What the Confederate flag, antibiotics and the environmental movement have in common

What the Confederate flag, antibiotics and the environmental movement have in common

At first glance, there is very little similarity in the current discussion in this country over the Confederate flag, how cattle producers use antibiotics and the environment. Yet, they may have more in common than appears on the surface.

This week, I have been reading the litany of articles and opinions surrounding what has become the death march of the Confederate flag. This all started with the unbelievably heinous and evil killing of eight people attending a predominantly black church in South Carolina. The young murderer was a racist, and it’s obvious that he was fueled by hatred. What is interesting is that the true evilness of this individual and his racism has not dominated the conversation. Rather, it has morphed into a discussion about the “stars and bars.”

The South Carolina governor and the state’s congressional delegation have called for the flag’s removal. Even though it is obvious that no politician with any aspirations for larger office will defend it, it is interesting that the Confederate flag has become so important in the discussion. It was on the car “General Lee” in the Dukes of Hazard television show and it has flown all over the South, not as a symbol of racism, but Southern pride, I guess. But it now has become a symbol of racism and anyone identified with it will forever be labeled as being evil. 

Because the Confederate flag is now a symbol of evil, it will eventually vanish, at least in public. But that will do nothing to address racism in our country, or the lunacy and evil of people like this young man who murdered out of racial hatred. Those who historically supported the flag likely didn’t see it as a symbol of racism, but they have lost the moral high ground and thus the argument.

This is where the beef industry can learn from this debate. While the unfathomable evil of racism is far beyond our issues, the underlying aspects of the debate are not unlike the discussions we face, whether it be the scientifically prudent use of antibiotics, preserving our environment, whether or not beef is an integral part of a healthy diet or the care of our animals. Those debates will not be decided on the facts or even the intentions and actions of American ranchers. Rather, today’s debates are often fought on the basis of 30-second sound bites and by who is able to claim the moral high ground. 

Everyone is for safe and wholesome food, everyone is for preserving the environment, treating animals well, or the prudent use of antibiotics. There is no point debating these superficial aspects of the issues. However, they are red herrings. That’s because the actual issues are complicated and require cooperation and compromise if we’re truly to solve them. 

Those two things—cooperation and compromise—do not further the agendas of the activists on either side. They have abandoned addressing the “real” issues and instead are waging a public relations war, hoping to make one side morally superior to the others. These debates are not about saving the environment or ending racism; they are about instituting one agenda over another. 

These debates, then, are about staking out a moral high ground that allows one to characterize the other side as evil. It isn’t about the Confederate flag and what it stands for, or even the impact that its removal from public life will create. It is a symbol that, by itself, is not partisan in nature. But how people perceive that symbol is, and how they frame the debate determines whether or not any truly constructive discussion will ensue.

The industry is trying valiantly to reframe the antibiotic debate based on science and facts, and has spent millions trying to retain a portion of the moral high ground by making the case that we care for the land, the animals entrusted to us, and the health and well-being of consumers, to name a few.

However, we continue to lose these battles in part because we have not effectively learned how to be proactive and seemingly spend most of our time responding to the attacks from those opposed to our industry. It’s not unlike the question of “when did you stop cheating on your wife?” It is difficult to make the case of being a family man if you are constantly being accused of adultery.  

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