One of my favorite comics by vegan sidekick is a simple one. There are four frames. The first shows a person sitting on a couch while another person cuts a pig’s throat in front of him. “Stop it,” the person on the couch says, “that’s horrible.” In the second frame, the butcher is in the man’s backyard and the man continues to express outrage. The third frame shows the slaughter taking place just a little ways away from the man’s property and again, the man is upset. But in the fourth frame, the pig’s throat is being slit in an adjoining building and the man has nothing to say. The caption reads “At what distance do you stop caring?”
I know it isn’t just about distance, of course. It’s also about anonymity. Give a farm animal a name and a story, a background and a struggle, and people begin to care. It’s why everyone was outraged when a pig that had escaped from a truck that was headed to the slaughterhouse ended up being killed anyway. That one pig stood apart from the rest, and for that reason it mattered to us.
But I’m getting distracted. What I’m getting at is, why is it that witnessing distress directly inspires a stronger response than simply hearing about it? Is it because it causes us distress, too? Are we that fundamentally selfish? I remember watching Earthlings with one eye closed, half-hiding in my partner’s shoulder. There was a scene that I will never forget: an animal (unrecognizable by that point) that had had the fur torn from its body and had been thrown on a pile of dead animals. It looked dead as well, but it blinked. It was alive. It was still alive. I couldn’t handle it. It was right in front of me, still alive, in so much pain that it could only blink, and it shattered me. Just writing this, I want to cry.
Had I only heard about that happening, yes, I would have expressed outrage, but I wouldn’t have felt the same way. Seeing it is different. Even on a video screen. So, knowing this and assuming that the vast majority of the population would protest upon viewing this kind of cruelty – how do we get people to witness these events?
I’ve heard of viewing events in which administrators will give money to viewers who can watch a clip. There are also groups of people who ride public transportation and play clips for fellow passengers. Even holding billboards or putting up stickers helps (although I think moving images are much more effective). And I’m sure there are dozens more strategies I haven’t yet heard of.
But most of these methods affect only small groups of people at a time. And there will always be some segments of the population who refuse to look. So how do we get people to care in that fourth frame? Will we always have to resort to appealing to their health goals or their worries about the environment? Is there a way to encourage empathy for animals even if it hasn’t previously been a concern for the individual? I’ll be musing about effective methods of vegan advocacy in blog posts to come so if that’s a topic that interests you, stay tuned!