A colleague once noticed that I never ate animal products. He asked me if I was vegan in a suspicious, almost accusatory way. I told him I was. He seemed genuinely offended. He went off on a rant about how meat was nutritionally essential and how animal ethics were not a concern of his. Over the course of this tirade, he worked himself up into an increasingly agitated state that ended with him bellowing in my face that he would never stop eating meat. I didn’t try to debate him.
Months later, the same man reached out to thank me for helping him go vegan. I was baffled. I couldn’t recall having tried to convince him. As far as I could tell, all I ever did was just exist in his proximity. But that was apparently enough. The sheer fact that he knew someone who was vegan put a human face on this alien and threatening idea.
My friendly demeanour dispelled some of the preconceptions he may have had about vegans, whereas sanctimony or evangelism would surely have pushed him away. If I was a vegan, and I was a likeable guy, veganism couldn’t be that bad, could it? This was the catalyst that nudged him to question his own choices. Arguments and evidence were what convinced him in the end, but he found those on his own—and that was probably the only way that he would ever have accepted them. At the outset, his mind was closed, and no line of reasoning would have penetrated his defences. But a non-threatening human connection created the necessary opening. The rest just happened.
Our broken culture has caused us to forget this fundamental truth about human nature. As our lives have increasingly shifted to virtual spaces where users vie for attention, we have been losing touch with reality. Politics has become mere theatre, as candidates audition to grow their brands and elected leaders give fiery speeches while doing nothing. Everyone has a plan they’d love to tell you about, but no one has any expectation that it can ever be achieved. Meanwhile the public is more disconnected from one another than ever—shut away, glued to our screens, without social or love lives, retweeting and posting about society as a proxy for participating in it. Covid only accelerated a trend that was already underway.
We are becoming a society of words rather than deeds, where actions are scarce, ineffectual and symbolic. A society where we want to be seen doing things rather than actually doing them, where we want to berate others for not doing what we think they ought to do instead of doing it ourselves, and where we subject people’s words to microscopic scrutiny because, absent any real action, what else do we have to go by? But humans have always been drawn to doers. If you want to be imitated, you must be the kind of person in whose footsteps others want to follow—not a crybaby throwing a tantrum, a hall monitor snitch or a finger-wagging scold.
Everyone whose political opinions are known becomes an ambassador of those views. How we behave and carry ourselves matters. Evidence, logic and first principles don’t factor into decision-making as much as we might wish—not initially. Associations play a much larger role. If we associate a particular idea with a type of person we detest, we’re more likely to reject that idea. Politics isn’t a meritocracy: it’s a popularity contest. And so long as humans remain humans, that isn’t going to change.
To regard those you offend as irrational, thin-skinned fools or to expect people to bloodlessly evaluate every point on its merits while overlooking any bad behaviour on your part betrays an ignorance of human nature. If you think having the “correct” views or advocating for the “best” policies gives you carte blanche to be rude to those who disagree with you, you’re merely a gift to your political opponents.
Being a good representative of one’s views is a form of quiet political activism, although it does not involve protests, demonstrations, marches, canvassing, phone-banking or the romanticised but nebulous concept of organising. Such activism is always a double-edged sword. Push too hard, or use the wrong tactics, and you’re liable to drive people away or to unwittingly recruit for the other side.
Leading by example has no such downsides. It diffuses negative associations. It humanises unfamiliar or seemingly scary ideas. It lowers defences, opens minds and leaves positive impressions. It requires less of you in time, energy, self-promotion and performance—it asks only that you live your values, be true to yourself, and treat others with kindness, civility and space. And even when it fails, it doesn’t actively shove potential allies in the other direction.
Traditional political activists are too often the overbearing used car salesmen of politics. No one wants to be smothered, loomed over or pressured. People can smell fanaticism and desperation from a mile away. The best cars sell themselves—they don’t need commercials every 30 seconds or two-bit hustlers to convince people. Excellence speaks for itself.
This isn’t to say that all activism is counterproductive, nor that leading by example is a panacea. There are certain issues that cannot be substantially improved by individual efforts alone, and whose solutions must come from government or corporate action. There are some causes over which ordinary citizens exert relatively little say, where it is important to try to influence the influencers. This is where traditional political activism can be useful. Not in trying to shame, bully or pester everyday people or to punish transgressors, but in targeted campaigns to raise awareness and apply public pressure to those few uniquely positioned to make a difference.
There is a need for activism. But the current political landscape is oversaturated well past the point of diminishing returns. There is a surprising amount that can be achieved without any outreach. If every activist just lived the values they purport to hold, they’d do more to improve society than any hashtag slacktivism, cyberbullying or performative street antics ever could. Opening minds by forging positive connections isn’t as sexy as torching heretics. But it is more likely to get results.