For the past week at Wheat and Tares we’ve discussed what we believe W&T contributes to the larger dialogue about the Mormon faith, exposing parts of a conversation that has been occurring behind the scenes for weeks. Hawk has articulated who we are with guidelines that we’ll post to the site permanently. Andrew has shared his views of different types of online communities and moderated a philosophical discussion of how those communities function to set up safe zones (to use Bruce’s terms.) Mike has structured our place as a niche community of questioning that feels welcoming to people who may not feel welcome in other forums (fora, whatever).
It seems rather assumed that “the faithful” have church and everyone else has the internet. That’s what I want to talk about. I’m addressing my discussion to “the faithful.” The rest of you are welcome to come along or click over to something else if you think this won’t be interesting.
J. Max Wilson (who writes brilliantly at Sixteen Small Stones) has recently written a treatise suggesting that there is no place in the Bloggernacle for the faithful (he’s speaking about the larger LDS blogs, not about all LDS discussion online). He makes many salient points. I agree.
I also disagree. I’m going to run through his points quickly before I make my own case both for and against the faithful wasting their time on the big blogs.
The existence of both a public and private conversation among the permabloggers has the capacity to become advocacy. True, but it also serves to facilitate a discussion about interactions between commenters, to allow us to brainstorm future topics of discussion, to vet future topics with one another to determine a sort of balance in presentation, and to examine every once in awhile if we are staying true to our purposes. It would be very hard for someone who sees only the public conversation to determine the integrity of the bloggers, just as we may have reason to think hard about the motivations of government officials, business leaders, and anyone else working publicly with a back-conversation occurring. There is a lot of marketing in this world. Caveat emptor.
In discussing questions in a public forum, we’re really looking more for a sympathetic ear than a solution to our problems. True. I don’t suppose anyone reading this is unaware that the internet has been the best facilitator yet for the growth of stupid. That said, it is also an incredible engine for connection and communication, for healing and for help. We can look up anything, we can link to almost any source, we can find hope. It’s fairly difficult to turn this anonymous thing into a regulated organ of pure connection. Just as we do in any relationship, we will have to determine if our participation is helpful or hurtful to both ourselves and those with whom we connect. Friend beware.
Wolves, sheep, goats, and large bushes can become indistinguishable at internet distance. Well, that’s not what he said, but that’s what happens. Crowd anonymity takes a unique turn with the internet. The “crowd” has a totally different character as people sit alone in front of computers and “connect” into these wily, loosely structured groups. When we are not face-to-face with people with whom we debate, our interactions are pared down to a soulless wit that often gives way to guerilla sarcasm and disdain, devoid of facial expression, stripped of the weight of other connections to give these interactions balance. We have internet names that hide our identities and we will suffer no consequences if we wound or dissemble. Even if some use their full names, or their identities are well-known, it is not an equal playing field, as not everyone is fully vested. It’s a farce to believe that we are fully discussing anything. Yep, you’re right, J. Max. Sheep beware.
“Asymmetrical spiritual warfare” gives a home-court advantage to the wolves. Pretty much. It’s naive to assume that even a significant number of people enter the conversation to explore ideas as part of a greater search for Truth, Meaning, and Enlightenment. There’s a reason that online support groups don’t work well for addiction recovery: there’s no accountability. They devolve to sniping sessions and that’s completely unproductive. Any player who enters the field of religious debate expecting to search for truth needs to be armed for a battle with the anonymously ignorant and small-minded, the intellectually snobbish, and the Pharisaically sure. You will likely enter someone else’s safe zones and probably commit sacrilege against their sacred cows. Soldier beware.
Publicizing disagreement with leaders and cultivating support for that disagreement is a vote of no-confidence and an act of apostasy. True again. But even a dog can tell the difference between being tripped over and being kicked. Attitude matters. As faithful members of the church, we accept divine investiture in prophets. As faithful members of the church we embrace an ideal of unity. There is faithful questioning (which is the ground under the rock of revelation) and there is doubtful questioning (which is the seed of apostasy.) Anyone who cares can tell the difference. What we choose to do in either of those environments is a delightful freedom of agency. Saint beware.
Criticism weakens faith. As a parent I’ve discovered that if I admit my failures too often, my children begin to feel frightened that I don’t have a firm grip on the wheel and their safety feels less assured. If I admit some failures, however, they feel strengthened to find their own pathways to apology and restitution. It’s a balance unique to every parent. I know people who admit considerably fewer failures than I do, and their children are more secure about the parents and less secure about themselves. I know people who seem constantly tossed to and fro and their children are secure about their ability to navigate life because they’ve been parenting their parents, but less secure about how they’ll be cared for. It’s pretty hard to do it all as a parent. It’s pretty hard for any venue to perfectly strengthen everyone’s personal faith. I know people whose faith has been fired in adversity so intense it would make you cringe. I know people whose faith has been fired by an unfettered pursuit of spiritual enlightenment in an environment devoid of the distraction of dissent. It would be hard to wrest an idyllic existence out of this crazy montage of experience because our personal requirements vary so widely. Counselor beware.
The Internet. Changes. Everything. Once upon a time investigating the Church was a personal thing, involving personal interactions. The kernel of our faith is having personal transformative experience with God. Now with a few mouse clicks one can search and come up with millions of personal stories that can substitute for actually having an experience with the character of the creator. Every interaction of doubt and disbelief, of heckling and mocking and criticism, of wavering testimony and offended faith is available for download, free. He Who Must Not Be Named has control of the communications network.
This is the core of my assertion that the faithful should engage.
The Bloggernacle may not be the field of engagement most suited to everyone, but for those who are uniquely positioned, either by interest or capacity, it’s one field. If one entire set of voices, offended by the tenor of the battle, retreats and withdraws, the field is imbalanced and the battlefield will become even more inhospitable. Every problem J. Max has identified will become more intense, and specifically because of his last point, that the internet magnifies everything, those will be the voices that are heard.
And, although I don’t minimize the damage done by ravening wolves in the form of money-making schemes or pills in the jello or apostates, sometimes what looks like a wolf may just be a black sheep. We have to get closer to tell the difference. It’s dangerous work being a sheep.
An entire sermon was preached about leaving off our closeted communities and traditions and venturing out with uncovered lights to an inhospitable world. There is no indication that Jesus Christ meant anyone to do that naively, unprepared, or with false ideas about what they were doing. Our job is not to compel, convince, or to eliminate that with which we disagree – our job is to speak our souls with integrity. If the faithful will speak, unoffended by the response or lack thereof, then the truth they espouse becomes an option among many for those who hear. If they are silent, where is that option?
By all means, retreat at night to your keeps. Engage in private discussions where people don’t relentlessly and rudely challenge your reasoning and be therefore free to explore deeper insights and more profound truths. I do. Be with your own kind and be enlivened in the way that safe zones enliven us. But come back the next day. Engage the world. Bring balance just by speaking your mind. Be brave, wherever your venue of communication arises. The ignorant and the disdainful, even in the Bloggernacle, have nothing very destructive to wield except their intimidation to make you silent.
If the Bloggernacle is a parasite, I have to disagree with J. Max that it will die if the faithful withdraw. It will be left to the pseudofaithful, the wolves of his description. Asking the faithful to withdraw is like shutting down the immune system of the organism. The ‘nacle is certainly still figuring itself out. Now is a good time for the more consistent, firm-minded participation of the faithful.
Now, whether this is all a grand waste of time is another issue altogether. If we each interacted with the circles of our acquaintance, drawing strength and giving service and engaging in stimulating conversation there, we could probably change the world a lot faster than spending hours a day commenting on blogs. Moderation is likely a wise course. After all, the internet isn’t real.
Now, for anyone who characterizes him or herself as something less than a TBM, wow, impressed that you’re still with me! I hope that, just as the faithful should not be offended by questions that you raise and should stay in the conversation, you will not be offended at the concerns they have. The faithful have grown in a system of experience with principles and ideas, so when they “bear testimony” they are accessing a personal power that has transformed them, not trying to beat you with it or evade the logic of the discussion. When you attack them for that transformation, it’s like someone calling your kids stupid and makes you look like a wolf. Think about the things that have been transformative to you: if it was an idea, it was the discovery moment, the delight of understanding that confirmed the importance of it to you. Feelings matter. Those are sometimes hard to put to words or to justify in debate.
The point that I’m trying to make is that everyone is benefited by the full spectrum of opinion. If Wheat & Tares truly is a place for respectful, enlightened, broad-ranging discussion, it is the province of every person no matter where he or she falls on that amorphous graph to engage with full purpose of heart, even swimming upstream against all the obstacles this form of communication and connection inherently nurtures.
I’ve metaphorically described the Bloggernacle as a battlefield. What if it were instead a cease-fire zone? How do we accomplish that?
- Listen to other opinions.
- Think carefully about whether your agreement or disagreement enlightens the discussion.
- Phrase your observations as your own instead of grand statements of the truths of the universe.
- Refrain from characterizing the opinions or experience of others.
- Take your snark elsewhere; it shuts down trust.
- Explore the reasoning behind others’ opinions. It could be mind-expanding.
- Be positive. We are.
So, everyone willing to lay down their weapons of war? Are “the faithful” welcome too?
And where is your place in it all?