In Today’s Culture War, We are Terrific Choir Preachers but Terrible Salesmen
America’s culture war has me venting to my friend, David. He agrees with me on pretty much everything. It feels good to talk to him. After about 20 minutes, it feels like I’m preaching. That’s because I am preaching — to the choir, anyway.
I’ve noticed that America’s sad social and political discourse has turned me into a heck of a choir preacher. I seem to have a way with people who already agree with me.
In truth, there’s no such thing as a gifted choir preacher. Preaching to the choir is meant to expose a pointless rant, not make the speaker look talented.
Our culture war also has turned me into a terrible salesman. I’m talking about selling ideas. I can’t persuade people to buy my ideas who aren’t already loyal customers.
Lately, I’ve been given a few opportunities to sell my ideas. They didn’t go well. I was recently at a dinner with folks from an organization closely aligned with what I do. I was asked to give my review of a recently published book that their organization endorsed. It was a book that greatly concerned me. Finally, it was time for my review — and I shot an air ball. I fumbled through my arguments until I couldn’t stand to hear the sound of my voice any longer.
On another occasion, I attempted to spell out some of America’s social inequities to a friend on the political far-right. As the conversation intensified, I fell back into some bad debating habits. At one point, I was sure I had found a contradiction in my friend’s thinking. I started marching around the room, laughing. Much to your surprise and mine, I didn’t win him over.
Both times, I felt like kicking myself. But I didn’t feel bad for long. According to David, my sales pitches were spot on. It’s just that some people are so set in their ignorant ways, even God himself couldn’t change their minds. David’s support took the edge off, but couldn’t solve my problem. In the eyes of my choir, I was a genius, but in the eyes of potential customers, I looked discombobulated. When I wasn’t preaching to a captive audience, I couldn’t communicate the value of my product. I wasn’t changing anybody’s minds.
Here’s a hypothesis for you. As the American culture war drives us further apart, we’re all becoming terrific choir preachers and terrible salesmen. Our perspectives give us traction in the warm embrace of our closest confidants, but are rarely battle-tested across lines of real difference. Like trench warfare, months or even years go by between productive exchanges as we dig our heels in. All the while, we’re losing touch with the basic etiquette of disagreement while embracing bad intellectual habits that make things worse.
One particularly bad habit that I’ve encountered is triumphalism. This is when the entire choir, peacher included, has decided that the culture war is already won and they proceed to carry themselves that way. Spend a few minutes on Twitter and you’ll see what I mean. You would think there’s no culture war at all, just people who can’t agree on who won and who lost. Triumphalism takes for granted the very things we’ve gotten so bad at doing, like suspending judgment until our ideas can be vetted, or anticipating that our minds might actually change in the process. While the most revered thinkers in history have championed wonder, curiosity and skepticism, triumphalism short-circuits these.
I’ve started to be more careful about giving myself or others credit for choir preaching. After all, is gaining the support of people who already agree with you that impressive? Does this indicate that one’s ideas are somehow true? Rather, find me an individual or an organization that is ethically changing the minds of those who normally find their ideas repulsive, and you’ve got my attention. Right now, the middle ground between our two trenches is a wasteland. We need to step outside our echo chambers and clean it up.
Kevin Singer is a PhD student in higher education at NC State University and research assistant for IDEALS, a national study of college students’ experiences with worldview diversity. He is co-founder of Neighborly Faith, an org. that helps evangelical Christians to be good neighbors to people of other faiths.