PETA vitriol reminding us to be kinder to humans

Kindness .jpg

Social media has opened the door for everyone to have an opinion, and too often showcase just how nasty we can be to each other.  So when I got Airlie Trescowthick – Founder of Farm Table newsletter this week and reached the section on feedback they received on this Facebook post a little piece of me died. This wonderful team of people doing such awesome job on behalf of farmers being attacked by farmers.

I had glanced at the original post briefly, smiled and moved on. What on earth could possibly generate all this vitriol?

Some responses against the content of the post stated:

  • “Why are we quoting and promoting such an anti-farming group from a group called Farm table? If nobody took notice of their stupidity, they would have no platform and no following to do the extreme damage they do. Disappointed, to say the least.”
  • “I hope this bullshit is just a joke? Surely? If not then you need to eliminate your cottonwool wrapped fairy genes out of the genepool. Seriously, get a grip!”
  • “Not worth the oxygen they breathe”.

Some of the language used was violent and directed slander at PETA and/or Farm Table.

I come from a family that doesn’t do difficult conversations full stop and it remains a skill set I have failed to master. Great article here on why its important and how to do it here. As the second article reminds us the language we use in conversations matters and the importance of not letting our emotions dictate our delivery.

Here is a further cut and paste of the section from Airlie’s newsletter

‘Last week, we shared PETA’s new phrases to replace common ones in our vernacular. As expected, the feedback we received was incredibly polarising. What was most striking to us was how people shared their respective view points –  comments I received from fellow producers or people involved in ag in support of the language change were written in a very measured, thoughtful and practical manner, whereas those against were often very rude and used shocking and defamatory language.

However, those respondents that chose to contact me directly via email raised some very valid and salient points that I also wanted to share here to see another viewpoint.  For example, I received one email that read, ‘We should all endeavour to undertake continuing education to keep evolving and improving the lives of animals in our care rather than languishing in the dark ages. Is it unreasonable to say “feeding a fed horse” rather than “flogging a dead horse” (because the horse was flogged to death in the first place by an unethical owner)? A positive spin is far more uplifting than a negative one. In future, I hope you can use the well-meaning observations of those that sit at one end of the spectrum to impact on poor practices that, sadly, are still occurring at the other end of the spectrum!”

Whilst I do not agree with many methods and campaigns PETA adopts, I completely agree with these comments and that opening up a positive dialogue around continuous improvement is vital. It also showed that you can sit on whatever side of the fence you would like, but the ability to explain and communicate your stance is so important. What is not useful is name calling and viciousness and last week shows that we are still a long way from having open dialogue in the public realm. Measured and thoughtful comments like those above did not make the public realm on social media for fear of bullying and trolling. How can we endeavour to move forward on issues like this? Part of Farm Table and Farmer Exchange’s role is to be a space to have open debate in a safe environment – we know the importance of this now more than ever.’

I have made my thoughts clear on PETA in the past but this post isn’t about PETA,  its about us, HUMANS learning to be kinder to each other.

I reached out to Graeme McElligott who practices veganism and is the founder of “Aussie Farmers and Vegans Connecting” for his thoughts

” PETA’s recent tweet in regard to the use in common talk of phrases that trivialise cruelty or harms to other animals makes sense when considered from the point of view that it’s worthwhile choosing to be kind when we can. Our choice of language – the words we use each and every day – can say a lot about our attitudes, beliefs and even actions. Choosing words and phrases with positive overtones surely is better than those that express negative sentiments. So in a sense, PETA’s suggestion encourages us to examine our own attitudes and prejudices.

Yet on the whole, the reaction I have seen to PETA’s proposal has been largely negative. One might have thought vegans and animal advocates would have welcomed the suggestion yet even in those quarters there has been considerable outrage. The main complaints seem to revolve around questions of relevancy (“who cares”), to bringing animal advocacy into disrepute (“PETA makes us look like fools”) and to inappropriate or even irresponsible conflating of issues (“comparing these phrases to those that contribute to institutionalised racism or gender inequality etc is just wrong”). I can’t claim to have spent a lot of time monitoring this whole brouhaha, but my overall sense of it is that PETA didn’t receive a positive reaction from either vegans or non-vegans.

That’s disappointing. Because really, when it boils down to it, PETA has just asked us to think about how our actions and words affect others. In this case, the words and phrases are those that make light of the suffering of our fellow animals and to be honest, I rather hope that most of us don’t really wish to be unsympathetic to how animals can and should be treated best. Whether people choose to take PETA up on its suggestion probably isn’t that important. What I think is more valuable is the discussion it might provoke and the concern it expresses. What exactly is wrong with choosing language that utilises more positive views of our relationship with other animals? Should we rather use “flogging a dead horse” over “feeding a fed horse” and if so why? If it is just a matter of tradition it seems to me that we might think about whether this is a tradition we can dispense with.

So, if the real intent behind PETA’s tweet was to provoke more genuine consideration and debate about how we treat other animals, I feel it’s rather ironic that the backlash online was so vitriolic. The very thing PETA was highlighting characterised so much of the online discussions and that’s a shame. It’s a shame because I think we all lose when we take that path.

British philosopher Philip Kitcher in his book “The Ethical Project” suggests that humans have been involved in what he terms an ethical ‘project’ since our earliest times. His explanation for how and why we have ethical attitudes is that we have always come together as communities to fix failures of altruism. More to the point, it’s through genuine discussion and debate about the issues that confront us all that has guided this ethical project and the many real positive changes our civilisations have made. Whether he’s right or not in an historical sense is open to debate but I think he makes a good point. It is possible and I think preferable for us to come together in good will to share ideas, to listen openly and  honestly to each others’ views and to subject our own beliefs to scrutiny.

How can we make progress, develop better ways to tackle the trickier aspects of our societies and create stronger communities if our automatic reaction is to laugh at, deride or even dismiss those with whom we disagree? The world of social media has elevated this kind of disagreement almost to an art form and I reckon it’s not quite what Professor Kitcher has in mind. The truth is we can make better progress and develop stronger ties between different elements of our communities by being willing to consider what others have to say. We learn more by listening and talking, not by bullying.

PETA represents a particular view of the world and while we may have our disagreements with the organisation and its methods, at the end of the day I think this one tweet has opened us to a difficult conversation. A conversation between farmers and vegans, animal advocates and the livestock industry, between producers and consumers, perhaps even between farmer and farmer. All too often this conversation has been dominated by the negative, but there are signs for change. Vegans and farmers have come together to discuss various perspectives and beliefs on Facebook pages, the agricultural sector has shown itself increasingly aware of the need to meet with and be sensitive to community expectations, farming groups have developed initiatives to help build genuine channels for communication between agriculture and consumer (for example Farm Table, Art4Agriculture and This Is Aus Ag).

With the challenges facing society in the not so distant future – such as how to sustainably feed a global population of 9 billion and the impacts and effects of climate change – now more than ever it is important for us to create honest and respectful conversations. Conversations that might build closer ties across diverse groups with diverging views and help us move forward on these big issues. I saw an example of this positive approach on Facebook recently. A group in the UK called Friends Not Food regularly hold vigils at the Tulip Slaughterhouse in Westerleigh, hoping to raise awareness in regard to animal exploitation and suffering. This group invited slaughterhouse management and staff to join them for a vegan Christmas dinner, which apparently many attended. That is a real example of reaching out, building shared stories and promoting open, honest communication.

I truly think we can do this.”

Successful 21st century businesses rely on teams that are creative, collaborative, adept at problem solving and have the capacity to have difficult conversations that have a positive effect on the team.

I salute Airlie and Graeme who have mastered the art of difficult conversations. I am still learning how and I look forward to many others in agriculture joining me on the journey.


Highly recommended reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable



Author: Lynne Strong

I am a 6th generation farmer who loves surrounding myself with optimistic, courageous people who believe in inclusion, diversity and equality and embrace the power of collaboration. I am the founder of Picture You in Agriculture. Our team design and deliver programs that inspire pride in Australian agriculture and support young people to thrive in business and life

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