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You’re Probably Not as Edgy as You Think


“Subculture deviance” is a theoretical perspective in the sociology of deviance that, in response to the question of why people deviate from societal norms, posits that people simply adhere to the norms of a subculture that is at variance with the broader culture. In other words, people who think they’re being radical, edgy freethinkers are often actually just following another crowd that has its own set of norms and values. 

As somebody who grew up in the 1990s Utah sacred canopy I’ve seen this play out many times in the Latter-day Saint context. Person is a super strict Latter-day Saint, goes to graduate school or otherwise immerses themselves in some other environment whose norms and values are at tension with those in the Mormon belt, they convert and are still vehement warriors for the truth, but in a different direction. 

For the purpose of this post I’m not questioning their conversion: they may be right, but what they aren’t is edgy, unique, or independent thinking, and in certain subcultures within Mormondom the iconoclast label comes part and parcel with its identity. However, true iconoclasm, where you think everybody but you is going crazy, is incredibly uncomfortable; it’s not an experience people usually revel in. Years ago I read the letters of Thomas More as he was traveling down the pathway that eventually led to his execution, and I was struck at how non-martyrish it felt. If there was a way to not provoke people (and keep his head) and stay true to his beliefs, he would have taken it. Indeed, he was desperately trying to find some sort of loophole that would get him out, but the final end of it all was unavoidable. 

The letters of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Protestant minister in Germany who was executed for his opposition to the Nazi regime) while he was in prison show a similar theme, when even he had his moment of doubts. 

I feel that, in some way I don’t understand, I find myself in radical opposition to all my friends, I become increasingly isolated with my views of things, even though I was and remain personally close to these people. All this has frightened me and shaken my confidence so that I began to hear that dogmatism might be leading me astray–since there seemed no particular reason why my own view in these matters should be any better, any more right, than the views of many really capable pastors whom I sincerely respect.  

Conversely, when people have large subcultures supporting them in their anti-establishment behavior or views it doesn’t look like this. If you’re chaining yourself to a temple, you probably have your reward online or maybe even in a major media publication, even if some in the Elder’s quorum view you askance. We see this in the Latter-day Saint community especially, which itself is essentially a subculture within a broader culture, so people whose ideologies are, say, more in concert with those of sociocultural elites can claim to be iconoclastic when in fact they are comporting with an ideology that is even more predominant and socioculturally powerful. Furthermore, with the rise of the digital the Latter-day Saint sociocultural domain and sacred canopy is becoming even more porous and limited, so the sob stories about people stuck in insular, judgy, tight knit conservative communities (the plot of who knows how many Hollywood films) becomes less grounded in reality and more in stereotype or media narrative as such influence dies off and more and more the problems intrinsic to the other side of pendulum swing become salient as atomistic hyper-individualism takes over. So congratulations if you’re on that side, you’ve won, but the world in the rubble of religious communitarianism is not some Dead Poet’s Society or Chocolat fantasy where secular humanism allows people to unrestrictedly reach for their potential as human beings, but an atomistic world with exploding mental health problems and declining populations. 

One of the most famous social psychology findings is from the Asch experiment, where groups of research “subjects” gathered in a room were shown cards of lines of varying lengths, and were asked to state which ones were longer. In reality, only one person was a true research subject, the others were part of the research team, and the confederates stated that a line that was clearly shorter was in fact longer, with the finding that in most cases the actual research subject made an obviously erroneous judgment at least once to comport with the crowd. The people who consistently answered correctly, popular opinion be damned, were in a small minority, and in the debriefing reported that they felt stress when it came time to say what they knew what was right. However, if even one person disagreed along with them it made it much easier, and this is the situation we often find ourselves in in Mormonland. Whether you’re an anti-vaxxer who thinks that the Church has naively bought into a government narrative, or you’re waiting for the old timers to die off so the Church can get a revelation that conveniently brings it within the Overton window of the social left in the United States in the year 2022, you have your supporters (who you might spend more time with than the people actually in your ward). Maybe you’re right, that’s not the point of this post, but what you aren’t is unique or even particularly freethinking. You (and I!) are following a crowd too, because that’s what humans do. 

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