Does Righteousness Lead to Intolerance? ~ Jennifer Mo

Via elephant journal
on Jan 6, 2011
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Glenn Beck “Hate is NOT a Skagit Valle by Erna-Louisa, on Flickr
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,


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13 Responses to “Does Righteousness Lead to Intolerance? ~ Jennifer Mo”

  1. donnzpg says:

    Very well said. Those who feel strongly about effecting change among others must understand and acknowledge the range of viewpoints that are contrary to the desired change. If I feel society needs to embrace the concept of animal rights and become vegan to end human subjugation of other species, it makes no sense to depict non-vegans as mass murderers. One must know how to persuade people and be aware that an overtly righteous demeanor about a particular cause is counter-productive to achieving the desired goal.

  2. YesuDas says:

    Hear, hear! I sometimes fear that the world is becoming as Yeats envisioned it, where "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Let's hope we pull ourselves back from that brink!

    A professor of mine once said to me, "Scott, some people are just shallow." And I believed him for years, until a younger-but-wiser friend said, "No, they're not; nobody is 'just shallow.'" Everyone has tried to make sense of life, to find meaning in existence and their place in the world; everyone has heard "time's winged chariot drawing near." And if many people shut down in the face of the immensity of it all, or cling to answers that make them feel safe while seeming wildly irrational to us, it doesn't mean they are "total idiots/jerks"–as hard as it can be to remember that when they are in your face! Thanks for writing this.

  3. Lynn Fang says:

    Jennifer, this is an amazing post. It's very admirable of you to think through such a situation, and to be aware that opposing positions provide emotional validity for those who hold them. I'm glad thinking this way has helped ease your relationships. I think advocacy has gotten a bad rep in the past due to its 'fiery conviction of absolute certainty'.

    I think the most important goal for an activist is to get other people on your bandwagon, and not make them feel rejected, invalidated, outcasted, or stupid. People aren't perfect, and if you can get them to even think about not eating meat, that's a step forward. Some people will never ever change. I think our true activist energies should be focused on those people who are on the fence. Of course, this is all easier said than done.

  4. John Ptacek says:

    Lynn, I respectfully ask: Do we need bandwagons and strategies to pick off fence sitters? Who wins and who loses? Isn't the only important change the one that takes place within?

  5. Toni says:

    This is a very well written piece. Seldom does someone look at this issue from this angle, and it's helped me see some things differently. Your insight about your father is especially touching. I found my here via the Rational Response Squad daily, by the way. Thanks!

  6. " I recognize that trying to understand opposing opinions probably makes me less effective in promoting my own."
    I disagree completely. It might make you less motivated–which is an important issue, certainly–but more likely to be able to initiate the kind of respectful conversation that actually changes minds.

  7. Jennifer Mo says:

    That's an interesting thought, and you're probably right to a degree. I certainly prefer respectful conversation. However, I don't know if I would dismiss the more active, aggressive forms of activism as ineffective; they probably provoke more polarized reactions — some people are completely converted, others are completely turned off.

  8. yogiclarebear says:

    Jennifer, copying and saving your 4 points now…thanks, these are important to remember. I think this is important, ESPECIALLY dealing with those close to us who may not share our passions or views. Peace begins in the heart, then the home/family…

  9. […] Does Righteousness Lead to Intolerance? Walking the Line Between Advocacy and Empathy ~ Jennifer Mo […]

  10. elephantjournal says:

    Rose: Thank you [for posting], Waylon. Wonderful reminder. This applies to so much. I've always thought it amazing that in our own minds, we can hold ourselves high while thinking and speaking disparagingly of others. I catch my self doing it and think "have you learned nothing."

  11. Rebecca says:

    You took the words RIGHT out of my mouth. Although I do not eat meat I purposefully do not classify myself as vegetarian. I do this to give myself flexibility/option to have a bit of someone's meal (should I choose to) without fellow-veggies looking at me with complete shock, disappointment, and disdain.

    However, I ALSO consciously do not classify myself with groups (such as vegetarians, vegans, and so on) because of the high-and-mighty attitude and closed-mindedness that all too often accompanies such classifications. I always peruse veggie and vegan blogs and CONSTANTLY read comments about how "stupid" and "ignorant" people are who do not share the same values. There are tons of arguments as to why vegetarian diets are automatically healthier than those who include animal protein…the evils of eggs…and on and on. What always strikes me is how people can be complaining about others being closed-minded to THEIR cause/choice while they are, at that very same moment, failing to offer compassion to others and try and understand an alternate point of view. (Not to mention the fact that many fail to see that there are plenty of people who consume animal protein in limited quantities and still eat a TON of vegetables…perfect example of the very same stereotypes that vegetarians/vegans do not want made about THEM).

    Thank you for putting words out there which address this hypocrisy. I truly hope that those adopting a lifestyle of and standing up/supporting what they believe in continue to do so (rock on!)—but are able to cast their self-righteousness aside just long enough to realize they are often resisting/complaining about the very same thing they are doing themselves.

    Let's all turn the mirror on ourselves before casting judgement on others…in practicing compassion for ALL points of view, we can better get our ideas across. What a concept…positively influencing others by listening and accepting instead of preaching and resisting.

  12. Rebecca says:

    After all, the quickest way to get someone to stubbornly disagree or tune out is to lecture instead of listen.