One thing I’ve been learning lately is that sometimes the best response is no response. Is it really possible, contrary to what most people tell us, that no response is better than any kind of response, in terms of building awareness about a cause like animal rights? Yes, because sometimes a bad response does more damage than silence. But isn’t any discussion about an issue that has been veiled in silence for so long better than no discussion at all? No, not when it turns people against the cause rather than attracts them to it.
As much as we feel compelled to respond sometimes, we need to consider a few things carefully beforehand. First of all, who are we to the the person on the other end? I know that sounds like an odd question. But really, how do they perceive us? We as people they’ve already identified as AR / vegan spokespeople of that comment or that photo or video or that article or that image — how are we perceived as the sole spokespeople or authors? Even in cases where we’re not the authors, if we bring the message to our viewers, we’re the “messengers” which is still perceived as the authors.
These are questions that are central to a new dissertation I am reading by Angela Gunther called An Inquiry into Animal Rights Vegan Activists’ Perception and Practice of Persuasion. Gunther’s critical analysis of how ARVAs communicate offers a fresh perspective and may have huge implications for how the movement overall can become more effective. I will focus briefly on just one idea that is central to her 150-page work: the issue of what she calls “authorship.”
The key take-away point: the author of the message and how that person or group is perceived is sometimes more important than the message itself. Gunther in fact shows how the same message is interpreted completely differently when two different authors deliver it. The quote she uses as a case study comes from Jewish-American author Isaac Bashevis Singer.
“in relation to them [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.”
In the original context, the quote is attributed to the protagonist, Herman Gombiner in Singer’s book, The Letter Writer (1968). In this original context, Singer was not condemned for this message of comparing the Nazi Holocaust with modern animal agriculture. Gunther points out, “As a non-affiliated, ‘independent’ Jewish person, Singer was perceived as entitled to speak however he wanted about the Jewish experience –he spoke on his own authority.”
The same message was employed in PETA’s “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign. The results were disastrous. PETA ran the ad for three years and Gunther thinks it could have negatively impacted the AR / vegan movement as a whole. The reason? PETA was not seen as a credible or unbiased author of the message. And so that campaign was ineffective at reaching a new audience for PETA. In fact it may have actually caused recidivism among PETA supporters.
So how can we apply the lessons learned in this comparison to our own everyday advocacy? Gunther offers many suggestions that we can’t get into here. One key suggestion though is to carefully consider how we, as the sole authors of our message, are being perceived. And if we are fairly certain the perception is negative, then what can we do about it?
One solution to reaching a wider audience and one that may already filter out an AR / vegan point-of-view is to bring in other authors that are perceived to be outside of the the AR / vegan community. For example, I found a particularly damning article from an egg industry expert by the name of Simon Shane the other day who I quoted in my own article: “Given the precarious status of federal legislation on flock welfare, every producer must exert their utmost efforts to prevent embarrassing videos.” The quote speaks volumes about the agenda of the egg industry without me having to express a point of view. It also might speak to someone distrusting of an AR / vegan point-of-view. I incorporated other quotes from Shane as well as those of a former animal abuse investigator to build a story around their opinions.
I will be offering more suggestions as I get more into Gunther’s work. Stay tuned for future posts on the subject.