One of the most visible indicators of the changing dynamics between leaders and followers – between the powerful and the powerless – is the animal rights movement. No coincidence that in the last four decades of the 20th century the various rights revolutions – including civil rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, and animal rights – were approximately contemporaneous. For example, Peter Singer’s seminal volume, Animal Liberation, was originally published in 1975, not long after the publication of Betty Friedan’s similarly seminal, The Feminine Mystique, and Martin Luther King, Jr’s. singular, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
In the United States and Europe especially, the animal rights movement has had a profound effect on how we think, hence on what we do. Whether it’s the ubiquity by now of eggs laid by cage-free hens; the precipitous decline of circuses featuring animal acts; the proliferation of law courses on animal rights; or any one of a score of other indicators, there has been a sea change in our general conception of how human animals ought to treat other animals.
In recent weeks no story has so vividly illustrated this metamorphosis than the one about how Volkswagen (along with Daimler and BMW) became ensnared in yet another public relations fiasco – this one involving animals. As soon as it was revealed that German car makers had financed experiments in which caged monkeys were forced to inhale fumes from emissions tests, there ensued a public uproar. Whereas in the past using primates for profit would’ve gone unnoticed, now it resulted in a scandal. Questions were raised about ethics, about compliance, and about sensitivity to an historical trajectory in which the use of animals in experiments is increasingly rare – and then only in circumstances in which scientific progress, generally medical or pharmaceutical, cannot be otherwise achieved.
Most telling was the hasty retreat beaten by the car makers. To quickly quell public anger over what was widely perceived as animal abuse, executives were promptly punished, and apologies profusely provided. Volkswagen’s CEO Matthias Mueller admitted that the animal testing was “wrong” – that it was “unethical and repulsive.” It should, he went on, “never have happened.”
Thus this 21st century phenomenon. One of the world’s most powerful and influential chief executive officers expressing his regrets, in effect, to a small group of monkeys.