Welcome to our Powerful and Positive climate conversations series. This is the fourth in a six part series exploring what works – and what doesn’t – when it comes to communicating with the people in your life about the climate and nature emergency and helping to build a movement for change. You can find the other parts here.
Some time ago, in the hazy pre-covid years, I was at a wedding, sitting at a table and chatting with other guests as we waited for our food to be served. A waitress arrived with a plate of risotto.
The guy sitting opposite me looked accusingly around the table. “Quick lads, hide the sausages! Turns out we’re on the veggie table.” The risotto lady awkwardly claimed the offending meal. Meat man gurned happily at her discomfort. “Nah, I’m kidding,” he burbled, “I love pigs. Especially in a sandwich with some brown sauce.”
Now everyone looked awkward. The guy put down his fork and leaned forward, looking serious. “What most vegetarians don’t realise”, he told us, “is that more animals are killed by growing wheat and beans and stuff. You know – rabbits and mice.”
“I just don’t like meat very much”, murmured the poor woman into her risotto. Disgusted, the man sat back in his chair. “I wouldn’t mind vegetarians”, he said, picking up his fork again, “if they didn’t shove it in your face all the time.”
Most people – luckily – don’t act like this guy in real life, but ridiculing, stereotyping, and even harassing people for pro-environmental behaviours is widespread online and in the media, and often does bleed out into real-world interactions. Some sustainable lifestyle choices and activities are more public or more visible than others – dietary choices, active travel, and campaigning – and as such attract the most negative attention, with one study showing that vegans are perceived more negatively than almost every other ‘prejudice group’, with only drug addiction attracting the same level of stigma.
What’s more, it seems that rage and negativity towards ‘eco warriors’ is considered a publicly acceptable prejudice; when our prime minister cheerfully describes climate protesters as “uncooperative crusties” who live in “heaving, hemp-smelling bivouacs”, and embarrasses himself at climate summits using phrases like “mungbean-munching eco freaks” and “bunny-huggers” (what does it even mean?!), he is signalling the acceptability of demeaning and dehumanising a section of the population.
After watching the wedding guy lose his cool over a mediocre butternut squash risotto I re-visited a question that had been nagging at me for some time: why do pro-environmental choices make some people so passionately angry? And what can we do when we’re on the receiving end of this behaviour? In this post I’m going to tackle that first question then we’ll look at some strategies for managing this reaction when you’re on the receiving end of it.
So where is all this anger coming from? Simply put, although sustainable behaviours are on the rise, those adopting them remain a minority; specifically a minority who make themselves stand out (deliberately or not) by rejecting the norm and making their values visible through their lifestyle choices.
Research demonstrates that when we encounter a member of a ‘morally motivated minority’ we can feel challenged or judged or rebuked – a response known as an ‘anticipated moral reproach’ – and in the face of these feelings we become resentful and defensive.
Our strongest response is something known as reactance: a strong negative resistance to someone or something we feel is taking away our choices or pressuring us to change our behaviour. Over the last eighteen months we’ve seen reactance play out in real time as mask-wearing took on a complex set of moral and social meanings, with people responding forcefully to their personal freedom being limited, even in a very minor and prosocial way.
In this state of reactance we become stubborn, doubling down on our original position, growing defensive, and generating further arguments to justify and support the strength of our reaction: veganism is bad for your health and causes deforestation, cycle lanes are bad for businesses and disabled people, wind turbines kill birds, climate protesters cause pollution by stopping traffic. These supporting arguments often raise very valid points – but when they emerge from reactance they’re deployed to shut down a discussion rather than develop understanding or find solutions.
A second outcome of reactance is a behaviour known as do-gooder derogation; directly attacking or antagonising a person or a group as punishment for making us feel morally inferior.
You know do-gooder derogation when you see it. It’s the ‘save a cow, eat a vegan’ t-shirt’. It’s the guy who points out that climate protestors wear clothes made of plastic and drive cars. It’s picking on physical appearance – vegetarians are sickly and weak, protestors are smelly and dirty – or assigning other negative characteristics to the person or group under attack: lazy, preachy, humourless, attention-seeking. It’s the lady I once worked with who explained that charity marathon runners are ‘show offs’, blood donors are just ‘skiving off work’ and people who go to the gym are ‘lonely.’ (For context, the same lady firmly believed all dentists to be perverts and didn’t pick up after her horrible dog. I don’t work with her any more.)
How do you feel when you hear a generalisation about a group you’re part of?
And what do you think leads people to make that generalisation? What’s the motivation for using tropes such ‘the lazy student’, ‘the nagging wife’, or the ‘smelly protestor’?
In the case of the bacon-happy wedding guest the thought process may go something like this: “You think eating meat is bad. I eat meat, so you must think I’m a bad person, and that makes me uncomfortable. I can level the moral playing field between us by exposing you as a hypocrite, or highlighting your failings, or making you look foolish.”
Confusingly, you don’t have to actually talk about your values in order trigger the do-gooder derogation effect. In fact you don’t even have to meet the other person to make them angry; you just have to exist in someone else’s imagination.
Keeping with the vegan theme, remember the rage which greeted the launch of Greggs meat-free sausage roll? It wasn’t directed at any single vegan individual, smug or otherwise; rather it was aimed at the concept of vegan, at some faceless hypothetical vegetarian spokesperson who – despite not existing – made poor old Piers Morgan feel under attack.
Being on the receiving end of this derogation can be tedious, hurtful, and embarrassing. It can damage our relationships and make us second-guess our own choices, and it may make us cautious or defensive about discussing our values with others. It can fill our time with endless, exhausting discussions on the morality of driving to a protest, wearing a plastic raincoat, eating an avocado or using a smartphone. When it comes to the climate and ecological emergency, being open, vocal, and positive about pro-environment lifestyle choices is a critical part of creating large scale social change, so anything that deters us from speaking is an issue – but this isn’t the only reason reactance is a problem.
While do-gooder derogation is usually limited to people sniping at each other on the internet, it has the potential to escape into the real world in harmful and concerning ways that intersect with and amplify other prejudices, particularly racism and misogyny. Sometimes these are upsetting and distasteful – such as the pro-meat protestor who shows up at vegan venues and messily eats raw meat – and sometimes they are threatening, such as the burning or hanging of effigies of Greta Thunberg. Sometimes it translates into physical attacks, such as periodic incidents where wire and sharp tacks are used to booby trap cycle paths.
Futhermore, triggering this effect has long term implications for the other person’s willingness to adopt sustainable or ethical behaviours: this study found that the act of mocking or harassing a ‘do-gooder’ “has detrimental downstream consequences, undermining the denigrator’s commitment to ethical values […] and reduced intention to behave ethically in the future.” Some people even make this part of their attack: exhibit A, Julia Hartley-Brewer.
So what should we do when we encounter this behaviour? Let’s look at some powerful ways to defuse the situation and make this kind of conversation as positive as possible.
Reframe your choice and describe the co-benefits
Research around alcohol consumption, using sun protection, and healthy lifestyle choices has shown that how we frame our choices can make a difference, and that in some situations, and for some people, a lifestyle change framed as a loss triggers greater reactance than one framed as a gain.
Unfortunately most sustainable and low carbon choices continue to be presented in this way: ‘giving up’ meat, or flying, or fast fashion, a sacrifice where a personal freedom or pleasure has been lost and nothing has been gained. Luckily however, most pro-environment choices bring with them a selection of ‘co benefits’ – the added personal or social bonuses we get when we take action on climate change – that flip the idea of loss on its head. These co benefits could include better health, financial savings, cleaner air, stronger communities or improved personal wellbeing.
Reader Ally got in touch earlier in the series to share her experiences around framing the financial aspect of sustainable choices, and highlighted a really important point: that a lot of the benefits we’re talking about here aren’t immediate and potentially involve some upfront costs. That’s a trickier one to sell, partly as none of us are terribly good at choosing long term gain over short term, but also because some of those upfront costs are legitimately prohibitive, even if they save us money in the long run. As the Captain Samuel Vimes Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness tells us, you’ve got to have the money in the bank to buy in bulk or buy to last or buy ethically. So financial co-benefits can be very persuasive but deploy with sensitivity, without assuming that something that’s affordable for you is affordable for everyone. As Ally wrote: “sometimes it works and they see my point and other times it can lead into an argument, me vs them and that’s because I have a disposable income, I can afford what I’m doing and don’t have to watch where my money is being spent.”
Show that you’re listening
I know this sounds so obvious but an angry person will only get angrier if they feel they’re being interrupted, talked over, or not fully heard. How can we show others that we are listening – really listening – to what they have to say?
Kate Heath wrote a great series of blogs for the Transition Network a couple of years ago about talking climate, and one line really stuck with me: “Because this Quest, I’ve realised, is as much about shutting up as it is about talking.” Although our instinct when challenged is to defend ourselves, perhaps we’d be better zipping it for a moment, and letting the other person fully express their frustrations.
When we’re actively listening – as opposed to planning what we’re going to say next, we may pick up of things we’d otherwise miss. And when we take time to check that we’ve understood the other person, they feel heard and respected. Reflecting back what you’ve hard can be really helpful:
- ‘So you’ve had some bad experiences with protesters that felt really intimidating, is that right?’
- ‘Would it be fair to say that you feel you’re being made to feel guilty for eating stuff you enjoy?’
And if you’re not sure what the other person means – just ask! Sometimes people can offer up an experience that will bring their strong reaction into perspective.
Make it personal
A couple of days ago I got into a brief argument on twitter about whether or not inconsiderate driving poses a risk to pedestrians; my first reaction was to blast the guy with THE FACTS: ‘An average of 40 pedestrians are killed every year by drivers mounting the pavement’, I wrote snottily back, adding links and references to back up my point. Did it work? Did I change the guy’s mind?
Of course not.
When someone challenges or ridicules our choices it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we can bring them round to our point of view if we can just find the right statistics, or share the perfect bit of research. We think that information will change minds – but as we’ve seen earlier in this series, and as John Sterman of MIT elegantly puts it “Research shows that showing people research doesn’t work.”
Instead, turn the conversation away from facts and figures and tell a personal story; what happened to initiate the changes you’ve made, and how did you feel? Was it something specific you saw in a documentary? Fear for your grandchildren’s future? Changes you’ve noticed in a landscape from your childhood? By allowing for a little vulnerability we help reassure others that we’re not coming from a place of moral superiority but one of shared human experience.
Listen – then let it go
Ultimately, some conversations will be frustrating and pointless. If you were able to keep your cool, listen to the other person respectfully and acknowledge their point of view then you’ve done everything you can to keep the conversation positive. Don’t dwell on it, try not to re-run the conversation in your head. Let it go so that you can focus your attention and energy on something more productive.
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