Animal Advocacy And Cognitive Re-Engineering
What does it mean to be an advocate for animal rights? There are a couple of qualities that immediately come to mind. First, animal rights advocates share a strong commitment to animals, be it moral or emotional. Self-identification is, surely, a major aspect of this commitment – we declare ourselves to be animal rights advocates and, in varying degrees, integrate that into our identities. In turn, we alter our behaviors and even the ways we socialize with others. But, what other processes are at work here? What else is a person experiencing when they “become” an animal rights advocate?
Swedish researchers set out to answer this. They propose that, in addition to identity change and re-socialization, the cognitive processes behind our affection and sensibility towards animals are “re-engineered.” These affections and sensibilities culminate into dispositions that center around advocacy. In other words, animal rights advocates are such because they have gone through a process of translating knowledge, logic, and feelings into a motivation to enact change. To help frame this idea, the researchers propose a theoretical perspective on how the subjectivity, sense, and sensibility of advocates are fueled by their very own advocacy. The researchers also present three empirical processes that intertwine to inform advocates’ subjectivity to animals: micro-shocking, embodied simulation, and affective meat experiences.
According to the researchers, there are three components that contribute to people’s affective and cognitive responses to experiences: the corporal body (what is physically felt), the psyche (what is thought), and the culture (the context). These three factors work together to inform how people process experiences. Then, the memories of the experiences are given positive, neutral, or negative classifications based on these different perceptions. This fosters an “embedded, embodied subjectivity” towards a particular subject – in this case, animals.
For animal rights advocates, these three areas informed their knowledge on conflict, established power structures, and a different future. Guided by morality, the authors state, animal rights advocates live a life heavily influenced by their feelings, thoughts, and experiences. They have gone through the process of re-engineering their affections and sensibilities towards animals.
The researchers sought to illustrate this concept by interviewing 18 Swedish animal rights advocates. In order to be eligible for interview, and to help the researchers gather a group of undoubtedly committed advocates, the participants had to be vigorously engaged with activism and be vegan. From these lengthy, open-ended interviews, researchers came up with three empirical processes that contribute to subjectivity towards animals.
The first process, deemed “micro-shocking,” is a bodily experience in response to pictures or videos. You may be familiar with feeling—physically and/or mentally—disgust and despair in response to slaughterhouse footage. This is the shock phenomenon the researchers reference. Such experiences are usually memorable because they are so shocking. Such videos are also shocking for non-animal rights advocates, because they too can have empathy for the suffering of others. This micro-shock is a quick exposure to the experience. And, according to the researchers and interviewees, these micro-shocks are a key motivator for continuing animal advocacy, and serve as catalysts for re-intensification of moral commitments.
The second process dubbed by the researchers is called “embodied simulation.” This is a type of empathy wherein the person imaginatively assumes the role of the other (in this case, animal) and perceives how he or she is feeling. It can be a truly visceral experience that’s difficult to ignore, and it can actually be branded into one’s personal memories. It’s through this embodied simulation that animal rights advocates affirm their empathy and commitment to animals.
Finally, the researchers discuss “affective meat encounters,” or striking experiences with food that cause feelings of disgust. For example, one interviewee discussed her feelings of realizing “that chicken wasn’t just a name but really was a chicken.” These experiences link the food on one’s plate with the animal that it originated from; the food itself being symbolic for torment. For many animal rights advocates, these affective meat encounters are daily occurrences, especially considering how much meat consumption is normalized in culture and society. The feelings of moral and bodily repulsion that result from these experiences mold and reinforce advocates’ subjectivities.
All three of these processes contribute to an animal rights advocate’s perceived experiences of the world. The body, the psyche, and the culture intertwine to re-engineer how advocates respond to experiences and, accordingly, how these experiences inform their advocacy.
If you identify as an animal rights advocate, you may be able to recognize one or more of these processes from personal experiences, and you may have recalled some of the visceral and mental responses you have had to animal suffering. However, you may not have realized that you went through a cognitive re-engineering in response to your experiences. Proposing empirical descriptions for processes that are typically more abstract (such as ethics and feelings) helps those who identify as animal rights advocates—and even those who don’t—understand the reasoning and motivations behind advocacy. Articles such as this one continue to push forward the notion that being an animal rights advocate goes beyond a mere identity.