Author Topic: Silence and denial in everyday life: Animal suffering and the 'passive bystander  (Read 1171 times)

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Silence and denial in everyday life: Animal suffering and the 'passive bystander'    

In this essay, I will examine the literature on this subject, including some recent analysis and research, for the insights it provides in relation to people’s failure to ‘see’ and to act around animal suffering and mistreatment. Those of us working in the area of animal protection know that it is not the small number of perpetrators who are the biggest part of the problem, but rather the great mass of otherwise compassionate people who accept the status quo of animal suffering as ‘normal’.

There are two orders of problem here. The first concerns the actual witnessing of mistreatment and cruelty to animals by workers in animal handling facilities such as abattoirs, chicken processing plants, factory farms, transport vehicles and ships and laboratories where a co-worker witnesses the cruelty but says nothing and takes no action. While we have no precise figures for these events, we know that such mistreatment is not uncommon thanks to the efforts of undercover activists with cameras who frequently bring back examples of cruelty from these places.

The second order of problem concerns the passive bystander who does not witness the actual cruelty, may be unaware of it, and may be in denial about it, but who participates in cruelty by encouraging its continuation through consumer choice. We need to understand both dimensions of this problem in order to challenge passivity in situations where animals cannot speak up for themselves.

Some history

The question of the passive bystander pervades the history of the past century.  From the Holocaust, to the genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, to climate change and to incidents where individuals are left injured on the roadside, the question arises: why do some people respond to these atrocities while others look the other way? The question received an immediate impetus after World War II when many scholars turned their attention to the vexed question of how the good and highly cultured people of Germany could have allowed such terrible acts of genocide to be perpetrated in their midst. The sociologist Everett C. Hughes posed the key question in 1962 when he asked:

How could these millions of ordinary people live in the midst of such cruelty and murder without a general uprising against it and against the people who did it?....How and where could there be found in a civilized country the several hundred thousand men and women capable of such work [1]?

Hughes pointed out that there are two dimensions to the issue. The first concerns those who did the work, while the second concerns those who allowed it to happen. In an important sense, though, they are both connected in that the silence of one group enabled the actions of the others. This led Hughes to raise the crucial question: under what circumstances will good people let others get away with such actions?

The question drew renewed attention in the aftermath of an infamous event which took place in Queens, New York in 1963 when a young woman, Kitty Genovese, was murdered outside her apartment house. Later, 38 of her neighbours admitted to hearing her screams; at least three said they saw part of the attack as it took place. Yet no one intervened. This murder shocked the American public and also moved several social psychologists to delve beyond explanations which, at the time, focused on individual personalities and the dehumanization and brutalisation of people living in a crowded city. Research was developed with the goal of determining whether the very presence of other people inhibits a person from intervening in an emergency.

The first experiment, conducted by John Darley and Bibb Latane, isolated volunteers in booths and led them to think they were overhearing someone having an epileptic seizure[2]. In situations in which the volunteers thought they alone knew what was happening, 85 percent reported the incident. But in cases in which the volunteers believed that others elsewhere would also know about the seizure, only a third took any action. Darley and Latane attributed their results to something they called ‘a diffusion of responsibility’. This means that the larger the number of people who witness an emergency, the fewer there are who will intervene.

This experiment was repeated with many variations in which men and women, black and white, young and old were made witnesses to any number of emergencies – falls, robberies, asthma attacks, crashes and electric shocks. They all confirmed the original thesis:  the more people who witness an event, the less likely it is that anyone will respond to it.

Darley and Latane also suspected that bystanders choose not to intervene in an emergency because they are misled by the reactions of people around them.  To test this hypothesis, they conducted an experiment in which they asked participants to fill out questionnaires in a closed room. As they did so, the room slowly began to fill with smoke.  The results, which were tested many times, were startling.  When participants were alone, 75 percent of them left the room and reported the smoke to the experimenter.  With three participants in the room, only 38 percent left the room to report the smoke. Most remarkably, when a participant was joined by two confederates who had been instructed to show no reaction, only 10 percent of the participants reported the smoke to the experimenter [3].  The bystanders in this study succumbed to what has been termed ‘pluralistic ignorance’ which is the tendency to mistake one another’s calm demeanour as a sign that no emergency is taking place.

Bystanders as enablers

Writing many decades later, the sociologist Eviator Zerubavel comments that silent bystanders act as enablers because watching some people ignore something encourages others to deny its presence. It is much more difficult to trust one’s own perception when no one else appears to notice what you do. This pressure is further compounded when the number of bystanders is large. It is much more difficult to break a silence when there are 50 bystanders rather than five. If you are in the minority of one or two, it is even more difficult to maintain confidence in one’s own perception and knowledge of the truth [4].

There have been in recent years some terrible revelations concerning cruelty to animals in slaughter houses, chicken factory farms, chicken processing plants, and transport (land and sea). The major animal protection organisations in Australia all have publications which detail the cruelty and abuse endemic at animal handling sites. In addition, media outlets may pursue their own investigations, alone or in conjunction with an animal protection agency. Some recent examples include the expose of cruelty in Indonesian slaughterhouses by the ABC’s Four Corners programme and the report by Carly Crawford in the Melbourne Herald Sun on saleyard cruelty to farm animals [5].

While the first situation was complicated by issues of cultural difference, one could have expected that there would be unanimity across Victoria on what is acceptable behaviour and what constitutes cruel treatment. Apparently not. The report (taken from a video) revealed a sheep writhing for up to 13 minutes, until its throat was cut, after a failed attempt to put it down by shooting, sheep being made to walk with broken legs and a stock handler tossing live sheep into a pen.  In situations such as these, animals are totally dependent on a co-worker speaking out for them.  Why is it so rare? One explanation concerns the deep-seated fear humans have of being embarrassed and the subsequent potential exclusion from a social group.

Fear of embarrassment and exclusion

In her recent book, Wilful Blindness, Margaret Heffernan points out that a significant reason for bystander behaviour is our desire for conformity and our fear of embarrassment. Indeed, Heffernan states:

Our fear of embarrassment is the tip of the iceberg that is the ancient fear of exclusion, and it turns out to be astonishingly potent [6].

There is, in fact, a physiological basis to the discomfort we feel when we are excluded. Painful feelings associated with social exclusion and physical pain arise, in part, from the same regions of the brain. The same neuro-chemicals that regulate physical pain also control the psychological pain of social loss. Experiments on the effect of social exclusion have demonstrated the power of this social process on individuals. Ostracism made individuals feel they lacked purpose, had less control over their lives, were less good, moral beings, and lacked self-worth. As humans, we hate to be left out. Indeed, conforming and belonging give our life meaning. Is it any wonder then that at any one time, a majority of people will succumb to the social pressures of silence and choose neither to act nor to speak out?

The same process applies to the second aspect of the problem, where actual cruelty is unobserved, but where the bystander is implicated through their consumer choices, such as the purchase of factory farmed eggs, meat and dairy. In this case, being a passive bystander to the cruelty of a factory farming system is tied up with the general problem of denial. In both cases, the collusion of the bystander empowers either an individual or whole organisations and economies to continue to inflict pain and suffering on animals on a monumental scale.
From passive bystander to activist

Following the work of Darley and Latane, another social psychologist Ervin Staub conducted a number of experiments which aimed to explore the differences between passive bystanders and those willing to take action. In one notable experiment, a study participant and a confederate were placed in a room together and instructed on a joint task.  Soon afterwards, they heard a crash and sounds of distress. When the confederate dismissed the sounds by saying that they were probably just a tape or perhaps another experiment in progress, only 25 percent of the participants went into the next room to investigate.  However, when the confederate said, ‘That sounds bad. Maybe we should do something’, 66 percent of the participants took action.

When the confederate in this experiment became more directional and stated that they should go into the next room to investigate, 100 percent of participants tried to help [7].  These results were confirmed in other studies and suggest that while passive bystanders reinforce the idea that nothing is wrong in a situation, an active bystander can get people to focus on a problem and motivate them to take action. This tells us that the voice of one person can make a difference.

Staub has also been at the forefront of education programmes aimed at overcoming bystander behaviour. In the 1990’s, in the wake of the Rodney King bashing, he worked with California’s Department of Justice to develop a training programme for police officers. The goal of the programme was to teach officers how they could intervene if they considered that a fellow officer was about to use inappropriate force.  This echoes a point made by John Darley who argues that more people need to learn about the subtle pressures that can cause bystander behaviour, such as diffusion of responsibility and pluralistic ignorance. Research suggests that this kind of education is both possible and effective. One study has shown that people who simply attended social psychology lectures where they learnt about bystander behaviour were more aware of the pressures and therefore were less susceptible to those influences.

Given the mounting evidence regarding the use of cruelty, violence and force towards animals during transport, on farms and at abattoirs, it is surely time that such courses were developed and made compulsory for all workers involved in animal handling. Such courses should also be compulsory for management as well. Heffernan has argued persuasively that management attitudes and behaviour are crucial for establishing an active bystander culture in a workplace. The Victorian Farmers’ Federation livestock group president Chris Nixon sadly reinforced this point when he commented on the reported cruelty in Victorian saleyards: it was, he said, a ‘fact of life’ that livestock suffered injuries in transit, thereby accepting the trade of sick and injured animals as normal [5]. 

At a societal level, we know that the majority of the population act as passive bystanders to animal atrocity simply by doing the weekly shop in the supermarket. It is therefore crucial to make the secrets of the daily sufferings of animals part of the public discourse. To this purpose, persuasion, art, poetry and philosophy can be called upon to clear away blindness, deafness, and inertia.  It has been suggested that activism may be the most powerful of all and not simply because it draws attention to a problem [8]. At a deeper level, activism challenges the very meaning of animals. In a speciesist society, animals are seen as having no value in themselves and are there to be used by humans. Activists turn this around to say instead:  animals are of so much value that humans have a duty to protect them.

Actions call upon audiences to consider their own ethical role in relationship to animals. Elisa Aaltola argues that even if actions are initially viewed negatively, the observer is forced to pause and reflect ‘for a speciesist meaning has suffered a blow’.  Over time, reflections accumulate and subtle changes in cultural values become evident. ‘The meat eater is taken by surprise, and in order to make sense of the unusual and radical, he has to (even if just for a moment) open the door for new possibilities and value’, notes Aaltola [9]. Movements like Meat Free Monday (London), Vegetarian Thursday (Belgium) and the 30 Day Easy Vegan Challenge (Australia) attest to the strength of the cultural changes gradually taking shape.

In the meantime, it is important to remind ourselves that we are all potentially passive bystanders to animal suffering. In the words of Margaret Heffernan, we must keep asking ourselves: ‘What could I know, should I know, that I don’t know? Just what am I missing here?’


    Hughes, Everett. C 'Good People and Dirty Work', Social Problems, Vol 10, No.1, pp.3-11, 1962

    Darley, John, and B. Latane. ‘Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol.8, No 4, pp377-383, 1968.

    Latane, Bibb, and Darley, John M. ‘Group Inhibition of Bystander Intervention in Emergencies’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 10 (3), pp215-221, 1968.

    Zeruvabel, Eviatar. The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life. Oxford University Press: New York, 2006.

    Crawford, Carly. ‘Saleyard cruelty on farm animals’, Herald Sun, November 24th, 2011 (accessed 1/12/11).

    Heffernan, Margaret. Willful Blindness. Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril. Walker & Company: New York, 2011.

    Straub. Ervin. ‘Helping a person in distress: The influence of implicit and explicit “rules” of conduct on children and adults’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol.17(2), pp137-144, 1971.

    Schnurer, Maxwell. ‘At the Gates of Hell: the ALF and the Legacy of Holocaust Resistance,’ in Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, ed. Best, Steven and Nocella, Anthony. Lantern Books: New York, 2004.

    Aaltola, Eliza. “Coetzee and Alternative Animal Ethics,’ in J.M. Coetzee And Ethics, ed. Leist, Anton and Singer, Peter. Columbia University Press: New York, 2010