There is a very common fallacy of sorts in our American culture. It has to do with activism, patriotism, religious fervor, and so forth, and it goes something like this:
“I’m going to let my little light shine, and from that, others will be inspired to turn on their little lights, too.”
The problem is that it is simply not an effective way to change the beliefs and behaviors of others. In the minds of not-so-deep thinkers, the notion holds an empty promise that one has done his duty to society if he has but “let his little light shine”. The society, meanwhile, remains virtually unchanged, even though many millions of people are faithfully “shining” away.
The notion permeates our society, from church songs to political speeches. We are regularly encouraged to “be a shining light” for some cause or other. Indeed, the Google search [“be a shining light“] yielded 2,630,000 returns!
But it doesn’t work well.
The fact of the matter is that you can tell and demonstrate good paradigms and behaviors and beliefs and examples to some people over and over, and it will never inspire them to correct their behaviors or beliefs.
Indeed, are not America’s churches bemoaning the apathy of a great many of their own members who attend regularly? These people come to church regularly and are still not enthusiastic about the message! If this is what it is like with people who are regularly exposed to an institution’s paradigms, do you really expect it to be effective to “let our light shine” for outsiders?
And this is not just about church. It’s all over politics, too. We constantly hear talk of un-devoted Democrats and Republicans. We are even told that they are not really Democrats and Republicans, but DINOs and RINOs. (Democrats In Name Only, etc.) Yet they are constantly being enlightened and shined upon by partisan pundits who tell them what they ought to believe.
Where It Does Work
In my observation, people are far more likely to “see the light” when the message is easy and not in keeping with reality. For example, if the message is, “If you have voted, then you have done your part”, people are apt to like that message and to spread it to others. If, on the other hand, the message is, “If you have voted and things still aren’t getting better, then you need to do something beyond simply voting”, it is quite likely that hardly anyone will join you as a co-evangelist for your cause.
It just so happens that “let it shine” is a prime example of the easy message. “What? All I have to do is to let my little light shine, and then I will have done my full duty?” How easy is that? It’s quite easy.
But it doesn’t work.
It is a false promise for getting anything accomplished—other than getting others to buy into the same false promise.
Come, Let Us Reason Together
Let us suppose that Billy believes that oak trees are better than elms. So Billy proudly removes all the elms from his property and plants only oaks. Billy nurtures his trees and prunes them and keeps them in fine order. He really wishes that everyone would cut down their elms and plant oaks instead, and he’s very disappointed that people seem clueless as to the value of his cause. It’s been ten years now, and not one passerby has ever stopped to notice that Billy’s yard has only oaks.
So Billy puts up a sign saying, “Oaks are better than elms.” Another ten years passes, and in this time, two neighbors ask about it. Neither of them gets rid of his own elm trees. Billy is proud of his efforts, however, and considers himself a champion for his cause.
How long should Billy continue his efforts without surveying his success? Does it count if his efforts fail? If it’s a really important issue, is Billy obliged to find some more effective means of inspiring others to join in?
In America, there are a great many “Billies”, failing regularly in their various crusades, yet continuing on as faithful troopers nonetheless. They don’t seem to notice that they are failing. Indeed, one observes that it doesn’t really seem to be about success after all, but about something else.
I, on the other hand, see no point in campaigning for the sake of campaigning. Rather, campaigning only makes sense if it wins people over to a new way of thinking or behaving. And for that, you simply have to wrestle with people. You have to stand toe to toe with them and show them the better way of thinking or behaving. You have to challenge and correct their ways, making them uncomfortable at the thought of not reforming themselves.
Yes, the occasional person will “turn himself in” when he sees a better way, but such people are statistically quite rare. 1:10,000 is probably a good estimate in my casual observation. And that’s what helps to keep the “let it shine” fallacy alive: the occasional convert.
What people fail to consider, however, is that that same rare individual may well have found the better way even if he did not learn it from them! Many times when people change their paradigms, it was because they were already unhappy with their old ones, and not because the light emanating from your house was irresistible!
Hard Work is Hard Work
It takes very hard work to change people’s minds. It is what it is. There is no easy way to put it—and still be honest at the same time.
If you want to change the society in which you live, you’re going to have to do a great deal of very, very hard work…….with one exception: If you want to promote an excuse not to work, you’ll probably find it very easy to get people to sign on to that idea.
Examples of this sort of message are:
- “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” (So let’s don’t come up with a viable plan for total success, but merely satisfy ourselves that we have built a little bit.)
- “Change takes time.” (Therefore, we don’t have to change today.)
- “Nobody’s perfect.” (Therefore, we don’t have to correct this current problem–at least not right now.)
The Usual Suspects
On this theme of being content with doing what is easy but ineffective, here are two common practices in our society:
- “Get out the vote”. (Never mind that it’s not working to reform the government.)
- “Keep the seats filled.” (Never mind that the people in the seats aren’t reverberating with the message of the institution.)
These things give the impression of doing something useful, so it keeps the “faithful” busy being faithful at getting yet other people to be faithful. And when it works, what have they accomplished? They have yet more people trying to get more people involved.
And what good is that?
The churches and the parties all bemoan the sad state of their own membership, so what good has it done for them to increase their numbers?
Have the parties gained more voters? If so, to what end? It’s not like the nation has been duly reformed.
And have the churches gained more members from these efforts? If so, to what end? It’s not like the churches (or the society in which they exist) has been transformed as a result of increased church membership.
For whatever the reason, it looks as if these institutions are generally content to have something other than the success of their stated goals. One could understand the charge that churches “just want your money” and that political parties “just want your vote”. And if this charge is harsh or untrue, where are there any viable movements amongst these institutions to ensure that they prove otherwise?
In other words, where are the “let-it-shiners” who are insisting that their institutions reform themselves so as to succeed in their advertised mission statements?
Sadly, I see very few such people.
It’s just not easy, folks. And if you believe it should be easy, you have been sold the dream, along with millions of other Americans.
Whatever your cause, if you don’t believe it enough to come to my house and wrestle with me over it, then you’re just going to have to be content to live in an incorrigible society. There comes a time when you have to take somebody by the lapels and talk some sense into him. There comes a time to “push” someone who’s not getting it otherwise. There comes to time to make people uncomfortable.
It has always been thus.
And when you start this “pushing”, you’ll find a thousand people who are irresponsible to reality for every one who is not.
And then there will be two of you.
Just two. Not two million, but two. This is the reality of activism—unless you’re selling yet another empty promise that exempts people from having to deal with reality.
So what cause do you have that’s worth wrestling with people over? And what cause do you have that’s really just about getting more people to join without reforming anything?