Denial and animal experiments

Posted on the 30th April 2012

A year has gone by since the last World Day rally in Manchester. During that time, I have read many scientific papers and articles detailing the short lives and deaths of hundreds of animals. Something that has struck me repeatedly are the methods used by animal experimenters to justify and seek support for their practices. I believe that we need to understand and unmask these techniques for what they are – a complex denial of atrocities and suffering.

Whilst pondering this topic, I remembered reading an excellent book by the sociologist Stanley Cohen, called ‘States of Denial’. I decided to read it afresh with animal experiments in mind, and found much that is relevant to our struggle today.

Cohen asks how people can do atrocious things, yet think of themselves as good and decent people. Part of the answer is denial. He talks about the ‘accounts’ people, organisations and governments are required to give, both to themselves and others, about why they behave in a certain way. They need these accounts to protect themselves from self-blame and blame by others, and to neutralise or deflect anticipated social disapproval.

Animal experimenters use such accounts, and I have set out some of the key ones below. As Cohen says, these justifications are ‘active, unapologetic and offensive’:

Denial of injury – attempting to neutralise the wrongfulness of acts by minimising any consequent harms. Understanding Animal Research (UAR) is a rabidly pro-vivisection lobby group, which defends cruelty of a nature most people would find repellent. According to them, ‘all animals (in laboratories) must be properly housed, fed and cared for. Pain and distress must be minimised and the UK controls state that there must be a vet on call at all times. These controls also make sure that any animal suffering severe pain which cannot be alleviated is put down immediately’.

Denial of the victim – excluding others from a moral community. Outside the boundary of this community, values and rules of fairness are applied differently, or not at all. According to UAR, most people do not believe that animals have a right not be eaten, or kept in a circus, or used as clothing, or experimented upon, ‘as about 90% of people in most cultures eat meat’.

Condemnation of the condemners – deflecting attention from one’s own actions, by questioning the right of others to criticise. The supposedly more reprehensible acts of your adversary are highlighted, with critics often labelled hypocrites. This tactic is a favourite one, and even a cursory look through the UAR website finds plenty of condemnation. A previous World Day march, for example, was partly planned by ‘all those animal rights extremists who are not in prison’. Animal Aid’s Victims of Charity campaign is supposedly ‘irresponsible, illogical and ill-conceived’, and a comment saying ‘let’s poke these evil animal rights people in the eye’ is applauded as a favourite.

In a characterisation I found unintentionally amusing, Animal Rights Extremists (or ARE) are said to employ ‘a wide variety of tactics, spanning the spectrum from annoying to disruptive to dangerous. Not least thanks to their often all-consuming dedication to their task, extremists develop cunning and effective methods, many of which betray their often substantial and nuanced knowledge of law… Moreover, they are adept at baiting those caught up in their actions – targeted individuals or police – into acting outside the law’.

Euphemism – using labels and jargon to ‘mask, sanitise and confer respectability. Palliative terms deny or misrepresent cruelty or harm, giving them neutral or respectable status’.

Going through the papers detailing animal experiments, and the propaganda for public consumption, we find jargon everywhere. Clearly, in scientific literature, technical terms are required to convey information. But such language when applied to sentient beings also functions to blunt emotional responses, and to turn animal life into a commodity. In other words, it is also euphemism.

Animals are not force-fed but ‘gavaged’. They are not killed, but are ‘sacrificed’ (and always ‘humanely’). The Alzheimer’s Society doesn’t fund researchers to give mice brain damage with high-pressure jets, but ‘selective axonal pathology with fluid percussive injury’. The British Heart Foundation’s anaesthetised, cut-open, dissected, intubated beagles are ‘experimental preparations’. Parkinson’s UK marmosets are not paralysed, silent, and shaking, but suffering ‘akinesia, loss of vocalisation and postural tremor’.

It is well known that doctors use medical jargon euphemistically when they want to distance themselves emotionally from their patients. It surely cannot be otherwise for these experimenters.

Necessity – the justifying of acts by claiming that there is no alternative. This is a ubiquitous and all-pervasive form of denial. Every individual or organisation has a version of the mantra that animal experiments are essential to medical progress.

Legalism – the offering of legalistic defences, drawn from accredited discourse. On the most basic level, there is a paragraph in every experimental write-up that says the work was approved by a local ethics committee, and conducted in accordance with the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, 1986. A widespread but absurd tactic is what Cohen calls ‘magical legalism’- claiming that an allegation of animal abuse could not be correct because it is illegal. When Animal Aid reported on cruelty funded by the Alzheimer’s Society, UAR posted the following classic magical legalism:

‘Researchers and laboratories adhere to strict Home Office regulations and are regularly inspected without notice. Failure to comply would mean loss of licence for both the scientist and the research laboratory. The use of ‘extremely cruel methods’ is not allowed within Home Office regulations’.

Moral indifference – this is probably the most chilling of all denial strategies. The perpetrators do not recognise any morally legitimate universe outside their own. They see nothing wrong in their actions and behave without reflection. Cohen paraphrases the idea of banal evil in the following way:

‘unimaginable evil can result from a constellation of ordinary human qualities: not fully realising the immorality of what you are doing; motives that are dull, unimaginative and commonplace (like going along with others, professional ambition, job security), and retaining long afterwards the façade of pseudo-stupidity, not grasping what the fuss was about’. This description could well apply to grant-chasing academics, with their latest batch of animal experiments for approval.

In conducting our charities campaign at Animal Aid, we have also come across a variety of denials from organisations like Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation. We have been given Cohen’s ‘half-truths, evasions, legalistic sophistries, (and) ideological appeals’, plus a lot of good old-fashioned silence. One of our patrons, Peter Tatchell, in an article published this week in the Huffington Post, makes the point that this is simply not acceptable.

So what is to be done? We see denial in many guises in the words and actions of the animal experimenters, and to a large extent, in our culture at large. Cohen cautions us that shutting out an awareness of others’ suffering is the normal state of affairs. In seeking to break it down, we must look in the right places: ‘instead of asking why most people obey authority so unthinkingly, let us look again and again at the consistent minority who refuse to obey’.

He proposes a set of cultural conditions that must be met before the opposite of denial – acknowledgement – becomes widespread. I think they work well in illuminating our particular struggle:

  • The cognitive demand is for knowledge of what is happening. The facts must be framed in appropriate terms that refuse to accept the vocabularies of denial. Animal abuse, mass cruelty and suffering must be named as such.
  • The emotional demand is for widespread sharing and expressing of feelings – empathy, outrage, shame and compassion.
  • The moral sentiment that animal experiments are wrong, and cannot be tolerated, must be acknowledged.
  • Appeals to others must convince them that they too cannot keep silent, that they must also act.
  • Finally, cultural channels should be visibly in place, to validate the sense that something can be done, and enable people to do it.

Clearly, we are already a movement that works on all these fronts:

We work on information. Some of us dig deep into the written accounts of animal suffering, decoding them for public presentation. Some nag universities and academics to disclose what they are up to. Some speak in schools or colleges about animal experiments. A few have the courage to infiltrate laboratories to gain video footage or other evidence.

We work on emotions. We must not be afraid to show and validate our feelings of sadness, of anger, in our everyday lives, with our friends and family.

We work on morality. We are willing to stand up in public, at events like this one, or smaller street stalls and demonstrations, and say ‘this is intolerable, and must stop’. We write letters, articles, and blogs. We take part in appeals, and we appeal to others to do likewise.

We work on action. We withdraw our financial support from organisations, banks and charities that support vivisection. We donate to those that don’t. We don’t buy cruel cosmetics. We lobby transport companies to stop carrying animals destined for laboratories. We pressurise politicians and planners not to allow more laboratories or breeding facilities to be built. Some of us are brave enough to remove animal victims from these places, or to blockade the vehicles transporting them.

These are all ways to help overcome the widespread cultural denial that exists about animal experiments, and encourage acknowledgement. We can expand on these, and find others. But we must ensure that we always offer ideas for change, no matter how small they may seem on an individual basis. Our campaigning should inform as a prelude to action.

To finish up, I think it’s worth noting that Cohen is cautious about expecting too much:

‘in many societies, public engagement is difficult simply because of the mundane pressures of everyday survival….people fortunate enough to make a life working for humanitarian causes can ask others to do something, but they should not ask much more. But how much is something? Zalaquett says ‘the law can only demand from the ordinary citizen to be a law-abider, not a hero’. But surely social justice deserves more than law. There are states of being such as good citizenship, which are less than heroic but more than mere law-abiding. They do not demand extraordinary heroism, but they do discourage ordinary silence’.

There are always too few heroes. In particular, we must salute those campaigners who will endure prison for their non-violent work in defence of animals. However, there must be plenty more plain ‘good citizens’ out there to raise their voices with us. By combating and exposing denial, we make it more likely that we will find them.

(This is the text of a speech given at the World Day for Animals in Laboratories rally and march in Birmingham on Saturday 28 April 2012 by Animal Aid’s Scientific Consultant Dr Adrian Stallwood)

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