Vivisecting Vivisection
An Animal Rights Article from


James McWilliams
August 2012

James McWilliams vivisect

Vivisection, as a friend recently observed, evokes an especially vitriolic reaction from animal rights advocates, more vitriolic, perhaps, than factory farming. Assuming this observation to be accurate (and I think it is), I'd like to (briefly) explore two themes: a) why we might have a more visceral reaction to vivisection than factory farming; and b) what we can learn as animal advocates about the possible reasons for this disparity.

Explanations for our especially visceral reaction to vivisection are admittedly speculative. That said, one might involve the fact that vivisection is less visible than factory farming and, as a result, capable of stoking our deepest fears in the insidious secrecy of evil. In other words, the media's basic inability to penetrate the ivied walls harboring horrific abuse under the guise of seeking "valuable" knowledge frees us to imagine the absolute worst form horror (and we probably don't even come close to doing so, which may be to our credit).

Another explanation centers on the fact that humans, while not (as a rule) fattened and slaughtered, are certainly tortured. The recent legacies of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay provide contemporary reminders that human torture routinely transpires under the state-sanctioned guise of "security" and "national best interest." Thus, when we read about water-boarding, we inevitably imagine this extreme exercise of power happening to us. The ability to directly identify---as human to human--- might very well explain the especially acerbic passion of our condemnation of vivisection.

There are other possibilities, but I won't elaborate. What I will say is this: while I think that trying to discern the underlying causes of our unique reaction to distinct forms of abuse is critical to illuminating the internal mechanics of our empathy, it mustn't distract us from the ultimate truth that exploitation is exploitation. Animal suffering is animal suffering. Ethical transgression is ethical transgression. Vivisection or factory farming. No matter.

Sentient animals, whether they are being farmed for food or dissected for pharma, demand from us an authentic outrage distilled to the same level of fierceness. To fail to recognize all intentional and systematic animal suffering as equally demanding of our empathy and action is to engage in a very subtle form of speciesism. And this is something that we cannot, must not, abide. Animals, caged and abused for whatever purpose, are caged and abused. That's all we need to know.

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