Cassie the RobotCulture

What the “Why Do We Hurt Robots?” article can teach animal advocates

“Why do people lash out at robots, particularly those that are built to resemble humans? It’s a global phenomenon. In a mall in Osaka, Japan, three boys beat a humanoid robot with all their strength. In Moscow, a man attacked a teaching robot named Alantim with a baseball bat, kicking it to the ground, while the robot pleaded for help.

Why do we act this way? Are we secretly terrified that robots will take our jobs? Upend our societies? Control our every move with their ever-expanding capabilities and air of quiet malice?”

excerpt from Why Do We Hurt Robots? article, published in the New York Times.

I’m sharing this article because not only do I find it fascinating, but also relevant to animal advocacy. The article offers up its own explanations as to why humans would attack and destroy robots, but here’s my take: They do it because, much like the violence committed against animals, they can. Robots – like animals – become the “Other” that we differentiate from us. When we “Other” someone or a group of someones, then it becomes easier to mistreat them. Yes, I know robots are not sentient and I am NOT saying animals are like robots; animals are, of course, sentient beings capable of pain and suffering, who have individual personalities and who want to live. We have certain power and dominion over animals and we constantly see this power abused: Animals are cruelly treated, abused, tortured, exploited, and killed. It’s not only an institutionalized, systemic problem like animal agriculture, but also one that occurs with pets at home. The unfortunate reality is that many dogs and cats, who are supposed to be our companion animals, become victims of animal cruelty. So when humans are treating other sentient beings like this, I’m honestly not surprised to learn that  robots are being “hurt” as well. (Again, we know that robots are not sentient and can’t feel pain.)

I was already drawing a parallel to animal exploitation when I first came across the article. And then I saw this:

“Abuse of humanoid robots can be disturbing and expensive, but there may be a solution, said Ms. Wykowska, the neuroscientist. She described a colleague in the field of social robotics telling a story recently about robots being introduced to a kindergarten class. He said that ‘kids have this tendency of being very brutal to the robot, they would kick the robot, they would be cruel to it, they would be really not nice,’ she recalled.

‘That went on until the point that the caregiver started giving names to the robots. So the robots suddenly were not just robots but Andy, Joe and Sally. At that moment, the brutal behavior stopped. So, its very interesting because again its sort of like giving a name to the robot immediately puts it a little closer to the in-group.’”

Immediately after reading this passage I recalled an article from Faunalytics, a nonprofit research organization. In May 2012, Faunalytics published an article, “What’s Your Animal Story?” on something I think activists intuitively know, which is that sharing animals’ individual stories helps people see animals beyond mere commodities. From the Faunalytics article (emphasis mine):

An article about a cow who escaped the slaughterhouse, quotes Jenny Brown, co-founder of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary on how stories can help people connect with animals they’ve never considered. “There is this phenomenon in our society when, where one gets away, everyone wants to cheer for that one animal, yet you might go home and eat … an animal just like that one that night and never put any thought to it.” A non-veg friend of mine posted the link on Facebook, noting that Jenny’s quote was “thought provoking.” I’d say that the story of the cow’s escape and ultimate transfer to the sanctuary in contrast with the fate of the other cows was “emotion provoking.” It also allows readers to note their inconsistency – without having it forced on them – a potentially powerful advocacy technique.

Sharing individual animals’ stories is definitely a powerful advocacy technique. I want to share something that I found from Maddies Fund, a foundation that awards grants to animal advocacy groups. From their article, One Good Story Can Raise Funds (emphasis mine):

Keep an Eye Out for Animals with Stories

We train staff members, from the person in admissions to the animal caregivers to the clinic staff, to keep an eye out for special-needs animals. When they see an animal who may have a story worth sharing, they are encouraged to let management know about it.

For a story to be effective at encouraging giving, it needs to engage our emotions. For us, this means sharing the individual dog or cat’s experience – what happened to them and what is needed to set it right. We describe the treatment required, the estimated cost of care, and remind everyone that the pet will need a new home.

The article from Maddie’s Fund goes on to say:

Why We Share These Stories

Not only has telling the stories of treatable animals enabled us to raise needed funds to save them and countless others, but it has had the added benefit of engaging our community in this lifesaving work.

It’s pretty clear that sharing the stories of individuals can directly help animals. But remember that in the robot article, it wasn’t sharing a story about the robot, it was the mere act of naming it. In doing so, the relationship between the robot and the children, who had previously been behaving cruelly towards it, was improved; i.e., the children stopped being cruel. And we do see this with animals: The simple act of naming – and also, refusing to name – impacts our behavior toward animals. In 2001, Satya Magazine published From Carnivore to Carnist: Liberating the Language of Meat by Dr. Melanie Joy. Here’s a relevant portion from her article (emphasis mine):

Language is a powerful tool in shaping values and beliefs. Because language both reflects and reinforces culture, the words we use will either challenge or bolster the status quo. This is why, for example, technicians in laboratories are taught not to name the animals on whom they experiment, lest they begin to perceive the tool or subject as a being. This is also why slaughterhouse workers refer to the animals whom they slaughter by their inanimate names, even before they are killed: chickens are called broilers, hens are layers, bulls are beef. By turning beings into objects it becomes possible to treat their bodies accordingly. 

What Dr. Joy wrote helps us understand more clearly why the children stopped being abusive towards the robot once it was named; the robot was no longer able to be Other-ed as an object but instead perceived more like a being.  This is an important takeaway.  As animal advocates we want the behavior towards animals to change so that they are no longer being exploited and abused. The New York Times robot article reaffirms my position that in our advocacy we must allow animals to be seen for the individuals who they are. To do this we need to not only share animals’ stories but also be sure to give them names whenever possible. Without a name and a story, they are powerless objects who can reduce to their parts or products, or harm as we see fit. But when we name them, we give them power to express the individuals who they are.

If you’re an advocate using social media, please consider sharing individual animals living at farm sanctuaries or animals waiting at shelters. Or if you have an animal rescue story of your own, share it.


If anyone has any thoughts about this post, kindly send them my way. You can leave a comment here, email me (rachel@thepawreport.org), or tweet me @ThePawReport.

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