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.

Dear omnivore

Vegans are people too, and people like to understand and want to be understood. Here’s a few lines about how some vegans think and feel. May it contribute to illumination and clarification 🙂

Dear omnivore,

We vegans (I should actually just speak for myself) undoubtedly get on your nerves at times. We bother you with our preaching, we are not always willing to eat the things that you serve us, we are quite difficult when visiting restaurants together, we slow down everything when we want to read labels, we may react socially inappropriate at times, and occasionally we even might make you feel guilty.
So, I’m sorry about all that. But please know, dear omnivore, that being a vegan in a carnivorous world is not always easy, and allow me to give you a small glimpse inside the mind of at least one vegan.

When I say a vegan life is not always simple, I’m not talking about the thousands of times we have to answer the same questions (what do you actually eat? Where do you get your protein?). Nor am I talking about having to read labels, or about restaurant staff that do not know what we eat or not eat. No, these kind of things I consider to be the pleasures of being a vegan, so to speak.heart

I am talking about something completely different. It’s something I cannot easily express. It’s about a combination of helplessness and incomprehension. Helplessness in the face of so much animal suffering, and incomprehension and astonishment at the fact that it is not getting addressed and eradicated, or even perceived as such.

These frustrations, you may say, are not the privilege of vegans, and you may be right. But still, it is different in this area than others. For the problem of the endless suffering of animals by human hands, there is a solution which is actually quite feasible: it would just mean that all of us start eating only delicious vegan food instead of dead animals. When you consider this on a global scale, at the level of all humanity, this solution seems to be (at least in short term) not quite realistic. But at individual level, it surely is possible, in theory, for everyone to join.

And then you (I mean me now, the vegan), start thinking and chewing your thoughts, over and over again. You realize that even if the solution is simple, ultimately it is not happening, and people do not participate, they continue to eat meat. And you wonder why. You wonder whether you may be seeing things that are not there. You ask yourself if you are hyper-sensitive or overly sentimental. You consider that you are maybe an alien, or just downright crazy. You tell yourself that it cannot be as bad as it looks, that there must be some justice behind it all. Karma perhaps. But that doesn’t convince you. And again you try to find out what it actually is that you dislike so much and whether it is actually so awful as you think. And you keep on coming back to the same conclusion: yes, what happens *is* horrible. Sixty billion animals every year that lead a miserably short life, because we humans find their meat tasty. That’s actually all that is going on.

And you wonder why it does not stop and since it is not stopping you ask what you can or should do to make it stop. You try some things here and there, but it is never enough and you can see change but it is very slow. And above all: there seems to be no way to explain it to the people who don’t see it. You can not even show them any pictures or videos because they do not want to watch them. They tell you all the things you tell them are just exceptions and that in the end it is not all bad. And you’re considered to be adhering to a new religion, or you have simply made another choice than they did. And you try to explain that it is *not* just a matter of taste or preference. That eating meat or not eating meat is not a matter of painting the living room in yellow or in green. Because by now you are convinced that not eating animals is not only a compassionate but also a very rational thing to do. How can it be so difficult, you think, to see that we should avoid inflicting pain and suffering and killing where we can easily avoid it? But the others don’t understand, and so you try every possible way to explain. You appeal to moral philosophy, to arguments about the environment and health, you cook, you let people taste, and you hope that you have some effect, drop by drop.

And you can see that in almost everyone’s case, all that is needed to understand and feel, is already there. You can see that most people love their cat or their dog, you see that they really cannot cope with animal cruelty. Similarly they are not convinced anymore that eating animals is required to be healthy. And yet all the time they tell you that what you are saying is not exactly right, or it is inconsistent, or not feasible, or naive, or not important compared to all the human suffering in the world.

And through all this thinking and talking and discussing, you constantly need to be careful not to seem arrogant. The deadly sin here is to appear as one who thinks he is better than the rest, a moralist who tells other people what to do. You must pay attention that you do not condemn others for what they eat – something which is very difficult because the other very often already feels condemned by your mere presence as a vegan. And you must be careful that you do not look like someone who hates, because actually you do not hate (although at times you may become a bit more aggressive, intolerant or judgemental, like every human being). You just can not understand, even though you try so hard.
And of course you must look healthy all the time and can never be sick, because that would be the fault of your diet.

Fortunately, dear omnivore, it is not all doom and gloom in our heads, and there are a few things that make it a little easier. Unlike what you may think, we do enjoy life and the food we eat – many of us discovered the joys of cooking and eating only after having said goodbye to meat and fish. And we definitely can see changes around us, faster and faster. And in our neighborhood and all over the world there are people who feel the same and fight the same fight. If we are crazy, surely we are not alone. We strive together for Something Completely Different.

Personally, what helps me the most is the realization, over and over again, that I myself was eating animals for a long time past the point that I realized I shouldn’t do it. In a way, I am grateful for that. And I am grateful for the fact that I can feel, no matter how inconvenient that may be at times, and that I am vulnerable.

This, dear omnivore, is – very simplified – what is happening daily in my mind. Perhaps in being clear to each other about our feelings, we can find things that unite us and stop talking in terms of me versus you, and may learn to understand each other better.

And to understand is to love, they say.

Thank you for reading


PS: animal suffering is not the only argument for avoiding animal products. Please realize there are many differences among us.