A common criticism of the images I show on the majority of my blog and social media posts, is that the individuals portrayed are seldom ‘obviously’ suffering. I’m often told we need to show individuals who are clearly hurt, distressed and in the kind of environment that many associate with being ‘worse’ than others; that only those individuals in ‘factory’ farm environments should be shown because otherwise no one will understand the message.
I’ve even faced many accusations of using ‘photoshopped’ images of individuals that are ‘made to look as if they have expressions on their faces’. That’s a comment that reveals a lot about the one who makes it… Just for the record, it’s not the case and I would never knowingly use such an image. There is no need to falsify images that show the response of our victims to the brutality of our use of them. What it takes is for a gifted photographer to see the personality behind the numbered tag and the camera has no need to lie. The fact that these are not the type of images used in the media by peddlers of body parts, eggs and milk is hardly to be wondered at, when their trade relies on consumers remaining oblivious to the real feeling individuals behind the ‘products’ on sale in the mortuary aisles of our supermarkets.
So in this blog I’d like to share thoughts about images, and explain why I choose as I do.
The horror show
First of all, I am well aware that there are a great many pages and sites that share horrific images and there’s no shortage of sources of these to choose from. At any moment of the day, previously seen photos and videos can pop unbidden into my thoughts, pictures that break me every single time I stumble across them. These are the images that come to me in the early hours when sleep eludes me; the ones that make me howl tears of rage at the darkness, the ones that swamp me with despair for my species and lift the lid from the simmering shame in my soul at the knowledge that every nonvegan choice I ever made was an atrocity.
Did these images shock me when I first saw them? I thought I was an animal lover so yes, definitely.
Did they make me want to do ‘something’? Oh yes. They made me want to protest and complain. And donate. Definitely donate, because so often that was the whole purpose of the image – to solicit donations.
Did they teach me that all use of others was unnecessary and harmful? No.
Did they make me realise that the only way to avoid being the actual cause of the horrors I was seeing, was to become vegan? No. They absolutely did not. And therein lay a major flaw.
A reminder of prejudice
I’d like for a moment to remind readers of the word ‘speciesism’. Speciesism, in the simplest terms, is a prejudice whereby we modify our attitude and behaviour towards other individuals depending solely on their species. In practice, speciesism results in the denial or withholding of rights to other individuals, based on this arbitrary distinction. In the same way that racism differentiates unfairly on the basis of race, sexism on the basis of gender, ableism on the basis of physical ability, speciesism differentiates unfairly on the basis of species. We’ve all seen the convoluted explanations that are dredged up; ‘intelligence’, ‘less awareness’ ‘bred for eating/ for eggs/ for milk’ , ‘human superiority’ etc. Regardless of whatever complex excuses we invent to attempt to make our own behaviour sound acceptable to others, and significantly to ourselves, they all boil down to the same thing. We are asserting that our interests – whatever they may be – are more important than theirs, and we have brute force and technology on our side.
Most of us don’t consider it acceptable to inflict unnecessary harm on our fellow humans under any circumstances. We would certainly be disgusted and outraged to find someone who considered it acceptable to harm and kill other people simply because they seemed less intelligent, or because their physical or mental abilities were somehow compromised, or because of their nationality or gender and so on. Yet every one of these is a frequent ‘justification’ for animal use expressed by apparently intelligent people who seem completely unaware of the slightest trace of irony in their words.
However no one needs to read my explanations to know the truth of speciesism. All any of us needs to do is examine our own thoughts. All we ever need to do is imagine a human in the place of any nonhuman individual under discussion, and whatever prejudice we have is illuminated in the spotlight of our own conscience.
Speciesism in action
Anyway, to bring this back to the subject in hand, I hope that there are certain behaviours towards humans that we can all agree are absolutely wrong. Behaviours that spring to mind are the many varieties of physical, mental or sexual violence, deliberate harm and killing perpetrated against any other human individual.
Now imagine if I were to make a social media post about humans saying ‘Killing is wrong’ or ‘Rape is wrong’. Would readers find it impossible to relate to the truth of the statement unless confronted with a graphic image of someone dying in a pool of blood or perhaps a person desperately attempting to fight off a rapist? I think we all know the answer to that.
To continue the analogy, if the chosen illustrations for this imaginary post were to show people engaging in normal activities, going about their lives, would there be a clamour of comments pointing out that as the victims don’t look hurt or distressed, it’s clearly wrong to make sweeping statements about violence, killing or violation? Would everyone conclude that in some cases it’s probably fine and does no real harm? Would we see remarks about humane killing and humane rape, comments about ‘everything in moderation’ and those seeking support for their own ‘occasional’ killings and rapes? I think we all know the answer to that one too.
And yet, when images that illustrate the individuality, the emotions, the facial and body-language expressiveness of our victims, qualities that are there for any who care to look, are shown alongside words that explain that our actions towards them are both unnecessary and harmful, it is not uncommon for these images to be criticised. This criticism frequently concludes that as these individuals don’t look hurt or distressed, it’s clearly wrong for me to make sweeping statements about violence, killing or violation; in fact ‘in some cases it’s probably fine’, and ‘everything in moderation’? There are always comments from those seeking justification and support for their own particular variety of use. This is the reality of what happens, as I know only too well from what now amounts to several years of observing online reactions.
The path where our speciesism leads us
When harm to a human is being discussed, we don’t need to see a graphic illustration of blood, pain, terror, grief, distress, despair and devastating loss to be able to understand that causing another to experience any of these reactions is unacceptable. We have no speciesist barriers to our understanding that these reactions will be the inevitable consequence of certain actions towards humans.
When harm in the form of these same actions towards an individual of another species is being discussed, and despite our knowing full well that the individual shares with us the quality of sentience that renders them capable of emotion, pain, and a desperate desire to avoid pain and continue to live, many not only demand to see their degradation and distress, but more worryingly, in the absence of blood, gore and pleading on the part of our victims, conclude that there’s no problem with what’s being done and take it as vindication of their participation in it.
This one is a no-win situation for the victims in any case, because even when presented with imagery that illustrates that degradation and distress, blood, gore and pleading, there is a tendency for many to dismiss it as coincidental and not indicative of the same experience that would affect a member of our own species in the same circumstances. Or alternatively it’s shrugged off as an exceptional or extreme case that deviates from the norm. A norm that we assume is perfectly fine. Why? Perhaps because to recognise this truth would make us monsters in our own eyes, and our conscience would demand that we review our own role in the nightmare.
So, on seeing these horrific pictures and videos, the conclusion that many people arrive at, is that the problem is about how these victims are being treated; that the problem wouldn’t exist if they were being treated in some way ‘better‘ or if they were accommodated in some other kind of environment.
This view that many of us held, and which is hard to completely shake off, reveals the speciesism inherent in our perspective. Probably as a result of our shared upbringing, our delusion that we ‘love animals’ and the cultural norm that ignores the horrific brutality of nonveganism, it unfortunately does not seem to be a natural conclusion for people to reach; that it is the fundamental use that is the problem, rather that the where when and how that use takes place. Again I’m drawing from my own experience here. I was a nonvegan ‘animal activist’ (yeah I know, and I wasn’t alone) for years before I had the light-bulb moment that made me vegan. That moment happened as a result of becoming educated and aware that all use is unnecessary and harmful to our victims and that there was only one way to stop causing the things I was fighting against.
Faces, eyes, body language and the message we must learn to understand
So yes, the shocking images MAY awaken a spark of awareness and interest in those who see them, but they don’t tell the whole story by any stretch. It is not necessarily enough to see the gore because that seldom, if ever, leads to veganism. In the majority of us, it leads to an assumption that things wouldn’t be ‘so bad’ if they were done in a ‘nicer’ way. We see this ‘awareness’ enacted everywhere, by throngs of people who have never heard of veganism but consider themselves to be conscientious animal lovers while unknowingly paying, as I did, for the very things that they are fighting against.
What is needed is education about veganism. It seems to me that the only way that we can achieve a real and lasting end to our unnecessary use of our fellow earthlings, is by becoming aware of their interest in their lives and the complete absence of any necessity for us to deny them their right to that life that is theirs by birth. In order to clearly understand our shared sentience, and to be able to understand the trauma of other sentient individuals in the same way that we do with our fellow humans, we really need to see past the faceless statistics that they represent to our nonvegan eyes.
And this is why, in the imagery I use, I seek always to show the individual behind the utter degradation of the circumstances in which they have been placed as the defenceless and innocent victims of our self-interest. Once we look for the personality in the frame, it’s hard not to see the dignity that is there so often, despite the crushing reality of an existence where no one cares who they are, but only about the commercial value of what use can be taken from them.
We see some faces that depict their abject despair, their soul destroying misery. In some faces we see hope in a gaze shining with innocence, or we see bewilderment and sadness. Once we see our victims as individuals, once we can look into a face where we can clearly see an expression that each of us can recognise, or when we see body language that we can easily identify, we can begin to shed the speciesism that has blighted the life of each of us. For me, in all honesty, a face full of futile hope on a slaughterhouse truck can break my heart. I ask others to see that same face and feel that same grief.
Once we shed our speciesism, that’s the path that leads to veganism. When we look and automatically see members of other species as unique individuals with minds and hopes, thoughts and fears exactly as we do ourselves, harming them becomes unthinkable; participating in and paying for their misery becomes a distressing memory that we are only too glad to leave in our past.
Look into the faces. Look behind their eyes. They are not ‘voiceless’, they are talking to us with their body language, their eyes are beseeching us; they are screaming, we’re just not listening. Be vegan.
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From the darkness of our human failings & the extremely complex issue of trying to extract non humans from today’s animal exploitation under a “rights” paradigm, this nothing-less-than superb article masterfully & artfully paints & exposes all the complexities & characteristics of our deeply engrained speciesism—into striking clarity. It is a very revealing view of what is true moral equivalence & how we actually think & respond. I must say that moral equivalence as described in this article was my view, knowledge & feeling for the most part of my life. The world was not ready to understand this truth at that time. For the first time in history, brilliant & feeling scholars are bringing this truth about nonhumans & our relationship with them into light much as the dawning sun brings into light the Dolomite mountains hidden in the darkness of night by slowly & meticulously painting upon the mountains a brilliant morning pink bringing forth all the chiseled details of these creations of art. I couldn’t be more grateful to you all. I am still learning & grateful to have read such a deep & revealing article. Thank you.
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Thank you for this, Nadia. It’s extremely encouraging to find that my words resonate with others and I’m more grateful than you know that you took the time to contact me with such excellent feedback!
I very much agree that the best way to show pictures of animals is to show their true personalities, their individuality, their beauty, their expressiveness… Animals have thoughts, feelings, desires, preferences… Every individual animal has a personality as rich and complex as a human’s personality. I saw pictures and videos of animals being tortured and murdered only AFTER I became vegan.