Written by Steph Coombes, Central Station editor
In 2015 and 2016 I attended Kansas State University, studying a Master of Science in Agricultural Education and Communication. As a part of my degree, I was required to undertake a research thesis.
It wasn’t difficult for me to choose a research topic. I’ve been a passionate “agvocate” (agricultural advocate) since 2012. Our industry has had a lot of “agvocates” – spurred on by the live export ban and subsequent continuous dialogue ever since about “social license”.
Here’s the thing though – while I love to advocate for agriculture, I see a lot of people doing it poorly – to the point where it really frustrates me, and I think they are doing more harm than good for our industry.
The following is an excerpt from my Masters’ Thesis, “Discursive features of animal agriculture advocates”. I’m going to post it over a series of blogs, and I sincerely hope this research challenges the way you think about communicating about agriculture.
You can find the whole thesis here.
Find all 11 articles here.
The animal agriculture industry is experiencing a shift in the way society values animals and its expectations of how animals should be used and treated. Segments of society are questioning the choices made by the industry, which the industry is defending with the rigidity of science and what they acknowledge as “truth.”
The animal agriculture industry needs to be aware of the discourse from within which it operates if they wish to be able to engage with other members of society and gain longevity for their industry.
The crux of this situation comes down to the notion of “truth” and the ideologies competing for the status of which particular “truth” is “right.”
Within the animal agriculture industry, the use of animals for food, fiber, sport, and entertainment is not questioned; it is accepted as natural, inevitable, and legitimate. It is beyond that, to the conditions that animals are raised in, where the difference between what is “right” and “wrong” becomes a point of discussion.
On the other hand, there are other segments of society that believe animals should not be used for food, fiber, sport and entertainment, regardless of the animal welfare administered throughout the animals’ lifetimes.
This particular ideology is not wrong, and it is not right; it is simply different.
However, the majority of the participants used language to delegitimize and dismiss the value of that particular ideology. Foucault (1980) conceptualized the idea that each society operates within a ‘regime of truth’, defined as:
The types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true. (pp. 109-33).
The dominant discourse within American society is one that works to construct the use of animals as natural, inevitable, and legitimate. This “truth” is reinforced by the theological discourse of human dominion over animals [Genesis (1:28)], as well as the scientific discourse of empirical objectivity, quantitative data, and facts.
This discourse is reproduced through education, the media, and politics, and is linked to the concept of power. Discourse is related to power in that “they make available certain versions of reality and personhood, while marginalizing alternative knowledges and associated practices” (Georgaca & Avdi, 2012, p.148).
The discourse used by the animal agriculture industry not only serves to normalize the use of animals, but enforce those within the industry as the only authoritative and credible sources on the topic.
Another way in which the animal agriculture industry attempts to maintain its power over other participants in the conversation is by never questioning its own fundamental belief of the use of animals, as it is the accepted “truth.” Instead, industry members sought to educate others not on why what they are doing is right, but how it is right.
Some participants spoke about how they would not engage with people with fundamentally different beliefs, choosing instead to communicate with those in “the middle”, because they would never be successful in changing the mind of the others. The idea that people should even consider trying to change such a person’s mind on the topic of animal agriculture shows a disregard for the ideologies of those individuals.
Generally speaking, when people have a fundamental opposition to the use of animals in any aspect, it speaks to a fundamental difference in the philosophical and ontological position they have, not a lack of awareness and education. To think that one could change another’s mind completely devalues the beliefs of the other.
While the animal agriculture industry is using science and facts to communicate what can be done, the wider community is asking if it should be done. Just because an animal can live a physically healthy life and produce meat efficiently while in a cage, should that be the case?
Language helps us construct not only our own identities, but those of other humans and non-humans (Butler, 1990). The way we use language influences how we make meaning, and how we communicate that meaning. The discourse from within that the participants in this study operate served to reinforce the idea of the existence of an objective truth, by which those within the industry are the authoritative and credible sources. It further serves to marginalize and undermine those in the out-group.
However, this researcher does not believe in an objective truth, rather that knowledge is continually mediated through social processes and existing structures. The lack of reflexivity from those within the industry, when others challenge their objective truth, is functioning to limit the ability for the animal agriculture industry to progress and ensure its sustainability. It is as if the industry sees any flexibility on its behalf toward the ideas of those in the out-group as the first step toward a vegan utopia, when in fact a shift in the paradigm of the industry may result in finding a new point of balance that will ensure the sustainability of the industry.
The relationship between humans and animals is not only dynamic and highly personal, but also ever-evolving. There are a number of competing and conflicting discourses at play regarding the use of animals in agriculture. Some discourses work from the position of there being a single reality, whereby the use of animals is natural and right. Other discourses work to question and challenge the reality in which we live.
As the human experience is so varied, not just between different countries and cultures, but also within, it is unlikely that there will ever be a single shared approach to this topic. Those within the animal agriculture industry currently operate within a discourse that offers little reflexivity and delegitimizes competing discourses.
Those involved in the industry possess a special knowledge and level of expertise when it comes to the topic of animal agriculture and have a wealthy contribution to make to the discussion. However, it remains that those in non-specialist capacities, i.e., the general public and those in opposition, also have the potential to make valuable contributions to future discussions.