Probably Peter Singer started it all with his book “Animal Liberation” in 1975. Hitting several targets at once, he paired the idea that liberation (freedom) is an unmitigated good with the idea that humans are animals so therefore animals are a kind of human. “Free the animals” was a battle cry for a particular kind of person who felt oppressed: the young, the female, the minority.
As the idea of fairness and freedom expanded into the names we are called and acquired a lot of strategies from Algerian post-colonials speaking in French, PETA packaged all this stuff up and managed to morph the whole concept of humane societies into something that hasn’t existed since Jainism was popular in India: EXTREME concern for animals at the expense of people. Certainly the movement has become something far removed from what Henry Bergh, dignified Victorian gentleman, envisioned when he tried to legislate and defend simple protection for horses then used as machines: driven literally to death.
For instance, the latest idiocy of PETA has been to ask the town of Ringling, Montana, a dusty windtorn little outpost of cattle ranchers, to change its name because “Ringling” (the town is quite proud of being named for a member of the circus Ringling family) connotes the unmerciful beating of elephants with pronged sticks and the unholy confinement of tigers where people can stare at them.
PETA is only following the successful example of Native American women who have demanded that the name “squaw” be removed from the many places across the West where female NA’s are commemorated, either because they lived there or were killed there. On the one hand they justify this by claiming that “squaw” means the pejorative version of the name for the female sex organ (which is not true -- the root simply means female and is appended to the NA names of most NA women: in Blackfeet the suffix is “aki” and the word for the actual organ doesn’t sound at all like that). On the other hand NA women describe “squaw” being used by white people to denote someone dirty, lazy, promiscuous, primitive, fair game for abuse, and a host of other nastiness -- which is absolutely true and justifies the challenge of the word. Personally, I would rather have seen the word reclaimed (like “black” as in “black is beautiful”) rather than forbidden. (Squaws walk tall, Squaws are dark madonnas, etc.). Still there are some words far too dangerous to attempt reclamation, like the N word for black.
But if PETA manages to get this much publicity from a major newspaper front page story, can they be wrong? Publicity is the goal, of course, or rather the means -- money is the goal. A good journalist could probably get the incomes of the top officials of every major American humane society. They follow today’s CEO pattern. Most ordinary mortals are surprised to learn just how many “humane societies” there are in this country. Put an ad in the paper (with a cute photo) saying, “Send five dollars to keep this innocent kitten from being killed,” and the money will pour in. It’s an industry. Much better than a puppy mill, since you don’t even have to run a shelter. (My best advice is to keep your contributions local and go visit often.)
So Ringling is a forbidden word. How about “Teton?” Don’t you know that in French the word means “breast?” If Janet Jackson is not allowed to momentarily flash one boob, how can anyone justify naming something as massive and obvious as a mountain range for a sacred part that we all worshipped in infancy and want to be uncovered only for our private use?
When I was still in the animal control field, an English group (wouldn’t you know) started a satirical movement intended to force household pets to wear pants. “Don’t you realize,” they demanded, “That dogs are walking around with their private parts at a toddler’s eye level? What is a toddler supposed to think?” And they hinted at the marketing possibilities of Pants for Dogs, to say nothing of the potential for puns. The funniest part of it was that some people took the movement seriously and became very earnest about requiring dogs to stop licking their private parts in public and to keep their tails down to cover their anuses.
To be serious, I think much of this was flight from legitimate and deeply emotional philosophical questions -- even religious issues -- about what it is to be human and/or animal, how to manage obligation and dependency, what social restraints and safeguards are legitimate and how they can be determined or enforced, and so on. PETA is so hare-brained and nursery-sentimental that grownups haven’t been able to enter the conversation. Mostly, sad to say, the PETA forces are female and convince some in the public that all humane societies are hysterical, unreasonable, needy and probably sex-starved. This public image is not helpful and is not accurate when speaking of effective humane movement people.
I don’t think the ranchers of Ringling realize how powerful PETA has become. If Oprah gets on the bandwagon, beef sales can tank as they did earlier when O criticized hamburgers. Doesn’t any remember the attacks on fur coats? Or the release of mink or specially bred mice in acts of oxymoronic “humane terrorism?”
In the meantime PETA does not use its enormous power against the economic monsters who control agricultural producers and processors. That’s because people won’t send in money to prevent cruelty to hogs. Maybe if we changed their names... But anyway, those international corporations would squash PETA like a bug -- like the illegal immigrants who get sliced and scalded in the corporate slaughterhouses.
I’m a little nervous about saying these things, but they need to be said.