Acknowledge No Evil: How People Come To Accept Violence Against Animals As Normal
In my previous post I discussed how it is that some people can personally commit acts of cruelty and torture toward animals for a living. However, I think the bigger question is, why are most U.S. citizens willing to pay others to engage in this cruelty, even when it is obvious that they can make personal choices that would prevent it? Unnecessary cruelty and killing of animals occurs every day on a mass scale, and the majority of U.S. citizen choose to accept, enable, and even demand it.
There are too many examples of how individual decisions drive huge animal atrocities. For example, in 2008 over four million cats and dogs were killed in animal shelters due to a lack of homes. In the same year, over one-third of companion animals in U.S. homes were purchased from stores or breeders rather than being adopted. Even though the National Cancer Institute notes that heavy meat consumption increases the risk of dying from all diseases, in 2008 over 9.5 billion land animals were slaughtered for food, consumption of meat, eggs and dairy was at 920 pounds per person, and 97% of the U.S. population were meat-eaters. Clearly, most people are in denial, but why? And how does this denial work?
All posts in this blog series:
In the initial post in this series I summarized the work of Stanley Cohen in States of Denial. He identified three types of denial—literal, interpretive, and implicitory. Literal denial is easy for animal advocates to address. We educate people about puppy mills and fur farms, animal slaughter and circus cruelty, and they can no longer deny what is happening. But the problem is that they do. Once literal denial is overcome and people can no longer say, “I didn’t know that animals were suffering,” most people somehow keep living lives that allow for mass animal suffering.
To justify ignoring the knowledge they hold about animal suffering, many people either redefine the atrocities against animals, or they deny that they are morally important. Every year I see people walk past circus picket lines after becoming visibly upset while reading pamphlets. I have seen people read pamphlets on puppy mills but still walk into a per store prepared to pay hundreds of dollars for a companion animal and support the breeding industry.
The difficulty in trying to understand this denial is that these are not pathological or mentally dysfunctional people. They are normal, average, typical people. Cohen’s book does not actually address animal suffering, rather it covers a multitude of human-focused atrocities that played out in the same way. The Armenian Holocaust, the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, apartheid in South Africa, and the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda are all examples of atrocities that occurred while the majority of those with the ability to stop it colluded either by passively accepting it or actively supporting it. Given the prevalence for denial of atrocities, the very tendency for denial seems in itself to be normal, as it happens across social, historical, and cultural settings.
In the case of animals, a number of psychologists have tried to understand how the average person comes to accept and deny suffering. These researchers explain a cultural environment that engenders a denial of animal suffering even when faced with evidence to the contrary. Deidre Wick’s study about the silence and denial of animal suffering, which I have discussed throughout this series, highlights the way in which animal suffering becomes normalized, routinized, and covered up through the process of childhood socialization. We learn at a young age to accept animal suffering and to engage in daily acts of denial, such as using euphemisms to describe eating animals.
In her recent book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, Melanie Joy calls this attitude carnism. Carnism is the belief system that it is acceptable to eat some animals. Joy highlights the fact that there was no word for the belief system that eating animals is normal. Because vegetarianism and veganism had been named, while carnism had not, the former appeared to be discrete choices whereas eating animals appeared to just be eating.
Gender theorist Michael Kimmel states, “privilege is invisible,” meaning that the privileged social position is never named. Privilege is invisible, because you cannot identify a problem if it does not have a name and it is easy to deny something you cannot identify accurately with language. We see this in the case of meat eating, without a name it remains the norm and is not questioned as the dominant way of eating. Joy tries to rectify this problem by naming meat eating as an ideology and a choice, so that as a culture we can be begin to discuss it.
Currently, only those who already don’t eat animals are picking up on the term carnism, so for most people meat eating and the systems of belief that allow for the mass suffering of animals remain unnamed for now. This cultural shift is part of a marathon we are still striving to finish. In the short run, advocates must also work to change individuals on a personal level to lift the veil of denial that is normal for most people and that they have been learning to maintain since childhood. So how do we break through denial?
One possible way to overcome normalized denial is by normalizing compassion. It is easy to deny suffering because it is normal to deny suffering; advocates can potentially work within this rubric and make it easy to express compassion by making compassion normal. In Change of Heart, Nick Cooney highlights the possibilities of this tactic. Cooney examined studies of why people who smoke or are obese tend to be in social networks of others who smoke or are obese, or why it is that happy people have happy friends. This research finds it is not necessarily that people choose to be with others like themselves, nor is it that people in similar social networks are exposed to similar experiences that lead them to have these characteristics. Rather, people influence one another and “spread” these characteristics. Even when someone overeats and has seconds, it normalizes the act of overeating within her or his social circle.
Cooney suggests that animal advocates might therefore try to engage in communities of people and build friendships with people who are not animal advocates. In this way, people are exposed to the idea that not exploiting animals is not such a crazy idea and perhaps even normal.
Though there might be inroads to normalizing compassion, animal suffering is rampant. The culture of denying animal suffering, or at least the culture of denying the importance and/or moral implications of animal suffering, may be so pervasive and entrenched that it is less useful to understand how denial works, and more important to understand those who are not in denial. After 248 pages of explaining the complex processes of denial, Cohen comes to the same conclusion:
“By taking denial as normal…it [is] easier to see “acknowledgement” as the active and infrequent opposite of denial. When do people pay attention? When do they recognize the significance of what they know?”
So what we should be asking is what makes people adopt instead of buy a new companion animal, become vegetarian, donate money to an animal organization, or start acknowledging animal suffering? In the next post I address this issue in terms of what is known about appeals that do and do not work. We will shift the question from “why is there denial?” to “when is there acknowledgement?”