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What animal activists can learn from historical upheavals

“Informational cascades” can be key in turning the tide against animal cruelty.

By Cass Sunstein

The brilliant, evocative 1960s American television series The Twilight Zone contained enduring lessons. In one episode, astronauts leave Earth for Mars, hoping to encounter alien, or perhaps even human, life. One of the astronauts, Warren Marcusson, an inveterate optimist, insists that “people are alike all over”. He included Martians in “people”, and he meant that they would be friendly, respectful and kind.

After a crash-landing that kills Marcusson, his fellow astronaut Sam Conrad discovers Martians, who indeed seem friendly. They escort him to his new home, where he learns he cannot get out: he’s a caged exhibit in an alien zoo. In front of his door, a sign reads: “Earth creature in his native habitat.” Conrad grips the bars and exclaims, “Marcusson, you were right! People are alike. People are alike everywhere!” People everywhere imprison other living beings, diminish them and kill them.

In their mistreatment of animals, people are indeed alike everywhere. Yet people also love animals; they take them into their homes and treat them kindly. I have two Labradors, and it would be an understatement to say we have taken them into our home; they’re members of our family.

The human capacity for empathy has spurred movements for social change – including safeguarding animal welfare. Yet despite advances animals the world over are treated appallingly. We need look no further than factory farms for evidence. How can we continue to love our pets, while consigning pigs and hens to a life of misery? Might that change? To find some answers, we need to look to other movements of social change.

Lenin was stunned by the Russian Revolution’s speed; Tocqueville reported that no one foresaw the French Revolution; the 1979 Iranian Revolution was unanticipated; and leading analysts were caught off guard by the Arab Spring. The reasons for such large-scale changes often seem obscure, but they follow a broadly similar pattern, by which “informational cascades” lead to large groups believing something to be true because others seem to believe it too.

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Such cascades are often made possible because of preference falsification. People conceal their true preferences and behave as if they are comfortable with practices to which they have no commitment and that they may secretly abhor. Out of fear or an unwillingness to question apparently accepted wisdom, they stay silent, leaving others in the dark about what they really think. As a North Korean woman told Human Rights Watch: “It never occurred to me that I could or would want to do anything about it. It was just how things are.” We live in a world of pluralistic ignorance, knowing less than we might about the preferences of others. People are often terrified to challenge prevailing social norms, but once these norms start to dissolve – once a handful of people start to rebel – cascades can be triggered and large-scale change becomes possible.

Many cascades involve information; people join a movement because of what they learn. Others involve reputation; people join because of how they want to be seen. How far a cascade goes, and whether it leads to serious change, depends on many factors: who says what when, who is most visible, who hears whom when. 

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What are the implications of all this for animal welfare? Begin with preference falsification. Those who care about animal welfare often silence themselves. They know that if they speak out or act, they may incur disapproval from their peers. Personal experience shows me this is true. When Barack Obama, the US president at the time, nominated me to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, I had to be confirmed by the Senate. The process turned out to be surreal, a living nightmare. I was said to be “a rabid supporter of animal rights” who would forbid meat-eating and ban fishing and hunting. I received credible death threats at my unlisted home address. Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, vaguely threatened me (with gunfire) if I visited his home state. The conservative talk show host Glenn Beck repeatedly described me as “the most dangerous man in America”.

The rage and the threats had an effect. Whenever I have spoken about animal welfare since that time, I have done so with trepidation and (I confess) a little fear.

Significant change will not occur unless something triggers people’s diverse “thresholds” for contributing to it. Consider the question whether to be a vegetarian. Some people decide of their own accord to stop eating meat; others need to have a degree of social support or pressure from family members or friends. If people learn that eating less meat is becoming mainstream, they might decide to follow the trend. This change may create a cascade effect.

But the animal welfare movement isn’t simply about the revelation of preferences, experiences and beliefs, it is also about their transformation. Any social movement helps to change preferences, beliefs and values – for example by revealing what it might be like to be raised for food or kept in a zoo.

In recent decades we have often seen cascade effects on behalf of animal welfare. Will we witness larger ones, reducing cruelty in major ways? Probably. I choose to think that people are indeed the same all over – in their willingness to speak and act to reduce unjustified suffering.

This article is an edited version of one of 19 essays from a new collection titled What Have Animals Ever Done for Us? brought together by the RSPCA. 

[See also: How animals are adapting to climate change]

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