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The concept of "consensus" is used to strong-arm the public into accepting climate change, or gay rights, or transgender bathrooms, or evolution, or the safety of genetically modified foods, or global warming. Given the power of the consensus on these issues, don't we need a consensus on whether human beings are radically different from animals?
Because, to judge from a worldwide advertising campaign, a good number of people do not believe that we are.
Article originally appeared in
Different but Equal
For four weeks in August and September of last year, a gigantic billboard campaign in Times Square in New York promoted veganism—the idea that we should live without animal products of any kind, whether used for cosmetics, clothing, footwear, research, entertainment, or, especially, food. The key message of the campaign was that humans and "non-human" animals are "different but equal"—in other words, that animals have exactly the same feelings and relationships as human beings do, and thus are entitled to be treated with equal rights.
Actor Joaquin Phoenix said that the campaign "encourages us to consider that our core similarities are far deeper than our surface differences. Now, more than ever, the world needs to hear this message."1
Why now more than ever? When thousands of innocent human beings are dying in wars in central Africa, or are drowning in the Mediterranean, or are being bombed in Syria, why now "more than ever" do we need to protect cute-looking animals?
The campaign, run by a vegan outfit called Be Fair Be Vegan,2 has now moved from the Big Apple to the Apple Isle, the Australian state of Tasmania. Soon the Be Fair Be Vegan campaign is scheduled to move to Stamford, Connecticut, and Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Like the images displayed in New York, the images of both people and animals on the billboards in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, are starkly beautiful in black and white.3 Many people, especially young students, might find them persuasive, especially with captions like:
They value their lives like we do . . .
we [both] play . . .
we grieve . . .
we wonder . . .
we feel . . .
we are aware . . .
we think . . .
we value our lives . . .
we raise families . . .
Individuals with Feelings
The Hobart campaigners claim that 600 million animals are slaughtered annually in Australia's 300 abattoirs, and then declare, "The hope of these billboards is that they will help people to see that these figures are not just statistics. They represent a colossal number of actual animals, all of whom are individuals with faces, families and feelings."4
Knowing what animals "think" or "feel" is a notoriously difficult philosophical problem. But whatever comprises animal thought, it is nothing like the human capacity for reasoning. The sheep, turkeys, cows, and pigs on the billboards cannot visualize the future, compose music, pray, decide to go on a diet, add 2 + 2, or lobby for the rights of endangered species.
Protecting animals from brutal treatment in abattoirs or battery farms is not the point. One can support animal welfare without believing that a film like Madagascar is a documentary and not a fantasy. We don't have to accept cruelty as the price for believing that there is an essential difference between humans and animals.
Same as Goldfish
Paradoxically, the "argument" of the billboards, such as it is, is that if animals look like human beings, they are honorary humans. But where does that leave animals that don't look like humans? Such as a squid? Or a rattlesnake? Or a tarantula? Why aren't they on the billboards?
Actually one of them is. "Different but equal" are the words at the top of one billboard. Below them are the images of a goldfish and a girl of about three years old, with a huge red equals sign between them. "We value our lives," reads the slogan printed beneath.
Tell me, would you allow the person who created that billboard to babysit your three-year-old daughter? If she thinks that the life of a child and the life of a goldfish are of equal value, could she be trusted to save the toddler if there is a fire? Mightn't she run out the door with the goldfish bowl first?
The fact is that people who think that animals should be treated with all the respect and tenderness due to human beings will end up treating human beings like animals. •
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