Editorial: The bacon sandwich effect

IssueFebruary - March 2020
Comment by Milan Rai

The other day, a friend told me she was sick of being bombarded with evangelical veganism on Facebook.

Posts that feel like they’re saying: ‘If you don’t become vegan, you personally are destroying the climate!’ ‘You must become vegan! Or you are a bad person!’

‘I got a message like that,’ she said, ‘and I suddenly had a very strong urge to eat a bacon sandwich. I don’t even eat bacon! I’ve maybe eaten one bacon sandwich in my life!’

Having done a lot of urgent-moral-righteous-superior communicating in my life, I can understand where these messages are coming from. There is a climate emergency. Animals are suffering and dying. People can make changes in their lives.

At the same time, as campaigners, we have to look at what our efforts are actually achieving. This isn’t just about veganism, it applies to all the different changes that our movements are trying to make.

If our social media post, or our leaflet, or our speech, or our video, or our conversation actually makes people want to (metaphorically) eat a bacon sandwich, then we may be setting our cause back.

Doing something that feels right, or which makes us feel better about ourselves, is not always the same as doing something that moves the world closer to freedom and justice and peace and sustainability and equality.

Difficult conversations

Climate Outreach, the group who specialise in communicating about climate issues, issued a #TalkingClimate Handbook in December.

It suggested eight guidelines for having climate change conversations, eight guidelines which end up with the slightly strained acronym, ‘REAL TALK’:

  • Respect your conversational partner and find common ground
  • Enjoy it!
  • Ask questions
  • Listen, and show you’ve heard
  • Tell your story
  • Action makes it easier (but doesn’t fix it)
  • Learn from your conversational partner
  • Keep going and keep connected

Most of those headings are self-explanatory. ‘Listen, and show you’ve heard’ is a great, non-jargon way of describing ‘active listening’ (a phrase which sounds a bit mysterious).

‘Tell your story’ means describing your own personal journey, how you came to think and act in the way that you do – ‘This doesn’t mean being uninformed about climate change. You can weave what you know about climate change into your story.’

The ‘Action...’ section includes these valuable words: ‘We also need to talk about the many inspiring solutions to climate change that already exist. In our survey, people who were taking some kind of action – even if it felt small, personal and not in line with the extent of the problem – found it was much easier to start a climate change conversation.’

Deep Canvassing

#TalkingClimate (including REAL TALK) sounds like a less intense version of the non-judgemental Deep Canvassing methods developed by the Los Angeles LGBT Centre – initially to counter transphobia. (See PN 2606.)

#TalkingClimate could also be seen as another way of ‘calling in’ people for their harmful attitudes or behaviour (as opposed to ‘calling them out’). (See Betsy Leondar-Wright’s wonderful explanation and example in PN 2590 – 2591.)

Deep Canvassing relies on something that doesn’t come so easily to British folk, which is opening up about our own difficulties or weaknesses to others.

It’s only one part of the Deep Canvassing process, but being vulnerable in that way seems to be essential in creating the possibility for someone to shift their attitudes.

In a New York Times Magazine article, the reporter hears the founder of Deep Canvassing, Dave Fleischer, opening up on the doorstep about his own experience of feeling different as a gay man growing up in a small, conservative Ohio town.

Because of where they’ve got to in the conversation, this sharing creates a shift. Nancy, the grey-haired Hispanic woman Fleischer is talking to, is able to connect the racism she had experienced in the US to the oppression felt by transgender people. She changes her mind about how she will vote in an upcoming referendum.

Research has found that Deep Canvassing can have a lasting effect in reducing prejudice against trans people.

Other uses...

A pro-Democrat group, Changing The Conversation Together, claims to have used Deep Canvassing-type techniques to help a Democrat, Max Rose, achieve an unlikely victory in New York’s 11th congressional district in November 2018.

The group targeted Staten Island, which was the only borough in New York City that voted for Donald Trump in the presidential elections. They talked to over 10,000 voters, and claimed to have shifted the attitudes of 27 percent of the people they talked to – who became more likely to vote Democrat. Rose won Staten Island by 1,100 votes.

On the other hand, research in the US in 2017 seems not to have found any effect ‘on voter turnout or policy preferences’ when deep canvassing was used in relation to environmental issues. There are limits to everything....

Oh, and my friend with the rebellious ‘bacon sandwich’ impulse said she might become vegan – but that was because she knew someone who was vegan who she admired and wanted to be more like....

See more of: Editorial