protestors speaking into megaphones
Image via Hanna Nikkanen/Flickr.

by Marsha Rakestraw

Awhile back I had dinner with some new non-vegan friends and colleagues. I was the only vegan there, and it came out that they’d been a bit concerned that I’d pull out my “vegan police” badge and start lecturing them about their food choices. When I told the person next to me that I don’t do that, he said he has met lots of vegans who are very judgmental and off-putting.

When I’m skimming my social media feeds, it’s very common to see someone vilifying and unkindly criticizing other people who don’t make the same humane choices they do. I wonder how often they reflect on what kind of impact their words are having.

In the work that I do as a humane educator, I encounter a lot of people who are passionate about creating a better world, and who carry with them a lot of anger and despair about all the cruelty, destruction, and injustice that we as humans perpetrate on other people, nonhuman animals, and the earth. It can be a real challenge not to lash out, not to judge, not to want to shame/guilt/coerce people in some way to make more compassionate choices.

But in our zeal to cultivate positive change, we can foment the opposite.

A study published in 2013 in the European Journal of Social Psychology, “The ironic impact of activists: Negative stereotypes reduce social change influence,” reveals just how strong a correlation there is between the behaviors of a few changemakers and the larger impact on citizens’ willingness to make changes. As the abstract says,

“Participants had negative stereotypes of activists (feminists and environmentalists), regardless of the domain of activism, viewing them as eccentric and militant. Furthermore, these stereotypes reduced participants’ willingness to affiliate with ‘typical’ activists and, ultimately, to adopt the behaviours that these activists promoted. These results indicate that stereotypes and person perception processes more generally play a key role in creating resistance to social change.”

In other words, if we, or other changemakers, come across as unreasonable, off-putting, hostile or judgmental, then most changemakers get thrown into the camp of unreliable or undesirable, and people are much less willing to make the changes we’d like them to. (Read more about the study here.)

As Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

The reality of how people react to and stereotype changemakers doesn’t mean we can’t work for significant and lasting change. It doesn’t mean we can’t ever show our anger. It doesn’t mean we can’t ever join a protest. It doesn’t mean we can’t be creative in our efforts.

But it does mean that it’s essential that we strive to make each and every encounter people have with us and our fellow changemakers a positive and inspiring one. It’s also important that we’re seeking the most effective strategies (such as humane education), rather than taking actions that might make us feel better, but that actually cause harm.

As IHE president Zoe Weil says, “… the more joyful and connected we are, the better we will be at making a difference, and the more likely others will want to join our rip-roaring, good fun, changemaking club.”