PETA, naked women, and strange loops

(Possibly) unsafe for work

Not since posting the photo of my gigantic blister have I felt compelled to warn you about an image on family-friendly No Meat Athlete being unsafe for work.  And really, if something as tame as this PETA ad were unsafe for my work, I wouldn’t be working there for very long.  You have been warned.

Disney Channel stuff, right?  The woman is Traci Bingham, and I can happily say I’m out-of-touch enough with Hollywood and television to have no idea who that is.

Now, before you go all anti-PETA on me (I have no doubt some of you still will), understand that I don’t give a Traci Bingham’s ass about PETA.  I know a lot of people, vegans even, hate them for a lot of reasons.  I don’t know much about the issues, but I perceive PETA as extreme enough that I didn’t even consider them when deciding on which animal charity to donate my 2010 advertising revenue to.

I know some of PETA’s opponents dislike their use of sexuality in advertisements, and I get this.  The point of the ads is lost on many, and some consider them offensive.  But by affixing a message about vegetarianism to a photo of a naked woman (or man), PETA empowers its memes to spread like fungal spores to the far reaches of the internet.  Indeed, that is how one ended up on this very blog.  (Any how many people might you forward it to?)

But having devoted two paragraphs to PETA, I now assert that this post isn’t about PETA.  The ad caught my attention because (besides the obvious) it illustrates the belief that I hold as my primary ethical reason for being vegetarian: that there isn’t a fundamental difference between humans and animals; that what differences exist are merely differences of degree.  Sure, our brains are more evolved, but I don’t believe we’re endowed with some special human quality that makes us “better” than them.

The book that first convinced me of this, prompting my initial (failed) attempt at becoming vegetarian, was Douglas Hofstadter’s I am a Strange Loop. In it, Hofstadter (an artificial intelligence researcher) puts forth his hypothesis that consciousness is nothing more than a feedback loop: As beings interact with their environment, they receive feedback from the environment, which affects their interpretation of and interaction with the environment, which sends more feedback, and so on.  Hofstadter uses the image of a video camera pointed at a television screen which itself is displaying what the camera sees.

In thinking beings, such a “strange loop” gives rise to a notion of “I” at the center, and “I” varies in complexity, depending on the sophistication of the being. While dogs, for example, undoubtedly have a notion of their own existence (“I want the biscuit!”), such a notion isn’t nearly as complex as our highly-evolved human “I” symbol (“I am really enjoying this biscuit today!”).  But that doesn’t mean we should eat dogs, and most of us don’t.  Yet we eat pigs, animals on par with dogs when it comes to intelligence, with hardly a second thought.

I am doing little justice to the book, and I encourage you to check it out (my library has it) on your own.  Hofstadter, a vegetarian himself, presents these complex ideas in a straightforward but thought-provoking manner.  It’s an easy read, even for the non-mathematically-inclined, unlike Hofstadter’s far more artful, more subtle tome, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which incidentally is my favorite book in the whole wide world.

The point is that the PETA ad presents a human in a way we normally reserve only for the animals we’re going to eat.  And I like it, because I don’t believe that humans are all that different from animals.  Our “I” symbols just happen to be a little more complex.



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  1. I don’t normally get into PETA ads, but I’m glad you posted this because it definitely made an impression on me. I would consider myself about 80-90% vegetarian, but this struck a nerve with me and made me think twice about meat. Great article and the photo is eye catching. And I’m pretty in tune with Hollywood, but I still don’t know who Tracy Bingham is. Oh well.
    .-= Lauren @ Eat, Drink, and Be Hopeful´s last blog ..Souper Dinner and Ever Soupier Giveaway! =-.

  2. While I don’t subscribe to any particular *ism* – I have spent much of my life being a non-flesh consumer. While donning my work persona I am a wound nurse and I often use the smell of ground beef to describe the *health* of a wound and will also use chicken fascia (the translucent film covering the muscle) to visually demonstrate what one would look for on our own muscles. Those two things often make a non-flesh consumer out of most of my students (even if only temporarily, it’s a start)

  3. This made me think of a very similar image I’ve seen many years ago. It was a drawing of pretty much the same concept, with the opposite, or perhaps parallel message. The idea there was to protest against people referring to women as “meat”.

    So now, once treating women has been “fixed”, the same metaphor is applied in the other direction. Interesting.
    .-= Anne Moss´s last blog ..Weight Loss Motivation =-.

    • Anne, that’s interesting that you bring that up; right after I posted this I realized that it could easily be interpreted that way (if not for the vegetarian message written in the ad). And if it were about viewing women as meat, there might still be some confusion over it was meant as a protest or as an endorsement! So I’m glad you brought it up. 🙂

  4. Although I’ m a vegetarian for similar ethical reasons, I want to play the devil’s advocate here. Because I do think there’s a fundamental difference between humans and animals: humans use reason. This may fit under having more highly evolved brains, but I think it’s pretty significant. However, I definitely don’t think this make us “better”, only different. Honestly a big part of why I’m vegetarian is because I feel we are so alike with animals.

    That book looks interesting, I’ll have to check it out!

    • Hey Chrissy, the issue with using reason as an identifier of difference between human and non-human animals is that not all humans — young children, those suffering from mental illness, etc. — possess or use reason. And yet, we don’t eat them (I’m being facetious). In fact, as a society, we’ve decided that they require additional protections to ensure their safety and integrity in the absence of reason. It’s for reasons like this that many (myself included) believe that sentience is the only requirement for ethical and legal consideration.
      .-= Matt´s last blog ..Toronto Runner: Beth Douglas =-.

      • I hope you aren’t assuming that all humans with mental illnesses are incapable of reasoning. 😐 Or perhaps you’re confusing mental illness and intellectual disability?

  5. I think PETA as well as anybody is very hit or miss on their ads in both their effectiveness and their taste. This seems like a hit in both of them, at least to me as well. I like it because it’s not putting anyone down; it’s really just saying are humans all that different from animals that we would look at one in this light and not ourselves?

    I’ve never heard of that book before now. I’ll definitely want to give it a look on Amazon
    .-= Evan Thomas´s last blog ..My Big Fat Contest =-.

  6. I just saw Melanie Joy speak about her book “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism.” It was a very interesting discussion. I first became a vegetarian and vegan for health reasons, but the more I find out about the monstrosities of the current food system, the more happy i am with my decision. 10 BILLION animals are killed every year in america, and sadly most of it is not painless, and is harmful for the workers, our environment, and ultimately the consumer.
    she called her theory about meat consumption “carnism” because while the words “omnivore” and “carnivore” have to do with a biological need for food/meat, the word “vegetarian” describes an entire belief system.
    she was a good speaker and i would like to read the entire book-just thought i’d pass it on!

  7. She was on Baywatch (I just googled it) — and The Surreal Life, which I hate to say I watched.

    I’m more of a “health vegan,” but I enjoyed this post.
    .-= EE´s last blog ..I Shall Not Be Moved =-.

  8. Well-said, Matt. Being a rhetoric student, I find the PETA ads FASCINATING to analyze. They ARE very extreme in terms of advertisements, but I think that they are also effective (without getting into a debate over whether PETA is good/evil- why is it that we are so determined to see in black and white, anyways?).

    But you’re right, animals are no different. Thanks for letting us know about the book, it sounds really intriguing!
    .-= Sagan´s last blog ..Re-Cap of the Raw Food Challenge: Part One =-.

  9. 3 years into a philosophy major, I absoluely cannot agree with you here. Humans have a soul, a spiritual nature, and an imbedded morality which (regardless of how you explain these phenomena) are not shared by animals. Does that mean we should brutalize animals? no. Does that mean human life is more important than animal life? yes.

    • J, thanks for your comment. Philosophy is interesting to me, but the Hofstadter books are the most philosophical I’ve read (and they aren’t all that philosophical). I agree that animals probably do not have spiritual natures or morality, but I would argue with you on the “soul” part. By my definition, the soul is the “I” at the center of consciousness, the being that is gone when something dies and only the body is left behind. Human souls are obviously more complex, but I think animals have them.

      As for human life being more important than animal life, I agree with you there too. As I said, humans are far more complex than animals. But I think it’s a difference of degree, so any line drawn to mark which animals are okay to eat is arbitrary.

  10. Being a vegetarian and a business woman I find that ad compelling and well thought out. I do however oppose most of what PETA does. PETA gives vegetarians and vegans a bad name!

  11. Ads like this don’t bother me, I too think PETA is too extreme and not worth anyone’s time. I respect vegetarians’ choice, but I like my meat also.
    Honestly, all I think about looking at this ad is no one’s “rump” and “round” should ever be more tan than their face. 🙂
    .-= LindsayRuns´s last blog ..1/2 Marathon Training =-.

  12. I’ve added that book to my reading list. Thanks for suggesting and for voicing your opinion.
    PS. I am a PETA supporter. Anything that brings attention to the cruelty done to animals gets an A+ in my books.
    .-= kara´s last blog ..4 Week Training Recap =-.

  13. While I became vegetarian for health reasons, I have no problem with PETA; they do what it takes to bring attention to animal issues. Most people would rather bury their head in the sand and avoid knowing about the cruelty because then they don’t have to change. This is why they like to rationalize and make excuses- “we are more important than animals so it’s o.k. to eat them” and “I won’t eat my dog/cat, but it’s o.k. to eat that cow/pig/chicken”.
    .-= meatlessmama´s last blog ..Natural Winter Hand Care for Cracked Fingertips =-.

  14. Amen!

  15. I have often reeled from PETA’s ad campaigns, but I have to admit, I LOVE this one! I think it’s spot-on!
    .-= Hanlie´s last blog ..Taking risks =-.

  16. While I agree with you about what we “should” be eating, I don’t agree with you regarding humans and animals and here is why…

    Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

    27 So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.
    28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

    However, how we interact and treat animals is important! Our intent and heart towards them and what we do with them are important! I believe there is more of a difference then just what seems to be presented in his book.

    Anyway, I do appreciate thought provoking books and I certainly appreciate everything you’ve written on your website/blog! I only found it a few weeks ago and it’s been most helpful and insightful! Thanks


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