My two cents (Agriculture vs the Public – Part 10)

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.

This research project was initiated from the researcher’s frustration with the way constituents within the animal agricultural industry often communicate about themselves and their practices, as well as with their opponents and the public. During the data analysis, the researcher came across a blog being promoted on Facebook, titled “When a farm kid goes to an animal rights conference…” (Bardot, 2016).

“I attained a dislike for these groups that felt the need to bully and pressure their way into getting what they think is best for animals – which often does not align with science … (para. 3) I learned that most of the animal activists will believe the lies of “factory farming” without ever hearing the truth from farmers themselves … (para. 9) the activists are willing to say anything to make people believe their lies about farming … (para. 10) While claiming to care about farm animals, activist groups rely on lies and misinformation to spread their goal of ending animal agriculture while I rely on truths, farmers’ experiences and science to promote the industry I love (para. 11).”

The blog was a prime example of how the animal agriculture industry uses of a discourse of science to discredit anyone whose motivation does not align with that of the animal agriculture industry, while claiming to be the only party with valid experience who is speaking the “truth.”

Even with recent efforts by the animal agriculture industry to move to a shared-values approach to communication, the participants in the study still largely communicated from a discourse of science. The results of this study supported those of Cook, Pieri, and Robbins (2004) who found that GM scientists used “rhetorical devices … to ultimately undermine participation by non-experts in areas including rationality, knowledge, understanding, and objectivity” (p. 433).

The participants referred to people who had some level of opposition to animal agriculture (i.e. approve of the use of animals only under specific conditions) as being confused, uneducated, and manipulated by animal activists.

When prompted as to why people may disagree with some facets of animal agriculture, common responses were people having outdated and idyllic notions of animal production. Hypothetical members of the public who had reservations or grievances with facets of animal agriculture had those concerns undermined by being characterized as irrational due to their relationship with their pets and domestic animals; people were seen as being unable to differentiate how different animals ought to be treated. This characterization of the public as irrational is similar to the observations of Vanhonacker et al. (2007) who found that people involved with animal agriculture had a tendency to position themselves as knowledgeable and rational, while dismissing the concerns of the public as emotional and uninformed.

In a society where many people treat their pets as well as they do any member of their human family, this researcher believes that it is not unreasonable for them to ask such questions about the treatment of livestock. While the difference between the purpose and associated treatment of livestock and domestic pets may be clear cut for those within animal agriculture, it appears from the researcher’s observations that that is not the case for the some in the community. This begs the question: who is to decide which animals are to be pampered with treats, toys, and given individual names, and which are to live their lives nameless, confined, and destined for slaughter?

Negative ethos was used in anecdotes about out-group members (those in opposition, and the public) to undermine their character and credibility (i.e. the story about the vegan calling the participant a murderer, pg. 72). In each anecdote shared, the name of the person being discussed was not shared, as was no further context as to who they were. While it is understandable that the participants may have wished to protect the identity of those they were discussing, choosing to not even give them even a false name (e.g., “I was talking to this man, let’s call him ‘Bob’ …”) served to remove their individuality, and help construct them as a representative of the population they belonged to (either opponent or general public).

This can be likened to Stibbe’s (2001) finding that the use of mass nouns instead of count nouns removed the individuality of animals, constructing them as replaceable representatives of a group. Lawrence (1994) said that “If there are no differences among members of a group, their value and importance are greatly diminished so that it is easier to dislike them and justify their exploitation and destruction” (p.181). While this was said in reference to both racisms among humans and animals, it does speak to the practice of not naming individuals in anecdotes.

The people referred to in the anecdotes were constructed as representatives of their population group rather than an individual person with individual experiences and beliefs who may not necessarily represent a larger group. When a story is told about a person with no context, it is much easier to generalize the story and apply it to other people.

For example, consider the following statements: 1) “I met this woman on the plane who told me that lamb came from the grocery store”; 2) “I met this woman, Adele, she was from New York, she’d lived there her whole life and she thought lamb came from the grocery store.” When context is available, it is harder for the attributes of the person in question to be applied to a larger population. However, the researcher would like to acknowledge that while the language choices of the participants functioned in this particular way, that very well may not have been their intention – the participants may not even have been aware of how their linguistic choices were functioning.

Similar to Cook et. al. (2004), the researcher found that the respondents also subscribed to a “knowledge deficit model” (Gregory and Miller, 1998), where they thought that opposition to an idea could be remedied by education. This concept was prominent when participants were asked why some people are opposed to animal agriculture. This also ties in with the idea of bounded rationality, whereby any decision made by an individual is bounded by the information they have, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the amount of time they have to make that decision (Simon, 1955).

In this instance, the public and those who had some level of opposition to animal agriculture were characterized as misled, and animal activists were seen as lying to the public; therefore it was assumed that the public was bounded by misinformation when making decisions about animal agriculture. While there may be individuals forming opinions and making decisions under bounded rationality, it is problematic to assume that that is the case for anyone who disagrees and/or has some level of opposition to animal agriculture.

Another assumption that presented itself numerous times in the data was that animal activists try to conceal their motive of ending animal agriculture. Some participants stated that, animal activists should be awarded no credibility in conversations regarding animal agriculture because they are concealing their primary goal (of ending animal agriculture), and therefore misleading the public. One would expect that even when a speaker’s underlying motives may not align with the audience they are communicating to, as long as they are honest and upfront about their motivations, they still have the right to communicate and the ability to contribute to the discussion.

It is whether animal activists are honest and/or upfront about their motives however which is a point of speculation for many within the animal agriculture industry. Again this works with the assumption that the public is being misled and is unaware of the true intentions of people fundamentally opposed to animal agriculture.

While the financial motivations of those in opposition to animal agriculture were a primary topic in the discussion, the academic experts claimed to have no financial interests in the industry. However, while their positions may not be as directly reliant on the success of the industry as someone working in the private sector may be, their jobs do rely on the continuation of animal agriculture; so it is arguable that they indeed have a vested interest.

Furthermore, the fact that the other seven participants did not mention the profit motivations of the animal agriculture industry could be interpreted a number of different ways. It could be that the participants had not even considered their industry to have a profit motivation because they are doing the “right thing” or “in the right”, or it could be that they are aware of the industry’s profit motivation but do not consider it to be an issue as the industry is doing nothing wrong by raising animals for food and fiber. In this instance, profit motivation only becomes a negative when those earning a profit do not align with the industry.

“Animal activists” in general were referred to frequently in responses to a number of interview questions, not just questions that inquired about opposition to animal agriculture. Furthermore, no initial questions explicitly referred to animal activists (but follow-up questions sometimes did). The frequency, however, with which respondents shifted the discussion to animal activists and how often they were able to tie them into different aspects of the interview, suggests that animal activists are a topic that often occupies their thoughts; animal activists and the threat they pose is a topic that is always in the back of their mind when thinking about the animal agriculture industry. This may contribute to the tendency of those within the industry to focus on the most extreme tactics of animal activists when discussing them, such as those who break into facilities or collect unauthorized footage.