Silence, Denial, And Support For Truth About Animal Suffering
In recent history, many individuals have worked to break the silence and make visible the suffering of nonhuman animals through a variety of animal protection outreach efforts. These efforts include leafleting, speaking in schools, boycotts, protests, undercover investigations, and legislative campaigning. However, a recent law in Iowa seeks to make one of these tactics, undercover investigations, illegal. One implication of this law could be the institutionalization of cultural silence and denial surrounding the suffering of nonhuman animals.
According to the Faunalytics Animal Tracker, the social movement tactic most widely accepted by U.S. adults is anti-cruelty investigations. While we did not conduct in-depth interviews to determine why, I expect that the high level of support is because investigations allow people to see with their own eyes what is typically hidden behind brick walls and closed doors. People who view videos or read first-hand documentation of these investigations are less likely to feel they are being “tricked” by advocates. However, such videos may soon become illegal. House File 589 is currently before the Iowa Legislature and a similar bill has been proposed in Minnesota; if passed, it will prohibit “whistleblowers” from taking photos or videos at factory farms, puppy mills, and similar facilities. However, a majority of Iowa voters currently opposes the bill and a similar bill in Florida failed this week.
The laws banning these videos are extremely harmful, as they have the potential to reaffirm institutionalized silence about the suffering that animals in our society experience. In an important article recently published in the journal Animals, Deidre Wicks addresses the ways that silence and denial function to allow typically good and moral people to accept the mass exploitation of nonhuman animals. She describes the silence about animals’ suffering largely as being cultivated through socialization into what a culture pays attention to and what it ignores.
Wicks explains that the things a culture “sees” are determined in three ways, according to what she calls the “Rules of Denial.” First is what people are socialized to see. The moral lines along which a society functions changes over time, such that what one pays attention to in terms of suffering changes as well. For example, in the 1800s when horses were often used as work animals, it was not odd to see a horse being treated poorly and forced to work in the street. While just as cruel over a hundred years ago as it is today, it would not have been noticed. However, when a donkey was painted pink as a media stunt in Los Angeles this past week, it warranted the attention of hundreds of activists, Animal Control officials, and mainstream media outlets, all of whom found the behavior abusive. The evolution of cultural moral imperatives is good news, as it indicates the work of animal advocates has merit and can impact the moral compass of our society.
Wick also notes that, just as people are socialized to see some things, they are also taught from an early age not to see others. For example, children learn from an early age not to see that animals suffered on the way to the dinner plate by the language used to disassociate them from their actual bodies:
“[Children] are taught to call things by certain names like ‘chops’, ‘bacon’, ‘roast’, and ‘cutlet’. When the fateful day arrives when the child finally asks ‘What is a chop made out of?’ they are inevitably told a version of the truth which they understand to mean, ‘Do not ask about this’. Do not notice that this is anything but a ‘chop’. And so the training in denial begins” (Wicks, pg. 191).
Wick also highlights that the mere presence of vegetarians makes the average meal uncomfortable as their choice not to participate in animal suffering renders the fact that animals do suffer visible. The banning of undercover videos ensures we will not actually see any of this suffering—reinforcing the current moral lines determining what we pay attention to and what we ignore, making the work of denial easier.
Wick explains that social ideas about tact and taboos keep these lines of what we ignore and what we pay attention to in place. Tact refers to social mores of politeness and taboos refer to things that are simply socially unacceptable. By making undercover videos illegal, lawmakers are placing an official and enforceable taboo on making visible much of the suffering that animals face in our society.
To round out her discussion of how denial works, Wicks addresses its political and economic contexts. She notes three important things regarding the perpetuation of denial: those in power can dictate what we pay attention to by “setting the agenda,” industries that make a lot of money have a lot of control over what a society will tolerate, and the mass media directs attention to and from certain topics.
Making undercover videos of agricultural businesses illegal highlights the way that all of these tools of denial are used collectively by officials to reinforce the cultural trend toward ignoring the extreme amounts of suffering of nonhuman animals in this industry. Policy–makers are using their power to protect business interests through the legal control of mass media. And by controlling mass media as a way to keep animals’ suffering off of the agenda, officials have done much to reduce the chances that this animal suffering will become relevant within the broader culture’s moral frame:
“The ultimate attention-grabbing power resides in the mass media which determines what is eventually displayed on our collective radar screen…the media may not be so successful in telling us what to think, but they are stunningly successful in telling us what to think about…The media also keep certain things out of our awareness by simply not covering them” (Wicks, pg. 194).
Undercover investigations allow advocates to tell the true stories of animal suffering and to be a voice to include animals in our culture’s mores. These types of investigations force our blinders off so that we must confront their suffering and our own denial. Banning undercover investigations attempts to maintain that denial, and the suffering that goes with it, which is unacceptable in a moral society. The three in four U.S. adults who support anti-cruelty investigations would seem to agree.