Wednesday, 30 September 2015

When Species Meet: The Media Response to the Pig-Gate Scandal

David Cameron - image via iStock
By Evelyn Tsitas

After a week of the British media squealing with delight at allegations that David Cameron put a private part of his anatomy in a dead pig’s mouth back in his university days, the Prime Minister has finally confirmed he is disputing the claim made in a new biography.

That is hardly likely to put an end to pig-gate. It is no wonder that the recent allegations set the British media ablaze. The strongly enforced distinction between species means that the great taboo of bestiality blurs this separation and factures the boundaries between human and non-human animal.

The allegations are disclosed in Lord Michael Ashcroft’s new unauthorised biography Call Me Dave. The Daily Mail – which is serialising the book - called the initiation event into the Piers Gaveston Oxford dining society “obscene”, “sordid” “outrageous” and “debauched”.  

However, the fallout has gone beyond simple embarrassment and humiliation for the PM and entered into the realm of animal rights concerns.

According to NME Morrisey, a highly regarded UK musician, has issued a joint statement that he claims is also sent on behalf of animal rights group PETA.

It reads; "No, boys won't be boys - not when it's sexual perversion and also involves a vulnerable victim of slaughter, a feeling being who lost his or her life and then was used for a prank… A prime minister is supposed to protect the most vulnerable."

It’s a very good point. While the Twittersphere is ablaze with pig jokes and sexual innuendo, media commentators are more concerned about speculating on the damage to Cameron’s reputation than examining the cruelty to animals used in the debauched parties of the notorious Oxford dining society, the Piers Gaveston, which ‘specialises in bizarre rituals and sexual excess’. And yes, pigs’ heads.

Aidan Hartley, writing in The Spectator recalled Oxford parties in the 1980s: “In those days, pigs’ heads from the Covered Market were a favourite as props for undergraduate high jinks — and probably they still are. I don’t know why.” 

Despite Darwinian notions of evolution, much of our culture operates on the assumption that humans are qualitatively different from other animals. Feminist theorist Donna Haraway challenges this idea in her influential book When Species Meet (2008).  She is openly critical of other theorists Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze and FĂ©lix Guattari in their attitude to animals. She challenges Derrida to think beyond an animal’s capacity to suffer and asks us to be curious about animals, to respond to the animal’s presence by asking the animal what is wanted.

The human relationship with the animal is political and contested. When pranksters dumped and then abandoned a terrified piglet at 10 Downing Street as a joke, there was no thought about how this stunt was going to affect the poor animal. “This is its first experience of the outside world and it has been dragged all over Downing Street and then into Charing Cross police station,” said Clarie Elson, the livestock manager from the farm told Southwark News.

Humans have long had a great fascination for sexual activity between creatures of different species. In his 2001 paper Heavy Petting philosopher Peter Singer argues that instances of sex across the species barrier are so frequent "it ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings." No mention of the animal’s dignity.

One of the problems with bestiality is the issue of consent. Can an animal ever consent to an act of intercourse with a human? There is the issue of power imbalance, for a start. Any encounter where one party can be legally skinned, made into a handbag and also eaten is not on an equal footing in the bedroom. The common word for the exploited person in these situations is not ‘partner’ but ‘victim’. In the case of bestiality, the victim is the animal, who does not and cannot provide consent.

If one partner is dead, does the need for consent still apply? Regardless of legality, other taboos, such as necrophilia step in. But the fact that the pig was dead when Cameron allegedly stuck ‘a private part of his anatomy’ in the pig’s mouth doesn’t seem to be the issue. The uproar about this allegation surrounds the taboo of bestiality, not necrophilia.  By demanding that human beings do not engage with animals in sexual acts, the act of prohibition defines the differences between the species.

The reaction on Twitter to the pig’s head allegations reveals one overwhelming fact – people find the idea of sex acts with a pig hilarious. According to The Conversation, one reason why #piggate played so well on Twitter is that making jokes about David Cameron and pigs allows us to turn the tables on the privileged and powerful. 

However, while this may be the case, the humor is revealing in that it mostly speaks to our use of the pig as a product of consumption, or one that is in someway ‘unclean’. The Tweets may joke that we can no longer really trust where our bacon comes from, but none mention just how smart pigs are. A paper published in the latest issue of the International Journal of Comparative Psychology reveals that pigs have been found to be mentally and socially similar to dogs and chimpanzees.

More than anything, what the “pig-gate” scandal reveals is just how deeply entrenched our speciesism is, and how deeply uncomfortable we are as a society when it comes to interrogating the real issues arising from acts of bestiality and cruelty to animals.

Dr Evelyn Tsitas explored the role of human animal hybrid in science fiction in her PhD research, with particular emphasis on how animal rights and animal protection issues are reflected in the creative arts and popular culture. Her academic research in this area has been published widely in books, journals and popular media.