12. The Best Activists Do This (Part II)

A major stumbling-block for many activists is distinguishing between bad ideologies and the people who support them. Here, again, we can learn from expert salespeople and activists, most of whom are disinclined to harshly judge people who disagree with them, and highly disinclined to label them negatively (i.e., “ignorant,” “selfish,” or “stupid”). They may judge the behavior or ideology, but never the person. That’s for several reasons:

1. They understand that we all have areas where we need to grow and improve.

2. They also understand that we tend to judge more harshly those whose “growth areas” happen to differ from our own—and that that’s unfair.

3. They also understand that even opinions and viewpoints that they may totally disagree with may have been arrived at reasonably. They may not share the viewpoint of a company owner who resists paying her workers more than the minimum wage, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a certain logic to her position—a logic that is strongly supported by our society and culture.

4. They also know that they aren’t likely to know all the relevant facts about a person’s life and viewpoints, especially at the beginning of a relationship—and that making assumptions or jumping to conclusions is not just bad activism, but bad manners.

5. As discussed in Part IV, chapters 7 and 8, fear likely underpins much conservative thought, and the only proper response to fear is compassion. This is not just a moral stance but a pragmatic one: fear is very difficult to overcome, and if you judge or label a fearful person harshly, they are likely to dig in their heels, or move actively away from your viewpoint. Experts know that compassion and kindness are really the best tools for helping fearful people embrace new viewpoints.

And, most important of all,

6. Expert salespeople and activists understand that it’s not the customer’s job to recognize the merits of their position, but their job to work to comprehend the customer’s worldview and then sell “to” that view. Experts never blame the customer for their own failure to make a sale, but always look to see what they could have done differently or better.

Below is an example of how a great activist, through his compassion, understanding and, most importantly, his non-judgmental attitude, can convert even the toughest opponent to his cause.

The Activist and the Pig Farmer

In his book The Food Revolution (see Bibliography), animal rights activist John Robbins tells how, in the course of doing undercover work, he wound up having dinner one night at the home of an Iowa pig farmer—not a traditional “Ol’ MacDonald” kind of farmer—who are a relative rarity these days, anyhow—but a typical modern “factory farmer” who kept thousands of pigs confined indoors twenty-four hours a day in horribly crowded, filthy and inhumane conditions. Robbins didn’t tell the farmer he was an activist, but the farmer deduced it somehow, and midway through the meal, as Robbins relates, “pointed at me forcefully with his finger and snarled in a voice that I must say truly frightened me, ‘Sometimes I wish you animal rights people would just drop dead.’ ”

It would be understandable if Robbins had panicked or gotten defensive or belligerent in return, but he didn’t. He kept his cool, just asking the farmer what it was about animal rights people that bothered him . . . and asking . . . and asking. What he was doing, actually, was a classic “needs assessment” interview (see Chapter 29) designed to help him uncover his customer’s needs so that he could then sell to those needs. With his gentle, non-judgmental “Socratic” questioning, Robbins was also able to defuse the farmer’s hostility, call into question his stereotyped view of activists, and form a relationship with him that allowed for the possibility of persuasion.

Through his questioning, Robbins discovered that:

Part of [the farmer’s] frustration, it seemed, was that even though he didn’t like doing some of the things he did to the animals—cooping them up in such small cages, using so many drugs, taking their babies away from their mothers so quickly after their births—he didn’t see that he had any choice. He would be at a disadvantage and unable to compete economically if he didn’t do things that way. . . . He didn’t like it, but he liked even less being blamed for doing what he had to do in order to feed his family. . . .

“As the conversation progressed,” Robbins writes, “I actually began to develop some sense of respect for this man whom I had earlier judged so harshly. There was decency in him. There was something within him that meant well.” And still later, when Robbins and the farmer were out walking, the farmer broke down in tears and talked about how intelligent and sensitive pigs were, and how, as a child, he had had a pet pig whom he had cherished, and whom he had been forced by his father to slaughter.

Robbins again:

I had thought he was a cold and closed human being, but now I saw the truth. His rigidity was not a result of a lack of feeling, as I had thought it was, but quite the opposite: it was a sign of how sensitive he was underneath. For if he had not been so sensitive, he would not have been hurt, and he would not have needed to put up so massive a wall. . . . I had judged him, and done so, to be honest, mercilessly. But for the rest of the evening I sat with him, humbled, and grateful for whatever it was in him that had been strong enough to force this long-buried and deeply painful memory to the surface. And glad, too, that I had not stayed stuck in my judgments of him, for if I had, I would not have provided an environment in which his remembering could have occurred.

We talked that night, for hours, about many things. I was, after all that had happened, concerned for him. The gap between his feelings and his lifestyle seemed so tragically vast. What could he do? This was all he knew. He did not have a high school diploma. He was only partially literate. Who would hire him if he tried to do something else? Who would invest in him and train him, at his age?

These serious problems were not to be immediately resolved, but Robbins and the farmer maintained their friendship over the years—and years later, Robbins reports, the farmer wrote him and said that he had gotten out of the hog-farming business entirely and was now growing organic vegetables. This was obviously a huge triumph, not just for Robbins, and of course the pigs, but for the farmer himself—and a classic example of how, as discussed in Chapter 1, progressive activism heals not just society as a whole, but the individual you are asking to change.

The question hardly needs asking, but I will ask it anyway: do you think Robbins could have gotten the farmer to make such a major life change if he had judged him or shamed or blamed him?

Robbins concludes:

Do you see why I carry this man with me in my heart? Do you see why he is such a hero to me? He dared to leap, to risk everything, to leave what was killing his spirit even though he didn’t know what was next. He left behind a way of life that he knew was wrong, and he found one that he knows is right.

When I look at many of the things happening in our world, I sometimes fear we won’t make it . . . but then I remember how wrong I was about the pig farmer when I first met him and I realize that there are heroes afoot everywhere. Only I can’t recognize them because I think they are supposed to look or act a certain way. How blinded I can be by my own beliefs.

Some people are fortunate enough to be born with the ability to like and relate to a wide range of humanity, while others are taught to do so by parents, friends, teachers or mentors. If you would like to improve in this area, the best way to do so is to do some work (including, of course, activism or volunteerism) alongside people whose backgrounds and/or attitudes differ from your own. You can also read books about psychology or sociology to gain insights into human nature; and, finally, Buddhism and some other spiritual practices offer meditations and other techniques specifically designed to help you become more accepting of others.


Get in Touch With Your Inner Strict Father

According to George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant!, everyone uses both the nurturant parent and strict father models. As a progressive, your strict father model is probably relatively quiescent, but you might want to tap into it in your quest to feel non-judgmental compassion for conservatives. This is a very practical exercise that will also provide you with powerful ammunition for your activism, since understanding the logic behind your opponent’s position will obviously make you much more effective in countering it. As Lakoff advises: “Understand where conservatives are coming from. Get their strict father morality and its consequences clear. Know what you are arguing against. Be able to explain why they believe what they believe. Try to predict what they will say.”