Saturday, May 23, 2009
The Confusing Case of Michael Vick
With his release earlier this week from federal prison, the animal abuse case involving former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick has returned to the news. Vick was convicted in 2007 of running an interstate dog fighting operation.
From the beginning, this case and its media coverage has been steeped in hypocrisy.
Vick grew up in a subculture where dog fighting was accepted. While this is by no means justification for his actions, it’s an explanation. In the larger culture it’s considered acceptable to eat animals—to the tune of 53 billion land animals (plus an unknown number of marine animals) killed each year worldwide for their flesh and secretions. What Vick did was clearly wrong, but morally no different from what most people do every day. Like the dogs that Vick trained to fight, animals raised for food suffer terribly so that people may be entertained. There is no more need for humans to eat animals than there is for humans to watch dogfights. Either way animals are needlessly exploited and harmed. What really matters is not how they are harmed, but that they are harmed. The National Football League (NFL) quickly suspended Vick without pay following his conviction on the federal charges. His various corporate endorsement deals were either not renewed or were suspended, as additional ugly details about the situation surfaced throughout 2007. Clearly these corporations were trying to appear conscientious to their consumer bases. But the NFL accepts advertising from firms whose operations revolve around the exploitation of animals. Hot dogs, ice cream, and other animal products are sold in the stadiums during the football games. One of Vick’s sponsors was Kraft Foods, a huge marketer of animal-based foods. He also had a deal with Nike, until it was suspended amidst all the bad publicity. Nike sells shoes made with leather, and is on record for egregious worker exploitation. In an earlier blog post I wrote about how our culture’s deeply entrenched speciesism has most of us valuing the lives of dogs far more than the lives of chickens, cows, or pigs. That’s why so many people who think nothing about routinely carving up “food animals,” are outraged with what Vick did. We’re brainwashed into valuing dolphins over tuna, primates over rodents. To some extent this is understandable. Whether we’re selecting among different animal species or different subgroups within the human population, we tend to have an affinity bias in favor of particular categories of beings who we have personal relationships with (dogs, cats, and human family members), or who we perceive to be more similar to us (other primates verses rodents, people of the same ethnicity verses those of a different ethnicity). But the ability to suffer (sentience) transcends all these categories. That’s why discrimination is wrong. It may not be possible, or even necessary to eliminate all of our biases. But we need to recognize and understand them, then direct our actions accordingly to eliminate avoidable harm. If Vick wishes to redeem himself, he ought to start by going vegan and educating others why being a vegan is the best way each of us can help animals. Simply denouncing dog fighting and becoming a spokesperson for yet another single-issue animal welfare campaign that fails to shine light on the connection with the far more widespread problem of animals tortured and killed for food, will inevitably result in the fortification of existing speciesist thinking.