What the response to the Australia Day lamb ad tells us

Recently the Meat and Livestock Association released its annual ‘lamb ad’. This is an advertisement aimed at encouraging the over consumption of lamb on Australia Day, the suggestion being that it is somehow patriotic to eat more lambs.

Now, each year this ad causes a degree of controversy, but mostly any sentiment against it is more rooted in the intent of the ad rather than the content of the ad itself. This remains true in 2016. However this time around there was a short scene that engendered substantial pushback from vegans and others who believe in a more compassionate approach to treating animals as a food product.

The ad is actually moderately humorous if one can ignore its intent, presenting a story in which Australian forces are travelling the globe at the behest of an M-like figure (Lee Lin Chin) to bring Australians in distant places back to Australia to have them celebrate our national day by scoffing lashings of fresh lamb.

The offending scene depicts members of this force wanting to liberate a vegan, found sitting on the floor in his humble abode. On learning he is a vegan, the liberators are shocked and quickly blast his bowl of kale with a flame-thrower. Just to ensure we understand the symbolism, Lee Lin Chin venomously spits the word “vegan” at the viewer.

To many, this was going a step too far. While the device is somewhat absurd, there is nonetheless a dark undertone in that rather than simply saying sorry and leaving our erstwhile vegan to his kale, the liberators feel it necessary to lay waste to his apartment in a bid to eradicate any evidence that he isn’t eating meat. This does carry a suggestion that a violent response to any hint of veganism could be considered a reasonable behaviour, perhaps even quite funny.

Many complained to the Advertising Council; last I heard complaints numbered over 600 and were on track to make this the most complained about advert in recent times. While I myself am not especially offended by the ad content in that sense, I can certainly see what those who are offended are concerned about.

It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to think of the response were someone to torch a Koran, or an Aboriginal flag. You might say that’s a ridiculous parallel as these are far more meaningful and of greater import. Well, yes, to an extent. But the bowl of kale was used in a symbolic sense – it represented the entire notion of veganism – and the scene itself is a metaphor for how ‘normal’ society should marginalise, abuse, indeed ‘flame’ those who choose to be vegan. Veganism is a philosophy, not a simple choice of diet, and therefore is a belief system. To symbolically demolish a belief system in that way IS indeed a form of abuse, it IS discriminatory.

Still, that is largely a matter of personal judgement I think. Plenty of people would have found the ad funny and not read anything much at all into that scene beyond its comedic value. What I am more interested in is the reactions that played out on social media, and in the media itself.

Simply put, anyone not a vegan or sympathetic to veganism appears to have completely missed the point and focused instead on some supposed humorless, self scourging stereotype. Typically comments sought to disparage vegans and verbally harass and bully any who spoke up in defence either of the philosophy itself or the simple notion of choosing kindness rather than self-interest. I engaged with many people via Facebook, particularly on the Channel 7 Sunrise program’s page. Almost without fail, those people who are not vegans were aggressive, dismissive, insulting and in some cases downright bullying.

I saw comments – comments that were hurtful and hateful, clearly intended as put downs – directed at people who had done little more than suggest that others should reconsider their food choices so as to spare so many animals from unnecessary suffering. I know of at least one woman who was told she needed “a good root and some protein”. All the ugliness of human nature was on display in spades.

Now this doesn’t surprise me – I’ve seen it before many times. I was heartened though by the sheer number of people willing to get on social media and declare their support for a more compassionate approach to food choices. Sure they were vastly outnumbered but to my mind there is now a significant percentage of the community thinking more about what our society is doing to animals in the name of pleasure and money. The Daily Telegraph ran a poll, and although these things are notoriously¬†unreliable as serious barometers of public opinion, they do carry some generally indicative weight. While the Murdoch press has trumpeted the results as evidence of the overwhelming support for the ad, I’d suggest that the consistant 20% or thereabouts vote against the advertisement – in a conservative tabloid – speaks volumes.

Now, if this were all that we saw, I’d be disappointed but not greatly concerned. However, there was another dimension to this controversy that I think should be noted. And that is the active and unashamed vituperation of vegans and what they stand for by mainstream media. Channel 7 seems to have led the charge, though I admit to not closely examining all media outlets. There’s no doubt the Murdoch press openly dismissed vegan sentiment about the ad, and even the ABC wasn’t backward in offering a dismissive tone in its reporting.

But Channel 7 through its Sunrise program stands out for its remarkable stance of encouraging the marginalisation of people who, it seems, had committed the outrageous sin of suggesting that just maybe the prolific consumption of meat for pleasure results in unnecessary cruelty and harm to innocent animals. Let’s say that again. The people in our community who speak up for the voiceless, for perhaps the most oppressed creatures on the planet – our food animals – are considered by Channel 7 to be the deserving subjects of merciless criticism and parody.

The bumbling Sam Kekovich was wheeled out in a segment on Sunrise commenting about the complaints and was encouraged by the hosts to hold forth in spectacularly boorish fashion. In a several minutes long tirade, he suggested that vegans are devious and treacherous, perpetually hungry, unable to attract a partner, angry, and in dire need of a good lamb chop. Oblivious to the fact that many vegans feel very strongly about their philosophy, the overweight Sam held up a lamb chop and invited vegans to try one so that their “life will change”. Kochie and Edwina laughed hysterically throughout, supporting Channel 7’s clear objective of showing vegans as people deserving of whatever discriminatory abuse and labelling might be sent their way.

Now, I’m sure that the same people who stridently argue that the advertisement itself is just a bit of harmless fun would equally defend Sunrise’s piece as just harmless Aussie larrikinism. But I wonder how the community might react were say Andrew Bolt to feature such an interview dismissing the ideas and feelings of people engaged in other Australian social activism, for example standing for refugees or against domestic violence? I’d suggest the reaction would be quite different.

In this whole sad affair we cannot help but notice that at the heart of it all is not the question of whether vegans are right or wrong, but rather that an entire sector of our society that believes and fights for an idea which on every possible interpretation is about reducing human impacts on the natural world, that argues for an informed and compassionate approach to modern living, is considered a legitimate target for condescension. Our community is actively encouraged to reject not just the idea, but the people themselves.

What the controversy and in particular Channel 7’s efforts have shown unequivocally is that in modern Australia, to stand against a societal norm for noble reasons is worthy not of praise but derision when that norm is held by the gatekeepers of public opinion themselves.

It shows that vilification and discrimination, so actively denounced by social reformists and government bodies everywhere, is actually fine when it comes to asking Australia to think twice about how much harm to animals is acceptable in our community.

Australia has spoken – care, compassion and nobility of spirit is off limits when we apply those qualities to other species.

Thank you Australia, you make me proud.