Saturday, December 16, 2006

Preaching to the choir

I was over at the Daily Kos this afternoon. Among those railing against war and corporations was someone who had put in a lot of work on a presentation about why she opposes the death penalty. It referenced cases. It had tables. It was a lot of work. Eventually I got past that observation to get to another one - this is preaching to the choir! No one supporting the death penalty is reading this.

In fact opinions about the death penalty are well researched. There are studies going back to at least 1990 (Justice Quarterly 7:175, 1990) saying that if you sit down a proponent of the death penalty and hit him or her with all the data saying their reasons are no good, such as data saying there is no deterrence from the death penalty, it doesn't change anyone's mind. They just shift to some other reason. People speak of their support for the death penalty in terms of reasons, just as with almost any other opinion, but underneath their reasons is whatever sense of justice or vengeance or conformity or whatever else that is the real basis for their opinion. So is the real basis for many opinions hidden.

Now I thought about saying some of this in response to this piece this afternoon, but then I couldn't see any good it would do. I've been seeing this throughout the 8 years I've been online, and it never has helped to point this out. Lots of people preach to the choir. All sorts of religious arguments are preached that way, conservative, liberal, atheist, with all sorts of subdivisions within those that argue in a way that only those who already agree with that person will agree this time. All sorts of political sites fulfill the same purpose. Like the Daily Kos they are easily ruffled by people who see an issue differently, even by seeing different means to the same ends.

Somehow it didn't used to dawn on me the way it does now. People want to preach to the choir. They want to make their case with no understanding why other people don't see it that way. They want to just pile up words and sometimes numbers and graphs, as if those who believe otherwise will just capitulate to that. Sometimes two people with opposite views will both be preaching to the choir, in the process talking past each other, swapping argument for argument, but with no understanding and no synthesis. I used to just see this as combativeness, but maybe this is how much people want to preach to the choir. They'll even preach to the choir when some other person is not part of their choir.

This is nothing new. Christians have been evangelizing this way for a long time. Some taylor a message to their listeners, but some don't.

I have to think that someday those who are big on arguments will figure out the pointlessness of them. Creationists will understand eventually they'll never dent evolution, won't they? Political extremists from both sides will notice the country isn't flocking to them, won't they? Maybe the only way a lifetime of opinions stops is when someone dies. I'm familiar with that phenomenon already.

I'm sure there's a lot to say about that. For me it suffices to know that people want to preach to the choir, people throughout the political or religious spectrum, even any other sort of people I suppose. I've seen it again and again, and no one thanks me if I point that out to them. I don't point it out to them just to be smart. Preaching to the choir isn't the best preaching, unless someone joins the choir. Even then, it's wasting a lot of time. It's not that I want to keep anyone from wasting time. I want people who agree with me to be effective. There's nothing I can do about that. For anyone who reads this, there are millions who are too busy preaching to the choir.

It's what people want to do. Who am I to stand in their way?

I've already been drifting toward the idea that cultural evolution has a mind of its own, that people don't know what they're doing enough to change society. This is another point about that. All these websites that fight with trolls and think the answer is to get rid of conflicts so everyone can write and read in peace become temples to conformity, like churches and other institutions have been. It's not just conservatives. It's not just the religious. Conformity is everywhere, unless you choose to walk away from it.


The Lizard Queen said...

This was something that became quite clear to me when teaching argumentation. Even the strongest evidence and a perfect mix of ethos, logos, and pathos can only do so much. In the end, people often simply believe what they want to believe. Preaching to the choir lets us feel like we're getting information out there and not having it fall on deaf ears, which I guess is something...

DavidD said...

I don't think "want" or "choose" to believe is quite right, even though I said "want" for people wanting to preach to the choir. I think that latter "want" is correct. It's less stressful preaching to the choir. It's affirming. People want that as oppose to frustrating, unless one's competitiveness and desire to test an argument become a greater want.

For any belief, I can pick out some personal memory that attaches to why I'm sure of this belief. I am sure that abortion is at least sometimes moral because many families that previously had a child with Tay-Sachs Disease would only try to have another child if they had the option of aborting a fetus that was tested and found to have the disease in utero. It was a powerful lesson when I encountered this in medical school.

Whatever arguments someone made against that, it's all rhetoric. It's said as rhetoric, no matter how close someone is to saying it from the heart. I hear it as rhetoric. It's not real as the experience was, all the many experiences that I attach to the belief that abortion is sometimes a good thing.

It is a complicated thing how people wind up with different beliefs from similar experiences. People start from different places, due to both nature and nurture. So experienced people can have different beliefs. But here I think there is a choice. Who is willing to move outside their group and who embraces conformity? Who is willing to integrate all ideas and all experiences into his or her model of the world and who makes an idol of how their group sees the world?

I was a conformist until events pushed me away from being a conformist. Coming from academics made me much more likely to want to be integrative in the greatest possible way instead of joining some non-conformist group, some non-conformist conformity. That has helped make me what I am, but there was choice. How much choice there was is hard to say.

So many of my fellow liberals see the greatest integration as conforming to all these groups at once, like going around the room and saying everyone has a good point. In fact that's never the case. There are realistic ideas. There are fantasies. There are well-meaning motives. There is malice. There is such a thing as truth, no matter how much post-modern thought might deny that, not necessarily a point about metaphysics, but just realism.

To conform to any group is either to say an ideal group exists, even humanity as a whole, as many liberals see that, or some ideal principle or other abstraction. It is also possible that there is nothing for me to mimic that can substitute for my working out my own life with all the resources I have for that, God being chief among them. I'm not sure how to describe the ultimate non-conformist or whether that is whom I strive to be, but I am sure that conformity is a much more evil thing than people realize, even those who know that too much conformity is bad. It's worse than that.

I love God. God loves me. We are committed to each other to a degree that's hard to describe. Yet we are are flexible, not conformists, but motivated by a regard for the happiness of the other. I think the concept of flexibility vs. rigidity covers much of what's wrong to be a conformist. It's good to be flexible. It's good to be disciplined. It's bad to be a conformist. It makes idols out of many things. That's what preaching to the choir is about.