Shortly after I went vegan for ethical reasons in 2003, I was consumed with a burning passion to share what I had learned about the meat, dairy, and egg industries with the rest of the world.
After all, I had only recently seen the undercover videos that exposed some of the most barbaric torture and cruelty on the planet; baby calves ripped from their mothers only moments after birth and locked up alone in feces-covered stalls or chained by the neck for their entire lives, all in order to produce milk, as well as tender “gourmet” veal. I saw egg-laying hens forced to live in tiny wire cages in dark, dank sheds with hundreds of thousands of other unfortunate birds who weren’t really allowed to be birds. There they would live, if you want to call it that, until one day they were more valuable dead than alive. Through tear-filled eyes I watched as people prodded, beat, stabbed, and slaughtered animals simply because they enjoyed the taste of their flesh and secretions.
Not only was I traumatized by what I had seen, I was furious. And frankly, the world needed to wake up. But the world was clearly more comfortable sleeping.
Several years went by, yet my anger and frustration would not subside.
So what did I do?
What else? I got on Facebook.
I did whatever I could to release that anger. There wasn’t an undercover video I wouldn’t share, usually accompanied by a vicious message blaming my friends and family for supporting the abuse. My anger and pain had reached such a blood-curdling fervor that I would lash out at people I loved when they dared challenge my view. I would engage in endless debates that sometimes lasted for days on end, attacking, berating, and belittling my “opponents.”
In my mind I was speaking up for the voiceless. I was speaking my truth and shedding light on the ugly underbelly of our food system. I was challenging the establishment!
But what was I really doing?
I was actually engaged in an ego-driven hysteria. Seeing animals suffer caused me immense pain, and I was doing whatever I could to make myself feel better. I never thoughtfully stepped back to consider whether my behavior was actually helping animals, or hurting them. I created enemies, no doubt turning them, along with several bystanders, off to vegans and veganism. Ironically, I was preaching compassion, but acting like a jerk. Family members disengaged, and friends de-friended me.
I’m not sure what prompted my awakening, but at some point I realized how ineffective my style of activism was in actually changing hearts and minds.
Remembering the lessons I learned in college from two books; How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, and How to Argue and Win Every Time, by Gerry Spence, I was determined to change my ways. I’ve long considered those books my bibles, and credit them, in large part, for my ability to get along well with and endear myself to people in person. I resolved to take the messages found in those books and apply them to my activism. I began resisting my urge to criticize, complain, and condemn, for as Dale Carnegie writes,
“Any fool can criticize, complain, and condemn—and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”
Initially in my mind, that approach defied logic. How could understanding and forgiving such callous disregard for life do animals any good? But Carnegie had an answer for that:
“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.”
Turns out, this was a matter of deep and intricate human psychology. When I realized that I couldn’t simply browbeat compassion into another human, I knew that my effective alternative was to educate and open hearts and minds by showing people a better way. My years of rancor simply made people defensive and dig in their heels. I now knew I had to employ a kinder, gentler approach. People need to come to a more compassionate way of life on their own terms, in their own time. As Carnegie says,
“…Arouse in the other person an eager want. He who can do this has the whole world with him. He who cannot walks a lonely way.”
I did my best to stop seeing people as enemies, as Matt Ball wisely suggests, but as potential allies. My job was not to demolish my detractors, but to gently open windows to a new way of thinking. Every interaction was now an opportunity for me to thoughtfully consider whether my actions would actually help people see animals in a new light or not. If not, it’s best to hold my tongue and look for a better opportunity to make an impact.
Each of us — even the most persuasive and effective activists among us — can always improve. We must continually evaluate our approach and consider whether we’re turning people on or turning people off to a kinder, more compassionate way of life. If you’re genuinely interested in making the world a better place for animals, and not largely looking to stroke your ego as I did for years, read the two books I mentioned. The animals are depending on your strong, effective voice.
Latest posts by Nick Coughlin (see all)
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