Dangerous Stories

August 24, 2006 | 35 comments
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Driving to work today, I had an odd epiphany. It occurred to me that there is an odd symmetry between the danger that “liberal” and “conservative” Mormons see in story telling. The conservative danger, of course, has to do with history. We should be careful — so the argument goes — about what sorts of stories we tell people about Church history. Folks learning about polygamy or polyandry may go off the deep end. The liberal danger has to do with authorities. We would do better, so they say, to not tell stories lionizing them because this leads to an inflated view of the importance of authority that has all sorts of bad consequences ranging from Mountain Meadows to membership in the GOP. Hence, I have seen some Mormons get hopping mad at any attempt to mention any aspect of Church history that they did not hear in primary. Likewise, I have seen some Mormons get literally white with rage when the primary children begin singing “Follow the Prophet!”

I am not sure that there is a great deal to be learned from this, other than the fact that some people are temperamentally disposed to get upset about things. (I keep thinking that I need to sit down and write my big blog post on the central role of temperament in Mormon intellectual life. The short version is that when you get all hot under the collar about your pet issue, it probably has very little to do with ideology, the merits of your beliefs, or the supposed evils associated with contrary beliefs. It’s just your personality.) Still, I always get a kind of perverse pleasure from finding that Gog and Magog are remarkably similar just under the skin. They are both frightened of stories.

Of course, perhaps we should simply expel all of the poets from Zion. God, alas, seems to have other plans.

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35 Responses to Dangerous Stories

  1. queuno on August 24, 2006 at 11:22 am

    Growing up, my nascent testimony was always troubled by the thought that Mormons liked popcorn. I hated how it stuck in my teeth and how my fellow primary children could so easily embrace it was really disturbing.

  2. Randy B. on August 24, 2006 at 11:36 am

    “I am not sure that there is a great deal to be learned from this, other than the fact that some people are temperamentally disposed to get upset about things.”

    I agree. In fact, if there is one overarching principle that I have gotten out of the ‘nacle over the last three years, this is it. Some people are just constitionally predisposed to care about things that others aren’t, and vice versa. Recognizing that is essential to getting around our own intellectual blindspots.

  3. Adam Greenwood on August 24, 2006 at 11:44 am

    Conversely, of course, one’s failure to get upset is probably also temperamental? And, of course, the supposed under the skin similarity does not mean that both are equally right or equally wrong, correct?

  4. MLU on August 24, 2006 at 12:02 pm

    What do we do when we encounter anomalous details–facts or narratives that don’t fit our sense of how things are? Much does depend on temperament, but I’m not sure the history/authority line goes far, since conservatives are often steeped in knowledge of history, and since liberals seem to love authority in many cases.

    The aspect of the conservative temperament that I like is a cautionary take on big or sudden changes, a healthy regard for unintended consequences, a skepticism about the plans of intellectuals who would change long-standing institutions with a blithe confidence in their own powers.

    One with such a temperament can find much history to confirm this view.

    The aspect of the liberal temperament that I like is an empathy for the poor and an optimism about what we can accomplish on the side of progress.

    This quite often leads to substantial trust of authorities–though these are nearly always goverment authorities and never religious ones.

    (More rudely, in recent decades political liberals have responded to anomalous facts by demonizing the bearers of the message and seeking psychological explanations for why anyone would not agree with them).

  5. Kristine Haglund Harris on August 24, 2006 at 12:19 pm

    “(More rudely, in recent decades political liberals have responded to anomalous facts by demonizing the bearers of the message and seeking psychological explanations for why anyone would not agree with them)”

    And political conservatives have not??

  6. Jacob on August 24, 2006 at 12:27 pm

    Nate,

    I wholeheartedly agree about the importance of temperament. I couldn’t help but think of the first lecture of James’ Pragmatism when I read your post. As good as it is, that lecture deserves to be written and re-written every generation to capture the temperamental divide of the time. Of course, it still holds up pretty well as it is, but I’d love to read your version tailored to the Mormon cultural divide.

  7. MLU on August 24, 2006 at 12:46 pm

    #5. Sure they do. But demonizing opponents is much less fundamental to modern conservatism than it is to modern liberalism.

    E. J. Dionne in the Washington Post this week (reviewing a new biography of Richard Hofstadter)
    observed

    : “The late Christopher Lasch, one of Hofstadter’s students and an admiring critic, noted that by conducting ‘political criticism in psychiatric categories,’ Hofstadter and his intellectual allies excused themselves “from the difficult work of judgment and argumentation.’ Lasch added archly: ‘Instead of arguing with opponents, they simply dismissed them on psychiatric grounds.’ This was, I believe, a wrong turn for liberalism.”

  8. Dave on August 24, 2006 at 12:53 pm

    Mormonism prefers history (stories about the past, the truer the better) to theology (grounding doctrine in analytically defensible principles). So whether you’re for it or against it, if Mormonism is your culture, you’ll tell a lot of stories. There don’t seem to be many forces operating in the Church to move LDS discourse into another mode.

  9. DHofmann on August 24, 2006 at 12:54 pm

    “I have seen some Mormons get hopping mad at any attempt to mention any aspect of Church history that they did not hear in primary.”

    So to make what was once doctrine apocryphal, simply never mention it so that future Mormons can deny it out of ignorance. You’ll be doing them a favor when the information is embarrassing to the church.

  10. Mark Butler on August 24, 2006 at 1:00 pm

    The stories aren’t important as stories, the stories are important as a grounding or evidence of doctrinal principles. Cautionary tales, for example. The power of history is precisely the ability to demonstrate the real world consequences of the pursuit of certain ideals, for good or for evil. That is something that philosophy divorced from history can hardly ever do.

  11. Nate Oman on August 24, 2006 at 1:00 pm

    “And political conservatives have not?? ”

    No. Not once. Ever…

  12. Nate Oman on August 24, 2006 at 1:04 pm

    “Conversely, of course, one’s failure to get upset is probably also temperamental? And, of course, the supposed under the skin similarity does not mean that both are equally right or equally wrong, correct? ”

    Adam: I am not trying to be an emotivist here. I don’t think that intellectual issues are reducible to temperment. I do think that there are things that are true and things that are false, things that are right and things that are wrong. I do think that the intensity of our reaction to things, however, is largely a function of termperment, and accordingly intensity is evidence niether of the truth of one’s beliefs nor of the superior authenticity of one’s convictions. It just means that you are an intense person. Some people are not.

  13. Adam Greenwood on August 24, 2006 at 1:05 pm

    KristineHH,

    Only an evil being such as yourself could say that about conservatives. Seriously, you must have been dropped on your head as a child.

  14. Nate Oman on August 24, 2006 at 1:10 pm

    MLU: In my first year contracts class we had to read Duncan Kennedy’s famous article “Form and Substance in Private Law Adjudication.” Having labored mightly to provide a post-modern deconstruction of contract law aimed at showing that it was a site of irreconcilable tensions and unescapable incoherence, he went on to argue in his conclusion that the bits of the law that he nevertheless disliked were no doubt the result of either various Fraudian hangups, false consciousness, or the victory of the impersonal economic forces of class domination. The article made me sputtering mad, as Kennedy wanted to play anti-foundationalist post-modern bad boy, but nevertheless retreat to comforting foundationalisms (Freudianism and Marxism) from which he could trivialize his opponents reasons without engaging them. It struck me as sophmoric and — more likely as Kennedy is a smart guy who knows what he was doing — fundamentally dishonest. It is the kind of crap that decimated legal philosophy at Harvard…

  15. William Morris on August 24, 2006 at 1:34 pm

    I know you know this, but you are such a lit-crit flirt, Nate. I think I need to update my circle of wannabeing to:

    every lawyer wants to be an author, every author a rock star, every rock star an actor, every actor a director, every director a producer, every producer a politician, every politician a lobbyist, every lobbyist a pundit, every pundit a lawyer.

    Something like that.

  16. Eve on August 24, 2006 at 1:42 pm

    So Nate, I must ask, as an intermittent but fellow sputtering rager, what does your “sputtering [rage]” at the Kennedy article reveal, not about your “ideology, the merits of your beliefs, or the supposed evils associated with contrary beliefs” but about your–and my–personality?

    I share your suspicion of Freudian and Marxist trivializations of others’ intellectual positions. (In many circumstances I just can’t say “false consciousness” or “Oedipal complex” with a straight face, they seem such obvious refusals to engage a position on its merits.) But I wonder how you would distinguish such trivializations from your forthcoming big blog post on temperment in Mormon intellectual life–which, of course, I await with bated breath.

  17. Adam Greenwood on August 24, 2006 at 1:52 pm

    I agree that they’re not conclusive evidence, but I would hesitate to say that they’re not evidence at all.

    We’re being theoretical, of course, since for the most part folks around here haven’t offered the intensity of their feelings as evidence of their views. To the extent they do, I think we can consider whether the intensity has anything to do with the truth on a case by case basis. I believe in a corrupted mankind, but I don’t believe in an absolutely corrupted mankind. So while I agree with you that feelings aren’t an infallible guide to truth, I would disagree that they’re completely orthogonal to it. I like that our elections account for intensity of conviction in lots of ways.

    What we probably need to sort out is whether we just think that some people are more intense and some people aren’t because temperament or whether whatever people are intense about is also a matter a temperament. Some of what you say implies the latter, but I think it goes too far. I’m betting that at least for some liberal Saints, e.g., they first decided that prevailing beliefs about the authority of the prophet were wrong and only because of that decision got intense about ‘Follow the Prophet.’ For some its probably the other way, sure, but I’m not convinced that *what* someone is intense is about is pure temperament.

  18. Adam Greenwood on August 24, 2006 at 1:58 pm

    In conclusion, I think you’ve drawn the wrong experience from your epiphany. It’s real use, as I see it, is for tu quoque demolition of the ‘defender of truth no matter what’ pose when we get into dangerous story arguments. But for that, we probably need a better example of a liberal ‘dangerous story,’ since ‘Follow the Prophets’ isn’t obviously an example of something that a liberal thinks is dangerous but true.

  19. Nate Oman on August 24, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    “what does your “sputtering [rage]â€? at the Kennedy article reveal, not about your “ideology, the merits of your beliefs, or the supposed evils associated with contrary beliefsâ€? but about your–and my–personality?”

    A dark and sublimated rage against my father buried in the recesses of my id no doubt…

  20. Nate Oman on August 24, 2006 at 2:06 pm

    Eve: The serious answer to your question is that I am willing to trivialize most people’s feelings, but no their arguments or reasons. Hence, your intense rantings (and mine) are probably mainly about the idiosyncracies of our characters that have little to do with the way that the world actually is. On the other hand, when we rant we make claims about this that and the other. The claims can be evaluated independently of the rant. Indeed, they can even be positively evaluated while one trivializes the rant.

    The difference between temperment and false consciousness, Oedipal complexes, and the rest is that temperment does not necessarily deny that there is important and independent content to our beliefs. Fals consciousness, however, does…

  21. William Morris on August 24, 2006 at 2:08 pm

    I thihnk the real danger with temperment and intensity of conviction is not stories being labeled dangerous, but when that temperment and intensity is poured into the creation of stories that are specifically intended to be dangerous, to get people “hopping mad.”

    I’m not sure whether the hotter or cooler temperment is more ‘dangerous’ in this regard.

  22. Nate Oman on August 24, 2006 at 2:10 pm

    Adam: You point out a neat divide on the issue of temperment. I am not quite sure where I come out. To be sure, intensity may be a function of belief, where the level of intensity in relationship to conviction is tempermentally determined, but where the conviction itself is entirely exogenous. On the other hand, there are a number of things that I think are true but about which I do not get intense. I do, however, get intense about some things. Looking at my own reactions, I am not sure that there is a good correlation between the depth of my conviction on certain points and the intensity with which I react to contrary views. There are some things that I believe very deeply, but about which I am not particularlly intense. This would suggest that it is not just my over all level of intensity that is dictated by my temperment, but also the particular things about which I am intense.

  23. Nate Oman on August 24, 2006 at 2:11 pm

    “you are such a lit-crit flirt, Nate”

    The way you say that I I feel so trashy ;->….

  24. Eve on August 24, 2006 at 2:12 pm

    Undoubtedly, Nate. Alas, the Oedipal complex cannot account for my rage. Perhaps in my case it’s simply a matter of the false consciousness of my nouveau-bourgeois insecurity.

  25. Adam Greenwood on August 24, 2006 at 2:30 pm

    You say that intensity is either a measure of our certainty or is temperamental. I think there are instances of both, but I don’t think that exhausts the alternatives. For instance, I have a high certainty that the earth is round, based on reason, experience, and authority. But I just don’t care very much that some people think the earth is flat. This is not purely temperant, however. I don’t care because I have a second belief that their belief does not threaten anything that I value. This belief of mine is founded on reason, experience, authority, and so on, and isn’t just temperamental.

  26. Rosalynde Welch on August 24, 2006 at 2:33 pm

    If we think about the ideological work of stories as providing imaginary resolutions to real contradictions, perhaps we can say that, in Mormon culture, liberals object to the imaginary resolutions provided by conservative stories, whereas conservatives deny the real contradictions that premise liberal (his)stories.

  27. Eve on August 24, 2006 at 2:55 pm

    Nate said,

    “The serious answer to your question is that I am willing to trivialize most people’s feelings, but no their arguments or reasons. Hence, your intense rantings (and mine) are probably mainly about the idiosyncracies of our characters that have little to do with the way that the world actually is.”

    Although I’m sympathetic to much of what you say, Nate, I have to take issue with this. Undoubtedly some feelings do deserve to be ignored or set aside, in some contexts or for some purposes (such as evaluation of arguments), but I just can’t accede to to their trivialization, or to (what I understand to be) your tidy seperation of cool reason from those messy, irrational passions, which I think are thoroughly concomitant.

    Undoubtedly you have a fine, thoughtful, clarifying response to this, which I will probably read after the discussion has long since shifted in a different direction, since I have already overspent my blogging time and have to run. But if I might venture an observation, I do think you might find the trashy experience of flirting with lit crit an emotionally satisfying one ;) .

  28. MLU on August 24, 2006 at 3:15 pm

    Nate is touching on quite an important truth.

    I dislike some of the stories from church history, and I dislike talking about them in many circumstances because they challenge things that I think are usually true or mostly true. But the evidence often isn’t extensive enough or credible enough to make me overthrow beliefs I’ve built up through much experience and much evidence. So I’m left unsure what to think, unsure what to say, awaiting more evidence or a better explanation than I can think up. Since I don’t know what to say, I say little, and the people who seem so sure of themselves and want to say a lot, I distrust a bit. No doubt that’s quite a conservative temperament. I read that history, and I listen to what people have to say about it, but I’m not comfortable with any explanations I can make, so I’m hesitant to say much.

    For example, I have a lot of questions about what Joseph Smith’s story has to teach us about the gift of prophecy and its relationship to righteousness and worthiness and sin and error, and I am quite interested in reading what historians have to say, including those who think less of him than I do. But I have no interest at all in debunking the official story about him.

    Temperamentally, it’s more important to me to preserve his legacy than it is for me to appear to be a free thinker escaping authoritative orthodoxies that don’t hold up. Temperamentally I’m more afraid of the degradation of the authoritative tradition of Mormonism, which experience has convinced me is mostly good and true, than I am afraid of the Mormon authorities hoodwinking and subjecting me, which experience has convinced me is not much of a threat at all.

    I think what we fear and what we love does account for much of what we end up thinking, no matter how good a job we do of presenting it as facts and reasons, properly footnoted. Reason is a slave of emotion. Even the love of truth is, like other loves, a passion, at bottom irrational.

    Or temperamental, if you prefer.

  29. Nate Oman on August 24, 2006 at 3:20 pm

    “I just can’t accede to to their trivialization, or to (what I understand to be) your tidy seperation of cool reason from those messy, irrational passions, which I think are thoroughly concomitant.”

    Somehow I didn’t think that you would. I figure that it is just your id getting the better of your ego and superego again…

  30. diogenes on August 24, 2006 at 6:48 pm

    Nate — My advice is, keep your mind on your driving. There will be fewer accidents that way, and the world will be a better place.

  31. P. G. Karamesines on August 24, 2006 at 7:29 pm

    What William said in #15 and in #21. What diogenes said in #30.

  32. Mark Butler on August 24, 2006 at 7:57 pm

    I do not believe that there is such a thing as an irrational passion or non-structural emotion. There are only emotions and passions the reasons for which we do not yet understand. If we understood the reasons (causes) we would both appreciate and discipline them better.

  33. Jack on August 24, 2006 at 8:45 pm

    Rosalynde, it could also be that conservatives don’t view certain contradictions (though real) as something to fret over.

  34. TMD on August 25, 2006 at 10:19 am

    Perhaps we can see the terming of stories (or practices) as dangerous as being but more evidence of an authoritarian personality on both left and right.

  35. Jan on August 26, 2006 at 1:02 pm

    Re #10

    I’m a convert and, as such, I didn’t find the “stories” interesting at all – especially the stories of the (pre and) early Saints. They were just too incredible and fantastic to believable. Of course, as an agnostic at the time, the whole resurrection bit was a bit incredible also! I wasn’t much interested in Mormon history either.

    Soon after my conversion, I was able to hear Richard Bushman’s presentation at the Yale conference in 2003. Wow! I now know why the “stories” are important and why they need to be a part of our legacy and what we teach our kids and they teach theirs. Bushman talked about our “narrative theology” as opposed to systematic theology – which we don’t have (and it’s a good thing too).

    I’m hoping his paper is published soon (Jim F – were you going to be trying to do that?).