paradigm, which FoA is fighting for—a world where animals are owed ethical consideration and they achieve legal standing in the eyes of the law. Sometimes pictures tell a painful truth about animals’ situations, and FoA occasionally makes a choice to use one, such as in our trophy hunting video campaign.
Such decisions become arduous and complex. We just don’t see animal advocacy as images of darkness that become the message, thus losing the most important message—that it is possible to free animals from cruelty and institutionalized exploitation around the world, one victory at a time.