“The truth is rarely pure and never simple”, Oscar Wilde has one of his characters say in The Importance of Being Earnest. The same can be said about the motivations for our activism: rarely pure, and never simple. Those who think they do what they do for the animals only, should think again, or need to apply for sainthood or official enlightenment status.
All of us changemakers and do-gooders (vegans or otherwise) have motivations that go beyond just helping the beings we want to help. We are also in search of recognition. We want to feel meaningful, have a sense of belonging, be important maybe. We want to be seen. We want to feel like we are good people. We have a need to be consistent. Maybe we want to atone for something we think we did wrong. Motivational speaker and author Tony Robbins put it very succinctly, and in my view very correctly. He says that all of us – in whatever culture – fear that we are not enough, and that we are afraid that if we’re not enough, then we won’t be loved. We’re on a quest for love, all of us. And we have different ways of trying to get that love we think we need.
These feelings and motivations are indeed very human and are nothing to be ashamed of. Yet it is good to be aware of them and not pretend that they don’t exist and that we do what we do for the animals (or other humans) only. Because through being aware of these “impure motivations”, we may, whenever necessary, at least partially filter them out and see clearer. Sometimes this is extra necessary, because sometimes these motivations can really prevent us from being the most effective we can be. There’s an old Platters song called Smoke gets in your eyes. These more personal motivations, just like smoke, can get in your eyes too, preventing us from seeing clearly.
With a general term, that shouldn’t be interpreted too negatively, we can call these motivations ego-centric. Let me be dead honest in this post and give you an illustration how ego-centric motivations can get into my own eyes. The other day, a friend told me she would be doing some research around an outreach strategy which I’m not particularly fond of. I caught myself thinking for a moment how I hoped her conclusion would be that this strategy is not effective. I hoped this because if it would turn out to be effective, it wouldn’t particularly fit within my theories and strategies. I am someone who has invested quite some time in thinking about strategy and developing strategies. So I would love it if my thinking is right and I don’t want it to be contradicted. Not only would much of my work appear to me as a waste of time, I would also lose face, both in my own eyes and in others’.
It goes without saying that such an attitude, a confirmation bias, can blind me to some important information, make my theories etc more incomplete and less correct than they could be, and thus harm my advocacy. Not a good thing for the beings I want to help. I’m sure you can imagine other people who are married to their theories and ideologies to such an extent that they have trouble accepting any evidence, indications or even suggestions of something that contradicts them. Similarly, activists like to think that the kind of actions they do and are investing time in, are effective. Indications to the contrary may be experienced as threatening. Still more general, as vegans we don’t want our veganism – an important part of our identity – to be criticized. Yet all this close-mindedness is not a good thing.
This quote by Leo Tolstoy comes to mind:
“I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they had proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabrics of their life.”
Let me be honest on a meta-level too, about my motivation for writing this (this gets complicated!). Admitting to this, showing that I am aware of my own confirmation bias, is strategically a good thing to do. It may inspire confidence in others, who may think: this person tries to discover his own blind spots, and knows that he may be deluding himself. He is obviously trying to get to as much Truth as he can get. Maybe I’ll read some more of this guy. And this honesty may inspire even more confidence in you. And so on.
So two take aways from this post:
- it’s good to be aware of our ego-centric motivations
- showing our weaknesses, our awareness that we may have blind spots, our vulnerabilities, may inspire confidence in other people rather than the opposite.