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I have spent a lot of time thinking about food this month, in large part because I’m already salivating in anticipation of the spice cake (or possibly gingerbread cake) I’ll be making next week. But also because I’ve been working on a feature for VegNews magazine, to be published next year. And while I won’t reveal what I discovered in my research ― better you should see the whole vegan enchilada when the issue hits newsstands in March ― I can tell you that it’s made me consider how we advocate on behalf of animals.
I’ve also been reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, both as research for the article and because I believe that every once in a while we as animal activists need to read literature that falls beyond the pale of what we consider important. The writing of Adams, Francione, Linzey, Regan, Singer, Wise, et al., is indisputably relevant and educational, but it’s decidedly not what most of the public has on their bedside tables right now. No, they’re reading Eating Animals and going to Foer book events. I have no doubt that, even though he isn’t outright advocating veganism (it’s mentioned only a few times in his book, in fact), Foer is reaching vastly more people with his animal-friendly message on one media blitz than all my years of book writing, magazine articles, public talks and blogging combined. That’s not to say the writing of someone like J.M. Coetzee isn’t valuable; it is. But when’s the last time the esteemed Mr. Coetzee appeared on Ellen explaining to 3 million people how egg-laying hens suffer every day? Foer probably inspired hundreds, if not thousands, of viewers to give up eggs that day, just chatting on Ellen’s couch for 10 minutes.
As an activist, what I find most compelling about Foer’s book is the role storytelling can play in advocating for animals. Foer is a superb storyteller, and his narrative is an often nuanced (and sometimes not-so-nuanced) indictment of animal agriculture, evoking the sights, sounds and smells of factory farms ― something catches his attention hanging on a wall, for example, and he asks, “Why would there be gas masks in a farm shed?” (Because the smell of ammonia, not to mention the particulate matter, inside poultry sheds is so intense it makes farm workers’ eyes water and harms their lungs. Imagine what the chickens endure.)
One of the most powerful stories in Eating Animals is when the author takes his family to the very Berlin aquarium where Franz Kafka had his own revelation about animals a century ago (it inspired Kafka’s famous remark, “Now at last I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you anymore”). Pondering the seahorses, Foer tells his readers not only about the incredible lives of these tiny beings, but how they are dealt untimely deaths by the world’s hunger for tuna, by the shrimp industry and, ironically, by aquariums. Told in this way, Foer’s story resonates so much more than a mere list of statistics. It does so because we can see ourselves reflected in his wonder and disgust. It’s easy to tune out a description of over-fishing or aquaculture; becoming engrossed in a story you care about invests you in the results. You better understand how your choices impact the lives of animals, and that’s a start.
I don’t mean to imply that it’s necessary to have the talents of a bestselling writer to make our point. Rather, I believe it’s important that we’re able to convey to the general public not just the disturbing facts about factory farming or vivisection or the countless other exploitations animals suffer, but a sense of what motivates us to live as cruelty-free as possible. It can be as simple as telling someone why you went vegan or describing what it’s like to rescue a neglected animal or explaining how eating ethically has enhanced your life in ways you never imagined. Just use your own voice, and do so with conviction. Try not to be shy. There’s no need to simply hide behind a printed leaflet or a list of quotations, however handy they may be. Speak your truth.
In most of my talks to the public, I relate the story of one of my experiences inside a factory farm. I usually describe a visit to a battery-egg farm and explain, as best I can, my encounters with and rescue of the hens crammed into wire cages so small they can barely move and what it’s like to see these birds living safe at a sanctuary today. It’s amazing how intensely people listen to these descriptions, fully engaged. I am not suggesting that telling compelling stories is the definitive strategy for approaching activism. But it may help the public embrace the concepts of the animal rights movement and think, genuinely and deeply, about the suffering of animals ― and then make changes in their lifestyle.
There is a tenet in the advertising business regarding the power of emotionally connecting with a message: People remember only one-third of what they read and one-half of what they hear, but they retain 100 percent of what they feel. All I am proposing is that we frame our argument in a way that inspires a more emotional connection for people. I believe that’s one big reason corporate farming is so unnerved by Eating Animals ― they can’t dispute the cruelty; all they can do is try to shoot the messenger and hope readers don’t feel the stories Foer has to tell.