Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Power of Dissent

Today I posted a link to a Bitch Magazine article on my Facebook page. It's about the history of Feminism and the uglier underbelly of some of our feminist heroes. I loved it. Some didn't. In answer to the criticism, " I find it misinformative and not grounded in actual fact. She has taken small bits of info about the trailblazing women she's listed and twisted that info to suit her agenda." 

I wrote, "In my opinion, those tidbits of information are not meant to invalidate the contributions of the trailblazers, but to remind us of the weaknesses in the feminist movement(s). No one is perfect. We are all products of our times - and all, as activists, people for whom "the way things are" is not good enough. We all expect more.

So, today, as we celebrate the right to speak up as full citizens and vote, it is also urgent that we acknowledge both how far we've come *and* how far we have to go. I don't think it's unfair or unjust to look back upon the mistakes and wrong-thinking of even the people we most admire. It's crucial that we do so in order to keep the work of justice alive and well, rather than forcing very human predecessors onto pedestals of sanctity and obsolescence.

If we don't take the time to dig through our own histories, willing to confront the less pleasant details, how can we respect ourselves or expect anyone else to respect what we're doing? That people do the best they can in the times they live does not necessarily reflect poorly upon them - but if we refuse to step up and declare that some things can and must be done better now, what's the point of continuing?"

This got me thinking about why I value the less-pleasant aspects of truth-seeking and the humanizing of our idols and it occurred to me that its roots are in the deceit I found heartbreaking in the subculture of the religion of my youth. The corrections made possible by criticism and peer review make trust possible. So here's the background on why I'm so thankful to the tellers of unpleasant truths...

"It should be remembered that Lucifer has a very cunning way of convincing unsuspecting souls that the General Authorities of the Church are as likely to be wrong as they are to be right. This sort of game is Satan's favorite pastime, and he has practiced it on believing souls since Adam. He wins a great victory when he can get members of the Church to speak against their leaders and to 'do their own thinking.'...When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done." 

I was raised with this message. I was raised with the biographies of pioneering white men who spake words given directly from The Lord, with the admonition that, "...the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of the Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God.” (The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, pp. 212–13.) There was no accompanied irony that we were being told of the infallibility from the person who claimed it. He said it. The thinking was done.

And so we committed to memory the stories of these men and their rise from humble beginnings to ultimate eminence as the mouthpieces of God. The stories were, like the lives they recounted, clean, upright and unquestionable. If there were villains, and there were, especially in the earliest stories, they were gentiles doing the will of Satan in persecuting the godly colorless men whose kind faces graced the covers of the books. If you questioned any of the things these benign men said, you were surely on the road to apostasy. And apostasy is very, very bad. Worse than murder. Even worse than premarital sex.

What we didn't discuss was the humanity of these people. We didn't discuss the differing accounts Joseph Smith, Jr. gave of his first vision. We didn't discuss his wives or how he went about procuring them. We were told that the later practitioners of polygamy were benevolent men who humbly obeyed the world of the Lord, despite great misgivings, in order to care for needy widows and other destitute women who wouldn't have survived without the care of these men. (Fortunately, God had spelled out the punishment for women who thought this whole arrangement might not be so great. The thinking was done.) So on and on through the history of the LDS church, we studied its leaders and extrapolated their infallibility down through the chain of command to the stake presidents and bishops and everyone who we were to believe was called to their position through the mouthpiece of God.

The pedestals these not-quite-mortals were presented upon were the key to the undoing of my faith. Had these prophets been presented as fallible humans whose declarations could be argued and modified, it wouldn't have been so easy to destroy the house of cards with an eye of skepticism. It wasn't so easy to let go of the culture, but that's a different subject. For me, it was painfully easy to distill the answer to the question, "Is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints true," down to, "Was Joseph Smith what he said he was?" With a little research, I could not imagine any scenario in which I would believe a person with his history, making his claim... never mind the old adage of extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary proof.

Given my experience of being taught a whitewashed history (see official LDS teachings on racism, polygamy, etc., versus evidence-based history of LDS practices) of infallible leaders, it is very important to me to acknowledge the reality of the people I admire. I appreciate the truth in human foibles and mistakes. I appreciate the checks and balances of peer review and skepticism. I don't want a false picture just because it appears more pleasant.

I want the truth. The gritty, sometimes ugly face of life to embrace and rail against and help to sculpt into something more for the people who come after me. There is no shame in doing one's imperfect best to improve the lot for humanity. There is only shame in pretending mistakes aren't made or lying on behalf of the people who made the mistakes in the first place. There is no shame in admiring the contributions of a person, but there is great shame in denying their humanity by stashing their memory on a pedestal, away from the rigors of inquiry.

It is a toxic practice to ascribe superhuman characteristics to people who are very human and denies the good they did.


  1. I think for some mormons, it's not about the humanness or fallibility of historical figures or books from 1945(although it probably is for many), but what works for my spirituality right now. Right this very moment. There are some of us, maybe more than you might think, a ton of historians anyway, who still find it to be the right spiritual fit for them, even though they are not afraid to read and research and learn about historical things such as this. For me that is what it is about anyway.

    I can see your perspective and your thoughts though, mostly because I agree that is how we were raised and some of things that our parent grasped on to. I think culturally we were raised more in a Catholic way. And then well, the hometown adds its own element.

    I'm just glad we are adults and can make our own choices and do things for our own reasons! And I just have to add, I am not arguing with your reasoning or conclusions in this piece you wrote. Makes sense!

  2. You know, WW, I would love to know more about why mormonism works for your spirituality right now. How did you resolve the religion we were raised with to the spirituality it's become for you?