This week, as I’m sure you’ll know, we’ve been focusing on animals and their portrayal in different forms of media. We saw animals from across the spectrum portrayed as uplifting protagonists in fiction and non-fiction, to damaged killers in dramatised documentaries. Then we watched that documentary about chickens and their admirers in the states. That shit was bonkers.
Now we’ve all had a good laugh remembering that particular portion of our university education, let’s talk about something quite a bit darker.
If you haven’t seen this documentary, 2005’s Earthlings, I strongly recommend it. If not for the surprisingly informative content about just how ingrained animal exploitation is in modern life, then at least to hear 90 minutes of Joaquin Phoenix speaking in a terrifying monotone. Of course, if you haven’t seen it or you don’t want to, let me summarise: death, sadness, dead animals, more death, screaming, horror, steak, ecological collapse, apocalypse.
I was shown this film by an evangelical vegan, originally a last ditch attempt to sway my pro-steak lifestyle. It didn’t work. That said, I do appreciate a great many things about the film, what it’s saying and how it is presented, regardless of whether I agree with it’s messages or aims. The first time I watched it, I watched it all the way through. Where the message was lost for me, though, was around the 3 minute mark. If you are going to watch the film, please watch from about 2 min 30 to 4 min 30 now. If you aren’t going to watch the film, please don’t watch this part exclusively. I’d hate to have you write off this whole film and its important message based entirely on one brief sample of it and my negative opinion.
Okay, hopefully you’ve seen what I’m about to talk about. When does an animal rights film go too far in its argument? I’d never really wondered about that until the first time I saw this film. I believe that in it’s attempted equivalence between the industrialization of animals and some of the worst crimes ever committed by and against humans, Earthlings damages its own cause and makes ridiculous, offensive comparisons. Footage of rape victims, beatings, Nazi rallies and executions are shown alongside footage of animals in farms and one particularly brutal slaughter of a pig to create an implied equality between the actions. I understand the point the filmmakers are trying to make, and I even understand their strong motivations for doing so, but not only do I reject that equality, I am offended by it.
This film, specifically the scenes I have discussed, are relevant to our class not just because they are ‘animals in media’, or whatever the topic is, but they feature the anthropomorphism that has been so central to our weeks study. In this case, at least from my personal perspective, this attempt at a sort of common suffering anthropomorphism has not only failed, but backfired. Instead of equating the two as the film intended, the empathy I have for the suffering of the human victim was polarized against that of the animal victim, which I harbour less empathy towards.
Mine isn’t an isolated case either. As Canadian human rights scholar David MacDonnald (2006, p. 418) wrote on the failure of the comparison,
Ultimately however, campaigns to invoke an Animal Holocaust fail, ironically
for the very reason activists cite as the primary cause of animal suffering.
Most humans have an inability to empathize fully with nonhumans, especially
if empathy implies adopting forms of latent anti-Semitism (p. 418).
Harsh. You tell them David, you quotable devil, you.
Of course, the comparison isn’t there only to inspire empathy, but also to a point to inspire outrage. As I’ve mention in an earlier blog, offense can be easily manipulated not only to inspire action, but to promote a certain principle or notion. It’s possible, though a bit of a stretch, the film makers intended that comparison to stick in my mind and stay with me; which I admit it has. After all, some four or so years after seeing the film for the first time, I’m sitting here writing about the film, and the mere mention of animals in media has made me once again deeply ponder the ‘animal holocaust’.
What do you think? Yeah, you there, with the computer. Does the comparison go too far? Have you seen earthlings? What’d you think?
Evans, K 2014, ‘The Valorous, the Villainous and the Victimized: The Melodramatic Framework of Animal Rights Documentary”, Master of Arts, University of Akron, Akron, Ohio, USA
MacDonald, D 2006, ‘Pushing the Limits of Humanity? Reinterpreting Animal Rights and “Personhood” Through the Prism of the Holocaust’, Journal of Human Rights, vol. 5, issue 4, pp. 417-437