Wes Jamison, associate professor of communications at Palm Beach Atlantic University, is studying how the Humane Society of the United States and other animal rights groups use religion in their messages. Meatingplace asked him to describe what makes this tactic so effective, and what the meat industry can do about it.
How is HSUS using religion to promote animal rights?
Their framing of the issue is that they are providing a resource for people who want to understand what their faith tradition says regarding food and faith. In reality, what they are doing is using very sophisticated, persuasive techniques. They have discovered ways to selectively use the Bible, the Koran and the Torah to amplify the guilt of consumers who purchase and consume products produced by confinement animal agriculture. The essence of their argument is this, "We are not asking you to stop eating meat, we are asking you to help the lives of animals a little bit."
Is it working?
HSUS has been very successful in getting people to think about the religious issues of animals. The biggest example is California Proposition 2, where they used churches whose denominations were opposed to confinement agriculture to hold debates. Proposition 2 passed overwhelmingly in a landslide. The egg industry lost. The bottom line is they are very astute at tailoring arguments to consumers who either do not know theology or do not have a cohesive theology that helps inform their spirituality.
Are other animal activists adopting this approach?
They are all over the place. Christians for Animal Rights is one. HSUS is clearly the nine-million-pound gorilla. They are powerful, sophisticated and rich and they are good at what they do. They are good at building the agenda, good at framing issues, they know how to talk about issues, which is why they are effective. It is not limited to dealing with churches directly, or providing sermon notes to pastors directly. They distribute documentary DVDs and sponsor Christian college musical tours.
What is the basis of their argument?
They are attacking the classic dominion argument from Genesis, that God has given people dominion in animal agriculture to use the animal — you can kill it, eat it, as long as you do not knowingly cause wanton suffering for the sake of suffering. That is being redefined as suffering itself is a moral wrong.
Is there evidence this is having an impact on consumers?
There has been no large-scale survey that quantifies the impact on the larger U.S. population. Qualitative research shows that it is highly effective, particularly among pet-owning Americans. The basic argument is this: you treat your dog like a child and your pig as a pork chop, and that's immoral. They are saying confinement for increased production is not necessary, but the result of human gluttony and greed. You can still get your meat, cheese and eggs from someplace else. They are very good at pointing out what they are against, but they are not good at saying what they are for. I speculate that the ultimate goal is vegetarianism.
What can the meat industry do to counter this message?
The traditional response is to bombard consumers with science and economics. What the farming community has to do is not only own the moral argument, but learn to speak in language that assuages the moral concerns. By religious and secular standards, we have the right to use animals for consumption. However, the other side has the luxury of not doing anything but producing ideas and philosophical thinking. Their income is not based on competitive advantage and cost per pound. And that's a profound advantage.
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