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Where Does Entertainment Begin and End?

Vamsee Juluri, Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco, takes me back to graduate school when he writes of the importance of the stories we tell ourselves in "Use Free Speech to Celebrate Animal Life, Not to Enjoy Their Suffering." Juluri is referring to something specific: the Supreme Court's examination of First Amendment protection of acts of cruelty to animals. And the article is worth reading just for that.

But he also addresses something larger:

It is important that we pay attention to what kinds of stories our media tell us about animals, our relationship to them, and indeed of our own place in nature. For generations in the past, the story of animals came from their collective wisdom and heritage, from what we might call their myths and legends. With the rise of modernity and the media, we have forgotten much of what animals mean to us and the world. Under the dizzying spell of modernity's promises and consumerism's illusions, we see animals as mere objects, either as commodities for our consumption or as blank slates for us to write our fantasies and fears upon. None of this does justice to the earth, and our unique place in it as a species which has great privileges and also appropriate responsibilities.

Juluri's focus on animals used to entertain humans is intentional and speaks to the legal battle he refers to. However, it's tough not to cock your head when you read:

The internet has given free speech a whole new impetus. But the ease with which we can tell our stories and post our videos must not render us incapable of moral judgment and decency. It may be for the courts to decide whether cruelty to animals can pass off as free speech, but we must also rethink these important ideas as a culture. Free Speech may be a noble ideal, but perhaps we are better served by thinking of it not only as a right but also as a privilege.

Here's my question: What about, say, videos taken inside slaughterhouses? They certainly depict cruelty to animals, right? Or don't they because animals we use for food are not thought by the masses as victims of cruelty? When is cruelty to an animal supposed to be entertainment? When is violence toward an animal in a video gratuitous? Need it be gratuitous to be offensive? Isn't the mere existence of violence and suffering sufficient? And is video of a cow being pummeled to death with a bat worse than a cow being "processed" in a slaughterhouse? And is our Supreme Court, which as far as I know has shown no particular compassion for sentient nonhumans, equipped to decide what Free Speech is when they've been telling themselves the same stories our culture has been telling for hundreds of years regarding our relationship to sentient nonhumans?

And finally, who is to decide when a video is entertaining versus informative? Is it possible that videos of open rescue or undercover videos taken of vivisection could be somehow lumped in with snuff and other vile videos and considered unacceptable (and don't think that wouldn't be intentional), therefore taking an important tool away from activists?

What do you think?

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. In 2004, the City of Windsor Ontario (Canada) attempted to ban circuses that use animals. The decision was challenged in court (Xentel DM Inc. v. Windsor). The challenge succeeded on a number of grounds, mainly complicated Canadian jurisdictional issues. But one of the court's holdings was that circus performers represent a unique class of citizen, and their performances using animals are thus deserving of the protection of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

    April 26, 2009
  2. Mary… I don't know of any open rescue videos, or animal abuse investigation videos that are being sold just as such… Maybe clips might be inserted as in Earthlings or Peaceable Kingdom… but the cruelty isn't the total focus of them at all. I think straight off that intent makes a big difference to be considered… more than just content.

    And I think videos inside slaughterhouses can't be, won't ever be, considered cruel because we use these animals for food. It's as though the "humane slaughter act" has enabled butcher-for-food footage and automatic rating of PG-13. Ah… the bliss!

    I certainly don't think the Supreme Court is capable of determining what is or isn't gratituous violence against animals… The whole system of justice for animals is so extrememly flawed, with their only "representation" being from their captors.

    April 27, 2009

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