Meatsplaining: A Name for Animal Ag Rhetoric
According to old English folklore, to mention the devil is to conjure him in person. Hence, the saying, “Speak of the devil and the devil shall appear.” This saying was originally intended as a warning against unwittingly inviting evil into one’s presence. But suppose we sought to confront evil directly. By this logic, if we wished to see the devil in person, then we need only give him a name. To speak of the devil, then, would have an eminently practical purpose.
In the 1960s, climate scientists gave two names to the ominous problem of the anthropogenic rise in atmospheric temperatures and the consequent disruptions in global climate patterns: global warming and climate change. These powerful terms named the devil, and they have come to haunt our collective psyche. They serve as a constant and terrifying reminder that we humans are responsible for drastically altering this fragile planet and that, if we fail to act, our sordid legacy will be to leave a literal hell on earth for future generations, both human and non-human.
More recently, we have given a name to the fossil fuel industry’s war on climate science. We call it climate denialism. The concept of climate denialism captures a wide range of shameful activities: sowing doubt about climate science, creating a false scientific “controversy” about climate change, demonizing climate scientists, demonizing environmental organizations, and framing climate action as a moral threat to freedom and liberty. Coining new terms for serious problems—naming the devil—enables us to see what was formerly obscure. Naming is a necessary diagnostic tool for the scientist, the physician, the scholar, and the activist. Naming helps make the invisible visible.
As animal advocates, environmentalists, and health advocates engaged in a long-term battle with the meat industry, the time has come to give a new name to an old devil. Here, I’m referring to the seductive rhetoric, the clever talking points, the wily public relations tactics, and the out-and-out propaganda of the animal agriculture industry. Like the fossil fuel industry, the animal agriculture industry has become an integral part of modern capitalist power and domination. It, too, practices systematic denialism to shield itself from critical scrutiny and to avoid public accountability. This denialism serves to mitigate three distinct public relations crises: outrage at the industry’s brutal treatment of farm animals; alarm over the industry’s disastrous impact upon the environment; and concern about the dire effects of animal products upon human health.
The animal agriculture industry lacks a singular analogue to climate denialism. How then should we conceptualise its forms of denial? Through what overarching concept? In my new edited volume, Meatsplaining: the Animal Agriculture Industry and the Rhetoric of Denial (2020), I propose the term meatsplaining as an umbrella concept for the multiple forms of denialism perpetuated by the animal agriculture industry. Meatsplaining, of course, is a play on mansplaining, the clever term that entered the digital feminist lexicon following the publication of Rebecca Solnit’s now-classic essay, ‘Men Explain Things to Me.’
In her essay, Solnit describes the aggravating experience of listening to an arrogant and presumptuous man explaining her own book to her. This gender dynamic is depressingly familiar in our androcentric culture: men who assume, by virtue of being men, that they possess superior knowledge about all matters under the sun, and hence hold the authority to lecture women. Mansplaining is patriarchy’s way of putting women in their place.
In many ways, the dynamic of obnoxious and overconfident men explaining things to women bears a striking similarity to the animal agriculture industry’s habit of explaining things to its critics. Meatsplaining functions as a silencing mechanism. The extreme condescension and patronizing character of meatsplaining serves to shut down critics of the meat industry, to reduce them to petulant and ignorant children, to eliminate them from the sphere of rational discourse. Meatsplaining delineates discursive boundaries. It establishes who possesses and who lacks the credibility to speak about what happens on animal farms and in slaughterhouses. It defines what constitutes the normal, the rational, and the mainstream, and what constitutes the abnormal, the irrational, and the fringe. Those who are effectively boxed into the latter group by definition lack credibility. If vegans are branded as irrational, violent and extremist, they will perforce lack the moral standing to speak and be taken seriously.
Meatsplaining further rests on certain reductive tropes: that vegans necessarily have poor health; that they are ignorant about animals, ecology, and human health; that vegans have some sort of scheming ‘agenda’, whereas the meat industry is somehow free of any such agenda; that vegans are too sanctimonious and lack a sense of humour, a popular trope that feeds anti-vegan trolls and even viral marketing campaigns; that vegans are too angry and emotional for civilized gatherings; that vegans are simultaneously hypersensitive victims yet also tyrannical bullies; and that veganism, because it is inherently violent and extremist, is a threat to social order.
Although the concept of meatsplaining proposed in my book refers primarily to a form of industry rhetoric, it also operates on an interpersonal level. Meatsplaining can be understood as an extension of mansplaining. It follows a similar gender dynamic and reproduces many of the same patterns of patriarchal behaviour. This is not a coincidence. In the United States, women make up almost 80% of the vegan community. That men make up only a fraction of the vegan community is a reflection of popular cultural attitudes about meat and masculinity. In the West, male identity is notoriously bound up with the performative consumption of meat, a phenomenon that Carol Adams brilliantly explores in her classic study, The Sexual Politics of Meat.
Masculinity is a fragile and sensitive thing. It’s easily threatened by critiques of cherished male myths, not least among them the myth that meat makes the man. It is not surprising, then, that so many men should feel threatened by veganism and become agitated over the very idea of animal rights. Moreover, despite marketing attempts to portray the meat industry as woman-friendly, it remains overwhelmingly male-dominated. There are, then, both cultural and institutional reasons why meatsplainers are, more often than not, men—men who presume the authority to lecture others about protein, canine teeth and the caveman diet.
Even as my book was being put together, new patterns have emerged in meat industry rhetoric. In response to declining sales, the dairy industry has launched a campaign against plant-based milks and the beef industry has launched a similar campaign against popular new plant-based products like the Beyond Meat burger and the Impossible burger. Animal ag has further sought to police language and prohibit the use of terms like milk, butter, cheese and burger in the labeling of plant-based food products. While contempt and hostility towards vegans are nothing new, trolling vegans has become a new marketing gimmick. And as the Amazon burns, animal farmers have rushed to distinguish grass-fed beef as ecologically sustainable. Thus, even in the short time it took to put my book together, the terms and terrain of meat industry rhetoric have evolved and expanded, and will likely continue to evolve and expand for the foreseeable future. My book was designed to start a necessary and urgent conversation about the phenomenon of meatsplaining—to make it explicit, to propose a basic typology, and to offer several initial analyses of meatsplaining in practice. It is just the start of a much larger and ongoing collective project of bringing one of the most powerful and ubiquitous forms of industry rhetoric under systematic critical scrutiny.
I proposed the concept of meatsplaining to equip students, scholars, and advocates with new terminology and new diagnostic tools for making sense of meat industry rhetoric, for deconstructing and dismantling the industry’s ever-expanding list of talking points, and for challenging the manipulation of public opinion. For far too long, this rhetoric has evaded criticism because it has gone without a name. That can change once we make the invisible visible. If we wish to confront the devil, to bring him out into the light, then it’s necessary to speak his name.