At least a few times every year, an animal welfare organization sponsors an undercover investigation and generates a “cruelty video” showing the torture that various innocent nonhumans endure in slaughterhouses, feeding operations, laboratories, rodeos, zoos, circuses, or various other locations of animal use. I covered a classic case of an undercover investigation and the resulting video in a blog post entitled, PETA’s Undercover Investigations: Another Example of the Welfarist Business Cycle
.As I noted in the blog post on PETA’s investigation, undercover investigations (and the related cruelty videos) don’t seem problematic from an animal rights point of view. After all, human rights organizations routinely investigate, report, and promote videos depicting severe human suffering to bring the public’s attention to a problem and garner political support to end such abuses. However, when human rights organizations depict cruelty toward humans, they are sending an unequivocal message that the rights violations – slavery, exploitation, and killing – are wrong and should end. In contrast, animal welfare organizations (PETA, HSUS, et al) object only to how the slavery, exploitation, and killing are carried out. They do not object to the unnecessary slavery, exploitation, and killing, per se
. The animal welfare organization’s call to action is for the viewer to send a donation to the organization and usually a letter to an industry executive or governmental official either to enforce existing regulations or to adopt new regulations or methods.
In contrast to an animal welfare organization (e.g. PETA, HSUS, Mercy for Animals, et al), an animal rights organization might show the video; but if it did, the message would be first, that all institutions of animal use are unnecessary and harmful, and therefore wrong and should end; second, that the viewer should therefore go vegan as a minimum standard of decency; third, how to go vegan by providing information on vegan recipes and nutrition (perhaps in the form of Internet links to various sources of information); and fourth, perhaps consider a donation to help our work in providing vegan education to the public.
Cruelty videos are considered essential for animal welfare advocacy because it is the treatment, not the unnecessary use, to which welfare organizations take exception. Cruelty videos are nonessential, and possibly even detrimental, for an animal rights organization because it is the unnecessary use alone to which the animal rights organization takes exception. The reason that cruelty videos can be detrimental to an animal rights organization’s mission is that such videos inherently focus on treatment, not use, even though the cruel treatment is an inevitable symptom of the disease of use. By focusing on treatment, such videos do not suggest that use ought to end, but that use ought to be regulated.
Given that cruelty videos focus on treatment instead of use, a question arises as to whether it is ever appropriate for an animal rights organization or advocate to use cruelty videos in vegan education. On one hand, Professor Gary Francione provides good reasons to consistently avoid cruelty videos in vegan education. On the other hand, there have been many people who have become vegans as a result of the emotional impact that such videos can deliver. Some of these vegans have later gone on to become abolitionist vegans after hearing or reading the overwhelmingly strong evidence and cogent arguments supporting the abolitionist approach.
Is the emotional impact of cruelty videos strong and effective enough to justify occasionally showing or linking to them, despite the confusion that may arise by the focus of such videos on treatment rather than use, and other good reasons to avoid them set forth by Professor Francione? The best answer appears to depend on the circumstances.
Since cruelty videos are essential to animal welfare organizations and provide big fundraising opportunities, animal welfare organizations will continue to generate these videos and the big news stories that usually accompany the initial publication of the videos. At times when these videos are in mainstream news, abolitionist vegan advocates should at least have a response to the videos that includes, but goes beyond, the legitimate complaint that they focus on treatment, not use. A more effective response would be that all commercial use is cruel, and that virtually all cruelty and use, illegal and legal, is unnecessary, and therefore gratuitous.
There is no meaningful difference between the legal use and cruelty that is required to process animal commodity units efficiently versus the illegal so-called “gratuitous cruelty” that is not required to process animal commodity units efficiently. As Professor Francione has correctly stated, 99.999% of our uses of nonhumans are for pleasure, amusement, or convenience. None of those uses are necessary in any coherent sense of that word. Therefore, whether the pleasure and/or amusement is that of the non-vegan’s preference for animal products or the slaughterhouse worker’s preference for a diversion from the boredom and frustration of processing sentient commodity units, it is all gratuitous, and the “legal cruelty” is often far more severe than the “illegal cruelty.” The difference between legal and illegal treatment is whether or not the cruelty results in efficient processing. The severity of the cruelty is irrelevant in the eyes of the law, and always will be irrelevant as long as nonhumans are legal property.  And as long as people are not vegan, nonhumans will always be legal property.
Aside from responding to such videos by explaining that all use and cruelty is unnecessary and should be abolished, not regulated, abolitionist vegan advocates should be careful about sharing or promoting such videos while they are headline news. If the videos are shown at all by abolitionists while the videos are headline news, the abolitionist message should be front and center: that use must be abolished, not regulated; that people must go vegan to end the torture and unjustified use, not choose animal products with a vacuous feel-good label. These videos are already getting plenty of viewing attention; the problem is that the associated message is predominately for enforcement, more regulation or more efficient methods, not a call for veganism and abolition.
During quieter times when such videos are not in the news, they might be effective for emotional impact. If the video has an explicit regulationist message, such a message may override any benefit derived from emotional impact, despite an advocate providing a contrary abolitionist message, and the video should therefore be avoided. If the video has no explicit welfarist message, and a strong abolitionist message is presented both before and after the video, the video’s treatment focus may be overcome sufficiently to justify the option of its presentation for the purpose of emotional impact.
Finally, cruelty videos are always, at best, optional tools for abolitionist vegan advocates to generate an emotional impact. The abolitionist message does not depend in any way on how animals are treated; only that they are used, and that all of our uses are for unnecessary pleasure, amusement, or entertainment. When in doubt, it is best to avoid such videos.
 Professor Gary Francione provides overwhelmingly strong evidence in case law and legal theory that anticruelty laws are based solely on maximizing the efficiency of animal exploitation and have nothing to do, in any practical sense whatsoever, with the type or severity of the cruelty or maltreatment. Moreover, since humans have respect-based legal property rights of which the object of that right protection is nonhuman animals (who have no rights), the most trivial of human interests will always trump the most crucial of nonhuman animals’ interests. Our legal system strongly resists punishing rightholders in the least for violating even the most crucial of interests of their property. Consider reading 1) Animals, Property, and the Law; 2) Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement; and 3) Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog, all by distinguished law professor and philosopher Gary L. Francione for detailed analyses and numerous case law studies supporting these claims. (Note: There are links in the side bar to Amazon.com for Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement and Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog.)