‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ — How Greenpeace lost my support

I’ve supported Greenpeace my entire adult life. I strongly believe in their vision to create a green and peaceful future, but on Monday I received a call from them that cost them my support.

The canvasser who called told me that Greenpeace needs more money so they can run a media campaign. He said the campaign would ‘convert people to our cause’ and put public pressure on ‘the bad guys’ (coal mining companies) so they are forced to stop ‘wrecking the planet’.

The ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ language he used could have come straight out of any religious zealot’s mouth — the righteous followers of the truth (the activists) converting the heathen hoards (the public) and waging a holy war against the sinners (climate deniers and coal companies).

I wish life was as simple and black and white as the ‘truth’ he shared with me. I wish the coal barons’ hearts were all as black as the coal they mine and I wish all environmental activists’ consciences were as clear as the rivers they seek to protect. But they aren’t — life isn’t a children’s book with stainless heroes and unredeemable villains. In my experience there is no such thing as a bad man or a good woman, only actions and consequences.

If the man on the other end of the telephone was born to and raised by Lang Hancock he probably would have grown into a mining magnate like Gina Rinehart. Would he have been a ‘bad guy’?

If Gina had been born to the cavasser’s parents it might have been her on the end of the phone attempting to convince me of the evils of coal. Would she have been ‘a good guy’?

Putting someone in a box labelled ‘bad’ is not only an inaccurate oversimplification it is also unlikely to open up a respectful dialogue with the possibility of increased understanding and mutually beneficial solutions.

Additionally, approaching a conversation with the intention to ‘convert’ someone to your ‘right’ way of seeing implies that they are wrong. If there is one thing we humans dislike more than being labelled ‘bad’ it is being told we are wrong. Both actions lead us to harden around our existing opinions and views — the exact opposite of the desired outcome.

Unfortunately this counterproductive ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ ‘good’ vs. ‘evil’ mindset is endemic, and not just in Greenpeace but across most activist organisations I’ve encountered. Could there be another way?

I don’t have any tried and tested alternatives to offer and I am not a expert in campaigning, advocacy or activism. But the seed of an alternative approach could lie in deep compassionate listening.

The sort of listening that requires you to drop everything you think you know about the person you are conversing with so you can hear what they really believe and learn who they really are.

The sort of listening that demonstrates you have heard where the other person is coming from and makes them feel understood.

The sort of listening that demonstrates you care about the person you are listening to and makes them feel loved.

A person who feels heard, understood and loved is much more likely to hear your story and negotiate a mutually beneficial solution than someone with their back against the wall because they feel ignored, misunderstood and judged.

The sad irony is that the canvasser on the phone started off with my support and lost it, not because he failed to convince me of the merit of his cause, but because he didn’t listen.

He didn’t ask me what I thought about his organisation’s proposed approach. He didn’t hear me sigh as he cursed the miners. He didn’t hear the disappointment in my voice when I responded to his request for more money.

He was too busy converting me to his cause to listen, and in the process I reclassified Greenpeace from ‘us’ to ‘them’.

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