Here’s the fifth installment from guest contributor, Sara Franklin, of Roovolution and Rooster Allies. In a time of fast culture where we’ve grown accustomed to being stimulated at lightning speed be prepared for a long read. Sara, like me, loves to teach and once we’ve got a ‘captive’ audience want to make the most of the opportunity. I hope you’ll appreciate her insights into the growing polarization of North American society and how that plays out in the chicken world. We all profess to love our birds so let’s work together to uplift both them and ourselves.
We live in a highly polarized time. In many areas, progress seems to be at a standstill, and the rift between sides of nearly every issue grows wider by the day. As a new chicken keeper, one of the first things I did was join multiple online backyard chicken communities. My aim was to educate myself on care, issues I might encounter, and best practices. I was utterly unprepared for the amount of controversy, division, and animosity that I would see on display on a daily basis.
If you have spent any time on chicken groups or forums, you have likely experienced this reality as well. As in so many other communities these days, there are very clear ‘sides’ with radically different opinions and beliefs about what our role should be as caregivers, what constitutes responsible and humane treatment, and where a chicken’s ‘value’ lies.
Once kept only as a resource, the humble chicken has been catapulted to pet category for many in recent years, and this development has thrust individuals from radically opposite ends of the spectrum into the same arena. With the traditionally minded keeper making up such a large percentage of the group, it is no surprise that any activism efforts made by the ‘other side’ do not tend to land well.
This, in and of itself, isn’t surprising, and could easily be dismissed as being the result of the wrong audience for that particular message. What I have been shocked by, however, is just how often any compassionate sentiment is met with mockery, judgment, and ridicule. Even new keepers who join these communities often feel the need to preface their posts with “Please be nice, I am new to chickens.” That is how common unkind responses are within the community. Just what on earth is going on here, and more importantly, what can be done about it?
Mind Over Data
In order to communicate effectively with someone on any subject, it is crucial to understand the psychology of the individual we are attempting to reach. We must ‘know our audience’, but more importantly we must know our audience’s biases, filters, and the subconscious responses that our words and actions will generate in the listener. Failing to do this is akin to walking through a minefield blindfolded as we are sure to set something off. The human brain is anything but straightforward, but there are a few known features of human reasoning that are likely to crop up and create difficulty if we do not take steps to navigate appropriately. Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail so that we can remove the blindfold and prepare to safely navigate the ‘mind-field’ of those we hope to influence.
The Backfire Effect
Have you ever attempted to offer someone new data on a subject, only to be met with a doubling down and even stronger allegiance to the original mistaken perception? It can be baffling to encounter, but this is actually an incredibly common phenomenon. Dubbed the backfire effect, it is thought by psychologists to be a means of preserving one’s self-concept. From a scientific standpoint, all living organisms depend heavily on their environment remaining predictable and stable in order to thrive. We have a deep-seated need to understand how to respond to the world around us, and it is a natural and beneficial survival instinct when applied appropriately. Unfortunately, the brain is not always effective at separating those situations that are life threatening from those that are matters of preference or opinion. Our minds take a far broader approach and treat our identity as something that must remain stable as well.
Nobody intentionally falls victim to harmful views. When we set off down an incorrect path, we do so with the sincere belief that it is right. Because we identify with our beliefs, values, and choices, they become incorporated into our self-image. You would be hard-pressed to find an individual who does not hold the belief that they are a good, responsible, and consistent person. As we begin to recognize potential problems with our past beliefs or decisions, we are faced with a dilemma.
The bad logic goes something like this: ‘I am a good person who makes good decisions. If my decision was wrong, I must be wrong about myself as well.’ For some, this conclusion is unbearable, and they will feel a need to preserve their perception of themselves at any cost. In order for self-image to remain stable and correct in this situation, the new data must be made wrong.
Remember, we are naturally geared towards viewing our own consistency as crucial for our survival. The truth of course, is that we all change over time, and this should be embraced rather than feared. Sadly, because of this instinct, an attack launched at a view a person holds will, in many cases, be responded to as an attack against the individual themselves.
It can be incredibly uncomfortable to be faced with inconsistencies between our professed values or self-image and our actions. The inner turmoil that results when we realize our views do not align with the facts of reality is referred to as cognitive dissonance, and it is known to drive us to engage in all manner of mental gymnastics in an attempt to alleviate the uneasiness it generates. The simplest solution is to simply gloss over the things we are doing that are contrary to our values. However, this solution is ripped away the moment we find ourselves needing to defend our inconsistent actions to others. This can easily drive us to create irrational justifications or rationalizations in order to restore a sense of consistency and protect our self-image.
To illustrate this effect, I will offer a couple of examples from the chicken community that come up regularly. While large-scale farmers are quick to take the stance that the chickens they raise are a resource and nothing more, backyard farmers will often report that they love their birds. These same keepers will also willingly process their birds for meat. When questioned about this seeming contradiction, the response is often “I give them a wonderful life, and just one bad day.” To those of us who love our hens like the family dog, the issue is clearly with the one bad day and the fact that it occurred at the hands of their guardian, who could have spared them it but chose not to. It seems likely that this justification has been constructed to allow them to benefit personally but alleviate their guilt over doing so.
Another example is the pride many keepers demonstrate in killing predators, often posting graphic photos of the victim, which are always met with vocal praise. When a flock is attacked by a neighborhood dog, the recommendation is overwhelmingly to ‘take care of them’ for good. They argue that their hand has been forced, and rationalize these actions by claiming that they are showing kindness and responsibility by protecting their birds. Arguments that the predator was only acting naturally fall on deaf ears, and in the case of dogs the retort is always that the owner should have kept better control of them.
This might seem like a reasonable view at first glance, but what is telling is the lack of focus on the keeper’s own responsibility to protect against and account for natural and predictable hazards. Also ignored is whether there was a more ethical way to handle the issue that should have been utilized instead. It might be necessary to call animal control if a dog is being allowed to run loose, but it is never necessary to shoot them. Though there are cases in which the keeper truly has been left with no good options, it is far more common to see these posts from individuals who have set out an easy meal, but are happy to kill a wild animal for even attempting to take the bait.
The Bandwagon Effect
As social animals, we have an incredibly strong tendency to seek acceptance and approval from others of our species. The bandwagon effect is most often referenced with a tone of criticism, but the truth is that this behavior is also a side effect of a deeply ingrained human need that was once crucial for our survival. Not that far back in history, we existed in a much more tribal system. We relied on others in our group for protection, healing, support and sustenance. A member of a human tribe who went against the flow or rocked the boat would quickly be ostracized.
Following the crowd was, quite literally, a matter of life or death. In our modern consumer society, agreeing with those around you is no longer the sort of necessity it once was, but this is a deeply ingrained instinct that tends to persist regardless of whether there is a need for it anymore. The result is that the most prevalent voices in the community tend to drive others to accept their views, often based on little more than a perceived strength (and safety) in numbers.
This is seen in social interaction in the chicken community in two interesting ways. One is the tendency of traditionally minded keepers to band together to attack those who think differently. The other is the tendency for those who hold the more compassionate view to feel the need to keep silent about it. It should be clear that this effect takes a terrible toll on progress and perpetuates the exact kinds of out-dated echo chambers that we should be trying to crawl out of.
My personal observation has been that those who are most comfortable ‘rocking the boat’ have also rejected the pursuit of acceptance by others. I was surprised at first to find that the vast majority of like-minded activists I am in contact with are self-described loners, who hold a dim view of human relationships. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense. They are not governed by the desire to bandwagon because they have no fear of social rejection. Having rejected the ‘tribe’ themselves, they are no longer swayed by this fear of loss.
The Glorification of Tradition
It is no secret that the farming community, perhaps more than any other, has a long and proud history firmly rooted in tradition. There is a cultural identity, so to speak, and this can be threatened by new methods just as easily as personal identity can be. Something that I have been disheartened by for quite some time is the glorification of often inhumane, but traditional, approaches to chicken keeping. When it comes to medical treatments, many keepers vehemently espouse methods that have either been proven ineffective, or have simply been proven less effective than safer and more humane treatments that are now available.
Often the attempt to highlight dangers or problems with these recommendations will be met with ‘it’s been done that way for ages.’ There is a clear disinterest in researching further, or entertaining a better way. I regularly see posts from people asking how to improve their relationship with a rooster who has recently become defensive. These are always followed by a myriad of replies suggesting ‘freezer camp’, ‘stew pot’ or some equally useless and uninspired quip. This happens even when the questioner makes it abundantly clear that the rooster is a pet, or that they are unwilling to re-home or cull. There is, once again, a clear unwillingness to consider a new perspective, and the response can verge on malicious.
These individuals must know they are not contributing anything helpful, so what are they gaining from this? What is happening here is that their identity has been challenged. Though in these cases the person posing the question did not seek to offend or judge, they have nonetheless spurred the respondents into questioning (and perhaps judging) themselves. Those individuals making the unhelpful comments are the ones who adhere to older views, but also view themselves as sensible, decent, and well informed. They have put their trust in tradition, and doing things that way has become part of their identity as well. Unfortunately, tradition has a very serious problem. Apart from being outdated and even harmful in many cases, it relies on the rejection of progress in order to be preserved.
Tradition is, quite literally, the absence of progress and improvement. When someone expresses a more compassionate or forward thinking approach than has traditionally been used, it forces the tradition crowd to contrast their own method and stance. If their approach is found lacking, their self-concept is at risk of being compromised. So we see the same response, the progressive view must be ridiculed and dismissed so that identity can be maintained. There is a bizarre pride in doing things callously that comes up time and time again, but it is not the compassion being ridiculed or rejected, this is the result of cherished tradition being deeply entangled with lack of empathy or concern.
The Depolarization Process
We are clearly up against quite a lot if we desire to change anything for the better, not just in the poultry world, but also in the world at large. The psychological barriers and responses discussed apply to any issue we might face, and they are indisputably strong. So what is a compassionate and progressive individual to do? Well, the good news is that simply understanding what we are up against makes a world of difference, in that it allows us to intelligently tailor our approach.
We will never get rid of these potential pitfalls, they are central to the human mind, but we can construct our approach in a way that bypasses them. Productive dialogue is possible, even when it comes to the most charged issues. The key to doing any lasting good is, and has always been, compassion and acceptance for the human on the other side. I am not speaking of acceptance for what is being done, but for the emotional being behind it. We must first understand that, like the fox in the trap, this aggression and animosity is driven by fear and a sense of danger. You do not ‘get in’ with a frightened or defensive person by openly attacking them, you must first show them love and a path to acceptance into the new group mindset you are inviting them to adopt.
As we have seen, what is really driving all of this is the desire we all have to feel like we are good people and be accepted. It is critical to speak and educate in a way that does not judge. As soon as we openly criticize we are put into the category of enemy and those on the other side will be pushed away despite our best intentions and efforts. Polarization refers to the human tendency to be repelled by anything we view as opposed to the things we currently identify with. As good as it might feel to get on a soapbox and preach to people, it will invariably push them deeper into their own side. It will never bring them over to ours. So as counterintuitive as it seems, we must first find a way to show them we are the same.
I often start dialogues with ‘When I started out I had no idea about this, but have since learned…’, or ‘I would hate to see you make the mistake I made.’ It’s deliberately subtle, but this is a means of lowering defenses by first putting myself in the same boat I am about to point out that they are in. By presenting myself as an imperfect human (which I am) and by expressing concern for their outcome, I not only show them acceptance, but also set the example that it is alright to make a mistake, or to be unaware of something. This invites them to recognize that mistakes are not character flaws, just valuable learning opportunities that we will emerge from intact and improved. Strong and conflicting beliefs can blind us to it, but we really are all more similar than we are different. Believe me when I say that I understand how hard it can be to look past the behavior and words being spoken, but it is the only thing that opens that door.
I regularly see compassionate keepers left heartbroken by the apathy and aggression they encounter, or intimidated out of speaking up entirely thanks to the bandwagon effect and the fear of social rejection. If you have ever found yourself in a similar situation, I hope that this article can offer a better understanding of what is really going on. The problem is not with you, it is not with what you advocate for, and it is simply the result of the human mind being programmed to rail against the new or radical.
My sincere plea to others who find themselves facing these challenges in the attempt to bring about change is to remain calm and compassionate, remember what is happening behind the scenes, and feel empowered to say what needs to be said from a place of love. Remember that the fear of rejection is often misplaced.
In my experience, forging ahead in pursuit of truth (when done right) is met with relief and support by the countless others who wanted to say the same thing but were too afraid to be the first. I have made myself the lone voice of disagreement many times, and have been met with overwhelming support every time. It has never resulted in conflict or battle and I have been able to inspire many others to give a new and better approach a chance. With practice, and a bit of patience, I can assure that you will find these roadblocks lifted and your message getting across with more impact than you could have ever imagined.
Sara Franklin is a mother of two and a lifelong animal lover. Since she was a child, she has been fascinated by behavioral psychology and its applications. In college, her studies were tailored around subjects such as child development, early education, philosophy, psychology and critical thinking. As a firm believer that understanding was key to navigating the challenges of parenthood, she often joked that she was studying to “be a mom.” When she set off on her chicken keeping journey, it was only natural to approach it from this same perspective. It quickly became clear how heavily simple tradition, rather than analysis, guided discussion. She has since developed a psychology rooted system for effectively and compassionately working through challenging behaviors in flocks, with a special focus on rooster care. An outspoken advocate, she now volunteers her time educating and coaching other keepers in order to foster healthier relationships between chickens and their guardians.