PETA’s High-Tech Presence on Campus Could Lead to Greater Empathy

Updated Sep 9, 2014

If you know about the Oculus Rift virtual reality gamer goggle company that Mark Zuckerberg just bought for $2 billion in June, then you probably think you are way cool.

But you’d be even cooler yet if you say, well, those goggles are tethered, connected to a computer, and just play a game.

In fact, after this blog, you’ll know all about a non-tethered, wireless set of goggles that aren’t interested in games, but focus on creating empathy to help avoid real life and death issues.

That’s the virtual reality of I-Chicken, a demonstration by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), funded by The Simpson’s co-creator Sam Simon. PETA’s now touring college campuses across the nation to introduce a new study on radical empathy that hopes to get people to rethink eating chicken.

Don’t laugh. Nine billion chickens are killed in the U.S. each year for food, or about 26 million chickens a day. And if you eat it with the skin and fried, the cholesterol levels are enough to wreak havoc with your health.

As a point of disclosure, my wife works for PETA, though she did not work on the development the of I-Chicken project.

Once you put on the goggles, you simply flap your wings and meet your chicken buddies. And then you, as the chicken, with your chicken pals, go off to be slaughtered.

“People actually experience what it’s like to be a small bird in trouble,” said Kenneth Montville of PETA. “You develop empathy from that first-hand experience and take it to the real world.”

Studies have suggested that virtual reality does have an impact on behavior.

But cluck a mile in my virtual reality goggles?

I tried them on at UC Berkeley, and, frankly, as a chicken, I kept falling into the virtual pond. That’s alright. I already eat a lot of tofu and not chicken.

But to students raised on chicken nuggets, the new perspective may be what’s needed to help people understand healthier, more ethical perspectives.

I think the larger issue is whether virtual reality can create empathy to thwart some of society’s other ills like racism.

What if the goggles could give you the experience of a Black man in a place like Ferguson, Missouri, walking to the police with your hands up?

Would that change a non-Black person’s perspective on race and humanity?

Recently, in San Francisco, Hillary Clinton talked about Ferguson for the first time and rhetorically used a bit of virtual reality.

Clinton reportedly told a high-tech conference: “Imagine what we would feel and what we would do if white drivers were three times as likely as Black drivers to be searched by police during a traffic stop as Black drivers instead of the other way around. If White offenders received prison sentences ten percent longer than Black offenders for the same crimes. If a third of all White men—just look at this room and take one-third—went to prison during their lifetime. Imagine that. That is the reality in the lives of so many of our fellow Americans in so many of the communities in which they live.”

You don’t need an imagination to understand those very real facts.

But you do need an imagination to be empathetic.

If people can’t do it on their own, virtual reality could be a high-tech way toward a more compassionate and diverse society.

Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race, culture and politics for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (www.aaldef.org/blog) Like him at www.facebook.com/emilguillermo.media ; twitter@emilamok