The circus is cruel.
LOVE blogger Victor wrote:
“while reading a pamphlet we’ve been developing about circuses, an activist stopped at the line, ‘Some animals, like elephants, may be forced to work for over 45 years for our entertainment,’ and suggested replacing the word ‘our’ with ‘your.’ This comment intrigued me because the word ‘our’ was deliberately chosen to suggest a particular approach to advocacy and so I started thinking more about what that word represents.”
“‘Our’ reminds me not to think of myself as separate from those I am reaching out to and to instead understand that we are doing the best we know how. With this understanding, veganism is a process rather than an endpoint. Veganism as process means I am continually learning about veganism and that my path towards the vegan ideal is meandering and ongoing. So ‘our’ helps head off the judgment that I am ‘good’ and they are ‘bad’ by reminding me that we are all learning how to live our lives at the same time.”
Victor is onto something. He’s trying to connect with people who have different viewpoints about animals. He’s trying to empathize and guide rather than judge and instruct. Carol L. Glasser at the Humane Research Council is also interested in this idea of language. She wrote:
“Replacing descriptive words with euphemisms or using subtle language to describe extreme concepts masks the exploitation, misuse and abuse of other animals. For example, to make meat-eating more tolerable, words such as poultry, hamburger, and bacon are used to replace more accurate words like dead chicken flesh, shredded cow body, and sliced pig belly.” [...]
“If simply describing our movement with different words can have a significant effect on how willing others are to listen to our message, it is clear that the language used to talk about the animals for whom we advocate will likely have an impact.”
And then Glasser drops the bomb:
“Unfortunately, research has not explored how shifting language can shift outcomes for animals.”
Yes, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about which words will have the most impact. And we should be careful about advocating a stance that isn’t justifed by science. Perhaps a subtle shift like “your” to “our” will change more hearts and minds and generate more compassion for animals. Or it might not have any effect at all.
Words are useful tools for expressing ideas and producing change. But they are not ends in themselves. If your reader doesn’t share your perspective, your understanding, your assumptions, etc., then all your ideas about the importance of a particular word choice falls to the wayside. The message is lost and your meaning is missed.
So, instead of debating and writing essays on the philosophy behind using the word “our” versus using the word “your,” more time should be spent measuring the efficacy of various words and techniques. That is, instead of focusing so much on YOUR meaning, try focusing on the audience and THEIR understanding. What do they need to hear in order to get them to change their behaviors?
Luckily, this is exactly what HRC is doing. In 2004 they did research and found that the average person is more receptive to the term “animal advocate” than the term “animal activist.”
When you write anything, think about who is reading and what they need to hear in order to compel them to act. What do people who are going to circus need to read in order to decide to turn around and boycott the circus? What emotions must they feel? Who should they identify with? What needs of theirs must be met? Are they even going to read? How much do they understand/ what is their reading level?
In my mind, there’s an even more important question: Does it even make sense to waste space with words? Would images convey more?
I was just recently at a circus protest and one of the other protesters commented that he thought most passersby didn’t even read the signs and most just thought to themselves, “Here are a bunch of people who don’t like the circus. They must have a good reason. I’m not going to the circus.” I think he might be onto something. When I see protesters I’m intrigued and I try to read their signs, but even if I can’t figure out what they’re protesting, I get an automatic negative feeling about the business they’re protesting.
The circus is cruel.
Boycott the circus.
Does much more need to be said? What and how should it be said in order to be convincing and effective?
Editor’s Note: this article was originally published in June 2009. After minor edits it has been republished in 2012.