There’s been some blogospheric blowout (see here, here, and here for just a taste) about a recent PETA ad that many viewers find gratuitously sexist. To me, the ad and the reaction to it are most interesting because they raise a larger issue about how we promote our values and how we choose our allies. From Michael Specter’s article on PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk in the April 14, 2003 issue of The New Yorker:
Newkirk seems openly to court the anger even of people who share her views. “I know feminists hate the naked displays,” she told me. “I lose members every time I do it. But my job isn’t to hold on to members, as much as I’d like to–it’s to get people who just don’t give a damn about this issue to look twice.” The truth is that extremism and outrage provide the fundamental fuel for many special-interest groups. Nobody ever stopped hunting because the National Rifle Association supports assault weapons; many of those who oppose abortion are appalled that people in their movement commit acts of violence, yet they are not appalled enough to support abortion. The same is true with peta, and Newkirk knows it; a vegan isn’t going to start eating meat or wearing fur simply because she disapproves of a naked calendar.
(Bold emphasis added.)
As hard as it may be, please put aside your pre-existing view of PETA for the moment and consider this strategy:
You’re running a group that is committed to bringing people over to position X. For various reasons, there’s a big population that is quite accustomed to not even thinking about the issues around position X.
Do you try to grab them with a reasoned argument in favor of position X? That might work for the part of the population who pay attention to reasoned arguments. But there are many people who have gotten surprisingly proficient at tuning out reasoned arguments. (Remote controls and computer mouses make it so easy for them to drift off to something less tiring.)
So you have to get their attention with something they don’t see every day — perhaps a young woman taking off her clothes. Then, once you have their attention, you can try to engage them on position X (and that may involve a bit of shock and/or emotional appeal, too).
As the head of this group trying to bring as many people as possible over to position X, should you be at all concerned that your attention-grabbing strategy is likely to alienate a good number of the people who came over to position X on the basis of reasoned arguments (say, because the attention-grabber runs deeply counter to position Y, which many of the folks who were rationally persuaded of the goodness of position X also hold)?
Or, is it fine to count on the reasoned arguments to keep the people who also hold position Y firmly in support of position X as well? (In other words, the folks you’ve persuaded, say, to become ethical vegans will persist in that position because the reasoned arguments got them there, and they won’t suddenly reject their own rational judgments simply because you might indulge in some objectification of women to reach the meat-eaters with a higher capacity for resisting reasoned arguments.)
Is appealing to the lizard-brains of the as-yet-unpersuaded an acceptable cost if the result is a larger number of people who hold position X? (Are people brought over to position X via appeals to their lizard-brains likely to be as robust in their support of position X as are those brought to that position by reasoned arguments?)
And here’s the tough question for allies: What do you do about the group that is trying to win more support for position X (a position you hold) by tactics running counter to position Y (which you also hold)? Is it tenable to abandon a position because of the unethical behavior of people or groups who support that position? Is there any other good (and effective) way to put pressure on the pro-X group to stop using anti-Y tactics?
I’m interested in what you all think about this. However, I’m going to insist that we keep the conversation on the specific issue of tactics outlined here — NOT on the ethical status of animal experimentation or meat eating, NOT on other particular bits of PETA strategy or activism that may be bugging you, NOT on where the philosophical views of Peter Singer or Tom Reagan lead us.