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Becoming friends with your enemies
What a groundbreaking Stanford researcher can teach us about talking to people we hate.
Last week, I posted a video showing a group of kids mocking animal rights activists at a demonstration. The scene would have been uneventful but for a surprising turn of events: the kids flip from energetically insulting us, to energetically supporting our efforts.
But maybe calling this result “surprising” is not quite right. Because what I’ve found, in over 20 years of advocacy and in tens of thousands of conversations, is that the people who seem the most vehemently against you are often the ones who turn the most strongly in your favor – if (and this is a big if) you use the right approach.
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And what is that approach? It’s one pioneered by a social psychologist at Stanford, Rob Willer, who has found that activists, especially on the Left, make consistent errors in attempting to create change – and that these errors are worst when the people they are persuading are of a different political alignment. His TED talk discussing how to have better political conversations is, in my view, required viewing for anyone interested in activism and change.
And Willer’s research is particularly important to me right now. In a few weeks, I will go to trial in Beaver County, where I think it’s fair to say that I’m not the most popular person. The authorities have described our work – documenting animal cruelty at the largest pig farm in the nation and taking sick animals to the vet – as a form of “terrorism.” The sheriff has forbidden peaceful leafleting efforts against Smithfield, and charged one peaceful activist with disorderly conduct and stated to another, “You will be killed.” (A federal civil rights complaint was filed just days ago, alleging free speech violations in the efforts to suppress those activists.)
So persuading people in Beaver County, to say the least, is going to be challenging. And yet “persuade” is exactly what I must do to maintain my freedom. And while it’s very possible I will fail and end up in prison – especially in light of the extreme efforts to gag our legal team at trial – I know that persuasion of a supposed enemy can work.
Because I’ve done it before. After investigating one of the largest turkey farms in the nation, I became friends with the owner of the company, Rick Pitman, who subsequently released 100+ animals to activists in a gesture of good faith. Perhaps even more surprising, Rick joined us in stating the charges filed against us, in relation to the open rescue and investigation that occurred at his own farm, were “unnecessary” and that “there are good people on all sides.”
The result of Rick’s statements, and the friendship that formed between us, was that the charges were dismissed. Instead of going to trial, all parties have agreed to have an open town hall about the future of food within the next year. At that town hall, I hope to paint a vision of a sustainable food system, in which every worker in the county secures a job even better than the one they currently have, and in which no animal is harmed. Imagine plant-based meat production across the state of Utah!
There were some aspects of this situation that were the result of the unusual circumstances and character of the people involved – Rick is a different sort of farm owner, with unusual openness and courage. But the happy ending was also the result of applying some of Willer’s research to a situation that was fraught with conflict, danger, and even hate.
Here are the three most important ones that I’ve picked up from my conversations with Willer, and my review of his (and related) research: extend the olive branch, speak in familiar values, and focus on the relationship (and not the issue).
Extend the olive branch. When Rick drove up past us, when we were doing a small demonstration outside of his plant in Sanpete, he could have yelled at or insulted us. In turn, we could have refused his offer to enter the facility to have a conversation. (After all, why would we want to talk to, much less trust, the very people who were trying to throw us in prison? The other activists that day were concerned that Rick was setting us up with a trap.) But both parties recognized that there was something of value that could be created by extending the olive branch – i.e., recognizing that, regardless of any prior disputes, it was important for us to achieve a space of physical and psychological peace for any true progress to be made. We also both suspected that continued sniping by one side against the other, in the media or on Twitter, probably was not going to make much of a difference for anyone.
Rob Willer’s research has shown that, in contrast, activists consistently overestimate the value of antagonism. They perceive the most aggressive tactics as both more popular and effective than they actually are, and thereby underestimate the value of creating space for peace.
Speak in familiar values. Animal activists, including me, love to speak about the rights of animals. But to a turkey farmer, this can feel like an alien concept. Are we saying turkeys should run around free in the wild? (They would just starve or be killed by a predator.) That they should be given free food and healthcare? (Even human beings don’t get that.) Or, even more absurdly, that they should vote? (They’d have a hard time understanding the ballot.) While there are obvious responses to all of these concerns, the most fundamental problem is that we are not speaking in terms of a turkey farmer’s values.
What I tried to do, instead, was listen to Rick’s own statements about the things he cared about, and try to find ways that the things I was asking of him – to save animals, to challenge unjust prosecutions – would make sense in terms and values that would feel familiar to him. For example, Rick focused a lot of our initial conversation on the economic vitality of Sanpete. He wanted to make sure every person in the county had a good job.
“That’s a worthy goal,” I responded. “But I wonder if helping animals can help the employees too?”
I told him that I thought his own company was an example of that. Pitman Family Farms became a major player in the poultry industry precisely because they focused on animal welfare. In a world with increasingly conscious consumers – and increasing concern about industrial animal agriculture – caring about animals could bring, not destroy, jobs in the region. I didn’t have a fully spelled out strategy as to how that could happen – though I did mention to Rick my vision of a county filled with plant-based meat factories, with higher paying jobs that bring vitality to everyone (including Rick’s own family) – but the mere fact that I spoke in terms of values that Rick understood was probably important to persuading him to support us.
And this is exactly what Rob Willer has found for many other political issues. For example, while speaking about climate change in terms of “justice” or “morality” was more familiar and comfortable for climate activists, focusing on “purity” and “sanctity” was more effective among conservatives. These latter concepts were things that conservatives valued.
And we can no more persuade someone to adopt climate change policy, by speaking about values that are alien to them, than we can persuade a friend to join us at a restaurant, without talking about the foods there that they might personally enjoy.
Focus on the relationship, and not just the issue. The last lesson from my experiences with Rick, and to a lesser extent Robb Willer, is that the relationship matters as much, or more than, the issue. We could have started the discussion about what was unfolding at his farm, and with the criminal charges, by setting out our positions on the various issues: Was a turkey farm cruel, or economically necessary? Was the prosecution unconstitutional, or a mere application of the rule of law? But instead we did something very different: we shared something about ourselves.
I shared with Rick the importance of my Buddhist beliefs, and how they often made me feel marginalized in my workplace, and even my community. Rick shared with me his history as a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints (more commonly, though now inaccurately, described as “Mormonism”), including the fact that he converted and was not born into the faith. Both of us connected over a shared experience of being “different.” There are not many Buddhists, or LDS members, in the spaces that he and I operate.
Rob Willer, in my conversations with him, supported this approach as a basic element of persuasion. But a focus on identity over issue is even more associated with another scholar, Hahrie Han at Georgetown, who has persuasively argued for the primacy of identity and relationship over issues and ideology, in a series of articles in the New York Times.
So, the next time you’re in an argument with someone on a political issue, pause for a moment and instead of continuing the argument, ask a personal question. “Setting aside our disagreement, do you mind me asking you how you became passionate about this issue? What’s your background?”
You might just become friends with your enemy.
Some updates for the week.
As usual, we’ll be discussing the subject of this blog at tonight’s Friday Night Hangout. Here’s the event page. Come hang out if you want some food, discussion, and fun! We’ll also have a Zoom going, if you want to join virtually.
A federal civil rights complaint has been filed against authorities in Beaver County for targeting animal rights activists for their speech activity. I mentioned this myself. But the complaint, filed by one of the most prominent attorneys in Utah on behalf of both local animal rights activists and DxE, speaks for itself.
We moved to change of venue in the Utah/Smithfield trial due to the threats against animal rights activists. The judge previously indicated that a courtroom in Washington County, Utah, that is about 1.5 hours south of Beaver, was available for the case. We’re hopeful that the judge will recognize that, given that the very authorities prosecuting us have stated that the local community is unsafe, we can’t be given a fair trial in Beaver County.
I’m returning from travel in Florida, Chicago, and Denver, today. It’s been a fun and exhilarating ride, speaking and meeting with activists across the nation. But it’ll be good to be home – and to see Oliver and Joan.
Take one minute and fill out this survey for next week’s topic. Possibilities include deep dives into the power of kindness, Smithfield’s Stockholm Syndrome, and how your friends can determine your future. But as is always the case, I depend on you to choose the topic that sounds best! It only takes a minute. Fill it out if you can!
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