Blackfish and environmental rhetoric… and some bleakness

Blackfish movie posterI finally watched Blackfish last night. I’d been wanting to for a while, but also avoiding it a bit because I tend to have what some would call extreme emotional responses to animals at risk, in pain, or otherwise affected by environmental degradation. My husband, Chris, recently suggested I find a therapist who specializes in environmental-related angst. (Of course, to me, these responses seem perfectly reasonable; I genuinely do not understand how/why others don’t have the same reaction. But that’s another issue entirely.) Case in point: When I watched the beautiful, devastating trailer for Midway, a documentary about the island where albatrosses breed and suffer the consequences of plastic litter, I cried so hard that Chris thought one of my friends or family members had died. Again, this seems like a perfectly reasonable response; see for yourself:

MIDWAY a Message from the Gyre : a short film by Chris Jordan from Midway on Vimeo.

The Cover movie posterI have a particular weakness for marine mammals and particular issues about animals kept in captivity, so when Blackfish came out, I was pleased but wary. I couldn’t help but think of The Cove, a powerful documentary about dolphin slaughter in Japan–that I can’t watch. I just can’t. More on that later. Thankfully, my husband watched Blackfish without me first and reassured me (and himself, I’m sure) that I could handle it. Since I’m increasingly fascinated with environmental rhetoric, I decided to brave it. I’m glad I did, though my eyes are a bit puffy today.

orca mother and calf

Only two scenes resulted in sobbing; both involved baby orcas being taken from their families — once in a brutal hunt/capture in the Puget Sound in 1970, and once within the SeaWorld organization. In each case, the grief of the orcas was palpable, as was the pain and regret expressed by the people who’d been somehow involved in the experience. Though the pathos of these scenes was intense, the majority of the film focused on more dispassionate first-hand accounts by scientists, experts, and, most often, former SeaWorld trainers. The prioritization of their voices was a smart strategy.

Although the film contains apparent messages about the cruelty of keeping orcas in captivity, it was carefully matter-of-fact in its treatment of the consequences for the whales and the people who worked with them. By prioritizing the perspectives of the trainers, the filmmakers kept the focus on specific, eyewitness accounts of the central plot: the history of orca attacks on trainers and the cover-ups engineered by SeaWorld.

One would think that such an emphasis could contribute to a negative view of “killer whales,” but the affection and sympathy displayed by the trainers worked against that. They clearly understood what marine biologists echoed, which was that the unnatural and inhumane treatment suffered by these creatures over decades can only lead to trauma for everyone involved. And that by hiding and denying the stories of the deaths and injuries of numerous trainers, SeaWorld was knowingly putting its workers in danger.

For me, of course, that’s a secondary concern. But for many audiences, I imagine it worked to spark a different kind of outrage about unethical business practices. Whether or not audiences were persuaded that capture and captivity is, in itself, insupportable, they surely recognized that SeaWorld is shady. But will that lead to the kinds of boycotts that would persuade SeaWorld to change its practices? There was a good amount of controversy when the film was released, so at least it was successful in drawing attention to the issue. At least it sparked conversation, which I imagine was the filmmakers’ realistic agenda.

They were careful. As Chris said, they did a good job avoiding polemic. Although their stance was clearly critical, they dialed back the pathos in favor of factual data, expert testimony, and the voices of those traumatized witnesses. And they were all scarred by the many betrayals: how they were deceived, how their colleagues were blamed for “accidents,” and how they contributed to the pain of the orcas they clearly loved. With the best of intentions, they’d signed up to participate in SeaWorld’s exploitation of incredibly sensitive, intelligent mammals for the purposes of entertainment and profit.

crowds at SeaWorld

Little attention was paid to the usual arguments in favor of organizations like SeaWorld — that without these showcases, people would not feel a connection to animals, that they wouldn’t work for their protection. This is the excuse of most parents who don’t want to deprive their children of such opportunities. I wondered about that omission, but I think the focus on the trainers worked toward that message: Their good intentions and their ignorance led to collusion in cruelty — just like the crowds that line up for SeaWorld every day.

orcas in the wild

In that light, the conclusion of the film makes more sense than I originally thought. The final scenes show several of the trainers going on a whale-watching trip, experiencing orcas in their natural habitat. The joy and wonder on their faces spoke to the healing power of that trip, a marked contrast to the sadness and regret they displayed throughout most of the film. The filmmakers’ hope, I suspect, is that audiences might be persuaded that this approach is the “right” one, that appreciation cannot be separated from respect — and that those who buy in to the SeaWorld product would (or should), like these trainers, suffer with the knowledge of their complicity.

That’s my reading, anyway. Of course, whether that message gets out at all depends on whether people actually see the movie. More to the point, it depends on whether audiences who don’t already agree with its messages see the movie. I didn’t need this to learn that SeaWorld is problematic (or downright evil) — but would those who’d really like to watch that orca show actually watch this movie? Perhaps, if that controversy made them curious enough. I’d like to think so, but I’m not sure.

dolphin hunters

Which brings me back to The Cove. After we finished Blackfish, Chris and I were talking about its potential effectiveness. I brought up The Cove as a cautionary tale: If those trailers turned others off as much as it did me, and I feel passionate about dolphin protection, how could it reach and therefore influence enough audiences to make a difference? Chris suggested that it had already achieved its aims; we both thought the outcry following its release had led to change in the Japanese government’s policy. It turns out not so much. So far, the pressure hasn’t resulted in actual change.

For a lot of reasons, SeaWorld is not Japan; it may well feel more compelled to respond in some way to widespread criticism. But is it really likely to do anything more than damage control? Release some statement (not animals), make minor improvements (not substantive changes), etc? Are enough people likely to decide against that vacation destination that they go out of business? Doubtful.

I really want to end this on a positive note. I’d like to hope that a careful, strategic, and “successful” film like Blackfish can make a difference. I know: Changing just one mind makes a difference. But does it really? Maybe in the long term. Maybe?

albatross corpse with plastic inside
albatross corpse with plastic inside

It might, in the case of Midway.

If everyone who sees that movie (or just the trailer) reconsiders their plastic consumption, picks up some plastic caps at the beach, even votes in favor of some kind of legal protection or prevention, that could maybe save a few birds. Maybe? You tell me:

MIDWAY a Message from the Gyre : a short film by Chris Jordan from Midway on Vimeo.

Hungry Man Chicken Dinner and Love

Okay, this is half-baked, baked-half, and most likely under theorized but then, again, I’m shorting, so I think it’s okay.


It’s really just a parallel I’ve noticed between rhetoric and conditioning (the non-hair follicular kind). There’s a trope called metonymy and in rhetoric it means that you are making an association between things through their contiguity (Burbules, 1997).  So, for instance, say you’re advertising for a Hungry Man chicken dinner and you want that dinner to be associated with something abstract like “love.”  You could make an advertisement where you surround that chicken dinner with metonymic images of “love” (e.g. hearts, puppies, and Ted Nugent). And if you repeat this imagery enough “love” might rub off enough from the images on to a Hungry Man chicken dinner to remind a lot of people about “love.” Eating a Hungry Man chicken dinner might become a metonym for “love.” Instead of “I heart you” we might say, “I Hungry Man chicken dinner you.”

Conditioning (that behavioral kind) seems to be doing something similar, don’t it? Say you have a chicken that you want to train to cluck when it sees an image of “love” (i.e. if it sees hearts, puppies, or Ted Nugent). What you’d do is shape the behavior.  You’d have a cue (e.g. the pictures). And you’d have a reinforcement (e.g. a treat like a piece of bread or a Hungry Man!). Then you’d have the behavior you wanted (i.e. a cluck when the chicken sees the pictures).  Every time there is a cluck when an appropriate picture is shown, you’d provide a treat.  You’d do this until you associated clucking with the pictures and the treat so much so that once the chicken sees the picture, she doesn’t even need the treat.  It’s automatic. Seeing those pictures results in a cluck without the treat.  In a sense, the chicken is part of a metonymical move.  What I mean is, the imagery is associated with “love.”

Rhetors do similar things. Instead of food, they associate an image with other images to make an association and make that association automatic. Conditioning and metonymying aint’ exactly alike but, then again, they ain’t exactly different. I was thinkin’ that maybe what rhetors do should be called “metonymic conditioning.”  Whatcha think?

Watch this vid on Conditioning Chickens

Last thing and I swear it’s funny!  A Prof. of Psych told me about something her dad did when he was a college student. In a class of his, the students conducted a conditioning experiment on their teacher (teacher wasn’t in on the experiment).  Every time the teacher stood in a certain part of the room, the class would participate in discussion.  Everywhere else, there was no discussion.  From my understanding, it worked and the teacher began spending a lot of time in that part of the room. The teacher got Hungry Manned!

The More The Easier: Persuadability Scales Inversely

From ScienceDaily comes this report out of RPI, concluding that the tipping point of shifting public opinion is surprisingly low:

Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.

The implications for rhetorical practice, teaching, and study are intriguing.

visualizing communication

If understanding the medium through which communication happens is an essential part of any successful rhetorical analysis, then the video below might provoke a few thoughts about rhetoric in a digitally connected age.  GPS equipment is used in part to track the movement of telephone calls, fiber optic lines, taxis and airplanes:

If you find this interesting, head to Flowing Data to see other projects, like the growth of Wal-Mart since 1962.


I was shopping at a health food store last week, and I stopped at the dairy section to pick up some cream cheese. Lo and behold, there was a new (well, new to me anyway) alternative to cream cheese with 1/3 less saturated fat. Now, who can possibly resist such an appeal to logic? (Not to mention the emotional appeal of a slim waistline). It’s called Neufchatel (see “Nuefchatel” on Wikipedia) — and, as we all know beyond any rational doubt, food items with foreign names have to be good. I imagined what the consistency and flavor of the cheese must be, and although I wasn’t super impressed with my imagined cheese (I guess I don’t buy into the purchase-worthiness of foreign names after all), I decided to give it a try.

I opened it today, but I began looking over the packaging while my toaster did its toasting. I always wonder at how different cheeses are made, and yet the ingredients list rarely helps when “milk and cheese cultures” tops and often ends the list. It’s interesting how much is and is not told with an ingredients list. I quickly scanned the item’s nutrition facts, and right next to it, in a relatively prominent location, was this:

The FDA has said there is no
significant difference between milk
from cows treated with rGBH and
untreated cows. No test can
distinguish between milk from
treated and untreated cows.

Hmm, I thought. How interesting that valuable packaging real estate went into making a claim (that the milk came from cows not treated with a growth hormone) only to usurp all power from that claim (the milk from treated or untreated cows is not significantly different). But, then, I was in a health food store, and FDA findings and rulings are met with a critical eye from these shoppers. In this context, the statement in all-caps would get a nod of approval and the disclaimer would be ignored or scoffed at.

I began researching the topic on the Web to see how the labeling of rGBH (also known as rBST) (see Bovine Somatotropin on Wikipedia) is restricted, and I discovered the conversation regarding its approval and use is quite involved. It turns out that a movement toward banning statements about rBGH-free cows began in Pennsylvania in fall 2007 with Dennis Wolff, the state’s agriculture secretary, who claimed that “consumers were confused” about the quality of milk from these cows (“Fighting on a Battlefield the Size of a Milk Label,” The New York Times). If the law passed, consumers would have no way of knowing whether milk had come from cows treated with rBGH or not.

But after pressure from consumer groups and the governor of Pennsylvania – along with Wolff acknowledging he had no consumer reports to support his cause – the case was dropped and turned, instead, into a push toward restricting the language on labels, and this time similar cases began in New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, Utah, Missouri and Vermont as well. Farmers and resellers, meanwhile, argue that their first amendment rights are being hampered. It appears these battles are still ongoing.

The layers to this story continue to be interesting, however. I’m always interested in what factors are ignored or overlooked and whether the lapses can be seen as intentional or unintentional. Here are some instances that are interesting to me, but there are certainly more to be found.

American consumption levels

The FDA approved the growth hormone in 1993, and The American Council on Health and Science gave this reason for acknowledging the need for what they are calling a “technology”:

As the world’s population grows, the National Research Council estimates that the supply of food required to adequately meet human nutritional needs over the next 40 years will be equal to the amount of food previously produced throughout the entire history of humankind. To meet this demand, animal scientists must develop new technologies to increase productive efficiency (that is, the yield of milk or meat per unit of feed), produce leaner animals and provide increased economic return on investment to producers. During the past decade, scientists have developed many new agricultural biotechnologies that meet these goals. Their adoption will have many positive effects on food production, processing and availability. (“The Efficacy, Safety and Benefits of Bovine Somatotropin and Porcine Somatotropin,” The American Council on Health)

What it doesn’t discuss is the overproduction of milk. Various web sites discuss this problem, but more reputable sites on dairy markets offer statistics spread over various dairy products. If anyone wants to crunch the numbers for us, feel free to post a comment with your analysis.

Human Health

Another issue that has arisen is the presence of IGF-1, a protein hormone, in milk from treated cows. Some groups claim the protein “is an important factor in the growth of cancers of the breast, prostate and colon” (“rBGH / rBST,” Center for Food Safety), but the FDA gave this response to a citizen petition to take the hormone off the market:

The FDA has previously maintained and continues to maintain that levels of IGF-I in milk whether or not from rbGH supplemented cows are not significant when evaluated against the levels of IGF-I endogenously produced and present in humans.” (Response to Robert Cohen, U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Note: This link will open a Microsoft document file.)

I guess time will answer this one for us.

Animal Health

Most of the debate surrounding this issue seem to deal solely with the quality of the milk, but it’s context, so to speak, seems to be disregarded to a large extent in the scientific studies we see. Some groups claim that the hormone causes various deformities and diseases in the animals that farmers must then treat with antibiotics and other drugs, which find their way into milk.

Nonetheless, the FDA’s update on the safety of milk doesn’t address the alleged problem but only discusses the safety of milk in terms of humans:

FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) has reexamined the human food safety of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) in response to recent inquiries about the safety of this product. FDA’s CVM approved Monsanto Company’s rbST product, PosilacÒ in November 1993 after a comprehensive review of the product’s safety and efficacy, including human food safety. CVM has issued a detailed report based on a careful audit of the human food safety sections of this approval. CVM’s finding upholds the Agency’s original conclusion that milk from cows treated with rbST is safe for human consumption. (“Update on Human Food safety of BST,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration)

So is milk from cows treated with rBGH (or rBST) safe and humane? I don’t know. I’m just interested in how it’s marketed and how the studies and subtopics are fed to the public.

As for Nuefchatel, it’s pretty good. I couldn’t tell a difference between it and regular cream cheese, but I’m also suffering from a cold today, and supposedly our sense of taste mostly derives from our sense of smell, which I’m missing for the moment. My scientific research has suffered another disabling factor too: a second variable called “pumpkin butter with port.” You gotta try it.

Reasoning with Culture

( . . . in both sentences of the word.)

In “The Science of Fairy Tales,” Chris Gorski takes on the issue of reality and fantasy. Or, well, sort of. The author writes about what possible truths may exist in fairy tales and selects three popular stories with elements that seem to have a basis in reality. She/he asks,

[A]re the most magical moments from some of our favorite stories actually possible? Basic physical principles and recent scientific research suggest that what readers might mistake for fantasies and exaggeration could be rooted in reality.

At first I took this comment to mean a girl named Rapunzel, a mermaid named Ariel, and a young man named Aladdin did indeed, respectively, let down her hair, have stolen her voice, and make fly his carpet — feats that bend our perceptions of the tangible world. But, then, I gave the article a second read and realized this final line is vague enough to mean just about anything. Once “could,” “may,” or “suggest” hedges an argument, what follows could be any bit as hyperbolic as the speaker/writer wants, for better or for worse.

I’ll try not to ruin the surprise of what’s contained in the article — I’m already plenty amused and even appreciative that a science news researcher would attempt to unite folklore and “hard-core” reason. I may never have tied a strand of my hair around candy bars to gauge the strength of my locks, attempted to bend sound waves like light, or released a rug in midair like the napkin that never fails to fly off the picnic table, but, sure, I see these insights have some basis. (I think I’m entirely failing at not giving away the details of the article.)

And, yet, I can’t help but spend a little time with the following line, which is Gorski’s segue into the body of the article and which uses language that initially made me feel as if I’m being beckoned into a funhouse:

So suspend your imagination for a moment, and look at the following fairy tales as a hard-core scientist might.

But, it’s not a funhouse – or, well, maybe it is. We’re entering the realm of hard-core scientific reasoning. We are asked to suspend our imagination in a clear reversal of the popular attempt to suspend disbelief, which we try to do when, say, we enter a movie theater. We suspend our disbelief so we can enjoy the imagination and creativity brought together for our entertainment, for our temporary relief from the daily grind, and for our currency . . . but I digress. For some moviegoers, we suspend our disbelief in order to open ourselves up to ways of thinking and experiences foreign to us, foreign for any number of reasons. We suspend our disbelief to take in, learn, and appreciate.

This approach is not necessarily our default, however. We doubt until there is reason to believe, or we remain indifferent until we become invested. The Harry Potter generation will tuck away their crimson and gold scarves just as older generations would have done with their ruby-red slippers had the mechanism and culture existed in that age to produce and market such paraphernalia.

Let’s not forget, however, that the author is asking us to look at fairy tales as a scientist would. This writer seems to point to scientific reasoning as having little to no use for the imagination. Yet, in all honesty, I’m wondering who could possibly believe that Ariel losing her voice has to do with an average someone discovering sound waves can be bent. Tell me this thought doesn’t take a little bit of imagination, a slight suspension of judgment and doubt.

By the conclusion of the piece, a slight hope began to build for me:

Perhaps some fairy tales are more grounded in reality than others. Or maybe these precious stories are exactly what we thought they were. An idea is fertilized by the imagination and expanded beyond what seems possible. Or maybe science has come so far over the years that scientists are looking beyond the problems of the physical world and into the imaginations of children for their inspiration.

Again, the “perhaps”s and “maybe”s can be frustrating, or they can be hopeful. And my reading of this final line can similarly be frustrating (moving from the problems of the physical world to the problems of children’s imaginations) or hopeful (moving from the problems of the physical world to the reason-bending imaginations of children . . . um, who aren’t really the authors of these fairy tales). Or perhaps this paragraph finally shows that, indeed, ideas do come out of the imagination, and its direction thereafter is up to the thinker. And I can’t help but think of one such method: the scientific method. First a person posits a hypothesis and then attempts to prove it. And an unproven hypothesis is an educated guess, right? And a guess is an idea, no? And do not even proven hypotheses change in value over time as researchers imagine new ways of approaching knowledge and dissecting our physical world? Will time come, again, when we’re told dark chocolate is not really that good for us after all?

I admit I like the idea of culture and science coming together in newish forms, but if the main reason is to bring reason itself to the imagination, I can’t help but feel somewhat uncomfortable. I believe in the intermingling of ideas (I mean, shoot, I’m helping launch a digital magazine named Harlot precisely because I believe in interdisciplinarity and the value of discussion held beyond the university) but not when one category (especially the one less tied down by rules) becomes stifled.

In the end, though, I sigh and think that if a person refers to these particular moments in our popular fairy tales as “the most magical,” perhaps, maybe, possibly the two of us are on different (bent?) wavelengths after all. But I’m not sure which one of us is trapped within an enclosed and muffled space, perhaps with a bonfire projecting strange shapes and figures onto the walls.