This is not a post about animal rights.
This is a post about a televised debate I once saw, on the subject of animal rights, which opened my eyes to a particular way of constructing an argument.
It was fascinating, really. A real eye-opener. I don’t remember the name of the show, but it was on ITV (back when there was only one of those). I was probably… midteens? Something like that. So, mid-90s.
Basically it was a panel of journalists, comedians, authors, politicians and so on, who were given the opportunity to give a brief speech on a subject of their choosing, after which would be questions from the other panelists and the audience.
It’s a long time ago, so it’s safe to say that the quotes won’t be precise, but they will at least give you the gist.
This guy… All I remember really is that he had red hair. He stood up, and the moderator said “I believe you’re going to talk about animal rights, is that correct?” He replied “No, I’m going to talk about how animals have no rights.”
Boom. He had our attention. I was confused, and I could see a lot of the audience muttering and mumbling about it too. I had never given animal rights any independent thought whatsoever. People I trusted told me how important they were, so I just filed that information away as fact, unquestioningly.
He went on to say that it was ridiculous to think about animals having rights – only humans have rights. Animals are not on the same level. They are pets, and food, and so on. This was genius, because every animal lover in the audience immediately hated him and wanted to jump in and tell him what a terrible person he was, and this turned out to be precisely his plan.
“We have an obligation to look after animals, to treat them humanely, to not wipe out whole species with our greed and cruelty, to feed them and keep them healthy and so on.” (This is the bit most people allowed to slip past them, as they were still huffing and puffing over his opening.) “But this is not their right. It is our duty. There’s an important difference.” This simple statement was the heart of his argument, and to my surprise I found myself agreeing. Yes, of course humans and animals are not equal. Obviously not.
Once this dawned on me, I really started to see what he was doing. He was using provocative language to stir up the audience. It was a test. How many would respond emotionally rather than intellectually? How many would stumble into this trap and try to shout down the argument they thought he was making (animals are stupid and we can treat them however we like) versus the argument he was actually making (treating animals with the same reverence as fellow humans is absurd if not outright dangerous)?
“If my child had some kind of cancer that could only be cured by sacrificing puppies, then bring me every puppy within a hundred miles and I’ll kill them all myself.”
Oh, he laid it on thick.
Everyone went for it. The audience completely turned on him. I looked at his face, and he wasn’t frustrated – it had gone exactly as he expected. Sure, he was a bit of a dick about it, but he was a clever dick.
So, okay, yes. Another part of the reason I remember this moment is that it made me feel clever too, like I was in on a private joke. I realised I didn’t have to agree with the majority.
This was the first time I saw how problematic it could be to respond with the heart rather than the head, but not the last.
It’s something I still think about a lot.