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Cheap Shots and Chicken Pots

July 23rd, 2003 · No Comments

There are any number of legitimate reasons to take issue with a group like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. That’s why it’s sad to see Wesley J. Smith launch into a factually-challenged, misleading screed targeting PETA’s campaign against KFC. The general tenor of the piece is so thoroughly histrionic that I can only assume Smith is trying out his Coulter chops in an attempt to jettison the think-tank life for the cable bobbleheads circuit. How else to explain the characterization of KFC’s attempt to address the complaints of PETA activists as “appeasement against totalitarians”?

On Smith’s account, KFC executives apparently make multi-million dollar corporate policy decisions on the basis of their aesthetic horror of picket signs. This is, of course, preposterous. If KFC execs “caved in” on a few points, it doubtless had more to do with a sense that treating their animals humanely would be less expensive than losing business to bad press. But what, exactly, is objectionable about that kind of “caving”? If consumers would, in fact, be repulsed to learn about the conditions in which KFC chickens are raised, then isn’t it legitimate of PETA to do what they can to draw attention to those conditions?

Smith suggests that KFC should simply treat its animals “humanely”—a standard he leaves undefined, though presumably he means it in some less stringent sense than PETA—and then “stand firmly against activists’ intimidation.” His concern, I suppose, is that absent his solicitous advice, KFC execs would just throw up their hands and close up shop, setting the chickens free to roam the plains or something. Again, preposterous. The power PETA has is the power to throw a spotlight on corporate practices. If that brings about a change in consumer demand, then that’s a force that neither KFC nor any other company ought to attempt to “stand firmly” against. To the extent that it doesn’t, I rather doubt we’re in danger of the KFC board committing corporate seppuku at the prompting of some slogan-chanting hippies.

The ludicrous premise and overheated language of the piece provide a bit of harmless fun, but it’s the shameless mendacity of it that’s really a bit galling. I expect hacks like Smith to lie a bit now and again, but it’s insulting when they don’t put in a certain degree of minimal effort, you know, at least avoid prevaricating about things that can be checked with a ten-second Google search. By that standard, the piece was more offensive than an encyclopedia’s worth of “yo’ momma” jokes.

First, there’s the intimation that nothing would be good enough—that whatever KFC does, PETA will keep on coming like the Energizer bunny. Now, in some abstract sense, I guess I’d like to see the end of meat eating… I’d like a day to come when chomping on a burger isn’t a whole lot more socially acceptable than frying up a mess of toddler, though I wouldn’t actually ban the former meal. I’m don’t doubt PETA members entertain similar daydreams. But to pretend that they don’t react favorably when companies make reasonable concessions is dishonest. Their campaign against McDonald’s has been halted since 2001. Around the same time, their campaign against Wendy’s was ended altogether. And PETA has not only stopped attacking Burger King, but staged demonstrations in support of the company when it added a veggie burger to the menu.

Then there’s the irrelevant but inevitable reference to PETA’s Holocaust on Your Plate, a campaign admittedly in such grotesque poor taste that even persons generally sympathetic to animal rights or welfare arguments could be forgiven for wanting to keep the group at arm’s length. Still, PETA’s poor taste on this point isn’t really at issue, and the excuse given for referencing it is poor. Smith connects the campaign to PETA’s demand that KFC substitute the gas killing of chickens for electrical stunning and throat-slitting. “One can only imagine the future potential for demagogic advertisements should KFC’s suppliers begin the gas slaughter of birds,” he writes.

This, too is very silly. PETA is on the record in support of gas killing, and cites papers on the method going back years. It would be both hypocritical and, more importantly from their perspective, counterproductive to attack the most humane available method of killing chickens. Why would they use rhetoric likely to prompt regression to less humane methods?

Finally, Smith mentions the PETA lawsuit against KFC for making “false” claims (scare quotes his) about the treatment of animals, and suggests that their true motive is to gain the power, via subpoena, to sift through KFC’s records. Now, some of the allegations in PETA’s complaint refer to claims by KFC that are at least arguably subject to interpretation and subjective judgment. But some—such as the claim that KFC prevents suppliers from giving chickens growth-promoting drugs—are quite clean cut matters of fact. A PETA official to whom I recently spoke seemed convinced that this claim, at least, could be easily corroborated. Is it possible PETA is mistaken about this? Well, certainly, but Smith doesn’t adduce any reason to think so. He just deploys the scare quotes.

In sum: a thoroughly cheap shot at an organization that could’ve been crticized well enough without stooping to these vulgar and misleading insinuations. A shame to see a putatively conservative website leaping to the reflexive defense of a corporation against what is, ultimately, little more than transparency and the punishment of market forces.

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