Matthew Cole and Kate Stewart, in The Psychologist, on how society ‘helps’ us to rationalise the exploitation of other animals, giving us a ‘licence to harm’. January 2021.
Many of us express compassion and concern for other animals alongside complicity in their exploitation. Researchers can examine how the mass media allow us to sustain care towards other animals while making it more difficult to know about, and act upon, the realities of the harms inflicted on them.
Our own interest in the paradox of animal care/exploitation arose from observing the puzzling phenomenon of children’s fast food meals that juxtapose animal products – such as burgers or chicken nuggets – with toy representations of animal characters from Hollywood films such as The Lion King or Babe (Stewart & Cole, 2009). The fictional characters, we argue, act as lightning rods for children’s empathy and affection, but simultaneously distract attention and concern from the real animals whose bodies are served up in the meal.
Through these kinds of cultural experiences, children are habituated to concurrently hold positive self-concepts of caring for and about other animals (in the form of a much-loved toy/character), at the very moment of consuming them. As we pursued this line of research, we were quickly overwhelmed by myriad examples of this paradox in Western children’s culture (Cole & Stewart, 2014). From food packaging, to animal-themed clothing designs, toys, digital and online gaming, throughout the mass media and even in the formal education system, the same themes recurred: children are encouraged to cultivate affectionate, caring relationships with representations of other animals, while simultaneously being encouraged to consume real, exploited animals.
Keeping our distance
This socialisation process has a clear trajectory: as children grow up, our research shows that they are encouraged to increasingly distance themselves from other animals and to perceive humans as radically different and superior. Debra Merskin calls this ‘a reification of dis-identification with animals’ (2018, p.73).
We saw this process plainly laid out in the famous toy shop Hamleys, in London (Cole & Stewart, 2014). The store is populated with hundreds of toys that represent other animals, but their character changes radically according to the target age group. Toys on the ground floor are aimed at infants, and then at progressively older children on each higher floor, ending with toys designed for tweens or early teens. On the ground floor, stuffed toys predominate, with anthropomorphised animals posed so as to invite cuddles, often with human-like smiles and wide-eyed adoring expressions. These representations give way to more realistic hard plastic ‘farmyard’ animals higher up in the store. The transition models a shift from affection to objectification that is a hallmark of ‘growing up’, culminating in the objectification of real animals on the top floor. Here, sweets containing gelatine and other animal products are on sale, but there is nothing in the shop that might raise children’s awareness that real animals are exploited and killed to produce them.