"behaving respectfully in the face of disrespect"

I found this quote from a new animal advocacy book, Animal Activist’s Handbook by Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich. The section was quoted by Erik Marcus at vegan.com. Here it is:

"Matt was once tabling in a crowded lobby at a large agricultural university when a dairy farmer stopped by and started yelling. Matt calmly responded to the farmer, catching the attention of a passing Joe Espinosa. Joe listened, was impressed, subsequently joined Vegan Outreach, became a vegetarian then vegan, convinced a number of friends and family to become vegetarian, and has been a leading leafletter and activist for Vegan Outreach ever since."

"Can you imagine if Matt had instead yelled at the dairy farmer and reacted defensively? Perhaps Joe wouldn’t have even stopped. Perhaps he wouldn’t have heard Matt’s argument. As of this writing, Joe’s handed booklets to more than 145,000 individuals. Think about the impact of this one instance of behaving respectfully in the face of disrespect: so many people have learned the truth of modern agribusiness. One instance of respect has made a tremendous difference in the world."

Well, that's great. I'm sure that being polite and calm while tabling is a good idea. Why? Because when you're tabling, you can't just walk away from a hostile dairy farmer. You're basically tied to the table. And then, once you're in a situation where:
  • you have to confront this person, and
  • this person isn't receptive to your message, and
  • this person probably isn't in your target audience (remember, the goal is to move the middle, not the extremists), and
  • you did not set out to confront this person,
well then, reacting in a manner that is outwardly calm and polite - for the benefit of passersby and for your own safety - is probably a smart move.

But think about what Ball and Friedrich are really saying here: they're assuming that calmness and politeness represent respect. Calm and polite behavior doesn't necessary represent respect. And respect isn't always best demonstrated by calm politeness. Sometimes strong emotions better represent respect. Sometimes politeness (strict adherence to etiquette) is actually disrespectful. It depends on the culture and on the individual.

They're also presenting a false dichotomy between:
a) calm politeness and
b) defensive rudeness.

There are, of course, shades of gray. There are other options:
c) pure calmness - ignore hostile people,
d) offense (not defense) - witty responses that reframe the conversation and assert control (not defensive reactions that cede power to the hostile person),
e) backhanded politeness - say it with a smile.

(Personally, I usually choose option C. I try to ignore hostile people. I don't always succeed, but I try.)

It's absolutely ludicrous to assume that 'calm and polite dialogue' is always the best, most effective method. There's more than one way to cut open a mango. Likewise, there's more than one way to effectively persuade people to become vegan.

Ask ten vegans how they went vegan and you'll get ten different answers. Some people needed gentle nudging in the form of 'calm and polite dialogue' and others needed a rude wake-up call or reality check. Some came to it on their own and others were influenced by a wide variety of people.

Lastly, it's absurd to give Matt the credit for Joe's hard work. Who's to say Joe wouldn't have created his own, better pamphlet one day and handed out twice as many because it was his own project? Who's to say another passerby, Joselle, wasn't turned away by Matt's response? What if a more aggressive (or rude) approach hadn't worked on Joe, but had worked on the dairy farmer instead, who subsequently turned his farm into a sanctuary?

There are too many what-ifs...? For example, what if...

Marcy was tabling in a crowded lobby at a large agricultural university when a dairy farmer stopped by and started yelling. Marcy responded to the farmer with a funny, yet rude comment, catching the attention of a passing Francis. Francis listened, was impressed, subsequently joined the Rude Vegan Comedy Troupe, became a vegan, then a comedian, convinced a number of friends and family to become vegan, and has been a leading comedian for Rude Vegan Comedy Troupe ever since.

Can you imagine if Marcy had instead been boring and polite? Perhaps Francis wouldn’t have even stopped. Perhaps he wouldn’t have heard Marcy's humorous quips. As of this writing, Francis has handed pamphlets to more than 145,000 individuals. Think about the impact of this one instance of behaving disrespectfully comical in the face of idiocy: so many people have been inspired to go vegan. One instance of rude comedic action has made a tremendous difference in the world.

My point is that anecdotal evidence like the story above with Matt and Joe serve only to reinforce a peacenik reader's worldview. If someone who isn't convinced that politeness is the one-and-only most effective method reads that passage, someone who is more skeptical reads the passage, they might think the book is worthless. Then again, maybe that kind of person isn't the kind of person who wants or needs this book.

However, even all that, I'm still interested in reading the book. Why? Because Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich are deeply committed animal advocates and they've done a ton of activism. They're bound to have some thoughtful insights and interesting stories.

Readability Results In Rights

The most basic task that the animal advocate must achieve is to be understood. The message should not be lost in big words, confusing symbols, or disorganized ideas. Animal advocates have a responsibility to make their messages clear.

With that in mind, I copied and pasted text from a handful of vegan fliers into a readability tool. The tool determines the amount of education required to understand the literature. It calculates the "Flesch Reading Ease." A score of 90–100 means the literature can be easily understandable by an average 11-year old student, a score between 60–70 can be easily understandable by 13- to 15-year old students, and a score 30 and under means the literature best understood only by college graduates.

Since most of the literature is to be handed out to high school and college students, not college graduates, it makes sense to craft a pamphlet that is easily understood by 13-15 year olds, that is, a pamphlet that has a Flesch Reading Ease score of 60 or higher.

The results of my little experiment? Poor.

I won't name names, but here's an idea:
  • An "abolitionist" flier scored a Flesch Reading Ease of 27.46. In comparison, Reader's Digest magazine is about 65, Time magazine scores about 52, and the Harvard Law Review has a general readability score in the low 30s. This one page flier was more difficult to read and understand than the Harvard Law Review. (source)
  • Another "abolitionist" pamphlet scored 36.36.
  • A "what's wrong with dairy" flier received a score of 39.48.
  • An animal emancipation style flier scored a respectable 45.79.
  • In contrast, a vegan education booklet scored 61.12.
  • And a "vegetarian starter kit" returned a result of 64.23.
Why does this happen? I think this happens because many of the people who write these hand-outs are smart, educated people who are very capable of understanding complex language. Many have studied philosophy or law and are very comfortable writing in an academic style. But there may be another explanation.

Regardless, we should all learn from this. We should make sure our fliers can be easily understood by most people. By making our message difficult to understand, we're not only failing the animals, we're also excluding a number of people who might very well have become vegan or vegetarian had they received a more readable pamphlet or had they stumbled across a more readable website.

To improve your writing's readability, try using shorter sentences and smaller words.

(By the way, this blog post received a score of 59.55. Not bad, but plenty of room for improvement.)