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16.1.09

Thoughts on "Sea Kittens"

PeTA's latest performance art piece -- trying to rename fish "sea kittens" -- is a breath of fresh air, since it's merely silly, not offensive and progressive-coalition-fracturing. I doubt it will work, because the strategy of analogizing fish to kittens (as opposed to trying to get people to appreciate fish's sentience in their own right) is too big a leap for most people to make on the Great Chain of Being, and thus will lead to counterproductive focus on the points of disanalogy.

Some of the responses to PeTA are lacking as well. Gwen at Sociological Images points out that the sea kitten campaign is aimed at children. She keeps enough analytical distance in her post that she may deny intending that as a criticism, but it's hard to believe many readers wouldn't interpret it as one, and agree -- those wacky activists are targeting our kids! But gwen also links to an NPR piece that quotes two Alaskan pre-teen girls who are skeptical of the "sea kitten" idea (validating my point above about disanalogies). Chastity and Harmony are not in some neutral, un-indoctrinated state -- they've been quite explicitly taught by their parents, community, media, and government that fish are food. Indeed, fish-as-food are even part of their identity, as evidenced by their praise of the quality of Alaskan fish. People have a tendency to take what's normal in their society as neutral and non-indoctrinated, leading to the idea that kids ought to be raised in a "normal" way (meat-eating, church-going, etc.) and then allowed to make their own choice as adults. You may think the substance of PeTA's message is incorrect, but there's nothing seedy, or different from their opponents, about the fact that they're aiming it at kids.

The issue of aiming a message at kids does, however, raise some issues for veganism. I understand the appeal of trying to reach the young, before their habits are too deeply engrained. But it's easy to get trapped into thinking of veganism as purely a matter of personal moral choice -- killing animals for food is wrong, so don't do it. But choice is only as good as the environment in which you're trying to make it. Kids in particular have limited ability to exercise choice, since their lives are run to a large degree by parents and other authority figures. And veganism is a tougher choice for kids to push than past successes like "buy me that toy!" and "put in CFL bulbs!" because food choices are more deeply structurally embedded (though there are success stories -- including the then-girlfriend who influenced me to stop eating meat -- of kids whose parents were receptive to them becoming plant-eaters). So instead of motivation-side efforts like "sea kittens" purports to be, I'm more intrigued by opportunity-side proposals like getting schools to offer vegan lunch options. This would be particularly effective if the vegan options are presented as just another food alongside the meat, available to anyone who thinks it looks tasty, rather than as special food for kids with special requirements. That would serve to normalize animal-free meals in kids' minds without putting them on a collision course with their parents.

Also in the NPR article, fisheries observer Mary Powers declares that opposition to fish-eating is "unpatriotic," which I guess is Alaska's version of "What's good for GM is good for America." Her claim is silly enough not to need detailed deconstruction, but it does remind me of a thought I had the other day about the limits to veganism's boycott effect in making major change in animal agriculture. For all the hyperventilating about the bank and automaker bailouts, the agricultural sector is already heavily reliant on Uncle Sam (and in fact the subsidies ). Were veganism ever to get popular enough to put a major dent in Big Ag's profits, it seems inevitable that the feds would step in to prop them up (further), so that we would continue to produce lots of meat even if fewer people are interested in eating it.

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