While The Vinyl Cafe's annual holiday show was in Toronto the other day, angry fans of the much loved CBC Radio show were leaving hateful messages on answering machines. While The Vinyl Cafe stage show was singing cheerful carols in a theater, their online fans were posting thousands of vicious messages (and some very violent ones), all directed at people supporting the show's decision to update their most famous holiday story. Never in a million years would I have thought that a radio show that talks about bringing us together as a community would have an audience who wants to verbally and violently tear individuals apart. How on Earth did we get to this point?
Last week I wrote in The Huffington Post about how a growing group of listeners were voicing their concern with The Vinyl Cafe's famous holiday story "Dave Cooks the Turkey." The story airs every year as "tradition" but includes parts such as this:
"Dave's turkey looked like it had made a break from the slaughterhouse and dragged itself a block or two before it was captured and beaten to death." This is followed by four seconds of roaring audience laughter that has made many people cringe for years.
We all know how wonderful The Vinyl Cafe team is at storytelling, when this problem was explained to them they showed they are also good listeners. They reacted quickly and constructively to the audience concern, posting to their Facebook that, "The story will be on the show next weekend. But we have made a few small changes. We have edited out a couple of lines that, after reading some of the thoughtful letters that have come in over the past week, we no longer feel comfortable airing on our show."
Something in the idea of change or they way the show presented this need for change made their audience go berserk and entirely misunderstand the issue. Perhaps not as intentional as Jian Ghomeshi's infamous October Facebook post, it had the same bizarre reaction of an initial hysteria of loyalty, but that loyalty spilled over into widespread hate-speech against others. This wasn't just a few wingnuts, this was the obscene majority. Imagine a sea of Vinyl Cafe fans suggesting abusive things should be done to a portion of the audience that does not want to listen to animal abuse jokes. I was sent a death threat and others who posted positive messages of thanks to the show told me they were creeped and harassed online.
One of the initial criticisms to the show was that a holiday story that jokes about a turkey being beaten to death might normalize abuse and therefore contribute to a culture where people accept the very real farmed animal abuse around us all. A media show has a huge influence over it's audience. This influence is illuminated to us by how the The Vinyl Cafe's own status update saying they feel they should edit their holiday story results in online hate speech against people that first suggested there was indeed a problem with the story. That is very disturbing. It also very much shows how accepting our culture is of all kinds of abuse and how we must work together to speak up against it.
Language leads the audience. Overall I think the full text of their recent facebook post must have led the broader audience to see this as some outside group vs. The Vinyl Cafe, which sets people to be defensive of what they love and may not actually touch on the heart of the issue. It would be mind-boggling if this audience was indeed actually this hateful and angry at the idea of making a Christmas story less overtly violent against an animal.
After one commenter posted simply, "thank you for making positive changes," she was then harassed and bullied online and when she asked the person to please stop, they replied for her to, "change your settings if you don't want Ppl to see it. It's the Internet!!!" Oh, and this online harasser was actually someone close to The Vinyl Cafe, who has toured with the show. There has been no reply from the show when people asked them to intervene and calm their audience down.
I know that the show has high integrity so it was very much not their intention to incite this reaction but I do think more can and should be done to return the conversation to the actual & important issue.
If the show is truly uncomfortable with their own choice of language around a turkey being beaten to death, then they should indeed please take positive steps to lead us away from there. If they do so by clearly sharing their own convictions, I'm very sure their entire community will support them. They should say the words they are taking out and explain why they are choosing to remove them. They should share how farmed animal abuse is very much is a problem in Canada and help others come to the same understanding they have come to.
Change is difficult but the results are rewarding. For many, their holiday meal includes a turkey that was indeed violently raised and abused before being slaughtered. As undercover investigations are showing us, misery and abuse is the reality many turkeys face in Canada, and most people have no idea. If their favourite family holiday story has made annual jokes for years about a turkey being beaten to death, it's going to be easier to deny how their holiday meal is actually participating in this abuse and suffering.
The hate-filled way the audience reacted to the idea of making a Christmas story less violent very much shows the need for us all to be moving in a more positive direction. We need to make this world a kinder place: on our plates, on the radio, and in our hearts. Farmed animal abuse is very real and we should talk about it.
I look forward to hearing the edited "Dave Cooks the Turkey" story but I also look forward to how after presenting this story for two decades, the CBC Radio's Vinyl Cafe will take the responsibility to properly lead people to the idea and need for change.
Follow Yan Roberts on Twitter: www.twitter.com/yan_piebird