Politics & Policy

Liberation Theology

The twisted thinking motivating PETA.

Animal-rights and animal-liberation advocacy has, over the years, become a radical and subversive enterprise. To see this phenomenon at work, one need look no further than the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the movement’s leading advocacy group. PETA’s latest campaign blitz, the “Animal Liberation Project” (ALP), is a case in point, blending moral relativism with extremist rhetoric.

It comes on the heels of PETA’s pro-vegetarian “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign, which claimed that the worst crimes of the Shoah were morally equivalent to eating meat and wearing leather; that one set off a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from Jewish groups and the media. It took two years, but PETA leader Ingrid Newkirk finally issued a non-apology apology for the indefensible comparison.

But, of course, defend she did; PETA hadn’t changed its mind about the campaign’s essential message. Enter ALP, which again asserts a moral equivalency between using animals and some of history’s worst crimes. ALP’s overarching theme is: “We are all animals.” While this is biologically true, PETA isn’t merely stating a scientific fact. Rather, by the statement PETA means that humans and animals are moral equals. Hence, everything we do with and to animals should be judged morally as if the same things were being done to people.

Thus, ALP juxtaposes a photograph of Ota Benga, an African pygmy who was displayed in the Bronx Zoo monkey house in 1906, next to a photo of a captive monkey. The implied message is clear: Displaying Benga in a zoo was an equivalent wrong to keeping monkeys in zoos. The fact that Benga was human and monkeys are not is deemed by PETA to be a distinction without a difference.

But that’s only the start: ALP also posts a photo of a chained African-American slave’s foot by the chained foot of an elephant, explicitly linking the importation of pachyderms with the abomination of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Adding to the racism-equals-”species-ism” mindset, ALP asserts a moral equivalency between the Tuskegee Institute outrage–in which African-American men with syphilis were allowed by scientists to sicken in order to study how the disease progresses–and contemporary medical experimentation with animals.

Under the heading, “Native American Genocide,” PETA draws parallels between the worst aspects of Western expansion and normal animal-control activities. “Settlers often treated Native Americans, whom they considered a nuisance, with shocking ruthlessness. . . Today people trap, shoot, and poison native wildlife because they are considered ‘pests.’ ” In other words, every time a rancher acts to control the coyote population to protect his cattle–animals that PETA believes are the moral equivalent of human slaves–it is a replay of Wounded Knee.

If we are to understand the threat that the animal-rights and animal-liberation movement poses to human wellbeing, we must first comprehend this fundamental fact: When ALP places a photograph of hanged blacks with that of a dead cow being hoisted by a rope for butchering, it is because animal liberationists actually believe that the lynching of African Americans in the Jim-Crow south and slaughtering cattle are equivalent evils. Similarly, when ALP published a photograph of a human being burned alive next to one of a burning chicken, it is precisely because animal liberationists see no moral difference between incinerating a human being and a chicken.

Nobody in their right mind supports abusing animals. But human slavery was (and is) pure evil; keeping elephants in zoos is not. The Rwandan and Cambodian genocides were acts of pure evil; humanely slaughtering millions of animals to provide the multitudes with nourishing food is not. Mengele’s twin experiments were pure evil; testing new drugs or surgical procedures on animals to save children’s lives is not.

Why don’t liberationists understand this? To clarify things, I telephoned my good friend Joseph Bottum, the editor of the religious journal First Things.

Bottum suggested that many contemporary thinkers have adopted a strictly utilitarian mindset in which suffering becomes synonymous with evil. Animal liberationists, he said, have taken this philosophical view a crucial step further: “First they accept that all suffering is evil. Then they deny that suffering can be ranked, which means that all suffering, whether in humans or animals, is equally evil.”

“But,” I pointed out, “liberationists don’t see lions chasing down and killing a zebra colt as being evil, and predation unquestionably causes suffering.”

“It seems self contradictory if all suffering is deemed equally evil,” Bottum acknowledged. “But animal liberationists recognize the truth that only humans are moral agents in the world. Thus, when we cause suffering, it is evil. But when animals cause suffering, it is not.”

That clicked for me. I have long perceived the animal-liberation movement to be deeply misanthropic, and Bottum’s theory explains why. If indeed “we are all animals,” then there is no hierarchy of moral worth. Since human contact with animals is seen, by definition, as causing animals to suffer, and since all suffering is evil–yet, only humans can act in an evil way–then the belief that cattle ranching equals Auschwitz becomes a logical conclusion.

This twisted thought progression also explains why the more radical elements of the movement increasingly resort to vandalism, arson, theft, violence, and intimidation in the name of protecting animals–and why PETA has repeatedly refused to condemn such tactics. Where most people see a trainload of cattle being shipped to market, they see genocide. Where most people see animal research leading to medical cures, they see Tuskegee and torture.

The repudiation of human exceptionalism is what makes the animal-liberation movement so profoundly subversive–and increasingly dangerous. After all, if killing a cow is truly believed to be the moral equivalent to killing a man, then for true believers, murder in the defense of animals ceases to be an unthinkable act.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. He is currently researching a book on the animal-liberation movement.


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