Recently I’ve been following animal rights talks in person and online. Their message that animals deserve rights and protection represents a minority position, one that deserves to be heard. So why do advocates struggle to win more support, despite holding the moral high ground (aside from the obvious – that people are both hedonistically driven and threatened by animal rights philosophies; see Dhont & Hodson, 2014)?
The psychological literature offers very clear advice for increasing the influence of minority positions. First, present a consistent message. By not waffling, one appears confident and full of conviction. That’s contagious. Second, be sure that the “social timing” is right. Although minorities can push for social change to happen, they are generally most successful when advocating at the optimal moment (in terms of cultural mores and norms). Consider the case of gay rights; the majority of Americans are now in favour of marriage equality (i.e., gay marriage rights). Even among (young) Republicans, the majority now support same-sex marriage. Delivering a minority argument for gay rights became easier and easier (i.e., better received) as cultural norms became more accepting. Pushing for gay rights at the start of the 20th century would have fallen on unreceptive ears; doing so at the start of the 21st century has been well received. Timing is critical.
But the third point is the one I most want to focus on with regard to the animal rights movement: avoid the appearance of being rigid and dogmatic. Given that your position is the minority position (and by definition an anti-normative one), you want to be consistent and firm but not rigid. Hitting this target can be difficult. As an advocate of animal rights myself, I outline some basic advice for the animal rights movement below, based on psychological findings.
Psychological advice for the animal rights movement:
1. Recognize that small steps are important, valid, and meaningful.
Some animal rights advocates argue that it’s “vegan or nothing”. From this perspective even vegetarians are part of the problem. Yet vegetarians are allies to the animal rights movement, not enemies. Most vegetarians already care very much for animals; don’t risk pushing them away.
Moreover, psychological research shows us that setting the bar too high can be a fine way to set up failure. You already know this in your private life – if you try to lose too much weight, or sell too many widgets, or be a virtuous “saint”, you rarely (if ever) succeed. Psychologists understand the importance of taking small steps. Eating fewer animals is an important step toward eating no animals. Even if you do not get that far, fewer animals will be exploited. By stressing vegan-or-nothing, you’re ignoring the importance of incremental change in personal lives and societal norms. You also risk alienating others who are already very pro-animal, and you discourage people from taking a positive step toward change in the first place.
2. Stop focusing on the mental states of animals to mount a defence.
Animal rights advocates often get into debates about whether animals have “mind” or “mental states”. This makes for interesting debate and discussion and generates a great deal of research, but this topic is largely irrelevant to a discussion about rights. If you make this debate about mental states, those seeking to exploit animals will move the goal-posts with regard to the operationalization of mental states and/or evidence for demonstrating mental states.
Being pro-animal is a moral position. It’s immoral to exploit animals, regardless of whether an animal can think or feel pain. Arguments about mental states are dead-ends from a rights perspective. Avoid playing into the hands of those seeking to rationalize their exploitation of animals. Focus on the central point: it is a moral imperative to do no harm to others. This includes animal exploitation, human exploitation, climate change, etc. Generally speaking, people like to do the right thing. Help them to focus on moral courses of action and cultural norms will move in that direction. This is how we’ve achieved women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, and children’s rights.
3. Recognize that pets (“companion animals”) are part of the solution, not the problem.
Some advocates of animal rights are opposed to living with animals, arguing that this practice is exploitative and fosters dependency, superiority, etc. There is some merit to this argument, but from a psychological perspective, having contact with animals is critical. We need MORE animals in our lives, not fewer. If you think that people don’t care enough about animals now, imagine how little they would care if there were no animals in their own personal lives. People love their pets. Run with that. Get them to extend their love of animals outward, to become more inclusive, rather encourage distance from animals (see Costello & Hodson, 2010; Hodson & Costello, 2012).
(likewise, the psychological literature clearly demonstrates that contact with other human groups reduces prejudice toward those groups, see Hodson & Hewstone, 2013. The same rationale applies here: greater contact with animals draws us closer together, providing that the relationship is based on love and care).
As a final note, the word “pet” need not be a dirty word. Don’t rob people of it. In some cultures (e.g., Britain), “pet” is a term of endearment used to refer to loved ones. Across the English-speaking world we also refer to our “pet projects” (i.e., endeavours that we love). Pet is not a dirty word; cohabiting with animals does not make you bad person. Culturally, we need to extend the love we feel for our companions to a wider circle of animals.
4. Stay within your area of expertise.
There are many reasons to stop exploiting animals, including moral reasons, health concerns, climate change concerns. If you’re an expert in legal issues, stick to that topic in delivering your message. If you wander into medical issues when medicine is not your area of expertise, it shows. You are much more likely to convince others if you genuinely highlight your true expertise without reaching into related domains where you personally are on shakier ground. A shorter, more focused, and factually accurate argument is more compelling than a wider one that strays into areas you are less well-prepared to defend. When you hold a minority opinion, you can’t risk the appearance of being a non-expert.
5. Be supportive, not critical or judgemental.
A good physician does not chastise his or her overweight patients but rather provides them with information, guidance, support, and motivation for moving their lives in a different direction. Closer to home for me, a good professor does not chastise students, but rather helps them to find their own voice and to discover their own passions for learning. By the same token, a powerful animal rights advocate is someone who provides direction, guidance, and support for others seeking to make a major life change.
If you want to become a convincing, influential minority voice, start by being a good role model. I suspect that you are personally influenced by thoughtful, reasonable others. Be that person to your audience. And stick to the basics: be consistent but not dogmatic, delivering your message when and where it imparts the greatest impact and draws the least resistance.
References and Suggested Readings:
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Costello, K., & Hodson, G. (2010). Exploring the roots of dehumanization: The role of animal-human similarity in promoting immigrant humanization. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 13, 3-22.
Dhont, K., & Hodson, G. (2014). Why do right-wing adherents engage in more animal exploitation and meat consumption? Personality and Individual Differences, 64, 12-17. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2014.02.002
Hodson, G., & Costello, K. (2012). The human cost of devaluing animals. New Scientist, 2895, 34-35.
Hodson, G., & Hewstone, M. (Eds.) (2013). Advances in intergroup contact. London, UK: Psychology Press. Paperback: 978-1-84872-114-2; Hardback: 978-1-84872-054-1