Anthrax, Baboons, and Dialogue

December 30, 2009


University, Fearing Animal-Rights Violence, Axes Baboon Study That's the headline on about a recent news story citing fear of controversy as the reason the University of Oklahoma is nixing an anthrax study using baboons.

Animal rights. It's a subject many assume can’t be discussed rationally by people who have strongly held opposing views and personal stakes in the debate. When a small number of extremists use violent tactics to oppose animal research, it poisons the atmosphere with fear, anger, and stereotypes. A “bad apple” results in sweeping assumptions about everyone on that side of the debate.

The Public Conversations Project worked with people—from animal rights activists to researchers—who, despite being very divided about animal-based research, were able to have respectful dialogue, to have their deep values acknowledged, and to find common ground. But does that matter, when the larger conflict remains so intense? Why is it “progress” for people to acknowledge the vulnerability of both the innocent animal and the innocent human suffering from a lethal disease and struggle for a wise way to address both?

Based on my experience, my answer is that through engagement something changes for the better—maybe only particular relationships and individual understandings. But in unforeseen ways, new possibilities, AND unexpected potential may be kindled.

If you believe in the possibility of a world that is more just, more compassionate, more peaceful, more wise, how can the alternative to dialogue—nothing new—be better?

Mary Jacksteit
Program Manager and Associate, Public Conversations Project