Thursday, January 22, 2009

Group Membership

Jean-Paul Sartre turned down the Nobel Prize for Literature in part because "He stated that a writer's accepting such an honour would be to associate his personal commitments with the awarding institution." As an existentialist, Sartre was staunchly individual. Furthermore, as a philosopher and artist, he may have had keener reasons to keep his own work separate from the commitments of an institution--associating himself with an institution may have tainted his independent artistic and philosophical commitments.

Does the same standard apply to any individual joining a group? Though an advocate for animal rights, I have refrained from personally joining any animal rights or animal welfare organization. PETA stands for and fights for many things I stand for, but I've often taken issue with PETA's focus and methods (I think self-promotional publicity is a close second to animal welfare in their list of priorities). Should I support a group that mostly fights for what I believe in, but which often does things I don't support? I finally did decide to join the group.

Of course, I knew they would do things that would make me embarrassed to be a part of it. As Jim Rome said on the radio today, they're over the top, and that's why you don't want them on your bad side. It's also a point my wife has made: PETA is a pushy, persistent organization--they get shit done because they're so bothersome.

But PETA, regarding Michael Vick, let it go. If you don't want to do PSAs with him or support his entry back to the NFL, fine. But brain scans and psychological tests? The man committed a crime and has spent time in prison for the crime. You should let him move on. If you don't think Vick is a good role model, that's fine: don't cheer for him. But professional football is about adults playing a game for our entertainment, not about athletes being role models to children about kindness toward animals.

This sort of inanity embarrasses me. There are all sorts of serious problems in the way animals are treated in this country--trying to prevent Michael Vick from continuing his football career, and making blatant publicity grabs with inflammatory language and demands for psychological tests, does little to help those animals.

I'm again reminded of Les Miserables. Javert cannot accept Valjean's redemption and reformation, insisting that there is something inherently criminal in Valjean's nature that cannot be changed and demands punishment. When PETA requests brain scans and psychological testing to find out if Vick is a "psychopath," they dehumanize him. They want proof he's even "mentally capable of remorse." Ingrid Newkirk, do you really want to play the role of Javert?

"PETA Withdraws PSA offer to Vick" (Sports Illustrated).
"Is Michael Vick a Clinically Diagnosed Psychopath or a Reformed Dogfighter?" (PETA)
PETA's letter to the NFL (PDF).


  1. J'Rod12:00 AM

    It seems as though PETA doesn't even get taken seriously by a lot of people. ESPN's First and Ten covered the story today and everyone on the panel laughed at the first mention of PETA.

    Perhaps if they didn't go to such extremes they would be taken more serious. But would they get any attention at all if they didn't go to extremes?

  2. J'Rod12:06 AM

    Hey look at me! I just said what you already said in the post! Doop dee doo!


  3. I get the impression PETA thinks any publicity is good publicity, and doesn't consider the importance of building supportive allies (which is a terrible attitude for a non-profit trying to change the world).

    There has been a lot of discussion about racism in the reaction and coverage of the Vick dogfighting story. And while I don't think race is Ingrid Newkirk's motive, observers are not wrong to infer racism in PETA's recent comments Let's be clear: PETA is suggesting a particular black male is genetically programmed to be violent, and is thus mentally incapable of emotions like empathy or remorse. Isn't it pretty easy to infer racism here? The language in PETA's letter to the NFL is incredibly inflammatory (see the paragraphs on the second page)--Newkirk doesn't show any awareness of a long history of racist assumptions about black people, and how her implications could be perceived.

    So for some people, actions such as this cause PETA to lose any credibility they may have had. And now what happens when PETA tries to reach those people, who may be allies on other issues? It doesn't work.

    There's got to be a better way to publicize such issues and bring about change. I don't think PETA has handled this issue well at all.