A friend of mine who is an animal rights vegan activist asked me if I had any tips that might help her be able to be a better speaker on the subject. “Who will you be speaking to?” I asked. “Normal people, who know the typical ignorant small town American, beer drinking, drives a pick-up truck, watches football, likes to hunt, fish, probably a republican,” she sneered. “And what do you hope to communicate to them?” “I want them to become vegan.” “Are you sure?” “What do you mean, am I sure? Yes I’m sure!” “Okay, just checking.” “Checking what?” “That you aren’t just looking to vent your anger.” “But I am angry at them!” “Is your anger worth more to you, then a chance to communicate to them?” “Hmm, well I do want to communicate the vegan message. I want them to become kinder people.” “Well then you will have to see them as kind people, see them as holy beings.” “No! They are not holy beings! They are not yoga-people! These are ignorant, stupid, crass, selfish, bigots most likely racists and wife beaters too—real scum.” “You have to see them as holy beings,” I repeat. “No I can’t!” “Well if you can’t see them as holy beings capable of kindness and compassion, how dare you expect them to be?” “I gotta think about that one for a while.”
To be an effective speaker and use your words to move people to be respectful, kind and compassionate towards animals and stop eating them the first step is to be a joyful vegan yourself. View everyone as providing you with opportunities to be kind and articulate empathy and compassion for other beings. See whomever you speak to as a holy being. Do not see anyone as mean, stupid, or compassionless or as a person who needs you to enlighten him or her. If you can’t see people you speak to as compassionate, how can you ever expect them to see themselves that way?
Before you speak to someone, ask yourself, how do I want this person to feel about himself or herself? Do you have the largeness of heart to see that person’s highest potential? For that to occur, you must be willing to give up any negative thoughts about him or her in order to provide a space for the person to turn around in. Keep in mind that when you are speaking to others, they can always feel your underlying contempt or respect for them, and that will determine whether they are able to hear your message. What is your goal in speaking to them? Is it to vent your anger, bully them, assert your superiority, berate, and make them feel guilty? Or do you really want to empower them to change for the better and to become the kind of person who doesn’t want to cause animals to suffer? If you really want them to stop eating meat, you must see in them the potential to do that and you must speak to that potential.
The biggest misconception about activism is the thought that hate and anger are more powerful motivators than love and acceptance. When you think the world is out there coming at you and you have to fight back, you are engaged in war, and war never brings peace and cannot activate the inner force of love within you. To separate the world into vegans and meat eaters, good guys and bad guys, or victims and perpetrators will result only in more division, not the peaceful unification we say we seek.
The misconception about activism in general starts with a confusion about the effectiveness of advocacy without aggression. Aggression is confrontational and against, whereas advocacy is for. There is a misconception that advocacy expressed without aggression will be perceived as too touchy-feely and ineffective, whereas advocacy linked with aggression is commonly regarded as more effective. This idea that you need to be aggressive to effectively get your point across and thus elicit change undermines any chance for communication, and without communication, intelligent solutions to problems become impossible. You can’t make lasting effective change through merely expressing your anger. Advocacy with a long-term aim forces you to look deeper into the issue and come up with solutions for all involved. It takes two people to make a fight; it takes one to make a difference.
The ability to find common ground to begin a conversation is essential. For that to happen, you have to let go of any animosity or contempt you may feel toward the other person. Aggression, as well as advocacy, can come in the form of actions, words, and thoughts. A person can always feel how you feel about them, and this will determine the outcome of any interaction. Again, if you can’t see others as potentially kind and compassionate beings, how can you ever expect them to see themselves that way?
To think well of another and to want that person’s happiness, even though you do not agree with the person’s current thoughts and actions, is the key to spiritual activism. When you engage in conversation with others who may not agree with your point of view, be sure that you are coming from a place of tolerance yourself. “I try to treat whomever I meet as an old friend,” says the Dalai Lama. “This gives me a genuine feeling of happiness—this is the practice of compassion. A truly compassionate attitude towards others does not change even if they are behaving negatively.” And from Harvard professor Arthur C. Brooks, “When you feel contempt for another person, practice warm-heartedness towards them. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way: “You have no moral grounding with someone who can feel your underlying contempt for them.”
Sharon Gannon is the co-founder of the Jivamukti Yoga method, and an author and activist. Her newest book is Yoga and Veganism: The Diet of Enlightenment
Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash