Collectivize the ignorance, individualize the enlightenment.
A common tic in Mormon writing, from blog posts or comments to memoirs and autobiographies, is to describe your life as the process of casting aside the misguided ideas you grew up with on your personal path to enlightenment. It works more or less like this: “As a young Mormon, I was taught that only white bread could be used for the sacrament. Only as an adult, while reading the writings of Gandhi, did I realize that white bread was not required.” It’s such a common framework for autobiography that it usually goes unnoticed.
But it’s also pernicious, especially in the hands of a clumsy writer. It’s easy to collapse complexity and diversity into broad-stroke depiction of communal dim-wittedness that contrasts all the more sharply with your individual intellectual advancement. You, a free thinker, aren’t one of those young earth creationists; you arrived at your enlightened state by sheer force of individual reason (so you can skip over any mention of the long history of diverse views on a topic like evolution). These thumbnail sketches of intellectual development not only rely on and reinforce clichés, but they consistently locate backwardness in the community and enlightenment outside it, turning intellectual biographies into a variety of exit narrative.
This clichéd framework distorts reality. Here’s the facts: You believed some nutty things as a kid because that’s what kid brains are programmed to do. They overgeneralize isolated examples and limited context into universal commandments. Often that’s helpful (it’s an essential part of how we learn language or learn to avoid dangerous things), but sometimes the results are defective.
Like the time in seventh grade when I wrote in a school essay that I supported my family’s rule against wearing shorts to school; I had never done so as my contribution to following my family’s dress code. (“Are you sure?” was my teacher’s marginal comment.) But there was no such rule. My parents had never stated it. My younger siblings didn’t know of or follow it. I was following a rule I had created in my own mind, based on the clothing habits of people who had grown up in places where cold weather lasts from September to May.
Or maybe you grew up believing some odd things because – how do I put this – your parents were out on the long tail of parenting styles. You can come to grips with your family background without casting the rest of us in the role of mindless fanatics.
So when you realize at 13 or 18 or 23 that something isn’t quite as you believed, it’s not necessarily about your brave personal struggle to free yourself from an oppressive institution. It’s more likely to involve a nearly universal process of layering complex reality on top of basic ideas that you picked up in childhood, and trying to identify which of those ideas need to be adjusted. There’s more than one way to read Genesis? Congratulations, welcome to adulthood.
And often enough, the narrative of a personal path to enlightenment doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, either. Sometimes the writer gives away the game at the start: “Why does the church hide information about Nauvoo polygamy? It wasn’t until I was in a religion class at BYU/it wasn’t until a Sunday School teacher mentioned…” In a lot of cases, the reason people are surprised by information as an adult is that they showed up late to Seminary throughout high school and woke up only long enough in Sunday School to crack some jokes and roll their eyes. Your parents, teachers and youth leaders spent years trying to get you to pay attention. Now that you finally have, you’re upset with us for not telling you earlier?
So the next time you catch yourself communalizing the benightedness and claiming personal credit for your enlightenment, try flipping the script. How much of your previous ignorance was individual to you, or a universal part of childhood and adolescence? How much do you actually owe your new enlightenment to your community? Try to recognize the complexity beyond the simplistic cliché of personal intellectual struggle to rise above communal darkness through individual effort.