Food or friend?
16 April 2012
Human beings have always lived in symbiosis with animals. They provide us with useful raw materials, at the same time as being our companions. LUM has spoken to some of the Lund researchers who are studying our multilayered relationship with animals.
A cartoon chicken with a waitress’s cap and apron, advertising chicken meat... and Disney’s three little pigs, who have a picture on their living room of a sausage marked ”Daddy”.
These are a couple of examples that were put forward by the participants in the Critical Animal Studies course. The cartoons show our contradictory way of relating to animals, who are both our food and our playmates.
“The cartoon chicken is so anthropomorphized that one does not associate it with real chickens in cramped cages. The word "chubby", part of the Chubby Chicken logo, is also usually used to describe humans. Therefore, one can think that the cartoon is cute without needing to think about industrially farmed animals”, says student Jin Sol Kim.
The Critical Animal Studies course is the first of its kind in first cycle higher education in Sweden. The initiative for the course was taken by Tobias Linné from the Department of Communication and Media and Helena Pedersen from Malmö University, with course material from sociology, philosophy and gender studies among other sources.
”The word “critical” refers to the fact that we address the way in which society exploits animals. The course aims to question these mechanisms within various fields”, says Tobias Linné.
”Speciesism” as he sees it – creating a hierarchy of species with human beings at the top – is similar to racism and sexism. In all three cases, it is about creating groups and giving one’s own group complete freedom to oppress other, lower status groups.
”But the students don’t have to agree. As course directors we are only too pleased if there is a lively discussion at the seminars,” he insists.
Since the course is taught in English, the majority of students are exchange students from other countries. There has been great interest in the course, with 80 applicants for 30 places. And the course’s questioning approach has never been questioned by the host department, Media and Communication Studies. Tobias Linné thinks this is quite natural.
”Research and education are supposed to have a questioning approach! And if you give a course on the role of animals in society, it would be strange if it didn’t culminate in a need for change... it would be as strange as gender studies students not advocating gender equality!”
The course has a broad approach and deals with all sorts of animals: those that are destined to become food, laboratory animals in research and industry, household pets and animals that are hunted. It also addresses various aspects of the view of animals shown in popular culture and media, and analyses the difference between the animal industry’s internal, production-oriented texts and its external, customer-oriented material.
It also raises complex questions about "humane" slaughtering techniques and educational shows at dolphinariums, for example, and whether these really are in the interests of the animals in general. The fact that the students come from different countries contributes to the breadth of the discussions. “In China, people are not in the habit of drinking milk. If they do, it is for health reasons.
That is why Chinese milk advertisements are only about the nutritional content of the milk”, explained Chinese student Misaki Iwai.
Her group showed three milk-related films at a seminar on animal images: an animal rights film with images of enclosed cows standing knee-deep in manure, a Chinese film with no images of cows at all and a film from Swedish dairy firm Arla showing happy cows in a beautiful green landscape.
”There are similarly happy outdoor cows in the American advertisements too. Meanwhile we know that cows are kept in sheds with thousands of animals leading a completely unnatural existence. But we do not want to be reminded of that”... says American student Elizabeth McClelland.
Text: Ingela Björck
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