Dinner.

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?

References

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

 

How to Save the World: Exploitation, Dead Children and Angelina

I don’t think of myself as extremely ‘patched in’. I watch, read and peruse a whole lot of news media, but I would never consider myself to be someone heavily involved in or aware of the global humanitarian situations. I can name a few current conflicts, send some spare change, recite a couple depressing figures and sigh at the latest reports like no one else, but I’ve never really immersed myself in one cause so much that I feel apart of a global reaction.

One of the most frustrating experiences I’ve ever had was slowly discovering that, at least in my immediate social circles, sentiment and individual activity for global humanitarian conditions are low even compared to my own relative inaction.

Conversations with friends or acquaintances, as they do, stray into the dangerous area of current affairs and the humanitarian crisis of the month. South Sudan, Syria, DRC, Hotline Bling, Typhoon Haiyan, even Australian refugee policy. People would have something interesting, poignant  and worthwhile to comment and I would drop one of those depressing figures. We’d agree shit was fucked and call it a day. Frequently, however, people would know nothing or very little about a topic. Workmates, friends and even the esteemed intelligentsia that make up UOW would have little care or interest for that topical tragedy. This, as I’m sure you would know, isn’t a result of ignorance. Though the media constantly displays the atrocity that man and nature commit and though the most complex and advanced communications system in the history of our world sits at our literal fingertips, we have embraced apathy.

This brings us to this weeks topic. Specifically, the question of whether it is ever appropriate to capture and display suffering. I’m going to argue that, in fact, much to the chagrin of some, the answer is a definitive “sometimes, sorta”. In some cases it is justifiable and in some others, it is not.

First, let’s address the claim that the portrayal of suffering, wherever you find it, is a form of exploitation. Even in the examples we observed in class, media was created specifically with a goal in mind, a goal that wouldn’t directly advance the individual subject of the example. Even the Jack Black example, by far the least exploitative example, does not specifically advance the individual child that Nacho Libre interviewed, rather promising wider systematic change. In the mean time, music, a talented, dim lighting and depressing music is used to create the most impacting video possible. Does that make it unethical?In an age of that apathy I mentioned earlier, it isn’t. To create motivation among a public that is already at least vaguely aware of a problem, an aggressive, emotional, individual based strategy is needed to stir action. Though exploitative, the focus on the individual is justified if it is intended to bring about action from the viewer. Were that video meant solely as entertainment or were fund raised from that video sent direct to Jack Blacks new pool, then that exploitation could not be justified. 

The Jack Black video is mild compared to our next example, that of Aylan Kurdi. Though a similar focus on an individual, the picture of the dead boy is obviously a far stronger example in almost every regard. The purpose, specifically with the exhibition of the photo across the world, is the same though; to motivate through exposure to a particular horror. As opposed to the Jack Black example, the exploitation wasn’t just of the dead boy and his family, but also to a point the exploitation of the public. Inherently offensive images, including that of Kurdi, and their display to the frequently unwilling and unexpecting audience, is designed to exploit the horror and guilt of the viewer in order to promote a political agenda (von Engelhardt, 2015, p. 701). 

This exploitation of offensive, while deliberately affecting peace of a viewer, is justified if it would inspire actions that would promote a humanitarian good.

Now, that’s the depressing part. Let’s talk about inspiration and celebrity, but I’ll do it quickly because my word count is getting pretty high.Celebrity involvement in humanitarian or political media, as we all know, is not restricted to Jack Black.

Angelina Jolie currently holds the position of “goodwill ambassador” in the UNHCR, a highly effective role that sees her using her celebrity to bring public attention to the plight of refugees around the world. Now, this too is an exploitation of sorts, though a willing one. Jolie herself and the UNHCR exploit her celebrity to bring about public attention through inspiration and exposure.

 

Now, let’s get cynical. This is not necessarily true, of course, but an interesting hypothetical. Say Jolie doesn’t actually care about celebrity and just acted as though she did for the sake of her own publicity. As long as that exploitation, the appearance of humanitarianism and a public deception, resulted in a greater public support for the UNHCR and an increase in the capabilities of the organization to relieve suffering, would that not be a justified exploitation? Mrs Jolie, if you’re reading this, I didn’t mean that. Just a hypothetical. Please don’t have me killed.

Now, all these examples, though varying greatly in effectiveness, scale, and impact, they all rely on exploitation – an exploitation that is totally justifiable if it is done with the intention of promoting humanitarian progress.

 

References

von Engelhardt, J 2015, ‘Studying western audiences vis-à-vis mediated distant suffering. A call to venture beyond media studies’, International Communication Gazette, vol. 77, issue 7, pp. 695-707