Preaching to the Choir

Dialogue has long been hailed as the solution to most, if not all, of our problems. Our society looks down on the war-monger and hails the diplomat. In short, we have become a world of talkers. It is all the more shocking, then, to see that dialogue doesn’t always succeed. Channels of communication often break down and diplomatic relationships deteriorate. Even in our communities, when we try to use dialogue as a tool for social change, success is not guaranteed. If dialogue really is the golden goose, why do we still have so many problems despite finding ourselves talking so much? In short, why does talking fail us? I will consider just one out of many reasons.

Recently, one of my professors told me about a conference she attended abroad. It was a conference about business ethics, and as speaker after speaker came forward and the conference drew to a close, it became clear that everyone already thought the same thing: Businesses should be ethical. Many of us have been in similar situations, at conferences or other gatherings, where everyone seems to agree. After all, no one really wants a dissenter at his conference. Some of us may also have experienced that “Aha” moment that only comes from consensus. However, one thing we might not have experienced is the complete resolution of the problem we had just discussed, but after our discussion. What I mean is that our actual discussion results in nothing other than our self-gratification. I am not implying that conferences are useless or that the feeling of self-gratification is bad. What I am saying is that, as in the case of my professor’s conference, there wasn’t a single financial agent (be it banker, economist or hedge fund manager) present at the conference. I am talking about is the seemingly unavoidable problem of “preaching to the choir.”

A few weeks ago, I accidentally walked in on a discussion session about the “gray area” in sexual relationships in the Women’s and Gender Center. Prior to my being there, I had no idea what the “gray area” was, so at first, I was a little lost. But eventually I understood that it refers to that instance when an individual gives verbal sexual consent but not physical consent. I also noticed that everyone else in the room besides three other guys already knew what it was. Unfortunately, this is a trend that repeats itself a lot, both here at Amherst and in the world at large. Oftentimes, the people who attend conferences or discussion sessions are people who already know what the topic of discussion is about (the core). The more troubling situation is when they already have the same opinions. This creates a situation where the members of the discussion end up talking to each other about the values that they already have. Furthermore, it begs the question of why the people who need to be at these discussions — ignorant or opinionated outsiders like myself — are never there.

Granted, this situation does not discredit the members of the choir, and it is not a problem that they create, but one that they must constantly grapple with. How do you get people to attend your event? How do you get people to educate themselves? Here, we must be careful not to demonize the outsider. I didn’t make a conscious attempt to attend the Women’s and Gender Center talk because I wasn’t aware of it. By this, I am not implying bad advertising, but simply my own ignorance. This is not an experience that is unique to me. We go to talks because we are interested in them, or maybe because we want to know more or because we know a lot about the topic being discussed. We rarely really ever attend discussions of whose subject matter we have absolutely no notion. That doesn’t make us bad people; we’re just human, and we have a tendency to stick with comfort and familiarity. And so we find ourselves with this circular problem: There are a lot of discussions about how to solve social problems on campus, but because these discussions constantly take place among people who are already aware of these problems and not among the ignorant, they are made that much harder to solve, whether intentionally or not.
I am not trying to say that discussions of this nature are doomed to fail. I acknowledge that the purpose of a discussion isn’t always to actively solve a problem, but sometimes to share experiences. However, I worry that the fact that we find ourselves in discussion sessions constantly talking to the same people about the same issues indicates a problem somewhere. The intuitive solution to this problem would then be to force less involved or educated individuals to attend these discussions, like athletic coaches often do with their athletes. But in doing so, we run the risk of filling these discussions with disinterested people and maybe even rendering the discussions ineffective. Although mandatory events are not ideal, I believe they hold some merit and value, and would think it wise to keep them a viable option.

Fortunately, one idea that might work would be to take discussions out of the places where they usually happen and into the places where they don’t. Why don’t we get the Green Amherst Project or the women’s volleyball team to talk about the gray area during one of their meetings? Why don’t we get professors to randomly dedicate one of their classes to a discussion on racial issues on campus? It might sound weird, but it could be very effective. We would be taking these issues away from of their usual hashing grounds and into places where they would get a wider audience. We would be getting to less-involved people and solving a problem.

In conclusion, while the term “preaching to the choir” might offend some people, it should be noted that it isn’t offensive. It is neither the fault of the people who find themselves in these situations nor the fault of the outsiders, but it is just the way things usually pan out. What matters is that we recognize that it is a problem that we need to solve.