Engaging with Empathy: Online Veganism’s Greatest Challenge

One of the most consistent challenges I’ve faced since starting my channel is communication. Obviously, YouTube (and blogging as well) are almost entirely about communication! But communication is challenging for most of us, and this challenge only increases in the online environment, where you often have very limited opportunities to relate to people. All too often, the temptation is to disengage your empathy, and sacrifice real communication for the opportunity to win arguments.

The truth about arguing

I’m someone who loves to argue. I mean, I LOVE IT. It’s like oxygen. Ask my parents – I’m sure the first conversation I ever had was an argument. But I like getting things done even more. And that’s a problem. Because most arguments accomplish very little.

Sure, there’s the satisfaction of beating your opponent, but that’s about it. They aren’t going to change their mind (most of the time, if you wield your logical arguments successfully, they’ll be even more determined to prove you wrong, and significantly less likely to fully accept your argument.

As as kid, I didn’t really get this. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could continue down the wrong path in the face of a devastating logical argument. Yeah, I was a fool.

You see, there are these things called emotions, and people have them. And they have a lot of them. And no matter how much anyone says facts matter to them, they’re lying. Because deep down, even the most rational people on earth are emotionally driven. Even if the only emotion they have is the desire to win (ahem, or so I’ve been told).

Arguing online

Most online arguments accomplish little. Very little. Probably nothing, in fact. You don’t have to have been on more than a couple of comment threads before you learn that arguing with someone either leads to 1) an angry blow-up 2)tons more arguing, followed by giving up out of sheer exhaustion.

There is rarely more than a single honest exchange between the parties. After that, it’s just about seeing who can hold out the longest.

Fear and empathy

Why do arguments devolve so quickly? I think the core issue is actually one of fear – fearing the worst from the other person. I’m not saying to let your guard down (especially online). But I am suggesting that if we start from a place of fear and distrust, it’s hard to build a relationship from there.

It’s also easy to have a negative first impression of people online. And it’s far too easy to take an initial assessment and run with it. It’s kind of like a kid, looking at a Brussel sprout for the first time: maybe they’d love it if they gave it a chance, but it starts off at  a disadvantage based on its appearance.

But if we do care about changing hearts and minds, what can we do?

Well, I certainly hope hearts and minds can be changed (otherwise it wouldn’t make much sense for me to have a channel focusing on veganism). But it’s not going to come from shouting at each other. And for some strange reason, insults don’t seem to work very well, either.

So I would recommend empathy. It’s not the most thrilling way to win people over. Battering your opponents with brilliant verbal barbs is a lot more fun. But if we care about what works, we need to start doing things differently.

It sounds almost laughable, but if the online vegan YouTube community is going to survive, we need to work on our empathy.

Special thanks to all my Patreon supporters, especially Richard, Genevieve and Jess for their generous support!

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