The "PETA Principle" (how activists undermine consensus)

In a marvelous essay about the animal rights organization PETA, Michele Catalano touched on two of my pet peeves -- animal rights and the tendency of shrill activists to drive ordinary people away by dominating issues they might support.

PETA's current attempt at activism only made me shake my head in dismay.

Who are they trying to reach with this? If PETA is attempting to convert people to veganism or, at the very least, get carnivores to think twice about eating meat, they are going about it the wrong way. The problem with such activism is it preaches only to the choir. No sane person is going to be moved by an ad equating the tragic beheading of a young man with eating breakfast sausage. Not even a person teetering on the border between chicken and tofu would look at something like this and say, "Well , my mind is made up. This upstanding, honest, respectable organization has convinced me with their well thought out Mommy Murders Animals comic book!"

Nothing new for an organization which has compared eating animals to the Holocaust (the "Holocaust on Your Plate" campaign), or the slaughter of animals to the torture and enslavement of black people.

It's standard activist fare. The irony is that most Americans abhor cruelty to animals, and they might be inclined to support organizations working to prevent it. But once they learn that the goal of many of these organizations is to outlaw meat-eating and virtually all ownership of animals including dogs and cats, they do the only sane thing, and run. Unfortunately, this lets the hardest hard-core activists have the playing field all to themselves, which is great if you're a hard core activist, but not the best way to get results on consensus issues.

Just as most Americans oppose animal cruelty, most oppose late-term abortions, as well as uncontrolled immigration. But what happens if they try to get involved?

Once again, they are driven away by what I might as well call the "PETA Principle." You want to oppose late-term abortion, you'll soon find that the people and organizations who dominate the playing field see their issues the way PETA sees theirs. Just as PETA thinks "a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy," those who dominate the anti-abortion debate think a morula is a blastocyst is a baby is a Supreme Court justice. And they also believe that RU-486 is just like Zyklon-B, and pharmacists who dispense it are little Himmlers. Ditto border control. The people who want draconian measures (or who believe in a vast North American Union conspiracy) will alienate ordinary people, and thus prevent the majority consensus goal of basic border control from ever being achieved.

In a way, I can't blame the activists. If they were careful not to drive ordinary people away, majority consensus on these issues might be obtained.

And who would pay attention to the activists?

posted by Eric on 08.22.08 at 12:21 PM


"...the tendency of shrill activists to drive ordinary people away by dominating issues they might support."

Spot on.

As you correctly demonstrated, this is not an exclusively leftwing fallacy. The 'PETA Principle' applies to abortion and border control as well.

(By analogy to Gresham's Law, could one say that 'bad activists drive out good activists' or 'extremists drive out moderates'?)

A similar principle applies to driving people out of political parties as well. Republicans let possible supporters be driven into the Democrat's camp, because they allow the Religious Right to drive them away. For example, there is no reason that gays and secularists cannot support basic Republican principles. Unfortunately, the Religious Right doesn't like them, so they vote for the Democrats.

Second Opinion   ·  August 22, 2008 12:47 PM


dr kill   ·  August 22, 2008 1:30 PM

Hey, delighted you liked it!

Eric Scheie   ·  August 22, 2008 7:22 PM

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