The movie Blackfish tells the haunting tale of Tilikum, a 12,000-pound slave who has killed three of his abusive "masters" at Sea World. The movie is shocking, though, not just because of the details -- terrifying accounts of children kidnapped from their wailing parents, the bloody flanks of whales attacked by fellow inmates who have been driven insane by confinement, the mutilated teeth of orcas who desperately gnaw at their enclosures in an attempt to get free -- but because it helps us see Sea World (something that seems so fun, so easy, so normal) with another set of eyes.
The eyes of the victim.
The shock of seeing through the victim's eyes jolts even the most callused whale hunter into guilty tears. As one reviewer recounts:
But the film’s most harrowing moment occurs not while addressing Tilikum’s 2010 mutilation and killing of a senior trainer, Dawn Brancheau, at the park in Orlando, Fla., but in a face-to-face with a former whale hunter, the diver John Crowe. Tearfully recalling his traumatic capture of whale calves four decades ago in Puget Sound while their mothers howled pitifully (“We were only after the little ones”), Mr. Crowe seems haunted to this day by the unearthly sound of the animals’ apparent grieving...
"You know somebody is home,” one of the trainers says. Perhaps that’s why SeaWorld’s most well-known show was called “Believe.”
Simultaneous with the release of Blackfish, thousands of people were mobilized on the streets this weekend as part of the Empty the Tanks worldwide day of action. Millions more were confronted, by the movie, the protests, and the media (social and otherwise), with a stark question: When will our society finally recognize the calamity of animal enslavement?
Perhaps the nation's most prominent commentator on social justice issues, Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times, was so troubled by the movie that he penned a powerful column, that dared to ask the question:
Some day, will our descendants be mystified by how good and decent people in the early 21st century — that’s us — could have been so oblivious to the unethical treatment of animals?
All this, from one whale's story.
But if you listened to the most prominent "official" voices in this movement -- Mercy for Animals, Vegan Outreach, Farm Sanctuary, and even individuals such as Gary Francione -- Blackfish (and the surrounding controversy over marine animal captivity) is "ineffective," "single issue," or "counterproductive."
"Over 95% of the cruelty to animals in the United States occurs at the hands of the meat, dairy, and egg industries which confine, mutilate, and slaughter over 8 billion land animals each year," MFA tells us, and so we need to devote our time and attention to farmed animals. More recently, this logic has been taken further -- since 90+% of those farmed animals are chickens, perhaps we should also devote our time and attention to chicken advocacy, rather than farmed animals as a whole. Perhaps we should even buy our friends and family murdered cow, to replace the chicken they consume. It takes 200 chickens to replace the flesh of a single cow, so we would be saving 199 chicken lives for every cow we kill!
"Animal rights advocates for cow murder!"
I am, of course, being ironic. There are many fallacies with this argument -- most notably, the illusion of rigor, in a complex and uncertain world, that I describe as "factiness" -- but the central one is quite simple:
An individual animal is an ambassador for animal liberation, whether that animal is a chicken or a cow, a dog or a blue whale.
There is, of course, a legitimate point to be made about single issue campaigns that expressly confine themselves to a particular species or industry, for the sake of popular appeal. Compelling individual stories are not enough, if they are not woven into a broader campaign or movement for animal liberation. It is easy for people to be outraged by a single example, but defuse their outrage and rationalize the system as a whole. (There is a name for this in the psychological literature, in fact: systems justification bias. ) We have to avoid this, and stay focused on the cultural and institutional roots of all animal abuse, if we want our gains to be sustained.
But individual stories are what inspire movements. Rosa Parks, a reasonably well-to-do woman who had had few problems with the law, was not necessarily the most gruesome or widespread example of the horrors of institutional racism. But she was the right symbol at the right time, for pushing society to take civil rights more seriously. And what we need to do, as activists, is find the right symbols and stories -- viral, enduring, and above all, inspirational -- that will send domino effects cascading through the world.
Stories such as the tale of a sad whale named Tilikum.
So the next time someone tells you that they prefer farmed animal advocacy, or that they don't do single-issue campaigns, here is what to say.
"All animals are equal. And when I fight for one of them, I fight for them all."