Published on:

October 28, 2014

Allies and Images: The Importance of Communicating the Victim's Personhood

By Kelly Atlas

It is very common in the animal rights movement for human activists to show images of exploited animals in the process of their degradation. We use these images in the hopes that they will evoke in others the sympathy that they evoke in ourselves. However, if the viewer is as speciesist as our society makes most of us, the effect may be the opposite.

DxE tested this hypothesis by exploring people's receptiveness to liberationist ideology once primed by one of four kinds of images: 1) A photo of graphic violence against a nonhuman; 2) a quote on animal rights by a figure of authority; 3) a perspective-shifting image of an animal that shows something of who the animal is; and 4) a control image. Though the study was small in scope, preliminary results suggest that graphic images made people more aversive than the control group to nonhuman rights, while images that demonstrated the individual's personality primed people to be more receptive to the anti-speciesist questions asked.

With that effect demonstrated, allow me to explain my concerns with showing graphic images.

While many of us have felt that films like Earthlings or short videos like “From Farm to Fridge” were incredibly emotionally motivating for us, that can only be the case for someone who already understands that those animals can suffer and who already regards them as mattering morally. Unless someone can recognize the subjectivity and personhood of the animal whose body is being violated, that person will not be able to recognize the act of violence against the animal as violence any more than he or she regards the picking of a pear from its tree as violence.

Even if we are predisposed to recognize and have concern for the violence, unless we are presented with a clear solution to it (liberation, sanctuaries), and unless we have access to an anti-speciesist community for social support, we are likely to shut down our emotional response to the violence out of a basic psychological need to stay sane in the overwhelming face of an unfathomably massive atrocity. Horrific, graphic images can trigger defense mechanisms that make people shy away from the scene, thereby discouraging engagement with the liberationist message and political activity. (By liberationist "political activity" I refer to any openly anti-speciesist action: an act of protest, a personal communication of rejection of speciesism, helping refugees at sanctuaries, and so forth.)

I am also concerned that repeatedly seeing images of people of a given group (nonhumans) being objectified by one's own group (humans) may normalize their objectification in the viewer's mind. There is only "shock value" in these violent images because the violence is kept out of sight; but note that in cultures where it is in sight, it still happens. Even if a first glimpse into a slaughterhouse is morally shocking for the typical human in our society who has never witnessed the violence, that shock value will wear off as increased exposure to such images only decreases sensitivity to the violence. That is a serious threat to the movement, because we need people to empathize with the victims and care about the violence being done to them if they are going to demand its end. Only when people recognize that each of these animals is a someone who does not want to die and has a right to live will they be able to acknowledge that violence against them is wrong. Violence against nonhumans is not a result of slaughterhouses having opaque walls; it is the result of a pervasive ideology that reduces nonhumans to commodities. Images of animals being treated as commodities do not challenge the speciesist thinking that enables that violence.

Additionally, we do not want to risk making people associate the nonhumans for whom we fight with the sensations of revulsion and disgust that they experience when looking at gory images.

In the aim of checking our own speciesism and not reinforcing frames of mind that treat nonhumans and humans differently, it is important to point out that culturally, we rarely, if ever, show photos of the dead bodies of degraded humans who were raped, lynched, or murdered out of hatred. Most of the "graphic" imagery that we do share of human conflicts at least shows the emotional devastation on the face of a living human in the scene. (This is the case for victims who we already mostly recognize as people.) Showing the objectified, violated bodies of anonymous, non-individualized nonhuman beings is speciesist behavior; and so even just for that, it is not likely to help us confront and dismantle the speciesism system.

Finally, showing these people as victims – instead of showing images of them resisting, escaping, and empowering themselves against their oppressors – renders their own agency invisible, disempowering them. Past movements were not won by "saviours" from the oppressing class, but by the oppressed themselves – and allies who empowered them.

So, we must use images that tell the story of who someone is, that make their personhood recognizable, that help viewers empathize with them, and that help viewers listen to them. If and when we do share images of nonhumans being violently violated, we must carefully contextualize them by first showing images of those (or similar-looking) nonhumans experiencing joy and the positive emotions we associate with personhood, or otherwise demonstrate that they are emotionally rich individuals. If and when we do share contextualized violent images, we should make every effort to use images that show the emotion on that person's face. Remember, the external conditions being imposed on them are not nearly so important as what that makes them experience internally; the latter is why the former matters at all.

We are these animals' allies. We are here to open up space for their silenced voices to be heard. It is our responsibility to show these animals not as the objects they are presently treated as, but as the persons as whom they want to be seen. (Yes, when they cry for their lives, they are very much asking to be regarded as persons; they are most certainly asking to be listened to.) People will not be able to maximally empathize with nonhumans until they recognize them as other people.

So show the world what's really happening. Show humans what they otherwise would not see... by showing them that a chimpanzee and a chicken are people, too.