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3 March 1999 Issue

The Rhetoric of Apology in Animal Rights: Some Points to Consider
By Karen Davis, Ph.D.

United Poultry Concerns, Inc.Summer/Fall 1994 Poultry Press Speech, July 10,
National Alliance for Animals Seventh Annual International Animal Rights
Symposium, July 8 through July 10, 1994, Washington Dulles Marriott

Several years ago I published an article in Between the Species entitled
"The Otherness of Animals" (Fall 1988). In it, I urged that in order to avoid
contributing to some of the very attitudes towards other animals that we seek to
change, we need to raise fundamental questions about the way that we, the
defenders of animals, actually conceive of them. One question that needs to be
raised concerns our tendency to deprecate ourselves, the animals, and our
goals when speaking before the press and the public. Often we "apologize" for
animals and our feelings for them. In Between the Species, I argued, "Anxious
not to alienate others from our cause, half doubtful of our own minds at times
in a world which 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 have 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 we, the spokespersons for animals, decide in
advance that no one will ever really care about them, we will convey this
message to the public. Insisting that others will never care about chickens
projects the feeling, "I don't think that I can ever care much about chickens."

This negative attitude about chickens epitomizes the apologetic mode of
discourse in animal rights. It is the "I know I sound crazy, but . . ." approach to
the public. If we find ourselves "apologizing" for other animals, we need to ask
ourselves why we do this. Is it an expression of self-doubt? A deliberate
strategy? Either way, I believe that the rhetoric of apology harms our move-
ment tremendously. Following are some examples of what I mean.

1. Reassuring the public, "Don't worry. Vegetarianism isn't going to come
overnight." We should ask ourselves the question: 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 offender by reassuring them that
the offense will still go on for a long time and that we are only trying to
phase it out gradually? Why, instead of defending vegetarianism are we
not affirming it?

2. Patronizing animals: "Of course they're only animals. 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, but . . ." In fact, few people live their lives accord-
ing to "reason," or appreciate symphonies, or paint works of art. As humans
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 smidgen of the world's experience, yet we patronize every-
thing outside our domain.

3. Comparing competent, adult nonhuman animals with human infants and
people who are mentally defective. This is an extension of number 2.
Do we honestly believe that all of the other creatures on earth have a mental
life and range of experiences that are comparable to diminished human
capacity and the sensations of newborn babies? Except within the legal
system, where all forms of life that are helpless against human assault
should be classified together and defended on similar grounds, this analogy
is both arrogant and logically absurd.

4. Starting a sentence with, "I know these animals aren't as cute as other
animals, but . . ." Do you say to your child, "I know Bill isn't as cut 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
conventionalized notions of attractiveness are relevant to anything that
matters in a relationship?

5. 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 does not take
special credentials to know that, for example, 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 are 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 submis-
sion to the epistemological deficiencies, cynicism, and intimidation tactics
of profiteers.

6. Letting the other side identify and define who we are. I once heard a
demonstrator tell a member of the press at a protest at a chicken
slaughterhouse, "I'm sure Frank Perdue thinks we're all a bunch of kooks
for caring about chickens, but. . ." Ask yourself: does it matter what the
Frank Perdues of this world "think" about anything? Can you imagine
Frank Perdue standing in front of a camera, saying, 'I know the animal
rights advocates think I'm a kook, but . . ."?

7. Needing to "prove" that we care about people, too. The next time someone
challenges you about not caring about people, 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; however, 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 to work for people.

8. Needing to "pad" and bolster our concerns about animals and animal abuse.
This is an extension of number 7. In keeping with the need to recognize the
links of oppression and the indivisibility of social justice concerns, it is
imperative to recognize that the abuse of animals is a human problem that is
as serious as any other abuse. Unfortunately, the victims of homo sapiens
are legion. As individuals and groups, we cannot give equal time to every
category of injustice. We must go where our heartstrings pull us the most,
and do the best that we can with the confidence that is needed to change
the world.

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" uncon-
sciously with an oppressor in the vain hope of winning the oppressor's favor.

In fighting for animals and animal rights 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 explained out, "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 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.

Email: franklin@smarty.smart.net 

 

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