Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Art of Listening (Or Your Allies are More Important Than Your Ego)...

 


“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” - Stephen Covey


About a month ago, I observed of one of those little dust-ups that happen fairly often on Facebook. It happened when someone high up with a respected animal advocacy organization was questioned by others about his use of a derogatory term, usually used against women, to insult other vegans whose strategies irritated him. This was on his personal time, not in his official capacity with the organization, but because he’s a fairly high-profile individual and it was publicly said in a way that could be easily shared, it was. Social media being what it is, for better or worse, he was quickly called out for the way he used this term and given the opportunity to make a reasonable case for using it, apologize or dig his heels in and refuse to listen. He chose the last option.

To be fair, I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to be offensive or sexist. I have never met him in person but my impression is that he is a good guy and he’s one who devotes his time to building a more compassionate world. He is very gifted at what he does. That said, when he was – in my opinion – gently questioned about it, he lashed out in a pretty disproportionate way, not only listing all the ways in which he personally is oppressed by society – mentioning his sexual orientation and his ethnic background – as proof that he could not be sexist (???) but he also chose to dig his heels in and refused to entertain the idea that it was worth considering the voices of those who had differing views. He went further, implying that anyone who had anything to say about the subject that wasn’t supportive of his viewpoint was petty and ineffective. Despite what I felt were some very reasonable points to consider, he basically wrote off anyone who had an opinion to share that contradicted his own as a humorless, unproductive hater and huffed away.

The thing is, I absolutely knew where he was coming from and I empathized with his situation. Nobody likes to feel ganged up on and even when people are pretty careful about not demonizing one another, we can overreact when we feel like we’re under attack and that people are judging us, which is especially amplified by when it happens on a social media platform. With our increased capacity to interact with one another virtually, we also have a potential powder keg that can turn what should be civil disagreements into flame wars that become much more personal, messy and hurtful.

I understand as well as anyone how uncomfortable it is to admit mistakes and apologize. There is almost nothing that sets me off more than feeling like I’m being lectured and nitpicked. I get irritated and angry. When those uncomfortable feelings arise, which is at least a few times a week at this point due to having an active presence on social media, this is when it’s really vital for me to take some deep breaths, step away from my reactive self, and, with my ego removed as much as possible, ask myself if there something of merit and consideration in what is being said to me. I will also ask someone who is more neutral about it, like John, for his thoughts and many times he lets me know that I am overreacting.

Often it is baseless and just part of the social media landscape of, yes, bored people who are looking for something to attack. That is certainly always a distinct possibility. Sometimes it’s not, though. Sometimes there is something valid there. I’ve learned through observing that when people tell you that the words you used are offensive and this is why, these people and their thoughts deserve your consideration. Dismissing the voices of those who care enough to try to bring something they care about to your attention smacks of a conceited, callous attitude.

Years ago, I first became disillusioned with a vegan I once considered a hero because of the arrogant and condescending way that he dismissed anyone who disagreed with a term he created to describe our society’s confused and inconsistent treatment of other animals. It was an expression that he coined that found its basis in a specific mental illness and he applied it in moral terms. It didn’t bother me at first – it seemed to be an accurate descriptor and I had no quarrel with it – but as people who either have or care for those who suffer with this specific condition voiced their opposition to his use of the term and the way he used it, I was so turned off by his defensive and mocking response that I couldn’t help considering more of what they had to say. What they said made me more aware that mental health is a massive privilege that I take for granted; how might I feel if I saw a condition of mine treated like just another a tool in a toolbox to make a point? Might I be offended? Might I be justified in being offended? I had to answer yes to those questions. Through that new lens, seeing this man lash out and continue to deride peoples’ thoughts on a subject that didn’t affect him personally set the wheels in motion for me to scrutinize more of his interactions with the public. With that new perspective, I could see that the traits that I once perceived as confidence and honesty could also be interpreted as cockiness and meanness. It wasn’t long before this man was no longer a hero to me.

Since then, I have seen many examples of vegans refusing to budge when asked to be considerate to less advantaged populations and, time and time again, I have seen many who fail to meet the bare minimum of what one should expect, defaulting instead to white, ableist and patriarchal standards. Even worse, I have seen them treating the people who dare to speak up like impudent insubordinates for having the audacity to question their authority. If that’s not reinforcing unjust power structures, I don’t know what is because…

* When we tell people of color that their genuine challenges to veganism, often due to lack of access, time and financial resources, are petty and selfish, they are being told to shut up and deal with it. They are being told that their real lives don’t matter.

* When we tell women that they are being self-absorbed if they speak up about objectification and misogyny in the vegan sphere, they are also being told that their lives don’t matter. I don’t know if sex sells, but I do know that sexism sells out a movement.

* When we assert our intention to use every tactic is on the table if it might possibly sway some people despite negative personal and long-term consequences, we are saying that we care more about tactics than individual lives. As with the detractors above, these people are told that they need to stop whining and get in line.

I believe that the people who refuse to acknowledge the importance of caring for and about one another are setting themselves up for irrelevance. An inability to understand and appreciate the value of respectful, real allyship will ultimately ensure their obsolescence but I hope that too many people don’t become isolated in the process.

As a writer, words matter to me deeply. I am protective of them and I take great pleasure in the delicious variety available to me. At the same time, as a writer who is also a vegan and an activist, I care about being effective and a considerate, reliable ally more than I care about individual words. If I learn that something I’ve said is unintentionally harmful, I can adapt. There are many words out there including, “I’m sorry. I hadn’t thought about that. Let me try again.” There are many options. My guess is that if you want to write off any critique as the “word police” coming after you, your advantages are clouding your ability to understand your own privileged status and clouding your ability to empathize. You need to take a step back. You need to learn that an honest apology isn’t the worst thing in the world.

When people tell us something matters to them, we should listen. Most important, we should hear.

12 comments:

  1. Well-said. As I wrote in my blog today (about a separate issue), marginalized people who are hurt by words or images need to be taken seriously, even if the person causing them pain didn't intend any harm. Even those of us who have disadvantages in some areas (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) may still have privileges in others, and we need to keep those privileges in mind before dismissing the concerns of others who have different life experiences.

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  2. A wonderful article, thank you.

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  3. Wonderful post! As vegans, we should be more receptive of the challenges of other oppresssed groups, not be insensitive to them! That's what being empathetic and kind and just means, these traits that made us vegans in the first place! Because what's the point of advocating for one oppressed group, if we are dismissing others? Isn't what dog and cat lovers do when asked about the lives of farmed animals? You can't pick and choose causes, either we are all of us together fighting for everyone's rights, or we just pick the ones we like for selfish reasons and ignore the rest. I know I believe in justice for all. I hope people will eventually too :)

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  5. Listening is one of the difficult task to be follow. Thanks for these important post.

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  6. Thank you, Pax Ahimsa Gethen. So sorry for the delay in seeing this and responding. In fact, part of what turned me off to a certain individual in the vegan movement was seeing how dismissive and rude he was to you in regards to the pronoun you'd prefer people to use in addressing you. Thanks for all you do. You are making a difference.

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  7. Thank you, Roselie, I couldn't agree more!

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