A few years ago, I came across a billboard by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) with the following message:
“Face It—You Can’t Claim to Be a Feminist and Still Eat Eggs.”
The subtitle continued: “Eggs and Dairy Are a Product of the Abuse of Females,” referring to the female animals whose milk and eggs are used for human consumption. Here’s a photo of the ad. The purpose of the ad, according to PETA, was to persuade women to stop eating eggs and dairy.
Before I proceed, let me be clear: This post is not about whether plant-based eating is a good thing or whether the substance of PETA’s ad is accurate. Rather, I’m writing to compare two very different approaches to advocacy on the same issue—one alienates people and the other unites them.
PETA’s ad is intentionally provocative in part because divisive rhetoric often generates publicity. But if PETA’s goal is to convert non-vegans into vegans—which is what it claims it’s trying to do—the ad is misguided. If someone strongly identifies as a feminist (or an atheist, or a patriot, or a Democrat, or a fill-in-the-blank), attempting to change that person’s mind by calling into question their identity is a fool’s errand.
You might object and say, “Face the facts! The message in the ad is accurate!” That’s beside the point. You can’t convert people to your cause by attacking their identity or, in this case, by pitting feminists against each other over what they eat.
There’s an Upton Sinclair quote that I love: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” The same sentiment applies to identity: It’s difficult to get a person to believe what you’re saying if their identity depends upon their not believing it. Most non-vegan feminists who see PETA’s ad will likely stick to their identity, ignore the conflicting message in the ad, and develop animosity toward its sponsor.
PETA’s divide-and-conquer approach is shockingly common in everyday life. Instead of building a real connection with people we’re trying to win over, we go for a punch to the gut. This approach has the counterproductive effect of activating the other person’s defenses and solidifying their positions.
Contrast PETA’s ad to the speech that Joaquin Phoenix (who’s vegan) gave in accepting the Oscar for Best Actor earlier this year for his brilliant performance in Joker:
“[A]t times we feel, or were made to feel, that we champion different causes, but for me, I see commonality. [W]hether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice. We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender or one species has the right to dominate, control and use and exploit another with impunity.”
Instead of emphasizing differences between groups, Joaquin cited the similarities between them. Instead of narrowing the circle of connection, he widened it. To him, people championing these seemingly different causes—whether it’s gender rights or animal rights—are in fact championing the same thing: the fight against injustice.
If you want to lose friends and alienate people, attack their identity. Belittle them (“I told you so”). Ostracize them (“If you’re not with us, you’re against us”). Ridicule them (“You’re not a real feminist”).
But if you want to win friends and influence people, follow Phoenix’s approach.
Link your agenda to their agenda.
Explain why your cause furthers their cause.
Instead of drawing a small circle to exclude people, draw a bigger circle to include them.