So, you didn’t watch Earthlings.
I’ll admit it, for most of my time as a vegan, I have rarely been involved in situations about going vegan where graphic films were not brought up as the end all be all to the ‘Great Vegan Awakening.’ Of course, the king of sad films to cry and retch over is the now-famous Earthlings. In Earthlings, easily available on Youtube, we watch footage of animals abused on farms, in laboratories, and in our own backyards as Joaquin Phoenix makes us feeling VERY SAD about the whole ordeal. It goes beyond sad, to be honest, it’s downright horrifying, and all it took for me was a single viewing before I swore to go vegan. Because of Earthlings and other pieces of graphic footage, I can’t see a piece of chicken flesh in the supermarket or a dozen eggs without the imagery popping right back up into my head as if I had just seen it yesterday. I know a few vegans who have done a yearly “rewatch” as a means of reminding them why they’re doing what they’re doing. Needless to say, violent and graphic videos pack a serious punch, and have inspired a number of pre-vegans to examine their decisions and habits.
Imagine my surprise when I engaged in a conversation a few weeks ago with two vegans, firm in their beliefs, who had never viewed graphic videos of any kind, and never plan on doing so. Wait, what? You mean to tell me that people can go vegan without ever once viewing a video of a pig getting kicked around during an undercover investigation? I was shocked at first, because it was so outside of the classic narrative. As vegans, we assume that people need to visibly see the truth, otherwise, they just won’t understand it. That’s why major organizations go from festival to festival all summer to screen short videos to unsuspecting participants, and why activists on Facebook might casually drop a meme or two that is bloody and affecting. As far as many of us are concerned, it takes bearing witness to elicit empathy.
This got me thinking about a similar phenomenon that happens in leftist circles. Remember that video that went around of homeless people reading mean tweets about themselves, that left many in tears? Or those awful Christmas videos of poor children being asked in a “social experiment” if they would accept a gift for themselves, or pass it on instead to their families? (link) There is a very unfortunate idea that we need to see sad and upsetting situations in order to give a damn about what is happening in the world around us, as opposed to simply having a conversation, a debate, reading articles, or any other means of discussing injustice. For whatever reason, we have reached a point in society where we need to see violence for itself in order to truly care. Think back to the videos of Tamir Rice being shot, and Eric Garner being strangled on video, and how those films made the rounds in a near viral way. Black activists asked allies why in the world we needed to see these events on video in order to believe how terrible the acts were, and stressed that it’s offensive that white allies wouldn’t just believe how evil the footage was to begin with.
Could it be that many future vegans are capable of empathy without watching the violent videos that we tout as the “only way?” Instead of looking at that as the one and only way to expose people to the violence of animal exploitation, perhaps we can become a little more creative in the way we talk about animal liberation. Pointing potential vegans in the directions of books and rational argument can be helpful for a great amount of people.
Is there value in videos that make us uncomfortable? Absolutely! I support sharing films as a great means to exposing willing viewers to why to go vegan. In most cases, I find myself suggesting Earthlings, and probably always will, but hey, maybe it’s time we use those thinking caps to discover new ways to promote veganism.