driving the wedge: what peta’s lesser-known tactics can tell us about their work and our own.

Trigger warning for racist, fatphobic and anti-immigrant language and images.

Perhaps one of the most deceptively simple aspects of organizing for social justice is building an inclusive movement that respects the struggles of multiple communities.  It’s similar to building any meaningful relationship.  Genuinely share power.  Know when to listen, when to support, and when it’s not your role to take the lead.  Take accountability for your own actions and privilege, and change your behavior to respect the boundaries of those close to you.  Invest in your own growth and the growth of those around you.

But that straightforwardness doesn’t make it easy—that’s why so many of us are still learning.  Doing this work has made me deeply appreciate organizers and organizations that take accountability gracefully, and that change their approach to reflect the feedback they receive.  It’s incredibly moving to see organizing that’s truly borne of love and compassion—enough so to change its course when it leaves communities behind.

The flipside of this appreciation is a deep frustration with those that continually dodge accountability, or become more entrenched in their privilege over time.  And in my experience, there is no more consistent offender than PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. 

PETA has received consistent criticism for its sexist tactics, which sexualize and objectify women to drive their point home.  But PETA doesn’t just throw women under the bus—they target a variety of identities and communities.  And ultimately, it hurts their own work.  It stymies their ability to build a broader movement, and it alienates potential allies and supporters.  And, at its core, it exposes just whose support PETA is trying to win.

note. 

As with much of what we discuss at You’re Welcome, we’re here to talk tactics, and whether specific organizing reflects anti-oppression values.  This post will not debate the merits of veganism, vegetarianism, or the animal rights movement.  The discussion below is designed to focus on the tactics utilized by PETA staff and supporters to make their case.  And that, as we’ve discussed many times here, is what makes (or breaks) a movement.  It’s rare that we at You’re Welcome focus more on what’s going wrong than what we can do right, but I think there’s value in taking a hard look at what our tactics can say about our work, and what PETA’s says about theirs. I hope you agree.

exploiting racism.

In addition to its well-known sexist tactics, PETA leverages racist tropes and constructs to further their own work.  Earlier this year, they garnered some attention when PETA sued Sea World under the thirteenth amendment—the constitutional amendment that outlaws slavery.  Needless to say, this is shortsighted and overtly oppressive—to say nothing of the fact that, historically, comparing people of color to animals is almost exclusively the purview of explicit racism.  I’ll defer to Wyatt Cenac, who brilliantly dismantled this strategy on the Daily Show:

 

But the 13th Amendment strategy is just one in a string of racist tactics employed by PETA.  In 2009, supporters protested the American Kennel Club (AKC) and their Westminster Dog Show’s “purebred only” policy.  Their fliers read “AKC + KKK: BFFs?” and made the argument that both the AKC and the Klan wanted “pure bloodlines.”  Handouts were distributed by PETA supporters in Klan hoods and robes.  I wish I was kidding.  From the Associated Press:

Most passers-by seemed more puzzled than offended, though those who didn’t stop walked away thinking they really had seen the KKK. The most common reaction was to pull out a cell phone and start snapping photos. Police monitored the situation from nearby, but the scene was mostly calm. One shouting match broke out during the hour-long protest. Earlier, a man strode away yelling, "That’s disgusting! I’m going to buy more fur!"

Invoking images and even the apparent presence of the Klan, an organization founded specifically to disenfranchise and murder people of color, is beyond the pale.  But what could PETA possibly be trying to accomplish with these tactics?

On its face, this appears to be another attention-grabbing strategy.  And it is.  As organizers, we know that our communities often want to see us out in the streets, raising a ruckus that reflect the urgency of our work.  So we take to the streets at rallies and marches. But most of what we do is a lot less visible.  It’s the daily work of building support amongst potential allies, of changing the policies that impact our communities, and of martialing resources to meet our deepest, most basic needs.  It’s a lot of time on the phone, in meetings, writing and talking one-on-one with a lot of people who don’t necessarily support us.  It’s not the work that’s easy to see, but it’s the work likeliest to make concrete changes in our communities.  We often take on higher-visibility work to respect the struggles of those around us by publicly rallying around our shared needs.  And we do it to energize our communities for the days, months and years of day-in, day-out tough work ahead, and so that our communities don’t forget that we’re still here, we’re still working.

So for PETA to exploit those deep needs and daily struggles to rally their base and garner that attention makes light of all of that work, visible or otherwise.  But they don’t just do it for the attention.  Like all organizing, these tactics are designed with a specific audience in mind.

In this case, the likelihood that any people of color are going to approach anyone in Klan hoods is pretty slim.  In fact, the likelihood of engaging anyone who the Klan has historically targeted—people of color, non-Christian people, immigrants, queer and trans people—is largely nonexistent. 

But PETA’s not looking to engage us.  This tactic is designed to engage and build PETA’s base.  What this approach demonstrates, regardless of the organization’s intent, is that they want a base that experiences privilege around race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion and more.  And they seek primarily to engage those who prioritize their own work at the expense of movements that might otherwise be engaged as potential allies. 

shaming fat people.

save the whalesA few years ago, PETA put up billboards in Jacksonville, Florida.  They included a bright image of a fat woman wearing a bikini, and read “Save the Whales. Lose the blubber. Go vegetarian.”

In a heartbreakingly honest letter, one woman wrote about her experience seeing the billboard on the way to the beach with her family:

My family was visiting, and I was planning on taking them to the beach to enjoy the beautiful day when i saw a billboard that made me want to cry. It says “Save the Whales,” with a picture of an overweight woman in the foreground.

We all sat there and stared at it for a minute and everyone in the car was silent. No one wanted to mention my weight. I laughed it off as usual, but it really had made me so embarrassed, so self conscious and so ashamed about my weight that I dropped off my family at the oceanfront and left to go home, making the excuse that I wasn’t feeling well.

On their own web site, PETA staff responded to concerns of body shaming:

We agree that a world where self-esteem is unrelated to body size would be a wonderful place, but we also know that most people feel depressed and embarrassed about their weight and often need some tough love. Our aim was not to insult people who are overweight but to get people talking—and then persuade them to make a simple, positive change for their health.

gone billboardUltimately, PETA took down the billboards, but they didn’t go quietly.  The originals were replaced with billboards that read “GONE. Just like all the pounds lost by people who go vegetarian” – a masterpiece of non-apology.  This is the equivalent of saying “I’m sorry you feel bad” rather than “I’m sorry for what I did.”  It’s an apology that undermines itself by dismissing the material harm it’s done, and restating the initial hurtful premise.  This is overt, paternalistic fat shaming at its worst.  Well, almost its worst.  On the Huffington Post, PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk took a strident approach:

America’s obesity epidemic calls for tough love à la Dr. Phil and America’s Biggest Loser, not more coddling and mock shock over a billboard pointing out that the majority of fat people need to have some discipline and remember that being fat means being a bad role model to our children, many of whom are now so fat themselves that "teeter-totter" has come to describe their wobbly gait.

We’ve unpacked fatphobia at You’re Welcome time and time and time again.  What PETA staff are saying here is absolutely, unquestionably fatphobic.  As fat people, we have no discipline, we’re bad role models, we’re part of an “epidemic” that we’re somehow also responsible for—hell, we’re the reason children are fat.  Won’t someone please think of the children (by bullying them in print)?!

Yes, these billboards are fatphobic.  They’re also shrewd.  They were placed in a city located on the beach in the summer. And they were placed in a state with lots of vacation tourists and a strong representation of fat people. Last year, an estimated 25% of Floridians were categorized as obese. So when they put up these billboards, PETA was presumably prepared to shame and alienate 1 in 4 Floridians. 

So let’s be real.  PETA is not trying to “tough-love” fat people into weight loss with tactics like these.  They’ve proven that they are not concerned with stopping body policing.  No organization that would use such extraordinarily fatphobic tactics is.

Again, these tactics don’t win many new PETA supporters. So who’s left?  As with their racist tactics, it seems that this fatphobic approach is designed to keep PETA in the public eye—largely to rally their existing base.  With rhetoric like this, they certainly don’t seem to want any fat people around, whether or not we’re losing weight.

appropriating immigrant struggles.

Immigrant communities have long been targeted by wave after wave of anti-immigrant policies and on-the-ground activity from groups like the Minutemen.  This has all been powered by deep-rooted xenophobia, racism, and scapegoating for a variety of social, political and economic ills.

In 2010, PETA joined in the immigration debate.  Just following the passage of Arizona’s racist, anti-immigrant SB1070, PETA posted this billboards around the state.  And just last year, they posted similar billboards in Alabama:

PETA does not appear to do any work in coalition with immigrant rights groups, so appropriating their struggle is, as I’ve discussed before, completely inappropriate.  But it moves beyond simply inappropriate when you see how they attack opponents at Agriprocessors for hiring undocumented people:

You may remember that a few months back the slaughterhouse was busted because "76% of the 968 employees of Agriprocessors were using false or fraudulent Social Security numbers." This was the nation’s largest single-site immigration raid. That’s right, the slaughterhouse was almost entirely staffed by illegal immigrants who were exploited to do the dirty work—such as hacking into the throats of cows who were still conscious.

So PETA is playing both sides of the immigration debate—claiming, on the one hand, that “no one should need papers,” and on the other, utilizing inflammatory language like “fraudulent” and “illegal immigrant” to attack their opposition.  When combined with PETA’s lack of coalition-building work with immigrant rights groups, it becomes clear that they only care about the political capital of the immigration debate, not about the struggles of immigrant communities.  They will shrewdly, cynically play either side of an issue to garner media attention, shore up their own base, and get their point across.

what you can do.

To be honest, I’ve struggled in coming up with action steps around PETA’s work.  On one hand, PETA has been around since 1981, and has gotten more than 30 years of opportunities to apologize, change their approach, and build meaningful coalitions with organizations in potentially allied movements.  They haven’t done any of that—and that could certainly be cause enough to sever ties with the organization, or to begin counter-organizing.  On the other, if you feel invested as an animal rights supporter in an aspirational view of what the movement could be, that could investment could translate into more concerted accountability for an organization that doesn’t reflect your values.

As I mentioned at the outset of this piece, movements are made up of relationships, and this movement is what you make it. Holding PETA accountable, vocally disengaging from the organization, and counter-organizing can all have impacts here, and all strike me as viable alternatives to simply laughing off their presence or ignoring their actions.  Make whatever choice makes sense for you, your community and your work.  But whatever choice you make, be sure you’re making it thoughtfully. 

And, of course, learn from PETA’s mistakes—don’t utilize these divisive tactics in your progressive organizing.  It’s easy to tell ourselves that we’d never use such overtly exclusionary tactics, because many of us wouldn’t.  But on a smaller scale, many of us make these missteps—often unintentionally—every day.  We do it when we say that we deserve rights as “taxpaying citizens,” which implies that undocumented people don’t.  We do it when we say that “gay is the new black,” an only slightly less ham-fisted message than PETA’s thirteenth amendment law suit.  We are already making these mistakes, and the biggest lesson we can take away is to be as attentive in our approach as we are in setting our goals.  Of all these tactics that PETA employs, perhaps the biggest threat they pose is making us falsely certain that we don’t, or can’t, make the same mistakes.

Advertisements

the inclusion impulse & the paradox of extending the LGBT acronym

I’m intersex, I’m queer & I do a lot of work within LGBT communities. Increasingly, I see LGBT being extended to “LGBTI,” and every time I see that acronym, I’m filled with dread. That’s just the tip of the iceberg—increasingly, individuals, groups and organizations within the community are extending the acronym ad infinitum, to “LGBTQQIPA,” or even further.  Today, I want to write a little bit about why that feels so problematic, and ways of approaching identity inclusion in LGBT communities and movements.

First things first: in my experience, when someone bemoans the ever-lengthening “alphabet soup,” it’s usually someone who’s relatively privileged within the community, talking about how it’s “too difficult to keep up with all these letters,” and getting irritated with having to track who our communities and movements are claiming to represent.  This is often combined with a hint of fear that, as our communities and movements expand, their voice and needs will be diluted or deprioritized.  This isn’t that.  This is a way of looking critically at our history, our communities, and our missed opportunities and applying those lessons to our collective future.

 

the problems with inclusion

Inclusion is a lovely impulse.  Without taking a genuinely inclusive approach, we contribute to the erasure of communities we don’t represent.  And, frankly, when we don’t prioritize multifaceted inclusion, we don’t get to the root of the distorted ways that our society makes sense of sex, gender and sexuality.  Yes, let’s create a movement for any & all of us who exist outside of the sex/gender/sexuality norm!  Come one, come all for the gender justice revolution!  I’m in!

But here’s the thing: when we add a new letter to our collective acronym, we also make ourselves responsible for speaking for that identity/community.  But when we do so, we don’t make ourselves accountable to actually doing that work, much less doing it in a way that’s accountable to those communities.  Here are a few of the challenges of the inclusion approach:

  • We assume that, because our title is inclusive, our work is inclusive.  When we discuss the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), we almost always use “LGBT” as a way of describing the people it will impact.  Except it won’t actually remedy much for trans people in the military.  Many of us who aren’t trans-identified don’t understand that—and the routine use of the full LGBT acronym keeps us from thinking regularly about who our work impacts.  Better, I would argue, to be clear that policies like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell primarily impact cisgender gay and bi people.
  • We don’t restructure our priorities, as witnessed by the continued prioritization of primarily cisgender gay issues like repealing DADT and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) over winning federal protections against employment discrimination, which deeply impact a much larger portion of the community, especially those of us who experience transphobia, classism, racism, and life in isolated/rural communities.
  • We don’t change our leadership structures.  Most boards require major fundraising.  That will likely be a problem for working class queer people, trans people (the majority of whom are un- or underemployed), and LGBT people of color (who are more likely to raise children, and therefore less likely to have disposable income).
  • We don’t make our work accountable to newly-included communities.  We don’t elevate intersex people into leadership positions.  We don’t set up advisory boards of same gender loving people.  And we don’t intentionally open ourselves up to critiques of our work and programming from the communities we represent.

I’m not saying that we should revert to being a primarily white, class-privileged, cisgender gay & lesbian movement—quite the opposite.  I’m saying that when we expand the movement, we should do so in a thoughtful, deep, reciprocal and accountable way.  And while some of us have figured out how to do that, most of us haven’t.

(Note: this is very much focused on a “we” that’s white cisgender gay people.  That’s not meant to be exclusive, it’s meant to be real about where power is centered in our movements and communities, and who’s elevated to positions to hold it.)

 

why it keeps happening

With all that, why do we keep seeing these pushes for inclusion?  Because, for those of us who are allies to those newly-included communities, we see the benefits.  Inclusion pacifies guilt.  It allows us to feel as if we’re on the cutting edge of progressive identity politics.  And frankly, it makes us sound like the most progressive person in the room, without requiring us to do anything substantive to represent those communities.  In other words, we can talk the talk without having to walk the walk. 

None of this is bad in and of itself—but it does present problems if we act strictly out of self-interest, and don’t actually listen to the communities we’re claiming to represent.  The point of being an ally isn’t to better yourself or your image—it’s to work to support communities that face a different type of oppression than you.  And that support must exist on those communities’ terms. 

Let’s dig into the way a few key identities play into those dynamics.

 

same gender loving and two spirit

Same gender loving (SGL) is a term coined by African American activists as an alternative to “gay and lesbian,” terms associated with a white-dominated movement.  Two spirit is a term within Native and First Nations communities to describe a range of differences in sex, gender and sexual orientation, and is rooted in alternate modes of understanding the social/cultural role of Native people who are sex, gender and sexual non-conforming.

Increasingly, SGL and two spirit identities are being claimed as part of broad (primarily white) LGBT communities.  Regardless of primarily white folks’ intentions, we benefit from paying lip service to SGL and two spirit identities.  It’s a way of signaling that we understand the ways that communities of color define LGBT identities and, by extension, that we prioritize racial justice, without actually having to discuss racial justice.  Again, when it’s used by white folks, this one can be a pretty clear product of white privilege.

So: can you name any two spirit or same gender loving-identified people leading work locally?  If so, are they in favor of including their communities in your broader LGBT work?  Then do it!  Otherwise, take a deeper look at why you’d like to reference those identities.

 

intersex

Intersex refers to a range of bodily or hormonal sex characteristics that develop biologically within people who are not easy to categorize as male or female.  Historically, we’d be called hermaphrodites, but that was a term used in freakshows, so let’s leave it there, shall we?

This is the one that hits closest to home for me.  Many intersex people get surgery as infants without their consent (and even without their parents’ consent) to “correct” their sex and make them more “properly” male or female.  As such, many intersex people go their whole lives without knowing that they are intersex.  In short, not having a community is part of the oppression faced by intersex people.  So including intersex people who don’t otherwise identify as L, G, B and/or T in that acronym feels, to me, like salting the wound.

As mentioned above, consent from a given community is a key part of inclusion.  But when that community is, by design, difficult to find, consent can be difficult to obtain.  Plus, the struggles faced by intersex people are very distinct, and don’t necessarily mesh as well with queer communities as one might hope.

Including intersex people is a way for non-intersex people to signal that they’ve given some thought to what’s often called the plight of intersex people, or that they simply know what the world intersex means.  But, again, this is done without considering what the priorities of intersex people are, how the voices of intersex people will be lifted up, and what this means for reorganizing existing work.  And, as with two spirit and same gender loving communities, these decisions are often made in the absence of the people they claim to represent.

 

ally

Seriously, you guys?  We love allies, but our work to build community, inclusive policies, and public understanding of queer and trans communities doesn’t need to accomplish all that for our allies.  We welcome them with open arms, but really.  The whole world is designed for straight cisgender people.

action steps

When inclusion can be so problematic, what can you do?  Here are some options:

  • Speak for yourself.  Speak from your own experience—don’t try to speak for the needs of other communities if you haven’t been asked or invited to do so.
  • Include a community when they ask you to.  It’s a basic ally principle: do what you’re asked to do when you’re asked to do it.  Anything short of that is hijacking the priorities and needs of the community you’re trying to support.

We truly can build groundbreaking, broad and inclusive communities and movements.  But it will require a whole lot of thought, tenacity and consideration to do so effectively.

on allies and comedy.

I’m getting ready to facilitate a training on white privilege this weekend.  It’s one of the most challenging workshops I facilitate, and it’s one of my favorites.  Why?  Because it’s heavy on accountability, and it’s even heavier on humor. It’s a conversation about oppression with privileged people: it requires holding people accountable to the misconceptions that they perpetuate and the racism they’ve internalized. But if our first conversation about our shared privilege were only serious, heavy-handed accountability, I’m pretty sure we’d all implode, or at least be so terrified at the prospect of implosion that we’d disengage. So, to engage new allies in thinking critically about their own privilege, humor is a must. It allows us to keep conversations political and dive deep into difficult conversations that many of us spend a lot of time & energy trying to avoid.

Conversations with allies are necessary.  Where I live, there aren’t enough queer and trans people to comprise a majority and make widespread social change on our own.  Same goes for communities of color, immigrant communities, and most marginalized people.  In order to create change, we’ve got to be good at educating and engaging allies.  And when we’re doing that, humor is paramount.

I’ll start by saying that this is strictly a first-person narrative—I’m speaking only to my own experience of comedy.  The clips I’ve chosen don’t offend me, but that doesn’t mean they’re universally inoffensive.  What I want to talk about here is the power of humor to make us recognize privilege and oppression, and I’ll do that in the first person.

I have one friend who’s spectacular when it comes to joking about identity.  It’s a master class: in one quick turn of phrase, he can identify the power, privilege, oppression and interpersonal dynamics that are happening in the room at that moment.  When he makes a great joke, I feel delighted, impressed, jubilant and, with the jokes designed to call out my privilege, a little bit embarrassed.  It’s the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.  And I’ve seen it work with volunteers, movement leaders, strangers on the street, and even my most recalcitrant family members.

On a person-to-person basis, it works.  And when that happens on a wider stage, something magical happens.  It’s social alchemy. It’s movement building.

 

Louis CK and Privilege

Case in point: Louis CK, a white comedian who jokes about identity constantly.  Take this appearance on the Tonight Show:

http://www.hulu.com/embed/d6MGfjvL_cCJ26O3NWldnw

Did you see what just happened?  On one of the most mainstream, middle-of-the-road TV shows around, Louis CK spent several solid minutes talking about race, history, neocolonialism (!), privilege, and experience.  He damn near has an accountability session with the white folks in the audience.  Had this been a serious conversation, it could have looked like the nightmare scenarios that many of us have experienced and continue to relive: the kind where things quickly devolve into personal attacks and someone ends up storming out. Instead, because it was funny, this audience laughed and applauded. 

Exhibit B, the first scene from an episode of the FX series Louie (very NSFW):

http://www.hulu.com/embed/7Dx_-ySbkLqnFRadm0oZCw/2/420

It’s not inoffensive, but it’s authentic.  And in amongst the dick jokes and shit talk, this scene manages to do more public education about gay men’s culture, history and experience than just about any other mainstream show I’ve seen.  It speaks to many straight men’s squeamishness and ignorance, allows them to feel it, and ultimately gets them to deeply experience a gay character’s world-weary familiarity with his daily experience of homophobia, and their role in perpetuating that homophobia.

And that gay character’s demeanor is important, too.  He doesn’t come across as a tragic victim, although he’s aware he could be, and many gay men are.  He appears to have a fairly thick skin, taking his lumps just like any of the straight guys around the table.  And when you get down to it (for once!) this queer person, speaking from his own experience, comes across as one of the most reasonable people in the room.  This is a notable break from the usual options of Brokeback Mountain tragic queers, impossible-to-please angry queers, and inconsolably hypersensitive queers.

The scene is, as far as I’m concerned, a little coup.

 

Maria Bamford and mental illness

Maria Bamford is an accomplished comedian who, in 2006, released a YouTube series called The Maria Bamford Show, chronicling Bamford’s recovery from a mental break (also NSFW):

As with Louis CK’s work, Maria Bamford’s comedy manages to speak in a deep way to the impact that mental illness can have on a person’s life, and how that impact is specific and distinct for women.  It also conveys the tangle of mutually reinforcing systems of internalized sexism, relational aggression amongst women, homophobia, and the stigma of mental illness.

And her work is deeply vulnerable.  She’s dealing with the humiliation of returning to her hometown, and facing the nightmarish realization that, while she’d left her hometown for years, her hometown didn’t forget her.  In her work, I can see myself and people I’ve known and in so doing, I can reach some greater realizations about my parallel experiences.  Plus, it’s a cathartic release to laugh at those experiences and begin to let them go.  And I’m guessing I’m not the only one who feels that way.

 

Why humor matters

Neither of these comedians are unassailable.  Like any comedian, they have certainly offended someone (or lots of people) at some point.   And, as viewers, many of us have been offended. (I certainly have.) For me, the difference between the clips provided here and the infamous EstroMaxx sketch is how humor is used. In so many cases (EstroMaxx included), humor is used as a tool of harassment and humiliation. It isn’t the same thing as face-to-face harassment or physical assault, but it’s certainly on the same continuum. It illuminates just enough oppression to perpetuate it. In the cases of Louis CK and Maria Bamford (and, I would argue, Margaret Cho, Dave Chappelle, and other deftly brilliant comedians), oppression doesn’t illuminate humor, humor illuminates oppression, shining a light on privilege’s cover of darkness. Humor isn’t an end here, it’s means to an end.

But the point here isn’t to set a seal of approval on a comedian’s full body of work.  It isn’t to create a rubric for determining which jokes are progressive enough, and when.  It’s to recognize the ways in which comedy can move us forward, engaging unlikely allies in even more unlikely settings.

Humor can gain access to spaces, people and attitudes that our communities and movements would otherwise struggle to engage.  In the sweet violence of laughter, something cracks, and we open ourselves up to others’ experiences in a way that, without humor, would feel too vulnerable to bear.  There really is something revolutionary about humor.  When it works, it allows us to see ourselves and others clearly, bringing us closer together, and bringing our differences into sharper focus.  It affirms our experiences and the experiences of those around us, and engages us in deeper conversations about power, privilege and oppression than we otherwise would.