In a recent post, I issued an invitation:
I am always up for a dialogue on the issue of our moral relation to animals and on the ethical use of animals in scientific research. If folks inclined towards the animal rights stance want to engage in a dialogue right here, in the comments on this post, I am happy to host it.
(I will not, however, be hosting a debate. A dialogue is different from a debate, and a dialogue is what I’m prepared to host.)
That post has received upward of 250 comments, so there was certainly some sort of exchange going on. But, did we manage to have something approaching a dialogue, or did we end up slipping into a debate?
In considering this question, I want to offer a grid I encountered in the Difficult Dialogues Initiative at San Jose State University, adapted from material from the Public Conversations Project. The grid compares characteristics of dialogues and arguments (which are not precisely the same as debates but are probably close enough for our purposes here):
|In an argument, we …||In a dialogue, we …|
|Try to win.||Try to understand.|
|Compete for speaking time.||Value listening.|
|Speak for others.||Speak from personal experience.|
|Create a potentially threatening and uncomfortable environment.||Create an atmosphere of safety.|
|Take sides with others.||Discover differences even among those with whom we agree.|
|Polarize ourselves from those with whom we disagree.||Discover shared concerns between ourselves and others.|
|Feel unswerving commitment to a point of view.||Discover our uncertainties as well as deeply help beliefs.|
|Ask questions to make a point or put the other person down.||Ask questions out of true curiosity and the desire to know more.|
|Make predictable statements.||Discover significant new things.|
|Make simplistic statements.||Explore the complexity of the issues being discussed.|
Now, in the many comments on that earlier post, I think I’m seeing at least some evidence of features from the column on the right.
There seemed to be serious efforts to listen and to try to understand. There were also some interesting differences that emerged among the folks participating who support at least some research with animals. (There was exactly one participant, although a committed one, from the animal rights side of the spectrum, and he also took pains to explain some of his disagreements with other animal rights activists.)
While I can’t speak authoritatively about anyone’s motivation but my own, my sense is that many of the questions that were asked in the comments thread came from a place curiosity and a desire to explore complexities in the issue of what our relation is to non-human animals and of what it ought to be.
But, it did frequently feel like things veered towards the column on the left. There was clear polarization, assertion of points of view without much in the way of collaborative examination of those points of view, and statements from both sides that were predictable, simplistic, or both. And whether or not questions were being asked with the intention of putting the other person down, the snide comments about that other person that accompanied the questions and answers were surely meant to do so.
Which is to say, we haven’t achieved dialogue yet.
For this, I think the primary blame lies with me. Things got started during a stretch of time when I was not available to actively facilitate a dialogue. Among other things, this means I didn’t set a clear set of ground rules or goals (which might have included the grid above), nor did I keep slides into more argumentative behavior on a short leash. Basically, the participants were self-policing. Sometimes that worked OK, and sometimes it kind of fell apart.
I do think it’s worth mentioning, though, that there was only one comment that I didn’t allow through moderation (because it was spam), and while things got heated, they did not devolve to the sort of name-calling and threats I’ve encountered before (even on this blog) when writing about this subject. That seems like a hopeful sign.
There were definitely challenges here beyond the absence of hands-on dialogue facilitation. One of these was the difference between what a commenter may have meant to communicate and what ended up coming across to other participants in the discussion. Undoubtedly, how we interpret each other (in terms of the content of the claim being made, the intentions behind it, the attitude it reflects, etc.) is colored by the previous interactions we’ve had, whether these interactions have been with the same people in different contexts or with others we perceive to be “on the same side” as those with whom we’re interacting. This can make it really hard not to get our backs up from the very outset — even though we can’t really engage each other in dialogue if we’ve already written each other off.
We’re in that Charlie Brown situation, trying to be open to the possibility that this time Lucy won’t snatch the football away as we try to kick it. Only here, no one will literally end up flat on his back if his suspicions turn out to be accurate.
Another challenge to our attempt at dialogue is that one set of positions (that research with non-human animals can be morally justified, that it’s possible to perform such research ethically) was very well represented, while the view on the other end of the spectrum (that human use of non-human animals is immoral) had just one person speaking on its behalf. I think we have to acknowledge that this spread the burden in the dialogue pretty unevenly — our animal rights supporter ended up having to field all the questions about his own position and about related positions which he himself did not hold. That’s a lot of work, and in the exchange here it didn’t look like particularly rewarding work.
Yet another challenge, one perhaps more significant in this kind of online attempt at dialogue than it might be if we were trying to have a face-to-face dialogue, is that it’s much less obvious when your online interlocutors are listening and thinking. Arguably, listening and thinking are at least as important in a serious dialogue as speaking. Knowing at least the regulars from my comments who participated in our exchange, I’d bet good money that they were really considering and reflecting on the points being made. But staring at the words on your screen, it’s not like we see direct evidence of the listening and thinking — at least until it’s followed by another comment prompted by that listening and thinking.
When things got going, a number of people fell into telling each other “What you’re really thinking/feeling/doing here is …” In my experience, this is a pretty reliable way to run things off the rails. We’re not telepathic here, and telepathy shouldn’t be a prerequisite to something like a dialogue. When we try this again (and we will), we’re going to stick with more factually accurate claims like “What you seem to me to be thinking/feeling/doing here is … (and here’s why I get that impression).” This gives us the opportunity to really communicate without having to go on the defensive (or offensive).
The heated exchanges and attribution of questionable motives to each other notwithstanding, I feel like some progress was made in identifying some of the basis for our disagreements. At least some of those voicing support for research with non-human animals seemed to have been thinking in terms of consequentialist ethics that weights the well-being of humans and non-human animals but does not weight them equally. Our animal rights supporter, on the other hand, seemed more committed to a deontological moral framework in which non-human animals do not exist for human use, no matter what benefit might come from it. There were also important and interesting differences of opinion on whether it makes more sense to regard humans and non-human animals as all part of the same Nature, or whether the present state of affairs puts humans essentially outside of Nature. Related to this, differences started to emerge about whether various facts (like humans’ relationship to nature) are relevant or irrelevant to our moral convictions.
Getting down to the root of the disagreement feels like progress to me. But we made less progress “getting meta” on some of this — drawing distinctions, for example between having a moral conviction and having an independent basis for establishing that this moral conviction is correct, or talking about how, in the absent of independent grounding for our convictions, we can come up with reasonable grounds for assigning priority to competing interests or adopt policies that are good reflections of our values even when these sometimes pull in different directions.
Here, if I had been a hands-on facilitator of our attempted dialogue, I could have invoked Martin Buber’s notion of remaining in the tension between holding your ground and being open to the other. Maybe my moral convictions are right. Maybe the other person’s moral convictions are right. Can I acknowledge sensible reasons (not just evil, lazy, ill-informed, or self-serving ones) someone might hold the other person’s position, even if I don’t hold it? In circumstances where we can’t establish with certainty either set of moral commitments as the right ones, how can we move forward together?
This last question is a big one. How should we be part of a larger society whose members are guided by differing moral convictions? What piece of our ideal outcome would we be willing to give up if it meant progress on some other piece of it?
Our first try at a dialogue here on animal rights and ethical research with non-human animals was not a stunning success, but I’m hopeful that it gives us something to build on — especially since I don’t think giving up on dialogue is a good option.