By Sonny Scott
The urge to proselytize – is it “hard-wired” into our DNA? We all seem to do it to some extent. Can we help ourselves?
As a boy, I witnessed it in the barnyard. Chickens scratched diligently through cow droppings and humus. When a prized morsel was uncovered, a partially digested grain of corn or a fat grub, the lucky bird began cackling excitedly. As her peers converged to witness her good fortune and attempt to steal her prize, she would scurry about with prize in beak, attempting to swallow it before becoming a mugging victim. Why tell, if it causes trouble?
My sons and grandchildren in turn delighted in recounting the misadventures of their favorite fictional heroes. Not content with the telling, they wanted me to watch their movies and cartoons with them, and to endure detailed recaps of “Harry Potter” and “Iron Man.” Part of the fun seems to be getting someone else to validate their choices, and – by extension, themselves, I suppose.
Not that I was exempt from the urge. When I was an undergraduate, most appreciated Hank or the Beatles, but not both. Part of our appreciation seemed to be the disparagement of others’ preferences…whether in music, or in school loyalty. It was not sufficient to rattle the cowbell and yell “Go, Dawgs!”; “Go to hell, Ole Miss” was a mandatory corollary.
During the mercifully brief period that I lived in town, a steady stream of proselytizers found its way to my door: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter Day Saints, and Baptists – among others. My country upbringing prevented my speaking the truth, as in “I’m really busy now – pardon me for not inviting you in.” Rather, precious time better spent with differential equations was squandered on someone’s fixation on eschatology. Worse, my hospitality was mistaken for interest, which meant I was subjected to return visits.
As time has widened my horizons, I marvel that humans can willingly spend hours sharing their fanciful ideas on metaphysics, but cannot spare minutes for the desperately lonely. I am afraid that our zeal to “witness” to others is not driven by our concern for them, but for the validation that acquiescence of converts brings. As I’ve mentioned before, our concern for public prayer is not that we want to pray, but that we want to have others listen while we pray.
I know…man is a social animal. Persuasion is a time-honored and valuable skill without which civilization is not possible. Yet, just as coercion enters into public life in maintaining civilization (as in taxation, military service, etc.), it seeps into our social life. Enthusiasm yields to partisanship, which (all too often) gives way to fanaticism. I remember hearing the pastor of a local church say during one of his “discipleship” sermons: “I wish I were a big, powerful man, so that I could go out in the street and COMPEL men to come into the house of God!” (I think he meant his church.) Now, this was an “educated” man. He was cultured, well-read, and could be charming in conversation. If such admits a desire to coerce, should we be surprised when the illiterate and powerless undertake to do so?
At a high school awards night recently, I had exhausted my strategies for amusing myself. I shifted from cheek to cheek and followed the progress of the presenters as they dipped into the stack of awards on the table. Few remained, and I had begun to hope that each remark from the MC would begin, “And finally…” when I was startled from my reverie by: “…the next scholarship is awarded by the Elvis Presley Fan Club.”
Whoa! There is still an active EP Fan Club? Turns out, there is…a generous one at that. Not a bad thing, I’d say. I have known professors who were powerfully offended by the existence of a stadium on campus. True, maybe our attachment to our “heroes” borders on the irrational, but given the human propensity to proselytize, it is refreshing to see this impulse satiated by affection for entertainers rather than by butchering “infidels” or the prophets of Baal.
Fan clubs? Why not? I don’t know who first suggested, “live, and let live,” but the dude was onto something good. Bumper stickers and T-shirts are light years ahead of the pyre of the Inquisition, or the blade of the fanatic.
SONNY SCOTT is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.