What makes us accept as normal what we know in our hearts and minds to be morally reprehensible? How is it that decent and compassionate people co-exist in silence about widespread animal suffering? This question is the basis of a new University of Newcastle paper exploring the sociological and anthropological motivators that allow us to invoke denial as a coping mechanism when faced with the prospect of animal suffering on a level unprecedented in human civilization.
Deidre Wicks, author of the Silence and Denial in Everyday Life—The Case of Animal Suffering, portrays a reality in which many know about the suffering of animals in labs, in rodeos, in farms and in land development. Information is easily accessible to us, even arriving “unsolicited,” yet we are able to somehow turn a blind eye to it. “In purely numerical terms, perhaps the greatest suffering is inflicted on animals through the transformation involved in turning their bodies into food,” says Wicks. But how does denial work in social settings and how can it be overcome?
Wicks begins by deconstructing denial into its three major manifestations: cultural, personal and official. And it is cultural denial that Wicks places the most emphasis on in our collective acceptance of a phenomenon like suffering. “The presence of a self-declared vegetarian at the table punctures the carefully constructed edifice of personal and cultural denial concerning the suffering of the animal that was turned into meat for the meal,” she writes. When denial functions in a group setting like this one, it is a form of “emotional management,” allowing us to enjoy what we want while keeping the negative emotional baggage at the curb.
A fascinating idea that evolves out of this paper is what Wicks calls the passive bystander. The most profound example for this is traced to the period just after World War II when many sociologists turned their attention toward understanding how the well-intentioned German public could sanction the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. Wicks applies this theory formalized in the 1960s to the specter of animal suffering today. This becomes for Wicks The Rules of Denial which allow us to engage in a conspiracy of silence about truths that we actually find morally-reprehensible.
Next Wicks turns to the political and economic dimensions of denial and how political and economic power is used to control what we notice and what we choose to ignore. She points out that the ultimate power is held in the hands of the media which determines what is “in our radar” and what is not. When we see Mr. Purdue appearing in his facetious commercial about his chickens in front of dressing room lit mirrors, the reality of factory farming suddenly shifts into fantasy, and the grave spectre of 9 billion chickens killed for food is forgotten.
“Breaking a conspiracy of silence involves making the open secret (the ‘elephant in the room’) part of the public discourse. This must include public challenges to the more meretricious vocabularies of denial—the euphemisms which hide animal suffering. Like silence itself, breaking it is a collaborative effort that involves an entire social system. In order to counteract the group pressure to keep the silence, it is essential to build the weight of numbers. As more people join the silence breaker, the dynamics of the situation shift until it reaches a ‘tipping point’ where ‘the increasing social pressure on the remaining conspirators to also acknowledge the elephant’s presence eventually overrides the social pressure to keep denying it.”
Key to this process, Wicks says, is providing clear calls to action that will facilitate and encourage silence breakers to “come out” and encourage others to do the same, to identify what we know in our hearts is wrong.
Thanks to humanespot.org for bringing this story to our attention.