Whenever two people decide to live together, there are bound to be fights. The deeper the passion, the stronger the emotions that may arise during disagreements. With both people coming from different family cultures and life experiences, it would be impossible for them to agree on everything that will happen during their cohabitation. While old wounds and vulnerabilities are sure to surface, a few simple rules can help keep things more productive and less toxic. Love should never be blood sport.
The same might be said of animal activism. Passions are strong, with many people believing absolutely that their way is the only way to help animals. When this becomes too deeply ingrained, too rigid, so that other voices are tuned out and dismissed, there is no way for divergent opinions to become voices towards solution. The path becomes more important than the arrival and anyone seen as deviating from the path becomes “the enemy” with disastrous consequences. A sure sign of this is when discussions and blogposts degrade into sarcasm, namecalling, condescension, mimicry, ridicule, and atttacks on personal characteristics, as well as rudeness and labeling. It is not acceptable behavior, and it is not a move towards peace. Fighting and disagreeing are fine, but let’s learn to do so appropriately. You cannot start a peace movement with a sledgehammer.
Okay, you can put on your boxing gloves, but no hitting below the belt. Here are a few ideas to keep our fighting fair:
- Stick to the issue – no deviating into sidebars or bringing up other points of contention. Make certain your points are based on a solution-focused search, not based on prior history or personal characteristics of the other person. If you are filled with seething resentment, it is time to discover why – it may have nothing to do with the current issue, and it may not be an opportune time to engage in a discussion.
- No namecalling. This lowers the bar into emotional assault. If we want to fight for justice, we need to be fair ourselves. (We all fail at times.) This means stop with the labeling. None of us are that one-dimensional. As Kierkegaard said, “When you label me, you negate me.”
- Stay current. No bringing up issues from the past. If you are upset with someone who seems to be promoting a campaign which you think is harmful, tell them why. But do not get into what they did that you disliked yesterday or how their stand on another topic has offended you. State your case; then let them make their own decision as to whether they agree or not. Even if they continue to support the cause you dislike, you may have planted some seeds. Let’s grow ideas, not pain.
- Stay positive. Start out with the points with which you agree, if there are any. Commend what you can commend; this will help highlight where you diverge. Here’s an example, ‘It sounds to me like you really care or think your are caring about animals, but when you purchase items that cause animals to be imprisoned and ultimately slaughtered, it seems in conflict with those cares.” Sometimes a specific example will help someone understand your position more than a theoretical point.
- Be specific. Offer solutions, not complaints. It is much more helpful to ask for something specific, rather than just complain about someone’s behavior or affiliations. “Please cap the toothpaste” is more likely to achieve behavioral change than “You disgusting excuse of a human being, you make a mess wherever you go.” Realize, though, it is the other person’s decision to make whether to change or not, not yours.
- Remain open to possibilities. Even great people change and grow, shifting positions as they learn more about a given issue. Allow this for others, too. We cannot spread peace if we are spreading dissension. Keep open to possibilities. Help people learn; don’t just fight with them.
- Learn to collaborate, not sell out your values. I used to work in a locked facility for youth ages 11 to 18 as part of the local juvenile justice system. After entering the facility, it became apparent to me that there was a lot of tension between the facility staff and the mental health staff. I noticed that the therapists would often violate security measures, like holding the door open for someone, rather than immediately closing the doors to keep the facility secure. Likewise, the security staff had no understanding of the mandate for confidentiality and the process of the work we were actually doing to heal and empower the children. I suggested to the administration that cross-training might help ease tensions, and it did. The security staff ultimately became my best source of information once they learned I had a receptive ear. They would share things they witnessed during family visits or point me to information I might otherwise overlook that proved to be the single most positive source of information for helping in that child’s growth. Later, when I began managing forensic programs, I worked closely on multiagency collaborations with some of the same people. I learned from these experiences that it is important to be able to work with those with whom you disagree.
- Listen, don’t just preach - listening in an active state is just as important as talking. Maintain a balance between the two. No one wants to be assaulted with someone else’s viewpoints. If people are telling you that veganism is too hard, listen to why they feel that way. And then share your own experiences; some of us find it difficult in relationships, or with family, or in social situations. Let that person know how you overcame those situations and why you now see it as easy. Compare and contrast the minor inconvenience or effort with what the animals go through and why in contrast, you find this small thing so easy in comparison. Then offer to help them in their process. Stay open to receiving information.
- Respect your opponent’s potential for growth, even if you do not respect their behavior. ”Hating” everyone with whom you disagree does not promote peace, it promotes polarization. A look around at the current political climate reflects this. If you alienate anyone, you may lose any future chance to educate them and win them to your side. Pull on your own personal evolution to realize that other people have the same potential to change and grow that you have.
- Forgive. Remember the saying,”‘Comprendre, c’est pardoner.” To understand, is to forgive. We all need to be forgiven and we all need to forgive others. Understanding, while difficult at times, heals. Even those who lost their entire families in genocide (Holocaust, Rwanda)* have been able to forgive those who cost them so much. I don’t know how they have been able to do it, but they have. They noticed that those unable to forgive get stuck and were unable to heal. Forgive, so you can move forward.
- No bullying. This means no using your position, your popularity, your power, your collective might, your friendship, your affiliations, to get what you want in a fight. No intimidation. When working with teens, people can often get into power plays, where they try to force their will on the child. In the long run, this always fails. Give the child information and allow them to make good decisions, letting them clearly see the consequences. Use the same tactic in your advocacy. Your respect for others will win more to your cause than all your truths.
- Save the baby! - Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Often, someone may have a nugget of wisdom somewhere in their argument. Save the baby, toss out the dirty bathwater, and continue on your path, but with respect for that one thing you took away from the encounter. For example, when someone talks about the importance of making veganism inclusive, rather than exclusive, they are discussing perceptions that some people feel marginalized and excluded. That is important information and something we should all consider. It is about how people feel, not just what they believe.
- Can control issues – People get frustrated when they try unsuccessfully to force others to their point of view. It often just alienates the other person, who rightly senses there is no openness, but rather a rigid demand for uniformity in thinking. I know I have been accused, unfairly, of all kinds of motives and poor judgment by people who were displaying pretty shabby behavior and poor judgment themselves. Make your case and give the other person room to decide how to respond. Not everyone thrives on the fine points of theoretical arguments or thinking in terms of absolutes.
- Apologize. Accept that, at times, you will be wrong. We see things only through our own eyes, but the view looks differently from another’s perspective. If you are unwilling to try to see what they are seeing, you will be unable to help them see your own vista. Sharing perceptions may give birth to something positive – a collaboration, a new understanding, a new outlook. Recently, in my attempt to defend a respected colleague in animal advocacy, I thought I was being neutral — but the other person felt attacked. I apologized, because that was not my intent. It was my own failing and something I need to constantly challenge within myself. Please do so, too.
- Say no to Snark – Snark may make you feel powerful and self-righteous, but it only spreads dissension. I have had to re-record parts of my podcasts when I decided the tone was not what I intended, or might be misconstrued. It is easy to let your anger out at those we perceive to be harming our fellowing beings, but it does not help the cause. Direct attacks on ideas are fine, but they should never be directed at an individual — even the one that generated that idea.
- Let go – You can’t win them all, so learn to walk away. If you hold too tightly to someone, they cannot breathe; they gasp, they fight to get away from you, and may suffocate. So, too, with ideas – be open to changing daily. What you perceive on a given Monday is subject to your experiences on Tuesday. Wednesday, you are a different person than you were on Monday, due to new experiences, new information, new relationships. Reassess things. Gary Francione used to work with PETA; he no longer supports that organization due to changes within the organization and changes within himself. Each of us has the right to follow our own paths on our own timeframe. If indeed you hold the truth with a Capital “T” – then your views will not change and more and more people will join you. If you fail either in what you propose, or in how you propose it, then you need to be able to respond to people’s perception of you, not just your message. People need space in which to breathe.
Advocates: Flow Like A River
There is a frailty built into fundamentalist thinking, and a dangerous one. It becomes about a rigid adherence to a belief or set of beliefs. Life is about flexilibity and change. It says in the Tao Te Ching:
Yield and overcome; bend and be straight.
Empty out and be full; wear out and be renewed.
~ verse 22, Lao Tzu
Think of one of the strongest elements – water. Water can be gentle and beautiful, but it can also be powerful and destructive – the difference between a gentle brook and the might and power of a tsunami. Water flows around things, but it also picks up things, moves those things within it – twigs, leaves, animals join it in is journey. The water in a river never bulldozes, but accommodates and quite often, grows in power and strength as it is joined by other tributaries and creeks. It then joins the ocean, and becomes a mere trickle in the scheme of things. Still, without the journey of the river to the ocean, the movement of water that sustains all life would not be possible.
Be like that river, depositing ideas and knowledge on the shores of other thinkers, and gather up strength in those who wish to join you. Like a river, we must think about the whole picture, not just our small place within the pattern.
17. Use Aikido Advocacy. When I took street fighting from the local police department, they said I was the student most likely to be attacked, because I was small and appeared vulnerable. When I then went on to take a class iin Aikido, my size was no barrier. Aikido is all about using the other person’s strength in self-defense. For example, rather than pulling back when someone grabs you by the arm, you would not fight the hold at all, but would move into that person, using their strength in a cooperative way to maintain your own position.
Change the Perception of Abolitionist Animal Activists
I know some people hearing this may perceive that I am suggesting we soften the message, but that is not what I am saying at all. I am one person that is getting tired of being called divisive, self-righteous, and destructive and I want to do something to change those perceptions. I know those perceptions are there for a reason. There has been a bunker mentality that has kept some of us vegans behind the barriers we have created, where we feel safe, surrounded by like thinking people. We hear the excuse governments give all the time: we have to make war to keep the peace. But you cannot gain peace by lobbing grenades at your opponents. I hope you will consider following some of these fair fighting concepts too, so our movement can truly be about peace and justice for all beings on our fragile planet. Remember it is not just about ideas, but about perceptions and how me make people feel. Fight the good fight, but please, do so fairly and spread the peace. Otherwise, people are going to be singing this same old song about us. You know what song I mean……
Music on this podcast was: Forget You by Glee; Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer; Peter Wolf’s Growing Pain, Tina Turner’s I Don’t Want to Fight Anymore, Ingrid Michaelson’s The Way I am, Jordan Sparks’ No Air, Stevie Wonder’s You Haven’t Done Nothin,’ The Beatles Martha.