Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Evangelistic thinking

Danielle made an interesting comment in response to my November 14th post ("Dinner Table Politics, A Little Practice Report"), which involved one of my dinner companions trying to get me to have a taste of his steak. She writes:

"This doesn't just happens to vegetarians....I've met evangelical vegans/vegetarians who try to bring me over to the 'good side' which I find horribly annoying, similar to religious zealots who keep trying to spread their 'Good News' without regard for personal beliefs."

I think it is no exaggeration to say that our culture has an evangelical streak. Basically, some people are so convinced that what they are doing is right/good, that they believe that anybody who is not doing what they are doing must be either wrong, seriously deluded, or lacking something very important in their lives. They thus see themselves as having this sacred mission to bring this thing to their benighted fellows.

As I am a philosophy teacher, I cannot resist putting everything in formal syllogisms. Essentially, we might characterize evangelistic thinking as follows:

1. I do or am x, and I believe that x is a really good thing.
2. If x is a really good thing, it must be as good for you as it is for me.
3. Therefore, if you are not doing or being x, you must be wrong, seriously deluded, or lacking something very important in your life.  
4. Therefore, you should do or be x. (And it is my sacred mission to make sure that you do or be x.) 

x can be practically anything that anybody can be evangelical about: eating meat, not eating meat, accepting Jesus Christ as our savior, and even yoga. Yes, yoga. I shall say more about evangelistic thinking in yoga presently. For now, I want to say something about the syllogism above. If you look at it carefully, you will see that 3. does not follow from 2. Which is to say, even if it is true that x is just as good for you as it is for me, it does not follow that if you are not doing or being x, you must be wrong, seriously deluded, or lacking something very important in your life. In short, just because I happen to be right about something doesn't mean anyone who is not into what I am doing is wrong.

Unfortunately, many people in this culture do not seem to appreciate this simple fact of life, which leads to a lot of unnecessary friction and conflict in human relationships. Moreover, I really think that evangelistic thinking is counter-productive anyway: Very few people I know actually start doing something as a result of being evangelized to. In fact, I know too many people (myself included) who are seriously turned off by evangelizing.

Unfortunately, yoga is not immune to evangelistic thinking. I am a case in point. When I first started doing yoga five years ago, I was a yoga freak (I mean "yoga freak" in the same way in which some people refer to "Jesus freaks."). I felt (and still feel, by the way) that yoga was such a wonderful thing, and simply couldn't understand why more people weren't doing yoga. I started seeing everybody around me through yoga-therapeutic lenses: If so-and-so would only try yoga, he would have better posture, if so-and-so would only come to a yoga class, she would feel so much better about herself, if so-and-so would let me do yoga with him, I'm sure his back would feel better. And so and so forth. Basically, I spoke about yoga to practically everybody I came across (even to my professors, who were convinced that I was morphing into a yoga nut, that I was going to join a hippie commune somewhere, and never get my PhD), and tried to get everybody to do yoga. It took me a while to realize that people around me were either giving me strange looks, avoiding me (because they know they are going to get preached to about yoga), or deliberately starting polite conversations with yoga ("how's your yoga going?"), with the intention of skilfully steering me off the topic of yoga at some point.

In short, I had become a yoga fundamentalist/evangelist. When I realized this, I also realized that--despite whatever nice yoga conversion stories you might read about in, say, Yoga Journal--most people weren't going to do yoga by hearing me preach to them about it. Something else (I'm still not quite sure what this something else is) has to happen in their lives, over which I have no control. Perhaps the best I can do is to try to let the practice work on me--be the change you want to see, as Gandhi says--and let people know that I am there for them when they finally choose to "see the light" (yes, it's the yoga freak in me speaking again!).

I have also been on the receiving end of some pretty intense (and unpleasant) yoga/holistic-living evangelism. A few years ago, I was at a yoga conference in Miami. On the final evening of the conference, one of the main organizers gave a closing address. I have struggled long and hard over whether to reveal her identity here on this blog, but I think it's unnecessary: If you've been around a little bit in yoga circles, you'll know who I am referring to soon enough. If you don't know who she is, I don't see any reason for me to be coloring your judgment of her here, since my aim is to use this real-life example to illustrate a point. 

Anyway, she is one of the co-founders of this big yoga school that is really big on advocating animal rights, veganism/vegetarianism, and social-political causes in general. She came up to the front of the room to give her address, and in a charmingly disarming manner, asked us if it would be alright with us if she took a few minutes of our time to show us a "little video" (who could say no to that?). The video turned out to be one of those PETA videos (you know what I'm talking about: the ones that depict great animal suffering, and humans delighting in their suffering). I wasn't a vegetarian at the time, and I was pretty miffed at what she was doing. I was already quite sympathetic to vegetarianism/veganism at that time, but I felt that using such "shock-and-awe" tactics to get a point across was, at best, in bad taste, and at worse, insulting our rationality and intelligence: Does she think we are children who need to be scared into doing or not doing something?

What miffed me even more was the question-and-answer session that followed. The room was obviously filled with her followers, who lapped up every word she said. But at one point, this middle-aged guy raised his hand and politely asked what she thought about eating free-range meat. She dismissively told him that eating free-range meat is just like eating factory-farmed animals: It is murder, and murder is wrong. The guy left in a huff. She then went on to point out that to be vegetarian or vegan is to do something very radical in our society, but it is also to return to the roots, because "radical" comes from "radish", which is a root.

Well, I still haven't figured out what we are supposed to returning to the root of (if you know, please enlighten me), but I should get back to the main point of this post, which is evangelistic thinking. The main point is that evangelistic thinking simply doesn't work. I did eventually become a vegetarian, but my "conversion" did not come from watching PETA videos or hearing some polemical speeches: I simply found that not eating meat made it easier to do my practice. Evangelists are (mostly) well-intentioned people, but they do not realize that their evangelism only contributes to the conflict and divisiveness that already pervades so much of contemporary society. I believe that what we need as a society is more rational discussion, dialogue and deliberation. Unfortunately, many evangelists find themselves resorting at one point or another to catchy sound-bytes, slogans and caricatures, all of which get in the way of the rational discourse that we so desperately need as a society. We need to be informed, not persuaded, and evangelistic thinking gets in the way of this need.                 



  1. I can't agree with this post more...
    "Very few people I know actually start doing something as a result of being evangelized to. In fact, I know too many people (myself included) who are seriously turned off by evangelizing."
    I hate being told to do something by a self righteous person who feels the need to foist his or her way of life on me, even if it's a lifestyle I eventually adopt. Evangelizing only makes me resist and prolongs any change that may have been in the works in the first place.

    The people who have influenced me the most are those who are enthusiastic about something, but never say, "you should..."- they just live their lives and show, by example, that it's a great way to live. I have vegetarian friends like that, and their no-pressure, no scare tactics, no PETA film showing ways are what helped support a change that was happening naturally.

  2. ps- and that famous yogi you referred to? I wonder if some aren't possibly a bit embarrassed by her ways... it's a HUGE TURN OFF.

    What's that saying? "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar."

  3. Hi Nobel and followers (tee, hee, just kidding)

    This is what I have to say about that - If you find your truth and you believe it to be your truth and it works for you as your truth, that is wonderful. But once you believe that your truth is true for everybody else, then it stops being the truth. That is what I believe, which in and of itself is a kind of truth.

    My experience with PETA goes way back to my UC Berkeley days when I was studying anthropology. In my primatology lab, once a week, we would go into the hills of Berkeley, where the university kept a number of colonies of exotic animals which were used for behavioral observations. There was no testing per se; just students observing and learning about animal behavior.

    One week, when we arrived to observe our North Indian Langurs (old world monkeys) we saw the most horrible scene of devastation and destruction. Some members of PETA had gotten into the secured area and released all of the animals from their cages.

    They released a group of hyenas, the monkeys, some small ungulates, and some large birds. It was a disaster. The hyenas had destroyed each other and god knows what else in the Berkeley hills. It was horrible.

    The university received a communiqué from PETA taking credit for the abomination. It was embarrassing because it indicated the ignorance of the people associated with PETA. It may or may not be wrong to keep exotic animals for research/observation reasons, but it is even wronger to release them into the Berkeley hills where they destroyed each other.

  4. Evelyn, I agree with what you say. As for the famous yogini, it seems that almost everybody in the room that day was a fan/follower, at least if I read the body language correctly (sitting up very straight, eyes bright open and lookin intently at her, nodding and smiling at everything she says). Then again, I guess if one wasn't her fan or follower, one probably wouldn't be in the room that evening, unless one was an unwitting/captive audience like me. Her studio/movement is a very polarizing/divisive movement. I sometimes wonder if people simply cease caring about whether their tactics turn people off once they become famous and accumulate a certain amount of followers/wealth...

    Cathrine, your experience reminds me of the opening scene of the movie 28 Days Later. The movie opens with a group of PETA-like animal activists who storm into an animal lab in London and release a bunch of monkeys that are infected with the rage virus. Once on the loose, the monkeys infect the entire city with the virus, and turns the entire population into flesh-eating zombies. I think many zombie movies are cool like that: They always have embedded political messages.

  5. Your philosophy training has put you in good stead to tackle iffy topics like this in a very eloquent way! Reading this made me realize that as much as I detest being preached to (after growing up in a Catholic household), I too, become the crazy evangelical nut sometimes. After starting my Mysore practice last year, I slowly got my husband to start practicing as well, and now he has a weekly, sometimes twice-weekly, practice, depending on his work/travel schedule. It is sufficient for him, but the yoga nut in me surfaced in a couple of (heated) conversations about the benefits of a daily practice, etc etc etc....needless to say, those conversations didn't end well.

    It's always easier to rant about overzealous people trying to 'convert' you to their cause, than it is to observe the same type of behaviour in oneself and try to change it. I guess for 'yoga freaks' like us, that's what the practice is for ;)

    PS: That famous yogi's comment about 'radical'/'radish'? Cracked me up. The snarky side of me says that with logic like that she could rival Sarah Palin :p

  6. Hello Danielle, great thoughts! My girlfriend and I have a somewhat different dynamic. I spend more time on asana practice than she does, and she doesn't really do ashtanga (she goes to the local yoga studio, which offers a mixed number of styles). She thinks I am an Ashtanga Fundamentalist. Well, maybe I am, but at least I am not holding signs and picketing outside the local yoga studio and calling other yoga styles names!

    I am beginning to wonder if ashtanga practice is designed to be a sort of therapy for type A/evangelical types; the idea is that, by focusing on the physical practice, people like me who might otherwise be inclined to proselytize/preach to others would instead devote more time and attention to looking within oneself and observing one's own intentions.

    About the famous yogi's comment about 'radical'/'radish'... isn't it interesting how people from supposedly opposite ends of the social/political spectrum can end up behaving so much like each other? As my very wise friend Cathrine (who also commented on this thread above) once observed, "If you go too far to the left, you become right!" I think her observation applies very aptly here.

  7. Hahaha, Cathrine's quote is spot on! I'm not sure if the ashtanga practice is designed for any personality type to be honest, how far you get along with it depends on how much you want to commit to the practice. There's an evangelical streak in all of us, and we want to share what makes us happy/peaceful with the best of intentions (the explosion of the blogosphere reflects this). The problems come when we start to get too caught up in our world view and shift from 'sharing' to 'dictating' to others.