Animal Studies Bibliography

Benson, Thomas L. 1983. The clouded mirror: Animal stereotypes and human cruelty. In Harlan B. Miller and William H. Williams (Eds.), Ethics and Animals (pp. 79-90). Clifton, NJ: Humana Press.

Negative stereotypes of a group facilitate cruelty toward them by removing the group from moral consideration, providing a simplistic assessment of the group that allows immediate acceptance or rejection. Stereotypes are most often used to describe groups that are poorly understood or mistrusted. They create a negative image in people's minds which is acted out through violence and psychological and verbal abuse. Stereotypes of animals, though not often recognized, serve this same function of legitimating abuse. Some of the stereotypes appear at first to be positive; any attitude based of simplification or falsehood, however, can always turn negative. We can start to understand animal stereotypes by identifying 5 major ones. People generally understand animals using a combination of these stereotypes, and may use different ones to apply to different types of animals or different situations. First, we see the animal as an alien, a being from another way of life that we cannot understand. We are both fascinated by animals because of their differences from us and suspicious of animals because of their similarities to us. This suspicion comes from fear that animals may have the same bad behaviors humans have and is reflected in our use of animal names as pejoratives for humans (shark, leech, rat, etc.). To deal with the suspicion, we try to control animals through assimilation, confinement, or banishment. Our domestication, extermination, and confinement of many animals has led to the point that we have only “imitation animals” (81) who do not behave as do others of their species. At this point, almost all animal life depends on humans allowing it to continue. Second, we see animals as children--as “cute, cuddly, and dependent” (81). This attitude is usually based on sentimentalism and anthropomorphism and arose with the humane movement of the 18th-19th centuries, which was responding to the great amount of animal life being used and lost in industrialization. This attitude is a problem for animals who are considered no longer cute once they grow up, for species which are excluded from the cute category, and for other pets shabbily treated because people are taught to unrealistically expect and value “docility, playfulness, and charm as a human companion” (82). Further, images of cuteness are dangerous to both children and animals because cuteness is an abstraction that allows people to ignore the being's actual concerns and to act cruelly or to ignore real needs and suffering. Third, we see animals as moral paragons representing positive values (loyalty, etc.) and serving as protector of humans (i.e. the animal hero like Lassie). These stories are anthropomorphic, describing natural animal behavior with human ideals that we generally fail to meet. It is probably a useful idea that we can learn moral lessons, such as preserving one's environment, from animal life. It is, however, also a dangerous stereotype, since it posits animals as moral agents capable of understanding right from wrong, and it also favors particular species, considering only some animals to be the heroes. Such divisions make it difficult to protect the needs of negatively-viewed animals like a wolf or pig. Further, being set apart in one way (as morally superior) invites setting the group apart in another way (such as denying rights). Fourth, we see animals (e.g. snakes, spiders, bats, sharks, etc.) as demons, as greedy predators who use “stealth and cruel surprise” (86) against their victims. This attitude legitimates annihilation efforts. It stems from the basic suspicion of all animals and the connecting of animals with chaos and with the earthly rather than the rational. By portraying animals as more “beastly” than they actually are, we can compare our bad behavior with theirs rather than admitting that our violence is distinctly human. Fifth, with the rise of industrialization and the need for control over production, much of which involved animals, we came to see animals as machines. This stereotype is mainly applied to lab and farm animals, whose births, lives, and deaths are carefully controlled for particular human purposes. These animals are treated like machines, judged by their performance and cost-effectiveness and kept in animal factories. This stereotype eliminates all aspects of feeling from the human-animal relationship, making animals into objects unworthy of moral concern. Such an attitude not only harms animals but also facilitates the further mechanization of human life. Our attitudes toward animals are connected to how we treat them, and little change will occur in the latter without changing the former. The best attitude would be to “accept animals as animals” (89). This would involve recognizing that there is much about animals that we cannot and will not know while also recognizing what we do know about their sentience, feeling, and complexity. We will still inevitably have anthropomorphic ideas, species preferences, and the like, but we must be careful where we allow these to affect our behavior and must be sure to avoid anthropocentrism by recognizing animals' worth as separate from their usefulness to us. The task of changing attitudes may be helped by reminding people of the parallels between these stereotypes and those used against women and people of color.



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