Language and Messaging in Hunting Conversations
Ideas are given meaning in context and this meaning is expressed through language. We tend to better understand new information by situating it in our own lived experiences. For me, sometimes this happens more unconsciously as simply a way to make sense of what I’m taking in; other times, I come across something that clearly has direct applications to my own priorities and interests. I recently came across a study that has the potential to help us more meaningfully engage with the public and change the way people respond to hunting by actively selecting the language and messaging we use.
As a preface to this post, I should comment on two things. First, I believe that language is a powerful tool that can be used to either productively advance our priorities or completely squander opportunities to create understanding. The development of language in the history of human evolution was quite the turning point for our species. Our languages embody and express our worldviews – our understandings of the world that give meaning to our experiences and the phenomena we encounter. Language is not just an objective and technical representation of the world; rather, different cultures understand the world differently, and language is inextricably bound with this understanding. The role of language in framing our ideas and therefore its importance in genuine communication cannot be understated.
A second prefacing point has to do with something that, while perhaps an understandable symptom of highly emotional issues like hunting, is becoming increasingly frustrating to me. It’s a defensive sentiment that produces one outcome: it stalls conversations and prevents mutual understanding. Too often, the conscientious among us who suggest we should carefully frame our discussions with non-hunters are accused of “pandering” or being “politically correct”. These narrow-minded accusations seem to imply that wanting to represent hunting in a way that reflects the respect we have for it somehow makes us weak, sensitive, or overly “liberal”. This is ridiculous. I challenge anyone to find me a time when any interest group (hunters, anti-hunters, etc.) has taken an uncompromising stance in a conversation and come out of that encounter having advanced their interests in any way. This response teems with arrogance and ignorance, and it’s not helpful.
I recently had the opportunity to have one of my pieces about our choice of language published as part of an essay series on the Meat Eater website. I had some very positive responses from people about that piece, and I also heard some of the responses I just mentioned above. In any case, it got me thinking more about this idea, and I came across a paper that I think compliments this broader discussion.
In a recent paper titled “Red, white, and blue enough to be green: Effects of moral framing on climate change attitudes and conservation behaviors” published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers from Oregon State University examined the way different audiences respond to information about climate change. The study found that the “moral framing” of climate change information changed how people of different political ideologies responded to the messaging. In particular, conservatives (typically a group resistant to climate change messaging) responded more favourably when the messages were bound in moral frames and suggested that protecting the environment “was a matter of obeying authority, defending nature and demonstrating patriotism” rather than it being about environmental justice or equality.
In addition, both conservatives and liberals were more likely to respond favourably when they perceived that the messages had come from people with similar political ideologies to themselves – they were more likely to believe people when they already had something in common with them. The study also found that it isn’t only attitudes that change depending on the framing of the messaging. Individuals were more likely to change their behaviour when they perceived that the messages both reflected their values and came from people who shared those values.
So our ideologies play an important role in influencing our acceptance or rejection of information, including matters that are largely seen as scientific fact (and yes, 99% of the scientific community agrees that climate change is real and is happening, so let’s get that out of the way). This suggests that it is not simply a battery of hard facts that will convince others of our viewpoints or opinions. We need to take a much more carefully constructed and strategic approach in our interactions.
My immediate thought was that this study has fascination implications for how we approach hunting advocacy, whether it be in one-on-one conversations or at larger political levels. The study’s findings tell me that it does matter how we frame our arguments and opinions. The findings also tell me that shifting our approach to match our audience is not pandering, it’s making a choice to be positive and effective ambassadors of hunting.
For us as hunters, this means that we can’t only preach to the choir. We need to be speaking with non-hunters too. The non-hunting voting majority has the ability to influence laws that affect hunting and conservation, and it is non-hunters who are going to be best situated to influence other non-hunters. In other words, we need allies to make allies. We need to engage with a variety of perspectives and priorities related to conservation, so that we can actively cultivate hunting supporters. To do this, we should focus on aspects of hunting that are most likely to be well received by our audiences, those aspects that will have a point of reference in their own lives. I think that the moral and ethical foundations of hunting, and the successful history of harvest-based conservation policies in North America, provide us with a wide enough variety of strong points for these discussions that it should be easy enough for us to shift our approach as appropriate.
One way to start putting these ideas into action is to be attentive to the motivations of our audiences. If someone expresses that they are motivated by the desire to maintain healthy wildlife populations, we can explain how hunting does this through effective population management. If someone tells you that they are motivated by concerns for animal welfare, we have an opportunity to explain that hunting organizations have been critical in habitat protection and that hunting can help reduce human-wildlife conflicts. If someone else is motivated by personal nutrition, we can cite the multitudes of nutritional benefits in eating wild game. There are many ways that we can appropriately respond to a wide range of audiences and we owe it to ourselves to think through all of these aspects of the discussion and be constructive in our approach.
The research and understanding is there folks, it’s now up to us to choose to use our knowledge to capitalize on opportunities to be good ambassadors of hunting. Let’s remember how positive hunting is in our own lives and how pivotal it has been in the history of conservation, and ensure that we are representing ourselves in equally positive ways.