Instigate—Don’t Castigate

Fragment from Effective Advocacy of Animal Rights
by Bruce Friedrich

The third vital Carnegie principle is the art of convincing people through dialogue. Try not to make your vegan advocacy a monologue—and especially not a ranting one.

This is the one that I had the most problems with when I first became a vegan. All the animals’ suffering on factory farms and in slaughterhouses enraged me. Consequently, I wanted to beat people into becoming vegetarians or vegans, to force them to share my horror and outrage. I am now convinced that this is not the most effective way to convince people to change their behavior.

When someone says, “Plants feel pain!” or “Animals eat other animals!” there are, of course, many possible responses that would shoot the other person down. But honestly, people really do believe the things they say; they just haven’t spent much time thinking about it. You have, so you might think the question is stupid, but if they said it, they don’t think it’s stupid. So if you respond as though you think they are, you will not convince them that you’re right—instead, they’ll feel too put off by you to listen to you. A wonderful way to begin your answer to a question that you think is stupid is, “That’s a question I get a lot, but if you look at it this other way …,” or “I used to ask that same question, but now I see that …” These sorts of segues validate the other person, make you look good to anyone listening in, and continue the discussion in a way that will be far more effective than any other method that I’m aware of.

Some people say things just to be offensive on purpose, but I can tell you from experience that even many of these people are reachable. We must first refuse to lower ourselves to that level and instead come up with a response that allows them to save a bit of face and continue the conversation. If someone is clearly antagonistic, you can even say, “The things you are saying strike me as mean and disrespectful.”

If you react in this manner, you’ll be giving them a moment to embrace their better nature, and you will often find that they will soon be saying something like, “I have a sister who is a vegetarian.” I have to tell you, I’m always amazed at how someone can behave in such a nasty way at the beginning of a conversation, yet come around by the end. But they won’t come around if we act aggressively, defensively, or condescendingly.

I know that there are situations—far too often—in which you don’t even open your mouth and people are on the defensive; they feel judged simply because you are a vegan. Don’t let their anger make you angry. Practice staying calm and good-natured. If they bring it up first, try to laugh and say, “Hey, you brought it up. I’m happy to talk about it, but you seem kind of angry right now. Let me offer you this vegetarian starter kit and maybe we can talk about it later.”

Everyone wants to be liked. Everyone thinks of himself or herself as a decent person. If we grant people the opportunity to be heard—even if they don’t seem to deserve it—we can be far more effective in our interactions. Certainly, everyone witnessing the conversation will come away with a good impression of us and, thus, of animal rights activists in general.