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Preaching to the Choir and Teaching to the Choir: It’s Not a Waste of Time

The other day I was complimenting masaccio on his great piece, Mass Consumption Created and Killed the Middle Class and my frustration with some of Mark Blyth’s arguments in the Book Salon on Austerity: History of a Dangerous Idea.  I found one of his ideas lacking, the whole, “it’s not about the personal ‘individual moral failings of the bankers,’ but the system.”  Masaccio pointed out that, “…there must be 50 posts here from me and Cynthia and others showing how to prosecute these crimes. Not worth much I agree, but there is moral culpability.”

It is safe for people to support Blyth’s idea. “The cause was a set of structural incentives that allowed the growth of Too Big to Fail as a business model. That’s not about morality, its policy (failure).”

But this ignores lots of things that I think we need, including the need for a villain(s) for the narrative. In Anat Shenker Osorio’s book Don’t Buy It: Talking Nonsense About the Economy she reminds us that the “economy” is not a force of nature or a deity but is a human-made object. Someone(s) made those rules and decisions. We need to talk about the someones who set up the “structural incentives” and who created the policies. It might not be fair for us to focus on individual bankers, but it is the way that people understand stories.

Using personal examples helps us make sense out of complex information. And people within narratives are essential for our current media. The financial industry uses concepts like Blyth’s to move the focus from individuals to “systems.” Away from “morality” to policy. It’s a great way to diffuse responsibility so that no one is responsible.  (I’m watching Orange is the New Black, there are zero corporations or ‘systems’ doing time.)

When I worked with technologists and Ph.Ds in science they got frustrated when I asked them to explain complex things. “I don’t want to use sound bites! They aren’t complete!”  (Or my favorite,”If only the people I talked to were smarter!”)  I ask them for metaphors, drawings and examples. “But the metaphor is too simple, it’s much more complex!” I say, ‘I understand that, this is just a jumping off point. Publish the details for the people who will understand, but without a great metaphor you are going to lose this audience. Take the time to create a good analogy or a funny story to illustrate the principle.  Use a clever diagram  or find an personal example that works.”

Different methods work best for different audiences — give them what they want and embed what they need. I explain to clients that the goal is greater understanding for more people, not a validation of how dumb other people are and how smart you are. Maybe the goal is to sell the product. Great, explain why it will change people’s lives. Sometimes the goal is to change people’s understanding of how the world works or to drive them to action.   Perhaps your goal is to get someone investigated, arrested, tried and convicted. What methods will work best for that?

The preaching and teaching process takes time, repetition and multiple methods. Boring! TL;DR! People play different roles in the process. Sometimes you are the creator of the idea, other times you are the supporter and distributor (Share this on Twitter! Like this on Facebook, Something Something this on MySpace!) other times you are the listener or the actor.

Masaccio understands the frustration yet importance of repetition. So does the Shrill One. Seriously, how many different ways can Paul Krugman say, “Austerity bad.” before his beard explodes?

 One of reasons that the RW radio media got so powerful was they weren’t just “preaching to the choir” they were also “teaching to the choir” In this case, a new arrangement of an old song. And they aren’t afraid of repetition. Let me repeat that. “They aren’t afraid of repetition.”

They were teaching the new arrangement of an old song, one that couldn’t be sung in public anymore. The new arrangement got taught to others. People who aren’t singers heard it and thought, “I kind of like that melody” and started humming it to themselves day to day. Soon the song was sung and hummed every day by lots of people. Some got bored of it, and looked for new songs or arrangements, but others just liked to hear an old familiar song under a new arrangement. (There is something about music that not only lets us listen over and over, but makes repeated listening pleasurable,  e.g. Regina Spektor’s song, “You’ve Got Time” from Netflix’s Orange is the New Black.  Hearing the same words spoken over and over isn’t pleasurable.)

The media is driven by novelty. It’s not “news” if you repeat it over and over. Sometimes we need to create — and hear — a song and a chorus to push an idea or concept into our heads.

For a “song” to reach the world we need songwriters, music arrangers, choir masters, choirs, promoters and listeners. In my life I’ve written and arranged “songs” sang in choirs, sought out choir masters and told others about great choirs. Often I’m just a listener. I often think, “What can I do to make this great idea, concept, principle, ethical dilemmas or “song” move forward? One way for me is to encourage people like Masaccio to keep up his good work.  

What idea or concept do you want to help move forward? What is your role? Singer? Songwriter? Promoter?  Sharer? Listener? 

NOTE: The video I selected is from one of my favorite movie musicals. This actual song was arranged by Marc Shaiman, there is a section of the song starting at 2:03 that sends goosebumps down my back. I’ve just learned that this is called frisson, it’s a biological reaction to stimuli, and produces measurable results. As  Koudvorst say in the frisson subreddit, “frisson is a physical thing, you can feel it with shivers and goose bumps. It is not a moment of ‘oh that was nice’, it has a profound, and memorable effect.”  Think about that. What a powerful thing. It took a lot of people to make that happen. Wouldn’t it be amazing if our “songs” could produce frisson like actual songs do?

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A brain in a box.