Activism Future Building Society

Overcoming defensive reactions to entertain different ways of living

Replied to On Natural Wine by Alicia Kennedy (From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy)

Neither natural winemakers or drinkers nor vegans are the powerful ones here. If you’ve been thinking they are, perhaps it’s time to interrogate why you feel that way—to ask how we can move forward for a better world, instead of mocking anyone trying to do things a bit differently.

The actual similarities between natural wine and veganism are, at the end of the day, about giving a shit.

If there is a commonality between natural wine and “the vegan movement”…, it is that people who do not participate in them overstate the influence and strength of both of these concepts. They are threatening because of the perceived “aggression” of the believers, forcing bottles imported by Jenny & Francois and Impossible Burgers down everyone’s throats! (This is not happening.)

I suspect for things like veganism, some people carry a kernel of self-imposed shame about their choices — our culture is great at eroding people’s self confidence and turning systemic issues into personal failings. These people perceive someone else stating their preferences as an attack and get defensive that they’ve done nothing wrong*. Or, they never really considered any other approach and stumble to justify their practices in the moment by throwing up strawmen that no other choice but theirs is valid (e.g. the tired “but where do you get your protein” canard).

(*For the record, I don’t think meat-eaters should feel ashamed of their choice to eat meat. I’m just tired of having to ask for food I can eat too. It’s ok for us to make different choices 🙂 My choices are about me, not you.)

But this is the approach so many folks take toward both natural wine and veganism: Someone who was into it annoyed them, so they dismissed the idea wholesale.

People act like this about bicycling also: they see one cyclist run a stop sign (psst it’s called an Idaho stop and is legal in WA among other states and also is safer than the bike stopping) therefore all cyclists are dickheads who are out to get drivers (never mind the cyclist is who would be hurt in a collision with a car and almost certainly has read more about the best safety practices of the road than the average driver). Then, extrapolating all cyclists to be jerks means they must be freeloaders who are wasting the public’s money on bike lanes no one uses (despite roads costing way more than bike lanes, and actually the general public subsidizes drivers not the other way round). This too I think is a defensive posture, with people not wanting to confront the risk they put others under by speeding or their contribution to climate change because living without a car in America is next to impossible (another systemic problem cum individual responsibility doozie — speeding is dangerous but we design our roads for speed).

Americans* get so heated and defensive about things like vegan and vegetarian diets and cycling that it’s hard to even talk about these habits, practiced by a very small portion of the population. Though not intentional, this is the emotional purpose of an offensive posture: to avoid confronting and reckoning with these other perspectives. And to mentally position oneself as a member of the in-group by enforcing the out-group. This also fits the “Not All Men” complaint, or the “but I’m not racist!” protest: talking about systemic harm and a need for cultural change feels like a personal accusation.

(*Years ago, I recall shocking a bunch of Indians by revealing I was vegetarian at my husband’s company holiday party — they had never met a vegetarian American before 😂 They were so curious why! I wish I’d given them a better answer but I’d gotten so used to demurring not to cause offense at that point I don’t think I said much.)

Change carries the threat of loss — you don’t know if things will get better or worse for you after a change. I understand why people feel attacked when urban design advocates talk about building bike lanes everywhere: people hear “the government is going to take away my car,” or, “traffic will get worse and waste even more of my life,” and, “there will be nowhere to park so going places will take longer and be a pain.” And with everyone pressed for time, that feels like a personal threat.

But, show people what walkable streets look like and they can also understand the benefits. I liked Sara Hendren’s latest newsletter highlighting a different approach to urban design:

The Dallas-based urban design group Better Block says it very plainly: they try to help people improve cities by not over-thinking every decision. They do the substantial physical work to pose a temporary but true-to-scale possible future for a city street, like this one—a plausible new arrangement set up for a weekend or so, in the hopes of helping people see an idea come to life, the better to judge its merits.

I don’t care what someone’s diet is, but I do care a lottalottalot about urban design and walkability and bikeability and shifting away from so much driving.

And I care about a lot of other policy changes and societal shifts that I think would make almost everyone’s lives better.

So how else can we show people new ideas that might improve their lives without triggering fear or defensiveness? How do we shift the Overton window towards openness instead of ratcheting down control and access? How can we try new things without getting stopped by fear of change and uncertainty?

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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