Do shoot the messenger

big Buddha statue

The Buddha is not the best to deliver a message of tolerance to Christians. Photo: LondonBrad via Flickr.

If the right message is delivered by the wrong messenger, it probably won’t get through. Even worse, the wrong messenger can make people who were neutral on an issue into hostile critics.

Using the wrong messenger may be worse than using no messenger at all.

That’s the finding of a study on the Golden Rule done in October at the University of Virginia.

For Christians, the Golden Rule is the right message, especially when you remind them that it came from Jesus. For example, Matthew 7:2: “For with whatever judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with whatever measure you measure, it will be measured unto you.”

Jesus or the Buddha?

In the study, Christians who heard that the Golden Rule came from Jesus showed more positive attitudes towards gays and lesbians.

But when researchers read the Golden Rule to other self-identified Christians but then attributed the Golden Rule to the Buddha, those Christians reacted in the opposite way.

As researcher Nicole M. Lindner explained:

“What we found is that even positive messages of tolerance could, in fact, produce greater bias if it comes from an out-group’s leader, and therefore perceived as being critical rather than as being positive when coming from one’s own religious leader.”

Of course, the study’s implications go beyond the issue of tolerance for gay people. Like all the work of an organization associated with the research—Project Implicit at Harvard—this study showed that we all use powerful mental frames that unconsciously shape our perceptions of the world, a view also held by the Transition movement and covered in its training programs.

Better messengers

Now, we probably don’t need Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck to start advocating for clean energy.

But what does this study mean for people who want to build broad public support for action on global warming and peak oil?

That a professional skier or sledder is a better spokesperson for climate action than Al Gore.

That Warren Buffett would be a better messenger on peak oil than a petroleum geologist.

That Martha Stewart might be an appealing public face for Transition and resilient living.

Preaching to the converted will only get us so far. In-clubs feel great, but they don’t necessarily change the world. If what peak oil and climate activists really want is results, for more folks to “get” it and act on it, what should we do? Thoughts?

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  1. says

    Ready to apply this concept to your own political prejudices?

    Gratuitously smacking Glen Beck and Sarah Palin is not going to attract your Republican peak oil aware neighbors to Transition. Admit it, you will need all your neighbors to help in *community* solutions. You have to stop presuming everyone agrees with you politically or you will not expand the movement.
    Can you step outside this comfort zone for the sake of the Transition?

    At Transition trainings, the crowd is very politically homogenous ie liberal. How will we expand to include our more politically diverse neighbors in the community solutions that we claim will get through Transition?

    • says

      Helen, this seems to be another place where you’ve commented on my writing without actually reading it. I don’t mind being lectured about being gratuitous, but only if you’ve got the goods.

      If you look at the column linked in today’s piece (, you’ll see that I was replying to the very provocative idea that Palin and Beck would be good spokespeople for solar power. I agreed that some conservative faces would be good to take the issue beyond a liberal in-group. But not Beck and Palin in particular — both of them have shown that what they say about energy comes straight from the fossil fuel and nuke lobby.

      But hey, I’d love to be proven wrong. So I’d like to offer a friendly challenge for your consideration: if you can get either Palin or Beck to endorse Transition, I’ll get a Fox News tattoo on my right bicep. That’s a promise.

      The point of my column was that we SHOULD make clean energy more appealing to conservatives. But I meant conservatives who are willing to think with an open mind. And many Republicans are embarrassed by the likes of Palin and Beck, especially on the subject of energy. It’s those sensible conservatives that we have a chance to reach. We shouldn’t waste tears on those we can’t reach. But we do need the wisdom to know the difference.

      • says

        Again you are creating a straw man to knock it down.

        I did not suggest recruiting Beck and Palin themselves for celebrity endorsements. I suggested that Transitioners refrain from making any disparaging remarks about such polarizing figures so as not to turn off people of different political backgrounds who also happen to like them.

        Furthermore how is celebrity promotion of clean energy a Transition Town concept? Transition is not about marketing clean energy. This is about your neighborhood having something to fall back on when the grid fails or the exporters embargo the US or the unemployment insurance runs out. It will more likely be about a low tech system like wood or passive solar to avoid freezing to death. That’s why Transition needs to become more a-political. Celebrities promoting a national clean energy techno-fix is not going to save your ass when the lights go out. But Joe sixpack next door being included in your local Transition group just might.

        • says

          There’s a difference between being non-partisan and being apolitical. The former sounds like our best way to reach a wide public. But the latter sounds cowardly. If political/media leaders are spreading lies about energy, smart people have a responsibility to stand up for the truth.

          We DO need conservation, yes, yes, yes. Count me in! But unless we want to shiver in the dark, we’ll also need energy. So why not start now installing solar panels at a breakneck pace? Some Transitioners are already doing it in their neighborhoods on their own homes. No, clean power won’t replace all the fossil energy we’ll lose. But it will replace some. And even a small amount of juice could make the difference between civilization and something pretty scary. We’ve written about clean energy in the past and we’ll continue to write about it in the future.

          We may resent that more people care about Justin Bieber than Colin Campbell. But if we want peak oil/climate change to go mainstream, then we have to meet people where they’re at. We should use communications tactics that have a chance at success, such as appropriate celebrity spokespeople. Or, if we’re too squeamish to do what works, we can settle for being principled losers. Our choice.

  2. says

    One of the hazards of thinking about messaging in terms of in-group and out-group is thinking that these groups are real things. George Lakoff talks about how metaphors shape our worldviews. An interesting point is how while people have a dominate set of metaphors we use to understand the world most of us are facile in using other sets of metaphors too. People are masters of holding contradictory views.

    We are the right messengers. One of the strengths of the Transition Movement is that it’s less of a program and more of a conversation. Thus Transition focuses on enabling people to tell their stories.

    Is Warren Buffet a better spokesman on peak oil than a petroleum geologist? He certainly wouldn’t be among a group of petroleum geologists. What is his in-group? Fabulously rich masters of the universe perhaps. It turns out that his efforts to convince other in his in-group to give all their money away is facing head winds even while he’s taking a leadership role.

    Few of the world’s billions are in the in-group of billionaires. Why should we expect him to speak for us? I’m not saying that Buffet’s story isn’t significant, but he hardly seems a messenger for broad public support of action on global climate change. It’s more likely however that his investments in Chinese companies who’ll make the critical infrastructure for transportation energized by burning coal will encourage others billionaires to think there’s money to be made there. That’s leadership, but leadership fundamentally different from Transition Towns.

    I’m not trying to vilify Warren Buffet. His leadership is important. My point rather is that we not forget how important our own stories are. The transition movement is fundamentally a many-to-many enterprise.

    • says

      John, I like how you frame the Transition Movement as “less of a program and more of a conversation”, and as a “many-to-many enterprise.”

      That feels right.

      Growing the Transition Movement through conventional media and image management (e.g., spending too much time finding “the” proper spokesperson; spinning the Transition message to appeal to more mainstream audiences, etc.) may have a role, but I think this approach risks backfiring badly.

      For every thesis put forth there will *always* arise an antithesis. We can spend a lot of energy trying to prematurely sell mainstream-invested people on the idea of Transition when in fact our energies would be better spent actually helping the existing “choir” become more effective in what they do (or, are inclined to do).

      Let the concrete results speak for themselves and allow the growing numbers of on-the-fence people to naturally become attracted by Transition’s actual successes and inherent virtues, and open arms. Let what we do become the selling point. Otherwise, I think Transition will too easily become discredited as just another old-paradigm political movement/ideology dependent on familiar but obsolete media manipulations competing for power and influence.

  3. says

    It’s also worth noting that while there is a _Transition Movement_ proper, the word “transition” has long been applied to that time when the end of cheap energy would come, nothing would clearly replace it, and _whatever_ was going to fill the void—from Mad Max to neighborhood seed swaps—would begin to emerge. Therefore it would be a mistake to assume that we’re trying to be “the voice” of “Transition” the movement, rather than Transition Voice—a media outlet devoted to that “tween” time. The word “Voice” in media, in case any of you don’t know, is like “Tribune” or “Times” or “Post”, think “Village Voice” (I doubt the VV imagines themselves to have all the answers to all things having to do with the NY Village just as we don’t think we have all the answers on either the Transition Movement or the transition time.

    Another thing worth tuning in to is the scale of personal reactions. One-off columns to touch on a variety of ideas are not the be-all end-all of the universe. They are not sum total conclusions about all things for all times. They are also not likely vast programs set up to be implemented such as “proper spokespersons”—get Buffet on the phone, book the tour! They are just issues in the effectiveness of how things are going at the macro level, which is what a national/international media outlet addresses. You’ll note we’re not the hub for your local Transition Town meeting, for your TT film series. Our focus is on larger trends in peak oil, climate, economy, and the Transition Town phenomenon. In other words, we’re covering it with some distance—not as the leaders of any of these movements, but as the journalists with our eyes on it. There’s a difference.

    There’s a great song by Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages,” with altogether great lyrics. I’ll spare you, and just post the last two stanzas:

    In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand
    At the mongrel dogs who teach
    Fearing not that I’d become my enemy
    In the instant that I preach
    My pathway led by confusion boats
    Mutiny from stern to bow
    Ah, but I was so much older then
    I’m younger than that now

    Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
    Too noble to neglect
    Deceived me into thinking
    I had something to protect
    Good and bad, I define these terms
    Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
    Ah, but I was so much older then
    I’m younger than that now

    Whole set of lyrics available here:

  4. says

    Hi Lindsay,

    I found Transition Voice from a link on Countercurrents. That article then referred to this one. Along the way I clicked on About Transition Voice and found this sentence:

    “Transition Voice is the new online magazine for the Transition movement, ”

    Your response above says, however:

    “Therefore it would be a mistake to assume that we’re trying to be “the voice” of “Transition” the movement, rather than Transition Voice—a media outlet devoted to that “tween” time.”

    I’m afraid your messaging confused me.

    I think you can see why someone (like myself, who is steeped in the topic but inundated with online resources) could read two “one-off columns” by Erik, each containing a strong, provocative editorial stance, and come away with a sense that this online venue is wanting to position itself as influential within the Transition Movement (loose as it is), not just report on ‘tween times.

    As for the lyrics, I’m not sure what you were trying to convey but I missed it. Is it about “don’t slay the messenger”? If so, all I can do is refer to my above, apparently hasty, conclusion about the overall intention of the site after reacting to Erik’s two articles.

    That being said, I’ve just looked around your site a bit further and appreciated the interview with Greer.

    Initial confusion about purpose/messaging/editorial neutrality notwithstanding, I’m going to subscribe to Transition Voice.

    • says

      Alan, Good point about the About page, thanks for the heads up—we’ll clear up any confusion. It’s a work in progress you know. The writing there is confusing, and needs finer tuning.

      I think my Dylan lyrics point (which wasn’t directed at you) was that as any of us criticizes others, we risk having the same faults we find in them. It’s all a slippery slope.

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