Editorial: Dealing with denial

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2001:


States of Denial: knowing about atrocities and suffering, by London School of Economics and Political Science sociology professor Stanley Cohen, mentions animals only twice in 344
pages–but one of those mentions points out the most fundamental issue in animal protection: persuadiing people to care, first of all, that suffering occurs, and then convincing them to do something about it.

“Each new moral demand makes coping harder,” Cohen writes on page 289. “Yet another filter or priority must be set up,” because no one person can respond to every atrocity and every suffering being, no matter how altruistic that person tries to be. “I have tested this,” Cohen admits, “by looking at my own reactions to animal rights issues. I know that the treatment of animals in cruel experiments and factory farming is difficult to defend. I can even see the case for becoming a vegetarian. But in the end, much like people throwing away Amnesty International leaflets, my filters go into automatic drive: this is not my
responsibility, there are worse problems; there are plenty of other people looking after this. What do you mean, I’m in denial every time I eat a hamburger?”

Confronting denial, either in oneself or in society, is not easy. As Cohen points out, the process of denying a painful truth is closely related to the processes of tolerance, forgiveness and reconciliation, which are essential aspects of life as a social species. Explains Pumbaa the warthog, in the Walt Disney film The Lion King, promoting the denial-based philosophy “Hakuna matata” to the guilt-driven Simba, “You gotta put your behind in the past,” to get on with the future.

Unfortunately, the very psychological traits that enable social species to get beyond conflict can become self-destructive, as well as dismissive of the suffering of others. The late vivisector Harry Harlow demonstrated in some of the cruellest experiments on record that infant primates will overlook almost any amount of abuse from a robot “mother,” even when they need not turn to the robot for physical sustenance, because their need for mothering is so great. Dogs so crave a pack with a dominant leader that the good dog loyal to an abusive master was already a literary convention by the time Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist (1838)–and presciently paralleled the abuse of the dog with the same villain’s abuse of a faithful girlfriend whom the villain eventually murdered. Dickens’ heroine Nancy, like the dog and generations of real-life women, lived and died in emotionally dependent denial of
the extent to which her mate practiced violence.

If humans, nonhuman primates, and dogs can all routinely forgive and forget violence even when they themselves are the victims, we may be less surprised that some deny the suffering of others than that many respond to it. Experiments similar to Harlow’s have discovered that many nonhuman primates will starve themselves if obtaining food requires giving another animal an electric shock. Nor is such altruism just a laboratory phenomenon. ANIMAL PEOPLE has collected more than 500 documented case accounts of dogs intervening, often at great personal risk, to save the lives of imperiled humans and other species, including many complete strangers and quite a few cats. We have collected lesser but still noteworthy numbers of accounts of similar risky interventions on behalf of humans–and sometimes dogs–by cats, nonhuman primates, pigs, cows, and parrots.

Offsetting the accounts of animal heroism, unfortunately, are more numerous examples of dogs, nonhuman primates, and other species, including even a horse, who have killed people from apparent motives including thrill-seeking and jealousy. Often the killer-animals are defended by people who deny that animals are capable of such “human” response. Then the very people who do not deny animals a right to life akin to our own paradoxically deny that animals really are “like” us, even when they commit similar deeds.

No person, species, or cause seems immune from denial. Indeed, as Cohen discusses, both personal identity and the growth of causes often emerge from choices about what to deny, when–and much of the process is constructive. Cohen, especially concerned about war crimes and political repression, examines how peace grows out of collective denial, while renewed violence often results from factional refusals to deny emotional investment in a painful memory.

Denial, Cohen makes plain, is not always a matter of pretending that something hasn’t happened. As often, it is a process of deciding that whatever happened no longer matters. Peace will not come to Kosovo, Cohen predicts, because the warring factions are unwilling to deny and dismiss the import of events which occurred in 1349 and 1804. Each new atrocity and casualty accentuates the failure of denial–and increases the likelihood that the rest of the world will become exasperated enough with the unending feud to deny responsibility for controling it.

Continues Cohen, discussing compassion fatigue, which occurs when someone stops giving and helping, “How far does our compassion extend beyond our families, friends, and intimate circle? Where is the line between domestic problems,” which one must attend to, “and those of the distant other. We cannot be confident that more information (or more dreadful information) will change the threshold. People resent being told what they already
know; they dislike the preachy and exaggerated tone of appeals. But they do feel horrified, upset, guilty, and compassionate. They are concerned about suffering. They do not regard it as normal and tolerable. The gap is between concern and action.”

In other words, people sometimes even practice denial toward the suffering they care most about, because they do not feel empowered to act. ANIMAL PEOPLE, even though we avoid publishing shocking photographs, and focus on issues rather than atrocities, often receives subscription cancellations from people who state that while they support our work, they find our reportage too upsetting to read. Some donate thousands of dollars per year to organizations that claim to help animals, yet these people do not wish to be well-informed about what their money is doing. They just want to temporarily relieve their concern by sending off a check.

Cohen devotes an entire chapter to donor psychology. His subheadings are a checklist for authors of appeals: “Who are you? What is the problem? Who are we? What do we do? What can you do? Why should you do anything? The final pitch.”Writes Cohen, “We simply don’t know whether appeals about atrocities and suffering are more effective if they use shock and vivid tactics,” citing contradictory research. Clearly, however, the appeal that increases the involvement of one donor tends to reinforce denial in another. Cohen evaluates the data in terms of “effectiveness, counter-productivity, and ethical limits,” mentioning in passing his view that appeals from animal rights groups often go beyond the bounds observed by organizations sending appeals on behalf of humans. Cohen believes this may in part result from the inability of animals to contradict claims of “spectacular successes” made on their behalf.

Cohen notes a balancing act by appeal-writers between hitting donors with a problem demanding generous response and overwhelming them with the magnitude of the problem, causing them to feel helpless and turn away. Because the writers of appeals on behalf of
animals have to work harder to rouse public concern, they also must reinforce expressions of concern with greater claims of accomplishment, to keep the donors giving. This turns the use of hyperbole into a treadmill from which the groups issuing appeals cannot escape, even though the world the appeals construct may become a never-never land.

Two-way process

The immediate problem for animal protection group leaders is perennially coping with the denial capacity of donors, but the longterm problem for leaders and donors alike is coping with the denial capacity of society at large. People who care about animals constantly seek ways and means of infecting the public with their own concern, sometimes to contradictory effect–which is not necessarily bad, since using multiple approaches tends to reach and move more of the public than a single focus.

In 1991, for example, Kim Sturla, then executive director of the Peninsula Humane Society, in San Mateo, California, killed a homeless dog by lethal injection at a televised press conference. Sturla believed that if the public saw what became of homeless animals, they could be persuaded to ban backyard breeding and mandate pet sterilization. She was wrong: San Mateo did adopt a stronger animal control ordinance, but never strictly enforced it. Yet the on-camera killing brought unprecedented public discussion of pet overpopulation–and when Sheriff B.J. Barnes of Guilford, North Carolina, killed a homeless dog on TV in 1999, that too helped to boost pet sterilization and shelter adoptions.

While Sturla confronted the kind of denial she perceived, then-San Francisco SPCA president Richard Avanzino perceived denial of the opposite sort. Avanzino realized some years earlier that the much of the public abandons animals rather than taking them to
shelters not because they don’t care about the animals, but rather because they know shelters kill huge numbers of animals and–even hough the people feel they cannot keep the animals–they do not want the animals to be killed. Likewise, Avanzino saw, many people who care about animals do not adopt pets from shelters because they cannot bear to choose one from among others who will die by reason of not being chosen.

The problem, as Avanzino saw it, was less denial of the reality of pet overpopulation than denial by shelter directors of their responsibility to respond to the public desire to save animals’ lives. Animal abandoners, Avanzino perceived, would rather deny that dumped litters of puppies and kittens would suffer a cruel fate if “given a chance” then deliver them to near-certain death at a shelter whose methods would offer them no illusions.

Therefore, in 1984 Avanzino announced a five-year plan to turn the SF/SPCA into a no-kill shelter, and in 1989 accomplished it, turning the dog-and-cat population control killing chores over to a newly formed municipal animal control department. The transition proved so successful, and so popular with donors and adopters, that by 1994 the SF/SPCA was able to guarantee a home to every healthy and non-vicious animal received by either the city
shelter or its own. San Francisco thus became the first U.S. no-kill city.

The humane community has been responding to more conflicting kinds of denial ever since. On the one hand, the Humane Society of the U.S., PETA, the Humane Society of Missouri, and other organizations of conventional outlook continue to deny the success of the San Francisco example. To admit it would be to admit moral and tactical failure.

On the other hand, many proponents of no-kill want their communities to go no-kill immediately, denying the reality that the San Francisco SPCA had to sustain a higher level of pet sterilizations per capita for 17 years than any other city has ever achieved to get where it is. The effort began five years before the SF/SPCA went no-kill, 10 years before the city did, and has continued ever since because if high-volume dog and cat sterilization is not sustained, all the gains of the past two decades can swiftly be lost.

The levels and intensity of denial associated with pet overpopulation are just a small part of the scope of denial evident–if one looks–throughout human relations with animals. An obvious example is the 34-year-old denial written into the Animal Welfare Act enforcement regulations that rats, mice, and birds used in laboratories are “animals,” worthy of protection from pain and suffering. An out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit brought by the
American Anti-Vivisection Society threatened to change that denial late last year, but an Act of Congress postponed the necessary regulatory amendment until at least 2002.

The deepest denial, however, may involve human consumption of animals– exactly as Cohen sees in himself. Whole religions appear to have been constructed (or reconstructed) around rationales for eating meat. There is no scarcity of vegetarian advocacy in the wisdom literature of all the major religions, yet the vegetarianism of Christian saints is ignored, while Sunday School teachers advance denial–mostly unaware that they are doing it–by giving children the image of God as the “Good Shepherd,” ignoring that real-life shepherds deliver thir flocks to slaughter.

What people deny, and how they do it, affords clues to effective response. The pervasiveness of denial pertaining to meat, for instance, hints that human uneasiness about meat-eating is equally pervasive. Denial can enable cruel and even self-destructive practices to continue for even longer that the duration of civilizations, but it exacts a price. When change becomes easier than continuing denial, entire cultures can be transformed.

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