It was an honor and pleasure to have the opportunity to interview Robert Grillo, director of Free from Harm and the author of recently published Farm to Fable: The Fictions of Our Animal Consuming Culture. The book is essential reading for anyone working with or interested in animal advocacy and also valuable reading for anyone ready and willing to examine the societal and cultural myths that promote consumption of animals.
Farm to Fable: The Fictions of Our Animal-Consuming Culture
(Images provided by Robert Grillo)
Annika: Your book Farm to Fable: The Fictions of our Animal Consuming Culture, was just released last month and already there are scores upon scores of favorable reviews out for it. Do you think one aspect of such a great welcome to your text is that we are at a pinnacle point for truly confronting and deconstructing all these myths surrounding our use (and abuse) of animals?
Robert: I sometimes feel like we are really just on the threshold of confronting the fictions of animal consumption and recognizing how crucial they are in perpetuating that practice. Brands, corporations and social scientists understand this well and have been developing and using it to their advantage for decades, but it seems that the rest of us are now just starting to realize how this all manipulates our decision making and food choices. In fact, this was a big catalyst for writing the book. I felt that there wasn’t enough attention on the issue. In any case, I’m happy to see that this has resonated with some people.
In any case, the fictions of animal consumption are vast and layered and therefore sometimes difficult even for vegans to unravel. For most of us, we peel back one fiction to find another underneath, like peeling back the many layers of an onion. This is why one of the biggest challenges we currently face is debunking certain fictions but then falling prey to still others. One example of this is the process of debunking the fictional narratives of industrial agriculture which conceals its massive scale of suffering under such mantras as “feeding the world” and the superiority of animal protein over plant proteins. Major advocacy groups have coined the phrase “factory farming” to refer to this, but “factory farming” suggests that a non-factory-like, viable alternatives exists. As I write in the book, “As more people become aware of so-called factory farming, the humane movement has emerged as animal agriculture’s key strategy to intercept the conversation and deflect it away from veganism and retain consumers by using a sophisticated set of marketing fictions we collectively call humane-washing. The rhetoric often relies on a classic tale of good and evil, quite literally the Good Shepherd or renegade antiestablishment farmer against the power-hungry, greedy agribusiness industry. Yet, as author Hope Bohanec points out in her article ‘The Humane Hoax,’ ‘The disheartening truth is that . . . the similarities far outweigh the differences. Most of the other horrors a farmed animal endures in animal agriculture still apply to any of these alternative labels.’”i
Annika: You reference to the Matrix really caught my (and I am sure many other readers) mind as shortly after I became vegan I remember thinking that “taking the red pill’ was a truly perfect analogy to the transition and what happens to your awareness and perception. Do you anticipate (or have already observed) your book itself being a red pill for some readers or do you anticipate that most readers will already have been through the trauma of confronting the matrix of human’s abuse and oppression of animals for our use?
Robert: It’s interesting that in the Matrix, the choice of taking the red pill or blue pill is really just one decisive moment in the film from which the protagonist Neo can never return. He is literally thrust into a different reality from that point onward. In the real world, I think the issue is a lot more complicated and less decisive for most people. Most people confront the choice of the red or blue pill several times per day. Perhaps they see one unsettling vegan meme on Facebook that leans them in the direction of taking the red pill, but then, throughout the course of that same day, they are presented with many more appeals to take the blue pill, through the ads and tv shows and media they see. And unlike Neo, most of us are not forced into a situation where we must make this choice. In fact, we have the luxury of denying it, putting it aside for a later time, or never.
My hope is that the book will serve as a more decisive, lasting “red pill” experience rather than just a fleeting moment of questioning. And I hope it will prompt them to question what appears to be “normal” in their everyday lives, to look more critically at what they see in the grocery stores and restaurants, what they see on TV and online. I hope that they might better see how we are being manipulated to make food choices that ultimately betray our core values of kindness, reciprocity and decency.
Annika: Have you received pushback from anywhere on the content and messages of your text?
Robert: I welcome critiques of my book. For me writing is an evolution without any clear end. There are always new and better ways to develop ideas and learn from the insights of readers. Though I wouldn’t necessarily call it pushback, the first person to take a critical look at my book and offer suggestions was the author Carol J. Adams. She was the first to read it long before publication because she agreed to write the foreword. Her input challenged me to improve the book in many important ways for which I am very grateful. Now that the book has been out for a couple of months, I’ve seen some pushback by way of comments that are mostly reflections of the fictions I discuss in the book. I think one of the most challenging fictions to overcome is consent, the idea that animals are willing participants in whatever it is we want to do with them. It is an even harder pill to swallow when we look beyond contemporary times and realize that consent is the flimsy historical pretext behind animal domestication and exploitation since its beginnings. We tend to fantasize about an earlier time when animals were respected and treated well. It is easy to be misled today since many domesticated animals appear not to mind being confined and exploited, but few people realize that this complete submissiveness is a result of centuries of violence, torture and domination in an effort to break the animal’s spirit and will and bend them to our own.
Annika: The in depth deconstructions of all the fables surrounding human consumption and use of animals in your book are so valuable for animal advocacy on all levels. Your book is an essential addition to any animal advocate’s library. What do you see as the main challenges for advocates today, including ethical vegans whose very vocal stance about their lifestyle is a form of activism in itself?
Robert: For animal advocates, I stress two important take-aways from a better understanding of the fictions of animal consumption that can empower our advocacy. The first is that there is an important connection between beliefs and behavior that is sorely overlooked in advocacy today. Most advocacy is focused on behavior change as if behavior exists in a vacuum but it does not. A classic example of this is Meatless Monday. The second is that truth matters. Truth is the basis for establishing trust, relationships, credibility and integrity with our audience. And truth-telling is all the more critical to causes which seek to expose injustices that are intentionally hidden by fictions and lies. In the book I introduce an idea I call truth-centeredness which means fully understanding and communicating three core truths. The first is the truth of the animal’s conscious experience, as best as we can understand it, through careful observation and science. The second is our own true, authentic experience as witnesses and spokespeople for other animals. The third is what I call true empathy, or the ability to see ourselves as the animal victim. When we integrate these truths into our communication and advocacy, we become stronger and more confident voices for those we represent.
Annika: Lastly, concerning your writing process, when did the concept of this book ‘seed’ in your mind and how did you proceed to lay out all the fictions and traditions you would address in your text?
Robert: Farm to Fable is the culmination of years of exploring the fictions of animal consumption from the perspective of a branding and marketing person who has worked behind the scenes to see how these fictions are created and how they function once they’re out there for the public to digest. I realized early on that even vegans were, to varying degrees, under the spell of these fictions and some well-intentioned animal groups even use them in their campaigns.
The first step in the process was to take an inventory of all that I had written over the years and “name” or identify specific fictions. Once I had a laundry list of fictions and case studies, I was then faced with what proved to be the most difficult task: identifying common patterns of thinking across various fictions so that I could then determine how to organize and group them in a way that made most sense to the reader. The final stage in the process was to meet the expectations of more advanced readers by providing them with insights that they would hopefully find valuable to their animal advocacy. This last stage was not part of the original plan for the book, but I realized it was necessary about half way into the project. The most common question I was getting at Farm to Fable presentations was how can I apply a better understanding of these fictions to advocacy?
Thank you Robert Grillo for your time & for contributing this excellent book to the world!