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.


C. L. Hanson is the friendly Swiss-French-American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! Follow me on mastadon at or see "letters from a broad" for further adventures!!

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20 Responses

  1. chanson says:

    p.s. I agree with the point Holly mentioned:

    how weird it is that people spend so much time talking about some guy named J. Max when hes not really that relevant.

    The reason I framed my post as a response to his post is because he made a number of points that I’ve heard floating around in Mormon discourse and that I wanted to respond to. I figured it was better to respond to statements by a real person who believes them rather than responding to my own paraphrasing, hence risk debating a straw-man.

  2. Seth R. says:

    I wonder if the longer you engage in discussion, the more and more skeptical you get of the ability to actually bridge the gap.

  3. chanson says:

    Maybe, but I don’t really think so.

    When I first started blogging, I felt like there was a sharper line between “in” and “out” of Mormonism than I see today. From “Nothing Wavering” to the Bloggernacle, to the outer edge of the Blogernacle (like Wheat & Tares and Doves and Serpents), to Mormon Stories, to Main Street Plaza, to the exmo reddit, there’s a continuous flow of discussion.

  4. Seth R. says:

    I guess you’re right. For myself, it’s only on my more grumpy and cynical days that I feel that way myself.

  5. Andrew S. says:

    For whatever it’s worth, I think that the sort of skepticism in trying to bridge gaps is not something that only exists on the internet. It’s a human trend…the thing is, most people would recognize in some way, shape, or fashion, that this is a trend we should try to overcome.

    I mean, maybe it’s a little bit different, but that’s kinda the argument around geographically-based wards.

    I think if there are reasons to be skeptical, then those are in other things…

  6. chanson says:

    I didn’t have time to also reply to the other “Nothing Wavering” blogger who was kind enough to explain his reasons for declining. But in my reading this week, I found this:

    I personally have little tolerance for much of what I will call the incessant anti-Mormon diatribe that many of the disaffected seek to spew in the comments section of Millennial Star. When that happens, your comments are deleted and you are put directly into comment moderation. No warning necessary; no warning given. Why? Because it is our blog, not yours. Again, if you want a platform for your beliefs, ideas, and arguments, start your own blog.

    Now, I totally agree that no blog is under any obligation to host any person’s comments, and that it’s certainly not an attack on “free speech” for a blog or site to refuse to publish a given person’s remarks. OTOH, I’m not impressed when I see a knee-jerk ‘Look in the mirror!!’ defense used to deflect any kind of introspection about it:

    The means of creating the boundaries of all these communities seems to be entirely invisible to the members of those communities and most of them are (in my opinion anyhow) in open denial of how they are actively maintaining their boundaries.

  7. Seth R. says:

    Let’s take an example Chanson:

    Do you think that someone coming on a blog like that yelling some simplistic insult like “Joseph Smith was a pedophile!” really helps anything or contributes to anything?

    Or, to turn it around and make it more relatable – does someone coming on this blog and yelling “You all just hate the church because you wanted to sin!” really contribute anything here without more?

    Shouldn’t brainless, unhelpful, sloganeering, trolling sorts of comments like that simply be deleted without comment before they set off a uselessly angry threadjack?

  8. chanson says:

    Seth @7 — Please review the very first line of my post:

    Criticism. Sometimes it tells you more about the critic and his own personal issues than bout the thing being criticized, doesnt it?


    Shouldnt brainless, unhelpful, sloganeering, trolling sorts of comments like that simply be deleted without comment before they set off a uselessly angry threadjack?

    Like your comment @7? Haha, J/K.

    Seriously, though, I agree that intentional trolling is unhelpful to having a civil discourse. It has been my experience, however, that deleting comments often leads to equally unhelpful threadjacks.

    The distinction between “brainless, unhelpful, sloganeering” sorts of comments and comments that merely represent unpopular perspectives is a hard one to draw. That’s why I prefer to use persuasion to keep the discussion civil.

  9. Seth R. says:

    Chanson, sometimes it isn’t really being “told more about the critic and where he’s coming from.”

    Some people’s opinions really aren’t worth sharing or considering.

    And by the way, I’m under no delusions about my own commenting history. I’ve said things that deserved deletion before. I’ve also said things that others said deserved deletion, but which I feel were just fine.

  10. Seth R. says:

    Sorry, that first sentence should have read – “sometimes it isn’t really valuable to be “told more…”


  11. chanson says:

    Some peoples opinions really arent worth sharing or considering.


    But who gets to make the judgment?

    That’s the main reason I don’t ever silently delete. If I don’t have to account to anyone for my judgment calls, then it’s too easy to start seeing any and all comments I disagree with as “brainless and unhelpful”.

  12. Chris F. says:

    Chanson@6- “Now, I totally agree that no blog is under any obligation to host any persons comments, and that its certainly not an attack on free speech for a blog or site to refuse to publish a given persons remarks.”

    You’re likely aware, and if so then try to realize that I’m not trying to pick on you, but the First Amendment doesn’t guarentee that a person will hinder another person’s right to peacefully speak freely; it protects a person from the supression of their peaceful free speechfrom the government. Unless you represent the government, or a government entity, you cannot be considered violating someone else’s free speech.

    Stores are free to refuse service to anyone. Customer service agents are free to hang up on irate customers. Social media sites are free to ban people who post inappropriate content. You are certainly free to delete comments that you view as counterproductive to a discussion.

  13. Andrew S. says:

    While I think we have a serious case of “in pari delicto” here, with both (all?) side having dirty hands, I think one thing that came up from the Sunstone discussion was that Nothing Wavering blogs’ penchant to delete/moderate/ban comments (and then close down comment discussions…as happened with Brian’s) doesn’t come off as their “not having enough time” or whatever…it comes across as their not having answers to criticism, and not wanting to engage with criticism. This actually filters through to a whole lot of other criticisms (such as J. Max’s…when J. Max talks about the difference between private and public, and points out that often times, commenters comment to win points with the “audience”…he is aware that if he engages apostates/disaffected/etc., folks publicly, that not only will his faith appear weak to those commenters, but the recorded discussion will appear weak to the larger audience of anyone who stumbles upon the discussion later on.)

    But if he can moderate his discussions, then he can prop up his faith position. So all of a sudden, if anyone stumbles to the discussion months or years after the fact, then they don’t know the context of all the heavy moderation. As a result, they just see J. Max’s point being defended well, with little criticism occurring, and all criticism that is occurring (at least, that is allowed to stay up) is deftly shot down.

    Dang it, y’all…don’t make me have to write yet another post about this, which will dubiously PSYCHOANALYZE the various Nothing Wavering participants in a way that will inevitably piss them all off.

  14. chanson says:

    Youre likely aware, and if so then try to realize that Im not trying to pick on you, but the First Amendment doesnt guarentee that a person will hinder another persons right to peacefully speak freely; it protects a person from the supression of their peaceful free speechfrom the government. Unless you represent the government, or a government entity, you cannot be considered violating someone elses free speech.

    Why would that represent “picking on me”? That’s exactly what I said. Refusing to publish someone else’s comment on your blog is NOT and attack on that person’s free speech (even though some people might claim that it is).

    Worse, some people even wrongly/stupidly claim that criticizing others’ remarks is an attack on the criticized person’s free speech.

  15. chanson says:

    @13 That would be cool!

    To be honest, I agreed with most of what Bruce wrote in his original refusal (which is why I didn’t spend much time responding to his post). It’s certainly even true that there’s a whole lot of “invisible boundary maintenance” on the Bloggernacle and here.

    I just don’t care for that as a response/excuse for his own policies — especially considering that I doubt he reads this blog, hence doesn’t even know what kinds of discussions we’ve had about the goals and effects of our policies. He doesn’t know whether or not we’re “in denial” about how boundary maintenance functions on blogs that consider open discussion to be a goal to strive for.

    It makes it seem like it’s more a way of avoiding or deflecting discussion of the goals and effects of his own blog’s policies.

  16. Andrew S. says:

    re 15,


    As the question & answer sessions kinda demonstrated to me, I also think that most folks didn’t have any problems with what Bruce wrote…although I do have reservations that I think his “cross-talking” ideal essentially equates to one side preaching to their choir, and the other side preaching to their choir, and never the twain shall meet.

    AND I’m not quite sold (anymore) that invisible boundary maintenance is functionally equivalent to visible/formal boundary maintenance, which is a big part of Brian’s post. His comments/pots really RELIES on this argument, “Even though the other side CLAIMS to be open, they will dogpile on you, so therefore they aren’t open…and therefore, we aren’t doing anything bad/wrong/exceptional by having an explicit/formal moderation policy.”

    I think that if there were more “cross-talk” posts on M* responding to MSP posts, then that would address your doubt that he even reads this blog, but since there aren’t such posts, it is still a doubt.

    I guess I’m soured on this cross-talk ideal, because my original intention was to just post over at M*, but THE DISCUSSION IS CLOSED. So the only option is to write a post of my own responding to their points, and there is, as you point out, no guarantee that the M* people are even reading stuff over here. What a waste of time to try to dialogue with people who don’t even want to!

  17. chanson says:

    @16 Amen. Sadly, you’re stuck preaching that message to the choir. 😉

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