Australian shoppers have been left reeling after an encounter with one of the most extreme local protests in recent memory. In an attempt to hammer home the horror of the meat industry, Sydney vegans took to the streets, accompanied by what looked like a dead dog, a barbecue kit, and a banner reading “If you wouldn't eat a dog, why eat a lamb?" They then proceeded to cook the animal in front of a traumatised crowd of onlookers.
PETA, who organised the protest, stressed that their intention wasn’t to offend or disturb, but to get people to really think about why we differentiate between domestic animals and those that we eat. However, the reaction was predictably hostile.
Children were reported to have left the scene in tears. Commentators from both sides of the debate were quick to call into shows as far away as England and America to add their two cents and, before long, everyone was angry with everyone else. Two weeks have passed and the dust is still settling on this bizarre situation.
To anyone familiar with PETA’s methods, the gruesome barbecue dog stunt won’t have come as a shock. Since their inception, the organisation has favoured bold gestures and extreme visual demonstrations, often emphasising the blood and guts at the heart of modern food. These protests have been met with a mixture of mockery and acrimony. However, as the tried and tested shock-and-awe tactics have begun to lose their impact, some activists have decided that their strategy needs to become even more unconventional.
Last year, stories from around the world began to identify a new wave of protests, focused not on public displays, but targeted assaults on the businesses that rely on meat. In the summer, for instance, French butchers begged their government to step in and offer companies more protection following incidents of vandalism and physical violence at some of their stores. The Guardian reports that “Seven butcher shops were vandalised and sprayed with fake blood in the Hauts-de-France region,” while, “A butcher and a fishmonger in the north had seen windows broken, with the slogan ‘Stop speciesism’ left behind in spray-paint by the vandals.” Incidents such as these are not unique to France.
In many ways, the vegan debate is more polarised than ever. While it’s true that people are converting to the lifestyle in record numbers, extreme actions and responses on both sides are also helping to deepen the divide. In Canada, when a chef taunted vegan protestors outside his restaurant by butchering a deer leg in the window, the abuse the restaurant received was dwarfed by praise for the chef taking a stand against those who were trying to ruin his business. You could easily argue that such aggression only helps create sympathy for those on the receiving end and is actually more likely to put people off joining the movement in the first place.
Certainly, recent events have helped give rise to a narrative of “extreme veganism” in the media. Provocateurs like the objectionable Piers Morgan relish the chance to sink their teeth into an act of illegal protest from a campaigner - whatever the issue. Their influence should not be underestimated.
When action deteriorates to the point where business owners feel genuinely threatened, as they seem to have done over the last year, it becomes that much easier to demonise the cause that’s being advocated rather than discuss the efficacy of any points being raised.
The questions posed by the Sydney protesters may well have some legitimacy. However, there remain serious concerns over whether or not this method is the most effective way of converting people to the cause. An example of a motivator that may prove even more powerful than animal welfare are the revelations over just how significant the impact of a vegan lifestyle can be for the environment.
Dozens of recent reports have highlighted how reducing or eliminating industrialised meat from our diet could be the most significant step we could take to reduce the effects of climate change. One study from the University of Oxford found that cutting out meat and dairy could help shrink your carbon footprint by 73 per cent, while others have highlighted how many natural resources the farming industry uses every single day. While many vegans' primary concern remains animal welfare, increasing environmental awareness seems to be playing a part in the lifestyle’s growing popularity.
Fairly or unfairly, vegans have a hard-to-shake reputation for forcing their opinions on others. Ignoring whether or not you agree with the principle, barbecuing a dog in a Sydney street doesn’t do an awful lot to get rid of the tag. If the objective is to get the whole world to listen to what you have to say, divisive stunts such as this may not be the best way forward. As we’ve seen, the reaction usually falls somewhere between an eye-roll and anger. The truth is that are loads of good reasons to move to a non-animal diet. If we talked more about them, rather than unwarranted attacks on butchers, maybe more of us would get on board.