The art of constructive criticism

A few days ago, I read this article about the meat industry’s search for ways to provide enough meat for the growing world population. The next day, I saw a response by fellow advocate Jay Shooster, which he had sent to the author of the piece. I told Jay I didn’t think his letter was very effective, and asked him if he would be okay with me writing a post about it. We agreed to see it as an exercise to make our activism better.

I’m not saying I’m the most diplomatic and effective communicator you can find, and I know I don’t always practise what I preach, but I would like to hold up Jay’s email as a kind of “clinic”, a piece that we can analyse and use to maybe become better at communicating. In that context, I welcome your comments.

Please read this, as you should read all my texts, as if there is one big IMHO (in my humble opinion) in front of it.


Here is Jay’s letter to the author:

Dear Mr. Bunge

I think you should be ashamed of your article “How to Satisfy the World’s Surging Appetite for Meat.”
You should be ashamed for glorifying the selective breeding of chickesn that has been described as “the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal.”
As a reporter of the Wall Street Journal, you have no excuse for rationalizing the industrialized abuse and slaughter of animals as a necessary or altruistic endeavor. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Your writing wholly ignores the perspective of the individuals who suffer in this machine of death. Your callous musings on their torture epitomizes the banality of evil.
I hope that one day, you will redeem yourself by condemning this industry and role in promiting it. It’s never too late to do the right thing. History may yet remember you kindly.

Jay Shooster.

This letter got a lot of likes on Jay’s wall, and many people expressed how “awesome” they thought it was. I certainly do appreciate Jay taking the effort to contact the author, but I wouldn’t call the content of the letter awesome.

First of all, I couldn’t see how the author was glorifying the meat industry. I agree that he could have been more critical. But even supposing Jay is right in his perception and the journalist did as Jay says, then still I think this wasn’t an effective way to make him see that.

Maybe we should back up a little and make sure that we have the same purpose when we write a letter like this. I would imagine that our (including Jay’s) purpose would be to do something good for the animals. In this context, I think that would translate to influencing the journalist in a positive way. This is important because he will write more articles about different topics in the future, and he reaches a big audience. More balanced articles, more critical of the meat industry, more pro animal, would be good for the animals.

There are other possible intentions in writing a response. One is to vent frustration, sadness, anger… That can be fruitful in and of itself, but it can also have negative effects, and I think venting is ideally not done in public, or is simulated somehow (maybe by beating your bed pillow). And of course there can be countless other motivations, like having a laugh, practising one’s writing skills, gathering Facebook followers etc. None of these are dishonorable in themselves, but they won’t help the animals much, in most cases – or at least the animals are not the focus of the writing.

So let’s assume that our intention is to open the journalist’s mind (and heart) to our arguments. Then I definitely wouldn’t start by saying he “should be ashamed”.
A captatio benevolentiae is a rethorical technique, and literally translates to “capturing goodwill”. It is something you may start a speech or a letter with, in order to make the reader or listener willing to listen. I think it’s usually good to have something like this in place when we criticize. But it shouldn’t sound fake. Most of the times the reader will know that after the positive intro, one or more “buts” will follow. That’s usually unavoidable. However, if the compliment is genuine and meaningful, the person should have warmed up a little and be more open.

In this case, I would, for instance, thank the person for writing the article and giving me some information I didn’t have yet. And I really mean this. This article gave me some new information, and made me realize that while our movement is investing more and more money in plant based solutions, the meat industry is doing their own research, is evolving, is regrouping, analyzing… The article was to me a good reminder that there will be resistance. So that’s something I can write.

Then to the criticism part. Like I said I found the original article rather one-sided. But I think it would be effective to be a lot more concrete rather than just saying the author should be ashamed. I would, for instance, mention that to me he seemed quite uncritical and brief about the need for animal protein. Here I might also anticipate on his answer. Maybe he calls on journalistic objectivity.

As I repeat in all my talks and often in my writings: maybe the most important skill of any changemaker is to imagine yourself in the position of the people they are trying to reach. Do the exercise: imagine you write an article and you get an email like Jay’s, saying that you should be ashamed. How do you feel? I can’t know how you would feel of course, so let me tell you how I would feel: I would be irritated if someone wrote to me like that. And I wouldn’t find them very credible. I feel the more objective a criticism is, the more intelligent and credible a person and their criticism will seem, and the more I will take it to heart. If I get criticism from people who do nothing but criticize, I am much more likely to throw it aside. I think it is also important to not come over as too “animal rights activisty”. We want to avoid the “oh no, another activist/vegan criticizing me – dismissed.”

As for the last paragraph, which talks about “redeeming”, “doing the right thing”, and history “remembering him kindly”: if we write like this, is it any wonder vegans are often described as judgmental and holier-than-thou?

Also, in case you believe that this style of rather blunt and harsh criticism would work for you, keep in mind that you may not necessarily have the same attitude regarding criticism, guilt, shaming… as other people. I think many of us in the animal rights movement are much more prone to feelings of guilt than the average population.

Someone commented that sometimes strong language is necessary. Someone else said that Jay’s purpose was to update the author’s views. Yes, I agree. But we need him to be receptive for that. He needs to be open hearted and open minded. And how do we get them in that state? I suggest it is not by saying he should be ashamed. Human psychology is a complicated thing.

Someone else thanked Jay for “boldly speaking his mind”. And I think here we touch the heart of the matter. People seem to find something of value in “boldly speaking one’s mind”. What is it exactly in that that is valuable or recommendable? Is boldness, or courage, something that is interesting in and of itself? To think about it like that seems to me something medieval, which I associate with brave nights, or Vikings, or maybe for war situations, where you have to be bold. And I can understand the value of boldness when speaking out against oppressed regimes etc. But what other than that, in our context, I don’t see that boldness, being straight to the point, saying stuff without any fear of being whatever’d, has value in and of itself. The value is rather in the possible effect this message, or this boldness, has.

Of course, people differ. What I’ve written here probably doesn’t apply to everybody. Different people will have different reactions to being shamed or guilt tripped. Some may be attracted by bolder and fiercer language. Still, my common sense and intuition (and I assume research too, although I haven’t looked into it) say that people will be more likely to take something to heartif you approach them in a nice way rather than an accusatory or shaming way.

So here is my suggestion.

Dear Mr Bunge,

I read your article “How to satisfy the world’s surging appetite for meat” with great interest and it contained valuable information about modern animal agricultural practices. I certainly do agree that a lot of research and innovation are in order if we want to keep feeding a growing population.

I have serious doubts, however, about achieving this by further intensification of animal farming, which I think raises a lot of ethical questions. To be honest, I think your article lacked that kind of perspective, and was a rather uncritical. We can ask the question if we have to, want to, and can satisfy the world’s growing appetite for meat. You hardly mentioned any alternatives, and also didn’t seem to think that alternatives to raising chickens or other animals for food are in order at all. You also hardly mentioned the living conditions of the chickens.

I can certainly understand that you are bound to upholding journalistic objectivity and not letting any personal value judgments slip into your writings. However, I it is not a judgment but a *fact* that chickens have quite miserable lives [I do not write about killing, a more difficult issue]. You can, if you want, leave it to your readers to judge to what extent we have to take their suffering into account, but I think it would have been pertinent to at least mention it.

I hope you will do an article about the other side of this interesting topic. It deserves to be treated from every possible angle.

Thanks for taking this into consideration

Tobias Leenaert

Again, your comments are welcome, as undoubtedly this can be much improved upon still. Or maybe you believe that shaming and angry letters can have some use too? Let me know in the comments.

PS If you want to read an imho more interesting text by Jay, read Standing up to the Left on Animal Rights.

20 thoughts on “The art of constructive criticism

  1. Excellent. Your tips are helpful, and the revision is persuasive and respectful. However, I would like to add a positive criticism to your letter. You mention that it is a fact that chickens have miserable lives. I would potentially revise that to something describing how their lives are miserable: “However, the conditions in which chickens are raised violate basic standards of animal welfare and compromise our values as a society. Overcrowding, disease, and filth are widespread, and common agricultural practices include burning off the chickens’ beaks without painkillers and rough handling during transportation, resulting in broken bones and other injuries. Meat alternatives provide a more humane way for our growing population to get protein without compromising our values.” It may have been from you (or Mikael), but I’ve heard that it’s always helpful to describe specific practices, which can evoke images and emotions even more strongly than adjectives (like “miserable”). What do you think?

  2. Much better your way Tobias 🙂
    I think we can’t expect nothing from someone we attack. Moreover when there is no real call to action.
    It is better to be open to the discussion and express kindly your views, even (especially?) when you disagree with the other one.
    About your letter, I may probably have added that he seemed to like interviewing a lot of people to provide accurate content about the subject and that you are available to answer some questions about a different point of view that was missing in the article.

  3. Nicely done Tobias, and excellent advice. Something you do in your letter, but haven’t mentioned explicitly in your tips is to establish common ground (similar to complimenting, I suppose). There’s a sales mantra I heard once that went, “People listen to people they like. But people buy from people like them.” So I always try to start a response/critique by showing the recipient that we have something in common. Like you’ve done in the letter, “I agree that X” is how I usually do this.

    A few other techniques I find very helpful when giving feedback, or encouraging someone to see a different point of view are the compliment sandwich; and feel felt found:

    1. thx for these ideas!
      (re the quote “people listen to people they like. but people buy from people like them: i would change the BUT to an AND, as there is no controduction i think)
      i like the sandwich idea and i’ll read the article, thx!

      1. Good point Tobias!. I find it really usefull to avoid a “but” word as often as possible. As my communication mentor and NVC trainer Miki Kashtan writes in her book “Spinning threads of radical aliveness” – “Essentially, what happens conversationally when a “but” shows up in someone’s speech is that everything that preceded it gets erased from the other person’s radar screen. I have often told people that they may as well throw out all the words that come before their “but” because in any event the other person won’t hear them”.
        Anyway great article and I really like your interpretation. A nonviolent way of communication is also very effective way of communication 🙂

  4. Tobias, GREAT reflection on more effective ways to advocate and speak to people. You established a respect for the other, repeating what resonated with you, provided concrete arguments, and remained objective. The only thing I recommend is providing URLs to links where the author could follow up and learn about the things you mentioned.

  5. Tobias, yes, I feel your response was the better of the two. Thanks for reminding me of this important consideration when advocating for animals.

  6. How do you all feel about the use of the word “alternative”? For me it evokes associations with all sorts of things that don’t work (like “alternative medicine”), so I don’t like to see it applied to things that I hope so dearly will work lest the interlocutor have the same associations. Is it just me or do others have these associations too?

    1. yeah, it may not be the most ideal term. but maybe it’s one that we can use temporarily. it may not have the best connotation, but on the other hand it seems to be clear, and better than for instance substitute?
      alternative can also be used in a more neutral sense (e.g. linux is an alternative to windows)

  7. You mentioned a few times that you think “many of us in the animal rights movement are much more prone to feelings of guilt than the average population.” Is that a hypothesis from your experience or have you found studies that validate it? In the latter case I’d like to cite those in my thesis. Thanks!

      1. Oh yes, that’s an interesting article! It makes me wonder how much vegan outreach is more directly motivated by the need to feel understood rather than directly helping animals, and how vegan and animal interests could be better aligned in this regard.

        When I want to be understood, I’ll focus much more on the slightest forms of animals abuse as well as the worst to make them see the sheer magnitude of the moral outrage. (For example, few people would endorse the raising of human children for food even if they’re given a great childhood in a locked resort with food, schools, libraries, socialization, etc. before they’re “harvested” at age 16 or so.) In that mode of thinking moral offsetting with donations, replacing chicken with beef, creating more tasty plant-based and cultured products is all very unintuitive or seemingly pointless.

        Maybe there’s some elegant reconceptualization of the problem that could solve that, like as natural disaster. No one would feel the need for a natural disaster to understand the damage causes us before averting it. Maybe vegans need to identify even more with farmed animals and even less with nonvegans. ^^

        In one of my darker hours, a Rob Wiblin consoled me saying “Also appreciate that humans are just monkeys that evolved a bit differently. You wouldn’t be shocked if a chimpanzee didn’t care about monkeys in another continent, so it’s not so shocking humans find it hard to generalise their empathy either.” Going another step further, even deontologists would have no moral qualms “instrumentalizing” the water of a flood by diverting it to a flood plain rather than only trying to hold it back with a dike. Similarly vegans could come see nonvegans as a natural disaster that nonhuman animals must be protected from, and suddenly vegan and animal interests would be much better aligned.

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