See No Evil: Denial And Animal Suffering (Part 1)
We live in a culture where it is completely normal to do things to billions of animals that we would consider unthinkable to do to humans or the cats and dogs in our homes. Atrocities that pass unquestioned by most people include, among many others, killing homeless animals at rates of thousands per day, confining animals in unsanitary, cramped, and otherwise torturous environments and then killing them in a manner that is often slow and painful, keeping wild animals confined in cages/aquariums and then forcing them to perform tricks or run races.
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Those of us that oppose these practices are often considered abnormal, overemotional, or hypersensitive. Why this might be the case is perplexing given that we live in a society that claims not to be repressive or violent. In a previous post, I highlighted a study by Deidre Wicks that discussed the silence surrounding what she calls “normalized” animal abuse. This study explains our cultural normalization of animal abuse as a type of denial and so I decided to investigate the concept of denial in more depth.
What is denial?
In his book, States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, Stanley Cohen explores how human atrocities such as genocides, war crimes, or even public beatings can take place without anyone intervening. He begins the book with a crash-course on denial, key concepts from which I will highlight and summarize. Though Cohen does not address the animal question directly, I think many of his concepts can help us better understand the mass social denial of animal suffering.
According to Cohen, denial has a number of components to it, involving cognition, emotion, morality and action. People, therefore, deny animal suffering when they choose not to acknowledge or understand it (cognition), are not bothered or disturbed by it (emotion), do not find it to be wrong or an issue that they should be concerned with (morality), and/or don’t react to the knowledge of animal suffering by taking steps to combat it (action), such as becoming vegetarian or vegan, rescuing an animal, or donating money to animal charities.
How do we deny?
According to Cohen, this denial can be literal, interpretive, or “implicitory.” Literal denial is when someone actually does not know about something (either because they don’t know, they block it out, or they choose to forget). Interpretive denial is when someone does not interpret something as problematic or immoral. Implicitory denial is when the implications resulting from the behavior or the issue are either ignored or interpreted as unproblematic or nonexistent.
The animal protection movement is battling all three of these types of denial. For example, vegan outreach, anti-puppy mill, or anti-fur efforts typically assume that people suffer a literal denial—they simply do not know what is happening to farmed animals and they must be educated. Other times animal advocates deal with interpretive denial, in which people redefine what is going on: “Lobsters/fish/etc. don’t feel pain,” “Animals enjoy performing in circuses.”
Finally there is implicatory denial, in which the facts of the situation are not denied, but the implications of these acts being of moral concern are denied. Cohen also describes this type of denial as rationalizing or justifying. Some other familiar phrases for the animal advocate indicate implicatory denial: “why do you waste your time on animals when there are starving people in Africa,” “this is natural, people are at the top of the food chain,” or simply, “I don’t care.”
Who is denying?
Denial can be also personal, official, or cultural, all of which are self-explanatory. When thinking of these in the context of animal suffering, it seems that these types of denial often work together. Wicks’ discussion of the “Rules of Denial” might be understood as the collusion of cultural and personal denial. In her discussion of the Rules of Denial, Wicks notes that through childhood socialization we learn to “see” some things and ignore others. These lessons are maintained and reinforced through cultural taboos and rules surrounding tact.
A few examples from the animal protection movement immediately come to mind that seem to anecdotally support Wicks’ assertions. Fur is one of the least accepted animal abuse practices, with 65% of U.S. adults saying that wearing fur is “morally acceptable.” However, almost all US citizens support eating animals—only 3% of U.S. adults are vegetarian/vegan. Unlike wearing fur, eating meat is actively normalized at an early age and language and cooking practices make eating the flesh of dead animals seem less gruesome; cows become hamburger patties, pigs become bacon, etc. Fur, on the other hand, is not something that children in the U.S. are often exposed to or taught to accept; it is also called exactly what it is. It seems the animal abuse practices most embedded in childhood socialization and with the greatest amount of cultural “cover-up” seem to be the most widely accepted.
Official denial in terms of animal abuse can also bee seen through the policies in place to support animal abuse, as well as the lack of policies to prevent animal abuse. The amount the U.S. spends on agricultural subsidies is high and directly enables the factory farming of animals. Further, there are relatively few laws to prevent animal abuse. For example, while most states have general anti-cruelty laws, only four U.S. states have felony-level laws that make it a crime to neglect or abandon companion animals, the animals most closely integrated into our lives and communities.
The animal protection movement is concerned with combating all of these types of denial—personal, official, and cultural. Animal advocates work to change denial on a personal level by bringing awareness to individuals and convincing them of the importance of including other animals within their moral circle. Advocates also work to change official denial, asking local and federal governments to be more compassionate by funding programs to alleviate companion animal overpopulation, protect more land for wildlife, pass laws to regulate and limit testing on animals, or ban practices like live animal circuses.
In seeking to change personal and official denial, we also seek to change cultural denial. An overarching goal for animal advocates is to overcome cultural denial by normalizing animal compassion rather than animal abuse. This may be accomplished through a variety of tactics including celebrating and promoting compassionate people and lifestyles, changing our language to reflect respect for other animals (e.g. he or she not “it,” and “companion animals” instead of “pets”).
Coming up next…
Now that I have (hopefully) convinced you that “denial” is a concept at play in the rampant and accepted abuse of animals in our society, I would like to investigate it in more depth in future blog posts. Cohen discusses a concept called the “atrocity triangle.” When atrocities occur, there are not only victims, but also one or more perpetrators (be it an individual, multiple people, a corporation, or a government) as well as bystanders who did not intervene, or even actively accepted the atrocity (i.e. meat eating, going to dog races, wearing fur, etc.).
In the following posts I will discuss perpetrator and bystander denial. What is the mindset (beyond simple financial need) that allows people to take jobs that involve animal abuse, such as working in factory farms or slaughterhouses? Why do so many average people deny the animal suffering around them? And when they learn about it, why do they do nothing to help stop it?
Outside of directly helping individual animals in need, the goal of animal advocacy is to overcome this “bystander denial.” Advocates use a number of tactics—shock advocacy, inducing guilt, and humane education, among others—to combat denial. In my final post of this series I will discuss what research can tell us about the effectiveness of these tactics for getting people to wake up and actually see the animal abuse that is rampant in our society.