“Community members are invited to grab a barbecue pork sandwich lunch for 50 cents and pet some farm animals next week at Danville Area Community College,“ reads the opening of a press release promoting “Ag Day” in this rural, downstate Illinois town. The belief that we can respect and eat animals simultaneously is the shoddy ideological foundation for why animal agriculture, not only still exists, but actually thrives in at a time when we are beginning to realize that our future may depend on ending it. But it’s symptomatic of a broader culture of denial which George Orwell described in 1984, writing, “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
Since Trump’s election, many political pundits have referred to our “post-truth era” as characterized by the President disseminating his own interpretation of reality through Twitter or rallies, bypassing the press and communicating directly to the public. Lamenting his lack of power to coerce the press, the courts, the Department of Justice or Congress, Trump evaluates reality through the lens of narcissism, labeling anything that conflicts with his agenda as “fake news,” even when objective facts clearly contradict him. But sadly this tactic is nothing new for those of us involved in vegan or animal rights activism who have for too long confronted a culture of denial and deception about the suffering our society needlessly inflicts on animals for profit and pleasure.
For years we’ve been on the receiving end of anti-vegan “fake news,” “alternative facts,” misrepresentations, misinformation and lies about who we are, who farmed animals really are, the vegan “agenda,” as well as countless conspiracy theories about the dire consequences for our health, the economy, communities, farmers, workers and the planet if, God forbid, we ended our sacred traditions of exploiting animals. This experience has prepared us all too well to confront the so-called post-truth era.
I believe that the better we understand these tactics, the better we can challenge and defeat them. This article makes some predictions about what animal agriculture hopes to achieve in the Trump era, some specific tactics they will use and finally how we can best focus our activism.
The authoritarian connection
Trump’s wannabe authoritarian tactics of fabricating reality to suit his own agenda are in fact straight out of the mindset of well-established corporate marketing, including the marketing of animal products. An industry based on violence and killing must have a three-pronged approach. First, it must deal with its adversaries. Industry spokespeople criminalize dissent and at the same time portray themselves as the victims of “eco-terrorists” or “militant animal rights extremists.” While flooding the media with this false narrative, they will also lobby legislators to pass laws like the infamous Ag Gag bills, which criminalize industry watchdogs or make it exceedingly difficult to expose animal exploitation. These tactics have the added benefit of deflecting attention away from their own violent practices. Second, they must systematically conceal the ugly side of their enterprise by hiding their victims in remote facilities where neither the public nor the press are permitted, or only when supervised and only when the experience can be carefully controlled to favor the exploiter’s agenda. Third, they must continually project a positive, feel-good fantasy about the lives of the animals on farms and the love and devotion farmers have for their animals.
What exploiters want from Trump
All of Trump’s policies, from gutting funds for environmental oversight and cleanup, climate change mitigation, animal protection, workers rights and vulnerable communities, are a boon for animal exploiters, except for the deportation of undocumented and underpaid farm laborers. In addition to the billions in subsidies agriculture receives from the federal government every year, their lobbyists will be fighting for even more handouts for programs such as “Animal Disease & Disaster Prevention Program.” As Joel Brandenberger, National Turkey Federation president, told Feedtsuffs, “We [agribusiness] need to work with our federal partners to build a more robust safety net that relies on expert resources of federal and state research and veterinary science.”
The language in the farm bill calls for the government to provide “rapid response to protect the nation’s animal agriculture industry.” Translation: powerful agriculture leaders, many of whom are republicans and voted for Trump, are demanding corporate welfare to protect their industries from disease outbreaks that impact their profit margins. These handouts will enable them to continue profiting on the miserable conditions that threaten epidemics and other public health crises while offsetting the costs for cleaning up their messes to taxpayers.
Farm propaganda on the defensive
Of all the fictional devices the industry uses to win the public’s hearts and minds, there are a few in particular that target activists that we must pay special attention. A more in-depth analysis can be found in my book, Farm to Fable: The Fictions of Our Animal-Consuming Culture.
Humanewashing is a key deflection strategy that the animal exploitation industries use to intercept the public discourse away from the solution that veganism offers in an effort to retain their caring consumers by promising brands that will satisfy their conscience as much as their appetite. Temple Grandin and other key figures in the humane movement often frame the issue of farmed animal welfare nostalgically as one in which we could return to simpler times when animals were treated better by family farmers instead of big corporate entities. We can easily see why even this premise upon which the humane movement is based — even if it were possible to go back in time — is steeped in fantasy.
The truth is that a factory model of animal production is as old as civilization itself, and it was never about respect but domination. An operation that can artificially incubate and hatch forty thousand chicken eggs into chicks per day most certainly qualifies as a “factory farm,” yet we must travel over three thousand years back in time to ancient Egypt where some of the first high production artificial incubators were developed. So, use of the term factory farming — which refers to the mass commodification of animals in an assembly-line environment (and all the horrors that go along with it) — falsely suggests that some viable alternative exists.
The truth is that all commercial farming qualifies as factory farming based on an ancient production model of using animals as resource objects, with total control over their reproduction, the stealing and trafficking of their offspring, standard bodily mutilations (both physically and psychologically traumatizing), destruction of their families and social order, intensive biological manipulation and selective breeding, and of course the systematic domination, violence, and slaughter in their infancy or adolescence. All the above are necessary in any kind of farming to render their flesh and secretions into products of consumption.
Reverse-victimization has become a common theme in animal agriculture propaganda which criminalizes the messenger — animal activists — just for having dissenting beliefs which the industry feels threatens their very livelihood. One such example of this victim narrative can be found in a recent post on the Tri-State Livestock News which reads:
“Radical activist groups … are waging a war against agriculture, leading the charge to grant animals the same legal rights as humans, eliminate the consumption and even ownership of animals, and even trying to control production farming through legislation. They often pose as ‘do-gooders’ with a different agenda.” “They are tax-exempt nonprofits, promoting false science and scare tactics, with some even going as far as breaking the law, and most have a vegan mission.”
This propaganda is effective enough to often fool even progressive, pro-justice media figures. Recently Trevor Noah presented what he probably thought was a clever meme that reads “Antifa are Vegan ISIS.” On the surface, his false analogy tries to relate a nonviolent movement with one based on fear and violence, but it also plays right into the belief that radical activism, key to major social changes in modern history, is crazy or fanatical.
Anthropomorphism While, farmers continually invoke anthropomorphic arguments about how their animals are willing participants in whatever it is they want to do with them, they are busy attacking as “anthropomorphic” those who attempt to make evidence-based observations about the various ways farmed animals express suffering. They claim that activists anthropomorphize animals when they attribute emotions like fear, depression, loss and separation anxiety that they insist are exclusively human, while at the same time, promoting wildly self-serving anthropomorphisms through their product marketing.
A surreal example can be found in the TV commercial featuring Jim Perdue talking about what good lives his chickens have. This scene cuts to the interior of a chicken coop where chickens are facing stage mirrors with the little white ball lights around them, as if to suggest they are getting ready to go on stage and give a performance. A good fiction trivializes the subject so we abandon any serious consideration for the suffering we may have caused them.
Notice how no one ever seems to have a problem when a major food brand like Perdue uses anthropomorphisms in their marketing to suggest that their suicide chickens are happy to be commodified and killed at 6 weeks old. We have no problem with this kind of anthropomorphism, as absurd as it is, because it fulfills our fantasy, telling us what we want to hear, see, and believe.
Cues for activists
The implications for activists operating in the post-truth Trump era are varied and complex. I will touch on just three important take-aways here.
Finding our voice in a larger struggle
The election of Trump galvanized many newbies to get involved in grassroots activism, in the form of marches, strikes, rallies, disruptions, town halls, planning meetings, phone banking and calling on our elected officials. We see people from all walks of life and age groups, from seniors to millennials, participate in actions that are replayed to millions on social media and network news. These varied struggles to fight human injustices are related to our struggle to fight injustices against other species for one critical and often overlooked reason: they all share a common oppressor. So often the corporations and institutions that exploit vulnerable human groups and destroy the environment are the same ones that exploit other species. In this sense, aside from the differences, all struggles for justice are inseparable. Animal activists play a critical role in bringing other species interests and rights into this broader struggle.
Truth to power
Speaking truth to power is the essence of our activism, and yet truth is under attack on several fronts, not just from the Trump administration and the animal-exploiting industries, but even at times from within our own movement. We often see leading animal and environmental organizations eagerly adopting a corporate marketing and communications platform that prioritizes other gains over truth. As a marketing professional myself for over 20 years, I find this development counterintuitive, harmful, and unnecessary. The biggest problem with the corporate approach to marketing is that it starts with the question, what do people want?, and then shapes a narrative around fulfillment of that fantasy. In stark contrast, the question asked by activists seeking to fundamentally change society is, what do people need to know and how do we compel them to care about it?
To distinguish ourselves from all the noise of the post-truth era, we stand out as truth-tellers, not by inventing new and clever ways to deceive or spoon-feed information incrementally or advocating “baby steps” as a serious or meaningful response to the enormity of the environmental and ethical issues we must face. We could learn a lot by looking at how other forms of activism and even everyday citizens are getting serious attention on the issues they care about. People are honestly and loudly proclaiming what they want. They are holding the press more accountable than ever, demanding that elected officials “do their job” at town halls and in the streets, punishing manufacturers who try to conceal harmful practices through petitions and boycotts and calling for big banks to divest from industries that profit from violating human rights. Whether activists for humans or other species, we owe the public the truth and we deserve their trust only so far as we too are honest and forthright.
Activists must defend the truth above all other motivations — the truth or reality of the victim’s experience as well as the truth of our own experience as witnesses. This is all the more critical since we struggle against an industry built upon lies and equivocation about the animals it victimizes. When we distort or misrepresent the truth in an attempt to make it more palatable or marketable, we use the exploiter’s deceptive tactics. We misrepresent the victim’s suffering. We undermine our credibility with others. And we betray our authentic selves as witnesses and messengers. In essence, we find ourselves fueling the very culture of denial that maintains exploitative norms and stifles positive change.
The belief – behavior connection
In evaluating all of the forms of industry propaganda used to promote animal exploitation and consumption, we find one important common thread connecting them: they all appeal to our deeply held beliefs and values about food and the animals we consume. Yet, this vitally important connection between beliefs and behavior is sorely overlooked in advocacy efforts today. In fact, much of our advocacy is anathema to addressing deeply held beliefs and instead limited to asking for simple behavior changes. Meanwhile corporate branding’s strategic appeal to our beliefs and values forges ahead, proving spectacularly successful year in and year out. The evidence is all around us — in the grocery store, on the Internet, on TV, in restaurants and on street signage. In fact, the value-based messages of animal food brands have been so deeply drilled into our consciousness we no longer evaluate or question their veracity.
As a movement against the established norms of our animal-consuming culture, we are engaged in what Antonio Gramsci called in in the era of Fascist Italy “a war of position” — a prolonged intellectual, cultural, and moral confrontation over contemporary common sense conceptions of reality, a process of winning over the masses by consent and through education. We can’t predict the outcome, and our end goal may often seem remote, but we know that we are laying the foundation for those who will come after us, inspiring and fueling their passion for change.