It being gay pride month, hundreds of cities around the world are inundated with advertising campaigns directed at the same-sex community. These range from chiseled male models sporting designer underwear to banal images of gay couples shopping for produce at the local supermarket chain—anything that expresses an organization or company’s solidarity with gays (who, savvy market researchers discovered long ago, have considerable disposable income and cultural cachet). It should be considered a sign of progress that giant corporations are scrambling for the gay dollar, even if the rioters at Stonewall didn’t envision equality in consumerism as part of their agenda 45 years ago this month. What they certainly couldn’t have had in mind was the equation of their sexual liberation to animal liberation.
Yet that’s precisely what PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is trying to do. Walking down the street last week in Washington, D.C., I did a double take after spotting a banner festooned on a gate near the corner of 17th and Q streets, epicenter of the city’s gay life. “RIGHTS FOR ALL,” it proclaimed, with six bunnies, each a different color of the rainbow, hopping above the logo of the world’s best-known animal rights organization.
Presumably the message here is not to encourage partygoers to shag like rabbits. A clue can be found on PETA’s website: “Whether it’s based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or species, prejudice is morally unacceptable.” Eating meat, then, should be just as morally unacceptable as discriminating against blacks and gays. This is of a piece with PETA’s broader campaign to bestow upon animals the rights afforded to human beings. That it does so under the cover of likening the gay community’s hard-fought (and still incomplete) struggle for equality with that of circus lions yearning to be free is, frankly, odious.
The PETA ad offends on two levels. First, it demeans gays by allegorizing their lack of equality before the law and continued social exclusion to one’s enjoyment of steak. In most countries, it remains legal to fire someone because of their sexual orientation. Gay teenagers attempt or commit suicide at far higher rates than their straight peers. And marriage still eludes us in many parts of the country. According to PETA, these statistics are just as troublesome as the fact that most human beings consume meat (indeed, according to PETA, our collective treatment of animals is doubtlessly much more horrifying than the persecution of gays; the latter, after all, only face the death penalty in a handful of states, and sparingly at that).
The second, more metaphysically pernicious message behind the banner is its reduction of human beings to the level of animals. Despite PETA’s invocation of Benthamite claims that rights ought be afforded to any being that can “suffer,” bestowing animals with “rights” perverts hundreds of years of Western, liberal, enlightenment thought. According to that tradition, boldly expressed by thinkers like John Stuart Mill and the American Founding Fathers, men are imbued with natural rights like freedom of speech, freedom from arbitrary authority and detainment, the free practice of religion, and the pursuit of happiness. Never did these men ever consider that these rights—so basic as to be “self-evident”—would one day extend to animals (though, to be fair, there’s no legal prohibition on barking dogs or mewling cats). Indeed, how would an animal even practice religion?
Animal liberationists, foremost among them Australian-born ethicist Peter Singer of Princeton University, would immediately call this argument “speciesist,” no different from the ones deployed to defend racial segregation or, more recently, the denial of marriage to homosexuals, prohibitions that were both long upheld on the grounds that “that’s the way it’s always been.”
But once you accept the premise that animals deserve the same “rights” as human beings—that there is no such thing as human exceptionalism—you open the floodgates to a host of absurd and downright chilling consequences. In New York, the Nonhuman Rights Project has filed a lawsuit attempting to obtain writs of habeus corpus for chimpanzees. It has based its case upon a 1772 King’s Bench ruling that ordered an escaped African-American slave freed as a “person” rather than returned to Jamaica in bondage. Blacks everywhere should be outraged than animal rights activists would liken the plight of a chimpanzee to that of a human slave.
This isn’t the first time PETA has made an inapt comparison between human beings and animals, nor is it the most outrageous. That distinction belongs to the group’s 2003 ad campaign and traveling exhibition, “The Holocaust on Your Plate,” helpfully abbreviated by PETA, in oblivious recognition of its own morally asinine triviality, as “HOYP.” Juxtaposing forlorn-looking pigs at an abattoir with shaven-headed Jews lining up for the gas chambers, the campaign explicitly claimed that, “To animals, all people are Nazis.”
To say that “all people are Nazis” of course trivializes the crimes of the actual Nazis, which is precisely why Germany’s Supreme Court banned the campaign. PETA today claims it was a “Jewish staffer,” inspired by a line in a Isaac Bashevis Singer novel comparing the life of animals to “an eternal Treblinka,” who came up with the idea. Of course, PETA devised a Jewish alibi for its sick message, much like the novelist Howard Jacobson mercilessly satirized “ ‘As a Jew’ Jews,” who only invoke their Jewishness as a pretext for bashing Israel. I imagine PETA’s latest ploy for the hearts and minds of homosexuals sprang from the febrile imagination of one of its many gay employees.
Mentioning the Holocaust and the mass slaughter of animals for consumption in the same sentence is not ipso facto inappropriate. Rather, PETA gets the horror of the comparison entirely backwards. What shocks the human conscience about the Holocaust was the way in which human beings treated fellow human beings like animals. The comparison does not work vice versa; saying that our treatment of animals is morally equivalent to what the Nazis did to the Jews makes the vast majority of mankind out to be Nazis; it is reducto ad Hiterlum taken to a perverse, illogical, outlandish extreme.
In saying that I do not want the struggles faced by animals, such as they are, to be likened to those faced by Jews, gays, or other human groups, I am not motivated by some spiteful animus made at keeping animals down. Cruelty to animals is legally proscribed and morally wrong. Just because we have dominion over animals does not mean that we have the right to act barbarously against them. But even then, our concern is motivated mostly by a selfish one: the recognition that those who abuse animals for their own sadistic pleasure are far more likely to commit violence against those for whose welfare we feel a “speciesist” concern, that is, our fellow humans. Punishing animal abuse prevents human abuse.
What rankles about campaigns for “nonhuman rights,” the likening of the Holocaust to meat consumption and the gay rights movement to animal liberation, is that they reduce human beings—with all of our complexity, moral agency, consciences, and individual personalities—to the status of unthinking animals. Recognizing the historical injustice of anti-gay prejudice and righting that wrong is not akin to letting a bunny rabbit run free.
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James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.