Three Things Sean Hannity's Assault on Vegans Can Teach Us About Advocacy

When confronted with animal-hating bullies such as Sean Hannity, we are often told that we should be respectful and deferential. That advice is dead wrong. 

When confronted with animal-hating bullies such as Sean Hannity, we are often told that we should be respectful and deferential. That advice is dead wrong. 

Three Things Sean Hannity's Assault on Vegans Can Teach Us About Advocacy

by Wayne Hsiung

As the California legislature was considering a ban on captive orcas, Fox News brought in a former Sea World trainer and PETA spokesperson Lisa Lange to debate the issue. What started out as a respectful declaration of views, however, quickly becomes outright bullying, as Hannity (in usual Hannity style) shifts the debate to PETA's views on the consumption of animal products, and berates Lisa for her perceived failure to answer the question. See the video here

Hannity's debate style was a classic "ad hominem" strategy. Latin for "to the person", an ad hominem argument attempts to undermine a person's argument by undermining the person. By showing that animal rights activists are "crazies," due to their "ridiculous" opposition to killing animals for food, Hannity hopes to incite his audience against them even on issues where they might have some sympathy, e.g. the orca bill. While Lange does an admirable job of trying to deflect and reframe Hannity's criticisms -- shifting the discussion away from consumption to cruelty, as we at DxE always try to do -- the viewer is still left with the perception that Hannity has won. The animal rights position is weak, or crazy, or inconsistent, and one can almost imagine the average Fox News viewer saying to themselves, "Right on, Hannity! I'm not one of those people." 

The good news about the Hannity debate is that even our most irrational opponents can see the obvious intersections between abuse of orcas and other animals. Hannity and his viewers ask themselves, "Well, if we are going to help orcas, shouldn't we help pigs, cows, and rats, too?" The bad news is that, since these less charismatic species do not appeal to public sentiments, our opposition to their mistreatment is used against us as advocates -- but not because of the logic of our position (which is quite straightforward) but because it tarnishes us personally as "crazies." 

What is one to do in response to such "ad hominem" attacks? Well there are a few lessons I think we can learn from research into litigation (by anthropologists at Duke)-- a domain where professionals have fought out arguments for millennia. 

1. Be controlled and direct rather than reactive and evasive. Body language and tone are key to effective rhetoric. And while it is difficult to maintain one's composure in the face of interruptions and aggressive questioning, it is vital to do so, as one's audience will perceive your reaction as a sign of intellectual weakness. 

Lange, in this video, begins to blink extremely rapidly. Her movements become more tentative. And she appears both evasive (refusing to directly answer the question) and deferential, as she allows Hannity to dominate the framing of the discussion. The Duke research shows that this weakens the persuasive effect of the advocate.

2. Use a plain-spoken narrative style. Hannity tells a very simple story that his viewer's find ridiculous: a world where animal products are illegal. Lange reacts by focusing on "cruelty" in the abstract. While this is a reasonable debate point, it's not effective when viewers have already been emotionally primed against the advocate. "Make my behavior, and almost everyone else's, illegal? That's outrageous!" You can't respond to that with abstraction. 

What research shows, however, is that when you make a case, particularly against a hostile opponent, it's important to use a plain spoken narrative style, i.e. to tell a story. The abstractions of "cruelty" and "consumption" are not emotionally or rhetorically powerful in moving a largely unsympathetic public. But a story of one's personal experience, told in a plain spoken way, might be.

This is consistent not only with decades of experience from litigation -- the best trial lawyers are basically wonderful storytellers -- but the preliminary data from DxE's study of graphic images. Perspective shifting images impact attitudes towards animals and animal rights significantly more than gory images of violence. We need to get people to see through the animal's eyes, and feel both her joy and her pain  -- not accept the philosophy of animal rights in the abstract, or shrink from gory images of cruelty.

3. Don't be afraid to be assertive, provocative, and even critical in advocating your position. Hannity (and Fox News more generally) shows the power of taking a strong and even hostile position to inspire support for one's position. In many ways, Lange has the worst of both worlds: being perceived as invasive and argumentative (e.g. weakly interrupting Hannity's questioning) while maintaining a near deferential tone and posture. 

President Obama had the same issue in the early debates in 2012. Romney was aggressively attacking his positions -- arguing, for example, that he would take Americans' health care choices away from them -- and Obama was weak in response. He refused to answer Romney's questions directly, and failed to "go on the attack," despite the ammunition that the Romney campaign had left at his feet (e.g. Romney's infamous dismissal of 47% of Americans "who believe they are victims"). 

Obama's strategy was understandable. Polls showed him ahead in the race, and he didn't want to come across as mean spirited or hostile. But his caution was disastrous, as Romney eliminated Obama's 5% lead with his aggressive and strong debate performance. 

We face the same problem in animal advocacy. We are constantly told to be cautious, even deferential, despite the fact that, unlike Obama, we have no lead to preserve. "Good progressives," wise old men tell us, "are always nice and positive!" And our naive caution, like Obama's in 2012, or Lange's in the debate with Hannity, leads to disastrous results. (Contrast this with the powerful effect of a strong message on the growth of the Israeli animal rights movement.) In fact, when Obama finally decided to go on the offensive -- to offer poignant and proactive criticisms, rather than reactive and defensive complaints -- he reclaimed the driver's seat in the presidential race and set himself on the path to ultimate victory. We need to do the same -- to not be afraid to aggressively defend our principles, turn the tables on our opponents, and show that animal abusers, and not us, have the weaker moral and emotional position. 

Summing Up

So if we were to summarize, how should we respond to hostile questions such as Hannity's?

  • Be controlled and direct.
  • Tell a story.
  • Don't be afraid to criticize at a point of weakness. 

Let's put it into words.

Q: Are you against the consumption of all animal products? For example, in your world, people wouldn't eat chicken, they wouldn't eat meat, they wouldn't wear leather belts. Isn't that true? 

A: Great question. Yes, Sean, we are against all violence against animals, as you should be, too. I was with a beautiful little piglet just last week, tickling her nose and playing with her in the grass. And she wanted to be safe from violence as much as any orca or dog. Would you have an orca or dog killed for your amusement, Sean? So what's the difference with a little piglet?