Photo Courtesy of Erna-Louisa
Walking the Line Between Advocacy and Empathy
It took me two years to realize that my father’s hostility towards my vegetarianism had little to do with me, animals, or ethics. I spent those years furious at his lack of understanding and his callousness towards animals, unable to recognize that meat meant something very different to him than it did to me. He grew up in extreme poverty in which meat and eggs were reserved for special occasions. Being able to afford meat for his family every day in America became a symbol of his success. And there I was, rejecting it. That belated realization eased some of the tension in our relationship, but it would not have been possible if my early vegetarian zeal had not mellowed into something altogether more moderate.
It’s easy to see that the price for advocating a cause is time, energy, and money. But empathy? The willingness to consider opposing points of view? Patience for the people who hold them? What if those were the hidden costs of being passionate?
Maybe it’s obvious that they are. I don’t consider myself a particularly militant environmentalist, but show me recyclables in the dumpster and I’ll start seething about how the people in my complex are so oblivious that they can’t even see that recycling their [bleeping] plastic water bottles is the least they should be doing. It takes effort to remind myself that I was a plastic bottle user three years ago and that my concern for the environment is relatively new before I can steel myself up to fish out the recyclables. (Confession: I don’t always get to that point.)
The boundaries between advocacy and intolerance are surprisingly fuzzy. Being passionate about a cause makes it that much harder to be patient with people who don’t share it, or worse, oppose it. Even within causes in which compassion is a pretty central tenet, like vegetarianism or the pro-life movement, believing that it is possible to have a monopoly on truth or righteousness often leads to intolerance.
At the same time, if you’re a moderate who sees shades of gray and respects different perspectives, you’re unlikely to be an activist. That fiery conviction of absolute certainty is exactly what gets people out there changing minds. Unfortunately, it often ends up being a choice between pushing a cause we truly believe in and respecting the other people we share the planet with. Or at least not dismissing them as total idiots/jerks for disagreeing with us.
There isn’t much of a happy medium. However, I think there’s something to be said for making the attempt to temper advocacy with a couple of basic realizations: 1) other intelligent people have thought deeply about the same issue and come to different conclusions; 2) any issue that incites controversy and passion is probably complicated; 3) people are more willing to listen when listened to; and 4) opposing positions have, if nothing else, genuine emotional validity for the people who hold them. The last, especially, has helped mitigate the knee-jerk reaction whenever my dad makes a snide comment about my veggie potstickers.
It’s not even close to a perfect solution; I recognize that trying to understand opposing opinions probably makes me less effective in promoting my own (I should, however, point out that I am slightly more likely to be hit by lightning than my dad is to go vegetarian under any circumstances, regardless of what I do), but perhaps that’s just something else to remember: in the real world, compromise is inevitable.
Jennifer Mo is a concerned global citizen whose musings on shorter showers, mindfulness, voluntary human extinction, and vegetarianism can be found over on her blog, http://noteasytobegreen.wordpress.com