People who care talking about things that matter are important to the reformation of society, but perhaps their talking is not as central to the project as I’ve thought.
For a few years now, thanks in part to Lowell Christy‘s description of the 17th and 18th Centuries as the era of the Great Conversation, I’ve been fascinated by how change-makers can use dialogue and incoming and outbound communications to establish themselves on the social landscape, engage supporters, acknowledge or respond to critics, and connect with their wider public.
But as a friend of mine said today, the research on the impact of conversation is not entirely positive. People become afraid to share their perspectives with others unless they believe their audience is already supportive, and so many of them prefer silence to the specter of disagreement.
Worse, according to Pew: most of us are poor judges of our friends’ views. Social media feeds appear very chatty, yet the underbelly of the full news feed is those of us, any of us, who would rather say nothing at all than risk contradiction or challenge through conversation.
And the Backfire Effect is also real: “When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.” —Dave McRaney
If conversations and new information are more likely to entrench participants than mutually enlighten them, they can’t be a reliable tool for highly polarized contexts. We have to instead address people’s values, the interpretative tools they use to sift current and new knowledge, and the authority figures they depend on when they can’t interpret sources for themselves.
Segments of the climate justice movement have applied this insight. Through the Citizen’s Climate Lobby, people from various parts of the political landscape can gather round a common goal and push together for material change.
CCL doesn’t require its members to rank climate issues in the same order of priority. They don’t have to agree on the degree of human responsibility for climate change (though as Katharine Hayhoe said to an audience earlier this year, the correct answer to that question is “100% or more”). New members simply join an introductory web call, local groups members take on the long-term work of educating each other, and membership is based on collective advocacy for CCL’s carbon dividend proposal.
In other words, CCL sets members up to do together, not to simply to think or believe together. And because members take regular action together, their common experiences shape them over time. They work together as a team, and their teamwork trains them into the habit of taking one another into account as they move ahead together.
Perhaps what best serves emerging communities is not consensus around language, or talk about talk; what’s helpful is common practice.
This morning I reflected on the common practices of local church life: we gather at a specific place and time; we do some things consistently when we are together; we participate in a liturgy together—and all of these actions are formative for us.
I’m beginning to imagine how new common practices might re-form the United States at the level of the community, not just the individual. We’ll never have a country where our substantive ideological differences have been washed out; and only through violence is such a washing-out really possible.
What falls to each of us, then, is the opportunity to join with people as committed as we are to the common good. It might mean participating with a local women’s shelter or teaching community children in a supplementary school. Whatever it means, it means more than raw information, more than facts. When I can’t seem to understand something no matter how many articles I read or how many stories I’m told, “the facts” aren’t at issue. Something else is at work—incommensurability, perhaps.
Shifting attention from language to action means being free to put energy, time, attention, and funds, not just our words, into the things that matter. It’s through that action that we get to shape and re-shape our communities, and make the futures we hope for more than nice thoughts.