Earlier this month, I wrote a post on California’s Researcher Protection Act of 2008, which Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law on September 28. There, I noted that some opponents of the law expressed concerns that the real intent (and effect) of the law was not to protect those who do academic research with animals, but instead to curtail the exercise of free speech. I also wrote:
I’m left not sure how I feel about this law. Will it have a certain psychological value, telling researchers that the state is behind them, even if it doesn’t actually make much illegal that wasn’t already illegal? Will it end up curtailing free speech, possibly driving more people to pursue “direct actions” against researchers because their attempts at dialogue are frustrated?
In comments on this post, Clinton raised some important issues about what is — and is not — involved in a dialogue, especially around the question of research with animals. Clinton wrote:
Why is it when you write “dialogue” what I read is “getting their way”?
There is no problem with the dialogue. Particularly in these days of the internets and blogz and all that, people who oppose the use of animals in research can sound off to their heart’s content. It is very likely they can find a venue for dialog with animal research supporters as well. They are free to lobby their local Congressional representative. With just a little effort they can probably get on their local nightly news. “Dialogue” is freely available.
People on the animal rights bandwagon who are “driven to direct action” are not being driven by a failure of dialogue but rather by a failure to get their way. It is a failure on their part to convince a majority that they are correct in their extremist views.
And, in a subsequent comment:
This [“I’m not being heard”] is what each new fresh faced undergrad or hippiecrust down the pike seems to think when complaining that UCLA or their local professors or whatnot isn’t “dialoguing” with them by holding the same old useless “hearings” between animal researchers, the institution and the extremists. Sometimes, my young friends, your position is far from unique and has already been raised in the greater dialogue. Sorry, but you don’t get special treatment just because you are young, smart and anguished. Stating the same old issues more loudly isn’t “dialogue” and when the system can’t expend the time to deal with each N=347th of you individually it isn’t evidence of a problem…
Clinton is right that engaging in a dialogue does not presuppose that you will get your way in the end.
What you should get in a dialogue is the opportunity to have your say, a chance to articulate your reasons for your views. And those with whom you are in dialogue will hear your reasons and acknowledge them. After all this, they may still disagree with your point of view. Disagreeing with you doesn’t mean they’re doing dialogue wrong.
Of course, if you’re committed to really engaging in dialogue, it means you hear their positions and reasons for them, too. Possibly, you even have occasion to change your stand, although you might not. Dialogues can end as they began, with disagreement, but there should at least be greater understanding of the source of the disagreement.
There are complicating factors in discussions around the use of animals in research. One is that the current climate in the U.S., where being known as someone who participates in such research can make you a target for harassment and violence, isn’t one that invites impromptu rap sessions between animal researchers and those with concerns about such research; it’s hard to tell violent activists just by looking at them. Another, which Clinton identifies, is that there may be an asymmetry as far as how much dialogue researchers and those with worries about the research have already undertaken. If you’re a sophomore in your first ethics class, really grappling with questions about animal research for the first time, you may be hungry to talk about this questions with researchers. If you’re a scientist conducting such research, you may feel pretty talked out on the issue, not having much patience for the same arguments you’ve heard umpteen times before and having even less faith that your attempts to articulate your arguments this time will make a lasting impression on this new interlocutor (let alone on next year’s fired up sophomore).
I understand this frustration. I teach; how could I not? Each year, students make the same mistakes I’ve seen a hundred times before. That’s why, each year, I keep drawing a paycheck for teaching them. But, sometimes, I kind of wish the students would give me novel mistakes to deal with. Nonetheless, it’s my job to help address the mistakes my students actually make — to try to meet them where they are, rather than where I want them to be already.
For the researcher dealing with the lay person, there’s less of a clear duty to educate (and to not lose your patience). However, I’d like to think there’s a certain regard we owe each other as human beings trying to get along in a society together. Given that many researchers are drawing at least part of their funding from public sources, trying to foster respectful engagement with lay persons just seems sensible. Also, the regulatory landscape in which scientists work (including the Animal Welfare Act) is shaped by the concerns of the larger society.
In other words, even if each scientist who does research with animals cannot expend the time to deal with each young, smart, anguished person looking for dialogue, the community of researchers ought to have meaningful ways to engage with concerned members of the public.
My view is this: If you’re doing research with animals — or protesting against research with animals — you ought to have really thought about the issues. You ought to have really considered the arguments and concerns raised by each side in coming to your own view. It’s not enough to say, someone on my side has engaged in the dialogue, mounted a successful argument, devised a defensible position. I think this is a bit of cognitive labor that you can’t really farm out to someone else.
However, your obligation to really engage with the issues yourself does not obligate you to engage each new person who raises the same objection to your view. (Being able to hand them a pamphlet, or a list of recommended reading, or a link or two that could hook them up with a good DVD might get these new people engaging with the thinking you’ve already done, though.)
You need to take me seriously when I tell you that I’ve heard your argument before and that I’ve really thought the issue through. I need to take you seriously when you tell me the same.
The fact that I’ve heard your concerns before doesn’t make them dumb. It just means I have a head start on you in terms of engaging these issues.
At the same time, the very fact that I’ve engaged with these concerns before and don’t think they’re a problem isn’t enough to make you believe they’re not a problem. If I want you to change your mind, I’ll need to persuade you. If you want me to change my mind, you’ll need to persuade me. And reasons to change my mind that I’ve already heard probably won’t work — you’ll have to offer me new reasons that are more persuasive.
For humans, sharing of society doesn’t mean sharing a hive-mind. We all draw our lines a little differently. Being able to explain — to others and to yourself — why you draw your lines where you do is a good thing. It can reassure you that they are reasoned, rather than arbitrary. It can help you explain the choices reflected in your protocol to the IACUC. It can help you sleep well at night.
And maybe, it can help you communicate your stand to others and give them something to think about in working out their stands.