Fortresses or Keeps: What are we Mormons building online?By: Andrew S
Come late July, I will be flying to Utah. My first pilgrimage to the Mormon Mecca will actually be to attend Sunstone for the first time (which, I guess is not so much of a Mormon Mecca, depending on whom you ask…perhaps we should call it the everything-but-orthodox Mormon Mecca?) There, I will be able to verify that many of the people whom I previously suspected of existing only as appendages to the internet are actually human beings, and likewise, others will be able to verify that I am, indeed, a dog. Even better, while I’m meeting people in person for the first time, I’ll be able to talk about one of my favorite blogging topics, for I have been invited to participate in a panel on the ways that online Mormon communities create boundaries. Hawkgrrrl covered this topic a bit yesterday, so I hope you aren’t burnt out on the discussion (and I hope that I can provide something new to the table anyway.)
What drives this post is two posts that Bruce Nielson wrote regarding community boundary maintenance (and his explanation of why he is declining to attend Sunstone.) In the first post, a couple of the major sections (at least, to me) were as follows — these are selections from his response to Chanson from Main Street Plaza:
First of all, you think Nothing Wavering is the “super conservative end” of the Mormon blogs. This alone means you’ve bought into a certain view of how the communities are split up that I believe to be inaccurate. My feeling is that ‘conservative and liberal’ aren’t always meaningful ways to describe the communities as they currently exist. My views is that all of the communities are actually broken up by which of three rough groups that community has created a ‘safe zone’ for – believing, ‘questioning’ (sometimes non-believing, but that is considered a bad word), or ex/anti Mormons.
For example, you can easily find people that would rightly be called ‘conservative’ on what you called ‘the core bloggernacle.’ In fact there are quite a few highly conservative people on the ‘core bloggernacle.’ But the one trait I perceive they will always have in common is a willingness to make a “safe zone” for “questioning members.” And I believe the desire to make such a safe zone is often very well intended. But I think it also often comes at the expense of some believing members. (Though these communties may not be aware they are losing such people since they show up a few times and then disappear aftering finding hostility towards their more “conservative” views.)
I believe the reverse is true of Nothing Wavering. There are many ‘questioners’ that participate on the Nothing Wavering community, but they always share one thing in common — willingness (at least while on Nothing Wavering) to create a safe zone for all believing members. But both of these communities can be very hard on anti or post Mormons unless they [the antis] are willing to severely temper themselves and enforce the safe zone that is in place. Meanwhile, the anti/ex community has created a safe zone for anti/exs, etc.
Now I am actually very optimistic on all this. My feeling is that it’s actually possible to have your cake and eat it too here. I believe we can both form communities around various safe zones while ‘cross talking’ with each other. For example, I’d love to see M* and BCC or W&T or Sunstone all post about each others’ posts/articles and critique each other. But perhaps we’re not ready for this just yet. And I haven’t had the energy to do it myself as of yet. But I look forward to that happening some day.
Responding to his comments in reverse order, I will say that this post (and Hawkgrrrl’s before it) probably matches Bruce’s ideal of “cross talking”…and I do like the idea of the various blogs responding to each other’s posts. Just as interesting is Bruce’s model of safe zones, and of the potential for safe zones to alienate those outside of the target “safe” audience. But the question I had on my mind was: must safe zones necessarily exclude others on the content of their beliefs?
When I read Bruce’s second post, which was actually a response to a poll that wheatmeister posted earlier, those same questions — as well as some others — came to mind. “Do 52% of the Wheat and Tares Community Admit They No Longer Believe?” Bruce provocatively asks, based on a poll that asks whether someone would join the church now if they were being introduced to it to the first time. His reasoning, as per his post:
My guess is that there is nothing to explain for the 52%. They like W&T precisely because if makes them feel safe compared to, say, going to Church. And there are probably many faithful Mormons that have tried W&T and abandoned it silently, thus allowing a majority of unbelief to become the majority…
…I think respecting a communities value-boundaries is something a community must demand for itself if it wants to keep it’s community. And with the majority of that community no longer believing, there will be some limits on what W&T can post about regularly that someone like me is likely to feel frustrated with.
These comments make sense, and both this post and his previous one help to flesh out Bruce’s model of communities. It goes something like this, if I understand him correctly:
- Communities are based on the issues, topics, perspectives, or questions that are considered — either explicitly or implicitly — to be safe or worthy of protection. (From the second post, Bruce writes that he thinks that “safe zones” may be “almost the definition of a community.”)
- Communities cannot violate their safe zone with frequency, or they’ll risk destroying their community.
- Cross-talking, because it is not a frequent intrusion to a community, can be a way that communities can preserve their identity while entertaining other issues, topics, perspectives, or questions.
I want to address these three points in time, but first, I want to take a detour and address what seems to be more specific assertion Bruce is making in his second post. So, Bruce points out that he is “not entirely comfortable at W&T.” But he doesn’t take this as personal insult; it’s just not his community. And the reason it’s not his community is because our community is (according to him) mostly nonbelievers, while he is a believer. His evidence? 52% answered a poll saying they would not convert if they were introduced to the church for the first time!
Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics
I‘m sure Bruce doesn’t mean to misinterpret our earlier poll, but to me, he is making a big stretch. From the fact that 52% of poll respondents answered “No way” to the question of whether they would join the church if they heard about it recently for the first time, it simply does not follow that that means that these 52% of respondents “no longer believe.” I’ll sum things up with Hawkgrrrl’s response comment:
I am firmly in the I don’t know camp. Would I recognize the value in the church without being raised in it? I have at times wondered if it wasn’t for the best that I was raised in it because I would probably find all religion off-putting if I hadn’t been. Then again, I do find some aspects of Mormonism inherently attractive to the point that it might have interested me as an outsider.
Again, I’m sure Bruce doesn’t mean to purposefully misinterpret the poll, but it seems to me that there are quite a few *reasonably likely* interpretations of the deeper issues behind the poll that he either did not consider, or (mistakenly) considered to be implausible. Two such deeper questions the poll is (or at least reasonably could be assumed to be) asking: Do you believe in your own ability to discern the value of the church? Do you believe in the church’s ability to accurately depict its value through the missionary program? So, I disagree with Bruce’s conclusion. I think he makes a fantastically controversial headline, but it’s got to be taken with a lot of salt. …but to me, the fun part comes in playing what if. So, what if 52% of Wheat & Tares’ audience “no longer believes”? How does that work?
Testing Bruce’s Model
Personally, I find the 52% figure interesting. Even if it made sense to say that 52% equates to the percentage of people who do not believe in the church, that is not the ideological landslide that Bruce is thinking of. Notwithstanding what people say about Prop 8′s passage rate or President Obama’s margin of victory, 52% does not a mandate make. (I will nuke this site if this discussion derails into a political debate about either Obama or Prop 8. Y’all have been warned; thanks and gig’em!) 52% is a number that can be flexible…on a scale, 52% doesn’t represent one side overbearing the other; it could represent a scale that could still seesaw the other way to balance.
If we are able to have around a 50/50 split (and I know…really, the poll wasn’t 50/50, since there was the “I don’t know” option…), then that to me suggests quite interesting things. (Keep in mind that tipping points can require far less than a majority…) Belief, as it were, can coexist pretty flexibly with unbelief. I’m not quite saying that this means that Bruce’s first point regarding communities is wrong or contradicted. What I’m doing is what Bruce himself did: Bruce protested the division of the online Mormon communities based on “conservative and liberal.” I similarly challenge the division of the online communities in terms of believing or nonbelieving. So, then, what issues, topics, perspectives, or questions might we be privileging then, if it is not belief, or nonbelief, or liberality, or conservatism? I think Hawkgrrrl started this conversation well in her post, but that gets me back to a question I thought about earlier
Must safe zones necessarily exclude folks on the content of their beliefs?
For this, I thought of two related, yet connotatively different concepts: the fortress and the keep.
When I think of “safe zones,” both fortresses and keeps come to mind. But there is a meaningful difference between the two that I think can be illustrative. The fortresss, for example, keeps a certain group safe, but it does so by actively keeping others out.
It seems to me that explicit comment moderation and banning policies often approach things from a fortress perspective. Even if you want to participate in a site, if you are perceived as an enemy, you won’t be let in the gates. (Or past the moat.)
In contrast to a fortress, when I think of a keep, I think of the safe zone as emphasizing keeping people in. (Interestingly enough, while the Red Keep was the location that the privileged nobility stayed to hold out from the attack on King’s Landing in the second season of Game of Thrones, the term keep apparently overcame previous usage of the term “donjon,” from which we derive our modern dungeon. Dungeons incidentally happen to be safe zones that operate by keeping people inside them as well.)
Perhaps the more implicit styles of comment moderation can be considered in light of this “keep” perspective — if you don’t fit in to a particular community, you may not be shut out of gates, but you won’t want to stay in castle keep. Additionally, those within the community may sometimes be encouraged to defend each other (or at least, give a fellow community member benefit of the doubt).
It seems to me that both fortresses and keeps have their uses…but at the end of the day, I still wonder what I am trying to protect.
Some folks think it is a liberal/progressive political ideology. Bruce thinks it may be certain axioms of questioning and non-believing Mormons.
…As I’ve thought about the reasons that I blog, I realized that I blog to be challenged. I understand I am not perfect here — I recognize fully that there are probably countless beliefs I hold that I have not thought about deeply, that I have not critically assessed. Furthermore, since I’m hardheaded, I understand that someone could tell me a thousand times where they think I’m being uncritical, and I probably won’t be able to see what they are talking about.
Yet…what I’ve found is that occasionally, someone can say things in just the right way to make me look at things differently. Even if I don’t change my opinion, I’ll know that there are different opinions and things aren’t so simple. I find that challenge can come from all across the spectrum — sometimes people whom I am close to theologically don’t really challenge me, and sometimes those who believe very differently than me are most fascinating because of that difference.
In this sense, I feel like I break down safe zones, rather than create them. I’m not building a fortress or a keep. This is the open field, the city marketplace. Even though I continue to make a nuisance of myself, even though I continue to challenge, play devil’s advocate, critique, question, and re-question, I feel like the point of a community is not necessarily agreeing, but respecting my fellow community members enough that even when we disagree, we will commit to consider one another’s thoughts. Similarly, in the marketplace, we may not buy each others’ wares, but what’s important is that this space provides access for people to share those wares, and that we resist monopolization. (OK, let’s not derail to economics…)
To me, then, the ideal that I want to aspire to isn’t to be nonbelieving or anti, or even to be believing or orthodox, but to try to create a space where I can talk to all of the above with respect.