An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Defending Our Own

A blog post by Dan Wells makes the point that Mormon culture is averse to constructive criticism—or at least to criticism of people acting with good intent. Wells uses the familiar example of class members commenting, “Great lesson!” to the instructor—no matter how boring the presentation. I noticed this with my ward book group last week. The book discussed was Two Old Women by Velma Wallis, a retelling of an Alaskan Indian legend. I found the book so badly written, I could only skim through. All but one member of the group said it was a wonderful book because it was a quick, easy read and “it had a good moral.” I mentioned the lifeless writing style, unrealistic events, and undeveloped characters, and everyone agreed it wasn’t good literature, but considered it a good book because of the theme and moral.

Interestingly enough, this tolerance for an author with good intent was extended to Greg Mortensen as we discussed the recent revelation of exaggeration in his books and the mismanagement of finances for the Central Asia Institute. Group members agreed that nobody is perfect and Mortensen has done much good for the people of the remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. I admit to surprise at the broad-mindedness of my ward members. Mormon culture is not known for tolerance of sin in any form or degree. I think Dan Wells got it right about Mormons: we are not inclined to criticize people or policies if we believe the intent is righteous.

On the other hand, we have no problem lobbing criticism where we perceive unrighteous intent or possible harm to beliefs and institutions we hold dear. Jana Riess expressed criticism of Mormon policies subjugating women in Church culture and made suggestions for improvement in a thoughtful blog. Riess, an active convert to the faith, attacked neither the Church nor its leaders with her constructive criticism. She received positive comments to her post with the exception of one person who encouraged her to leave the church.  This person did not take issue with any of Riess’s examples of unfair policies nor with her suggestions for improvement. The comment was ad hominem, a personal attack on the author.

This is the downside of judging only by intent. Can we ever be sure of another person’s intentions? The negative commenter to Riess perceived she was trying to tear down the Church. Those who know Riess saw her post as an effort to improve Church policy. Another question is whether a person with good intent can cause harm if he lacks the skills to carry out a complex project. Greg Mortensen’s poor management decisions have damaged the foundation he organized to educate children in rural Asia. Constructive criticism a few years earlier mayhave prevented the current problem.

Criticism is necessary for improvement. Giving people a free pass when they say stupid things that support a cause we favor helps neither them nor the cause. A wise friend defused some of the Last Days paranoia in our ward prior to the year 2000 by stating that official Church planning included projects like the City Creek development and other temporal future events.

Learning to disagree without being disagreeable is difficult. Criticizing evidence and conclusions rather than attacking the person offering them is a start in the right direction.

Comments on: "Defending Our Own" (4)

  1. Of all the types of judging we do, I suspect that attempting to judge other people’s intent is the most perilous. Given a choice, we should always assume that someone’s intent was benign. At the same time, we have to be willing to judge outcomes, regardless of intent.

    Thanks for this post. I don’t think it had occurred to me before that the kind of nasty comdemnation of other people’s motives that we sometimes see in LDS culture (and probably every human culture) is a flip side of the phenomenon of excusing someone’s poor execution because of his or her good intentions.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jonathan.

      Judging other people’s intent is probably the most perilous form of judgment. And clearly, LDS people are not the only ones to condemn the motives of those who criticize or disagree with their group.

  2. fuzzyoctopus said:

    I didn’t know Dan was writing posts on that blog. I’m going to go yell at him for not telling me!

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