“Do you win by chasing those who don’t share your views, or by serving and respecting those already with you? Is the purpose of the choir to sing to the infidels or inspire the faithful? What happens if the faithful stop showing up, donating, doing the work?” –Rebecca Solnit
So often, in talking with colleagues, friends, clients about the issues they are grappling with in their work or personal advocacy, they suddenly stop themselves short and begin to apologize for ‘preaching to the choir.’ Since reading a collection of essays by Rebecca Solnit earlier this year, I’ve come to realize just how pervasive this attitude is and how harmful it can be to the work of social change.
This apologetic sentiment has resurfaced with such frequency during the past few months that I finally did a little sleuthing to find the original essay from Harper’s Magazine which you can read online. A few of my favorite excerpts are included here–but really, especially if you have ever caught yourself uttering the phrase, the whole column is worth your time.
The phrase preaching to the choir properly means hectoring your listeners with arguments they already agree with, and it’s a common sin of radicals, the tendency to denounce others as a way of announcing one’s own virtue. But it can be applied too widely, to malign conversation between people whose beliefs happen to coincide. The phrase implies that political work should be primarily evangelical, even missionary, that the task is to go out and convert the heathens, that talking to those with whom we agree achieves nothing.Rebecca Solnit, “Preaching to The Choir,” Harper’s Magazine, November 2017.
This tendency is problematic for several reasons:
Message refinement is a process.
Talking through our ideas helps to distill our thoughts and strengthen our reasoning. It can also be a helpful way to explore other perspectives and understand where we may have shared goals, but differing values or motivations. Effective messaging is rooted in a deep understanding of the intended audience–what they care about, what they believe, and why.
Karen Haygood Stokes, a minister in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who formerly belonged to the San Francisco Symphony Choir, explained to me that her aim is not so much to persuade people to believe as it is to encourage them to inquire into existing beliefs. “My task as a preacher is to find the places of agreement and then move someplace from there. Not to change anybody’s mind, but to deepen an understanding.” The common ground among her parishioners is not the destination; it’s the starting point: “Have we thought critically about why we agree?” It’s a call to go deeper, to question yourself.Rebecca Solnit, “Preaching to The Choir,” Harper’s Magazine, November 2017.
Awareness alone doesn’t drive change.
If there is a need to move people to action, we’re best served by starting with those who already share our concern but have failed to act. Likemindedness and agreement is meaningless until it is manifested in our choices and behavior. Yet influencing behavior is HARD. That’s why consumer product companies spend billions of dollars every year in the U.S. alone–simply knowing about a product doesn’t ensure you’ll purchase it. Likewise, believing there’s a problem doesn’t guarantee action to address it. Moving people from belief to action is more plausible than attempting to move them from disbelief to action.
One reason we emphasize conversion is that we tend to believe that ideas matter more than actions, that beliefs directly determine behavior, that a preponderance of agreement will result in political and social change. In years past, I’ve often heard people obsess over polls that revealed how many Americans think climate change is real. They seemed convinced that if everyone could be made to believe, the crisis would be solved. But if people who believe climate change is real and pressing do nothing to address the problem, nothing happens. Not only is it unlikely that everyone will agree, it doesn’t matter whether they do, and it isn’t worth waiting for. There are still people who don’t believe that women are endowed with the same inalienable rights as men, and this hasn’t prevented us from creating policies that are based on the principle of equality between the sexes.Rebecca Solnit, “Preaching to The Choir,” Harper’s Magazine, November 2017.
Impassioned yet inaccurate advocacy can do more harm than good.
In an era of lightning-fast messaging, extreme political polarization, and fake news it’s crucial to be accurate and precise. We are quick to shame and silence ourselves–and others–when misinformation is spread. It’s hard to move the needle when you’ve been dismissed or discredited by your allies.
We have shifted to short declarative statements, to thinking in headlines, binaries, catch-all categories, to viewing words as pieces in a game of checkers rather than, say, gestures in a ballet.
The time the choristers spend with one another, the sum of their sympathy and shared experience, is part of what helps them sing in unison and in tune.Rebecca Solnit, “Preaching to The Choir,” Harper’s Magazine, November 2017.
All that matters is that enough of us act.
Conversation is a powerful tool to unite and harmonize our collective efforts to maximize the possibility of change-making. So many of us are hungry for a sense of community and eager to do something. Mobilizing the true believers who are ready for action can be transformative.
In 2006, the political scientist Erica Chenoweth set out to determine whether nonviolence was as effective for regime change as violence. She found, to her surprise, that nonviolent strategies worked better. Organizers were enthralled by her conclusion that only around 3.5 percent of a population was needed to successfully resist or even topple a regime. In other words, to create change, you don’t need everyone to agree with you, you just need some people to agree so passionately that they will donate, campaign, march, risk arrest or injury.Rebecca Solnit, “Preaching to The Choir,” Harper’s Magazine, November 2017.
Instead of apologizing for preaching to the choir, we should be talking to and building community with those who share our hopes and vision for change. This doesn’t mean operating in a bubble and closing the door to others. But for many of us, it will involve a shift from evangelizing to conversing.