I’m a vegetarian but PETA doesn’t speak for me

The latest campaign is the end of my sympathy


I was an excruciatingly sensitive child. I formed intense attachments and fretted over the insubstantial. So obviously, at some point in the late 90s, when I saw a lorry in which were hanging the carcasses of slaughtered pigs, I was aghast. This was the first time I had resolved the supply chain with the chop that my mother served me for dinner. After battling with my parents I eventually became a vegetarian.

I remain one, largely for ethical reasons. The environmental incentives to give up meat are compelling and they substantiate my argument. But chiefly, I find eating meat to be cruel and unethical.

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And so in theory, I find that my opinions align closely with those of the animal rights charity PETA. PETA’s mission statement insists that “animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way”. I agree entirely.

But mostly, I find PETA’s militant tactics embarrassing at best and incendiary at worst. Their latest online campaign, issued last week, states that “eating chicken can make your son’s dick small“. “Want to know why?” asks the short video the nonprofit organisation tweeted last week. “Phthalates.” We are told that these are chemicals often used in pesticides, paints and PVC plastic.

“But now they’re also found in chicken flesh. A recent study showed that that a mother’s poultry consumption during pregnancy correlated with her kid’s penis size. The more chicken consumed, the smaller the dick.” The latter clause is printed in large, emboldened yellow typeface. “Worried about the size of your kid’s pecker, moms-to-be? Don’t eat chicken!”

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Firstly, this is an insidious way of giving pregnant women – anxious, tense pregnant women – another thing to worry about. It’s a crude way of playing on the vulnerabilities of an emotionally vulnerable group. I disagree with that approach.

Secondly, on the other hand, it’s derisive. Talking about cock size – typically the back-and-forth of peacocking teenage boys in school playgrounds – will not convince sensible people to join a movement. It makes it sound like they’re not taking themselves that seriously.

Certainly, it gets the coverage. When you’re trying to agitate for a movement, shock tactics work – to an extent. But it’s so lazy when the reasons for getting people to forsake meat – or even just eat less of it – are so compelling on their own. You don’t have to debase it by making it about dicks.

Obviously, it’s just the latest example of PETA’s shock tactics. It uses women’s bodies, in the “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign. It paintbombs fur-wearing fashion matriarchs. It once used imagery from the Holocaust in an advertisement that was banned by Germany’s high court, and in a separate protest against Crufts, it made a dog look like Hitler to argue against the creation of a “master race” of dogs. In 2009, protestors dressed up as Ku Klux Klan members for a protest at Westminster Dog Show. One advert from 2014, riffed on the “got milk” campaign, but asked “got autism? Studies have shown a link between cow’s milk and autism”. The picture was a cereal bowl full of milk; cereal pieces marked out a sad smiley on the milk’s surface. That’s quite glib.

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PETA does nothing unawares. On its website, it stakes a claim for its tactics. A devoted section on its website states its mission statement. An abridged version is below:

“PETA’s mission is to get the animal rights message out to as many people as possible. PETA must rely largely on free “advertising” through media coverage. It is sometimes necessary to shake people up in order to initiate discussion, debate, questioning of the status quo, and, of course, action. Thus, we try to make our actions colourful and controversial, thereby grabbing headlines around the world.”

It has metrics and anecdotes to prove that the approach has worked (“3 million members and supporters worldwide”; “the first-ever raid on an agricultural facility” “convincing more than 200 cosmetics companies to permanently abandon animal tests”). And to some extent, as a theoretical sympathiser, I’m glad they have.

But the approach is problematic because it alienates. It certainly alienates me. I don’t feel like PETA speaks for me. It is the the closest we have to a mainstream animal rights group, and it doesn’t corroborate its cause – my cause – when its furious agitprop just makes everyone think they’re a bunch of swivel-eyed nutters. It debases the arguments for preventing animal cruelty. It turns everything into a publicity stunt, it turns everything into a Twitterstorm. It sort of turns everything into a joke.