Acting Affirmatively for Animal Rights, Moving BEYOND the Rhetoric of Apology
- [United Poultry Concerns - http://www.UPC-online.org/
19 June 2013
Acting Affirmatively for Animal Rights
Moving BEYOND the Rhetoric of Apology
Dear Karen Davis & UPC,
Your article "Moving Beyond the Rhetoric of Apology in Animal Rights" is so
informative, motivating, and encouraging for those of us (all of us, probably)
who grow weary at times of the fight for animals. Your handout provides animal
advocates with an uplifting shot in the arm and some effective verbal tools to
spread the message. I would suggest that you send it out again for those who
missed it and for those who might need a "refresher course."
Ann Roberts, June 18, 2013
Dear Karen Davis & Staff,
Even before going vegan, I found myself doing what you discuss in your spot-on,
brilliant article, "The Rhetoric of Apology in Animal Rights." The thing is, it
is a rhetoric, as you do note, more prevalent in discussing farm animals than
companion animals or pets.
Alexandra Yurkovsky, June 16, 2013
The Rhetoric of Apology in Animal Rights
Some Points to Consider By Karen Davis, PhD
If we find ourselves apologizing for other animals and our advocacy on their
behalf, we need to ask ourselves why. Is it an expression of self-doubt? A
Several years ago I published an article in Between the Species entitled The
Otherness of Animals. In it, I urged that in order to avoid contributing to
some of the very attitudes toward other animals that we seek to change, we need
to raise fundamental questions about the way that we, as advocates for animals,
actually conceive of them. One question concerns our tendency to deprecate
ourselves, the animals, and our goals when speaking before the public and the
press. Often we apologize for animals and our feelings for them: Anxious not
to alienate others from our cause, half doubtful of our own minds at times in a
world that often views other animals so much differently than we do, we are
liable to find ourselves presenting them apologetically at Court, spiffed up to
seem more human, capable, ladies and gentlemen, of performing Ameslan (American
sign language) in six languages. . . .
We apologize in many different ways. More than once, I've been warned by an
animal protectionist that the public will never care about chickens, and that
the only way to get people to stop eating chickens is to concentrate on things
like health and the environment. However, to take this defeatist view is to
create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the spokespersons for animals decide in
advance that no one will ever really care about them, or aren't ready for
them, this negative message will be conveyed to the public.
The apologetic mode of discourse in animal rights is epitomized by the I know I
sound crazy, but . . . approach to the public. If we find ourselves
apologizing for other animals and our advocacy on their behalf, we need to ask
ourselves why. Is it an expression of self-doubt? A deliberate strategy? Either
way, I think the rhetoric of apology harms our movement tremendously. Following
are some examples of what I mean.
Reassuring the public, Don't worry. Vegetarianism isn't going to come
overnight. We should ask ourselves: If I were fighting to end human slavery,
child abuse or some other human-created oppression, would I seek to placate the
public or the offenders by reassuring them that the abuse will still go on for a
long time and that we are only trying to phase it out gradually? Why, instead
of defending a vegan diet, are we not affirming it?
Patronizing animals: Of course they're only animals, but . . . Of course they
can't reason the way we do. Of course they can't appreciate a symphony or paint
a great work of art or go to law school, but . . . In fact, few people live
their lives according to reason, or appreciate symphonies or paint works of
art. As human beings, we do not know what it feels like to have wings or to take
flight from within our own bodies or to live naturally within the sea. Our
species represents a smidgeon of the world's experience, yet we patronize
everything outside our domain.
Comparing the competent, adult members of other animal species with human
infants and cognitively impaired humans. Do we really believe that all of the
other animals in this world have a mental life and range of experience
comparable to diminished human capacity and the sensations of human infants?
Except within the legal system, where all forms of life that are helpless
against human assault should be classed together and defended on similar
grounds, this analogy is both arrogant and absurd.
Starting a sentence with, I know these animals aren't as cute as other animals,
but . . . Would you tell a child, I know Billy isn't as cute as Tom, but you
still have to play with him? Why put a foregone conclusion in people's minds?
Why even suggest that physical appearance and conventional notions of
attractiveness are relevant to how someone should be treated?
Letting ourselves be intimidated by science says, producers know best, and
charges of anthropomorphism. We are related to other animals through
evolution. Our empathic judgments reflect this fact. It doesn't take special
credentials to know, for example, that a hen confined in a wire cage is
suffering, or to imagine what her feelings must be compared with those of a hen
ranging outside in the grass. We're told that humans are capable of knowing just
about anything we want to know except what it feels like to be one of our
victims. Intellectual confidence is needed here, not submission to the
epistemological deficiencies, cynicism, and intimidation tactics of profiteers.
Letting others identify and define who we are. I once heard a demonstrator tell
a member of the press at a chicken slaughterhouse protest, I'm sure Perdue
thinks we're all a bunch of kooks for caring about chickens, but . . . Ask
yourself: Does it matter what the Tysons and Perdues of this world think about
anything? Can you imagine Jim Perdue standing in front of a camera, saying, I
know the animal rights people think I'm a kook, but . . .?
Needing to prove that we care about people, too. The next time someone
challenges you about not caring about people, politely ask them what they're
working on. Whatever they say, say, But why aren't you working on ________?
Don't you care about ________?
We care deeply about many things, but we cannot devote our primary time and
energy to all of them. We must focus our attention and direct our resources.
Moreover, to seek to enlarge the human capacity for justice and compassion is to
care about and work for the betterment of people.
Needing to pad, bolster and disguise our concerns about animals and animal
abuse. An example is: Even if you don't care about roosters, you should still
be concerned about gambling in arguments against cockfighting. Is animal
advocacy consistent with reassuring people that it's okay not to care about the
animals involved in animal abusing activities? That the animals themselves are
mere emblems for more pressing matters? Instead, how about: In addition to
the horrible suffering of the roosters, there is also the gambling to
consider. Expanding the context of concern is legitimate. Diminishing the
animals and their plight to gain favor isn't.
In recognizing the reality of other societal concerns, it is imperative to
recognize that the abuse of animals is a human problem as serious as any other.
Unfortunately, the victims of homo sapiens are legion. As individuals and
groups, we cannot give equal time to every category of abuse. We must go where
our heartstrings pull us the most, and do the best that we can with the
confidence needed to change the world.
Be Affirmative, Not Apologetic
The rhetoric of apology in animal rights is an extension of the unconscious
contributions to one's undoing described by the child psychologist, Bruno
Bettelheim.* He pointed out that human victims will often collaborate
unconsciously with an oppressor in the vain hope of winning favor. An example in
the animal rights movement is reassuring others that you still eat meat, or
don't oppose hunting, as a bonding strategy to get them to support a ban on,
say, animal testing. Ask yourself if using one group of exploited animals as
bait to win favor for another really advances our cause.
In fighting for animals and animal rights the claims of other animals upon us
as fellow creatures with feelings and lives of their own against the
collective human oppressor, we assume the role of vicarious victims. To
apologize in this role is to betray ourselves profoundly. We need to
understand why and how this can happen. As Bettelheim wrote, But at the same
time, understanding the possibility of such unconscious contributions to one's
undoing also opens the way for doing something about the experience namely,
preparing oneself better to fight in the external world against conditions which
might induce one unconsciously to facilitate the work of the destroyer.
We must prepare ourselves in this way. If we feel that we must apologize, let us
apologize to the animals, not for them.
*Bruno Bettelheim, Unconscious Contributions to One's Undoing, SURVIVING and
Other Essays, Vintage Books, 1980.
The Rhetoric of Apology in Animal Rights is updated from Karen Davis's original
speech presented at the National Alliance for Animals Symposium in Washington
DC, July, 1994.
United Poultry Concerns is a nonprofit organization that promotes
the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl.
Don't just switch from beef to chicken. Go Vegan.
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