Disagreements about Ideology and Outreach
Much infighting, particularly on the movement-wide level, is expressed through concerns about the impact of certain beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors on the cause. These concerns tend to focus on two key points: ideology and outreach methods. How should we interpret and relate to our ideology? What kinds of outreach are most appropriate?
We often attack other advocates when we believe they’re weakening the movement. For example, some advocates might believe that promoting incremental change hurts the cause, while other advocates feel that demanding immediate, total change hurts the cause.
Arguments also arise around individual practices: Are you really an abolitionist if you vote in favor of reforms? A lot of frustration and anger can result from struggles resulting from differences of opinion about these issues.
Humans are psychological beings whose interpretations are constantly evolving. It makes sense that advocates have different ideas about the ideology driving their cause.
An ideology is created at a certain point in time, in a certain context, by certain people. These factors change over time. Think of the constitutions of many countries. They were created in a different era, by individuals whose worldviews, cultures, knowledge, and personal experiences were vastly different from those of today. Muslims and Christians, capitalists and Marxists, Democrats and Republicans, and so on inevitably have different ideas about the core principles of their respective ideologies.
Not only is it normal for people to have different ideas about their shared ideology, but it’s also not surprising that they feel uncomfortable with these differences. Some vegans are provoked by different interpretations of veganism in the same way that some Americans are provoked by different interpretations of the Constitution or the Bible. Ideologies tend to reflect strong values and they guide many of our choices, some which are matters of life and death.
The problem, though, isn’t our differences, but how we relate to them. Perhaps most problematic is advocates attacking others in their group or movement who don’t relate to the ideology in a way that they feel is appropriate.
For example, vegan advocates who claim that another vegan advocate isn’t a “real vegan” because that person eats at a restaurant that isn’t fully vegan fail to consider how they may be promoting a fundamentalist, all-or-nothing mindset that fuels perfectionism and turns off potential new vegans. The same could be said about claims that a woman isn’t a “real feminist” if she wants to be a stay-at-home mom.
These kinds of attacks, and the thinking behind them, are most detrimental to people who are disadvantaged. Consider, for example, a vegan who lacks the economic privilege of being able to easily access vegan restaurants or the psychological privilege of being able to have a non-disordered relationship with food. Or consider a mother who has to stay home with her children because she can’t get a job due to a disability. (Even if she’s staying home by choice rather than necessity, demeaning a woman for making her own choices is not in alignment with the core values of feminism.)
Rather than attack and debate, we can discuss the reasons for our different interpretations, and work to deepen our understanding and promote our cause more effectively. These conversations can also help us to achieve clarity and some degree of consensus about our ideology.
Advocates may attack other advocates for using an outreach method that the former believe is ineffective or not aligned with the movement’s values. Those being attacked, as well as onlookers to the attack, can then feel pressured to adopt the attacker’s methods, which may not be grounded in science and which could be ineffective or even counterproductive.
A lot of the arguments surrounding outreach methods are based on subjective opinions: “This worked for me, so I assume it will work for everyone,” or “The advocates I follow online say this is the right method,” or “This action feels impactful to me so it must be effective,” and so on.
This may be especially true for new members of a group or movement, who may feel unsure of themselves and are unfamiliar with the group’s approach.
For example, when a vegan who supports what are sometimes referred to as “welfare campaigns” (corporate reforms in animal agriculture) is publicly called out for being a “sellout,” this sends a powerful message to other vegans: if you support this kind of approach, you’re harming animals, you’re wrong, and you’ll be publicly shamed for it.
A variety of outreach methods are necessary to help end any global injustice. For example, we need to work toward political reform, institutional change, legal reform, and so on. Understanding what the science says about which methods have been shown to be more effective is key not only to advocating effectively but also to ending infighting.
Healthy dialogue is the solution
How we discuss ideology and outreach methods matters. It’s important that we’re able to talk about our different ideas about our ideology so we can learn and grow.
And we need to talk about outreach methods in a way that helps, rather than harms, our advocacy and our group or movement.
Infighting occurs when we debate, attack, or shame the people we disagree with. If we hope to end infighting and, in turn, strengthen our groups and movements, it’s vital that we learn how to discuss both our own and others’ opinions effectively and respectfully.