Thursday, January 30, 2014

Of Elephants and the Unborn [Jay Watts]

I love elephants. I hope to finish writing a short novel this year using elephants to explore certain spiritual and philosophical truths that I find fascinating. As a result, HBO's short documentary An Apology to Elephants piqued my interest. Last week, when I had a little time, I pulled it up On Demand and watched it.

This isn't a review for that film. It has an obvious point of view and excludes any opportunity for those they are accusing of an evil abuse of our stewardship responsibilities toward animals to respond on screen. It is also difficult to imagine anyone who appreciates these emotionally complex and obviously intelligent animals not being outraged at the images of abuse and violence. This magnificent family of animals once roamed the world in vast numbers, and we live in the age of their last moments as a wild animal if something doesn't radically change.

The film makers show us images of circus trainers abusing them, of elephant carcasses littering the savannahs of Africa where they are killed by the thousands to feed people's desire for ivory trinkets, and even the infamous film of Thomas Edison electrocuting Topsy the elephant to try to scare people away from Nikola Tesla's alternating current. It is awful.

When I checked for critical reaction, several people suggested that as awful as these images are they are appropriate to be shown to children on Earth Day. They argue that children need to be radicalized into protecting elephants and standing up to zoos and circuses that abuse these majestic creatures even if it means upsetting them with graphic images of elephant abuse.

An Apology to Elephants is admittedly politically motivated and one sided. It centers on graphic images of abuse and the destruction of innocent life and is recommended viewing for children by many cultural commenters. And yet, when it comes to graphic images that accurately represent the physical act of abortion we are told they are too upsetting. Showing them is divisive and unnecessary to making our point and the worst possible thing imaginable is for kids to see them.

For the record, anyone at LTI will tell you that I am the least animated person on the team when it comes to the graphic images. There are several reasons for this. The biggest reason is that, unlike many of my friends, the images had nothing to do with my becoming radicalized in the pro-life movement.

What gets my hackles up is to see a culture that bathes itself in brutality and violent imagery for any number of reasons (entertainment, education, emotionally activating people toward causes, etc.) through every conceivable medium (TV, movies, video games, books, etc.) suddenly pretend to be so prim and easily damaged when the images center on abortion. The stink of this hypocrisy is unbearable. When prime-time and cable television are filled with shows about serial killers in an apparent race to demostrate who is the most shameless in portraying the rape and murder of innocent victims, when the vile murder porn TV show The Following comes up on Netflix as "Popular Right Now", when I have to mute all commercial breaks for fear of what may be thrown up on the screen at any moment for my young children to see and hear, the pretense at sensitivity to violence as it pertains to abortion ought to embarrass us all.

The images that LTI uses comprise less than a minute of our entire presentation. We offer the opportunity for every person in the room to look away. We discuss the forgiveness of sin and the equal guilt before God of all human beings. We explain that every social justice movement celebrated today for helping humanity to morally advance made use of upsetting images, and we make it clear that this issue must be engaged in a manner that honors Christ. None of this is enough for some people. Some people insist that abortion should not be talked about and certainly must not be seen.

A young man at a major American university approached me after a talk, identified himself as pro-choice, and raised objections to the use of images and descriptive language. His argument was that I do not think abortion is wrong because it is ugly. If we could develop a clean and bloodless manner of killing the unborn that had none of the visually upsetting aspects of the current practice I would still object. So the only reason to show the images or talk about them is to upset people.

I agreed with him about the nature of my objections, but I asked him the following questions, “Are the images an accurate depiction of the aftermath of abortion? Do they truly represent an aspect of the practice of abortion?”


“Is what I said about how they must account for all the body parts of aborted human beings true?”


“So you are asking me, and all of the people arguing that abortion is wrong, to withhold information from our presentations that accurately reflects an aspect of the issue at hand because the audience may have an emotional response to that information that, while I argue is in line with our moral intuitions, might undermine your position.”

“I guess that is right.”

“Do you think that all presentations regarding moral issues ought to refrain from images and language that might provoke emotional responses? Do you think a presenter talking about female genital mutilation or sex slavery ought to be careful not to illicit an emotional response from the audience?”

“No, of course not.” And he immediately saw the problem with his position. He fully supported the use of graphic images that awakened emotional outrage when he was against the practice. What he objected to was others using images to make his position look bad.

As I told him that day, we have a responsibility to be certain that what we are saying is true. If any image used is in some way dishonest then critics need to make that case. I know how the images we use were acquired and have full confidence in their validity and the means by which they were attained.

If your argument is simply that those images must not be seen because they upset people, well that is precisely the point. It was a point that was celebrated with An Apology to Elephants, Blackfish, The Cove, and every other documentary that rightly condemns injustice and abuse. Images seem to only be wrong to be seen when the victims are unborn human beings and the subject is abortion.

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