17. Why You’re Not Getting Through

Have you ever spoken to someone with utter passion and conviction about your cause, and watched helplessly while his eyes glazed over? Beckwith explains why this happens:

A salesperson has something to sell you. “Blah, blah, blah,” you hear. He continues. Same thing. You hear the melody but not the lyrics. . . . You know why his pitch failed. Because the person did not talk about you. His entire pitch was about him and what he had, not about you and what you need. It was all about him. But what you cared about was you. [Italics his]

Like Bitter Truths #1 and #2, Bitter Truth #3 applies just as strongly, if not more so, to activism as to business. Even when what you’re selling is the most unambiguous social good, you always need to keep the customer’s needs front and center. If you do, you’ll be able to accomplish astounding feats of persuasion. It you don’t, your activism won’t be nearly as effective.

Peter Singer, in Ethics Into Action, says:

Too many activists mix only with other activists and imagine that everyone else thinks as they do. They start to believe in their own propaganda and lose their feel for what the average person in the street might think. They no longer know what is achievable and what is a fantasy that has grown out of their own intense conviction of the need for change. . . . [Activist] Henry [Spira] grabs every opportunity to talk to people outside the animal movement. He’ll start up a conversation with the person sitting next to him on a bus or train, mention an issue he is concerned about, and listen to their responses. How do they react? Can they feel themselves in the place of the victim? Are they outraged? What in particular do they focus on?

Later, he writes:

When Henry wants to get someone—a scientist, a corporate executive, a legislator, or a government official—to do something differently, he puts himself in the position of that person: “[The question to ask yourself is:] If I were that person, what would make me want to change my behavior? If you accuse them of being a bunch of sadistic bastards, these people are not going to figure, ‘Hey, what is it I could do that’s going to be different and make those people happy?’ That’s not the way the real world works…you want to reprogram them, and you’re not going to reprogram them by saying we’re saints and you’re sinners, and we’re going to clobber you with a two-by-four in order to educate you.”

Once you’ve used Socratic questioning to learn the customer’s viewpoint and needs, it’s your job to rise above your own viewpoint and needs and put the information you’ve gotten to use. In the vegetarian/animal rights movement, for example, our primary goal is to convert as many people as possible to a vegetarian lifestyle in which animals are not used for food, clothing or other purposes. This has four main advantages:

• It alleviates cruelty to animals, many of whom live lives of unspeakable suffering in factory farms. Factory farms are nothing like the quaint family farms of yore: they are gigantic warehouses in which tens of thousands of animals are crowded together in unspeakable conditions, often living out their whole lives without ever once stepping outdoors or even outside of their tiny cages.6

• It offers profound environmental advantages, since factory farms are notorious polluters.7

• It also helps on the labor/human rights front, since factory farms and slaughterhouses tend to be exploitative employers.8

And, finally,

• It offers enormous health benefits to the individual involved, not just because a plant-based diet is inherently healthier (lower fat, no cholesterol, more vitamins), but because, by not eating meat, eggs or dairy, a person is also not ingesting the hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and other chemicals which factory farms feed to their animals or treat them with—and which frequently wind up as residues in the food product.9

So, the vegetarian activist has many angles he can use in communicating his message to his customer. Many activists choose the “cruelty to animals” angle, perhaps because the depth of suffering the animals experience seems so immediate and awful. I, too, am moved and angered by what the animals endure—in many cases, for something as frivolous as foie gras—but in my experience many people are simply not moved by the cruelty argument, or at least not moved enough by it to give up eating animal products. The reasons for this are complex, and probably include the fact that the animal industries’ operations are so far removed from most people’s daily experience that they can’t viscerally “feel” the problem of animal suffering. Of course, the meat and other animal industries like it that way, and do everything they can to obscure the bloody realities of their product, including setting up factory farms in underpopulated areas—and, increasingly, in developing countries with little government regulation—and packaging their products in ways that disguise their origins.

The one pro-vegetarian argument that does work for many people, in my experience, is the health one—probably because everyone experiences their health and health problems viscerally (literally!). While activists who argue for vegetarianism based on anti-cruelty, environmental or labor grounds do important work, so do the many activists—and the huge numbers of non-activist doctors, nutritionists and other health experts—who are convincing people to eat less meat, dairy and eggs so that they can avoid illness and live longer.

No matter what your field of activism, you must sell to your customer’s needs, and not your own. Sometimes, those needs may strike you as unacceptably narrow and parochial, but you must avoid casting judgment on them, as that will only alienate your customer. (Even if you don’t voice your judgment, people can usually tell. . . .) Casting judgment on others’ motivations also signifies a certain naïveté about the fact that people’s motivations are usually reasonable—if not optimal—given their situations.

Which brings us to a deep need that may be very important to you, and that, if it is, might be causing you to not be as effective at your activism as you might otherwise be. . . .