Tame the dialogue on animal rights

During a recent trip to the supermarket, my eye was drawn to a fluorescent yellow sticker that someone had stuck to a chicken. "Caution!" it read, "This package contains the decomposing corpse of a small tortured animal."

How was I to react? Perhaps grateful that someone had finally explained to me what that lean juicy stuff labeled "chicken" actually is. Or perhaps with such an overwhelming sense of shame at my intentions that I would put it back on the shelf.

Instead, I rolled my eyes, dropped it into the cart, and moved on.

The episode might be amusing if it didn't reflect the sad state of the animal welfare debate in America. We barely discuss the treatment of animals in agriculture, medical research, and chemical testing, preferring to imagine that our commendable attitude toward domestic pets reflects a broader compassion toward all creatures.

Rarely is public opinion so polarized that, while a minority accuse their compatriots of the worst kind of moral outrages, the majority barely pause to hear the complaint. The tactics of the animal-rights lobby only perpetuate this polarization.

The nation's largest annual conference on animal rights took place in Washington last weekend. Its participants should be congratulated for their one major success: Over the past 20 years, they have alerted the public to the issue of animal welfare.

Most consumers have become so familiar with the alleged abuses that it now reads like humdrum: at least 8 billion chickens raised every year in conditions that often drive them to cannibalism from frustration, scores of animals used to test new shades of lipstick or mascara each year, lower standards of care in the US than in any other industrialized country.

Animal-rights activists have achieved this awareness largely through shock strategies such as sticking labels to chicken, or setting up street stalls to display graphic photos of animals. The hope is that our conscience won't be able to hide from the "truth."

But the problem is, this approach underestimates the public's intelligence. How can one know where or when those photos were taken? How many animals are involved? How important are the experiments to medical research? The credibility of the more scrupulous lobby groups is marred by reports of misrepresentation or blatant exaggeration by their less conscientious colleagues.

Shock tactics also tend to involve a loaded idiom, in which farmers become "murderers" and medical researchers "torturers." This does little to win over the public. Instead, such language mainly exhausts its audience. Most of us simply switch off.

We need to develop new ways of talking about animal welfare. The vast changes of recent decades – from the intensification of commercial agriculture to the rapid development of new medicines, cosmetics, and chemicals – have left ethics straggling far behind.

Confronting this deficit in ethical thinking should be a collective undertaking. Politicians, religious leaders, and consumers can all contribute by engaging the public interest and suggesting alternatives.

But activists must also realize that awareness-raising is not enough. In many ways, conditions for animals in the US – particularly in agriculture – have deteriorated in recent decades. Moving the debate into the political center will mean holding a dialogue, rather than trying to shock the public into singing from the same radical hymnbook. It will also mean being open to compromise.

The language that can unite the largest constituency on this issue is one of compassion. Indeed, the ability to empathize with other species is itself a defining feature of the human race. One does not need to believe that animals deserve their own bill of rights to recognize that their quality of life, especially for those that are dependent on humans, is a profoundly ethical question.

• Tristan Jones is a Monitor intern.

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