Keeping Calm While Advocating

Some tips on staying calm while advocating animals, and why it is in our best interests to do so.

This was a topic suggested to by TheFlemFace on Youtube, as it’s something we’re both aware that many advocates struggle with. We’re all familiar with the “sensitive” or “angry” vegan stereotype, and that can be good enough reason on it’s own to try not to fall into the trap of becoming too aggressive or visibly angry while arguing. There is a real place for passion and emotion in advocacy, but it has to be channelled in the right way, and becoming aggressive with those you are trying to advocate to is seldom an effective method of advocating veganism and animal rights.

It’s important to acknowledge first of all, that despite instance to the contrary by those who claim to value logic, becoming emotional in an argument does not mean you have lost. That you make your point with emotion or even anger has no impact whatsoever on the validity of your argument. It is natural that for us animal rights is a deeply emotional issue, we understand how high the stakes are, whereas those we are debating with seldom do, for them the topic is often merely an academic one. That people often dismiss emotional arguments out of hand is the reason that many of us choose to try to stay calm in our advocacy, not because arguing emotionally is any less valid or understandable. Being calm in a debate can often be the difference between it being a slanging match and a constructive conversation, and it helps protect the advocate from being upset and wasting their energy on conversations which will not have any impact.

Remember that you weren’t always vegan.

The longer you’ve been vegan, the easier it is to forget what it was like when you weren’t. Try to keep in mind that you likely held the same views you find appalling now, and that people who consume animal products don’t do so because they want to be bad people, they were raised that way and it is not easy to admit you are wrong and make such a dramatic change. That doesn’t mean we should be any less insistent about the fact that going vegan is the right thing to do, but it does mean that we need to show a little understanding to those who are in a different stage of their journey than we are. It also doesn’t hurt to remind the person you’re talking to that you used to be like them, and you used to think you could never give up meat or dairy, but then you did, and you can use that opportunity to tell them why. It’s still a person you’re talking to, not a representation of the global evil of animal agriculture, just someone who doesn’t know any better, or does and hasn’t acted on it. It’s your job to make them understand, not to make them hate themselves. Breaking the world into “us and them” is simplistic and ineffective, it is easy and satisfying to distance ourselves from and even attack the “other”, but it is a much braver thing to acknowledge the fact that we used to be exactly the same way, and maybe these people are not as different to us as we like to tell ourselves.

Find common ground.

There is almost always common ground in any debate. In conversations related to animal rights, both sides of an argument may agree, for example, that animals shouldn’t be harmed unnecessarily. These common principles can help conversations remain calm and avoid them escalating into anger in the first place. If conversations begin to descend into personal attacks, try to draw them back to the points you agree on and, and build up from there. Starting conversations with things like “okay, so we agree animals shouldn’t be harmed unnecessarily, so you do you think that harming animals to produce meat is necessary?” is less likely to result in a confrontation than “you hurt animals unnecessarily”, even though the implication is identical in both cases. People become defensive when they feel like they  are being accused of being a bad person, because despite what anyone says, we all care about how we are viewed, we are hard wired with the desire for social approval. Keeping conversations centred around what you share and then figuring out how to breach the gaps in where you differ is generally far more effective than starting with what you disagree on.

Remember that you know what you’re talking about.

For the same reasons that we are emotionally invested in the topic at hand, we also tend to be better informed. The person who cares about a given topic has almost always done more research on it, and since we are used to the exact same arguments being made over and over, we will usually have counters readily available to most of the points being made against veganism. This is especially true when it comes to the general public, while people know far more about how animals are treated than they like to admit, most people avoid finding out or particularly witnessing these truths for themselves, for fairly obvious reasons. Even those involved in the industry themselves like farmers or slaughterhouse workers tend to have a surprising lack of knowledge about any area of agriculture outside of their own profession, or their own specific role in that profession. This confidence can help you keep your cool, knowing that in any debate about veganism and animal agriculture, you will usually know more than the person you are debating.

Keep the conversation focused.

One of the easiest ways to become frustrated in a debate is to allow the person you’re debating with to lead the discussion. If once you’ve disproved someone’s point or sufficiently countered an argument they just immediately move on to the next point without conceding, then you will never get them to admit that they are wrong. Do not allow people to sidetrack, or simply overwhelm you with too many points to answer all at once. Pin the person down to a specific premise or argument they have made, if they are arguing that we need animal products to survive, do not allow the conversation to move on until you have sufficiently proved that we do not. This doesn’t have to be aggressive, but phrases like “before we move on, your original point was that humans need to consume animal products, do you we agree now that at least most people can survive without animal products?” If they still won’t agree, stay on that topic, even if you never move past it. If you allow them to simply blow past any point without conceding it then you will never pin them down to making any concessions, you will not make any progress, and you will likely become frustrated in the process.


Avoid antagonistic language

Despite the reputation vegans have for being sensitive, anyone who has ever debated with meat eaters will know how quickly people can become agitated and aggressive. Sometimes there is little you can do about this, but there are particular words and phrases vegans use which can set people off. I’ve discussed my aversion to holocaust comparisons before, but regardless of what you think about them it cannot be denied that they make people angry and tend to escalate conversations into conflict. The same is true of using the word “carnist,” while this is a really useful descriptor for the belief system behind meat eating and is not at all a slur, we all know that it is often used as if it is in conversations with meat eaters. Most people don’t know what this term means and simply interpret it as an insult, so use it in your conversations with vegans, but I’d recommend avoiding it when debating with meat eaters, unless you are fully explaining what you mean by it or exploring the beliefs involved with carnism and how they compare with veganism. There are plenty of other examples, and while some these terms are often perfectly accurate and legitimate, if their only impact is to sidetrack conversations into debates over semantics then they are not helpful for the purpose of advocacy.

Deescalate when necessary

Even following all of these methods, it is still likely you still experience debates which are emotionally charged. If you or the person you are talking to is becoming angry, or upset, it is time to deescalate the conversation. This can be done simply by putting it on hold, explaining that you you’re going to go away and have a think about the points which have been raised, and suggest they do the same. Alternatively, change the angle of the debate if you have struck on something too emotive, as a new question, ask them to expand on an older point, or return to the common ground you share and build on it once again. Just some human moments, like a self-deprecating joke, a compliment, can be enough to ground someone and remind them that they are talking to a real human being, and that they should speak to you accordingly. If someone does become so angry they resort to personal insults, or even start with them, it is so tempting to respond in kind but it is far more effective to respond with honesty. “There is no need to be rude, I’m just trying to talk to you,” or even openly saying “that’s a little hurtful” can have a surprising impact in cooling down a heated discussion, and reminding both people that a constructive conversation is only possible if you can talk to each other respectfully.

Manage your expectations

 It is important going into any discussion that you don’t expect too much from it. If you are expecting to convert everyone you debate with you are going to be disappointed, and that is likely to make you frustrated and angry. It is extremely rare for even the most gifted advocates to convert someone on the spot, most of what we are doing here is just planting seeds in the hope that they’ll bear fruit later on. Keep this in mind when your arguments are not landing the way you hoped, or the person you are debating with is resisting conceding anything at all. It is incredibly difficult for someone to admit they are wrong in front of someone they are exchanging views with, regardless of how polite or civil that person is. So make your points, defend them, but maintain your cool enough so that the person you’ve debated with would feel able to come to you if they ever wanted to continue that discussion, or even seek out your help to go vegan should they decide to do so. Keep in mind that particularly in public debates and online ones, even if you have no impact on the person you’re talking to, you may be having a much larger effect on those who are watching.

Don’t be afraid to walk away

Finally, don’t be afraid to walk away from a conversation which is descending into anger and personal insults. There is no reason a conversation like this can’t be revisited at a later time, but if a discussion continues along those lines the inevitable conclusion will be both parties destroying any chance of an agreement or concession. More than this, you will wear yourself out and make it less likely that you’ll be able to advocate calmly and effectively later. If it is clear that someone is looking for confrontation, then don’t waste your time and energy by giving it to them. Activists have a tendency of burning out if they aren’t careful to conserve their physical and emotional energy, it is far better to spend your time finding someone who will listen to you than continuing a discussion with someone who you know never will.

Above all, try to be to the advocate you would have wanted to meet before you went vegan. It can be easy to forget how daunting it was when you first gave up animal products, and people are much more likely to make the attempt if they know that there is someone in their corner. Keep in mind that we are often the only vegan the person we are talking to has ever spoken to at any length, we are their sole representation of the vegan community, and we want to represent that community as something they should want to be a part of. This is unlikely to happen if we isolate people with our activism. Angry responses and put downs are easy, they are satisfying and people applaud us for them, but our primary concern must always be what works, not what feels good. The stakes are simply too high for us to indulge our anger and negativity towards those who consume animals, tempting as it is. The focus must always be to uplift people, not to put them down.

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