Thursday, October 15, 2009
The power of a word...
Self-doubt can be the worst kind of curse. If I were the sort of person who could and would curse my enemies, I would probably zap them with the plague of self-doubt. (Thankfully, I possess neither the power nor the ill will to afflict another with my damnatory abilities.) There are people I deeply envy who, when others express apprehension about their talents or goals, do not let those doubts cloud their self-esteem or judgment. They take it in and they let it go. I am not normally one of those people: if someone expresses apprehension about an idea of mine, especially at a critically early stage, the whole thing can collapse into a heap around my feet, irreparably punctured and deflated. Something was different with Chicago VeganMania. I’m going to try to figure out why.
Vegans can be our own worst doubters. We often anticipate resistance to our message so we try to shroud what we are advocating of by never uttering its name, like the combination of consonants and vowels itself is a boogeyman that will send the average person off shrieking in terror when spoken. So we call refer to the word as something else, like "plant-based," or we cover it in something that we think will be more palatable, wrapping a cushion of apology around it, saying things like, "Well, it won't happen overnight. Don't worry," as though we’re talking about compulsory amputations or mandatory checkpoints on every street corner. I think we convey that there is something to fear when we use such tactics, even when our intentions are good. I do appreciate the advantages of a more dialed down, nuanced approach to advocacy, and I also see that the one-size-fits-all school of communication is pretty much destined to be a failure. This doesn’t stop me from believing deep down inside, though, that we can be direct about the change we want to see in the world while still being friendly and receptive. We are complex people, who need to convey information to other complex people: shouldn't we aim for fluidity?
Our recent event, Chicago VeganMania, is making me think about all sorts of things. Nothing really new, just making me more convinced about things I already suspected. One thing I’ve been thinking about is the sheer audacity of naming an event we were hoping to draw lots of curious omnivores to with the words "Vegan" and "Mania" right there in the name. We didn't call it something more vague like "VegFest," we didn't try to masquerade it as something it wasn't, pulling a bait-and-switch on the public expecting some nebulous “green” event. The boldness of laying all our cards on the table was part of the plan and part of the charm: there were no illusions about this festival from the beginning. Thus people came - and they came in droves, a long line snaking out the door and around the block all day - with open minds and warm spirits.
At the beginning when this idea was first hatched, there were at least two full meetings devoted to just debating the name. There was a party of one who felt uneasy about the word "mania," feeling that it made light of mental illness (to which I say that I appreciate the consideration but we all need to lighten up a little) but the word that seemed to make the most uncomfortable was the one that we all ultimately are trying to get people to be more comfortable with: vegan. There were people who have learned to try to sneak the concept in by making it softer and squishier (and insert the squat and meaningless expression "veg" in its place) or eradicate the word all together. "What if people are intimidated?" was a common concern. "Will we only attract the converted?"
My gut feeling from the beginning was that the name Chicago VeganMania was a stroke of genius, as I’m nothing if not humble: we could be bold (no one questioning what it was all about) and self-effacing (making light of the "vegans are obsessive maniacs" stereotype) at once. When we are direct but friendly, we send those we are communicating with the message that we trust them and they can trust us to treat them as intelligent and reasonable beings who do not need coddling. It wasn’t like we were shouting with megaphones from the rooftops, “Go vegan now, you stupid schmucks!” We were simply direct about the fact that this was an event with a distinctly vegan orientation. This built an environment of reciprocated trust between the omnivores and the vegans, which was a major hurdle we didn’t have to try to dismantle later.
We brought to the day the attitude that we had nothing to hide and everything to share: thought-provoking speakers and conscientious businesses, wonderful non-profits and delicious food. Who wouldn’t want that? No excuses, no fear, and, as such, there was little resistance and tons of goodwill. Thinking back, I remember of the lovely craft fair that originally sparked the idea behind Chicago VeganMania: the organizers did not try to conceal what it was about, anticipating correctly that there was a demand for homemade, one-of-a-kind goods. They did not create messaging that conveyed, “Just try this for a day and if you don’t like it well, you can still buy your mass-produced, sweatshop-created items when you leave.” They were proud of their unique and diverse community of participating crafters and artisans, just as we were proud of our unique and diverse community of vegan participants. Why would we shroud it in anything that diminished the forward momentum of the day? It just wouldn’t make sense. I say that as long as your message is communicated in with a warm and generous spirit, you shouldn’t be afraid of the word vegan. It is the attitude of condescension and rudeness that gives people pause, not necessarily the word itself (though some are apprehensive because of negative associations through personal experience and ignorance). That’s why we have to turn things around by associating the word vegan with positive identifications. If people still want to reject it outright, well, that is their loss.
I do understand that each community is unique and we all know our own best. Calling an event VeganMania in South Dakota or Mississippi might not be a recipe for drawing big crowds. Do what works for your location to foster more compassionate living.
Just don’t let the word vegan become a boogeyman. It shouldn’t be feared or a source of anxiety. Once we embrace it ourselves – not as a cudgel to create more divisions but as a means for passionate, diverse, intelligent and kind people reaching out – I believe that the world will embrace it, too.