Discussing the Harm Without Discussing It, Abstract

Ariel Tsovel, Discussing the Harm Without Discussing It: The Debate Between the Supporters and the Critiques of the Human Harming of Nonhuman Animals as a System of Diversions, A thesis for M.A. Degree in Tel-Aviv University, supervisor Dr. Moshe Zuckermann, The Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, The Faculty of the Humanities, Tel-Aviv University, August 2000. 157 pages.


This study discusses the attitude of contemporary Western culture people towards their harming of nonhuman animals. At the background of the research lies the recognition, that human harming of various animals is conducted on an immense scale – far beyond anything recognized in most existing discussion forums – and almost all of it, in the modern West, is institutionalized and industrialized. This harm is the most extreme stage in a trans-historic reality of domination and exploitation. Furthermore, every human in this society takes part in the harming, even if it is indirectly.

Out of the varied cultural systems, which support the harming of nonhumans by humans, this study focuses on a certain system: expressions (mostly written ones), which discuss the harm as an outspoken issue, whether in approval or critically. Since such expressions are a widespread phenomenon throughout our culture, the sources for this research are versatile, with no attempt to achieve a high level of empirical precision or statistical validity. The whole set of arguments supporting the harm is presented separately from the set of objections; an analysis of such expressions follows, relating to the circumstances of their utterance and their rhetoric function. Analysis tools are taken mostly from other disciplines, such as: feminism, post-colonialism and Marxism.

This study shows that outspoken expressions concerning the harm are chronically prone to avoid dealing with the three most important aspects of the harm: the experience of the harmed animals themselves, the harming act and the human responsibility for the harm. This is the case even when there is a claim to discuss these issues.

Diversions from the harm are the result of rhetoric, which is allegedly no different from rhetoric that occurs in other fields, and especially in discursive fields that are concerned with oppression. This rhetoric is by no means structurally appropriate to support the harm only; it could as well be used for criticizing the harm. But its effectiveness as a supporting tool of the harm is sweeping; this effectiveness is not a necessary result of the argument’s content, but a result of the conditions in which the discourse takes place:
1. The harming mechanisms are enormous in scale and power
2. The part people take in the collective responsibility for most harms is difficult to discern
3. The harming act is usually hidden from the participants in the discourse
4. The experience of the harmed animals is hidden from the participants and is alien to them
5. The harmed animals lack self-representation in the discourse and their authentic voice is not present
6. The critics of the harm are usually much weaker than their opponents

These facts determine how the discourse occurred and the limited effectiveness of the critical elements in it. The critics of the harm and its supporters occupy opposite positions within each specific discussion, but a more general view of the matter will show that the affinity between them is usually stronger than the differences. Together they create a speciesist discourse. This phenomenon is not restricted to circumstances, in which the use of power by the supporters of the harm is apparent, or even to discussions, in which support of the harm is obvious at all. The mere occurrence of the discourse in a speciesist culture provides a rhetorical advantage for the harm supporters and is a restrictive force against criticism, even when the rhetoric doesn’t consciously aim at such an effect.

Rhetoric means, which operate in the discourse, are partially related to manipulations in the context of expressions – achieved by style of expression as well as by its structure. The mere reference to some harm out of skeptic distance; the reifying of harmed animals; the empathic approach to the harming people; hostility towards the critics of the harm, and so on – cause diversions of the discussion away from the harm, without anything necessarily done to achieve such diversions purposefully. The manipulations in the context are created by any rhetorical means, such as analogies, order of details, and unequal treatment of similar arguments. These rhetoric means help to create thematic diversions, when there is an apparently clear discussion about the harm.

Furthermore, whenever referring to the harm, there is an inclination to avoid a direct and focused discussion of it, by diverting attention “too close” or “too far”:
a. Discussing harms, for which we are not responsible; or: those which are most apparent to us.
b. Discussing harms in a very general manner; or: focusing on certain local harms only.
c. Discussing difficult moral dilemmas; or: moral issues on which our opinion is already formulated.

These thematic diversions help to maintain an appearance of a serious discussion of the harm, without addressing the most important issues.