Crabs may not be sensitive, but those who eat them sure are

It’s been more than a week since a billboard went up in Baltimore that dared to suggest that animals have feelings, and the backlash hasn’t stopped.

A mass of rage on social media and in newspaper comments sections was predictable, as it is on just about any topic from melees at a local shopping mall to the prospect of a new bike lane. But even The Sun's editorial board felt it necessary to join the hysteria, condemning the billboard for doing nothing but infuriating people. Now the folks at Jimmy's Famous Seafood have struck back. Aiming to drive PETA out of town, as The Sun's Wesley Case put it, the restaurant has launched an anti-PETA campaign on Twitter and put up a billboard of its own (based on the painfully clever observation that the letters "ME" appear in the word "steamed").

I suppose it's better than pitchforks and torches.

Now, I admit, I’m biased. I’ve been a vegetarian for 16 years, and have been flirting with veganism more recently.

But particularly from a vegetarian’s perspective, this level of sensitivity over your eating habits is bizarre. Vegetarians are surrounded by meat on a daily — if not hourly — basis. We see celebrations of animal flesh everywhere: the ubiquitous crab on Maryland paraphernalia, cartoon pigs as mascots for rib joints, commercials featuring singing fish to advertise fish sandwiches and so on.

And for the most part, our response is to hope we’re lucky enough to find an option on the menu we can eat when we go somewhere.

Meanwhile meat-eaters can’t be presented with the idea of a crab having feelings without being triggered?

I can't help but think of the occasions when someone has discovered that I don’t eat meat and has instantly sought to make sure I’m not one of those vegetarians. You know — the ones who might in any way prompt you to think about the moral issues behind your eating choices.

The reaction to this very tame billboard gives the lie to the stereotype of the annoyingly self-righteous vegetarian. If PETA had shown images of animals being tortured in factory farms, that would have been out-of-bounds. If it had compared animals you eat to your pets, that would have been out-of-bounds. If it had pointed to the environmental benefits of giving up animal products, that would have been out-of-bounds.

And showing a friendly-looking crab and suggesting that it has feelings? That’s out-of-bounds too.

When meat-eaters say this wasn’t the right place or right time or right way to go about it, what they really mean is that they don’t want to have to deal with the issue at all — ever. It may be inconclusive to what extent crabs have feelings, but it is abundantly clear that meat-eaters have feelings. And, apparently, those feelings need to be protected. But protected from what, exactly?

It's interesting to note that most of the commentary around the billboard has been about how ineffective it is. How utterly stupid could PETA be to think it could influence Marylanders not to eat crabs? And why would it choose such a lowly animal to defend? What a ridiculous waste of time and so on.

But if were really so ridiculous, if it really had no chance of accomplishing anything, then there would be no reason to react to it.

And yet, John Minadakis of Jimmy's Famous Seafood claims he had to fight back to protect his business. And in the closing paragraph of its editorial, The Sun protests that Baltimore’s seafood economy is critical to health of the Chesapeake Bay. To jeopardize one, the board argues, is to jeopardize the other.

So, after all the scolding that PETA should have known better than to even attempt such a stunt, when it wouldn't accomplish anything, you mean to tell me that what you’re really worried about is that the billboard might actually work?

Well then, maybe PETA’s real crime is pricking a few guilty consciences.

Stephen Mack is a student at the University of Baltimore; his email is mightymobtown@gmail.com.

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