Blame the Messenger
University of Toronto researchers have recently churned up some rough news for activists and agitators alike: people think we’re assholes. This perception, confirmed through several experiments, is more than an inconvenience. It actually means, as one review of the study puts it, that despite the public’s general openness to being swayed by the content of our ideas, “their unwillingness to associate with such people dampens the likelihood of changing their behavior.” Ouch.
In one experiment, 140 Americans read an article about “the need to adopt sustainable lifestyles.” A third of the readers were informed that the author was a typical environmentalist (read: asshole); another third were informed that the the author was an atypical (less aggressive grass-rootsy) environmentalist; and the final third was told nothing at all about the author’s environmentalist bone fides.
When they finished reading the piece, respondents were asked if they’d now be more likely to pursue obvious environmental actions such as recycling. According to the researchers: “Participants were less motivated to adopt pro-environmental behaviors when these behaviors were advocated by the ‘typical’ environmentalist, rather than by the ‘atypical’ environmentalist or the undefined target.” The study concludes that this finding applies to other forms of activism as well.
It’s easy, if you’re an activist, to react defensively to this news (thereby, of course, risking exposure to being perceived as even more of an asshole). After all, how frustrating it is to care deeply about a cause, desire its amelioration for the betterment of the common good, and then, as thanks for your advocacy, your toil, your sacrifice, withstand treatment as a pompous blowhard.
Nonetheless, a better response, I would humbly suggest, is to take the finding seriously and ponder ways to ameliorate what strikes me as a very real problem. I think one reason animal rights activists spend more time at each other’s throats than they do seeking a united front against a carnistic society is that, like the respondents in the survey described above, we’re put off by each other’s often aggressive self-assurance and antagonism to different perspectives on the same problem.
My own experience on this score is instructive. The primary reason I’ve gradually tip-toed away from what was once a much more hardline stance on animal exploitation has little to do with any change my belief system. I still believe as devoutly as I ever have that all forms of unnecessary animal exploitation are wrong. Instead, my shift in tone and approach came as a result of my realization—through bitter experiences that make me very sad to recall— that, when it comes to capturing hearts and minds, style matters as much as substance.
So here is where I become especially blunt: too many animal rights activists wear their moral assurance too aggressively. This is not to suggest that they are not right. But, as someone clever said somewhere at some point: would you rather be right or would you rather be effective? The reality of reality churned up by this Toronto study is that ideas are always conveyed in a social context. And social contexts are messy and imperfect places. Nice guys fare better in their vortex than do assholes.