This is the presentation I gave for the panel “Do Good Online Fences Make Good LDS Neighbors?” (which Andrew S and I organized) at the 2012 Sunstone Symposium.
Criticism. Sometimes it tells you more about the critic and his own personal issues than bout the thing being criticized, doesn’t it? Other times criticism gives you valuable information about real problems that should be addressed and solved. And sometimes it’s a little of both — you can pick some nuggets of useful data out of an otherwise unpleasant rant.
I bring this up in response to J. Max Wilson’s claim that organizations like Sunstone are parasites that harm and weaken their host (in this case: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or CoJCoL-dS). But all Mormon discussion groups depend on Mormonism for their existence. That includes “Nothing Wavering” — their group depends on the existence of Mormonism too.
So the question becomes: Which groups are doing their “host” the most harm?
I argue that shielding the CoJCoL-dS from all criticism — including criticism from strongly interested insiders — does more harm that allowing criticism to be aired and discussed.
If you take the attitude that all criticism is unfounded — and that the solution to criticism is simply to get the critic to shut up — you create a situation where many problems won’t get acknowledged, hence won’t be analyzed, hence won’t be solved.
I hear complaints all the time that all these exit narratives are so predictable. They all hit the same notes. Well, if you’ve got thousands of people defecting, and their explanations all have a lot of the same elements, that’s valuable data. I’m sure some of the similarity is due to the stories influencing each other, but I don’t think that accounts for all of it.
J. Max claims that when faithful Mormons post complaints to the Bloggernacle, it’s like taking your marital problems down to the pub. I find that a very interesting metaphor. The problem is that all these faithful members — who do have a profound and intimate relationship to the church — don’t have the equivalent of a living room or bedroom where they can talk to the people who make church policies and expect the leaders to listen to them and take their perspectives into account.
Telling people that it’s OK to have issues — but please only work through them privately with friends and local leaders until you find a way to put your issues on the shelf — that doesn’t cut it. And when there’s a real problem, that doesn’t solve it.
Even minor issues — refusing to address them can grow them into major issues.
At the blog Main Street Plaza our goal is to have an engaging discussion of LDS-interest topics such as current events and Mormon culture. We absolutely do allow criticism of the CoJCoL-dS and its leaders. I believe that the feedback and critical perspective we provide is at least as helpful to the CoJCoL-dS as it is harmful — and it’s possibly a good deal more helpful than harmful.
But that’s beside the point.
My goals (and I’m not speaking for anyone else in the community, but), my personal goals are not about helping or harming the CoJCoL-dS. I just think that Mormonism is a fascinating topic, and I enjoy discussing it and hearing different viewpoints.
As I said in my earlier panel, we have additional goals like reclaiming our stories: allowing former Mormons to define their own experiences instead of standing by and letting the church invent the “apostate” narrative, according to its own agenda.
But I don’t want to be too earnest and take myself too seriously here. I’m mostly in it for the camaraderie and fun — and because it’s less stressful than discussing the serious problems facing the world.
You can see how our commenting policy reflects these goals. People are welcome to argue any position and present their evidence. Even (especially?) to criticize our policies and tell us when they’re not working, and what needs improvement. And in my weekly blog round-up I link to interesting posts from blogs all over the belief map.
But people who just want to pick a fight — to polarize and reframe the discussion into the familiar paradigm of “the church and its enemies, forever locked in mortal combat” — I have no patience for that. (I generally post a follow-up comment reminding people that “if you wont/cant make your point in a clear and reasonable way, then it only makes your own position look, well, questionable.”)
On principle I don’t fault J. Max for wanting to marginalize viewpoints that he thinks are wrong or harmful. In a society that values free speech, using your own speech to try to push certain voices to the fringes works better than actual censorship.
To take some extreme examples, think of Holocaust deniers or the anti-vaccine movement. You can legitimately argue that their speech is dangerous. We see babies dying of new outbreaks of diseases that vaccination had kept at bay for more than a generation! But censoring such viewpoints actually gives them a weird new credibility, like “These guys must really be onto something if Big Brother is so threatened by letting them speak!” It’s better to make the case for why such viewpoints aren’t mainstream.
I simply disagree with J. Max about whom he’s choosing to marginalize. Criticism can be constructive.