How Making A Documentary Forced Me To Rethink Speciesism

When I began filming my documentary Speciesism: The Movie, I was 20 years old and had no expectation that it would change my life. I had set out to make a documentary focusing on the tactics of animal rights organizations. I was sure that humans were more important than other species, and I thought being vegan was extreme. However, by the time it was over, three years later, I was a different person and my film had taken a different direction: it was about changing the way we look at animals and at ourselves. In the process of interviewing experts for Speciesism, I rethought my view that humans are superior, and I have since become vegan. I hope the film will affect its audiences in a similar way.

Here's a brief overview of what I've learned along the way:

1. When it comes to your food, you REALLY can't trust labels.

This may seem obvious, but many of us, even when we know that marketers are trying to make us believe all sorts of things about their products, nevertheless fall prey to those attempts. For instance, I visited a “free range” turkey farm, which was advertised with photos of the birds in a grassy field. When I arrived, I only saw giant sheds, containing thousands of birds each. Turns out, there is one point in the birds’ lives at which they are walked across several yards of grass, from one shed to another. That's where the photos are taken.

2. We have more power to fight Big Ag than we realize.

In eastern North Carolina, a small number of huge companies are taking over the countryside, installing factory pig farms that each contain thousands of animals. Residents have been forced to watch as their houses become surrounded, practically engulfed, by these factories. But, they have also done more than watch. Residents are standing up to these companies, and challenging them politically and through the legal system. Many of these residents told me that just a few years ago, they could not have seen themselves doing this. I am honored to have met these people, and to have filmed their stories.

3. People act selflessly for their neighbors every day.

We often hear that human beings are inherently self-interested, and that anyone who expects otherwise is simply naïve. However, on that same visit to North Carolina, I met many people whose homes are not in the vicinity of the factory pig farms, but whose friends or neighbors are. These people are nonetheless dedicating significant time and energy to oppose the pig farms, as if their own families were being affected. They even fly propeller planes above the farms, to photograph environmental degradation.

I went aboard one of their flights to document that situation for the film, and I could not believe my eyes: These facilities dump millions of gallons of pig manure into giant, open-air cesspools the size of lakes, which contaminate the surrounding air and ground water. Some neighbors cannot drink the water from their wells, and many have collapsed in their own from yards as a result of the overwhelming stench, which they cannot escape.

4. We may be wrong about the most basic things, even the assumption that humans matter more than other species.

I had the opportunity to interview famous philosophers such as Peter Singer at Princeton University, who is often considered to be a founder of modern animal rights. He challenged assumptions that I did not even know were assumptions—I believed they were facts. For example, is human suffering more ethically important than the suffering of other animals? A few years ago, my answer would have been an unequivocal yes.

People like Singer, though, asked me a simple question: “Why?”

"What makes humans special?" he challenged me. "Is it our intelligence, our ability to use language, our ability to understand ethics?"

He pointed out that many humans lack all of those capacities—babies, people in advanced stages of senility, and the intellectually disabled. What else could allow us to draw a sharp distinction between humans and other species? I didn't have a good answer.

5. We are animals.

We evolved, over four billion years, alongside all the other animals we see around us, and with whom we share common ancestors. Every bone in the five digits of a bat’s wing, for instance, has a counterpart in the human hand. The arrangement of these bones developed in animals who were our common ancestors with bats. Remembering this continuity may help us respect the nonhuman individuals with whom we share this planet.

Speciesism: The Movie completed its main theater run on November 20, and is now available on DVD for a limited time while supplies last.

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