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Preaching To The Choir
On echo chambers, persuasion, Mitt Romney, "wise Republicans," salad bars, and the chronically shirked responsibility for changing our own minds.
Say you are at Sizzler, and notice the salad bar attendant squatting under the sneeze guard, shitting onto the iceberg lettuce, and so you go over and ask them what the hell they think they’re doing, and they proudly tell you that they are shitting on the salad, in order to make it sanitary. Say you go to the manager and tell them this, inform them you’re leaving, and strongly recommend they fire the salad-shitter. And let’s say the manager scolds you, telling you that by not staying in the Sizzler and making your case on the merits as regards the “shit sanitizes salad” question—and maybe even smelling the shit and giving a little nibble to test for yourself—and also by focusing only on the attendant’s salad-shitting rather than commending them for their diligent refilling of the bacon bits, you are shutting down the conversation. Furthermore, the manager exhorts you, by choosing to talk only to him, the manager, who as manager also believes that shit is unsanitary on salad and possibly even on mashed potatoes, you are choosing to live in an echo chamber, choosing to merely preach to the choir.
And then let’s say the manager turns and walks away, leaving you to wonder how exactly one might persuade anyone to not smear shit on food, if their experience with shit itself hasn’t been enough to convince them, or how commending somebody who is shitting on salad would ever convince that person to stop shitting on salad.
Anyway, enough silly stories. Let’s talk about Mitt Romney.
Mitt Romney is a fella whose name makes a pretty great spoonerism, but that’s not the end of his achievements—far from it! For example, he also ran for president way back in the historical time of 2012. Before that, he had a successful career as a vulture capitalist, which is somebody in the business-crushing business. Romney and his partners made hundreds of millions of dollars by buying up valuable businesses, stripping them for parts, selling the parts for a profit that they pocketed, and then leaving the no-longer-valuable husk behind. If you’ve ever seen a mob bust-out in movies or TV, you’ll get the basic idea. Pocketing vast wealth by demolishing things of value is the sort of wonderful wealth-creating thing that I’m told is only possible to do in a meritocracy, which is the sort of system Republicans and conservative moderates insist we all live in here in the United Sates of America. A “meritocracy” is a system that allows you to rise to power and riches based only on the merit of your contribution to society, no matter how humble your background is, and so it was that our meritocracy observed Mitt Romney’s meritorious success in the business-crushing business, and thus enabled him, despite his roots, to become a state governor, like his father was, and to run for president, like his father did.
So that’s him.
Romney made the news this week by announcing he’s retiring from the Senate, citing the fact that he is balls-old and it is his view that it’s best to let people who will be alive to see the effects of policy decisions make those decisions, which, sure, I guess. I mean there are a lot of elderly people in the halls of power right now, and a lot of them really don’t seem capable any more, which happens, and a lot of them have never seemed to care about the horrible damage their decisions did to the rest of us. But honestly I also guess I don’t mind if an old person does a job as long as they seem capable and actually care about what sort of conditions they’re creating for the rest of us, and I think any young person who seems incapable of caring about the effects of their decisions on the rest of us should also leave their decision-making position, even if they are otherwise fully capable.
Quibbles aside, I wish Romney and his family and all his piles of business-crushing money a nice retirement, and I sincerely hope without any irony whatsoever that he isn’t murdered by one of his own party’s constituency of terroristic fascist white nationalists, which we’ve recently learned is such a real risk that Romney feels compelled to pay $5,000 a day on security to prevent it from happening.
Whoa, that took a turn. Where was I?
Ah yes. Persuasion. I was talking about persuasion, I think. I meant to be anyway.
I’ve been writing essays about persuasion in an age of rising fascism for the last month or so.
In this one I talked about the fallacy of the middle: how when two “sides” disagree, the truth is rarely found in between them, but further out, from perspectives previously unconsidered, held by people who the more wrong “side” has been trying to suppress, and into whose orbit the less wrong “side” had been pulled, however imperfectly, by their undeniable deeper truth.
In this one I talked about how American fascists are utilizing political views as both sword and shield, using eliminationist language and policy to activate an increasingly radicalized spirit of traditional American supremacy that actually does real and murderous harm to real people, and then, when it is time to avoid social consequence for what they have done, cowering behind their political views as the sort of bloodless abstraction that reasonable friendly people should be able to reasonably disagree about—for the segment of society that they are still willing to treat as people and friends, that is.
And in this one I talked about how people are rarely persuaded from a place of comfort, but rather from a place of discomfort: how exhortations from American fascists and their moderate enablers to unify by establishing a mutually comfortable self-exonerative common ground abandons those that American fascists are actively harming; that the true common ground to be found between us is the uncomfortable one we truly share—which is that we all live in a supremacist society, one that offers almost all of us supremacy’s benefits in some way, and that our common responsibility is to change the only mind we can truly influence—our own, in other words.
This essay will be about the idea of the echo chamber and its flip side, the idea of preaching to the choir.
I took the time to summarize the essays that went before, because this one builds upon them. It’s possible, then, I’ll be repeating a few points.
I’m often told I’m choosing to live in an echo chamber, after all (all) (all) (all) (all)
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Where to start?
It’s probably worth mentioning why Romney has to pay for security. Here goes: the Republican Party is a supremacist movement, which means that it firmly believes that some people matter and other people don’t, and the people that matter should be able to call the shots, and the people who don’t should obey by conforming to the comfort of those that matter, by behaving as told and by creating value for those who matter, and if they won’t conform they should be punished, and if they can’t conform they should be eliminated1.
Mitt Romney has always aligned pretty well with supremacy, given his beliefs as regards meritocracy and the relative merits of running a business-crushing business. However, the sands have shifted a bit beneath Mitt’s feet, in that the supremacist movement to which he belong has lately also become very openly anti-democracy and pro-dictator, and Mitt Romney, whatever else he might be, is not those things. So when party leader Donald Trump (whose racist birther conspiracies Romney validated and whose endorsement Romney sought and received back in 2012) attempted to overthrow the U.S. government and install himself as a fascist king, Romney voted to impeach him, so now he has to pay 5 large a day to keep his own party’s constituents from murdering him, because one thing supremacists will always be is murderous.
On the way out the door, Mitt Romney has said some rather frank things. He recognizes that he is in the minority in his own party, and that the party mostly doesn’t believe in the Constitution, for example. However he also claims there are others in his party, which he calls the “wise Republicans,” and he looks for a day when they will rise once more to the party helm. These are Republicans who see the danger of rising fascism, and would have voted to impeach Trump, but didn’t, because they are too afraid that their own constituents will murder them. I guess they can’t afford $5,000 a day like Mitt can. It’s nice to know the exact price of exerting your conscience as a wise Republican in a meritocracy.
But it’s a real threat they fear. We know this, because back in 2021 the mob that stormed Congress came to murder Congress and Vice President Pence, and there are more and more killings from supremacist terrorists; every week—or maybe it’s even every day by now?—we learn about a new sweaty-minded murderer, all of whom believe the sort of eliminationist talk that mainstream Republican propagandists and lawmakers spread around the national salad bar every day. It’s a fascistic road that I can’t help but notice is built on foundational bricks that “wise conservatives” like Mitt Romney laid down: bricks about meritocracy, which is the idea that people who thrive and live earned it, and the unspoken assumption that those who suffer and die must have earned suffering and death; bricks about how government only exists to provide for those who matter, not those who don’t, and that those who don’t matter should be used and discarded, crushed like a business that Mitt Romney bought.
And I’m told that the reason that all these Republicans have gone so distressingly fascist is the way Romney was treated back in 2012, when he was badly smeared by Democrats, who very shiftily pointed out some of the damning things Romney actually did and said about people and their relative merits, and whether or not they should be abandoned.
And that’s kind of fun if incoherent: the reason that Republican fascists, who want to kill Mitt Romney, became fascist in the first place, is because of the way that Democrats slandered their great hero and standard, Mitt Romney, who, again, has to pay $5,000 a day to avoid being murdered by them. And the way Democrats slandered him was by allowing his own words to be broadcast. It almost seems like the “wise” Republicans main wisdom is in refusing to take personal accountability for what they’ve done, which we would expect from the previous generation of supremacists who laid the foundational bricks on a fascist road.
I don’t know if Mitt Romney and the rest of the “wise Republicans” tried to persuade the voters of his own party to not want to murder him anymore. Maybe he should sit down with them, one by one, and appeal to their better angels to bring them back around. Persuasion is what’s needed, I’m told, by people who insist that this is the only way to persuade.
I’m kidding of course. You wouldn’t ask him to persuade terrorists. Could he persuade them? Maybe if he took his time and really formed a relationship he could persuade one, over time, for a while at least, and maybe he could appeal to the very nice and normal aspects of their personalities, and point out the ways they are betraying that niceness. If he could persuade a terrorist that would be great. I’m not saying he shouldn’t. Individualized personal relational persuasion can be transformative, and there are situations where it can be worthwhile, even important, to engage in it. But to be successful, he’d need to choose a terrorist that is still open to persuasion, and after doing that, he would have to persuade another, and another, and he’d still belong to a party that was doing everything it could to encourage its constituency of white nationalist terrorists to hate and kill.
No, I don’t actually expect Mitt Romney to individually persuade all the very nice and normal terrorists in his party who are absolutely a danger to murder him. Nobody would, because we understand that individual relational transformation isn’t actually the way these things change. The way these things change is through changes to the national spirit and then national policy, usually in that order, and always has been.
Yet individual relational transformation is frequently the expectation, especially from white moderates, and that expectation is laid most especially on those who don’t have the influence, platform, or real power that Mitt Romney has.
When I encounter white moderates who believe that it’s only through individualized personal relationship that we can ever hope to fight popularized white supremacy, I’m often told about Daryl Davis, a Black man who engages with KKK members, and how by engaging their humanity, he forces them to confront his humanity, persuades them to change their ways and mend their souls. I’m told he has convinced over 200 KKK members to “give up their robes,” which he then apparently collects as a trophy.
I have no problem with Daryl Davis, by the way. I’m not against his work, any more than I’m against individual relational transformation as a practice, provided that it doesn’t traffic in comfortable lies, provided it establishes appropriate boundaries to safeguard mental and physical safety. But I’m reluctant to set his story up as the model for societal transformation, reluctant to put the burden of ending white supremacy on Black shoulders, and I can’t help but suspect that the reason Davis’ story is so popular among the many white moderates who tell me about it is because shifting the burden is what it does for them.
Also I’m leery to simply assume that 200 KKK members who have given up their robes have given up white supremacy, which is the single most popular and empowered national spirit in America today, rather than just exchange it for one of the more respectable flavors that are available these days. And I can’t help but think that there are many more robes than 200, and not all of those are worn by persuadable minds.
What I’m saying is, I am not leery about celebrating what Davis does. I am very leery about the ends toward which it frequently seems to be celebrated.
I can’t help but notice that the supremacist spirit is individualist at its core—denying the existence of society, the better to deny the existence of societal injustice— and so insisting on applying an individual solution to a societal problem reinforces a central tenet of supremacy.
You might even say it echoes their belief back at them.
And I can’t help but notice that fascism has had its better angels appealed to at a mass scale over the last decade, to an overweening degree, and because of this, fascism has become so normalized that a fascist who tried to overthrow the U.S. government is going to be the Republican presidential nominee, and he may win, buoyed by the the normalized implicit threat of a mob that Mitt Romney has to pay $5,000 a day to not be murdered by.
One thing that comes up frequently when I talk about these truths is the charge that I am advocating preaching to the choir, that I am advocating living in an echo chamber. Appeal to the better angels, I’m told, validate the good within them. Help them see your side by first seeing their side, because it’s only by doing so that we can ever change anything.
And I think: is it, though?
I have to tell you, that’s simply not my experience. It’s a position that seems designed to keep us from the real transformational work.
So let’s finish by contemplating preaching to the choir, and what our nation’s real echo chambers sound like.
It’s worth repeating where we usually find the new ideas and the deeper truths. It’s not usually in the middle between “both sides.”
In my experience, we find them with the voices and perspectives that were previously unheard, suppressed, painted as radical, marginalized, ignored. These seem to me to be the ideas that carry us forward, and they are almost always the ideas that we are still asked to ignore in favor of listening to the same old shitty conservative cabbage. They are the progressive, transformational, and new ideas that I’ve noticed are most often framed by fascists and their moderate enablers as representing an echo chamber, not because they are hidebound relics, but simply because they have gathered enough traction to move the national spirit.
And here’s what I learn when talking to conservatives, or whatever word you want to use for people who are most captured by our nation’s politically dominant supremacist spirit: nothing new. In fact, if you give me a topic, any careful observer can tell you what they’re going to say without much variation2.
This is to be expected, in my opinion. Conservatism represents a predilection to keep things as they are, or to roll back progress in order to return things to the way they were. We wouldn’t expect to find new ideas there. Nor do we. It’s darkly funny in a way, the way the people who are most often held up as being unheard and misunderstood are the people who are most relentlessly broadcast, carrying the most simplistic and predictable possible messages.
If you want to know the new supremacist phrases, just listen to conservative radio and YouTube and so forth. Or if you want to be a little behind the curve to hear them once they’ve been normalized for use by national politicians and moderate op-ed writers, switch on Fox News. Or, if you want to be on the far end of the curve, just listen to the more mainstream outlets and see whose existence it is that moderates are urging us to compromise on today in order to secure nothing in particular in return.
I can’t imagine anything more exactly like an echo chamber than listening to conservative ideas, unless it is wasting time arguing against them.
You can certainly find people who are opposed to conservative ideology arguing with conservatives, and they are saying all the same things, too. This is also to be expected. I’d say repetition is exactly what you can expect from people who have decided to spend their time persuading unpersuadable people. What that tells me is not that “both sides” are in an echo chamber, but rather it is specifically when debating with unreasonable people to try to persuade them with reason that reason starts to sound as nothing more than an echo of unreason, one of two equal and equivalent sides, as supremacists bring their old predictable lies in support of their positions, and those who oppose them bring the old predictable truths to counter them, until the lies and the truths get mixed up in an overlapping wash of sound.
In worst-case scenarios, supremacists even learn to echo progressive language back at them in twisted ways. Grooming is a real thing, and it’s a real problem, and the people who engage in it are really protected by supremacists, but once the supremacist spirit learned about the term “grooming,” they sharpened the other side and used the word to demonize the trans community, without ceasing their defense of groomers or the institutions that shelter groomers in the least. In fact, using the term “groomers” enhances their defense of groomers, because if you accuse them of grooming (which they are) you now sound just like them, who accuse you of grooming (which you aren’t), and my god but the word “groomer” has lost all meaning in this sentence, which certainly benefits those who defend groomers.
More than that, it helps them establish supremacists, who defend groomers, as the ones who truly oppose grooming.
Here lies the danger of “appealing to better angels.”
Appealing to better angels is the echo chamber. Supremacists already believe they are good people. They believe they are supreme! Of course they believe they are good. In fact, they believe they are the best people, better than all the other people, and will tell you so if you ask them, or if you don’t. Reassuring somebody captured by a supremacist spirit that they are good? That’s the echo chamber. They know they are good. Me telling them that just reflects that belief back to them and to others, until the matter is lost in the wash of sound.
If I engage in the ceaseless effort to persuade them, I reflect back to them their own belief that they are the ones who must be persuaded before any change is possible.
If I continually make the exact same points in counter to their exact same points, I create the impression that I also don’t have anything new to say, and in my increasingly simplistic sloganeering I teach them to speak the language of justice in service of injustice.
By continually reaffirming the good in them, I allow them to reinforce an unearned moral high ground that they already intend to seize by force and to defend with murder.
Welcome to the supremacist echo chamber—the shittiest salad bar imaginable.
Eventually all this reverberation becomes, for the majority of otherwise good-hearted people, extraordinarily disorienting—a confusion that benefits supremacy, because it prevents any real progress from being made.
I think there are people who understand that it’s not sanitary to shit in the salad bar, but they get lost in the never-ending reverberations of our national echo chamber, confused by the overlap, gaslight by nonsense, until they believe there are only two sides and that the answer must be somewhere in the middle between, or that finding the truth is too difficult and fixing what’s broken carries a cost that is too high. Or maybe it convinces some that what’s needed is to compromise with supremacy, letting them destroy a few lives here so we can protect a few over there, without ever noticing that those willing to compromise on a few lives over here rarely actually get around to protecting a few lives over there.
What’s needed, I think, are voices that cut through the chaos of echoes, and provide new frames that give us expanded pictures of what’s possible, then allow us to imagine a world better than the one we’ve been given, that help us stop falling for the fallacy of the middle by listening to the unconsidered voices further out and then pointing to them. To understand that the first mind we need to change is our own, and that it is our responsibility to choose what choir we choose to sing in—because receiving language that helps us persuade our minds toward progressive justice is much easier if we are listening to the voices providing it.
Has that ever happened to you? It’s happened to me. It’s an invaluable gift, to be given language for something you have known but haven’t been able to say why. The clarity it provides as you do the realigning work you’ve already set yourself to, is a transformational gift.
It’s this effort conservatives and centrists who want to keep the echo chamber going dismiss as “preaching to the choir”—giving clarity to those who know the difference between right and wrong but haven’t yet determined how best to express it to themselves.
“Preaching to the choir” is simply giving voice to an existing desire for truth, in a way that helps people see things in a way they already know to be true, but gives them the language, the pictures, the words, to keep knowing it. It brings the message to those receptive, rather than falling into the supremacist trap of viewing persuasion as proselytization, a competitive sport of one mind’s victory over another. It honors unpersuadable supremacists minds by leaving them eating the salad they’ve shat on, free to be persuaded any time they want to become persuadable.
I actually don’t think there’s much that is more persuasive than giving people language to understand things they already know are true, to help them in the real work of individual persuasion—new language, new frames, new pictures.
Having that picture helps to more clearly understand the things we already know.
Understanding it more clearly helps us believe it is possible.
Believing it is possible helps us expect it to happen, and understand that we can do it.
And that changes the national spirit in a way 200 conversations with white supremacists—as valuable as that work might be on an individual level—simply won’t.
I think “preaching to the choir” is actually the most persuasive thing that somebody can do, so that’s what I try to spend my time doing.
Persuasion? Great. Excellent. Good. But let’s not persuade by entering the same old echo chambers that reinforce supremacy’s self-established power dynamics. Let’s instead be persuasive by talking about the better world we can imagine, and then by joining with other people who have imagined it to do the actual work of making it real, without bothering to seek permission to change from those who will never give it, because they have built their identities around never changing.
The offer to explain observable things to people who have already demonstrated an unwillingness to observe them is not an offer to persuade them to change. It’s an offer to to be persuaded by them to not change.
It’s a waste. It’s an obstacle to the real work.
It’s an echo chamber.
I’m guessing that why so many modern fascists, and so many of the “wise Republicans” who laid the supremacist foundations for their fascist road, and so many of their moderate enablers, who seem most committed to keeping things the way they are, are so focused on making sure that we keep ourselves trapped there, in an unpersuadable place where real change become impossible.
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A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places, and is co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media which goes in your ears. He never ever learned to read or write so well, but he can play the git-tar just like ringing a bell.
I’d unpack all the ways we can tell this is true, but honestly I’ve done so at length elsewhere many times and my archives are free to read. Even more honestly, I really don’t know how to convince anyone that shit on salad is unsanitary, if the shit itself hasn’t convinced them. We only have so much time here.
Systemic racism: Democrats were the party of the Confederacy.
The Confederacy: It’s heritage not hate.
Hate: I don’t hate the sinner I hate the sin.
Sin: Hey buddy it’s freedom of religion not freedom from religion, and you DemocRATS who want Jesus out of schools are the real fascists.
Fascism: Nazis were socialists, so socialists are the real Nazis.
Nazis: They were made inevitable because of gay and trans people; normal people were provoked to fascism by the Weimar Republic’s perversions.
Gay rights: I don’t have a problem with them, I just don’t want that lifestyle shoved down my throat. Trans rights: I’m not being hateful, I’m just really concerned about protecting women’s spaces.
Women’s spaces: Women’s spaces—what about men’s spaces?
Space: It ought to be privatized, as should all aspects of American life.
American life: Love it or leave it. I won’t take a knee. Never apologize. Prayer back in schools.
Schools: We must teach only our version of American history, the one that makes us comfortable, not the woke version that makes our children feel bad.
Children: Our most precious resource. They must be protected at all costs.
Costs: Why should I have to pay for a free lunch for a hungry child? Why should I have to pay for their education at all?