PETA, the well-known animal rights group, recently provoked a storm of criticism with its Holocaust on Your Plate exhibit at Arizona State University. It continues to incite ire as the display of graphic images from the Holocaust, coupled with gruesome photos of animals on their way to slaughter, travels across the country.
There are a number of problems with this exhibit, not the least of which is that rather than raise consciousness or stimulate thought and discussion, it succeeds in alienating people who might otherwise be supporters of PETA's philosophy. Yet some persons who worked on the presentation are Jewish, and some who spoke against the exhibit acknowledge that the conditions some animals are forced to endure on their way to a recipe are unconscionable.
Some of the criticism focuses on the use of the word Holocaust. Others are dismayed by what they perceive as a loathsome comparison between the horrors of concentration camps and the cruelty animals endure.
Nevertheless, the philosophy underlying the exhibit--ironically influenced by the work of prominent Jewish thinkers--remains sound. "Auschwitz begins wherever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: 'They're only animals'" was articulated by Theodor Adorno, a philosopher who fled the Nazis in 1934. It's too bad that by generating so much press about the negative reaction to the exhibit, less space is devoted to the thinking behind the controversial images.
The "logic" that permits modern factory farming conditions to exist is not unlike the thinking that leads to a belief in the ubermensch and untermensch. If you can categorize any sentient being as a subclass--inherently inferior to the "superior" group of which you are a member--you can "rationally" justify actions as seemingly disparate as the Holocaust or slavery, or even slaughterhouses.
Before the abomination of the camps came the beliefs that led to them. It was possible to exterminate Jews, gypsies and homosexuals, among others, because they were lesser beings. It was possible to keep slaves because they were lesser beings. It was possible to kill Native Americans because they were lesser beings. It is possible to subject non-human animals to abhorrent conditions because they are lesser beings. Indeed, a common theme running through the literature of oppression are references to "the other" as "animal-like."
And herein lies the crux of the matter: As humans, we continue to place a higher value on our lives than on the lives of other creatures with whom we share the planet. This is a tragic mistake and, in fact, simply wrong. It's wrong not simply for philosophic or moral reasons; it's wrong because science simply does not support that belief.
Value is a notion hatched by the human mind. The biological world is such a complex web of interdependent phenomena that to ascribe greater value to one life over another is an egregious act of hubris based on our peculiarly human tendency to believe our lives are of more "value" than a microbe's.
Consider this: If your brain is slammed with six bullets, you are history. But if the same six bullets hit the trunk of a tree, that tree has the ability to continue living. So if you measure life by the ability to survive (admittedly not the best measure), humans aren't even as developed as trees. And by the way, in case you were dozing in high school biology class the day photosynthesis was explained: If it weren't for all those green things precariously clinging to Earth as we pave, plunder and otherwise defile our precious home, every living thing on this planet would be gone, kaput, end of story. No green? No oxygen. No oxygen? No life as we know it. We may have complex language and be able to create art, but we aren't as vital to biological systems as a simple plant.
But barring some unforeseen catastrophe, humans will continue to blunder on and get themselves riled up whenever an organization such as PETA forces them to confront (even in ways that don't always succeed) the fact that our most cherished beliefs are open to re-evaluation.
No one group holds a monopoly on suffering or victimization. Entire cultures have been obliterated over the course of human history for reasons as varied as there are people to think them up. What made the Holocaust especially heinous, besides the sheer numbers, was the chillingly rational way it was carried out. Still, there have been other holocausts, and though they may be distinguished historically by the capitalization of a single letter, they are no lesser testaments to human brutality.
PETA might have been more successful in getting its message across if it had not focused on only one horrific historical event. There are, sadly, countless images of suffering it might have used: Genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire on Armenians during World War I, Hiroshima, Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge, Wounded Knee--the tragic list continues.
Had PETA chosen to be more inclusive in its use of graphics, it would have achieved sending the same message without entangling itself in an unnecessary and counterproductive confrontation with the Jewish community. If instead of the title "Holocaust on Your Plate," it had chosen something provocative but not inflammatory, it might have succeeded in getting people thinking rather than simply reacting in a predictable and understandable manner. No matter how compelling your argument, the best strategy for convincing people of its soundness is to keep them listening.