Last night I saw the movie Earthlings, an explicitly explicit look into the way humans have treated animals in recent history. Billed as The Passion of the Christ for animal rights, it contained a sample of the more brutal acts that people have perpetrated against animals, and also the realities of some of the animal industries that operate for our 'benefit'.
Coincidentally it started with the same metaphor (with a slightly different twist) that I use when I explain the philosophical reason for my vegetarian, which was that just like Nazi Germany, the human species considers itself of higher value and 'others' to be worth sacrificing or to be exploited or eliminated in the pursuit of 'progress'. Included was a quote from Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer similar to the below:
'The man didn't give a second's thought to the fact that the pig was made of the same stuff as he and that it had to pay with suffering and death so that he could taste its flesh. I've thought more than once that when it comes to animals, every man is a Nazi. '
Apparently my thought (which was actually inspired from the novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn) was hardly novel.
The film itself was well-structured investigating each of the main ways that humans use animals from the seemingly innocuous use as pets to the obvious exploitation of agriculture to zoos. Several of the aspects were new to me such as the industry of animals bred to be pets and the true extent of the problems caused by irresponsible owners. The objections to zoos and farm shows were also enlightening me to the degree that my views have indeed changed. And it almost has inspired me to get a dog or cat from the SPCA.
But as often happens in polemics (think about anything by Michael Moore for example) people of zeal tend to have less value on truth or accuracy. All the acts seen in Earthlings were real and it is undeniable that the capacity of humans for cruelty beggars belief, even to fellow human beings - but are they representative of what happens in general? Is the horror I witnessed actually valid evidence that should sway a non-vegan to become one?
Some aspects were undeniable: battery hens and pigs are verifiably true the world over. But many of the other areas seemed less factual. Showing the worst case situation is not being representative of the whole situation. The effect of this on me as a viewer is that the producers are more interested in making people shocked than being objective.
The biggest lesson I think a person objectively looking at the film would get is that they should be aware of where they get their products from - which I think is a great lesson. Cheap leather ironically comes from India where animals are taken from poor people and driven to an area where cows can be slaughtered. India (the 3rd biggest producer) was the only leather producer covered by the film. A reasonable 'humane' person would naturally look for a source of 'ethical' leather.
What of free-range eggs or organic meats? If animals are killed humanely, is that acceptable?
This is where naturally people would make their own decisions, but the film itself leaves a blank despite its purpose earlier on.
The film occasionally suffered a divergence of focus; it often emphasised the willful suffering that animals go through (demanding the use of anaesthetic in use or humane killing) and then often deeming that any treatment of animals as inhumane in itself. This is regrettable - but understandable. Thus is the nature of all polemic movies. The desire to provide shock and awe compromises accuracy and mixes the message.
That all being said, I appreciate the passion that inspired the film and the comprehensive approach it took. I hope that the movie itself isn't just preaching to the choir. A key lesson I'd hope all consumers learn is that consumption is complicity in the actions of the companies that produce. Paraphrasing McCartney, much of the world would be vegetarian if they could see inside an abbatoir. In my ideal world, only those capable of taking the choice to kill an animal should be able to eat from those animals.