May 10, 2007

Are we underestimating or overestimating people?

Posted in animal advocacy, fur, vegan at 2:10 pm by nevavegan

I really didn’t set up this blog with the intention of picking on any animal organizations or disparaging the efforts of others, so I hope that this entry can be taken in the context of philosophical discussion of tactics, not mindless bashing.

When we’re reaching out to others with our message of compassion, I think we have an obligation to try to reach our audience where they live, so to speak. We need to bridge the gap between what we now know, after our visits to factory farms, after our rescue efforts, after years in this movement, and the place where the audience member might be, with little if any exposure to the issues.

But when we try to bridge that gap, in my opinion we need to always try to reach out with respect, consideration, and above all honesty. Because if I’m not honest about one aspect, I feel it throws doubt on everything else I say. If I speak without respect, the resentment in my audience will overpower my message. I can’t talk down to people. I can’t assume I know their lives, minds, or hearts. I can tell them about my experiences, about my reality. I can tell them about research, and papers, and investigations. I can try to bring those things together in a cohesive way. But I have to trust my audience, trust that they are capable of compassion, that they are able to understand the issues.

In talking with some representatives of the larger animal rights groups in the US I’ve started getting this impression that there’s some kind of battle fatigue going on. I’ll ask why so much effort and funding is being put into campaigns for “cage-free eggs” or controlled atmosphere killing (a plan to use gas rather than throat-slitting to kill animals in slaughterhouses). The answer I get, by and large, is that these groups have come to realize that most people aren’t open to veganism and so these campaigns hope to do something concrete to alleviate suffering right now.

There is often a secondary motive discussed as well: a belief that people tune out at the mention of veganism, but pay attention to “less threatening” messages. So there is a hope that if a group can get someone to care about “cage-free eggs” this will open them up to future messages. Maybe they’ll eventually even get to the point where veganism doesn’t seem like such a strange idea.

I do understand both of these arguments, and it’s not that I don’t want to end suffering now, nor do I really believe that huge numbers of people are going to become vegan tomorrow. But I still feel fundamentally dishonest if I tell people something, like a message to buy more “humane meat” or “cage-free” eggs, if I myself am uncomfortable with that message. It’s not that I don’t prefer that they buy slightly better animal products if they insist on buying them. It’s more that I have to have faith that there are many people capable of understanding the complexity of these issues, who can understand that hens still suffer considerably on “cage-free” farms, who can understand that even animals treated “more humanely” still endure confinement and an early, often violent death. I have to hope that people can grasp the concept that even “free range” farms produce run-off that damages the environment.

I also have to believe that my personal message is more compelling when I am honest and open. If I admit to people that I don’t have absolutely all the answers to everything, but I’m trying to do the best I can with the information available to me, some might view that as a sign of weakness. But maybe others will value my candor over someone who just gives glib answers plucked from a brochure.

Now is the time for a shocking revelation: I used to be an avid PeTA volunteer and as such I did quite a few “I’d Rather Go Naked” protests in NYC while I lived there. I stopped doing those, and not just due to weight gain. I started to get the impression that while I stood there, clutching a banner to my chest that the people standing around watching weren’t really getting much of a message, they were just hoping my banner would slip. This is something PeTA calls shock tactics, a desperate attempt to draw the public’s attention to the plight of animals. Dan Matthews has even said that he realized that people tune out most messages about animals but they pay attention to nudity.

What could possibly be wrong with using nudity to get people to take notice of animal issues? The first and most obvious issue is that in all my years of talking to many people involved in animal concerns, whether they’re vegan, just rescuing companion animals, campaigning against fur, or any level of involvement, nobody has ever told me they got involved because they saw a naked person holding a banner. People have told me that Vegan Outreach changed their lives, people have told me that adopting a dog or cat from the shelter completely altered their entire view of animals, people have mentioned films, and books, and friends. Nobody had ever said nudity was a major influence in their ethical decisions.

But beyond that, could we be underestimating our audience when we pull stunts like this? Is there some kind of insidious message beneath it all that people, especially straight men, cannot be reached through compassion, that they somehow lack the depth and insight we possess, and so the only way to speak to them is through sex? Are we underestimating the power of our activists to speak from their hearts, in the full complexity of the human experience, and reach others? Are we losing some of the people who might be reached with intelligent arguments, because they’re turned off by stunts, theatrics, or what they view as an exploitation of sexuality?

Anti-fur campaigns are largely aimed at women, though sadly even many men’s coats now have fur trim. In all the naked protests I did, I never looked out into the crowd of faces gaping at me and saw many female faces. Maybe a couple, maybe a woman passing by and doing a double take, maybe a woman giving me a disapproving head shake or glare as she passed. But most of the audience was male. It did make me wonder if those protests were therefore effective in reaching the people we most wanted to reach.

This issue was brought up for me again when I read a recent blog interview with the young woman who did the PeTA “State of the Union Undress” video. She remarked at one point that she felt maybe some wives and girlfriends were angry that the men in their lives had watched her video, but she was not bothered by that because the men themselves chose to watch. I wonder how much we shut down our communication though when we don’t care if we anger people. Um, let me clarify, I don’t care if I tell someone the truth about animal agriculture and they get angry or defensive. However, if I’m needlessly angering someone about another unrelated issue at the same time I’m trying to speak about compassion for animals, there’s a chance that anger and my message will get mixed up in that person’s head. So there’s this possibility that because of their anger, they will pay less attention to future messages regarding animals. Because not only are they offended, but they may feel they have a real reason to be angry that isn’t being acknowledged or respected.

Just rambling thoughts. I don’t really have any hard data to back it up. I’m operating on a theory here that appealing to the best in people is a good idea. But I could be wrong.

Note: After all this I found the following article
Which says that sex doesn’t sell to women. Hmmmm.


1 Comment »

  1. Canaduck said,

    Very, very interesting. Gives me a lot to think about.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: