Sometimes the Author is More Important than the Message Itself

photo: 123rf.com

photo: 123rf.com

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.

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5 comments

  1. Many people hate PETA for the uncompromising positions it has taken against their favorite things: hunting, furs, meat, etc. There is nothing PETA could say that would please that group. When PETA compares the fate of many animals to the Holocaust , some people are outraged, perhaps based on speciesism because they believe people and animals cannot be compared, that what happens to animals does not matter, and that their abuse is even justified by the Bible.

    Isaac Bashevis Singer can make a good rhetorical argument for animals that PETA cannot. He is a generally well-respected author and is also Jewish. So when he compares animal abuse to Treblinka, he has the ethical appeal to make that point from his own personal and religious perspective. People may not agree with him, but they cannot be outraged that he speaks as an outsider who has never experienced something like the Holocaust or could never have been a victim himself.

    By the way, I have been a PETA member for 25 years and agree with their views. I am not criticising them–just agreeing that there can be a big difference about WHO is saying WHAT. However, for people who do not care about nonhuman creatures and believe in some unbridgeable gulf between themselves and other animals–it will be hard for any animal groups to say it right.

  2. Say it right? This article sounds like unless you have certain credentials you can’t seem to talk correctly? You can’t make a point, and of course certain people will be upset. We sound like we need someone to lead us around! What in the world is going on. It sounds like we are to keep quiet and not make anyone uncomfortable?? What about God’s creatures? Why should we be quite? Why should we wait for the person with the credentials to come along? The problem is that all this time, for centuries no one stepped up to the plate and demanded these changes. I don’t care if you live in a cave and didn’t see the torture we force upon other species, you should by god know right from wrong. And be damned is someone doesn’t have the correct credentials to say the correct words. We can be so foolish and just so….but the one thing that we need to do is start talking, start demanding and making the changes that should have occurred millions of years ago to improve the lives of all species. WE aren’t special in the least little bit, in fact each day I see just how selfish, evil and stupid we truly are!

    • The point is simply that we can all be better at what we do, whatever it is we do. And if we care about animals and want to be the strongest and most effective voice for them, then we need to think about how we communicate our message, that is, if we think it is important to reach more people. And that is a continual learning experience that requires some humility, as in any occupation in life. We keep getting better.

    • Actually, I agree with most of what you said. Everyone who cares about animals, their treatment, and their fate should speak out. But the problem is often getting through to the listener, and who oppose better conditions for animals will have more trouble arguing their case with someone of Singer’s background and experience. However, that should not stop anyone from speaking out against animal abuse.

      A case in point is Alex Hershaft, founder of Farm Animal Reform Movement. Mr. Hershaft survived the Holocaust in Poland but not all of his family was so fortunate. He decided he wanted to fight some of the evils of the world and founded the farm animal group. He was questioned about why he would choose to help animals rather than people. According to Mr. Hershaft, it was because animal, and especially farm animals, consistently suffered the worst abuse everywhere. Since he and his own family had been through so much, it was hard for critics to tell him he didn’t know what he was talking about or was wrong. He had the ethical appeal for his case.

      However, other people can argue equally well for animals and against their abuse from rational or emotional arguments and data (perhaps backed up with undercover videos of abuse), depending upon which might have a better chance to persuade their listeners.

  3. Thank you very much for this article, and I’m looking forward to the future posts and suggestions. I want to be the most effective activist as possible, and I really appreciate these kinds of insights into the psychology of what goes into that. Thanks!

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