We can’t alienate people into joining our team

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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.

can we get supporters from people we first alienate?
(c) The Economist

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.

11 thoughts on “We can’t alienate people into joining our team

  1. Thanks for this, Tobias.
    It is sad / frustrating when vegans can’t see a difference between our efforts and those opposed to, say, racism. A significant majority voted against trump, and an even higher percentage would say racism is wrong. That is a hugely different situation than veganism, a negligible fraction of society.
    But to paraphrase Cleveland Amory, men have an infinite capacity to rationalize, especially when it comes to their desire to be mean.

  2. I’ve been struggling with this issue recently. I see both sides of it. I believe that all approaches are necessary to achieve change. There was Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers. All of approaches appealed to a different group.

    I keep coming back to a few thoughts. Most of the people who ended legal slave trade in the US, were racists. They certainly didn’t feel as though people of color were their equal, just that they shouldn’t be treated so poorly. Could factory farming be ended in a similar manner, by mostly meat eaters, who were interested in animal welfare?

    Speciesism is going to be a much tougher nut to crack. If you are religious, you believe in human exceptionalism. Which oddly enough, I find that even atheists/science fanboys buy into for some reason. Humanity is special.

    Truthfully, from a welfare standpoint, I think the moral argument is a slam dunk. While most people don’t believe in Veganism, most people DO believe in animal welfare. The problem is about changing their behavior, (eating meat). I am trying to focus my efforts on the idea that people can change their behavior and they will still have joy in their food.

    1. thanks, interesting thoughts. i know that some of the people that were instrumental in ending slavery were slaveholders, but do you have a reference for the fact that it was a significant number?
      wonder if the elusive proof of the idea that concern for welfare/welfare reforms can lead to abolitionism can actually be found in this context?

  3. Preaching tolerance for someone else’s belief of actually believing other human beings are inferior to themselves and don’t deserve equality makes you part of the problem of why, in 2017, white supremacy has taken a hold once again and many people think veganism as a social justice movement is a joke. The majority of people on the planet are black and brown, so in essence your view for veganism is to pander to white might be vegans at the expense of people of color by preaching tolerance and understanding for racists. People of color should not have to explain why their humanity should matter to anyone in this day and age, nor should people that don’t get that simple concept be coddled. Yes, nonhuman lives and veganism are important but one movement shouldn’t act at the expense of others’ basic rights. It is possible for vegans to be an example to other movements in opposing all inequality, including towards nonhumans, without tokerance for racists, sexists, homophobes, etc. Think about that for a second.

    1. Thank you!! I came to the comments to say something about this but you did an amazing job. Absolutely nailed it.

  4. There are many more potential allies within marginalised groups than there are bigoted activists. Therefore, “tolerating” bigoted views within our movement is likely to alienate many more people than calling them out ever will.

    We need to move away from a narrow-minded approach that advocates for one group at the unnecessary expense of others, and instead ensure that we both practice and preach pro-intersectional veganism.

    That’s not only the most ethical approach, but the most effective one too.

    1. i see what you mean, but i don’t think it applies to what i wrote. i was not talking about bigoted activists, but was comparing two different phenomena (“bigots” and “speciesists”, even though i don’t like to use these labels).

  5. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS!! I am finally vegan, but part of the reason I did not become vegan sooner is because as a black female, I was so tired, offended, and disheartened at all the comparisons that were being made between slavery, sexual abuse, and even the Holocaust. Eventually, I came across all of the many other reasons to become vegan and I haven’t looked back. I have been practising the “tolerant” approach out of that experience and get SOOO much hate from vegans because of it. However, I feel their compassion of saving animals over rides their logic of connecting with non-vegans in a non-confrontational AND informative way. Talk about global warming, the side effects, health reasons…there are so many other valid points for going vegan. It’s so nice to know I’m not alone via a larger social platform. So thanks bunches for writing this and I’m going to share the F out of it!!

  6. Hi Tobias,
    the cartoon has been published by The Economist a couple of weeks ago, briefly after Trumps inauguration.
    Kind Regards

  7. Tobias, do you have any data in general on this topic to share? Would help. I think more polls should be conducted right now to assess what activism speaks to different people.

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