05/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Use Free Speech to Celebrate Animal Life, Not to Enjoy Their Suffering

Two days before Earth Day, I took my Global Media class out on a limb by relocating us to the shade of a giant tree to begin a discussion of the history of human culture through the seemingly odd reference point of our relationship to the cow. Before we started, I had my students use the time spent in search of shade to observe things around them, to note "non-human life" in all its forms. They came up with some good points, and of course, the inevitable question of what trees and birds and butterflies on Lone Mountain had to do with media studies.

I do not have a definitive answer yet, but I am convinced that we cannot hope to either understand or improve our present media-dominated culture without turning to a much bigger and older picture: that of our relationship to nature in general, and to animals in particular. Perhaps for the first time in human history, we live in a world in which our understanding of animals is shaped more by the stories our media and consumer culture tell about them, than by direct experience.

It is important that we pay attention to what kinds of stories our media tell us about animals, our relationship to them, and indeed of our own place in nature. For generations in the past, the story of animals came from their collective wisdom and heritage, from what we might call their myths and legends. With the rise of modernity and the media, we have forgotten much of what animals mean to us and the world. Under the dizzying spell of modernity's promises and consumerism's illusions, we see animals as mere objects, either as commodities for our consumption or as blank slates for us to write our fantasies and fears upon. None of this does justice to the earth, and our unique place in it as a species which has great privileges and also appropriate responsibilities.

How we view animals is a part of how we view nature, and indeed life itself. When we trivialize the lives of animals, and worse, the suffering of animals, it speaks very poorly about our state of ethical evolvement and civilization. It is difficult enough that many parts of the world have gone from an occasionally meat based diet to an overwhelmingly and eco-expensively produced meat based one in the matter of a few centuries. But it is even more difficult to imagine how one could justify the abuse of animals for the sheer cruel pleasure of watching their abuse.

Yet, it is exactly such a form of egregious abuse that is now at the center of a legal debate. The Supreme Court announced on Monday that it would be looking into the decision of an appeals court to allow a "Free Speech" defense against charges of animal abuse. There are concerns that allowing First Amendment protection to acts of cruelty to animals would once again open the gates to the creation and circulation of the despicable "crush videos" that seemed to have declined thanks to the law. It seems frightening to even think of what the implications of declaring videos of rabbits being crushed underfoot as "free speech" would be.

The courts may decide on the legality of this situation, but the very fact that this has been brought up should make us think about the rather unchecked manner in which violence and cruelty towards living beings has run wild under the guise of entertainment and distraction for bored audiences in recent years. Most of us may recognize and abhor the depravity that underlies fetishes based on violence towards helpless animals. But we would do well also to ask the question of whether any form of entertainment that involves harm to a living creature is really necessary; even the senseless devouring of insects on certain reality shows like Fear Factor. I remember the outspoken campaign that some viewers in India started against this practice when Fear Factor began to appear on Indian television. Unfortunately, some Indian reality show producers ended up introducing the same senseless act in their programs as well.

A pioneering study on "Animal Issues in the Media" done over a decade ago by George Gerbner, one of the most revered figures in the field of media studies, found that television tends to present a skewed picture of animals (and their supporters) in the following manner:

Animal roles overplay villainy. While humans have many times more heroes than villains, animals have almost as many villains as heroes (and) are more likely to be seen as a threat.

Animals suffer violence/victim overkill.... In prime time more than one-third and in Saturday morning children's programs more than one half of the animal cast suffers overt physical violence.

Animal rights activists are depicted as violent most of the time they are shown. ... In general, the disapproval of animal rights activism is at least twice as frequent as its approval.

(From Against the Mainstream: The Selected Works of George Gerbner edited by Michael Morgan)

It may be time to look closely again at what sort of a story we are telling ourselves about animals and our relation to them. Since Gerbner's study, the media culture has grown exponentially. The internet has given free speech a whole new impetus. But the ease with which we can tell our stories and post our videos must not render us incapable of moral judgment and decency. It may be for the courts to decide whether cruelty to animals can pass off as free speech, but we must also rethink these important ideas as a culture. Free Speech may be a noble ideal, but perhaps we are better served by thinking of it not only as a right but also as a privilege.

There is an expression that is used in parts of India to describe animals in a compassionate manner: "noru leni jeevulu." Living beings that have no capacity to speak. Human beings, on the other hand, not only have the gift of speech but also the benefit of law to protect it. The privilege that allows us to communicate, to tell stories about ourselves and the earth, to create works of art that move us, to dream up and build a better life on this planet, is too precious to be thrown away to the impulses of cruelty and boredom. Let us resolve, on Earth Day, to place our gift of speech at the service of our non-human neighbors as well, and not denigrate it by turning it into an instrument of their suffering. As Mahatma Gandhi once said:

True art takes note not merely of form but also of what lies behind. There is an art that kills and an art that gives life... True art must be evidence of happiness, contentment and purity of its authors.