How to sabotage your cause

I overheard an older couple in the grocery store the other day. The woman picked up a bottle of organic V8, to which the man grumbled, “If it’s organic, I don’t want it.” Clearly the word ‘organic’ meant something different to him than what it means to me — grown without synthetic pesticides with [hopefully] more sustainable farming practices. At a guess, ‘organic’ meant to him what it used to mean to me: something that only snooty, yoga-practicing, more-sustainable-than-thou, upper middleclass white women bought.

We can blame some of this bad rap on mainstream media. They’re a wonderfully convenient scapegoat for both left and right. However, I think we also need to take responsibility for our own PR problems. They’re not unique to us; every movement has them. Inevitably, passion and enthusiasm lead us to do things that impact how we are perceived and effectively limit our ability to promote our cause.

Well, hell. Might as well make a guide out of it. Here’s the slightly tongue-in-cheek Not Easy to Be Green guide to sabotaging your own cause. Go on, fill the people around you with a murderous rage to take your cause and stamp on it.

OK. Start with a generous heaping of intolerance. Intolerance for people who don’t share your cause, who don’t see how obvious it is that you’re right and they’re wrong, who even think there could be any room for uncertainty or doubt. Call them stupid, selfish, ignorant, or brainwashed. Exclude anyone who doesn’t share 100% of your views on the subject.

Next, stir in a few fistfuls of impatience. Disregard the fact that people respond to different things at different rates. Jump on friends for continuing to buy factory farmed chicken, for exploiting bees, or for not switching to a composting toilet already. Even if they’ve made some strides to support your cause, belittle their efforts as meaningless and ineffectual in the face of what they should be doing.

Now toss in some self-righteousness, because nothing wins people over to your cause so quickly as being told how much better you are and how much you do for your cause. Judge everyone who doesn’t come up to your standards (slackers). Ignore everyone who goes further than you (overachievers). 

Finally, pick a fight with other people who, for all intents and purposes, also support your cause. Nothing shows how wonderfully mindful, compassionate, and admirable your cause is like a whole lot of petty in-fighting. Come to blows over whether CFLs or LEDs are better choices. Quarrel over who is harming fewer animals. Quibble over motivation. And best all of, form divisions within your cause. Because that whole ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ thing? It’s insignificant rubbish compared to your cause to eradicate the evils of toilet paper on the Earth.

Include all four elements in every conversation you strike up, and you will no doubt end up having a net negative impact on your cause. Note: I am not liable if you get punched, ostracised, or otherwise negatively impacted by following this guide.

Did I miss any? Do you see this happening in the causes you support? Do you ever find yourself doing any of these? (Obviously, I am susceptible to the intolerance part. Sigh.)

20 responses to this post.

  1. Ain’t that the truth! I find that self-righteousness is one of the biggest obstacles in the food ethics movement. So many holier-than-thou folks flaunting their militant vegans (or whoever), shooting themselves in the foot! If we really want to reach people about this or any other cause, we have to be moderate and compromising. Understand that not everyone, for example, will stop wearing leather or eating burgers just because you espouse the righteousness of a meat-free diet. Maybe suggest people start small, make tiny concessions for good…

    Thanks for the laugh!

    Reply

    • Glad you found my blog! I don’t think the tendency to self-righteousness is limited to food ethics…any group of people passionate about an issue will be susceptible to seeing it in fairly black and white terms. I have a lot of difficulty accepting that people who deny climate change could be intelligent and reasonable, but in order to have a productive conversation with one, I think I’d have to start with at least some respect and willingness to listen. It hasn’t come up yet, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.

      Reply

      • Indeed! My personal causes are animal welfare and food, so that’s where I see it most often. Although you are right – self-righteousness extends into many arenas, like parenting, conservation, religious practice, social justice… the list goes on and on. Respect is the key. I think it’s important to understand first that there is no right or wrong, really. Only shades of grey. We are looking for the same things in life, and I find that underneath all the dogma and rhetoric is usually common ground of some sort. I try to find and focus on that when I talk with people who see the world differently than I do.

        For my current project, for example, I communicate with and visit industrial farmers who use nasty chemicals and embody many of the things I see as being wrong with our food production system. Yet, at the heart of their desires are some of the same things that drive me. And many of them are as frustrated with the system as I am.

        I’m glad I found your blog, too!😉

        Reply

  2. Nice! Thanks for the reminder. I avoid self-righteousness like the plague. But that isn’t great either – missed opportunities for bringing up the simpler green life.

    Reply

    • Agreed. I’m not good at speaking up, either. I think the most productive means is respectful conversation, but how to do it when many people are already so polarized — that’s the part I don’t have any answers for.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Emily on 03/03/2011 at 21:54

    My grandparents won’t eat organic food- they think it is unsafe to eat and actually believe that it is grown in human waste. To them, “organic” is a bunch of mumbo jumbo. But don’t try changing most 75 year olds’ opinions!

    I think any radical is completely close-minded. Could you have a discussion about politics or environmentalism with a super-right Born Again Christian? No, because they listen to the church and no one else. Along the same line, I have super-left friends that are equally as close-minded. They have their very liberal opinions and can’t be swayed.

    I do find myself being self-righteous at times, but mostly because Americans make me so angry. They speed around in gas-guzling SUVs, spend a lot of money on junk they don’t really need, and live in big, ugly, energy-inefficient homes. I’m angry that most people don’t think about and actions and sad because the actions are harming our planet. Its certainly not Buddhist of me, but I cope with these feelings by justifying that my simpler lifestyle isn’t as greedy as theirs.

    Reply

    • Your grandparents’ attitude is interesting because I think they’re being pulled up short by a label. Surely everything or almost everything they ate growing up would have been organic by default! Unfortunately, ‘organic’ has also become part of the whole left/right split. Something about associating strongly with the left or right has the ability to turn off our capacity for evaluating facts independently.

      I’m definitely not above the self-righteous thing, either (most of it does not, however, end up on the blog — but Kevin puts up with a lot of whining about how I hate people when I’m having a bad day). On good days, my anger at unthinking consumption is tempered by the knowledge that my lifestyle will probably never be truly low impact either.

      Reply

  4. Yup, on my bad days I cheer myself up by looking down on everyone else for not trying hard enough to save the planet while I, the eco-warrior, make tremendous sacrifices! Spoiler alert: it doesn’t really work.

    On better days, I try to come up with creative ways of nudging people in the right direction. Generally that starts with identifying the small steps they’re already taking, acknowledging that they’re making an effort, then gently suggesting something a little tougher but still within reach. You know, baby steps. It’s not easy, though. A part of me continues to be intolerant, impatient, and self-righteous, as you mentioned. I just try to give that voice less air time, if you know what I mean.

    Reply

    • Haha, I totally recognize myself in that description, too. Singlehandedly saving the world! Not exactly. I think I forgot one element in how to shoot your cause in the foot: hypocrisy.

      Encouragement is almost always more effective than criticism, and since you’re a lot less shy than I am, I imagine that tactic works pretty nicely for you. My introversion may be my biggest green hang-up.

      Reply

  5. Following you from the green blog hop. Would love a follow back http://www.RaisingGreenRichmondKids.com

    Reply

  6. Posted by northwestshift on 03/04/2011 at 12:00

    So true! I tend to follow the principle that we should live our lives according to the principles we believe in and only speak out when asked to. Being a living example of our beliefs is ultimately the most powerful way to effect change. Words are empty if action does not precede them.

    Reply

    • Nicely said. I think there might be some room for educating minds that are open and receptive (but don’t directly ask), but overall, I’m with you. Less talking/preaching/criticizing, more living up to our own standards.

      Reply

  7. Posted by Amber on 03/04/2011 at 12:40

    Just tweeted this its great! @lifelovegreen

    Reply

  8. I think that guy might also just have been assuming that the organic V8 would cost a lot more! Recently, with great guilt – I have switched from my eco-farmed jasmine rice to standard farmed white rice due to sensitivity issues. It costs more than a third less than the organic stuff. Rice is my main staple, which I have at almost every meal. So that’s a substantial savings. I’m not complaining, just point out the logical reason why many people avoid organic.

    Jennifer, this is an excellent article. It’s a topic of concern for me because I don’t want to turn people off, be judgmental, or be self-righteous. It feels walking a fine line to communicate honestly without offending. I’m so glad you raised this issue!

    Reply

    • That could be, although this was the discount grocery store and the V8 was probably under $3. Maybe both factors were at work. I don’t buy 100% organic, either, though it’s something I’m always trying to be better at. Sometimes the store I happen to be in doesn’t have an organic option, or it’s twice as much. I think I just need to get to the farmers’ market on a weekly basis where most of the offerings are organic and I don’t mind paying more to the person who grew the food.

      Sandra, no one would ever consider you judgmental or self-righteous. The notion is ridiculous.

      Reply

  9. Guilty as charged. If I have to be honest I have probably fallen prey to all of these weaknesses at one point or another but I like to think that I learn from my mistakes.

    I also wonder what it was that the man had against organic but I would imagine it has to do with the price. Maybe this man feels victimised by the fact that he would rather “do the right thing” but it is an extravagance that he can’t really afford. He feels guilty about this but is helpless to do anything about it therefore rebels by rejecting the movement altogether. Overreaction is often a result of inner hurt.

    Reply

    • That is an interesting thought about the man’s reaction. I’m a little short in the compassion department, so I often overlook other reasons why people act the way they do (expecting, instead, for them to behave logically…sigh). I think we’ve all been guilty of these things at one time or another, but it certainly helps to be aware of these tendencies in ourselves.

      Reply

  10. Posted by Kris on 03/28/2011 at 14:36

    haha – that’s exactly what organic used to mean to me..until I started reading about how to eat healthier and educated myself. Sometimes I feel like people see me as somebody who feels better than them because of the changes I’ve made, just because of the things they sometimes say to me, but I don’t fee like that at all. I made the decisions for my health, not because I’m better.

    Reply

    • Hi Kris! It’s sad that ‘organic’ has taken on a whole range of meanings, some of which have absolutely nothing to do with the basic fact that it’s food grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. I still feel a bit of resentment as I walk into a Whole Foods — the yoga yuppieness of it all still turns me off, even though I now understand what organic food is and why it matters. If we were able to strip words like ‘organic’ of their connotations, I think people would be more open to understanding what they truly refer to.

      Reply

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