A recent article in The Guardian approached this issue with a story on former Australian cricketer Glenn McGrath. The feature had McGrath apologising for photos taken in 2008 at a shooting safari in South Africa. In the end, it wasn’t quite clear whether he was apologising for his actions, or whether he was apologising for the wide circulation of the photos. Nevertheless, the negative reaction to this incident led to a narrative that rejected unnecessary suffering toward animals.
In the published story McGrath mentioned the legality of the hunt, inferring a comparison to other forms of animal exploitation that exist within a legal framework. However, this only stands to emphasise that morality and the law are not necessarily the same thing. Though the legality of this incident was not in question, the media interest remained, partly because of the spectacle of ‘outrage’ around animal treatment, and the presence of a celebrity to carry the story.
As vegans we would naturally argue against unnecessary suffering, but would not consider shooting animals on a safari any more necessary than chasing down a fox with a pack of hounds, visiting incarcerated animals in a zoo, or consuming various parts of an animal exploited for food. From a vegan perspective animal exploitation is something which is morally unjustifiable; to be avoided as far as is possible and practicable. Therefore we don’t see a need to separate one form of use from another.
So why does the mainstream press compartmentalise certain forms of suffering as unnecessary? The straight forward answer is that news media reflects society, and vice versa. Across the spectrum of news media animal stories are covered, including those stories that involve exceptional suffering to animals in slaughterhouses, such as those recently revealed by the undercover footage of Animal Aid and Hillside Animal Sanctuary. However, the story itself did not examine the inherent suffering that takes place every day in the same establishments. Arguably another part of the reason is that newspapers sell advertising to companies that exploit animals, and it is reasonable to consider they would not appreciate their core business model being undermined by critical perspectives appearing in the press.
This approach can also be supported by a misrepresentation of veganism in the media. A quick google search online for the term ‘vegan’ reveals an overwhelming link to diet. This places veganism into a category where people miss an opportunity to be challenged by the broader vegan philosophy. Instead, veganism tends to be regarded as a diet or fad that other people participate in, which avoids the inherent challenge to our fundamental beliefs and subsequent behaviour toward animals.
The mainstream narrative in the McGrath story suggests it is natural to feel upset by instances of ‘unnecessary’ suffering. This would reflect an overwhelming abhorrence toward dog fighting or badger baiting, whilst there is also great disdain shown toward the practice of eating cats and dogs (considered carnism by Melanie Joy). But by pointing the finger at other nations and practices, we deliberately overlook the inconvenient truth of our own complicity in the system of unnecessary suffering. So it rests on vegans and those representing a broader social justice movement to point out this inconsistency; bridging the gap between the outrage that people feel when viewing unnecessary suffering toward animals, and the traditions perpetuating a system that falsely compartmentalise forms of suffering under the guise of legitimacy or necessity.