Rarely do I find myself on the same page, or even in the same book, as Sarah Palin. Our ideological differences aside, she has provided the world with more than her fair share of political blunders in just the past few years. To invoke a famous line from Paul Keating, the probability of Palin offering something genuinely productive to a given political discussion without a prepared script is about the same as that of a typical American finally seeing Russia from his window.

So naturally I felt fairly surprised to find myself on team Palin when over the holidays People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) criticized her for posting a photo of her youngest son standing on his service dog to reach the sink. The group’s President, Ingrid Newkirk, opined, “It’s odd that anyone—let alone a mother—would find it appropriate to post such a thing, with no apparent sympathy for the dog in the photo.”

The ad hominem critique of Palin’s motherhood comes across as unnecessarily hostile, but even more frustrating is the group’s apparent double standard in its treatment of Republicans and Democrats regarding their interactions with animals. To list one example of many, PETA venerated Ellen DeGeneres as “Woman of the Year” of 2009 but entirely ignored a photo she shared of a fan’s child standing on a dog to brush her teeth last year. Of course PETA should not have criticized Ellen for posting an innocent picture of a child on a perfectly content dog, but neither should it have mocked Palin for doing the same.

The only relevant difference between these two cases is the partisanship of the individuals who shared the photos. And so I question why a group with presumably noble intentions must stoop to such low measures as selectively personal ad hominem attacks, which clearly are not always genuinely substantiated in true animal wellness violations.

As an activist group, PETA has an especially daunting challenge. Like most activists organizations, PETA advocates most basically for a platform that the majority of individuals would empathize with: animals deserve respect, not brutality. Unlike most activist organizations, PETA speaks for a group that literally lacks either a voice or any recourse for subjectively unjust behavior. This mix creates an especially potent collective action problem—to truly meet the group’s standards, individuals who support animal rights must make incomprehensibly extensive sacrifices.

Most people would likely agree that hurting animals unnecessarily is unjust. They will just disagree about the point at which using animals turns into animal cruelty. PETA’s standard is high, and as a result, PETA has no choice but to focus on branding and public awareness. To treat every individual with the same standard would be to debase the majority of their supporters.

And so we can discern the ultimate irony behind activism. For a group to raise awareness about a certain issue, they must do so by exploiting a certain type of case. They will draw out examples that might not always represent certain social injustices as well as others do. These are the cases that raise skepticism, that generate debate and that single out certain high-profile icons inappropriately.

This is why the clear, cut-and-dry cases of sexual assault, racial policing and—in this case—animal rights violations are rarely the ones that go viral. Note that I am not suggesting that certain high-profile cases are inherently less legitimate when someone attempts to point out their apparent flaws, but skepticism certainly leads the public to perceive them as less legitimate.

This double-edged sword of public awareness and alleged illegitimacy creates quite the challenge for activists. I liken activists to fire alarms. Fire alarms alert individuals of a sudden inferno engulfing their buildings just like activists alert apathetic individuals about unnoticed faults or inconsistencies in their morality. But unfortunately fire alarms and activists are both susceptible to sending out false sirens. When the ratio of false to real alarms becomes greater than its inverse, individuals will begin to lose faith in either.

The boy who cried wolf has morphed into the activist who cried social injustice. While I have no magical advice on how activist groups can achieve both public awareness and legitimacy, I do offer a warning that false alarms might not always be the best pathway to achieving a preferable end. I love animals even more than I dislike Sarah Palin, but even I have all but lost my respect for PETA.

Brendan McCartney is Trinity junior. This is his first column of the semester.