Tuesday, 4 January 2011

How to Know You've Won the Argument

Bambi has a lot to do with it

By: Barry Kent MacKay

Recently I got into one of those silly online debates, this one with a guy who believes that feeding birds is bad for the environment. It started with a gentleman in Los Angeles enquiring of a list for birdwatchers about what to feed a hummingbird in his very urban neighbourhood. Anyway, while there are certainly risks involved to the birds from things such as mouldy food, picture windows and cats – even disease transmission risks that can be enhanced when birds concentrate at garden feeders – to categorically dismiss bird feeding and bird feeders seems a bit much. But that is what one correspondent did, and I took him on.

We moved the debate offline and I knew I had won, although he wouldn’t say so, when he wrote: “For you it seems, the boundaries of your yard form the limits of the universe; what you can witness, the limit of reality; and the present consequences, the only ones there will ever be. For you it seems, looking at a situation from a scientific point of view is being biased, there is no distinction between the natural and the artificial, and an impact is only of concern if it involves disease or death.”

To this he added: “At least this exchange has allowed me to gain some more insight into how bird feeding enthusiasts view themselves and the world.”

Of course it had done no such thing. There is no solid, ideological block of “bird feeding enthusiasts”, and his earlier comments are simply condescending. And they are only comments, not arguments. The only argument he had mounted was a vague reference to a study in Alaska that showed a ten percent rate of beak deformity in chickadees and apparently suggested that perhaps the high fat content of bird feeder food was in some way responsible. My response to that was to point out that my mentor, the late Dr. J. Murray Speirs, had colour-banded the chickadees that had come to his feeders in Pickering over many years, keeping meticulous notes, and had noted no such morbidity. I remember him casually pointing to one colour-marked chickadee and saying it was into its eighth year, a good age for a small songbird.

I find that when one is debating on behalf of, well, anything, but certainly animals, it’s a good indication one has won when the other side resorts to insults.

One insult we, who work daily to try to protect animals from various forms of abuse and persecution, often hear is reference to “the Bambi Syndrome”. It refers to a Walt Disney movie released to theatres in 1942. I have a confession: I’ve never seen it. I don’t know if it is based on a written story, but if so, I’ve never read it. I’ve seen enough trailers to know it’s a feature length cartoon about a make-believe fawn who is orphaned, I think to a forest fire, but even as a child I wasn’t that fond of anthropomorphic stories about animals.

But it is much, much easier for our critics to assume that we have somehow been corrupted and misdirected by a 69 year old film than to address the merit, or lack thereof, of the arguments we present.

Don’t misunderstand me; there may be people on all sides of any issue who will defend their goals from positions of weakness, from misunderstanding. Nature is infinitely complex and we who seek to defend wildlife are all continually learning new things about the interrelationships between animals and the environment and people. But that is why issues should be argued on the basis of what is known, and why values must be identified as something distinct from always developing information, said information being judged on merit.

And we have to avoid falling into the insult trap. If I had any advice to advocates it would be to keep to what you know and critically analyse the arguments made against your position; take nothing for granted.

And finally, be prepared, if you work to help wildlife, to be told you have a “hidden agenda”. It ties the “Bambi Syndrome” as the most often heard accusation in place of solid debate. There’s nothing “hidden” about it. We are here to work against the destruction of wildlife; we can’t always succeed, and we know the value we place in compassion is far from universal. But that is what we do, what are supporters demand of us, and our best assets are facts. When the insults start it’s a good sign the other side has run out of reason; it’s a good sign we’ve won the debate, whether or not that translates into a win for the animals.

Barry Kent MacKay is a Director for AAC, Zoocheck Canada and Born Free USA United with The Animal Protection Institute. He is an author and artist. Barry assists AAC primarily on various bird and wildlife issues.