Earlier this month, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) caused a stir on Twitter when the organization suggested alternatives to common idioms to stop people from using allegedly “anti-animal language.” Taking a cue from the successful movements on college campuses to police speech under the guise of social justice, PETA encouraged people to “remove speciesism” from their vernacular to help promote social justice—towards animals.
In the post on Twitter, PETA wrote, “Words matter, and as our understanding of social justice evolves, our language evolves along with it. Here’s how to remove speciesism from your daily conversations.” In the accompanying infographic, PETA came up with a few suggestions: instead of using “kill two birds with one stone,” PETA suggested, “feed two birds with one scone”; instead of using “be the guinea pig,” PETA suggested people say “be the test tube”; most controversial, however, was PETA’s choice to encourage people to use “bring home the bagels” instead of the phrase “bring home the bacon.”
When PETA came under fire for its tweet, the group likened the use of “anti-animal language” to using racist or homophobic slurs. PETA wrote:
Just as it became unacceptable to use racist, homophobic, or ableist language, phrases that trivialize cruelty to animals will vanish as more people begin to appreciate animals for who they are and start ‘bringing home the bagels’ instead of the bacon.
Even liberal sources mocked PETA’s attempt to change everyday, normal phrases. Mashable’s Morgan Sung called the attempt “hilarious . . . as if people could say that with a straight face.” In its headline, R. Eric Thomas’ piece in women-oriented magazine Elle simply asked, “Why?”
Thomas succinctly summarized the backlash:
The list has caused quite a stir online because it seems to completely ignore how words work in favor of rhyming like a deleted chapter from Hop On Pop. On one hand, I’m very into this. This seems like total linguistic chaos and that’s truly the energy I’m trying to manifest in my everyday life. On the other hand, though, I just don’t see myself switching out these phrases un-ironically any time soon.
Thomas also took offense to the notion that using language that supposedly maligns animals is comparable to real issues that impact real humans, like racism and homophobia:
Ah, yes, every time a random stranger calls me a f****t for walking down the street and minding my own business, I immediately think, ‘This must be how a robin feels when it overhears me saying ‘kill two birds with one stone,’ something I would never do and have never done because where would I find a stone and what do I need with two birds?” Very normal and acceptable comparisons happening here. Very relatable content.
In addition to PETA’s viral tweet, the group also posted a guide for educators teaching literary devices. According to PETA, phrases such as “beat a dead horse” are too often taught in classrooms and can end up normalizing abuse, particularly towards animals. PETA did not cite any sources for the supposed correlation between using idioms and animal abuse.
In another post on its website, PETA defended its language guide, writing that people who criticized it “lost their damn minds.” Instead of apologizing for the uproar the guide caused—by, for instance, conflating sexism and racism to using phrases like having “no dog in this fight”—PETA said it is “selfish” to only focus on concerns impacting humans:
Our society has worked hard to eliminate racist, homophobic, and ableist language and the prejudices that usually accompany it, but we must also address the pervasive speciesism. Suggesting that there are more pressing social justice issues that require more immediate attention is selfish. We at PETA don’t subscribe to such speciesist thinking. Why would we postpone addressing any one of these issues? [emphasis original]
Still, PETA’s extreme, social justice-inspired rhetoric and tactics appear to be working—to a degree. At the end of 2008, PETA reported a total revenue of $33 million. At the end of 2015, PETA reported a total revenue of nearly $43 million. At the end of 2016, PETA’s total revenue grew to $62 million. While PETA reported a net income of only $87,000 in 2015, that grew to $16 million in 2016.
That run of good fortune may be coming to a close. At the end of 2017, however, PETA reported less than $45 million in total revenue, with a net income of negative $19.6 million.
According to the group’s Form 990 tax filing, PETA’s program expenses for 2017 totaled $55 million. The group claimed it conducted “more than 2,400 demonstrations and sent out millions of letters” to help persuade people on the organization’s view of animal rights. In the filing, PETA also reported that its “youth division,” peta2, met “more than 460,000 young people at colleges, music festivals, and other events.”
Currently, peta2 is running an array of campaigns against the sale of betta fish, a popular pet among college students. Similar to how PETA set up its opposition to certain idioms as a matter of social justice, the anti-betta fish campaign compares the struggle of fish to the struggle of humans and draws on the same social justice language, claiming that “everyone—regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, social class, or species—deserves a life free from harm” [emphasis original].
Peta2 attempts to cater its audience towards millennials with headlines such as “7 Brands to Buy Instead of UGGs,” “Order Vegan Starbucks Like a Pro,” and “5 Quotes from ‘Fantastic Beasts’ That’ll Make You Re-think Animal Rights.”
PETA’s 990 also mentions Teachkind, the group’s “humane education division,” tasked with creating resources for “elementary school educators.”
PETA’s 990 discusses its various successful campaigns to put pressure on corporations, such as persuading Brand 1 Hotels to switch to down-free bedding for all of its hotels, convincing Dunkin’ Donuts to provide almond milk “at all of its locations,” encouraging Lyft to get rid of its alleged leather seat requirement for “premier vehicle interiors,” making trendy all-electric automaker Tesla get rid of all of its leather seats, and encouraging TripAdvisor to ban the sale of tickets to excursions to swim with dolphins.
PETA’s 990 not only brags about its influence on companies, but also on local governments within the U.S.:
The New York City Council banned all traveling circuses with wild animals from entering the city, and California lawmakers banned the use of bullhooks . . . .
PETA was also instrumental in seeing that California became the first state to ban the breeding of captive orcas . . . .
After hearing from PETA . . . the Arcadia [California] city council canceled its plan to use cruel neck and leg snares to trap and kill coyotes. PETA also succeeded in persuading Madison, Wisconsin officials to stop trapped and killing beavers in a city park, Indianapolis officials to build ramps to prevent ducklings and goslings from drowning in the city’s downtown canal.
PETA even used its power to influence foreign governments. The group bragged in its most recent tax filing that its investigations were instrumental in Croatia’s ban on fur-farming and Israel’s decision to only import beef from facilities that used “rotating restraint pens.”
It seems that about the only thing PETA doesn’t claim it did in its tax filings is fund its substantial kill shelter program. The group is notorious for euthanizing dogs and cats, rather than giving them to families. As CRC’s Hayden Ludwig detailed in his profile on the organization, PETA claims that the animals it euthanizes are those that could not be adopted, but many families in the Norfolk area have accused the organization of abducting family pets and killing them.
It is clear that PETA has used hyperbole, publicity stunts, and other extreme activism to its advantage. The group’s ardent belief articulated using the language of social justice that the welfare of animals is as important as—if not more important than—the welfare of humans has led it to publish pieces such as, “Why Real Feminists Should Stop Eating Eggs” and run billboard campaigns claiming, “Face it-you can’t claim to be a feminist and still eat eggs.”
It seems that, for PETA, there’s no language that’s too extreme—as long as it’s said in the name of helping animals.