Avoid Defining Reality
We define someone’s reality when we communicate to them that we know what they think or feel better than they do. When we define someone’s reality, we believe and act as though we’re mind readers, as though we’re the expert on their experience.
For example, an environmentalist might say, “I want nothing more than to end the climate crisis,” and another environmentalist might respond, “No, you don’t. You drive an SUV.” Or perhaps your partner tells you they’re sorry for yelling at you when they lost their temper, and you reply that you can tell they’re not sorry from the way they delivered their apology. Or your friend says that she’s hungry after she finishes eating her dinner, and you reply that she can’t be hungry because she ate so much food.
We can certainly wonder if the person with whom we’re communicating is accurately perceiving and/or communicating their experience. And we can share this with them, if appropriate: “You said you’re sorry, but you don’t look to me as though you genuinely feel badly about what you did, so it’s hard for me to feel like your apology is sincere.” Or “You said you’re not feeling defensive, but your arms are crossed and you keep interrupting me, so I’m wondering if maybe you’re feeling more defensive than you realize.”
Defining reality is inherently nonrelational: it violates integrity, harms dignity, and creates a sense of disconnection and insecurity. In fact, defining reality is the foundation of psychological abuse. In its more extreme form, defining reality is gaslighting.
Not surprisingly, it’s also a key contributor to infighting. Many advocates define other advocates’ reality, fueling defensiveness and anger and increasing the likelihood of retaliation.
We can’t know what is and isn’t possible for others
Sometimes, advocates define reality by claiming that the person they’re advocating to isn’t being honest about their ability to change when that person says that they can’t change their ways.
Perhaps an environmentalist asks someone to start cycling, rather than driving, to work, and the person they’re reaching out to says that it’s not possible for them to do this. If the advocate insists that it is possible, they’re defining that person’s reality.
If the environmentalist says something like, “Actually, it is possible. You can bike to work every day. You just need to get up an hour earlier and buy more appropriate clothing,” they’d be right, in some ways. Technically, it would be possible to cycle rather than drive to work. But it might not feel possible, or sustainable, to that other person.
What’s possible for someone is what’s sustainable, what feels doable—and nobody can know where that line is for another person. So it can be helpful for advocates to think of support for a cause as existing on a spectrum.
In many ways, where someone is at on the spectrum matters less than the direction they’re heading. When we’re advocating, we can ask that someone change their behavior as much as possible, rather than dictate what we think is and should be possible for them.
For example, we can ask someone to reduce their flying as much as possible rather than to stop flying altogether. And if everyone—especially people in affluent societies—were mindful of their carbon footprint, our collective footprint would be substantially reduced.
When we encourage someone to change their behavior as much as possible, we both reduce the chances that they’ll feel defensive and encourage them to regularly reflect on the issue at hand.
The same approach applies to how we relate to other advocates. When another vegan advocate, for example, says it’s not possible for them to participate in an action where graphic imagery of animal slaughter is to be shown, even if doing so were physically possible, we can accept that, for them, it’s not psychologically possible. We can appreciate that they are trying to protect their boundaries, which is essential for preventing and healing from secondary traumatic stress as well as for taking care of themselves more generally.
Avoid assigning labels
Another common way in which advocates define reality is by assigning labels to other advocates, based on their assumptions about the other advocates’ views on, and commitment to, the issue they’re working to change.
For example, vegans who oppose incremental change (encouraging people to change their behaviors over time, rather than swiftly and fully), sometimes refer to themselves as “abolitionists.” Some of these vegans claim that vegans who advocate incremental change aren’t working toward the abolition of animal exploitation, and they refer to those other advocates as “welfarists,” a term that’s usually used pejoratively to denote a vegan who isn’t committed to the mission of ending farmed animal exploitation.
The label “abolitionist” causes confusion and contributes to divisiveness. Most vegan advocates do consider themselves abolitionists, in that they aspire to the goal of abolishing farmed animal exploitation.
“Abolitionist” conflates the method, or strategy, that advocates use to work toward change with the goal of the change. The abolitionist method isn’t shared by everyone in the movement, but the goal is. Creating a label to describe other advocates’ motivations and aspirations, particularly when it’s done without their consent or agreement, is an act of defining their reality and is likely to fuel divisiveness within any group or movement.
A key way to prevent infighting (and to advocate effectively), then, is to avoid defining others’ reality. One way to do this is to avoid implying that you know what is and isn’t possible for someone better than they do. Another way to do this is to learn the basics of effective communication, especially how to create whole messages. Finally, refrain from using terms such as “apologist,” “sellout,” “extremist,” and so on. When we use these terms, we undermine our fellow advocates, and, therefore, the very cause we’re passionate about.
The less you define others’ reality (and allow them to define yours), the more fulfilling and resilient all your relationships will be.