Water the Right Seeds
Infighting often happens when advocates try to change other advocates’ opinions in ways that create defensiveness and division. And the more someone’s opinion is tied to their identity, the more difficult it may be for them to change that opinion. It can be even more difficult when an identity is strongly value-laden, as is often the case with advocates.
For example, it’s probably easier for you to change your opinion about which mobile carrier to have (e.g., Verizon or T-Mobile) than about what kind of computer to have (e.g., Mac or PC), since Apple and Microsoft have successfully tied these tech choices to identity (we tend to think of ourselves as a “Mac user” or a “PC user”).
And when values are involved, changing your opinion is likely to be harder still. For example, you might find it very difficult to change your opinion about abortion, because the identities associated with being pro- or anti-abortion are heavily value-laden.
Sometimes, advocates assign “negative identities”—identities people don’t want to have—to other advocates in an attempt to get them to change. For example, suppose a trans rights activist finds out that a fellow activist supports a politician who recently made a transphobic comment. The first activist might refer to the other one as a “traitor,” believing that this label will motivate the first activist to stop supporting the politician (nobody wants to think of themselves as a traitor).
However, assigning a negative identity is actually the opposite of what research suggests is an effective change strategy, which is nudging people toward a “positive identity” by helping them realize that they can and do share the values (e.g., compassion and justice) that we want them to practice more fully. So, for example, the trans rights activist could call attention to the ways in which their fellow activist is already helping to make the world a more just and compassionate place, when encouraging them to reconsider supporting the politician.
There’s a wonderful Buddhist saying that states, “We all have within us the seeds of greed, hatred, and desire. We also have within us the seeds of love, compassion, and empathy. Our job is just to water the right seeds.” By helping people realize that they already have the seeds of compassion and justice within themselves, we can water those seeds and help them grow—and we can reduce our contribution to infighting in the process.