Are your words working against you? As activists, our language choices can be our greatest asset, or our most self-defeating liability. When we’re mindful of who we’re trying to reach, the effectiveness and integrity of our message increases exponentially.
Table Of Contents
- The Gift of Uncertainty
- Knowing What You're Dealing With
- Learning From Personal Experience
- Language Lessons from an Autistic
- The Basics of a Mindful Approach
- Walking the Line In Your Activism
- Teaching Yourself Before Others
- Problematic Language & Self-Defeating Approaches
- The Most Appealing Pitfall: "Humane" Language
- Are You Advocating Cruelty?
- Dive Deep Into Documentation
- Eliminate Issues of Trust
- Yes, It Is Like That Here…
- Provide an Outlet for Outrage
- It's Never One or the Other
- Consider Your Audience: A Graphic Footage Example
- When What's NOT Said Is Most Damaging
- Using the Words of Others
- In Closing…
While I’ve come a long way in my activism over the years, I’ve yet to ever feel like “I’ve got this down.” To be honest, the more I progress in my activism, the less surefooted I feel.
This may sound odd given that I’m here to talk about how to increase the effectiveness of your activism, but in many ways my perpetual uncertainty is one of my greatest strengths. And as counter-intuitive as it may seem, I hope that today I leave you a little more uncertain of yourself.
Uncertainty spurs consideration and forethought—thinking before we act; watching what we say. As activists, our language choices can be our greatest asset, or our most self-defeating liability. When we’re not mindful of our approach, we risk not only failing to communicate our message, but—even more troubling—communicating another message entirely.
The Gift of Uncertainty
If you’re new to activism, increasing your level of uncertainty may sound like the last thing you want—you may feel up to your eyeballs in uncertainty. If you’re anything like me, you desperately want to know the right thing to say to reach non-vegans—and you want it to be clear, simple, and universally-applicable: a set template for effective activism.
I’ll let you know upfront that I don’t have that to offer—I spent decades trying to figure out how to talk about veganism, awkwardly fumbling about, and never finding the “holy grail” of effective activism.
What I have found, through much trial and (mostly) error, is the value of not having a set approach—of remaining perpetually uncertain. In this respect, those of you who are brand new to activism have an advantage over experienced activists—you’re not yet set in your ways, not yet comfortable with what to say.
If you are an experienced activist, by now perhaps it’s not so much figuring out what to say, but rather how to find the energy to keep saying it. Perhaps you’ve reached a point of exasperation and exhaustion from pouring everything you have into reaching people only to feel like you’re hitting a wall.
Regardless of where you’re at in your activism, I hope to help you more effectively communicate your message.
Knowing What You’re Dealing With
Before we even consider our approach, we need to understand—as best we can—the nature of what we’re dealing with. There’s nothing quite like our species’ seemingly hard-wired resistance to anything having to do with veganism—it defies all logic and common sense, is present in every country, class, race, culture—even century.1
When we proceed under the assumption that it’s just a matter of people getting the facts, we set ourselves up for a great deal of running in place; when we ascribe people’s resistance or outright denial to their lack of intelligence or simple stubbornness, we all-too-easily dismiss them entirely.
But one need only observe how many well-educated, intelligent individuals make it into adulthood believing that cows spontaneously make milk—defying all mammalian physiology—to know this is not a matter of intelligence.
Understanding this allows us to shift our perspective—what we may have seen as the reasons our message was rejected now become guideposts to better inform our approach. And rather than focusing so intensely on what to say, we can turn our attention to how we’re saying it—because it’s the how that can make all the difference.
Learning From Personal Experience
To best illustrate the points I’ll be addressing, I need to first offer some background regarding my own process and journey.
As I’ve already shared, I spent the majority of my life desperately struggling to find the words to speak about veganism. In recent years, as Bite Size Vegan grew and I began to receive tangible evidence of my work’s impact, with incredible testimonials of change from around the world, I found that my confidence remained just as—if not more—shaky.
No matter how many videos I make, speeches I give, or people I speak with—each and every one is like starting all over again from the ground up, always with the renewed panic of having no idea what to say. The majority of my life, I’ve seen this lack of confidence as some inherent personal fault, and my admittedly neurotic level of consideration before speaking or acting to be perfectionism run wild.
Even as a one-year-old, despite my mother’s persistent encouragement to “use my words,” I insisted on pointing and grunting at things that I wanted. It’s not that I didn’t know the words—I was afraid to say anything at all until I could execute a full sentence, and do so correctly.
It’s only now, decades later, that I’ve come to understand that my hesitation and careful forethought prior to speaking, and panicked need to further study the appropriate parameters and protocols of human interactions, were not the presumed neurotic perfectionism and lack of confidence I’d spent the greater part of my life trying to overcome, but rather necessary survival mechanisms common in Autistic children—especially girls. We become, essentially, child anthropologists. Many Autistics—myself included—describe feeling like they were born on the wrong planet entirely.2
Nothing makes you appreciate the gravity and sheer power of language quite like being unable to effectively navigate the dominant method of communication. Just ask any traveler who’s having to simultaneously navigate a foreign language while also carefully considering cultural nuances in body language, gesture, and tone. It’s a lot to deal with all at once, and takes ample intellectual processing of countless factors that natives aren’t even conscious of—just think of the last time you had to run through a verb’s conjugation in your head before speaking.
Similarly, Autistics have to process intellectually the countless co-occurring non-verbal cues of communication that the vast majority of our species does in milliseconds on a subconscious level.
Language Lessons from an Autistic
Essentially, my process for communicating with non-vegans effectively in my educational activism involves the same careful analysis, painfully arduous choice of precise language, and discernment of the approach best suited for a specific audience and set of circumstances, that I’ve had to navigate from my very first words.
In many ways, new vegans are thrust into aspects of the Autistic experience—at least as I know it. With their blinders now off, they’re suddenly inundated with sensory overload, acutely and painfully aware of the extreme exploitation and cruelty all around them. They are no longer able to look at a glass of milk without hearing the anguished cries of a mother whose baby has been torn from her side. And they find they’re unable to explain themselves to those around them.
It’s almost like the second that we step onto “the vegan side,” the non-vegan mentality that we’ve had our entire lives is suddenly incomprehensible.
I cannot count how many times I’ve received emails and messages from even hard-core meat-eaters who made the connection—but their spouse had not. So they reach out to me—essentially a complete stranger—for advice: How do they talk to this person whom they’ve known for years? How do they cope when their loved one refuses to see the truth?; when they continue to eat what is now so clearly the murdered body of an innocent being? How do they deal with the heartbreak of loving someone they no longer understand?3
They’ve somehow lost the ability to navigate the non-vegan lexicon, left uncertain of what to say. This parallel to my life-long struggle to communicate has actually put me in a unique position of helping vegans learn to “use their words” all over again, because now they have to think about language and approach communication like an Autistic.
The Basics of a Mindful Approach
Before getting into some concrete examples and case studies, I’m going to briefly outline the basics of this in regards to vegan activism.
Every time I’m researching and writing, I consider:
- my audience
- my message
- and my purpose
that is, I try to keep in mind:
- whom I’m trying to reach
- what message I’m trying to reach them with
- and what it is that I’m trying to accomplish
Of course, it’s impossible for any of us to know every aspect of our audience or the situation, but these kinds of considerations can help us craft our message to be as effective as possible for our intended audience.
I want to emphasize that this is not about pandering nor equivocating—compromising the truth in order to make veganism seem more palatable is one of the most dangerous pitfalls we’ll be exploring.
Walking the Line In Your Activism
In navigating language within animal rights activism, education and advocacy, there are countless potential pitfalls, distractions, diversions, and counterproductive “traps.”
Perhaps in our efforts to make veganism “approachable,” we compromise our convictions and soften our ethics. Perhaps in order to “wake people up,” we become aggressive and polarizing—we wonder how they’re not “getting it” when to us it’s so painfully clear. Somehow, despite all our efforts, our message gets “lost in translation,” and the gap in communication widens.
I’ve heard countless debates between vegan activists regarding whether to take a softer or firmer approach; this false dichotomy is itself a diversion within which we can easily become lost. The real challenge is walking the line of staying firm in our convictions and uncompromising in our message while still helping people lower their guard enough to listen, hear, and make the connection.
Teaching Yourself Before Others
As we delve into a few concrete examples, a common theme of intensive research will emerge. Of course in-depth investigation can be tedious and definitely time-consuming—trust me, I often wish I could toggle off my own uncertainty—my inability too take anything at face value, or to assume that I already know. But there is a distinct advantage to the time-suck of investigating for yourself.
The learning process when doing your own research is significantly different than when regurgitating or repurposing things others have said—you not only have the facts, but also the investigative path or information trail you followed to find them.
Rather than simply listing off statistics, or telling someone that their life-long beliefs are lies, you’re able to meet people at a starting place of familiarity and common ground, progressively following the trail of information as you discovered it, presenting the facts along the way such that they may digest them step-by-step.
This is an incredibly useful approach for any kind of education—it manages to be both non-confrontational and non-compromising. You’re sharing what you’ve learned and how you’ve learned it rather than dictating what’s true. By not provoking defensiveness, people can lower their guards and absorb and process the information they are receiving. No watering down or couching in euphemistic niceties, no offers of partial change as more “palatable” options than going vegan.
Real truth with real reception.
Problematic Language & Self-Defeating Approaches
Now let’s go over some examples of problematic language and self-defeating approaches.
I find that the most dangerously appealing pitfalls are those that appear to be effective communication tactics. A major approach within the vegan movement is focusing on the social normalization of veganism—making a vegan lifestyle accessible, affordable, easy—even mainstream. This is a very logical tactic, especially when considering that one of the strongest deterrents to going vegan is social ostracism and rejection from friends and family.
The accessibility of veganism is something about which I am intensely passionate—it’s one of the foundational aspects of Bite Size Vegan. However, in attempting to “bridge the gap” and meet the general public where they’re at, there exists the risk of reducing the ethical imperative of veganism to a socially acceptable lifestyle choice—even offering gradations of change that amount to acceptable and endorsed levels of cruelty. This is why it’s so vital that we be mindful of our language choices as activist, lest we end up advocating the very things we are fighting against.
The Most Appealing Pitfall: “Humane” Language
Nothing embodies this more than the “humane” movement. Humane language and concepts have easily gained a stronghold by appealing to all sides—for the vegan afraid of coming across as militant or extreme, they provide a less intimidating suggestion to offer: “Meat-Free Mondays,” “Local Free-Range Eggs“; for activists fighting for animal liberation, they give the possibility of better conditions, progress towards the ultimate goal; and certainly for the non-vegan, who now has a way to keep doing what they want to do, but feel good about it.
Any impetus for going vegan vanishes—why risk social isolation and brave the discomfort of change when you can keep eating animals not only without nagging concerns, but actually with assurance that you’re improving their treatment, helping the environment, and bettering your health. The real problem is the big factory farms—thank goodness you now eat responsibly.
Now you may think this is a rather pessimistic interpretation of what could be a stepping stone towards real change—affording at the very least a modicum of improvement in conditions. I understand the allure of this line of thinking—we activists are not immune to the seductive appeal of humane rhetoric. But it’s vital that we not take anything on face value—our responsibility lies with those enslaved, not the comfort of their captors or ourselves.
Just as we encourage others to confront the truth and question what they know, we must do the same. Though we may feel that our eyes are already open, we must actively strive for uncertainty.
Are You Advocating Cruelty?
It’s my own uncertainty that drove me deep into humane legislation when researching for a speech I delivered in Dublin, Ireland. Ireland is a powerful case study—it’s essentially the humane concept embodied in country form. Cows graze outside in picturesque fields, lending support to the common refrain that “it’s not like that here.” And by all appearances and accounts, it’s not. Even after some digging, I only found a single undercover video of abuse.
Ireland is a part of the European Union, which, in the Treaty of Lisbon4 signed in 2007, historically declared non-human animals legally sentient—deserving freedom from hunger, thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, disease, fear, distress and mental suffering. Having recognized their capacity to feel the same emotions and sensations as we do, the EU proceeded to draft legislation specifying the exact manner in which we may legally violate, imprison, cut, burn, alter, and murder them.
The resulting Council Regulation, entitled “on the protection of animals at the time of killing”5 was and is viewed—even by animal activists—as a major step forward, a victory for animals.
For those of us living in countries without such regulations, it’s natural to think that the systematic abuse of farmed animals results—at least in large part—from the total lack of oversight.
For example, in the United States, there are no federal laws governing the treatment of farmed animals.6 I’ve seen activists and organizations list the mutilations and atrocities routinely committed within the food industry in the US, stressing the need for regulations—often pointing to the EU as a prime example.
But if you actually read through the EU’s groundbreaking, landmark legislation and its supplemental documents,7 you will find that very same list of mutilations and atrocities not decried, but codified. So instead of baby chicks being ground up alive because there are no regulations to stop it, they’re ground up alive because regulations declare it to be the preferred method for male chick disposal.8 There are even detailed specifications for blade speed and sharpness to avoid “gumming up” the works.9
After digging for a few months, I finally found the documents explaining the decision process; they found that while gassing the estimated “335 million day old male chicks” killed in the EU annually “would amount [to a]…cost [of] 1,665,000 Euros,” the costs of using “rotating or whirling knives which are mincing the chicks in a split second…can be considered not to be substantial.”10 Meaning the decision had nothing to do with what was most humane: it was simply a matter of what was the cheapest.
This is echoed throughout the document—each and every method of murder broken down to a financial transaction. Unsurprisingly, the impact assessment panel assembled by the EU for this legislative “victory of animal rights” included meat, dairy and egg industry representatives and Butina, the global manufacturer of the gas chambers11 determined to be the preferred method for slaughtering pigs.12
It’s the absurdity of murderers deciding how they get to murder. This is what we’re point to as evidence of progress—as an example to strive for. We must be mindful of what we’re advocating.
Dive Deep Into Documentation
It was actually the actions of Australian activists that spurred me to dig so fervently for these documents. The EU legislation recommended phasing out the use of the carbon dioxide chambers for pigs, but said “the impact assessment revealed such recommendations were not economically viable at present.”13 I’d yet been able to locate this assessment.
I later had the pleasure of interviewing activists from Animal Liberation Victoria and Animal Liberation New South Wales about their undercover work filming inside the gas chambers, and subsequent action shutting down operations in one slaughterhouse by chaining themselves in the chambers. The footage they obtained shook me to my core, and I continue to utilize it in the video portion of every speech I give. I became determined to find the documents explaining why the EU still recommended the chambers, finally finding the assessment which revealed that Butina—the chamber manufacturers—was on the panel.
As you may well know, since 2005 Australia has been in the process of shifting from “Model Codes of Practice”14—essentially non-binding suggestions with state-by-state interpretation—towards “nationally consistent standards and guidelines.”15 From what I gather, it’s proving to be a rather prolonged, extensive, and tedious process16—in the past 13 years,17 they’ve covered cattle18 and sheep.19
When it comes to finding solid documentation, you’re at an advantage in Australia as there are ample resources already made available by activists and organizations. The information is out there—and more readily so than many countries. Use these as a starting point for your own research.
I encourage you to dive into the small print of your state’s regulations, the proposed Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines,20 and any reports and documents from the industries themselves. These are incredibly effective advocacy tools because they describe the “ideal” and have the most vested interest in portraying practices in the best light.
Eliminate Issues of Trust
This is an approach I took with my Ireland speech—presenting the information put forth by their own agricultural industries, government, and the EU. This not only helped defuse the potential defensive charge of some random American YouTuber coming over to tell them what their country was like, but also allowed me to show that even the ideal—which is of course never met—was absolutely horrifying.
A ways into the talk’s introductory portion, I informed my audience that:
“The facts I’ll present today are not of my creation—I’ve sourced them from primarily Irish governmental and industry documents, the European Union, and many, many others.”
And stated that they didn’t even have to believe me, as I’d be providing a link to a full transcript of the talk with citations for every fact, a bibliography and additional resources.
I include a link to such a resource page in every talk I give—with today being no exception. This not only provides opportunity for further learning, but also removes the significant potential barrier of requiring someone to trust in me personally on issues about which they’re already guarded.
Yes, It Is Like That Here…
Now that we’ve looked briefly at laying introductory groundwork to help an audience lower their guards, I’ll share an example of presenting the stark contrast between the “humane hype” surrounding legislation, and the reality of its effect on the individuals themselves.
“The vast majority of the world’s more than 7 billion layer hens21 spend their abbreviated lives in cramped battery cages, unable to even extend their wings.22 Now you may have heard the big fuss about the European Union’s groundbreaking directive set in 1999 banning “barren battery cages” by 2012.23 From the media coverage, you’d think EU layer hens are living in luxury. But as we’re seeing with humane regulations, the devil is truly in the details.
In reality, the directive merely replaced barren battery cages with “enriched”—meaning furnished—battery cages. Reports extolled how hens would now be afforded 750cm2 each, neglecting the legislation’s clarification that only 600 of these would be usable due to “furnishings”—meaning that, in the end, this most “revolutionary” advancement for the rights of layer hens granted them each an additional 50cm2.
Understanding the true impotence of this legislation makes its pathetic implementation all the more baffling. In 2012, nine countries told the European Commission that their farmers would not meet the deadline for conversion, with four additional countries saying it was unlikely they’d be ready.24 These thirteen countries had over 12 years to grant the laying hens they enslave a meager 50cm2.
And all the while the media celebrates the victory for animal welfare, the public eats more and more eggs, reassured by their higher standards; and the individuals this entire charade is supposed to be for remain just as exploited.”25
Within this passage, I covered a great deal of information in just a handful of sentences—it’s not uncommon for hours, days or even months of research to amount to a sentence or two in the final script. I’ll take a moment to unpack some of the choices I made in this section of the talk in regards to the three basic considerations of audience, message, and purpose.
As I mentioned earlier, I’d already laid extensive groundwork by this point, progressing slowly and deliberately towards addressing specific industries—given my audience and the cultural considerations of Ireland—in addition to my status as an outsider—I knew it was important to have a lengthier and more cautious “disarming” upfront.
I also mirrored this pattern within each new topic area—as I broached the topics of eggs, I opened with the least emotionally-charged area of Irish production statistics before shifting to the manipulative and debilitating breeding practices for maximum egg output, finally coming to the question of living conditions—namely, battery cages.
While battery cages remain standard in the United States, I was aware through previous research that they had been banned in the EU, and I’d come across the media coverage that my audience would have seen in the news.
The message I wanted to convey was that eggs are never ethical. My purpose—meaning what I wanted to accomplish—was to preemptively quash any lingering doubts or the ability to dismiss the facts I presented in their entirety because “it’s not like that here.”
Provide an Outlet for Outrage
That’s the basic framework, however it doesn’t capture one of the most significant factors affecting how one’s message is delivered and received: tone. You may have noticed that my tone in this passage was rather firm, even disgusted. But it’s important to note that my disgust was not directed at my audience—quite the opposite. In presenting evidence of how they’d been lied to and manipulated, I followed through on my opening statements that they deserved to know the truth, and that I was here to present evidence for their consideration. So rather than feeling judged or attacked and becoming upset with me, I gave them space to become upset about the lies they’ve been told.
It’s human nature to raise our guards when we’re on the defensive—we close off and shut down. It would seem logical as activists to avoid upsetting our audience in order to keep their receptivity open—however, this is a perfect illustrative example of walking the line. It’s not about making sure not to upset anyone—if they’re grasping the truth, they should be upset! It’s making sure that the push-back to the truths we reveal are aimed at their rightful sources, leading to constructive, well-deserved outrage.
I’ve long believed that one of the main reasons people don’t go vegan is the immense pain and guilt of accepting our part in horrific atrocities. Confronting the true impact of our choices is incredibly daunting, so instead we shut down, attack, or “bust forth” any number of the standard—and, at times, bizarre—objections you’ve no doubt heard countless times: lions, desert islands, protein.
So, the manner in which I presented the information to my Irish audience additionally was intended to supply a “buffer” of sorts to this guilt through again providing a target for their outrage other than themselves, sidestepping shut-down and channeling their outrage to action.
I do want to note that this does not absolve guilt nor attempt to excuse participation in exploitation—again, it’s finding that line of uncompromising ethics while keeping guards down.
Never do I say it’s okay to eat animals. Never do I encourage a reduction of meat, dairy or eggs.
It’s Never One or the Other
I hope that reviewing this example has helped illustrate the false dichotomy of our activism needing to be either non-threatening to the extent of essentially endorsing acceptable gradations of cruelty, or aggressively confrontational to the point of polarizing and alienating the very people whom we’re trying to reach.
While I’ve focused thus far on the perils of pandering in well-meaning attempts to be approachable, this doesn’t mean the answer is to swing to the other extreme.
A baffling way in which my brain functions somehow allows me to see the “grey” where most people perceive only black and white. This is another way in which Autism presents a gift through its profound challenges; while non-autistics tend to be what’s termed “global thinkers,” Autistics tend to have difficulty seeing the “big picture”—this is termed “weak central coherence” in psychology.
While this leads to many challenges, as our brains are inundated with information we’re unable to filter and prioritize, leading to sensory overload, this hyper-focus into extreme levels of detail also allows us to see and make connections others may not. Finally—for myself at least—because I see details and minutia rather than global summaries or generalizations, I’ve never expected any one person to be definable as one thing or another, and find that rarely is there a pure dichotomy—an only “either A or B”—to anything.
Consider Your Audience: A Graphic Footage Example
As with the previous examples of how the “softer” approach of hedging can end up conveying the opposite of the message we intend, I’ll offer an example of when a more confrontational “in your face” approach can equally defeat our intended goal.
When I decided to finally make a video about halal and kosher slaughter26 —which was rather daunting, to be honest—I found that the topic seemed to be primarily addressed through the use horrifying undercover footage taken in halal and kosher slaughterhouses.
In the end, I chose not to include any graphic footage in my video—but not for the reasons you may think. It wasn’t in an effort to not upset my audience, nor a judgement against the use of graphic, undercover footage—I am, in fact, very passionate about the importance of using undercover footage in activism and further expound upon my reasoning in this video.
My primary reason for not using any footage resulted from the same kind of investigative research I undertook regarding humane legislation: again, starting from ground zero, taking nothing at face value. Essentially, remaining completely and totally uncertain.
I’ll admit that out the outset, my impression of halal and kosher slaughter was based only on my surface encounters with the undercover footage. Like everyone else, I often have preconceived notions and existing judgements—the trick is recognizing them for what they are, lest they hinder my ability to remain open—an exercise in willful uncertainty.
Proceeding under the assumption that I didn’t really know a thing about halal and kosher slaughter, I dove into the teachings and philosophies behind the practices, searching for sources written by and for Jewish and Muslim individuals—religious texts, clergy documents, lay commentaries.27
As many humane regulations contain specific exceptions for ritual slaughter, with varying degrees of oversight, there are numerous scientific studies, reports and investigations into its “humane-ness.” I reviewed what studies I could find, as well as various governmental legislations.28
Through my research, I found that the horrific abuses captured in those videos were actually gross violations—not examples—of halal and kosher principles. So, using the footage to illustrate the brutality of halal and kosher slaughter would not only be inaccurate, but actually defeat my own purpose.
Looking at this again through the three considerations of audience, message, and purpose: My primary intended audience was individuals who follow halal and kosher practices; my message was that killing is never humane, kind, or holy; and my purpose was to prompt a reconsideration of these practices—ideally resulting in the decision to go vegan—by taking a hard look at ritual slaughter in order to evaluate whether they are genuinely humane, merciful practices.
Given the sensitive nature of religious and cultural considerations, I knew it was all the more vital that I be diligent in my research and respectful in my approach—especially given that I am neither Jewish nor Muslim.
If I wanted to reach people who partake in ritual slaughter and I show them brutal footage that is actually in violation of their principles, what have I accomplished, other than demonstrating my unwillingness to—at the very least—gain an accurate understanding of the practices?
With the lack of actual discussion between activists and practitioners, I found it all the more important to draw attention to the fact that—as is often the case—the seemingly polar-opposite sides of this debate actually aligned more than they differed:.
“In fact, the values espoused by animal advocates opposed to ritual slaughter are—according to Jewish and Islamic leaders—the very basis of halal and kosher practices. But this potential common ground is rarely explored as almost every public debate over ritual slaughter arises from…footage exposing the horrifically brutal treatment of animals in halal and kosher slaughterhouses.”
The truth is, most Jewish and Muslim individuals are equally—if not more—outraged by the violations in these videos. But the ultimate result of their exposure is almost always a call for better regulations and stricter enforcement of halal and kosher standards, leaving unanswered the question of whether these methods—when carried out as intended—are humane, and failing to address the core of the humane slaughter debate as a whole: is it even possible to end the life of another being in a way that is kind? If I used these videos, I’d not only bypass the actual issues, but also, by so inaccurately portraying an important aspect of their faith, I’d close any door to discussion, much less reconsideration.
I did include one piece of footage towards the end of the video—explaining that “the best way to answer whether ritual slaughter is humane is by simple observation,” I played an example of ritual slaughter that adhered to the traditions,29 still stopping short of the actual cutting of the sheep’s throat and any visuals of blood. What I wanted to emphasize and show was the sheep’s behavior prior to slaughter. Even in the one-on-one environment, with the slaughterer gently reciting prayers, offering water, stating that it’s vital that the animal be at rest and comfortable, it was evident the sheep was not a wiling participant.
Following the clip, I shifted the focus from all of the details and debates I’d covered thus far, to where it should be: the individual. Saying that:
“Ending the life of any sentient being prematurely and against their will cannot possibly be a humane or merciful act… The assertion that this act is necessary, thus justifying the lesser of the evils, is one of the main rationalizations offered by meat eaters, secular and religious alike.”30
With my intended audience in mind, I mentioned verses in Jewish and Muslim religious texts that support vegan principles—which I’d covered in my series “The History of Veganism“31—primarily in the Middle Ages episode32— emphasizing that no religion—Judaism and Islam included—mandates the consumption of animals.
Finally, having navigated through the foundations of these traditions, detailed the debates, legislation, opinions, and studies, I re-focused the issue entirely—because in the end, it’s not a religious issue, it’s a human issue.
This is another purposeful approach I utilize within my activism, especially when dealing with divisive, inflammatory topics. I first make sure to take the time to be as respectful and accurate as possible, helping my intended audience to lower their defensive guards from the default “up” position.
Once I’ve “zoomed in” to sometimes granular levels of detail, I “zoom back out” to what is universally applicable—the human condition:
“The myth of humane slaughter reaches beyond any religion. Humanity as a whole consistently strives to excuse and justify the enslavement, torture, and murder of sentient beings. There’s a level of absurdity with how much time, energy, detail, government money, and paperwork goes into finding just the right way to kill.
We point fingers at inexcusable abuse in other countries, cultures, religions, and specific companies, erupting in righteous outrage and conveniently avoiding any assessment of our own complicity in the deaths of the animals on our plates.”
When What’s NOT Said Is Most Damaging
Before closing, I want to touch on the use of language and approach when presenting undercover exposés. As I mentioned, undercover footage is of vital importance in the fight for animal liberation. Our systematic exploitation of non-human animals thrives in darkness—undercover footage shines a light on these horrific realities, giving voice to the victims.
Learning the truth is one thing—seeing it is something else entirely. However, just as the impact of what we say depends on how we say it, the impact of what we show depends on how we frame and present it.
We don’t have time to delve into this in depth, but I’d like to draw attention to an issue I’ve seen time and again in publicized accounts of undercover exposés. Let’s take, for example, all of the times undercover footage has captured workers—from one country or another—tossing live baby chicks into a grinder.33
Every time, news outlets dramatically recount the unbelievable cruelty. And every time the public is appalled, outraged, and disgusted. They wonder how any person or industry could be so barbaric. And they continue to eat eggs, not realizing that they have just answered their own question.
Ultimately, the message these exposés convey to the public is contingent upon the manner in which they are presented. When codified, standard practice—like the worldwide live-grinding of an estimated 3.2 billion34 baby chicks every year—is reduced to a sensationalist media sound bite, it undermines the power and necessity of exposing the truth.
Often, it’s what’s not said in these exposés that’s the most damaging. When we fail to explain and emphasize that the horrors depicted in the videos are not only legal, but actually government-sanctioned, humane-legislation-dictated practices, we leave the public with the impression that this was an isolated incident—the result of a few malicious, sociopathic workers. Far from considering veganism, the public is left thinking that “luckily, the perpetrators were exposed and will surely be punished. Thank goodness the eggs we eat aren’t contributing to that kind of barbaric behavior.”
Using the Words of Others
A final example comes from an undercover investigation at a pig breeding farm in Iowa—the state in which I currently live. I covered this more thoroughly in my essay and video on bestiality.35
Footage and detailed notes from the investigation catalogued routine abuse of pregnant mother pigs—including beating, kicking and violent sexual violation. Workers were also captured cutting off the tails and tearing out the testicles of piglets, all without any anesthetic—sometimes resulting in scrotal hernias, causing the piglet’s intestines to protrude from the incision.36
In one of the offenses most-cited by the media,37 workers were shown slamming sick or deformed piglets against the ground, leaving them to die slowly, their “skull[s]-crushed…twitching [and] gasping for air, as others were piled on top of them in giant bins.”38
Most of this talk, I’ve emphasized the power and impact of our language choices in conveying our message—but the language choices of others also serve as invaluable teaching tools. An NBC News article covering the Iowa exposé included comments from Temple Grandin, described as “a leading animal-welfare expert.” Referring to the abuses I’ve listed thus far, Grandin was quoted as saying that “while those are standard industry practices, the treatment of the sows on the video was far from it,” calling it “atrocious animal abuse.”39
In my video and article, I pause to highlight the absurdity of her statement:
“Just to clarify—in case it wasn’t obvious—beating and violating the mother pigs was the “atrocious animal abuse.” The ‘standard industry practices’ Grandin refers to are the unanaesthetized mutilation of newborn piglets and brutal slamming of ‘defective’ babies against concrete. Not only are these practices legal, they are government-sanctioned methods within, but not limited to, the United States, Canada,40 Australia41 and the European Union.”42
To drive home the illogicality of it all, I added:
See, that’s the great thing about standard practices—I don’t know about you, but if I was shown that video and asked what was abuse and what was routine, I’d have gotten it totally wrong!”
(Never doubt the power of well-placed sarcasm.)
I hope that this talk has helped illustrate the incredible power of language, given you some ideas of how to walk in the grey, and encouraged you to be at least a little more uncertain in your activism, so that you may approach each interaction, each individual, each situation anew. In essence, may you think a little more Autistically. Thank you so very much for having me.
— Emily Moran Barwick
Monica Ball says
Thanks for this important reminder of the need to be very aware and intentional with our choice of words. This critical aspect of social justice activism is severely lacking in our movement. However, in addition to being mindful of our overall messaging, each of us also needs to be mindful of the individual words and phrases we use so that we’re not unintentionally affirming, reinforcing, or normalizing speciesism or speciesist lies about our fellow animals. For instance, in this talk, you use the phrase “With their blinders now off” and also refer to “cattle and sheep.” A few years ago, I would have done the same and not thought anything of it. But after learning about the crucial role language plays in shaping rather than just naming our reality, I believe it’s vital to make better word choices—ones that intentionally challenge and reject speciesism rather than ones that unintentionally reaffirm and normalize speciesism.
For example, instead of saying “With their blinders now off” and unintentionally normalizing or failing to confront the violent practice of using blinders on enslaved horses, we can say what we mean (e.g., “once they have learned the truth”). So many of our idioms are based on the violence of speciesism that it would be good for activists just to stop using idioms and say what they mean until they become adept at creating new, non-speciesist idioms.
We also don’t need to and should try not to use the oppressors’ terminology when describing our fellow animals and their reality. It’s such a simple but powerful change to say “chickens exploited for their eggs” or “chickens exploited for their flesh” instead of the industry terms “layer” or “broiler.” Likewise, it’s a simple change to intentionally use the word “cows” instead of the accepted industry term “cattle.” It’s also a simple change of mindset and word use to talk about “dogs” rather than to continue using the breed names given to them by the industry responsible for manipulating their genes and selling these living beings for profit and human benefit.
Sadly, even with activists who talk about the importance of non-speciesist language, it’s common to hear phrases that unintentionally affirm speciesist lies (e.g., any phrase or organizational name that labels our fellow animals as “voiceless”) or that normalize speciesist violence (e.g., phrases such as “let them off the hook” which has its origins in the practice of torturing and murdering fishes). Even choosing to say “fishing” (as opposed to “murdering fishes”) unintentionally reinforces the speciesist lie that killing fishes for profit or fun is a benign or positive activity. Failing to challenge euphemisms that sanitize or erase a violent reality (e.g., “fishing,” “dairy,” “meat,” etc.) unintentionally serves to normalize these basically meaningless, neutral terms and the violence they hide in plain sight.
Countless seemingly neutral terms are in fact highly speciesist. For instance, it may seem to be just a matter of good grammar that we use the same term to describe one sheep and 100 “sheep.” But if we were to talk about 100 “human” or 100 “dog,” we’d instinctively and accurately feel that using a singular word to describe a plural group of beings would be wrong. And that’s because it is wrong, completely inaccurate, and highly speciesist to use the same term to describe one individual and multiple individuals. Using the singular as a plural serves to deny or erase the individuality of those who make up the group. And viewing multiple individuals as merely a collective mass of interchangeable undifferentiated things serves to affirm and neutralize our speciesist violence toward them. By intentionally creating and using plural forms of words such as “sheep,” “deer,” “fish,” etc., we challenge the speciesist belief that sheeps, deers, and fishes are not unique individuals and we challenge the speciesist violence of using and murdering these unique and irreplaceable individuals.
Completely eradicating speciesist terms may be impossible given that so much of our culture and language is built upon the violence of speciesism. For instance, ubiquitous terms such as capitalism (“capital” and “cattle” were once synonymous and “cattle” also once meant “money” or “property”), stock market (derived from “livestock” or living “stock”), and brands (derived from the violence of “branding” which is a euphemism for inflicting burns on cows or other animals) originated in the violence of speciesism. So although it will be challenging to completely rid our language of speciesist terms, it should be something we strive for. A possible short-term solution is to use quotes around speciesist phrases (and wherever possible, explain why) in order to draw attention to the fact that these terms are problematic.
Changing our language, using “incorrect” grammar, and using quotes around speciesist terms can get messy and make it appear that we’re unaware of the conventions of our language. But an important part of our work needs to be forcing our language to evolve to reflect the non-speciesist world we’re trying to create. We need to always remember that language shapes our reality. Therefore, changing our reality requires us to change our language. In order to do this, we need to get a lot more comfortable with using unconventional words and phrases and ones that are “incorrect” from a grammatical perspective but that are accurate and honest from a non-speciesist perspective.
Thanks again for this video and the work you do on behalf of our fellow animals!
Emily Moran Barwick says
Thank you for your very thoughtful reply! I totally agree with being mindful of speciesist language—the times I use those terms within this and other speeches are when quoting or referencing language from industry documents, government legislation, etc. Additionally, when my audience is non-vegans (aside from my activism speeches, my primary intention is reaching non-vegans), I will use terminology with which they are familiar—at least at the outset.
This is not to approve nor endorse this kind of terminology—quite the opposite. In meeting them where they are with concepts and terms they relate to, I then lead them through the thought processes and logical fallacies, showing the individuality of these beings.
This is similar in the way that I will use the term “pets” even though I find it troublesome. Again, it’s about walking a careful line—never endorsing any level of exploitation, but also being mindful of one’s intended audience and that they aren’t yet familiar with the lexicon of animal liberation.
In this speech in particular, I’m often quoting from and referencing legislation and industry documents, as well as from my own speeches and videos created for non-vegans.
I have a whole video on speciesist “turns of phrases” like “not a beat a dead horse,” etc—and an entire horse ethics series—so I do very much believe in watching what we say with vigilance. At the same time, there is a need for awareness that those we’re most trying to reach aren’t familiar with a liberated vocabulary that even many—if not most—vegans aren’t cognizant of.
I hope that this explains my use of such terms within carefully calculated parameters—of course when referencing industry and government documents, but also in specific instances for specific audiences. Never endorsing, but rather meeting people at a place of familiarity with terms they understand, then essentially “flipping” that understanding on its head. The “connection” must be made before a shift in conception can take place.
It’s very important to inspire and inform people to take up farming / gardening. Taking care of the food you grow and learning about it, can change your life and many others. Taking a healthy pride in understanding the processes that bring about healthy nutritional food is of vital importance all over the world. Not only could you sustain yourself healthier, knowing your own quality control / whats being used to feed the plants. You could also give food to people in need and profit from it as well.
There are so many good plants and seeds for endless uses.
Hi Emily, thank you for all your time and energy dedicated to the animals.
I found a minor type under the “When What’s NOT Said Is Most Damaging” section.
The sentence below should have “we” added to it.
“However, just as the impact of what WE say depends on how we say it, the impact of what we show depends on how we frame and present it.”
Thanks again and take care.
Emily Moran Barwick says
Great catch, Ted! Thank you! I’ve added that in. Much appreciated :)