This post uses activism around factory farming as an example, but I don’t mean to criticize animal welfare activism in particular. It’s just an especially available example to me of a broader pattern. My selection of example is maybe even biased towards better causes - or causes I approve of more - since I tend to associate with people doing things I approve of. Animals on factory farms seem to suffer a lot, this can probably be changed at fairly little cost, and we should do so.
This is also not the opinion of my employer. I want to make that absolutely clear. This is my private opinion, it’s not based on the opinion of anyone else where I work as far as I know, and it’s not indicative of my employer's future actions.
Before a recent Effective Altruist event in San Francisco, some potential participants complained about the plan to serve meat. There were two main types of arguments made against serving animal products. One was the utilitarian argument against eating meat. Factory farmed meat, so the argument goes, provides much less enjoyment to the eater than suffering to the eaten. I find this argument plausible, though difficult to judge.
The second argument was that the presence of meat would make vegans (and many people associated with the Effective Altruist movement are vegans) uncomfortable. It would make them feel unwelcome. Some said it would be offensive, it would make them feel the way a barbecue featuring roasted two-year-old human would make me feel. This complaint seemed pretty valid to me on the face of it, and presumably the organizers agreed - the food ended up being animal-free. However, something about the argument made and still makes me uneasy.
A vegan in a restaurant is upset about the fact that the restaurant serves chicken. She is moved to make a speech about how she is looking for her "little girl," Snow - who is a chicken, who used to live on a factory farm until she was rescued. She talks about how the people in this restaurant are eating someone else's body and someone else's eggs. She cries as she makes this speech. At the end, her fellow protestors show up with signs and shout their slogan, "It's not food, it's violence." Because this wasn't a spontaneous show of emotion. After all, she's not recorded on video every time she goes into a restaurant. She planned this in advance.
A radical animal advocacy organization organizes protests of Chipotle and Whole Foods - but not of Tyson or Walmart or KFC. Why? Not because Chipotle and Whole Foods are worse - but because they are better. Because they are the organizations people expect more of. Because - among other things - they are more likely to change in response to the protest. Because it's more surprising to see the protestors there.
Public expressions of anger and sadness such as used in these protests, and of vulnerability and openness like that expressed in the planning of the Effective Altruism event, work on me because they engage my social intuitions. I feel an impulse to empathize with people who are overcome with emotion, to try to figure out what upset them, to soothe or appease them. Through no fault of their own, they were exposed to something in their environment that unexpectedly upset them, and it feels urgent to set things right.
And they are using that as a tactic. Consciously, deliberately, planned ahead.
I think that this makes me feel uneasy because I feel as if I am being treated like a thing, rather than like an ally. I don't doubt that many of these emotions are either real, or correspond to sincerely held opinions. But it feels like a trick, when used strategically to exact concessions. And that makes me reluctant to cooperate fully, trustingly, unguardedly, with this kind of thing. The more I see the performance of distress used as a tactic in the political sphere, and the closer those issues resemble ones in my own community, the more I begin to distrust my friends. The more I worry that I’m being used. The more I feel an impulse to exaggerate or play up my own distress at things I dislike.
This isn’t a problem particular to activism against factory farming - it’s a standard activist tactic. This isn’t an act of especial bad will - it’s the norm in many places. And that’s what worries me. Because I don’t see how it’s a stable equilibrium to accept this sort of trick over there, but trust people over here. I don’t have a good model for what the world will look once when everyone has wised up and started using these methods to promote their own agenda, at all levels of society. Maybe it will be okay. Maybe it will even be better. But I don’t know.
" I feel an impulse to empathize with people who are overcome with emotion, to try to figure out what upset them, to soothe or appease them. "
We should resist this impulse, because, as you point out, one of the problems with empathy as a guide to action is that it biases us to help whoever whines the most, regardless of justice.