Far more crucial than what we know or do not know is what we do not want to know.
Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind, 1954.
On Saturday March 24, 2001, the Welsh edition of the Liverpool Daily Post featured a single large picture on its front page. Under the headline ‘HEARTBREAK’ a man is pictured standing in front of a cow. The man’s hand is raised, the cow’s head is raised too, as if she is trying to smell what the man holds in his hand. The smell is likely to be metallic because the man holds a primed captive bolt pistol. The gun is pointed at the head of the cow who is locked into a large red restraining device. The subtitle under the headline reads: ‘The chilling moment which graphically illustrates the horrific reality of the farm outbreak’. The caption under the photograph reads: ‘GRIM TRUTH: A slaughterman shoots a cow in Lamonby, Cumbria, yesterday. We apologise to readers who find this photograph distressing. After much thought, we decided to publish it to show the full effect of the foot-and-mouth crisis’.
Apart from the newspaper’s masthead, two adverts for the content of other pages and an advert at the bottom of the page for mobility scooters, the picture and the words above take up the whole of the tabloid-sized front page.
Albert Bandura (1990) has argued that ‘euphemistic labelling’ is commonly used to ‘mask’ objectionable activities. Something thoroughly ‘objectionable’ occurred regularly during the aforementioned British foot and mouth disease outbreak of 2001. The public saw, or at least had the opportunity to see - often several times daily - on both national and regional television and in all the nation’s press and every radio news bulletin - the mass media version of the killing and destruction of animals they normally encounter only as ‘meat’, or ‘hamburgers’ or ‘pork’ (see Agnew 1998: 184), or perhaps as ‘cute’ lambs or ‘contented’ grazing cows. Ted Benton (1993: 72, and see Plous 1993) points out, most people in the Western world usually purchase meat already commodified, packaged and often renamed.
As might be suspected, many meat eaters do not overtly recognise themselves as purchasers of parts of the carcasses of dead animals, just as meat eaters and vegetarians may not have the fact that they are consumers of animal products at the forefront of their minds. Apart from the case of some fishes, care is generally taken to remove eyes and heads or other parts that would result in ‘meat’ being seen as a piece of an animal (when does a pig end and a pork chop begin? - see Singer 1983: 165-66). How many recognise that the white liquid lined up on the shelves is, first and foremost, baby food: the food of calves? However, despite this, or because of these points, one question I pose here is relatively blunt: why should people take active steps to know any of the details about the animal products that they intend to consume?
In fact, since even a moment’s thought on the subject might be expected to lead many individuals to make a guess at least that the deaths of or use of ‘food animals’ may not be particularly pleasant to witness, regardless of how ‘regulated’ the process may be, the question is rather: why shouldn’t people go out of their way to avoid knowing all there is to know about the animal-derived foods on their tables? Furthermore, what is more sensible than attempting to ‘mask’ known or suspected objectionable activities by euphemistic labelling or by other means? After all, is it not commonsensically assumed that the consumer of, say, pornography will likely avoid focusing on the potential suffering or harm involved in the ‘product’ they consume, and concentrate instead on the personal pleasure that derives from the consumption? Is it not at least appreciated that such consumers are liable to put any ‘known details’ of such harm and suffering to the backs of their minds, or interpret matters in such a way that serves to reduce the harm done? As consumers of pornography may assume that all those they view are volunteers, at least in some substantial sense, meat eaters and vegetarians likewise assume that animal welfare legislation ensures humane animal products. Philosophical appeals that informed adult human beings should regard themselves and act as reflexive moral agents are apparently not sufficiently powerful to prevent the purchasing and mass consumption of many products that cause harm. Complex social forces and understandings are in play here.
In relation to meat consumption, Singer (1983) notes that people, perhaps quite reasonably, do not want to know thedetails about the lives and deaths of the animals they are prepared to eat: for one thing, they do not want to spoil their dinner. After all, why should anyone want to spoil their dinner? Adams (1990) begins The Sexual Politics of Meat with a dedication: ‘In memory of 31.1 billion each year, 85.2 million each day, 3.5 million each hour, 59,170 each minute’. Apart from perhaps placing ‘9-11’ into something of a controversial context, these huge figures might easily spoil someone’s dinner, since the figures refer to the deaths of ‘food animals’ (current numbers require that at least another 12 billion should be added to the total amount cited by Adams, and that figure should be doubled if fishes and shellfishes are to be included). Why would anyone willingly put themselves ‘in the way’ of such statistics? Why would any meat eater know these things? Vegan animal advocates know more of these numbers than meat eaters know, but we should expect that. Those fighting against human trafficking are also much more likely to know more details about modern-day slavery than the actual traffickers.
Toward the end of 2001, there was a lengthy discussion on an animal advocacy network about issues arising from the annual North American ‘Thanksgiving’ celebration. A non meat-eater had written in saying she was negotiating with family members about how the day should go; particularly, what was to be done about the traditional ‘Thanksgiving turkey’. Not wanting to spoil the occasion for others, the animal advocate was considering allowing her mother to have her way and visit brandishing a pre-cooked turkey. Her email was an apparent reflection of her anxiety about compromising her principles; but it also seemed to reveal her recognition, and even partial acceptance, of the cultural importance of a turkey dinner on this particular social occasion.
There is the suggestion that ‘animal rights’ views in this case had the clear potential to disrupt and upset a hitherto not-especially-thought-about aspect of Thanksgiving: that is, the plight of the millions of turkeys killed for it. This appears to be a case in which some awareness truly had the ability to ‘spoil’ a dinner: and an awareness of the emailer’s views had made her relatives, perhaps for the first time, think about turkeys at Thanksgiving, rather than simply think about Thanksgiving Turkey. When Groves (1995) investigated the role of emotion in social movement activity about human-nonhuman relations, he found a similar situation. He found that animal activists were often accused of ‘spoiling’ happy celebrations and occasions, and it is clear that this generally means that pro-animal philosophy had made people directly think about certain aspects of their relations with other animals (ibid: 441). For example, one activist told Groves that friends, aware of his and his wife’s position on human-nonhuman relations, stated before a meal: ‘We’re not going to say anything about food in front of our kids’. If a child comes up and mentions something about meat, the activist says of his friends: ‘They’ll all look at us like ‘don’t start him thinking!’’ (ibid.) Groves also recounts how a North American female activist had caused her mother to be very angry when she did talk about the plight of turkeys during Thanksgiving. Her mother’s rage was at least partly prompted by the presence of the activist’s aunt and the potential of a spoilt meal. The activist states that she was told by her mother: ‘‘This is supposed to be a happy occasion. It’s Thanksgiving. You’re supposed to be thankful’. I said ‘I am thankful. I’m thankful I’m not a turkey!’’
Appreciating Degrazia’s (1996) suggestion that negating early socialised lessons may take a certain independence of mind, it is further appreciated sociologically that any development of such independence of thinking is subject to, mediated, and controlled by forces of social interactions conditioned by social understandings surrounding any given issue. Sociologists Berger & Berger provide an interesting perspective on this sort of social experience as part of their ‘biographical approach’ to sociology. For example, they state that, “society is our experience with other people around us” (Berger & Berger 1976: 13) and that means that other people constantly mediate and modify human understanding of the social world. In a very real sense, they systematically impose and act to reinforce many of the norms and values of prevailing society.
There may have been sufficient media coverage, especially in recent years, of various views about human-nonhuman relations for most people to know that continual claims are made about animal agricultural practices. Therefore, even some of the more radical positions have recently had at least the potential to make up part of the social understanding of such relations. However, there is absolutely no reason, apart from appeals for the evolution of ethical thinking, to suggest to people that they must actively engage with, or would want to evaluate, any such potentially disruptive claims. It may be further understood - and it seems essential that animal advocates fully understand this point - that a vague awareness of claims about the human treatment of other animals is likely to contribute to the belief, and the suspicion, that even a superficial enquiry about the ins and outs of animal use is at least likely to be psychically painfulas well as socially disruptive. There is growing evidence, briefly reviewed below, that it is extremely common for the vast majority of people to attempt, again ostensibly quite reasonably, to avoid such pain; perhaps especially if new claims may disturb long-held views about the appropriate treatment of other animals by humans. Much of the following section, then, is based on Stanley Cohen’s (2001) book, States of Denial: knowing about atrocities and suffering, and the work of Kevin Robins (1994). However, initially, an account of a phenomenon Keith Tester (1997: 32) calls humanity’s ‘learning curve of indifference’ is offered. Tester suggests that modern ‘knowledge denial’ can be understood, at least in part, as the result of developments in information technology and the immediacy of ‘knowing while not knowing’.
Humanity’s ‘Learning Curve of Indifference’, or Knowing While Not Knowing
Tester notes that, regardless of where and when they take place, it is now virtually impossible not to be almost instantaneously aware of the occurrence of horror and suffering, and of the minute details of many of the modern world’s wars and calamities. At least it is true to say that the technology exists which makes this awareness possible on an increasingly global scale. Of course, sociologists take a great interest in globalised social change and many have been keen to understand the societal effects of new developments in communications technology. Numerous studies have focused on technological change and the resulting transformations in work patterns and political attitudes (Goldthorpe, et al, 1968; 1969; Blauner 1972; Gallie 1988), while other sociologists have attempted to place such change on a continuum between conceptualisations of technological and social determinism (Zuboff 1988; Grint 1991).
Tester (1997: 22) partly concentrates on the moral implications of technological developments. He cites the existential experience of Max Weber’s brother, Alfred, who was acutely discomforted when, in 1947, he found wars that had previously taken something like six months to be reported were now immediately broadcast on his new radio: ‘served up to us piping hot’, as he put it. Modern warfare, Weber continued, seemed to be ‘going on in the same town, almost in the same room’ (cited in ibid.) Although such experiences are almost routine for many twenty-first century citizens, Alfred Weber was rather shaken up by this ‘conquest of space’ and time. For him, the world had dramatically and rapidly become much smaller. It is one thing to know of far-away countries; it is quite another to suddenly become emotionally and morally involved in their day-to-day dealings. For Weber, the conquest of space and time meant that individuals could hardly be alone again.
The consequence of this is twofold, he thought. On the one hand, an individual becomes transformed into a knowledgeable ‘citizen of the world’ but, on the other hand - and more terribly, knowledge can result in individuals suffering from what Tester characterises as ‘a surfeit of consciousness about the world’ (ibid.: 23). Thus, Weber is far from welcoming his new form of knowledge. On the contrary, he would feel far more comfortable remaining ignorant of the Turkish war in question. Weber suffers personally due to what Giddens calls the ‘intrusion of distant events into everyday consciousness’ (Giddens 1991: 27, emphasis in original). Tester, following the analysis of the mass media provided by both Giddens (1991; 1994) and Roger Silverstone (1994), argues that it is possible to view Weber’s experience as common to many, indeed most, individuals. Giddens’ view, as developed by Silverstone, places Weber as a subject of ‘late modernity’, experiencing a process of ‘detraditionalisation’; listening to news on his radio, and suffering from ontological insecurity. Feeling the sensation of ‘disembeddedness’ due to new knowledge, Weber is trying desperately to make sense of it all.
However, Tester is keen to suggest that Weber is not ‘one of us’ at all (1997: 26). Acknowledging the problems in lumping whole groups of people into one category, Tester nevertheless argues that ‘we’ are currently further down the ‘learning curve of indifference’ to the horrors of the world than Weber was in the 1940’s. As a result, ‘we’ generally do not respond to knowledge of wars and horrors in the manner that Alfred Weber did. Of course, there are spectacular exceptions to this, even in modern times, and now the ‘Events of September 11th’ stands as the most immediate example. It is noteworthy that the attacks on the USA were shocking, yes – however, the fact that people could witness it live on global television networks was not. Nevertheless, ‘9-11’ cannot be seen as anything other than an extraordinary event, and Tester is claiming that Weber’s reaction to ‘everyday knowledge’ is remarkably different to most twenty-first century humans (ibid.) For, Weber was greatly moved by immediate knowledge - and particularly by the immediacy of the information he had acquired. The immediacy and startling newness of the medium by which that knowledge came to him meant that Weber felt he must try to make some sense of it. What was he now to think of himself? Of others? Of relationships?, and perhaps of new responsibilities? (ibid.: 27). Furthermore, cast into the role of a consumer of immediate knowledge perhaps better not known, at least not contemporaneously with events, Tester thinks Weber was left ‘struggling to come to terms with how he can possibly bear to know so much’ (ibid.)
Thus, in the contemporary world of increasing and immediate access to a vast amount of ‘information’, Tester suggests that a strategy of ‘moral indifference’ has become an essential coping mechanism to enable individuals to deal with their new and rapidly increasing store of potentially painful and disturbing knowledge about the world. Therefore, what makes ‘us’ different from Alfred Weber is that we - unlike him - know exactly what to do with potentially painful knowledge: absolutely nothing (ibid.)
Of course, the point Tester makes here would absolutely outrage many of those people who are campaigning daily to close down vivisection laboratories and/or stop road developments, and perhaps even those who managed to plunge their hands into their pockets during events such as Live Aid and ‘Red Nose Day’, precisely because it was knowledge relating to these issues and events which they claim spurred them on to act. The point would also likely get a cool response from those participants in the recent wave of ‘anti-capitalist’ demonstrations who follow ‘world leaders’ around the globe to make their protests, or those who have demonstrated to stop the ‘war on terrorism’. However, Tester could conceivably reply (as pessimistic Frankfurt School-inspired critical theorists may) with the suggestion that the overall numbers of people who attend such protests and demonstrations, drawn as they often are from several countries, are relatively very small. Smaller numbers than those who attend sporting events week-on-week, or the numbers found at the shopping malls pursuing the latest ‘must have’ necessities.
In many - perhaps most - sociological accounts, the tension of generalising from the particular are evident. It is unlikely that any so-called metanarrative captures the experience of all, as no individual case can ever be seen as precisely the same as others. Tester seeks to generalise about humanity’s indifference, contrasting that with Weber’s response as an individual, and presumable with many currently engaged in social movement activism; and wisely he acknowledges the difficulties involved. However, he is suggesting that the generalised modern ‘we’ of today largely do not share Weber’s emotional response to new knowledge. For ‘we’ are used to living in a world ‘stimulated by the mediated surfeit of consciousness’ (ibid.: 26).
If Weber’s reaction can be regarded as the result of hearing the piping-hot details of war and human suffering, Tester argues that modern responses to similar details are distinctly blasé and even akin to boredom. Any moral imperative incorporated into what is heard within systems of ‘global, 24-hour knowledge’ may now be entirely negated by notions of ‘compassion fatigue’. Unlike Weber, therefore, ‘we’ have heard it all before.
Overcoming Animal Pity
Bauman focuses on society-wide sentiments when he investigates the social construction of ‘moral distance’, and the availability of ‘moral sleeping pills’ (Bauman 1989: 26). He states that moral distance may be available for many people at different levels of involvement and awareness of harm-causing issues.
Against the proposition that human beings are ‘naturally aggressive’ and violent animals (see Yates 1962; Lorenz 1977; Charny 1982), Bauman starts with the suggestion that human individuals have a strong and innate aversion to seeing the suffering of others. Attempts to ‘overcome’ these innate feelings require an efficient, powerful, and sustained program of socialisation. Hannah Arendt (cited in Bauman 1989: 19-20), argues that humanity has a natural and almost instinctive ‘animal pity’ by which ‘all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering’. Philosopher Clark (1984: 42) says this sentiment of basic human solidarity can be also found in the work of Schopenhauer and Ruland, the latter’s 1936 book being called, Foundations of Morality. However, Bauman shows throughout his forceful sociological treatment of the Nazi Holocaust that effectively-utilised social forces and processes have the ability to shape, influence and eventually overcome this ‘naturally-present’ pity.
Taking such ideas, and following Levinas’ Ethics and Infinity, Bauman explores - and reverses - a traditional sociological orthodoxy which suggests that society itself is a ‘morality-producing factory’. In contrast, he suggests, ‘Morality is not a product of society. Morality is something society manipulates - exploits, redirects, jams’ (Bauman 1989: 183, emphasis in the original). Exploring the notion of ‘overcoming animal pity’, Bauman (ibid.: 24) notes that it involves socially producing conduct ‘contrary to innate moral inhibitions’. In other words, against everything that this fundamental pity implies in relation to attitudes and behaviour, people can become the murderers of others in certain social circumstances and conditions. However, there are other factors involved, including the connivance of those Bauman calls ‘conscious collaborators in the murdering process.’ As I have sought to demonstrate elsewhere, socially constructed stories, not least that ‘enemies are other’, and especially that human enemies ‘are animals’, can produce a sufficiency of moral distance that, in turn, enables the serious harm or death of chosen victims. If social mechanisms exist to allow people to involve themselves in harm, Bauman states that other mechanisms exist to deliberately distance the majority from knowledgeable involvement. For this large group, they are effectively freed by this process from having to make difficult moral choices and freed from the need to directly ‘stifle’ animal pity for victims of harm: morally, they sleep or doze.
Bauman notes that other writers, such as Hilberg, have argued that the vast majority play no direct role in the holocausts conducted in their name. Furthermore, even those who ‘administer death’ can be kept at some distance from the moral, physical and psychic discomfort of ‘direct’ knowledge. Thus, even the bureaucrats of the Nazi holocaust, apparently innocently, busied themselves composing memoranda, talking on the telephone and attended conferences. All this rather than being involved in firing rifles at Jewish children or pouring gas into gas chambers.
Bauman’s suggestion is that even were such individuals to make all the difficult and necessary connections between what they did and the existence of an organised genocide, such knowledge would remain (deliberately) ‘in the remote recesses of their minds’ (ibid.) Moreover, when connections between actions and outcomes are difficult to spot, who is going to criticise those who engage in a little ‘moral blindness’? After all, ‘Little moral opprobrium was attached to the natural human proclivity to avoid worrying more than necessity required’ (ibid.) Who is going to examine ‘the whole length of the causal chain up to its furthest links’? In sum, Bauman forcefully argues that societies can be other than morality-producing. Rather, social systems have the ability to be efficient manufacturers of those seemingly vital moral sleeping pills, with equally powerful social mechanisms for the production of ‘moral distance’, ‘moral invisibility’ and ‘moral blindness’.
In a State of Denial
It is likely that Stanley Cohen’s States of Denial (2001) will become essential reading for anyone wanting to know about the social psychology of knowledge evasion, issue denial, forms of moral blindness, or the social manufacture of the ‘moral sleeping pills’ referred to above. Although Cohen presents a great deal of psychological and sociological evidence about many various forms of denial, he wisely comments that ‘this is neither a fixed psychological ‘mechanism’ nor a universal social process’ (ibid.: 3). However, forms of denial have been extensively researched by cognitive psychologists who ‘use the language of information processing, monitoring, selective perception, filtering and attention span to understand how we notice and simultaneously don’t notice’ (ibid.: 6). There are also theories based on a concept known as ‘blindsight’ which suggests that parts of the human mind can ‘not know’ what is known in other parts.
Cohen is keen not to lose the wider picture about denial, noting, for example, that, although data suggests that family members can become engaged in ‘vital lies’ about a range of abuse issues, it should also be recognised that reliance of forms of denial effect more than just individuals and families: ‘Government bureaucracies, political parties, professional associations, religions, armies and police have their own forms of cover-up and lying’ (ibid.) Current political events in Britain and the United States in relation to the fallout after the ‘successful’ war in Iraq may have served to highlight the validity of these words.
Accounts, Justifications and Excuses
It is when Cohen turns to the sociology of denial that his work is most directly relevant to thoughts about human-nonhuman relations. When it comes to understanding forms of denial, both psychological and sociological factors must be interwoven for the fullest picture to be drawn. In a chapter entitled ‘Denial at work: mechanisms and rhetorical devices’, Cohen (ibid.: 51- 75) gives a comprehensive account of sociological denial theory; ranging from C. Wright Mills’ observation in the 1940’s that motives cannot merely be regarded as ‘mysterious internal states’ that ignore social situations, to 1990’s feminist analysis of abusive situations, and other investigations of ‘bystander’ politics.
Cohen (ibid.: 58) points out that denial operates before and after the fact, so some verbal motivational statements become guides to future behaviour. Again, it would represent a serious error to regard any ‘internal soliloquies’ as entirely private matters: ‘On the contrary: accounts are learnt by ordinary cultural transmission, and are drawn from a well-established, collectively available pool’ (ibid.: 59, my emphasis). Moreover, ‘an account is adopted because of its public acceptability’, which seems to support subcultural notions that alternative - that is, generally unacceptable - accounts may be adopted for ‘shock value’. Cohen says that it is socialisation processes that ‘teaches us which motives are acceptable for which actions’ (ibid.)
As children, individuals learn that ‘accounts are needed’, and are frequently ‘required’, to explain behaviour. Commonsensically, it is those accounts that are likely to be accepted that are the least problematic. Cohen follows Mills in noting that different audiences may require different accounts, yet this, ‘far from undermining the theory, confirms the radically sociological character of motivation’ (ibid.) Some accounts can be said to be in the form of justifications, others can be regarded as excuses. Drawing on the work of Scott and Lyman and Sykes and Matza from the 1950’s and 1960’s, Cohen notes that:
Justifications are ‘accounts in which one accepts responsibility for the act in question, but denies the pejorative quality associated with it’, whereas excuses are ‘accounts in which one admits that the act in question is bad, wrong or inappropriate, but denies full responsibility’ (ibid.)
A soldier kills, but denies that this is immoral: those he killed were enemies who deserved their fate. He is justifying his action. Another soldier admits the immorality of his killing, but denies full volition for his action: this was a case of involuntary obedience to orders. He is excusing his action (ibid.: emphasis in the original).
Cohen’s in-depth exploration of forms of denial, mechanisms of rationalisation, vocabulary of motivations, and justifications and excuses, means that it is apparently clear beyond much doubt that ‘turning a blind eye’ does not have to mean ‘not looking’. Rather, it is more about not registering or actively avoiding what has been seen or what is known. Denial is often about ‘deflecting’, ‘redirecting’, ‘turning aside’, ‘dodging’, and ‘escaping’ from what is essentially ‘known knowledge’. It would not be surprising to discover that the grim details of human harm contained in States of Denial could potentially spoil someone’s dinner, although it is interesting that Cohen openly admits that he himself is ‘in total denial’ about animal rights issues (ibid.: 289). He states that he is in denial about environmental issues as well, which is a little ironic in that environmentalists such as George Marshall (2001) have begun to use States of Denial as a substantive source in accounts of the psychology of denial about issues such as climate change and global warming.
Cohen’s thesis is that denial can be common, and indeed a normal state of affairs, and he provides an account of his own denial about these two issues. Moreover, and this is something making Cohen’s position even more interesting and particularly relevant, he admits that it is not the case that he cannot see the coherence of the arguments presented by environmentalists and animal advocates. In fact he reports that he ‘cannot find strong rational arguments against either set of claims’ (2001: 289). Yet, emotionally, he remains largely unmoved and, he admits, ‘particularly oblivious’ about animal issues. For example, while accepting that animal experimentation and animal agriculture may involve the treatment of other animals that can be difficult to defend, he resorts to putting his ‘filters’ on. He therefore tells himself that some issues are not really anything to do with him; that there are ‘worse problems’ in a suffering world; that ‘there are plenty of other people looking after this’ (ibid.) In fact, he employs many of the rationalisations and techniques of neutralisation that constitute the substance of his own book. Finally, and animal activists will especially recognise this stratagem, he relies on attack as a form of defence, stating: ‘What do you mean, I’m in denial every time I eat a hamburger?’ (ibid.)
Cohen suggests that there is what he calls a ‘meta-rule’ in operation here, involving all the elements of his thesis, and many seen in Bauman’s work on the sociology of morality. This ‘meta-rule’ is obviously quite speciesist, but it is a rule that also seriously threatens the well-being of any human ‘stranger’.
Can it be any surprise to discover that the meta-rule states that ‘own people’ should always come first? Can it be a shock that the meta-rule suggests that ‘extensions’ of moral concern beyond families, friends and our ‘intimate circle’ are uncertain? Humanity draws a moral line; establishes an ethical threshold and, on a pessimistic note for all social movement activists, ‘we cannot be confident that more information (or more dreadful information?) will change the threshold’ (ibid., brackets in original). Cohen suggests that the problem may not be the absolute lack of concern, suggesting that people tend to think that human suffering is not normal or tolerable; the difficulty may be a ‘gap’ between concern and action; a gap that regrettably does not show great signs of closing.
Searching for some understanding of the lack of action against deliberately caused human suffering within Western democracies, Cohen notes that many individuals may indicate their moral concern (their ‘moral investment’) by supporting a portfolio of social movements, or events such as Live Aid; yet, in the case of Britain, future prospects for action may be ‘unpromising’ given that ‘new sectors of the population are born-again free-market individualists and chronically infected by the selfishness of the Thatcher years’ (ibid.) People of ‘the Left’ have a range of new social movements which have effectively ‘fragmented’ concern, he claims, and they are engaged in a trend that encourages competition ‘about which group has suffered the most’ (ibid.: 290). Cohen does attempt to be optimistic, or at least he says that a ‘more hopeful’ narrative of the recent ‘evolution of a more universal, compassionate and inclusive consciousness’ is possible (ibid.) This latter point may tend to resonate with activists ‘known’ and ‘met’ on email networks. Many, just like Henry Salt and many others before them, insist on keeping the interwoven nature of oppression at the front of their minds.
Returning to knowledge denial, Kevin Robins’ (1994) analysis significantly adds to the themes developed here by similarly examining the interplay between individual psychology and social factors. Robins notes that recent work in media and culture studies have identified a ‘postmodern’ ‘active audience’ who consume products in ways that seemingly ‘empowers’ them. This relatively new view of media consumption - the notion of the consumer self - is seen in opposition to the 1960’s and 1970’s positions outlined by critical theorists such as Stuart Ewen and Herbert Marcuse who ‘saw consumerism as a ‘Corrupting Other’’. Robins cites Alan Tomlinson’s acidic comment on this ‘older generation’ of theorists, whose position Tomlinson characterises as ‘elitist’, ‘sad’ and even ‘menopausal’.
However, if it is really the case that modern consumer culture should be regarded as ‘fun’, ‘exciting’, ‘novel’, ‘convenient’ and a ‘marvellously subversive space’ then, Robins asks, what happens when people consume ‘media products’ depicting, for example, the Bosnian war? In other words, what does the putative ‘empowered’ and fun-oriented ‘active audience’ make of something that ‘anguish, despair or compassion might be more appropriate responses?’ (Robins, 1994: 452).
Robins’ analysis appears to provide an interesting additional psychological and social psychological component to Tester’s and Bauman’s sociology. Bauman (1989) himself introduces this dimension through the work of the controversial social psychological experimentalist, Stanley Milgram (see Milgram 1965; 1974). However, Robins’ account begins with Freud’s notion that human beings are purposely and deliberately involved in carefully avoiding the experience of ‘unpleasure’. After all, human beings have historically been quite sensibly interested in self-protection. This protection has been achieved throughout the ages with the use of physical measures, but often what is equally important is psychic protection from fear and anxiety and protection from knowledge. On the physical level, Canetti (1973: 266-7) acknowledges the ‘care’ and ‘cunning’ human beings have historically employed to protect their ‘naked and vulnerable’ bodies. They ‘fend off’ the things that they perceived to be harmful. They invented shields and amour, and built ‘walls and whole fortresses’, in order to try to feel invulnerable.
Robins claims that defensive cultural barriers can also be constructed in which ‘forms of cultural organisation and expression have been mobilised to sustain the sense of invulnerable existence’ (1994: 454). When the going gets tough, it is not so much that humanity gets going; rather humans have a tendency to block out or hide from what they believe may be harmful, including knowledge of pain, death and that staggeringly elusive thing, ‘reality’. Robins cites Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, White Noise, in which the author notes that ‘reality’ is something humans often try to get away from: and when it comes to pain and death, we think these are unnatural: ‘We can’t bear these things as they are’. Humans can also ‘know too much’, Delillo suggests using Freudian language, ‘So we resort to repression, compromise and disguise’ (quoted in ibid). Humans do this in order to be able to ‘survive in the universe’.
Delillo argues that repression, compromise and disguise make up part of ‘the natural language of the species’ (ibid.) Indeed, Freud - who uses the term ‘repression interchangeably with ‘defence’ (Madison 1961: 15) - does state that the human need to avoid unpleasure may be regarded as even more important than the want of obtaining pleasure. Therefore, with regard to what they might come to ‘know’, human beings, just like Stan Cohen, are likely to employ essential and apparently effective ‘knowledge filters’ to help to screen out painful realities. An alternative to this strategy, Freud suggests, is to attempt to transform reality with a substitute version. These strategies are able to diminish the impact of painful knowledge, as individuals find adequate methods of containing and controlling the pain of reality. A significant way of doing just this, recalling Bauman, involves distancing: keeping what is perceived as suffering at a distance, or perhaps placing illusion before ‘reality’. Thus, human beings appear able to recreate the world, and ‘recast’ unbearable features as something else, thereby able to essentially ‘remould reality’. Freud further argues that this process can apply to both the individual or social collectives.
Robins, however, feels he is still left with something of a puzzle. After all, apparently ‘post-modern’ consuming is notbased on hiding away from cultural products - or based on the requirement to block them out. On the contrary, go-getting contemporary consumerism is commonly regarded as ‘liberating’, ‘self-affirming’ and ‘fun’: even ‘therapeutic’. However, like Tester, Robins says (of television consumption), that there is little doubt that watching, ‘in our culture is to be exposed to violence, suffering and death’ (Robins, 1994: 457; compare this with Ignatieff’s  optimistic account of the potential of television to increase the moral imagination). The conundrum for Robins involves working out what motivates consumption of, say, the ‘pain of war’ - when this particular consuming does not, on the face of it, appear to be ‘liberating’ or ‘fun’, while it does not initially seem to involve hiding away from the existence of painful knowledge.
Noting that modern society is actually rather keen to sequester ‘the real experience of death’, he questions the motivations (and the effects of the medium) of this consumption and wants to know what uses or gratifications can the ‘active audience’ gain from this watching. He cites Slavenka Drakulic’s disturbing account of death in Sarajevo (Drakulic 1993), to illustrate that, if humans want to consume the pain of war, they can apparently ‘see it all’: the mother who has lost a child, the child’s body wrapped up in a sheet. Yet, apparently this is not enough: the camera rolls on, and the sheet is lifted for a full-colour, screen-filling, ‘close-up of death’. Also easily seen are pictures of beheaded human corpses - food for pigs and dogs - or skeletons, or children with no legs, perhaps sniper-killed babies, and a 12-year-old describing being raped.
Much can be said at this point, of course. For example, the number of ‘active consumers’ whose ‘activity’ would be to reach for the ‘off’ switch is not at all clear. Whatever their number, perhaps is it just as likely that they never switched on, say, a ‘serious documentary’ in the first place. Again, why should they? There is bound to be a whole series of ‘soaps’ or ‘postmodern’, ‘ironic’ (read sexist) comedies on another television channel. If not, the DVD acts as a safe standby. Robins notes that it has been suggested that people have watched war to genuinely gain knowledge; to drive their active concern (Debray 1992, cited in Robins 1994: 460). This is the way Keith Tester characterises Giddens’ and Silverstone’s perspectives on the experience of media consumption (1997: 28). Alternatively, it has been suggested that watching war is an example of ‘living through the deaths of others’ (Bauman 1992: 34), or perhaps an example of being glad that someone else has died (Canetti 1973: 265). In these senses, perhaps this ‘consumption’ can be seen to have elements of therapeutic value after all.
Regardless of whether these views adequately supply information about ‘what’s going on’, Robins notes (1994: 458) that those who do willingly engage with this violent war material appear not be overly damaged by it. Perhaps surprisingly, audiences appear ‘relatively unscathed’ by their television wars and their encounters with screen violence, he says. Robins argues that this is something that still needs further explanation:
If it is difficult to fully understand why viewers choose exposure to pain and dying, perhaps we can say a little more about how, having once exposed themselves, they are able to escape the emotional and moral consequences of seeing and knowing (ibid.)
He says there is a need to ‘reorientate’ theory in relation to commonsensical view (and the view advanced by Giddens and Silverstone) of the rationalistic nature and motivations of information gathering. For example, ‘We take it for granted the desire to know’, Robins asserts. However, ‘We generally do not take account of, or even recognise the existence of, the equally strong desire to not know, to evade knowledge’. Human beings are thus sometimes in a situation in which they seemingly have to watch in order to know that this is the particular knowledge that they do not want to know. ‘In this context, consumption activity may be driven by the desire to create defensive barriers and to avoid or minimise anxiety. Such resistance will serve to screen out the reality of what is seen and known’ (ibid.: 466). Robins takes care to note at this point that he is not describing purely a phenomenon of individual psychopathology, ‘but rather a collective experience which is institutionalised as the social norm’. An informed critical theoretical mind would perhaps also inquire as to who benefits from this social norm.
Robins simply argues for a theoretical level that moves beyond ‘the too simple choice between ‘passive’ or ‘active’ notions of consumers and viewers’ toward an analytical complexity that understands the hedonistic ideas of ‘consumption freedom’ within the constraints of social and historical structures (ibid.: 465-6). It may be taken from Robins’ analysis that even the open display of ‘knowledge consumption’ does not necessarily mean that knowledge is actually consumed.
Moreover, while understanding the desire - and the apparent practical benefits - of evading knowledge, it is something else to recognise that there may also be a perceived hopelessness of knowing. In this regard Robins states that, ‘to know some awful truth without the possibility of changing it can lead to utter despair’ (ibid.: 459). In her Bosnian research, for example, journalist Drakulic notes that watching the war in all its macabre details only seems to make sense if, by watching, ‘something can change for the better’. If the possibility of change is absent, then surely there is something obscene about the knowing? However, reintroducing the practicalities of knowledge evasion, there is an alternative interpretation to consider. Suppose that it seems that ‘changes for the better’ may realistically come about from gained knowledge but then, bringing about this change would necessarily involve some important lifestyle or political change? If this were the case, Robins suggests, such a change may appear to be very painful for individuals or for groups. For example, the BBC 2’s Newsnight programme reported in 2001 that the global market in chocolate was intrinsically linked with modern child slavery. Presenter, Jeremy Paxman suggested to a representative of chocolate manufacturers and retailers that they could, and indeed should, take action to break this link, with a nod toward the chocolate-buying public that they too were implicated as the consumers of unethically-produced goods.
For determined ‘chocoholics’, then, knowledge evasion may definitely be called for in relation to this matter, perhaps requiring the formation of ‘defensive organisations’ designed to resist and refuse the knowledge that their ostensibly innocent enjoyment of a chocolate bar can result in serious human harm. However, as Bauman suggests (1993: 127, and see Varcoe and Kilminster 1996: 238-39), moral responsibility is subject to a high degree of ambivalence and ‘floatation’. Thus, how can an individual work out what is morally right when she is just one in a whole chain of people involved in any human enterprise? The actually chocolate bar held in the hand of the chocolate lover is hardly inscribed with suffering: how is she to know if the reports of child slavery are true? Out of date? Grossly exaggerated? In any case, who says her preferred bar is implicated? Why, why, should she even begin to try to find out?
Moreover, what point is there in even attempting to work out morally correct conduct when we know in the ‘vanity of human efforts’ that whatever is done by one counts for little in the overall scheme of things. Even if one person decides to ethically ‘opt out’ (if she can work out what that actually entails), she knows full well that ‘another person would promptly fill the gap’ (ibid.: 19). There is surely some moral relief and a deal of certainty in a ‘free rider’ belief that ‘somebody else’ will do whatever another has decided not to: in such a complex and unsure situation, why make such a decision? When knowledge may be evaded, or its ‘disruptive possibilities’ may be contained, Robins argues that, ‘the known may be withheld from the process of thinking; it may exist as the ‘unthought known’’ (Robins 1994: 459). He also notes that Bion (1963) has suggested that humans can do other things with thoughts than think them!
The intention at this point is to briefly outline the perspectives of one or two writers who have attempted to shift analyses, such as those above, to the experiential situation of billions of nonhuman animals and the consumers of their ‘products’. This is something some humanistic positions (such as that of Clare Fox of the Institute of Ideas) may regard as unwarranted, and more likely downright insulting. We began with Tester and Bauman - John Robbins’ (1987) position, which essentially advocates a vegan diet and lifestyle, contains some interesting parallels to their analyses. Robbins’ work is about the harm caused by the human consumption of the flesh of other animals and products such as the milk of cows and the eggs of chickens. In a section concerned with ‘knowledge denial’ and the effects of advertising campaigns, Robbins starts with the concentration camp experience of German pacifist Edgar Kupfer whose secret Dachau Diaries, the writing of which could have cost him his life, are now preserved in a special collection in the library of the University of Chicago (Robbins 1987: 122-3).
Kupfer was apparently sent to Dachau because he would not fight. He was also appalled that his fellow Germans stood by and silently accepted the genocide which was happening all around. However, the situation was not quite as stark as it sounds put this way. For it was not the case that the majority of German people knew every ‘precise detail’ of the Holocaust. While Bauman (1989) describes the careful and purposeful steps taken by the Nazis to prevent such full public awareness, Robbins nevertheless maintains that ‘most of them, it must be admitted, preferred not to know’ (1987: 124) suggesting that, for many, the activities of the Nazis became an ‘unknown known’.
Therefore, often voices such as Kupfer’s, who had risked so much to record his experiences on scraps of paper, were not so much silenced as simply not listened to. Robbins describes ‘a web of knowledge repression’ that can permeate such times. As seen above, however, this is an understandable and even entirely sensible situation designed to serve ‘a collective determination to avoid the immense pain that would have come from really seeing what was happening’ (ibid.) In language similar to Bauman’s, Robbins describes a ‘psychic numbing’, and a ‘narrowed awareness’ which the majority embraced:
While there were always some people who resisted, who did what they could to save the lives of those hunted by the Nazis, often risking their own lives in so doing, most others tried to ignore the horrors, tried to keep a stiff upper lip and pretend nothing amiss was happening. Though it was hard to avoid knowing at least part of the horrid truth, they found ways of blocking the impact. They busied themselves with other matters, conjuring up rationalisations, narrowing their awareness, and looking the other way (ibid.)
Of course Robbins’ intention is to draw parallels with what he calls the ‘process of denial’ in Germany in W.W.II and apply it to the present North American consciousness concerning health and environmental issues and relate it all to attitudes about nonhumans used in agriculture. He particularly focuses on the experience of Edgar Kupfer because Kupfer himself explicitly connected his own plight with that of other animals. Indeed, one of Kupfer’s essays is entitled, ‘Animals, My Brethren’, which was written in part in a hospital barracks in Dachau. Perhaps Kupfer was all for engagement rather than denial - even if it may be painful. Given his intent, it is therefore not surprising that Robbins highlights Kupfer’s case and tries to use it against knowledge denial he claims is ‘once again rampant’ (Robbins 1987: 124). He says human beings are all aware on some level that our world is in peril. Their life-support system, many people argue, is at the point of collapse. However, because it often seems too painful to think about these things: responses to this knowledge may often be to ‘block it out’ (ibid.)
Pain hurts, deeply, and many are frightened. However, pleads Robbins, do not deny it, do not disconnect, do not filter out: do not isolate oneself from that which cries out for response. Such a plea can be found in just about every pro-animal advocacy book since Singer’s, first published in 1975. Indeed, it is possible to trace such pleading as far back as Henry Salt, or to Rachel Carson (1963) and Ruth Harrison (1964). All contain calls to action. Robbins (1987: 125) asks his audience to ‘move beyond denial’, yet he immediately recognises the difficulties in doing just that. He says he has had to fight hard against his own tendency to ‘withdraw’ and ‘go numb’. How can someone struggle against something so large, something so immense? (ibid.) Recalling points made by both Bauman and DeGrazia, Robbins explicitly acknowledges that a supreme effort on his part was required to resolve to go on campaigning against intensive farming for the hurt it caused to humans and other animals. Gary Francione’s response to this ‘potential burnout’ question is praiseworthy. He says there is an element of self-indulgence in stopping to try to effect change. This is particularly true given that the animal rights movement is so young and so new. We are pioneers of the vegan-based animal rights cause, just as Donald Watson was earlier a pioneer of the vegan cause. In this sense, it is a little early to contemplate burning out or the engendering of too much frustration about how people will want to deny what we want to expose them to. What we need, at present, is to grow the number of ethical vegans, and thus to grow the numbers of pioneers of change. Consequently, the evidence presented above is not meant to suggest that we stand no chance of bringing about change, and it certainly is not part of the thesis that suggests that human beings are more social than rational.
Rather, the evidence above provides the social context of our efforts for us to internalise and appreciate; it explain why social change is slow, slower than we would like, not that it does not occur; it suggests that some effort is needed to understand our audiences if we hope to influence them; and it suggests to me that a degree of reflexivity is essential as an ongoing stance of animal advocates.
 Keith Thomas (1983) notes a move away from presenting meat on the table complete with heads and in a similar form as when a living animal. Modern meat products are very carefully packaged, using colouring, gas and chemicals to increase ‘attractiveness’, all of which means that the finished product on the shelf seems to bear no relation to the animals it came from (see Walsh 1986; Gold 1988, chap three: ‘Meat & Drugs’).
 Given this statement, it is incumbent to acknowledge the sociological research that points out the reality that the information which is potentially available is ultimately controlled by media gatekeepers, regardless of technological developments (e.g., see Elliot 1972).
 Freud himself has been accused of screening out painful realities, such as his alleged knowledge of the sexual abuse of children (Rush 1996).
 Clark (1984: 209-10) provides one of the most detailed lists of Salt’s major writings. They are, 1896 (ed.), The New Charter, (London); 1899-1900, ‘Rights of Animals’, Ethics 10; 1901 (ed.), Kith and Kin: Poems for animal life, (London); 1921, Seventy Years Among Savages, (London); 1922, Animals’ Rights, (London); 1933, The Logic of Vegetarianism, (London).
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