On 'Non-Singers' and Climate Change

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I wrote this post some time ago, and had it on the ‘is this just too whimsical to publish?’ pile. But with last week’s alarming news about the US withdrawing from the Paris agreement, it found itself reclassified as, ‘whimsical but weirdly topical’. So here goes.

You may think that ‘non-singers’ and ‘climate change’ are two completely unconnected concepts. And in a general sense, you'd be right. I'm not about to develop a theory that that singing could halt global warming if everyone started doing it. Fun though it would be to try.

No, it's just that I've been thinking about processes of identity-formation again, and I've been intuiting some resonances between the non-singer and the climate-change denier in terms of how they construct and maintain their internal identity narrative. I'm not suggesting there is any connection between the content of those identities. I don't think I know many climate-change deniers, but I'm sure there must be some who are also happy choir-members. Conversely, I know a good many folk on the Green end of the political spectrum, some of whom love to sing, others of whom feel anxious at the very thought of it.

But I'm interested to reflect on how people live with negative or oppositional identity labels, and I wonder if the non-singer can tell us anything that generalises to other spheres of life.

The phenomenon of the non-singer is something I have written about occasionally on this blog, and in more detail in my recently-published chapter for Oxford University Press. There are several key points to this identity:

  • It is very clear-cut if you are a 'non-singer'; possibly more so than if you like to sing. You quite often meet people who haven't really sung since they were at school, or possibly have never really sung at all before, but who have a positive relationship with the idea. They may not identify at the moment as singers, but they don't identify as non-singers. These are the folk who come along to choir as adult novices on the chance that it might be fun.

    The non-singer, by contrast, knows that they are a non-singer. It is not just that they don't, as a matter of course, sing; they overtly declare their inability to do so.

  • The non-singer will often be able to specify the moment at which they learned that they 'could not' sing. It is usually in childhood, and involves the judgement of an adult who confers the identity upon them. Or sometimes the adult confers the status of 'talented' on someone else, and the non-singer draws the conclusion that they themselves lack capacity.
  • Once the non-singer has accepted the identity label, they actively maintain it. They not only opt out of participating in social activities that may involve singing (even if that makes the hymns at your friend's wedding sound embarrassingly sparse), but they explicitly claim the status of non-singer when in the company of people who do identify as singers.

    I hear these stories a lot, of course, as someone for whom singing is a central part of my life. When I meet someone new, and they ask what I do, if they identify as a non-singer, they will tell me immediately, before the conversation goes any further. I have learned not to counter with the cheery, 'But anyone can sing!' line, but instead to ask how they know they can't sing. And that's how I get to hear stories that make me sad. (And in the process add anecdotal evidence to the published research on this.)

  • As far as I can tell, non-singers only feel the need to assert that identity when there are singers or the possibility of singing in the immediate vicinity. There are a few social contexts I experience in which my identity as musician doesn't come up, and in these I don't get people telling me that they don't/can't/won't sing. This point is entirely anecdotal, but telling nonetheless I feel.

In my OUP chapter I talk about narrative and performative identity-formation, how people's sense of self is constantly up-dated to give themselves a coherent concept of their lives, and how this shapes their behaviours and their interpretations of ongoing experience. In much the same way I talk in my first book about how people construct and maintain an identity as a barbershopper, only this time the identity is defined in negative terms; it is constituted through the resistance/refusal of discourses and practices, rather than their adoption.

The thing I've been reflecting on recently is how active this maintenance is. It isn't merely an absence of singing, it is deliberately, and on an ongoing basis, warding off the possibility of singing. Of course, the desire for self-consistency is an important psychological driver (as Cialdini showed us how to exploit). So once you build an identity label into your internal autobiography, you are committing to it as a part of your personal project of the self.

But this resistance seems to go beyond mere narrative continuity; it is more emotionally loaded, and comes into play most prominently when the non-singer feels that status to be potentially at risk. As such, it clearly suggests the damage done in these early casual dismissals of people's singerly attempts. It is quite understandable that if last time you sang, somebody told you that you were a failure, that would avoid putting yourself in that position again.

Gosh, I've been going on and on and still have got to our climate-change denier. But maybe you've been making comparisons on the way through anyway. It is, like the non-singer, a status actively and vociferously maintained, likewise most noticeably in the company of people who identify as that which they reject. Which is why you get climate-change deniers trolling on eco-friendly discussion forums.

(Mind you, the identification is more likely to be as 'climate-change sceptic' - i.e. investing the position with an aura of objectivity and canny lack of gullibility. Branding them as 'deniers' instead was a cunning bit of rhetoric on the part of the greenies as a way to reclaim their moral high ground.)

It also feels as if it's driven by a similar defensive dynamic: a refusal or rejection of modes of behaviour promoted by proselytising adherents. If singers can be a bit cultish and evangelising, oh my goodness so can environmentalists. And I think in both cases it probably becomes increasingly hard to change once you have committed to your position. Partly because of the self-consistency thing: you'd need some kind of road-to-Damascus story to make sense of a change in this kind of oppositional identification. Also, because change is clearly going to risk a whole bunch of patronising well-donery and told-you-so-ing, which can be very hard to stomach. And all the harder if the position you are abandoning results from self-protection in the wake of a childhood trauma.

Now, I don't have any evidence that climate-change deniers take that position in self-defence against psychologically-damaging discourses that warped them at a tender age. But knowing how the dynamic works for non-singers, it does make me wonder. Because it clearly is an identity in which people get very invested - more actively even than non-singers, who mostly stick to refusing to join in rather than trying to stop everyone else singing too. But it doesn't seem a happy commitment; rather it feels like one clung to in order to ward something off; a discursive sticking the fingers in the ears and going 'la-la-la-I-can't-hear you'.

So, if anyone wanted a research project, it would be very useful to investigate the identity narratives of climate-change deniers, to understand the life trajectory that encourages people to take that position. Not just because it could help them stop feeling the need to thwart the project to prevent catastrophic levels of global warming (which, speaking selfishly, I'd like), but also because it might help people to feel happier in their relationship with the world.

Very interesting Liz! I'm especially drawn to your analysis of non-singers' psychology and why they might need to hang onto that label. Co-incidentally I wrote a post recently covering similar ground (as a result of several people leaving strongly-worded comments whenever I say that "everyone can sing"!).

Some people take pride in saying they can’t sing – but is that just fear talking?



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