Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Hard Sell...

Back when I was nineteen, I had a conversation with a man named Owl, a radical librarian who was partial to wearing skirts, in a park at a Lawrence, Kansas art festival. Somehow or another, the topic came up of the Rainbow Gathering, which is an annual love-in at different locations each year, culminating in a patchouli-scented prayer for peace on July fourth. It involves camping and a barter system and good vibes and hallucinogens. I was both repelled and intrigued, mostly intrigued. I was also eager to get out of town for a week. I didn’t think much about it before Owl called me a few days later, having borrowed the requisite VW van and arranged for people to pick up in Kansas City and Lincoln. When should he pick me up? I was thrown for a loop, stammering there for a minute, not remembering that I had committed but I found myself saying that he could pick me up on his way out of town. I borrowed camping gear, told my only-vaguely-remembered today boyfriend at the time to go screw himself, bought some bug repellent and called in to my job, which was nude modeling, citing some flakily constructed “family emergency” that would take me off the charcoal-smudged platforms for a week. I packed my big suitcase on wheels and took off.

The Rainbow Gathering was a huge adventure for a girl who was raised on the North Shore, the conservative, affluent suburbs directly north of Chicago. Aside from the culture in which random dudes in orange tie-dyes who would feel perfectly comfortable asking this “sister” for a hug (little did those poor, unsuspecting, dilated-pupiled souls know that I was going through a pretty active anti-male phase of my feminist awakening during this time, though they did soon), and the big-as-robins, bloodthirsty mosquitoes that Lake Superior State Park apparently breeds, I had a pretty great time. While I was exposed to more counter-cultural types when I went to school in Lawrence – home of William F. Burroughs and countless dreadlocks – going to the Rainbow Gathering was a total immersion in anything that flew in the face of mainstream, middle class values. Queer, self-proclaimed nature fairies? I met them on the long, dirt road walk to the campground (not easy with a constantly upending suitcase on wheels, I will tell you). Alcoholic bikers? They were there, too, just set off from the rest of the gathering, thank goodness, which had a strict anti-alcohol, pro-‘shroom platform maintained throughout. There were also latter-day flower children, potheads (this goes without saying), suspiciously frat boy-esque dudes looking for a “dose” (hit or two of acid), artists, sixties hangovers, feminists, peripatetic gypsies, you name it. There were also some who were very opposed to The System.

One day, I happened to mention a trip that some of us had made into town earlier that morning, a long journey that required miles of walking on a super hot day, to stock up on supplies. We had stopped at a Dairy Queen and I had a Mr. Misty, a sort of a Slurpee: we were extremely hot and dehydrated and I will admit that it tasted exquisite at the time. I should also mention that while I was a vegetarian, I had virtually no consciousness about consumerism or waste or any of that other stuff that drives me today. I just hadn’t been exposed to these ideas. Anyway, as soon as I had mentioned the Mr. Misty, one guy who just happened to be standing nearby overheard and flew into a sputtering, vitriolic rage.

He started screaming at me – jabbing his fingers and the vein in his forehead furiously pronounced – about Dairy Queen and how evil that corporation was and how they were exploiting the animals and destroying the earth and now I had just given them a couple of dollars to do it some more. I was shell-shocked. Not only had I never heard of any of these ideas (thrown up against me, rat-a-tat-tat), the fact that a random stranger started loudly berating me because of something I casually mentioned left me stunned. After his tirade, which lasted a good minute or two before he stormed off with sizzling lines of angry hissing all around him (or maybe that was my imagination), I was speechless. The best I could muster was a very pallid “Umm…”

I think back to that day often and more than anything, I resent that anonymous Angry Dude for not giving me the opportunity to learn more. As it happened, it wasn’t until about eight years later that I learned enough to become a vegan. I learned enough through the power of the internet and books, yes, but also through the positive outreach of many dedicated activists. Think of what an opportunity he squandered with his angry and vicious diatribe. Not only could I have learned right there and then all I needed to lay the groundwork for becoming vegan – thus I would have stopped supporting the horrible dairy and egg industries earlier – but I could have spent all those years helping to inform others about it. One bad experience with an awful messenger has a reverse ripple effect that can not only help to block progress but it can also work to turn people away from positive, life-altering changes completely. We often hear about the arrogant, strident, rude and hostile advocates who turn potential allies away in seconds flat. Think back in your own life to someone like that. It’s possible that the person’s message itself was good (as was his: think twice about supporting wasteful, exploitative businesses) but when it is wrapped up in a delivery that is so off-putting, it is a medicine very few willingly swallow. Given that, is it in the best interests of an advocate to bulldoze over those he is trying to persuade? Yes, people can be persuaded with threats and guilt tactics and insults – there are those who have such low self-esteem that they can basically be cajoled into anything – but for every “mission accomplished,” there must be dozens and dozens more who are turned off so thoroughly it may take them years, if ever, to reconsider.

I am not talking about wrapping up an ugly truth into a more agreeable package, for example, saying, “Well, factory farming sucks so you could just buy free-range products,” or “Don’t worry, the world go vegan happen overnight.” I am a big proponent of not apologizing in any way for having a message that may be upsetting to the general public. I do not apologize this message ever. What I do do, though, is try to maintain a warm and approachable demeanor. Simply by thinking to oneself, How would I want to receive this new information?, is all we need to go on. I would want the person delivering the message to listen to me without dismissing what I have to say out of hand. I would want to be respected. I would want to be heard and treated with compassion. Simple. At least it should be simple..

I understand the feelings of frustration, anger and sense of urgency the Angry Man had and I share them, often. Despite his shrill example, I have also turned off many people on my path to becoming a more balanced person and better communicator. I deeply regret this. While I am an lifelong fan of polemics, I am equally opposed to fundamentalism. It is unhealthy, imbalanced, puritanical and too often accompanied with a steaming side dish of hate. Is this the sort of world we want to create? I am a vegan activist because I believe in the power of dynamic compassion and because I want to people to stop being complicit in cruelty to sentient beings. I am not interested in creating a world with people who are stomping around, certain of their moral and mental superiority. As far as I am concerned, the message of ahimsa, whether we agree or disagree on the details, is not in question. What is being questioned (and rejected) by me is dogmatic, doctrinaire zealotry. I have no patience for fire-and-brimstone evangelicals in my life, whether they are preaching religion or screaming at me as a na├»ve nineteen-year-old for buying a Mr. Misty. Going in for the hard sell, whether it’s for religion or a new car or veganism, is going to make people naturally suspicious, those who don’t walk away in the first thirty seconds, that is. Our message doesn’t need the “hard sell”: it does require that we are honest, compassionate and thoughtful. It is also essential that we evaluate if our communication methods are effective. If they are ineffective, we may as well be shouting into the wind. In fact, if you are an ineffective communicator, shouting into the wind is often the case. This might do wonders for your sense of righteous indignation and conviction that everyone else in the world is stupid and cruel, but does this help the cause one iota? Again, I am not talking about changing the message itself, just how it is delivered.

It is my experience that all advocacy movements have a healthy population of those who follow the take-no-prisoners school of outreach. It has appeared when I’ve traveled in feminist, anti-war and sustainability circles and it is true of the animal rights movement as well. It is at that point to me where the far left and the far right intersect: a steadfast refusal to budge from a rigid, often purely theoretical, point-of-view. As I said, I have no place for fundamentalism in my life and it doesn’t do those the crusader is advocating on behalf of any favors either.

So what’s the answer? I think we’ve just got to strive to be better, more peaceful people. It should all fall into place from there.


  1. Thanks for this! Such an important reminder. I often find myself appreciating the raw energy and rhetoric of the take-no-prisoners camp, but it's not an approach that works for me. I prefer to think of Miracle Max's miracle pill from "The Princess Bride": "Chocolate coating makes it go down easier!" :)

  2. Thanks, VB, and a reference to one of my favorite movies ever!

  3. I agree that berating people is rarely a good strategy for turning people on to the vegan lifestyle. That said, I do think the "hard sell" can and does work sometimes. Nearly the entire reason I became a vegetarian was because of a vegan girl I knew who constantly, unrelentingly informed me of the origins of what I was eating and called me out on the fact that I was eating dead, abused animals and drinking pus stolen from abused animals. Eventually, after having argument after argument with this antagonistic frenemy, I gave in and admitted that what I was doing was wrong. It took me a while longer to actually stop eating meat - for I while I just told her I agreed with her but didn't care. But she kept at me, harassing me about how I could possibly consider myself a feminist and actively engage in behavior I thought was exploitive and cruel. Because of her unwillingness to stop antagonizing me, I couldn't stop thinking about the issues, and one day I just committed emotionally to the cause (after arguing with some hunting enthusiasts and realizing what a hypocrite I was). I haven't eaten meat since.

    Obviously, the pestering strategy turns a lot of people off...but it worked on me, and four years later I'm even more committed to vegetarianism and animal rights. I may not be a vegan (yet?), but I'm a lot more conscious of the issues than I would have been without her. My resolution for the new year is to better learn to cook vegetarian and vegan foods, and I anticipate moving closer to veganism as I become more familiar with how to cook a balanced vegan diet. It's a gradual process for me and I'm far from perfect, but it would never even have started without my angry, argumentative vegan friend.

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