How Moral Shock Makes An Impression
Explicitly violent visuals of nonhuman animals have been used by animal advocates throughout the history of the movement. Undercover footage and photos of animals in factory farms, slaughterhouses, and laboratories are key components of the strategies of animal advocacy groups worldwide. This can be a highly impactful and effective tool for making an impression on those not yet in the movement, and for maintaining motivation among advocates.
To better understand the role of graphic images in animal advocacy, the author of this study conducted interviews with 60 animal advocates in Denmark, Sweden, and Spain to learn what effect explicit visuals of animal exploitation have had on them, and how they have used these visuals in their advocacy work. She recruited interview subjects using the snowball method, with participants referring her to additional participants. The participant pool was diverse in age, gender, years of activism, and advocacy strategies, though it was skewed in the same ways as the animal advocacy movement at large — female, educated, young, and white.
Interviewees reported that exposure to graphic visuals often causes a reaction of moral shock — a visceral reaction to something ethically appalling that impels someone to action. It is the very fact that these images are so jarring that makes them effective at rousing people from apathy and ignorance to action. In most circumstances we try to avoid subjecting ourselves or others to the kind of distress that graphic visuals cause, but sanitized depictions cannot fully convey the urgency and magnitude of the problem.
This is why some advocates take it upon themselves to periodically revisit graphic footage and photos in spite of the distress it causes them. They find it motivates them to continue to work to alleviate the suffering they see. Some also see it as a moral duty to bear witness to the true nature of human animals’ exploitation of nonhuman animals. Other advocates find that repeated exposure to the horrors of animal exploitation merely makes them feel hopeless, and has a negative impact on their work. This is one among several potential drawbacks of the moral shock strategy, which must be carefully navigated in order to advocate most effectively.
Some advocates believe that over-use of violent images could desensitize viewers and normalize the violence shown. It can also undermine the dignity of the individuals depicted. In an attempt to expose the exploitation of nonhuman animals, we may inadvertently commodify them further in the eyes of those we are trying to reach.
Others share a concern that visuals that are too graphic will backfire, and leave viewers so upset that they avoid the issue altogether. Those who are sensitive to the suffering of nonhuman animals can become highly motivated advocates, but not if we alienate them before they have a chance to engage with the issue.
These drawbacks can be overcome, and the key is balance.
Shock must be balanced with consent. This is achieved by tailoring the use of visuals to the audience and venue. It might not be wise to use explicit images in a public space, where passersby may be ambushed by disturbing content without their consent, leading to alienation and avoidance. In a ticketed screening, however, where viewers are willing and informed participants, these images are more likely to have their intended effect. Interviewees felt it would be unethical and inappropriate to expose children to explicit images of violence, and that with a young audience one should instead use images of animals in a zoo, a sanctuary, or in the wild.
Discomfort must be balanced with direction. Discomfort alone is not effective, but if it can be directed toward specific actions and given purpose, it can be a catalyst for change. Graphic depictions of animal suffering should always be accompanied by specific suggestions of actions the viewer can take to alleviate animal suffering.
Realism must be balanced with hope. Advocates who view these images to stay motivated should strive to maintain balance by also viewing images of the hoped-for outcome of their work: happy, healthy animals in sanctuaries or in the wild. This can prevent them from becoming bogged down in discouragement.
Scope must be balanced with individuality. Panoramic shots of acres of battery barns and feedlots can convey the magnitude of nonhuman animal suffering very powerfully. Still, for greatest impact they should be used in concert with footage or photos of individual animals so the viewer has the opportunity to relate to the individual’s emotions, their gaze, their relationships, and their voice. This can nurture empathy and overcome the tendency to become overwhelmed by large-scale atrocity. Research has shown that people relate most readily to the suffering of mammals, so advocates may find that this strategy is more effective when applied to cows and pigs than to fish or birds.
In today’s technological landscape advocates have unprecedented access to explicit footage and photos of violence toward nonhuman animals. If we use this powerful tool strategically as part of a multi-pronged approach, we can expect to win over new advocates and stay motivated ourselves.
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