Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Responding to Pushback Against Activism for Justice

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Copyright, March 24, 2016

I have been a prophetic, ethics-oriented preacher since I became ordained nearly sixteen years ago, and have been a public activist for five years now, addressing a host of injustices ranging from environmental devastation to racism to homophobia to fracking to climate change.   I have noticed the kinds of negative reactions elicited from those who have opposed my work or taken issue with my activism and that of others like me.  

For example, on March 21, 2016, I was part of an interfaith coalition of religious leaders who are calling on our elected leaders to put a MORALtorium on any future shale gas drilling (fracking) in Pennsylvania because of the serious problems it’s caused for water, land, forests, air, communities, public health and the climate.  

The speeches I and others made at the rally and advocacy day held at the Capitol Building in Harrisburg were covered by local media, and this resulted in much online sniping and negative comments.  For instance:

Jim Willis: I question the morality of so-called "religious" leaders who worship the earth rather than the God they profess to worship.

Reddler: There is hypocrisy if they heat homes and churches with nat gas. And isn't methane natural? Isn't God responsible for 'natural'? Guess you can blame God for every time a cow farts.

Tom Servo: I love how leftists love to claim "it's all about science!!!!" and then they instantly mobilize a pack of soft headed religious zealots to march for them.  ALSO as far as warming is concerned, if any of them HAD looked at the science they would know that natural gas is the best possible bridge fuel to take the place of coal. But since this is really all about religion, they don't care about that.

Brian Gabriel Comeaux: You and your luddite friends wage war on the poor and the elderly by doing your best to deny them inexpensive energy and utilities. Cold kills while inexpensive natural gas heats homes.

kevin jorgensen:  Bet they all drove a car to the rally... and even if it was electric, its carbon footprint was far from zero. Bet they all plug their iphones into a fossil fuel powered grid and internet. Bet they all heat their homes with something that puts a lot more pollution into the atmosphere than natural gas. These people are all the characters in that cartoon where the protagonist is sawing the tree branch they are sitting on... we all know how it ends.

And consider this piece posted by Marcellus Drilling News: 

Radical Democrats Invoke God + Sham Science to Bash PA NatGas
Just about nothing makes us more angry than when self-righteous “religious” leaders prance in front of cameras to denounce extracting and burning fossil fuels, like natural gas, as immoral or unethical. They are the height of hypocrisy–because they left them homes and churches heated with natural gas, wearing clothes made from fibers that come from petrochemicals (oil and natural gas), driving vehicles powered by fossil fuels, speaking into microphones with plastics in them and standing at a podium made from a material derived from petrochemicals–to denounce it all. Yet they use it every single day themselves. They claim to have God on their side. Repugnant. The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade (United in Christ Lutheran Church in Lewisburg, PA) and a group of 50 or so other hypocrites recently held an interfaith rally in Harrisburg to call on Gov. Tom Wolf to stop all drilling for gas and oil in the state–because it’s “immoral.” Too bad Rev. Shade lost her way and quit worshiping God and instead now worships nature. Her twisted philosophy is what happens when you quit worshiping the Creator and instead worship the creation…

Rather than just respond to the content of these posts (which are rife with theological and logical inaccuracies, not to mention cheap shots and attempts at character assassination), it may be more instructive to analyze them from a tactical perspective to understand the underlying patterns. The hope is that by understanding what’s actually happening in these negative responses, we might respond in ways that bolster our confidence, avoid pettiness, and move the conversation to a higher, more productive level.

Philosopher Mary Midgley in her essay “Emotion, Emotiveness and Sentimentality” (in The Essential Mary Midgley, ed. David Midgley, London and New York: Routledge, 2006) explains the tactics often used by those wishing to dismiss the concerns of those addressing justice issues, such as advocating for animal and environmental rights.  There are four:  1) accusations of being “too emotional”; 2) accusations of being ignorant; 3) accusations of being hypocritical; and 4) accusations of being inappropriate.  Let’s take each of these in turn.

1. Calm down, you’re being too emotional
A typical reaction against those of us who advocate for environmental justice is to accuse us of being “too emotional.”  Aside from the fact that this is a thinly veiled sexist remark implying that our work is akin to women’s hysteria, the accusation is based on an incorrect premise.  Calling environmental advocates “emotional” assumes that emotion is the opposite of rationality, logic and level-headedness.  It is not.  “All argument involves trying to change feelings,” Midgely observes, “because all belief involves feeling,” (113). 

In fact, those who are urging us to “calm down,” not be so “reactionary,” and to “cool it,” when it comes to sounding the alarm about climate change, deforestation, species extinction and ocean ecosystem collapse are actually the ones who are suspect.  This is because accusations of being overly emotional are a red herring tactic.  Red herrings are fish with a very strong smell that were used by criminals to throw off dogs from the scent of a trail when being pursued.  Red herrings are tactics used in arguments to distract us from the facts at hand. 

First, we must note that, as Midgley points out, those who react against our work are also “emotional,” otherwise they wouldn’t be reacting at all.  Second, we must always inquire as to the motive behind the urging to “stop overreacting” and being overly emotional.  “He is like a spy in the pay of the enemy, plotting to keep Priam quiet in bed till the Greeks have control of the city,” Midgley explains.  “He is not a bit emotional (why should he be?  His side is winning).  And towards Priam, his aims do not seem emotive.  He is trying, after all, to produce calm, to get rid of emotion.  But  . . . he is trying to work directly on emotion for his own ends, by-passing normal thought. (Compare subliminal suggestion.) . . . This fellow is a traitor and a fraud,” (114). 

Thus, Midgley advises: “Anyone accused of being emotional about injustice or oppression or war or bad science or anything else can quite properly reply, ‘Of course I feel strongly about this, and with good reason.  It is a serious matter.  Anyone who has no feeling about it, who does not mind about it, has got something wrong with him.’ Strong feeling is fully appropriate to well-grounded belief on important subjects.  Its absence would be a fault,” (Midgley, 112).

So if you are accused of being “too emotional” about a topic, certainly take a moment to gauge whether your level of feeling is appropriate to the situation, and if it’s not, dial it back.  But more often than not, it is precisely because we have done our homework, used our rational faculties, paid attention to the studies and science, and reviewed the facts that we react – and react appropriately – with emotions ranging from alarm and anger to sadness to righteous indignation.   
2. You don’t know what you’re talking about
This is a common response from those who take issue with someone pointing out that the methods by which we are heating our homes, transporting ourselves and our goods, and treating Earth and Earth-kin for food are resulting in suffering.  Accusations of ignorance, stupidity and being uninformed – when in fact reasonable steps have been taken to observe, study data, employ reason, and make conclusions based on evidence – are another kind of red-herring tactic, Midgley explains. 

For example, we might concede that natural gas is currently cheaper than solar for producing electricity and, thus, heat.  But that fact does not nullify the other fact that the process of extracting the gas is extremely harmful to people, animals, plants, communities and the climate.  Accusing a person of ignorance when in fact the argument creates false dilemmas (either we have gas or we freeze to death!) and ignores alternatives and other information (solar has now become competitive with fossil fuels) is another red herring tactic. 

When accused of being soft-headed or impractical or otherwise unintelligent – or when politely but patronizingly told that you don’t know what you’re talking about – certainly take the time to assess your knowledge base.  Check your facts, do you homework, and don’t succumb to the temptation to resort to their school-yard retorts.  But when you’re told, “It may be bad, but you have no idea how much worse it could be, and what you’re proposing is going to send us down the wrong track,” the appropriate response is: there is no justification for causing or allowing suffering.   Let’s find a way to do things better.

3. You’re a hypocrite

No one likes being called a hypocrite, especially people of good faith with sincere convictions and  generous hearts.  So this accusation can really sting.  And the charge seems to have a valid point.  “You claim to have scruples, when, in fact, you are being hypocritical.  Because the fact is, you are benefiting in some way from this industry, practice, system, etc.  You are driving the cars, using the plastic, heating your home, and using the fossil fuels in all manner of ways.  Your collusion thus disqualifies you from criticizing.  You have no right to complain about our methods.” 

Midgely reminds us that this kind of accusation is made about the disputer, not the dispute (thus it is an ad hominem attack, meaning that it’s a subtle type of character assassination).  

This is yet another red herring, because it distracts from the issue at hand.  So Midgley astutely points out why it’s perfectly acceptable in our activism to be critical of existing practices and products:  “People who want to change are not disqualified from asking for it by their involvement in existing institutions.  If they were, no change could ever be brought about,” (117-118). 

In fact, it is precisely because we are using these products – and seeing that they are being produced in a way that causes suffering – that we have the right and obligation to raise questions about it and push for change.  It is the consumer’s business “to demand that the producer should find less objectionable ways of producing it,” Midgley urges (118).  That means we have every right to ask for the humane treatment of animals, energy that does not damage the environment, and agriculture that does not poison the surrounding ecosystem.

It is important to realize that the person who is trying to block criticism often has vested interest in keeping things status quo and avoiding change.  Thus “they cannot be trusted on such questions,” Midgley warns.  The effort to dismiss one’s strong feelings about the unethical means by which certain items and services are produced also hearkens back to the first tactic – accusations of being too sentimental.  That, combined with charges of hypocrisy “is often an effective way of silencing critics and making them feel ashamed.  We should resist it,” advises Midgley (119).

4. Be “realistic”
“You environmentalists are stuck in a fantasy world and need to touch down to reality.  Let’s be objective and realistic.  We don’t have the luxury to do what you’re asking. It’s too expensive.  There’s a war going on.  We don’t have the resources.  There are too many other pressing problems.” Etc., etc.

All of these are common responses used to deflect or dismiss those who raise concerns about environmental problems, climate change, animal rights, community rights and human rights.  The accusation is that we are being inappropriate in our critique and distracting from the “real” issues that usually involve money, protection of systemic power, and maintenance of institutional status quo.

This is not to say that there aren’t real questions about how we weigh competing concerns, assign priorities, and triage emergency situations.  For example, Midgley asks “How much ought we to mind about the preservation of wilderness?  Or about art? Or about the beauty of the countryside?  How important is knowledge, or freedom?  Ought they always to give way to the contentment of the greater number?  How, in general, are conflicts between such various values to be resolved?  These are real and serious moral questions,” (119).  The problem is when the person who receives our criticism responds by a) subtly using emotion to manipulate us away from the question we raise, or b) framing the issue as a zero-sum game (also called creating a “false dichotomy” or “false dilemma”).
Either one of these responses might employ what social movement theorists William A. Gamson and David S. Meyer, in their essay, "Framing Political Opportunity” (in Social Movements and Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001) call a rhetoric of inaction.  They identify three central themes in the rhetoric of inaction -- jeopardy, futility, and perverse effects:

Jeopardy refers to the argument that by attempting some change, we risk losing achievements already won.  Inaction is more prudent in this view of opportunity because the dangers of loss outweigh the possibilities of further gain. 
Futility refers to the argument that there is no opportunity for change, that any action is essentially a waste of time and resources.
Perverse effects refers to the argument that the very actions designed to change things will only make matters worse.   Inaction is better because, regardless of good intentions, the unintended negative consequences will outweigh the desired effects (285-6).

When you encounter these kinds of rhetoric of inaction, counter with the rhetoric of action:  urgency, agency, and possibility.

Urgency points out that if we do not act now, the situation will not remain the same but will, in fact, become more and more difficult to change or manage.  Action may be risky but inaction is riskier still.   
Agency encourages us to embrace the "openness of the moment” by pointing out that windows that are currently open will not stay open for long.  Admittedly, there is no guarantee of success, but the present offers opportunity enough to keep hope alive.  Also, taking action now will open the window wider and keep it open longer, allowing more room for future success.
      Possibility shows us the promise of new alternatives which helps to counter the threats of perverse effects.  Create a vision of better policies, greater justice, and more humane social life as alternatives which our actions can help bring about (286). 

Finally, take heart
It’s actually a sign that your activism and advocacy is having an effect on the world when certain people respond with sniping, negative comments, name-calling and attempts to dismiss.  Because it means that you have been heard.  You have brought attention to an issue that, indeed, makes people uncomfortable, but nevertheless needs to have our attention. It is precisely the reason behind or beneath their discomfort, anger, or otherwise negative response that is the more interesting question.  Because if there really was no reason to be concerned, you would have been ignored.  The fact that you have touched a sore spot and gotten a reaction means that we have found an area that requires our attention. 

Most of the time, it is neither wise nor productive to engage those who post unkind, uninformed or hostile comments online.  But if you have the opportunity to engage someone one-on-one who has reacted negatively to you but also shows signs of genuine care, curiosity, or willingness to listen, offer to engage in further conversation to find out why they are angry, what has made them feel so annoyed.  They have listened to you, now listen to them.  It may be that together you are able to take steps forward that address both of your concerns.  This is how positive change evolves – in fits and starts, and sometimes with mistakes and missteps, but also with genuine and authentic efforts to answer the call to be our best selves. 


  1. Well-written. I'll refer to this again and again when faced with criticism.

  2. I really like this and will read it several times until it is inwardly digested!


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