Soft sell

Psychoanalyst-turned-animal rights activist Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson has written a book with a subtler, more persuasive style than his PETA counterparts. The Atlantic book review gives it a compelling context:

This is a free country (for human beings), and the American meat eater doesn't need to consider anything he doesn't want to. Try forcing him, and he will only conclude ... that the whole exercise has more to do with punishment than persuasion.

That Masson has grasped this is evident right from the start of his book, in an anecdotal preface devoted to the singing pig of the title. It's not much of a story, at least not as it's told, but it's a happy one, and its context establishes the sixty-two-year-old author as a relaxed and amiable family man. "A nice person like you can't possibly know what wonderful, sensitive creatures farm animals are," Masson seems to be saying to us throughout, "or you wouldn't be paying people to brutalize them, would you?" This approach keeps things positive despite the sad notes struck on every page. It's possible that Masson is consciously using an old child-rearing ploy to appeal to our better natures ("What you don't realize when you pull your sister's hair is that it hurts her"), but I doubt it. He seems genuinely excited about being able to tell us that pigs prefer to be clean, and that a mother hen is as protective of her young as, well, a mother hen. The familiarity of these revelations is both touching and humbling, as is Masson's belief that "in general, the more we know about something, the more we care." Who's to say that this simple faith in human understanding and compassion won't induce some readers to justify it?

The review, by B.R. Meyers, goes on to distinguish Masson's style from the thorough, philosophical arguments of Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, or the exhaustive research of Scully's Dominion. He goes on to say:

The ethological thrust of Masson's book is therefore no more likely to change our behavior than the other arguments he tosses in for good measure—philosophical and moral arguments that the animal-rights movement has spent decades preaching to a world that can barely be bothered to look up from its plate. As the heroine of J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (2003) concludes in one of her lectures, our hearts are closed to animals; we have the capacity to imagine their suffering, "but choose not to exercise it."

It's not just PETA and the animal rights movement that's shifting tactics. I recently encountered a worker for Children's International in Washington Square. She and a half-dozen others were out there with a clipboard and pamphlets, cheerfully asking passersby to sponsor disadvantaged kids in poor countries. In speaking with her, she revealed that one week of canvassing the streets of Manhattan yields as many child sponsors as a year of advertising on TV, radio, and internet.

It would seem that, when it comes to confronting people with unpleasant realities, it doesn't pay to persuade, to educate, or to "prove" how bad things are. It's best to gently, repeatedly nudge some notions into people's minds, while taking care not to overwhelm or accuse. I suspect many funding and advertising organizations have known this for a long time; certainly many successful charities employ the gentle nudge. In the Boston area, the Jimmy Fund campaigns for the Dana-Farber cancer institute come to mind as a positive example.

I wonder if the cause itself leads attracts a particular kind of activist, and encourages a particular style of ad campaign. Maybe because animal and child suffering is essentially preventable, whereas cancer is not, activists in the past chose to shock, rattle and educate people out of their ignorance and apathy. The zeal and righteousness of these activists may have been preventing them from grasping some fundamental aspects of advertising, and of human nature.