“Just dive in and meet people where they’re at” – Ashley Byrne – PETA Outreach Director – Sentientism Episode 153

Find our Sentientist Conversation here on the Sentientism YouTube and here on the Sentientism Podcast.

Ashley is Director of Outreach for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). She has led a broad range of PETA’s campaigns and has been interviewed about her work to promote animal rights by the LA Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and in many other publications.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” The audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

We discuss:

00:00 Welcome
01:33 Ashley Intro

  • 16 years at #PETA: public campaigns, celebrities… “enjoying every minute of it”

03:18 What Matters

  • #ChristianScience “there was never a divide… this is science & this is god… a lot of spirituality”
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Science (see risks re: prayer vs. medicine)
  • Father “a non-practising Catholic… not a religious person but was very supportive of… that part of my mother’s life”
  • Personal relationship with god “connect directly with this spiritual part of your life”
  • More a spiritual, all-pervasive god than a “judgemental, human figure”
  • Rejecting “we judge everything based on a human worldview”
  • Universally accessible rather than in/out-group based
  • “Not telling you what to do”
  • Religious vs. scientific views of reality “It never occurred to me that those things could be incompatible”
  • Spiritual rather than literal interpretation of the #bible
  • “#spiritually I really still do identify with these ideas & these values”
  • “Macro spiritual concepts of love… that bring us out of what’s right in front of us”
  • “Isn’t so much of science trying to go bigger & deeper”
  • Science that we don’t yet understand that can sometimes be anticipated by mystical/spiritual thinking
  • Ontological (what’s real?) & epistemological (how should we work it out?) naturalism
  • Risks of wishful thinking
  • #faith vs. #naturalism “I’m the latter… the evidence”
  • Is there evidence that would lead you to reject Christian Science? “it’s more of a spiritual practice”
  • “#spirituality … it is a scientific pursuit… our ideas of science are too limited”
  • Risks of dogma / harmful & discriminatory ethics in religious/supernatural worldviews
  • “If you have an ethical question about the world you should be going back & working it out with these spiritual tools”
  • Growing up in #losangeles
  • One 8th grade term in a Southern #Baptist school “pamphlets in the office that told you why every other religion in the world was wrong & sinful – mine was in there”
  • “You’re going to hell!”
  • “I was constantly being told ‘be quiet, sit down, stop asking questions’… I remember the word ‘obey’ was used a lot”… “I didn’t get it… why can’t you answer these questions?”
  • The #trauma caused by religious beliefs (e.g. threat of hell)
  • Secularism & kids learning about multilple worldviews

41:08 What Matters?

  • “My parents really laid the foundation… for my sense of ethics… each coming from their own respective backgrounds… two extremely ethical, thoughtful, kind, intelligent people.”
  • You don’t need an old book to be a good person… universal goods
  • “Goodness is something more primal than that [#divinecommandtheory]”

45:30 Who Matters?

  • “I grew up in an animal loving household… unquestionably family members”
  • The family dog: “She loved me and I loved her”
  • “There was never any idea that these weren’t individuals”
  • At a few years old “why is this called chicken… if the animals are called chicken?”… “There was this pause… like when someone at school said ‘Santa Claus isn’t real?’”
  • Mum had once been #vegetarian. Dad was “red meat & potatoes”
  • “When they told me that meat was made of animals I was not happy”
  • Thinking as a teen, but then drifting back to the social default
  • Imagining humane farms & “there must be something different about these animals that we’re eating”
  • “We [good people] wouldn’t be doing this if chickens felt pain… if it was cruel & violent & wrong”
  • Asking a Sunday school teacher about “Thou shalt not kill” vs. eating animals… “take that back… & address it spiritually… figure it out… so I did.”
  • Seeing horrific footage in “Faces of Death” that “changed my entire life on the spot”
  • “I knew that the footage of animals was real because I knew that they didn’t need to fake that”
  • “The worst thing I had ever seen… the level of devastation”
  • Cultural differences re: #dogmeat vs. other animals
  • “There’s no scientific reason why it’s wrong to eat a dog but OK to eat a chicken – it’s entirely cultural”
  • “I can’t accept that this is OK… I guess that means it’s not OK to kill & eat any of these animals… & that’s when it stopped”
  • “What we do to animals… it’s horrifying”
  • Mum gave Ashley “Diet For a New America” book
  • Learning about eggs, dairy & wider animal exploitation: “Dammit… I’m going to have to go vegan”
  • “The punk scene was integral to educating me about these things.” Vegan bands and animal advocacy zines
  • Previous guests: Nick Pendergrast (not Paul – sorry!), Kristof Dhont
  • “In the punk community it was absolutely supported”
  • Rebelling against classic teenage forms of “rebellion”
  • “Our default should be that everyone matters… to care & to respect”
  • Sentience vs. intelligence
  • “Sentience should help us guide how we can do the least amount of harm”
  • “A rock & a pig are very different”
  • Destroying nature – “you’re in an ecosystem that does impact sentient beings”
  • “There’s this impulse… ‘what can we not care about?’ Shouldn’t the default be the other way?”

01:16:33 How Can We Make A Better Future?

  • “The whole of my work is dedicated to that [making a better world]”
  • “Just caring more… and acting on it… not ‘what’s the most I can get away with?’”
  • We’re not living on a desert island with a chicken… “we’re living in this modern world where we just have an abundance of choices”
  • The power of improving human worldviews
  • Win-wins
  • Changing minds & institutions
  • Many kinds of activism “what brings one person around is not the same as what will bring another person around… PETA is a great example of this”
  • Changing legislation, corporations, cultural change, habits, ideas, thoughts “how people think about animals”
  • “How do you change cultural thought?”
  • Demonstrations that “people cannot walk past”, making headlines, “reaching people where they are”, social media, whistleblowers, veganism, lobbying
  • “You can’t give problems without solutions… here’s the problem & here’s the action”
  • Corporate vegan options
  • Previous guest Ingrid Newkirk (PETA founder & president)
  • Criticisms of PETA: corporatisation of philanthropy (vs. grass roots), feminist critiques, shock tactics
  • “I am absolutely a feminist… Riot Girl is how I entered the punk scene” after experiencing the sexism of the Southern Baptist school
  • “Respecting people’s autonomy… decisions about their bodies & their lives… something humans constantly deny animals”
  • “If I choose to take part in a protest… with my clothes off… that’s entirely my decision… I’m standing up for animals.”
  • “bodily putting myself out there for animals who have no choices about their bodies”
  • “It’s interesting how often the media will take a photo of that protest & cut out the men… & what people choose to share on social media”
  • Animal exploitation industries are marketing to people in this way “it’s very subversive that we take this imagery & we use it to unmarket – to tear down this facade”
  • “Now that we have your attention we are going to debunk”
  • “Meeting people where they are and making use of things that people already respond to – that is what some people need”
  • Dress Vegan: People think that veganism is a diet “so it’s interesting to talk about something that clearly isn’t food”
  • “There is a demand for vegan fashion”… vegan leather shoes, down alternative jackets
  • Smaller brands often have some ethical motivation. The big brands “aren’t doing it to be nice… there’s a demand”
  • “Individual choices do matter… it’s happening because people demanded it, asked for it, bought it, supported it… I think it’s empowering to think about that”
  • “If you’re funding a terrible system unnecessarily, then stop!”
  • Arguments from futility, ineffectiveness
  • “The system wants you to believe you’re powerless… Put more stock in your ability to make a difference”
  • “You just dive in – you get your hands dirty”
  • “It’s almost as if people don’t realise they have the agency to act!… they’re almost waiting for someone to give them permission”
  • Helping free ranging animals in New York
  • “You’re allowed… you don’t need anyone to give you permission to do the right thing”
  • JW: “If everybody sits at home waiting for collective action & systemic change to solve the problem – there isn’t going to be any collective action or systemic change”
  • “The solution is – you act!”

01:44:00 Following Ashley:

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at Sentientism.info.

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Thanks to Graham for the post-production and to Tarabella and Denise for helping to fund this episode via our Sentientism Patreon.

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