The Cove is a documentary which makes a straight forward argument: it establishes that the Japanese city of Taijii is committing wholesale slaughter of wild dolphins, it then demonstrates how barbaric this slaughter is, then it asks it’s audience to try to help them save the remaining dolphins. There’s just one problem: I’m not exactly sure that this issue is as straight forward as the Cove makes it sound.
As I was watching The Cove I kept thinking about what Lyndon Johnson says to Martin Luther King in Selma: “You’re an activist, I’m a politician. You’ve got one issue, I’ve got a hundred and one.” The activists who made The Cove have staked out a very clear position, and they argue it very well, but they are also only interested in that one issue when they are a lot of others that are also at stake. This movie makes time to showcase the people who are fighting the fishermen, it makes time to humanize the dolphins that are being slaughtered, but it doesn’t really make time to explore the lives of the fishermen who are committing the slaughter nor the lives of the Japanese politicians that are implicitly condoning it. Are they really just heartless monsters? Or are those men trying to balance out the downsides of this one particular problem against a host of other practical concerns?
The Cove acknowledges that the city of Taijii has a financial stake in dolphin harvesting, but then it swats that away. And perhaps all of the money they get from selling captured dolphins or meat from dead dolphins really is filthy lucre – but that doesn’t mean that the people who are in charge of running Taijii’s economy can just afford to forsake those funds, or that it’s people can afford to stop eating that meat. It’s easy for the Americans who made The Cove to focus on the moral argument that dolphins should live free in the wild because they don’t have to answer to the fishermen who need jobs and they aren’t in charge of finding an alternate protein source for a population that has traditionally eaten seafood. Unfortunately, Taijii’s elected officials have to answer to the humans that can vote for them before they answer to the dolphins that can’t, which makes it much harder for them to stay on the moral high ground.
I don’t want to be unfair to the Cove: it isn’t entirely as simplistic as I’m making it sound. For example, it does make a practical argument against using dolphins as a food source by pointing out that the meat is full of deadly poisons like mercury – dolphins are apex predators, which means that they eat the fish that have eaten other smaller fishes which have eaten bottom feeders like shrimp, and at every stage of that food chain more and more mercury gets accumulated. But I actually thought that point undermined the Cove’s overall argument by acknowledging that there are a lot more serious issues at play here than what’s happening to a few thousand dolphins in one specific city in Japan. It won’t help anything if we spare those dolphins death by knife if we don’t do anything to stop them dying a slow death from pollution – but this film has no specific position on how we’re going to clean up the oceans. That’s a topic that’s out of it’s scope.
That tunnel vision is both a blessing and a curse. If this movie tried to discuss everything that humankind is doing that imperils marine life as we know it I suspect that it would never motivate anyone; such broad topics tend to make people feel overwhelmed and overwhelmed people are unlikely to offer any type of help. But the movie’s idealistic stance is not going to do much to motivate people to make real change, because once they’ve achieved a superficial level of satisfaction they have every right to assume that they’ve done their job. A film which was more concerned with discussing deeper, more long lasting concerns, like the increasing salination of the ocean and the long term effects of overfishing, wouldn’t have been nearly as concise nor as emotionally powerful. But it would have been a lot more honest about the whole situation, and it would have taken us a lot closer to understanding the real problems at play.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that what those fishermen are doing to those dolphins is acceptable. Once you’ve seen the footage of what goes on in the cove it’s almost impossible to side with the humans; the sight of a blood-red ocean is just too gut wrenching. But the fact that this movie contains a lot of hard to watch footage doesn’t mean that it makes an air tight argument. I don’t want to see what goes on in a cattle slaughter house, either, but that doesn’t mean that I think that eating beef is wrong. We live in a shades of gray world, and that means that we sometimes have to make some allowances for things that are morally problematic if they are inextricably interwoven into our larger societal fabric.
Moral arguments are all well and good – but at the end of the day, they are only compelling if they can be integrated into people’s everyday lives in a meaningful way. The Cove isn’t interested in explaining how we can do that; it ignores several important aspects of the one issue it’s examining and it also ignores the rest of the bigger picture. That doesn’t mean that it's central argument is wrong – just that it’s only partially correct. As a viewer, that means I can accept the Cove as being good enough - but I suspect that if I lived in Japan I would be a bit more skeptical.