How can they?


By Katherine Perlo

We’ve all asked this at times, in response to public support for cruel policies towards animals or humans. How can ordinary people vote for right-wing parties? How can they condone cruelty to animals?

Of possible explanations, some apply to human issues, some to animals, some to both. But the unthinking acceptance of animal abuse by the majority of people over history is a more troubling illustration of how the human conscience – in regard to any species – can be thoroughly suppressed by whatever combination of pressures may be held responsible.

My focus, in the case of human interests, will be largely on benefit claimants, because here in Britain, and in America, they are the main sufferers from right-wing policies, their suffering made acceptable by the methods indicated.

In the case of animals, the speciesist propaganda is so deeply rooted in most people’s consciousness as to be scarcely visible and all the more lethal.

We know how the rich can vote for right-wing parties: it’s in their interest. Even so, the cruelty of their policies towards the unemployed, disabled and single parents seems to exceed the demands of rational ruling-class interests such as keeping down wages and working conditions by the terror of unemployment and the competition from forced unpaid labour. The relish with which Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne announce each new attack on the poorest people bespeaks an inexplicable neurotic loathing for them.

Why do the rich hate the poor? Perhaps it’s a defensive maneuver, rejecting guilt by rejecting the moral premises that give rise to it. Social darwinism, the celebration of power as the only good, is underlined by the celebration of what our official morality defines as wickedness. Of course the rich don’t celebrate it in public (not yet, anyway). When they persecute the poor, it’s all for the sake of the economy, or the work-ethic, or even for the victims’ own good. But the Bullingdon Club, to which the men currently running Britain belonged in their youth, imposed the initiation rite of showing a homeless person a £50 note, and then burning it. Discard and ridicule altruistic ethics, and guilt no longer exists.

What’s harder to understand is the support for these policies by ordinary working-class people. On the Tory attack on human rights, Socialist Worker (11 Oct. 2014, p. 2) observes,

‘… it is strange indeed that the Tories plan a campaign with the message, “Vote for us, we will take away your rights”.

‘But they are lurching to the right to prove to frothing activists that they are right wing enough for those considering joining Ukip.’

Stranger yet, they expect ‘frothing activists’ to be numerous enough, or to convince enough other people, to keep the Tories in office.

This attack is class-based, though the ‘human rights’ issue may appear to be purely legalistic or philosophical, or (for those who accept the message of the right-wing press) to be concerned with protection for terrorists and criminals. What Tories really don’t like about human rights law is that it protects workers from exploitation and all people from destitution and homelessness, guaranteeing them the right to a home and an adequate standard of living. The UK government violates human rights law left and right, so of course it would like to free itself from even the ineffectual nudging it occasionally suffers from Europe.

How can people not see where their interests lie?


Much acceptance and non-acknowledgement of cruelty may stem from that form of authoritarianism that can be called the ‘wish to be respectable’. People don’t like to think of themselves as troublemakers, agitators, nutcases, ‘rent-a-mob’, etc. They think of themselves as minding their own business, meeting their obligations to their families and to society, and not forcing their ideas on others: an attitude highly convenient for the powers-that-be, and spread somehow invisibly through the atmosphere, rather than through direct propaganda.

Look at how passersby sometimes react to demonstrators. They may walk on with set faces, determinedly not acknowledging your existence. Or they may call out ‘Get a life!’ or ‘Get a job!’

This respectability can change with time. Orwell’s well-known attack, in The Road to Wigan Pier, on the ‘fruit juice drinkers, nudists, sandal wearers, feminists, and vegetarians’ who he said gave socialism a bad name, reflects the conventions of his day more than of our own.

But respectability itself holds sway. At a Council debate about banning circuses, one pro-circus councillor launched an attack on ‘the kind of people’ who opposed them; similarly at a circus demo, the circus owner or manager detailed all our ideological sins, finally spluttering ‘You’re all in favour of abortion!’ What the hell abortion had to do with it I don’t know, but the argument in terms of respectability and what he saw as convention was quite clear.

In an analysis of working-class conservatism in the U.S. context, Haidt (2012) spells out the political religion that, more than specific policies, he claims endears the Republicans to ordinary Americans, defines the right kind of people to identify with, and gives the right wing an edge over the left:

‘… politics at the national level is more like religion than it is like shopping. It’s more about a moral vision that unifies a nation and calls it to greatness than it is about self-interest or specific policies. In most countries, the right tends to see that more clearly than the left. In America the Republicans did the hard work of drafting their moral vision in the 1970s, and Ronald Reagan was their eloquent spokesman. Patriotism, social order, strong families, personal responsibility (not government safety nets) and free enterprise. Those are values, not government programmes.

‘The Democrats, in contrast, have tried to win voters’ hearts by promising to protect or expand programmes for elderly people, young people, students, poor people and the middle class. Vote for us and we’ll use government to take care of everyone! But most Americans don’t want to live in a nation based primarily on caring. That’s what families are for.’

This cultural apartheid can be seen in somewhat more specific psychological terms. Working-class people in America suffer from shame if they have to take anything from the government; respectability for them means being rugged individualists even when the circumstances of their position under capitalism make it impossible. Their ideal is Abraham Lincoln, who, according to a legendary school essay, ‘was born in a log cabin that he built with his own hands’. If their actual aims are hardly more attainable than that, at least they can share the whole complex of values associated with it.


When the organization Mercy for Animals turned over to Sonoma County authorities undercover footage of the hideous conditions of factory-farmed ducks, ‘pointing out numerous violations of California’s anti-cruelty laws … and … seeking criminal charges,’ the authorities ‘said they didn’t find anything illegal at the farm’ and a veterinarian ‘who went along for the raid, told the SF Gate that ‘there was no reason for them to be there, further stating that “These activist groups hang on normal processing procedures and say it’s animal cruelty”’ (Graef 2014).

Remember that line from the Flanders & Swann spoof? – ‘But people have always eaten people!’

And very soon the policies towards people in Britain that would have been unthinkable even under Thatcher could be taken for granted and opposition to them seen as extreme. Unpaid work spreads like wildfire, so that soon it will be considered a rare privilege, at the lower ranks of employment, to get a job that actually pays a wage. As for a wage you can live on, without claiming top-up benefits: well, you have to prove that you’re worth it, don’t you? Don’t complain about having to use a foodbank: you’re lucky it’s there, if you couldn’t manage your money well enough to provide for your children. Same goes for smart cards instead of cash: why should the taxpayer pay for your luxuries? If you don’t contribute anything, of course you should live at subsistence and count yourself lucky.

If it’s normal, it can’t be wrong. And if it’s normal, the people protesting against it must be abnormal, and no-one wants to be abnormal.


Scapegoating can be direct or indirect. The direct form is seen in the so-called cycle of cruelty: the child is abused and so takes it out on the animal; the child, in turn, may have been abused by a parent who was abused by employers or welfare authorities.

The indirect form consists of morally denigrating the scapegoat in order to morally praise the scapegoater. Benton shows how Marxism was built on the backs of the animal: to promote the equality of humans, socialists had to compare them with inferior species. Thus, ‘human’ is used as an emotional puff-word when morally compelling things are discussed: human kindness, human love, even human evil (by implication evidence of our greater complexity).

So we have the tragedy of scapegoating down by the scapegoats, like this homeless man who blames immigrants for the conditions leading to his plight:

‘To Clacton now – and a long conversation outside the jobcentre with Paul, who is 56. There is a transcript from that conversation below. Paul has mental health problems. He has been in and out of street homelessness for some years, in different parts of the country. “I’ve been travelling for about 35 years,” he says. His face is seamed and his teeth are broken. He says that he was sanctioned for six weeks about 18 months ago when he was homeless in Manchester. …

‘Now living in Clacton, he must sign on every day at the jobcentre. This daily-signon setup is utterly pointless. It won’t lead to work. It can’t. …

‘During our discussion, Paul – like so many people I speak with now – says that Britain has reached a crisis point. He thinks that Britain has become weak. More specifically, he says the problem is that Britain is filled with immigrants who think that Britain is easy. So, I hear people say this sort of thing more and more now. … I hear it in places where there’s not enough to go around – at jobcentres and from people who can’t find work, or housing. And it is hard to see how things will improve while a terrified political class devotes itself to keeping stride with Ukip, rather than, say, to addressing the housing crisis in a genuine way.

‘“Enoch Powell was right, you know,” Paul tells me. “It will spread like a cancer. He should have been prime minister.”’ (Belgrave 2014)

Paul himself is a scapegoat for the people who blame benefit scroungers for whatever problems they themselves are having: like the woman at the Jobcentre who, after making it clear that she wasn’t there to claim benefits, said ‘It’s a few lazy ones who make it hard for the other unemployed. But there has to be reform – the country is being bankrupted by the benefits bill.’

These are straightforward examples of government brainwashing by the media. But it’s not just the direct messages, such as xenophobia, that have an effect. First the ground must be prepared. As Tsesis outlines it in regard to hate speech,

‘Speech plays a pivotal role in communicating ideas – both progressive and regressive. Over time, the semantics of a language comes to mirror the historical development of a people. The context of phrases and the subtle nuances of demonstrative messages can contain the kernels of a cultural worldview. Traditionally accepted perspectives permeate the unconscious and form an often unquestioned social “reality.” Prejudices that reflect collective outlooks gradually find their way into laws.’ (Tsesis 2004, pp. 3-4)

Note, some forms of scapegoating – racism in the case of Tsesis’s paper – are already at least officially discredited, while others remain invisible. The scapegoating of benefit claimants is just beginning to be recognized and is officially promoted with enthusiasm.

This ‘historical development of a people’ doesn’t just spring from tradition, but, as Marx saw, from the perspectives of the ruling class. In modern times it’s a rapid process, as rapid as technological change. The cultural worldview that’s nowadays used to bash the poor revolves around the word ‘work’. Work is good. Not working is bad. People who work are ‘contributing’. People who don’t ‘contribute’ are useless eaters. If they really can’t help it, we must pity and grudgingly support them, but they’re a burden to ‘society’ (by which is meant the paid workers) and can’t expect anything but the right to stay alive. People who don’t have paid jobs, but are put on unpaid workfare, are also burdens because they’re getting benefits, so of course they should work for those benefits although their work still doesn’t make them members of society. (Don’t expect it to make sense.)

In the animal case, the ‘ruling class’ is the human species. The scapegoating of animals is different from that of humans: animals aren’t so much condemned as despised. Condemnation is saved for human animal-rights campaigners, characterized as preachy and misanthropic; also as ‘middle-class’.

Poverty as an excuse for animal abuse

Class-consciousness is used to support speciesism when the poverty of animal abusers is offered as justification. For example, Inuit interests are used to defend the killing of animals for fur. Here the rights of two worthy liberal human categories, the poor and the indigenous, are held to trump the animals’ right even to live:

‘Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres is facing a backlash from an Inuit community in Canada after using her famous Oscars selfie to raise money from an anti-seal hunting charity.

‘Filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, from Iqaluit, Nunavut, promoted the Inuit campaign in a blog in which she encouraged people to post pictures of themselves wearing clothing made from seal fur, along with the hashtag #sealfie.’

In a typical appeal to social conscience at the expense of animals, Arnaquq-Baril argued, ‘“The days of a free-for-all unregulated seal hunt endangering the population (which Inuit never took part in anyway) are long gone.’

‘“Fighting against commercial seal hunting is no longer relevant in today’s society, but it brings animal rights groups a lot of money, while ensuring the poorest populations in North America are even poorer.”’ (Rush 2014)

So the animal rights campaigners are rich oppressors of the poor, non-commercial (another anti-capitalist tag) seal-killers. Indeed, we often encounter the moral distinction between sport hunting and subsistence hunting, as though it made any difference to the animal. And it’s strange that in the modern world, with all its vast, though unequally distributed, riches, it’s deemed impossible to find any other mode of subsistence for the people concerned.

In America, that moral distinction becomes blurred, as the subsistence claim is used to uphold the cult of gun-ownership and hunting for any purpose. The acknowledged, occasional human tragedies stemming from the gun culture can be traced back to the unacknowledged, routine animal tragedies forming the base of that culture.

In keeping with the poverty excuse for killing animals, animal-rights supporters are sometimes accused of being middle-class and, by implication, indifferent to the needs of the poor whose well-being may depend on animal exploitation. But, according to Jerolmack (2004),

‘The stereotypical profile of an animal rights supporter is female, well educated, upper-middle class, middle-aged, and white. The data in this study do not support the stereotype. Instead, the young, non-black minorities, and the less educated were more likely to support animal rights; income was not a significant predictor. Other predictors examined included religious denomination, frequency of church attendance, and attitudes toward environmental protection.’

On the other hand, what if animal-rights supporters were all rich? What if they were even all rich Tories? It wouldn’t be the animals’ fault. Give the pampered right-wing bunny hugger credit for at least one half of her ideology, however much blame we attach to the other half. The human poor needn’t be pitted against the animal poor. But it’s an easy out for the socialist addicted to meat.

Role of language

We’re familiar with how speciesist language strengthens animal abuse: the use of animal names as terms of abuse; calling an animal ‘it’; making indignant comparisons such as ‘these workers are no better off than battery hens’; using the word ‘even’ to denote lower entitlement, as in ‘even an animal wouldn’t do that; even an animal wouldn’t be treated like that’.

Perhaps the most powerful verbal weapon of speciesism is ‘important’. Animal cruelty is seen as necessary to uphold the interests of humans, who are more ‘important’. I put the word in quotes because it’s used as though it denoted some objective, identifiable quality, but is really an expression of policy preference. Those whose interests the speaker wants to serve are deemed important. As an animal rights supporter I would insist that animals are just as important as humans. That is, I would insist it on a very superficial argumentative level, recognizing that the statement is just as meaningless as its opposite.

We know how powerful animal abusers aren’t defined as psychopathic, whereas the same behaviour by a powerless person who wasn’t paid to abuse animals might be regarded as incipient psychopathy (only incipient because it hasn’t gone ‘up’ to the level of abusing humans). Martin Seligman began by driving animals to the state of complete psychological destruction known as ‘learned helplessness’; he went on to contribute to the development of CIA interrogation techniques. He’s referred to not as a psychopath but as a distinguished psychologist.

Monbiot (2014) gives some examples of language used to dehumanize. The word itself is speciesist in its implications. What’s wrong, the word argues, is not just that humans are being treated cruelly, but that they’re being treated that way by being compared with a lower species that it’s all right to treat that way. The title of his article, ‘Cleansing the Stock’, is an indignant comparison: humans referred to in the same terms as animals. I would say that animals themselves shouldn’t be referred to as ‘stock’, and indeed Monbiot goes on to object to fish being called that. The DWP website, he points out,

‘describes disabled people entering the government’s work programme for between three and six months as “3/6Mth stock” (5,6). Perhaps this makes sense when you remember that they are a source of profit for the companies running the programme. The department’s delivery plan recommends using “credit reference agency data to cleanse the stock of fraud and error”(7). To cleanse the stock. Remember that.

… ‘A dehumanising system requires a dehumanising language. So familiar and pervasive has this language become that it has soaked almost unnoticed into our lives. Those who do have jobs are also described by the function they deliver to capital. These days they are widely known as human resources.

‘The living world is discussed in similar terms. Nature is “natural capital”. Ecological processes are ecosystem services, because their only purpose is to serve us. Hills, forests and rivers are described in government reports as green infrastructure (10). Wildlife and habitats are asset classes in an ecosystems market (11). Fish populations are invariably described as stocks, as if they exist only as moveable assets from which wealth can be extracted – like disabled recipients of social security. The linguistic downgrading of human life and the natural world fuses in a word a Norwegian health trust used to characterise the patients on its waiting list(12). Biomass.’

Yet Monbiot himself subsumes animals, other than ‘fish populations’, under such headings as ‘the living world’, ‘nature’, ‘wildlife’, and ‘the natural world’. We’re supposed to spare them, if at all, only in relation to such grand collective abstractions. Still, give him credit for puncturing a few more of the linguistic falsehoods that lead the public to condone cruelty.

Here are some others:

Euphemisms of benevolence

There is, of course, no such thing as workfare. There’s just ‘help to work’, ‘work experience’, ‘traineeships’, ‘opportunities for young people to prepare for employment’, and so on.

In response to the outrage over Lord Freud’s statement that disabled people weren’t worth the minimum wage, but should only get £2 per hour, Black Triangle reminded us on Facebook that ‘In 2003 the‪ Labour‬ govt supported allowing some companies to pay people with mental health problems £4-a-day to man assembly lines. Patricia Hewitt (Secretary of State for Trade and Industry) argued that that some so-called “therapeutic work” should not qualify for the minimum wage’.

When people are put on smart cards instead of cash, as proposed by Iain Duncan Smith, it’s to help them ‘turn their lives around’, because their problem has been spending all their benefits on drink and drugs.

Intolerance reinforced by the nomination of exceptions: ‘“Most Indians are drunks, but he’s a hard worker,” “He may be a Jew, but he’s not greedy,” “I’m usually careful around blacks, but he can be trusted”’ reflect the same animosity as their more flagrant counterparts: “Indians are drunks,” “Jews are greedy,” and “Blacks are dangerous”’ (Tsesis, p. 6). Racism, as mentioned, is largely discredited, but what about the anti-smart-cards petition which refers to ‘responsible’ claimants and people unemployed ‘through no fault of their own’?

Finally, there is the insidious effect of just not mentioning the despised group. In the 20 pages of the 25th October issue of Socialist Worker, there is no mention either of benefit claimants or of animals. The paper’s outrageous quotations section on p. 2 includes, without further comment, Lord Freud’s claim that disabled people aren’t worth the minimum wage. On page 3, in another brief snippet, the growth of child poverty is referred to and ‘welfare cuts’ are blamed. The closest the paper gets to animals is in a column about evolution, which, in a somewhat more sophisticated construction than the traditional one, still places humanity and its aims at the top. (Indeed, I mention it only to be fair.)

As an example from a quite different context, Descartes is presented to students as a great philosopher. Unless there should be a comment from an animal rights supporter in the class, neither the lecturer, nor the edition of Descartes’ writing, will mention how the great philosopher not only tortured animals to death himself, but provided a rationale for future generations of torturers. This might be seen, at worst, as a regrettable wart on the face of the great man.

When a group is simply not mentioned, it’s easy for people to get the idea that that group’s treatment is just a fringe issue which may be of interest, or even of concern, but cannot be expected to attract as much attention or effort as (in my examples) the struggles for higher pay of workers who have jobs – not that there’s anything wrong with that! – or the ins and outs of Descartes’ reasoning.

Lily-livered liberals

Perhaps almost as irritating as right-wing/speciesist propaganda itself is the feeble resistance by liberals, such as the token lefty sometimes seen on Question Time, who argue with the right-wingers in terms of the latter’s own, unchallenged, premises.

In the welfare context, they may insist that those without jobs still ‘contribute’, begging the question of seriously disabled, sick or elderly people who can’t do so.

They’ll point out that more welfare benefits go to those in work (the deserving) than to the unemployed.

They’ll replace the claim ‘it’s evil’ with the claim ‘it doesn’t work’. We’re told that the government is ‘incompetent’ and that ‘austerity isn’t working’ in the pursuit of its professed aims.

Similarly, they’ll argue that vivisection or culling ‘doesn’t work’, as though it would be OK if it did; or that the punitive jobcentre regime ‘doesn’t work’ in finding people paid jobs, as though it were meant to.

This is another form of ‘just not mentioning’ – the unmentioned thing, in this case, being the wrongness of the practices in question.


When seeing how people can justify cruelty, when the prevalent strand of their culture in theory is altruistic, we must ask, is there such a thing as a conscience independent of the hegemonic pressure known as ‘culture’? Ethologists have found altruistic behaviour in animals, but this, like the limited human practice of altruism, may be confined to specific circumstances and beneficiaries. Moreover, animals have also been found to have their own hierarchies and their own culture, so their altruism may be no more ‘pure’, ‘natural’ or ‘inherent’ than our own. And where altruism is linked to evolutionary or survival advantages, how altruistic is it? (Not that it matters, if living beings gain from it.) When, in the human sphere, it’s argued that we should relieve poverty because that helps the economy in one way or another, the door is left open to argue that ‘helping the economy’ is the ultimate goal, so that maybe we should induce or maintain poverty where such action would promote that goal. Ditto in the animal sphere: Monbiot first argued that veganism helped the environment, then retracted his argument, having abandoned veganism for his health. So, with ‘environment’ the ultimate value, where does that leave the animals and our conscience in relation to them?

The answer – and the question – must lie with psychology, not philosophy or politics. If we have a conscience, we feel guilt. Yet many people who do cruel things obviously feel no guilt, as long as the power structure supports them. I daresay Martin Seligman sleeps soundly in his bed, knowing his critics are just ignorant scruffy misanthropes. The rules for stoning to death in the Middle East – the stones must be big enough to kill, but small enough to take time killing – could only have been devised by a sadist; but no doubt the man who casts the first stone likewise sleeps soundly, with God and the theocracy on his side.

The power structure tries, through schools, churches, political argument, and (influenced in their turn) parents, to develop a conscience in children. At the same time, radical traditions can work on children, usually through parents, to make possible the capacity for dissidence in whatever form. That capacity is extremely important. Even if it leads to adherence to something we regard as silly, at least the person has been freed from the shackles of ‘respectability’.

In the absence of such influences, for good or ill, would affective empathy and altruism arise? And given the presence of the good influences, how did they get there in the first place?

Perhaps the fact that we can ask these questions, with their implications for action, offers some hope.


Belgrave, Kate (2014) ‘I have to sign on every day. I was sanctioned for six weeks when I was homeless’. Kate Belgrave blog, 9 October.

Graef, Alicia (2014) ‘That’s the Problem: Raid on Duck Farm Turns Up “Normal Procedures”
• Care2 Causes, 24 October.

Haidt, Jonathan (2012) ‘Why working-class people vote conservative’, Th Guardian, 5 June.

Jerolmack, Colin (2003) ‘Tracing the profile of animal rights supporters: a preliminary investigation’, Society & Animals 11.3. http://www.animalsandsociety.net/assets/library/511_s1133.pdf

Monbiot, George (2014), ‘Cleansing the Stock’. The Guardian, 21 October.

Rush, James (2014) ‘Forget the Selfie, this is the SEALFIE: Ellen DeGeneres targeted by Inuit campaign protesting against THAT Oscars group shot after she uses it to raise money for anti-seal hunting charity’. Mail Online, 31 March. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2593209/Forget-Selfie-Sealfie-Ellen-DeGeneres-targeted-Inuit-campaign-protesting-against-THAT-Oscars-group-shot-raising-money-anti-seal-hunting-charity.html

Tsesis, Alexander (2004) Destructive messages. How hate speech paves the way for harmful social movements. New York: New York University Press. SSRN-id1699370 (1)

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