I’ve been working an experiment at home with my youngest son, Harry. We’ve been studying propaganda. I’d like him to learn to find his way through complicated issues, being able to see the factors that influence the way agendas influence the spread of information and disinformation. He needs to learn more about the ways in which facts, hunches, misunderstandings, and lies are blended together to concoct a winning narrative.
I don’t want to make him agnostic toward ideas, but I’d like to help him develop discernment. I want him to be able to hold knowledge and opinions with the gentle grasp of someone comfortable in complexity, not with the clenched claws of reductive, binary thinking.
To that end, we’ve launched into a project of watching a series of videos and documentaries opposing meat and animal agriculture, along with other films that promote meat-based farming and diets. It is a jarring, clashing experience with earnest voices on each side. Facts and statistics flash across the screen. Dire warnings, black and white footage of disasters cut into the videos at bleak moments. Studies cited, check. PhD-credentialed interviewees, check. Emotional appeals, check. Hollywood actors, check (at least for the big budget documentaries).
What We’re Finding
I chose the topic of meat and veganism for a few reasons. First, and obviously, because it is a topic that I’ve been immersed in. Second, because Harry, even at 12 years old, knows more about both animal farming and plant farming than many of the talking heads presenting from either side of the argument. It is something to behold when a middle schooler casually throws out a line of thinking that undermines the credibility of published scholarship… Third, because farming remains one of the highest-stake issues for our thriving as a species.
In this plant vs meat genre, it seems that heated factionalism is rife. We should emphasize that both positions share significant common goals and obstacles. Perhaps the strongest indication that we’re encountering propaganda reveals itself when we notice the narrative intentionally avoiding opportunities to explore that common ground. Common ground opens up opportunities for empathy, and nothing ruins a good rant like empathy.
Overlooked Common Ground
Regardless of the position on the vegetable vs animal argument one arrives at, both factions should recognize that the current system of food production is failing us profoundly even while it feeds us more food, and cheaper food, than ever before.
On the supply side, we all know that things are ruinously flawed, with the galloping hoofbeats all around us of the four horsemen of the agripocalypse: Commodification, Chemicals, Confinement, and Concentration. So vegans and regenerative ranchers can both place the blame on market manipulation, counterproductive and captured regulatory apparatus, and dysfunctional incentive structures. And they both do mention these problems frequently. But interestingly, they often paint their adversaries as conspiring with the enemies. So vegans present grass fed beef farmers as shills for the larger beef feedlot systems. And the grass fed cattlemen point out the ways in which veganism further entrenches monoculture farming. More honesty would be appropriate, but this might not play as well to the camera.
On the demand side, it is curious to note that most documentaries are hesitant to place blame on another big C-word: Consumerism. It would be an easier message to convey if we would at least pretend that consumers aren’t to blame. Or if they are blameworthy, the problems exist only because they don’t know better. I believe that consumers are completely culpable because we are all, as a society, complicit in creating this world. All of our choices, even the ones in which we have the least freedom to choose, collectively render the outcomes that exist. This kind of responsibility becomes diffuse and difficult to reckon. But I think it matters to acknowledge it. I create the problem. Harry creates the problem. You, reader, create the problem. Vegans create the problem. Carnivores create the problem. If we wish to solve an enormous shared problem, we cannot do it by alienating a large portion of ourselves.
So Who Is Right?
Someone wrote to me recently about righteousness in activism. I think that is an important topic. As an advocate for my style of farming, it is easy to fall into habits of proclaiming the rightness of what I’m doing. I know that I slip over that edge. It is probably inevitable for any person with deep feelings for something.
But righteousness always stains us the more we try to handle it. When we are most convinced of the rightness of our cause, we consistently allow ourselves to do unjust things in defense of a just cause. Human history is replete with examples of unethical actions taken in the name of higher ethics. So when we straw-man our opponents because the YouTube algorithms reward vehemence over verity or because streaming services rank engagement over entente, we inadvertently reveal the flawed foundations of our precious positions.
I’m eager to see where this project takes Harry and me. For it to be successful, we don’t need to abandon our ideas or preferences. But I want to be us to be better observers, to notice the places where propaganda creeps into narratives, both the narratives we support and the ones we oppose.