You know that preacher in the town square telling us we're all going to hell? The one outside H&M with a sandwich board strapped to his chest? He's sometimes shouting that we are all greedy and lustful sinners, sometimes threatening eternal damnation. When he's on form, he'll make you think twice about eating that second Belgian Bun or holding your girlfriend's hand. Well, he's a very nice man I'm sure. He probably has good intentions too. I mean, giving up his Saturday so we don't spend an eternity in hell is pretty noble. But good intentions aside, I'm going to guess that his conversion rate is pretty low. In my experience people don't respond well to being told they are 'doing it all wrong'. Particularly when 'doing it right' demands a wholesale change in how they view the world.
The preacher in the town square exists in all areas of life. You can find them in religion, in atheism, in politics, sport or anywhere else where passions run high. Often you'll find them in animal rights circles. Many a meat-eater has told me of a time they were verbally attacked or belittled by a vegetarian or vegan. They recall how uncomfortable or angry it made them feel. And how, whilst polishing off their second bacon sandwich, it made little to no difference to their behaviour.
Last month I listened to a fascinating talk about vegan advocacy by a clinical psychologist from Vegan Publishers. He introduced the five stages of the 'change model' - pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance. In the context of veganism (or vegetarianism), the majority of people are at 'pre-contemplation' - which is a half-glass-full way of saying they eat meat and have no intention of changing the fact (thank you very much). Some people hide their 'pre-contemplation' well - particularly those who have convulsions or hug a leg of lamb when you so much as mention 'the v words'. But I like to pretend that even the most ardent meat fanatic is only a couple of steps away from living meat free, so let's just roll with it anyway.
The talk argued that, rather than blindly heckling people in the town square, advocates need to consider what stage of the change model their 'targets' are on. What people eat forms a central part of their lives and identity. As a vegetarian man, I am continually struck by how often a piece of cow or pig is used to demonstrate masculinity. We're all hard-wired to maintain a positive self-image, so attacking an identity-forming daily activity is rarely going to end well. In fact, doing so is a fast-track to becoming the person that no longer gets invites to BBQs or dinner parties. The target will either rationalise their behaviour (e.g. we're meant to eat meat) or avoid the subject altogether. Longer term, the unpleasant memory of the exchange will linger and forever be linked to those 'animal welfare extremists'.
Far more effective is an approach of non-judgement. Of assertively sharing the facts and rationale behind our choice but without casting any judgement on anyone else's. The theory is that by observing our experience others may just consider their own. If not on this interaction, or the next, maybe several interactions down the line. If not, so be it. That's fine too.
I think back to what moved me from a pre-contemplative to a contemplative. I used to live near a slaughter house, so it wasn't the horrors of animal slaughter. Nor was it the passionate well-intentioned people who told me I couldn't love animals if I continued to eat them. The change came when I listened to the considered rationale people gave for their own choices. It was so much more powerful to listen to someone else's story than have judgement cast on my own.
The talk did make me wonder whether there is any benefit to the town preacher in this or any other context. I think there is, but perhaps only amongst contemplatives (stage 2 of the change model) and beyond. These are the people who are open to the world the preacher promises. They may have lapsed or may be seriously considering a change and need reminding or an extra push to make it a reality. It's probably where I am with regards to giving up dairy. It's something I want to do, but it takes reminders from the likes of PETA, Cowspiracy and Animal Aid to motivate me.
But the majority of meat-eaters are pre-contemplative. While telling them they are going to hell may boost our ego, if we truly want a world where animals are not killed and slaughtered for food, perhaps a softer approach would be more effective.
Any thoughts welcome.