Have you ever noticed how people who love country music are more likely to be right wing? Or how climate change sceptics are more likely to be anti-abortion?
Throughout society there are examples of beliefs that seem to occur together, despite having no obvious conceptual link. The reason for this is because for most of us beliefs and world view are not the result of carefully weighing up the evidence, but are actually held as a way of belonging to a subculture. Holding a belief is often like waving a flag to show which tribe you’re in.
The desire to belong
The human need to belong is one of our strongest drives, but modern society is too big and anonymous for most people to feel they are an important part of it. So we form subcultures within our society to give ourselves a sense of belonging. We support sports teams and get into fights with fans of other teams, we choose to follow a certain genre of music and sneer at other genres, or wear preppy clothes, goth clothes, hipster clothes, anything to define ourselves as part of a tribe. And, as well as applying this desire to the clothes we wear and the music we listen to, we subconsciously apply it to our ethical and political beliefs.
When you think about it, there is absolutely no conceptual link between the arguments for high or low taxes, and the arguments for or against legalising abortion. Yet in the English-speaking world there is a rough correlation between people wanting lower taxes and being anti-abortion, and vice versa. The best explanation for this is that these beliefs are identified as flags for certain subcultures that people want to belong to.
This view is supported by evidence that shows people respond differently to the same argument when attributed to different sources. One study presented the argument for vaccinating children and recorded people’s responses. Right-wing individuals were significantly more likely to agree with the argument when it was attributed to a well-known right-wing figure than when it was attributed to a well-known left-wing figure. Other studies have shown similar behaviour from left-wingers etc.
Studies of the effects of wearing a chastity ring show just how powerful the need to belong really is. When a student is part of the chastity ring movement in a school where everybody else wears the ring too, he or she is no more likely to abstain from sex than an average teenager. And when there is almost no one else who wears a chastity ring in the same school, there is still no effect. However, when just the right amount of other students are also part of the local chastity ring movement, wearing the ring does marginally boost commitment to abstinence. This suggests that when everyone in the whole school is wearing the rings, no one feels like they belong. Equally, when almost no one else wears the ring, there is no tribe to belong to. But when there are enough others to feel like you belong to something special, you’re motivated to make the effort to stay part of the club. Such is the power of wanting to belong, it can even override the natural human desire for sex.
It’s clear from all this that the desire to belong is a pretty powerful drive, so if you want to convince a large group of people of something, you had better not be working against their natural tribal urges by appearing to be from another side.
The animal rights movement should have no “side”
I believe that one of the animal rights movement’s biggest problems is that we are associated with hippies, and that we’re seen as being on the same team as the New Age movement (whale song, homoeopathic medicine, and so on). I think this hinders us, because people who might otherwise be open to our arguments will close themselves off because they think we’re on the “other team” – a bunch of hippies who are anti-patriotic and probably anarchists too.
I think the animal rights movement has to transcend subcultures and everyday political factions, because otherwise we’re only ever going to appeal to the counter-culture. But we really want to be changing the views of everyone, including mainstream culture. There are potential vegans across the political spectrum, if only we weren’t perceived as being part of the hippie counter-culture team. One of many examples is the type of conservative person who loves the countryside, hates to see it ruined by massive factory farms, doesn’t like to see traditional local species of bird disappear, and loves dogs and horses. Someone with views like that only needs to join a few dots between their beliefs to become committed to animal rights and environmentalism, but they’ll be less likely to do that if they feel they’re changing teams.
Another downside to being associated with the New Age philosophy is that this movement often conflicts with science. And unfortunately, a lot of people believe that Veganism and Vegetarianism conflict with science too. This is manifestly not the case, as there is an established scientific consensus that a well-balanced vegan diet can be very healthy, and indeed, a number of elite athletes, such as bodybuilders, Olympians and Iron Man competitors choose such a diet. Equally, vegetarians have longer life expectancies than meat eaters. Science, and the facts, are on the side of vegans and vegetarians, but we often get lumped in with wacky New Age diets.
There are ways to change the perception of the animal rights movement. For God’s sake don’t play bongos at a protest! I’ve been to a few demonstrations and advocacy events, and I always make sure to dress as smart and as clean cut as possible, to try to subvert the stereotype, and to make it clear I’m not a raving hippie who can be safely ignored. I think everyone should make this effort as much as possible when advocating animal rights. And animal rights groups should try to promote spokespersons who demonstrate the ordinariness of being vegetarian or vegan. Perhaps a few less campaigns featuring skinny white bohemian artists, and a few more featuring people from other backgrounds, such as doctors, athletes and people of different races. We must also welcome people of all political persuasions – wanting low levels of immigration, for example, should be no barrier to being part of the animal rights movement.
There will always be divisions in society, left-wing and right-wing, culture and counter-culture, liberal and conservative. If we want animal rights to be accepted by everyone, we have to transcend cultural tribalism.