Recently I took a road trip to the Smokey Mountains with a group of friends. On our way back to the cabin after sightseeing the driver said, “Oh is this the street?” and made a wrong turn. Another friend in the back seat started to berate him for about five minutes. Which is actually quite a lot if you’re on the receiving end, or stuck in the car listening to it. He probably felt justified in the rant because the driver should have known better.
I’ve realized I do that to my mom all the time when she has technology problems. Not a five minute tirade, but essentially the same thing. Not to my grandma, but to Mom because she should “know better.” Then I feel guilty, because I guess I feel I should know better too.
The essence of my friend’s car tirade was, “You made a wrong turn and are therefore stupid and disgusting.” He never said those words, and probably would deny that he meant it that way. But isn’t that often how we feel when we’re on a rant? The person who did the Wrong Thing is despicable. We would never have done such an inferior thing ourselves.
As activists, do you do this? I’ve been guilty of it, and I see it all the time in well-meaning friends. How do we handle it when someone doesn’t immediately get our message and jump on board? When activists get together, in person or online, are our discussions about how to inspire people or about how stupid the people who don’t get it are? The people we might be vilifying are the very people we need to help us if we want to bring our visions of the world into reality. Why would this convince anyone to listen to what we have to say?
This Imbolc I’ve been thinking about the goddess Brigid and her inspiration. Like my friend the backseat driver, I could handle being a little more inspiring and a bit less of a know-it-all.
Remember that you’re talking to a person
Here’s a secret. A lot of vegans judge their vegan-ness, or their worth as an activist, by how many people they convert to veganism. And hey, isn’t that why we’re doing activism? To get people to listen? And I know it’s true of other activists too. But let me make an analogy.
I hold to the philosophy of eudaimonism. Among other things, it means that a person’s goal in life is to flourish – to be happy, content, and virtuous. There are lots of similar philosophies around the world, including Buddhism, that say the most important thing in life is happiness. People that follow such philosophies, which I think pretty much everyone does consciously or unconsciously, will naturally try to build a life that’s as happy as possible.
The problem is, that can also be a trap. If every time you contemplate an action, you do a mental calculation about how much pleasure it will give you, it sucks the life out of life. It’s just too clinical. I can’t experience something deeply if I’m constantly evaluating it and thinking “what’s it doing for me?” Friends are an important part of a happy life, but thinking of your friends as happiness-makers for yourself doesn’t make for deep friendships. It’s probably not good for their happiness either, and if we’re ethical hedonists instead of selfish ones, the happiness of others is important to us too.
That’s why my advice, and the advice of a lot of people before me, is to develop qualities and traits that lead toward happiness, but not be thinking about it every day. Take stock every so often and think about what will make you happy. Decide some things you could do – make more or better friends, meditate, be kinder, go on more adventures. Then when you’re doing those things, forget about trying to be happy and just engage with life.
It’s sort of like trying to write a blog of a certain length, and constantly counting the words. It gets in the way. Hard to really get into it. I’m speaking theoretically of course.
I’m starting to view activism the same way. The desire to share your message can be a deep principle that informs your choices, but it can’t be at the front of your mind all the time. Of course we want people to jump on board our causes. We wouldn’t be activists if we didn’t want that. But when you talk with your friends, are you really talking to your friends or to potential converts?
I’ve noticed I have much happier friends when I share with them my story, my reasons for being vegan, and awesome vegan food, than when I preach the Good News About Tofu to them. Something I learned from animal rights activist Colleen Patrick-Goudreau is that we’re at our best when we share things with our friends rather than trying to educate them. It can be subtle, but there’s a big difference between “I read this and it changed my life” and “You should read this; it’ll change your life.”
Remember to talk like a person, too
It’s all about having genuine human interactions. People can generally sense when you’re trying to guide the conversation somewhere, making a rehearsed speech, or perhaps worst of all, telling them what to do. Just be yourself and don’t try to be the perfect activist.
There have been so many times when people have asked me why I’m vegan and I’ve panicked. I don’t have the perfect speech planned, I’m in a bad mood, I assume they’re going to judge me or All Vegans Everywhere for my answer, or whatever reason. When I’m uncomfortable talking about it, that’s probably pretty obvious. When I give a little speech or a pat answer, that’s probably just as obvious.
If I can sum up my new approach, it’s about offering instead of instructing. It’s about engaging one’s audience as if they’re people, not automatons awaiting programming. Because people aren’t waiting around to hear your message about how they need to live their lives. It’s about realizing they’re not just an audience in the first place. Thinking of them as an audience, while technically true, makes everything all about you, and makes your friends into passive recipients of your wisdom.
Sometimes activism can just be about telling stories, especially your story when it’s appropriate.
It doesn’t always have to be about a list of the benefits of your position, or a rapsheet of the sins and dangers of the opposing political party/corporations/philosophy. People will respond to your story, to your passion, to you as a person, more than they might respond to a list of the pros and cons of your position. But you should have that too, because it’s generally not a good idea to have a lot of excitement and nothing to back it up.
People can really tell if you’re joyful about your way of life or if you’re angry and sitting in judgment. Maybe it shouldn’t matter; the message is the message regardless of who delivers it or the tone of voice they use to do it, but that’s not really realistic. A lot of people respond to pathos first and logos second. Their response to you will decide if they’re open to hearing what you have to say.
So I’m choosing to be inspiring, and to be inspiring I have to be inspired. If I want people to really hear me, I can’t be vegan just because being non-vegan causes a lot of harm to humans, other animals, and the environment. I have to be vegan because it’s awesome to live a life based on compassion. And that can apply to just about any cause where we want to inspire people to see things differently.
I’ll leave you with a challenge. Look at your relationships, your social media use, maybe even your bumper stickers. Do you spend more time ranting than encouraging? Do people tend to pull away when you talk about the causes that are important to you? (Keep in mind that that will happen anyway).Do you find yourself instructing more than sharing? Are there ways you could engage people more through stories and your passion for your sacred work?