Friday, 10 April, 2015
Kevin Watkinson blogs on the exploitative use of animals by politicians in the run-up to the UK General Election, and how these acts continue to render animals absent from discussions – even when they’re pictured directly within them.
With the UK General Election just around the corner, some of the main party leaders are grasping at a variety of opportunities to enhance their chances for becoming the next Prime Minister, including using non-human animals in an attempt to improve their political standing. Over the past week, Prime Minister David Cameron released pictures of himself at a farm with orphaned lambs, while deputy PM Nick Clegg took himself along to a hedgehog sanctuary.
Labour leader Ed Miliband hasn’t yet followed suit, which Patrick Barkham, writing in The Guardian, points to as a trend for the party. No doubt Miliband makes an extra effort to avoid dogs anyway, in case the media reiterates his likeness to loveable Aardman Animation character Wallace, posing with Gromit.
The Liberal Democrats do not appear to have similar issues when it comes to using live animals in photo opportunities, allowing Nick Clegg to drop into Warwickshire Wildlife Trust’s Parkridge centre on the 30th March to be pictured with a hedgehog. The sanctuary is no doubt an invaluable resource for hedgehog populations, but even with the potential for some ‘prickly’ puns, Clegg’s PR opportunity was thoroughly overshadowed by Cameron’s ‘cute’ visit to a country farm, where he fed – and nuzzled – a lamb.
It’s not difficult to see why. While Cameron had no problem embracing the ‘cute’ lamb, if Clegg had tried to nuzzle an unimpressed hedgehog, it may have been an embarrassing and unpleasant situation for all involved. Feeding a lamb works particularly well at this time of year too, as many families – Cameron’s key demographic – may have already visited their local petting farms. These ‘farms’ are tailor-made for children, often with a café, playground, and new-born animals to fawn over. What isn’t included is the distress young animals feel when they are harangued by young children, nor is there a chat regarding the grisly fate that awaits these new-borns when they’ve outgrown their cuddliness.
These visits may be about ‘going to see the lambs’, but they do not actually enable people to ‘see’ the lambs; such visitations do not teach children that a lamb has a right to life and freedom, or explain the oppressive structures that allow animal farms to exist. While a very small percentage of children that visit these animals may have a ‘Lisa Simpson’ epiphany, and decide to become a vegetarian, the majority will go home happy in the presumed knowledge that the lamb they eat and the lamb they pet are separate, disassociated beings. When they grow up, these trips to seemingly idyllic farms will help them remain secure in the knowledge that the lamb had a happy life before they – somehow – became dinner.
Cameron’s photos, released on his Twitter account, do not let us ‘see’ the lambs either, nor are the lambs the important issue. The crux of the photos is to transmit the notion to voters that Cameron is ‘caring and compassionate’ and allows viewers to coo over a sentient being while subsequently dismissing them from their minds. The corporate media replicates this use of the lamb; whether in support of Cameron or not, the lamb either symbolises Cameron’s good nature, or provides the means to point out Cameron’s hidden ruthlessness. In these situations, the lamb is always a prop, and only represents an opportunity to profit.
In our society, we’re used to connecting animals with symbols, rather than considering them as having intrinsic value; from Aesop’s fables to England’s emblematic three golden lions, to the animals used to represent the houses in Game Of Thrones, our cultural associations with non-human animals render their individuality absent. This issue is discussed in Carol Adam’s seminal text ‘The Sexual Politics of Meat’, where the term ‘absent referent’ is defined as something that: “permits us to forget about the animal as an independent entity; it also enables us to resist efforts to make animals present” (1). In Cameron’s photo opportunities with animals, we can see the absent referent clearly at work. And it clearly functions when politicians use animal products to score political points, such as when Nick Clegg showed Ed Miliband how to eat a bacon sandwich. The newspapers reported this effort as a clash between two politicians, yet the absent referent – the pig – was not made present in the debate. The absent referent disassociates ‘pig’ from ‘bacon’, just as the ‘cute’ lamb we see Cameron with isn’t the lamb we later see on our plates.
The treatment of animals as commodities is nothing new, nor is using animals for political gain as Cameron and Clegg have. And Miliband, who does not pose with living animals himself, proved he’s not above eating them when it came to showing up the Conservatives during the Pastygate scandal.
While most people seem to have forgotten the Conservatives’ particular blunder surrounding the tax on pasties, Cameron’s pictures, and the accompanying happy farm animal allegory, are out to win the election. Those who are concerned for animals can see Cameron’s political act for what it is: exploitation.
The normalisation of animal exploitation perpetrated by politicians and the media renders animals absent, while such structures also work to marginalise alternatives narratives surrounding animal liberation. Luckily, there is a steadily expanding body of influential work that explores the inter-related nature of these issues, which has been reflected in films such as Cowspiracy, Speciesism: The Movie and Forks Over Knives. These alternative narratives must be explored so the general public can understand why David Cameron’s exploitative photos present a very limited reality of farm animal life. One could argue that we would have found greater integrity in the slaughterhouse than on the farm, but what would the papers have made of that?
By Kevin Watkinson
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(1) Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat. New York: Continuum, 2000.