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Silence and denial around animal suffering in everyday life

When we transitioned from a vegetarian diet into a plant-based lifestyle, we realised that it never occurred to us to challenge or even question human beings’ attitudes towards other animal species. After joining the vegan movement, we started to see that we live in a world where decent and compassionate people live in silence about extensive animal suffering. How is it possible that billions of animals suffer all around us in farms, slaughterhouses, transportation and laboratories, while we are not “aware” of it? It seems that animal suffering is invisible due to public normalisation and denial that is personal, official and cultural. In this post, we will take a look at the sociological aspects of denial and normalisation of animal suffering. This helped us to understand how we can be aware and unaware of something at the same time.

Unwritten agreements and collective denial

According to Stanley Cohen, whole societies gradually pass into a form of collective denial, where they arrive at unwritten agreements about what can be publicly known and acknowledged. Without conscious negotiation, friends, family and whole populations know which facts are better not noticed and which subjects to avoid. Deidre Wicks explains that at a BBQ “people discuss the ‘tenderness’ of the meat (not how young the animal was) and the ‘juiciness’ of the steak (not how much blood and lymph fluid it contains)”. It is not that they consciously repress the mention of slaughterhouses or the horrendous living conditions at factory farms at the dinner table. Still, there is an unspoken agreement that such references would be bad manners. She argues that this is the reason why the presence of a vegetarian at the dinner table can make people uncomfortable and threatens social cohesion; the presence of a vegetarian “raises into consciousness all those ideas and images so carefully ‘not known’ and ‘not seen’”.

Silence as a form of denial

Silence as social censorship does not only exist in the dining room. Cohen argues that cruelty, discrimination, repression and exclusion are ingrained into the fibres of societies. Often publicly “known”, but not openly acknowledged. For instance, animal agriculture is shaping our private and public life, but the impact on public health (dietary, anti-biotic resistance and zoonotic diseases), the environment (greenhouse gas emissions, land use, deforestation, land and water degradation) and animal welfare (breeding, housing, transportation and slaughter) is not openly acknowledged. Here, collective denial operates to protect people from unpleasant emotions, such as the feeling of helplessness and the fear of “being a bad person”, as described by Kari Norgaard in her study regarding climate change. People consciously and unconsciously keep unpleasant information at a distance as a form of emotional management.

According to Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence theory, the willingness of an individual to express their own opinion is based on how the public opinion is perceived. When their opinion goes against the public norm, people become afraid of isolation, resulting in silence. When individuals do not break the silence, they become passive bystanders that allow suffering to happen. To give a historical example of this sociological phenomenon: During World War II, many people, who believed that they were doing something for the greater good, were allowed to take part in cruelty and murder because millions of ordinary people stood in silence. Eviatar Zerubavel points out in his book that it is the silence of the mass that enables cruelty to happen because it encourages others to deny its presence as well. Like any form of denial, silence is self-reinforcing; the longer it lasts, the stronger it becomes as time goes on.

The sociological dimensions of denial

Zerubavel describes the social dimensions of how people attend to and perceive the world and what they process as relevant information. Silence and denial are not passive but are active processes. The elephant in the room metaphor is used in his book to explain that denied matters are not subtle but highly conspicuous and often require much social and cognitive work to avoid. To explain this, Zerubavel identified the cognitive and behavioural skills of denial (i.e. rules of denial): attention, ignoring, irrelevance, taboo, and tact.

Attention is shaped by one’s social environment, is influenced by culture, and changes over time. Ask two people about a particular event, and you will hear two different stories. How they describe the event can only partly be explained by physiological limitations (e.g. what we hear, see, smell). What someone notices is based on what they find relevant. Something they learn through culture and their social environment. Aspects that differ from their social norm will get noticed sooner. Good examples are ‘bullfighting’ in Spain, ‘whaling’ in the Faroe Islands and the ‘Lychee and Dog Meat Festival’ in China. These traditions may be unremarkable for those familiar with them but can be remarkable and even distressing for others.

Through the cultural shaping of attention, we learn to ignore. This already happens at a young age when children watch others (parents, teachers, friends) ignore specific situations or subjects. An obvious example is that we hide the reality of meat from children by teaching them words like ‘bacon’ and ‘sausage’ instead of explaining to children that we grow, kill and chop up animals so we can eat their body parts for dinner. At a certain age, most children realise that their hamburger used to have a tail and ears. This realisation is usually followed by the question: “why do we eat meat?”. Parents often refrain from telling the truth by ignoring the question or come up with stories about “the robin and the worm”, “circle of life”, or “food is fuel” to teach that this question is irrelevant.

Children often grow up with conflicting thoughts about loving animals and eating them as well. Talking about the part in between (turning live animals into pieces of meat) during dinner is considered to be taboo. When a whole fish is served for dinner, it is expected that its facial expression is ignored. Any comments about its face are considered disrespectful or at least tasteless. A taboo means that there is a social prohibition against looking, listening and saying. While taboo operates through the feeling of fear, tact operates through the feeling of embarrassment; things are not considered to be strictly forbidden but might be considered to be rude. Those who defy these “unwritten rules” are often looked down on. Activists are often seen as social deviants because their message is considered to be potentially offensive at a personal level.

Both taboo and tact use verbal avoidance in the form of euphemisms. A euphemism takes the sting out of the truth when avoiding a subject does not seem possible. Sentences and words that may be considered unpleasant or offensive are replaced by neutral alternatives hiding the reality of the situation. Euphemisms are widely used to downplay the cruel practices we inflict on animals or present groups of animals as a plural entity and denote them as property, to name a few: processing, depopulation, harvesting, euthanasia, humane, farrowing-crates, free-range, organic, bycatch, livestock, cattle, and pets.

The social structures of denial

It is essential to understand that denial goes beyond individuals and groups. According to Deidre Wicks, the social structure of politics, economics, and media provide a broader context in which denial and silence are being sustained. She gives the school syllabus as an example of where power controls the scope of attention. Within the subject biology, animals have a sample and experiment status. The rich history of animal welfare is not taught in schools and universities.

Agenda setting occurs at a national and international level when governments and industries prioritise trade over animal welfare. Here, governments set the public agenda by boosting the import and export of sectors with subsidies and tax reduction. While the public may experience such measures, political steering is often not publicly known. Different are the government-funded marketing campaigns that promote the consumption of animal-derived products. Recent examples are the ‘become a beefatarian’ commercial funded by the EU to promote “sustainable” European beef, and World Bee Day initiated by the government of Slovenia and approved by the United Nations to promote the importance of honeybees. Despite numerous warnings that people must heavily reduce the consumption of animal-derived products to lower the impact on the environment and biodiversity, both campaigns were backed by government funding.

Mass media largely impacts social structures by determining what information is highlighted for the public. With the Agenda-setting theory, Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw suggested that “the media can’t tell you what to think but can tell you what to think about”. Public relevance is determined by events that make headlines and lead stories. When an event is not covered, it simply doesn’t get the public’s attention. The mass media also determines how long something receives public attention and how it is being framed. For instance, when an animal is allowed to live out its life at a sanctuary (e.g. the pardoned turkey on Thanksgiving in the US and the animal that managed to escape during transportation to the slaughterhouse), the media often covers the event as a feelgood story. However, there is often barely any follow-up on the gruesome fate of animals that did not escape or got pardoned. Animal cruelty is rarely presented as part of our daily life but is often presented as something exotic – one rotten apple or far away in a foreign country.

The importance of breaking silence

Our dive into the sociology of denial helped us better understand how people can be aware and unaware of animal suffering at the same time. The important question remains: How do we help others to break the silence? Zerubavel discusses in his study that it is common for silence breakers to be ridiculed and to be excluded from social groups. Many people – even after acknowledging – refrain from breaking the silence because they fear social confrontation. Looking back at our own vegan journey, it was the social confrontation that was hard, not the switch to a plant-based lifestyle itself.

As explained before, it is the silence of the mass that enables cruelty to happen because it encourages others to deny its presence. Therefore, it is important that everyone speaks up; silence breakers need the weight in numbers. With every voice, we move closer to the tipping point from where others can no longer deny its presence. We can only move towards a new normal without animal exploitation and suffering when more people acknowledge the current abhorrent situation and speak up about it.

Suppose this article made you realise that you have been participating in the denial of animal suffering, and you feel ready to take off your blinders. In that case, we recommend reading our next article about the “systemic abuse of animals within modern Western agriculture” and to watch the free documentary Dominion. Want to do something now but don’t know how? Read our article: “How to get actively involved with environmental ethics, human rights and animal rights

Elise & Joy

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