Saturday, July 23, 2016

Preaching to the Choir—Is It Always Wrong?

One of the most frequent criticisms I hear of political writing is that it involves “preaching to the choir”—in other words, telling an audience of people who agree with you what they already know. At first glance, this seems like a terrible idea. After all, what possible good could come of trying to convince the people who are on your side? But I think the question of the audience for political writing is actually more complex.

There are reasons to repeat to those already convinced the principles that many of us believe. Why? One reason is as a reminder—“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” to quote the U.S. Declaration of Independence—but the details of those truths are often obscure.

For example, most thoughtful people may be in favor of “equal protection of the laws,” as mandated by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But not everyone may remember that this entails equal treatment by the police on the streets.

A poem that deals with this issue is “In Two Seconds” by Mark Doty, sparked by an incident where a police officer shot and killed the twelve-year-old African-American youth Tamir Rice when he was playing with a toy gun in a playground in Cleveland, Ohio, in November 2014. (I am indebted to Anne Caston, my colleague in the low-residency MFA at University of Alaska Anchorage, for introducing me to this poem.)

Tamir Rice, 2002–2014
Mark Doty’s poem bewails and protests the officer’s taking only two seconds to assess the situation before shooting and killing the young man. On a larger scale, this poem is a plea for the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement—Doty implicitly calls for an end to racial profiling and to police violence against unarmed black citizens.

I hope that this poem has convinced many readers who were not previously opposed to police violence against unarmed blacks. Without any cynicism, though, I would bet that the vast majority of readers who look for or find this poem already agree with Mark Doty’s ideas on this subject. And yet this poem feels far from pointless to me. For one thing, Mark Doty is reminding us, using the example of the egregious death of Tamir Rice, of the urgency of preventing police killings of African-Americans. There is a way in which hearing or reading this poem permits us to experience more fully the roots of our beliefs. The poem also fills in details about the general idea of equal protection, and inspires us to rededicate ourselves to the campaign to end police violence against unarmed citizens, a situation that persists despite the close attention focused on it.

There are very good reasons to preach to the choir, so long as the writer avoids using cliché language or situations. In his poem, Mark Doty never resorts to often-heard phrases such as “racist," “police brutality,” or “innocent.” He sketches this particular story clearly and with emotion, making real to the reader the life of this boy, with his “comic books, pocket knife, bell from a lost cat’s collar.” Ultimately, Doty calls Tamir Rice, in what is to me the most transcendent moment in the poem, “beloved of time.” The poet gives us the individual and allows the reader to draw the larger conclusions, an approach far more engaging than a recitation of statistics.

If preaching to the choir were pointless, we would only sing our national anthem once and never repeat it. But each time we sing a national anthem, or a folksong such as Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” or we read or listen to a poem such as “In Two Seconds,” we reaffirm our ideals and goals. Writing about political subjects may often involve preaching to the choir, but that’s what a minister does every single Sunday.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer