Donald Trump, a man I used to think of as a caricature of a comic book villain, is now the world’s most powerful clown (as Sam Harris has called him). This is not a good and possibly a terrible situation. Apart from all the silly to stupid domestic and foreign policy decisions the new president could make, he seems to also open the door for more intolerance towards all kinds of minorities.
To counter this, many people on the progressive/left/liberal side (henceforth: the left), for understandable reasons are digging their heels in deeper and feel that, more so than ever, they have to call out others whenever they hear them utter anything smelling even remotely offensive. The idea, in other words, is to have zero tolerance for racism, sexism and other bigotry, in the hope of rooting it out.
The question is whether this is the best strategy to get everyone on the wagon of tolerance and to create a global society of decent people. I’m not saying we shouldn’t challenge injustice. I’m saying that it’s just not easy to alienate, shame or offend people into joining our team.
The parallel with vegan advocacy, I think, is clear. In the vegan movement too, one of the choices we face is the one between the “tolerant” approach and the more “confrontational” approach.
The tolerant approach is about meeting people where they are, trying to understand where they come from, looking from their perspective. It tries to avoid guilt-tripping, accusing and shaming. To its opponents, this approach will often come across as too soft and apologetic.
The confrontational approach is more about challenging people head on and being very clear that there is no excuse for eating animal products. To its opponents, this approach will often come across as too aggressive and condemning.
These two descriptions are imperfect, as are the terms “tolerant” and “confrontational”, and the dichotomy itself, but let’s not get too picky, for the sake of the argument.
The fight against racism has obviously made much more headway in society than the fight against speciesism. No matter how rampant racism still is in the world today, it is, both in thought and in practise, much more limited than the ideology and practical consequences of speciesism.
I believe that the more public support there is for a social issue, the more confrontational one can be. This would imply that we can be more confrontational in our anti-racist struggle than in our anti-speciesist struggle.
Still, I doubt that, as the author of this Vox article has observed, calling out people on their racism is the best strategy for changing them. I know some of the arguments of the “confrontationalists”: that there is no excuse. That we can’t allow Trump or behavior similar to his to be normalized, that we have to isolate racists so that they don’t feel they are supported in their opinions, and that we should do it publicly. Etcetera.
If even I, as a progressive person, experience part of the public call-outs of racism, sexism and other -isms at times as annoying, sanctimonious, guilt-tripping and accusing rhetoric, then how much more negatively will they be interpreted by the more conservative, the less educated? How will people react who were bottle-fed with racist and sexist ideas and who weren’t educated to become open-minded citizens? I don’t see a lot of good coming out of that.
I believe rather in an approach where we try to understand each other’s needs, desires and fears (the phobe in xenophobe or homophobe obviously means fear in Greek, not hate or anger). We should be clear about the injustice, the risks, the suffering, and should be extremely mindful of where Trump and other evolutions in society are going. But even in the face of the intolerably intolerant, maybe we may want to consider a little more understanding. In the face of the inexcusable, maybe we can consider trying to spot some reasons people may have for thinking in those inexcusable ways.
Someday, I may believe that people are bad, or even evil. Right now, I choose to believe they are uneducated, afraid, or just differ in opinion. Right now, I choose to believe that understanding each other is the best recipe to change the world.