Talking about dog meat in Vietnam these days is pretty much like walking through a field of landmines. Things can go badly wrong at any moment, and, before you knew it, boom, a friendship just died at the dinner table. Then another, on Facebook.
Conversations about the issue quickly turn vitriolic and personal because they are not grounded in rational arguments about the ethical nuances and dilemmas involved. For many, the issue is black and white and there are only two types of people: those who are unethical because they eat dog meat, and those who don’t and thus are ethical.
But seeing the world in binary does not help; it merely fosters a destructive naiveté that can do nothing but suffocate voices of reason and even fuel violence — just look at the way dog thieves are being lynched across the country almost every week.
The new campaign launched by the Asia Canine Protection Alliance last week, unfortunately, seems to reinforce this naiveté.
Seeking support from the social media generation to end the trade in dog meat, the campaign mostly plays on sentimentality rather than reasoning. Several videos have been released showing dogs being caught, transported and killed. The images are certainly powerful. The messages that go with them are not.
In close-up shots, Vietnamese celebrities emotionally tell viewers that the dog meat trade is inhumane because a dog is man’s best friend and does not deserve to suffer the cruelty and abuse. Five million dogs are killed in Vietnam for meat every year and this has to be stopped, they say.
First of all, kudos to anyone who lend their voices to those that cannot speak for themselves. But this campaign, like many others before it, refuses to leave the moral high ground and conveniently avoids addressing key counterarguments. One of them is the uncomfortable yet vital question: “Why is eating dogs wrong, but eating chickens, cows, pigs and other animals acceptable?”
It is true that sometimes we only need our gut to tell us that something might be wrong. But there is only so much our feelings can do for us when it comes to ethics. What's next after we cry over a photo or feel sick to the stomach watching a video?
A good moral compass should operate on reason, not purely on feelings. It is bizarre from an ethical standpoint to limit our compassion to only animals that we keep as pets. One may decide to stay away from absolutism and deal with everything on a case-by-case basis, arguing that, for instance, dogs and pigs are very different. But it's still morally inconsistent to strongly condemn dog meat eaters without discussing the ethics of meat consumption in general, considering the treatment of other animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses is just as bad, if not worse.
To avoid accusations of hypocrisy, supporters of a campaign like this need to also show that their love for animals really extends beyond the dining plate. Cruelty comes in various forms, from subtle to extreme. Until the exploitation of animals in sports, entertainment and research too is brought into sharper focus, "animal welfare" will remain a term some people use without much empathy to polish their personal brands and feel better about themselves.
All of this is not to deny that the new online campaign will at the very least help improve awareness. There were allegations that personal information of supporters would be sold to marketers, but the organizers were quick to reject those. Moving on from that bumpy start, the petition has so far reached one third of its goal of collecting a million signatures.
Never underestimate the power of the Internet and social media. But social change can only be created by those with deep understanding of whatever the cause they are fighting for, not by a large number of people who vaguely know about it. Shallow activism is sometimes worse than no activism at all.
A complex issue deserves a nuanced discussion. And unless animal welfare campaigns in Vietnam can go past all the grandstanding and start to facilitate sophisticated debates, it is naive to believe that a lasting change will come any time soon.
* Editor's note: The view is personal and does not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Thanh Nien News.