On Friday night as I was settling in for a Joss Whedon marathon (the obvious antidote to a super busy week), I happened to check my Facebook inbox and noticed a new private message. It was a photo of one of the most upsetting instances of animal cruelty I have ever seen. It had been pulled from a trapping website. That’s all I’m going to say about it.
It was a photo without any potential for recourse. This person was sending it to me because they were [legitimately] horror-struck, and maybe to ‘share’ the grief. This person was actively seeking out these photos, and since this person knows I organize against the fur trade, decided I needed to see it.
I’m going to be blunt.
The last couple of months, I’ve been getting increasingly upset by the amount of graphic imagery being circulated by animal activist folks on the internet. I’m all for pictures speaking a thousand words, but should there not be consideration for who those words are directed at? For example, if 95% of the people on your FB are already vegan, you ought to ask yourself if your audience will benefit from seeing those images again and again and again.
I know some activists “bear witness”, and I believe it’s an approach that can be effective as a means of mobilizing and inspiring individuals to change behaviour. I also know that it does not work for everyone. I know this because I’m one of the people it doesn’t work for. Continually exposing myself to the relentless suffering does NOT mobilize me. It cripples. It breaks. It pauses me with paralyzing anger and sadness. It makes me a less effective activist. For me, I have learned (the hard way) that I need a hefty amount of insulation from that kind of imagery if I am to be as effective as I want to be. And I’m no part-time activist. I work in animal protection professionally as well as being an activist personally.
And it’s not like I don’t go out of my way to ‘hide’ the folks on Facebook who insist on posting photos of animals being murdered as though it warrants no warning. When you consider human and non-human animals alike as individuals, then what these photos depict is, literally, murder. Would you share a photo willy-nilly of a human having their skull blown to pieces? Probably not. And yet, so many people have no such hesitation sharing these same photos of non-human animals.
And I get it. I’ll even add a confession here: I have a few photos on hand that I will very occasionally post to remind my non-vegan pals that there are reasons (billions upon billions of them actually) that I am vegan. I choose the images that tell the strongest story. And while you won’t see any blood in those photos, they are truly, undeniably heartbreaking. But I use them sparingly, and I do so when I have truly weighed the pros and cons of sharing the image, and decided it is worth it. And I even feel guilty every time because I recognize that I’ve risked triggering/traumatizing people. After all, these photos are likely wedged between a post about how shitty Pete from Mad Men is (so shitty, right?!), and about how so-and-so’s adorable daughter went for her first bike ride of the season.
What happened Friday was really triggering, but luckily I was able to talk with the person directly and explain that it was inappropriate to do that to someone with no warning. They wholeheartedly understood, and said “well you work on these issues all day, I thought you had seen it all”. And therein lies the problem: don’t assume for a second that because someone is an animal activist that they aren’t capable of being highly traumatized by violent imagery. Desensitization after continual exposure is not a inevitable. Some people never stop reacting to that imagery. I know because I’m one of them.
So here’s what I’m asking for, and it ain’t much. Can we, as kind, empathetic individuals tighten up our etiquette about sharing graphic, violent imagery on Facebook? Pretty please? Before you share a photo, whether on your newsfeed or directly with someone, ask yourself a question: Is this photo potentially triggering for activists (or non-activists, which I’ll get into in a second)? If so, either ask permission, don’t share it, or share it in a way that gives a person the option of not seeing it. Or, don’t think about it at all, but know that you may be hurting your comrades.
I know some of you will no doubt be shaking your heads, saying “Well, what about these images and all the non-vegans who see them?” You’re not going to like my answer. First, there’s a very, very good chance you’ve already been ‘hidden’ by your non-vegan pals if you post that sort of stuff regularly. Graphic images are very effective at jarring people, no doubt. And there is also no doubt that they can sometimes make people vegan. But any seasoned activist would be remiss not to consider the potential consequence of this approach: empathy avoidance. That’s a whole other post, but I’ll wrap up this up with a thought from Debra, an activist who runs These Glass Walls:
“…People really need to ask themselves what the purpose is before they click on “post” or “share.” If the only purpose is to share the horror, please don’t. Even if it’s sharing the horror of, say, factory farmed animals for the purpose of educating omnivores, STILL ask yourself if there might be a better way to get the info across. Sometimes there isn’t, but think about how you might be traumatizing others and whether that’s really effective or if it’s more likely to make them just not want to see your posts.”
Debra’s right. Sometimes there isn’t a better way. Sometimes you’ve got to share the image. But be sparing. Be precise. Choose carefully. Think of your audience.