On Accountability, Reckoning with Indifference and Using Shame as a Tactic
Or: how vegans could have told you a lot of people wouldn’t care about the coronavirus but that can’t stop us
I listened to Brené Brown’s excellent podcast last week, Unlocking Us. I highly recommend the whole podcast but this episode in particular really resonated with me as an activist. The episode was on shame — a specialty of hers as a researcher — and how futile it is to try to motivate people toward positive results through the use of it. The long and short of it is the reactive, less rational part of the brain locks in when a person feels shame, overriding the “thinking” part of the brain that can analyze, sift and sort, and empathize.
The human shame response is so intertwined to our survival as a species, it registers physiologically as if our very safety were under threat, with these moments activating a self-centered, visceral reaction, rather than the more reasoned and compassionate response required for honest accountability. It makes sense that we would have such an overwrought reaction to shame at times: as a social species that thrived best interdependently, when we feel that we might be at risk of being expelled from the safety and security of a social structure, we react in the most primitive of ways to shame because that ancient part of our brain feels as if our survival is at stake. The lizard brain doesn’t care if our impulse to fight, flight or freeze is rational.
In this episode of her podcast, Brown was speaking mainly about anti-racism activists, though it really applies to all advocates for creating a more just and equitable world, and the defensive, reactive shame response that is hardwired into so many of us who need to hear the message. It is so challenging to override this reaction but that is the work of activists and those who want to do better as human beings. As Brown discusses in the podcast, activists will have the most success in advocating for a cause without engaging the shame response if you don’t make it about the person but about the behavior or actions. So, for example, instead of saying, “You are a terrible, worthless person and this is how I know this…,” you would instead focus on the behaviors and the actions because those things are fixable.
Shame tells us that there is something intrinsically defective within us, something that we need to keep hidden and strictly guarded, and it is very hard to receive information when we are in that kind of state. As Brown points out, though, it is up to those who feel shame to regulate and deactivate the response, not lash out at the messenger. We are at such a critical juncture in history. If we don’t figure out ways that we can collectively take a few giant steps forward, which means putting aside our defensiveness about whether or not we are good people, we may not have a planet left to inhabit.
It is in that spirit that I am going to say the following. I know it’s going to anger some people. I know it’s going to elicit some shame responses. I know this but this still needs to be said so we can arrive at new options. Are you willing to put aside your defensiveness?
So I’m just going to blurt it out.
Vegans could have predicted that there would be some people who wouldn’t care about containing this virus. Why? Because we have been trying to get people to give a shit about other species and our planet for years and we have been largely mocked, ignored and dismissed.
We have shown the public the statistics on the direct links from animal agribusiness to irrevocable climate change, massive water waste and pollution, clearcutting the rainforests and more and we have been told “It’s my personal choice to eat meat” as if one’s fleeting dietary choice is the greater good against the crushing weight of all that irreversible harm.
We have described the totally needless suffering, cruelty and violence inflicted on billions of sensitive beings every year and we have had “Mmm…bacon,” or “I couldn’t never give up cheese” or a million other verbal equivalents to a shrug said back to us.
We have explained how animal agribusiness exploits workers and sickens communities, largely hurting poor people of color, and even those who genuinely care about social justice have ignored us or continued to call us elitists.
This is all to say that vegans could have predicted it wouldn’t be easy to convince a sizable percentage of the general population to care about one another. Unlike with vegan advocacy, at least in the case of the coronavirus, we have self-preservation and concern about loved ones to influence people to care but there is still a stubborn percentage who remain unmoved despite all the news stories and statistics, the grief-stricken families and the observable reality.
Appealing to someone that they should want to course-correct in this unfolding disaster and getting nowhere is a frustratingly familiar place for a vegan to be; we have had people show they are much more likely to indulge in fantasies about chickens and cows taking over the earth if we don’t eat them or myths about the size of human canine teeth than engage with reality. Again and again, we have encountered people more willing to accept simplistic fairy tales or promote easily dismantled fallacies than engage with the objective reality and solutions. Sound familiar? Humans being indifferent to things that are of grave concern is nothing new to us. The rest of the world that is not in denial about COVID-19 is now going through what it feels like to explain to an immovable object why they should care.
I was listening to a social worker recently being interviewed on National Public Radio. She was explaining why teens and other young people don’t seem to care as much about maintaining coronavirus spread mitigation efforts and she said, essentially, can you blame them? They have been appealing to their parents, politicians and other adults for years to hear them about their worries with regard to climate change and gun control and they have had their concerns downplayed or ignored altogether time and again. Why should they extend to adults the courtesy of altruism when they have had their own valid and genuine concerns brushed off, diminished as “emotional” or disregarded? Who can blame them for being a little nihilistic when adults have not demonstrated that caring about something important changes anything?
I know that the harm around animal agribusiness is something that is not as in our face as a pandemic, but it is just as real, just as deadly and just as disastrous. Are you someone who cares about containing the spread of the coronavirus but is indifferent to the damage of animal agribusiness to the animals, the planet and human beings? Can I ask why, when the short-term and long-term, personal and global consequences are so well-established at this point?
Please understand, I am not trying to guilt-trip anyone. I don’t want anyone to feel ashamed. Shame just makes us close in ourselves when — more than ever — we need to expand and extend our circle of compassion. So shame is not my objective here. I want you to care, to act as if we are all in this together, because we are.
If you’re confused about why some folks don’t seem to care about the coronavirus and you’re also someone who has dismissed, denied or mocked those of us who are trying to mitigate a different disaster, now you know what swimming against what can feel like a tidal wave of indifference can feel like.
Let’s fix this by caring.