What is Real Dialogue?: A Response to Fortresses and Keeps

Andrew S reviewed my past posts on both declining Sunstone and also on whether or not W&T was mostly non-believers.

First of all, right after Hawkgrrl clarified her intentions in that poll, I admitted that I had misread it. But nevertheless, I’ve found that admitting you’re wrong on something doesn’t actually equate to people on the internet not using your previous words against you as if you still believed them. *Sigh*

So let’s take a look at Andrew’s summary of how he read my ‘model’ of safe zones. 

1.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.”)

2.Communities cannot violate their safe zone with frequency, or they’ll risk destroying their community.

3.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.

Okay, not bad.

My main concern here is that I do not see ‘safe zones’ as protecting certain issues, topics, etc. Rather, it’s about protecting certain members of your community. Different people have different needs. A person that is active in the LDS Church but does not believe in it any more has needs sometimes mutually exclusive to someone who is staunch in literal belief. A community is sometimes forced into making a choice between those two people.

The safe zone is about how to protect the one they didn’t implicitly kick out. For example, they might make rules around how it’s inappropriate to allow the staunch literal believer to ask a question like “do you even believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon?” because that would put the practicing-but-not-believing member at a distinct disadvantage in conversations and create an unsafe place for them. So he/she would be forced to leave the community.

But, of course, by making this choice, the community is implicitly choosing to instead make a less safe place for the staunch literal believer, so he/she will then be at a distinct disadvantage in conversations and it will be an unsafe place for him/her instead.

In short, safe zones are value-boundaries that decide implicitly who stays and who goes. They are not a limit on what topics can be discussed, per se.

As stated previously, this might translate to how often certain subjects are addressed, but not to what subjects can be addressed. All our communities seem to be able to address any topic, though we do not do so in anything even close to equal frequency.

Discomfort and Non-Believers?

Andrew also says the following about me:

And the reason it’s not his community is because our community is (according to him) mostly non-believers, while he is a believer.

I might be misreading Andrew here (it wouldn’t be the first time) but Andrew seems to me to be implying the stereotype that the only reason a person chooses a community is because they feel comfortable (or uncomfortable) with the people. The idea that a community actually has different interests and different needs doesn’t seem to cross his mind here.

First, let’s admit (whether or not Andrew really intended this) that this is a stereotype. And it’s a one often leveled against someone perceived as being highly religiously conservative. We all know those “conservative Mormons” just aren’t an open lot (or so goes the stereotype). They all need to learn to be more accepting of others on the spectrum of belief.

If this is what Andrew was suggesting, then I want to suggest that this is actually too cynical a view of human nature.

What I will offer up here are some quotes from my offline conversation with Andrew that talk about why I was uncomfortable with Mormon Matters, and the difficulties I saw with trying to ‘make it work’.

I confess, I think you’ve got me entirely wrong on why I felt uncomfortable at Mormon Matters and W&T. You say it’s because I don’t want to be around 52% non-believers. I don’t think this is what I said at all. I actually think it’s more about the fact that on Mormon Matters, I felt like I couldn’t find an audience for the subjects I was interested in writing about except from (a small minority of) people that were looking to be offended. 95% of the people [on Mormon Matters] were nice and supportive, but also not interested in the subjects [I wrote about]. My posts consistently had almost no comments and when they did have comments, half were from me. At some point I came to question why I was posting there at all. I just wasn’t a fit for the community. Nothing wrong with that. But it would really be more enjoyable for me if I could find a more interested audience to encourage me to keep going.

Andrew admitted to me that when it comes to feeling like your post drew no interest, he’s been there and done that and he didn’t blame me for how I felt. He then asked me an interesting question. He asked, in effect, if those problems could be addressed, would I still want to be part of Mormon Matters (or W&T).

Frankly, yes.

There is still a bit of the idealist in me that really wants to see a ‘one stop shop’ when it comes to having dialogue. I am in doubt that such a thing is possible and am not even convinced any more that it’s a good idea to try. However, Andrew went on to explain some of his (and the W&T staff’s) ideas on how to encourage all sides to want to participate and be respectful (more on this later) to each other.

And frankly, they’re really good ideas! I admit I think they will probably not be enough. And they will probably ultimately not succeed (in my view). But to be honest, I might be wrong. And I really do wish them luck. And if they do succeed, I’ll be there.

I then went on to give other reasons why I was uncomfortable with Mormon Matters:

I think another thing that was difficult there [at Mormon Matters] was that I felt my “orthodox” views (scare quotes necessary because, as you know, I’m a strange sort of ‘orthodox’. But people at MM called me that regularly, and I was not offended by the label) would be openly attacked and sometimes I was even personally attacked too. But, [until Ray came along,] I was I never defended by anyone but me.  
But on posts critical of the Church, they’d get 100+ comments with what sometimes seemed like a cast of thousands agreeing with each other (and also some defenders, of course.) There was overwhelming interest in a certain type of post that I just wasn’t that interested in.
There also was not a ‘support system’ there for my views the way there was at M*. BUT, I think you’ll probably say “but what if there has been a support system?”
Well, I guess I’m challenging if that would be possible. BUT if it was in place, I confess, I’d likely never have left.
I just wanted to not be demoralized all the time, really, however ‘demoralized’ was defined at that moment. It was a combination of a number of things from [feelings of] irrelevance [to the interests of the MM community], to anger [directed] at me but little support [from other permabloggers], to even just realizing that I couldn’t ask certain types of questions without raising eyebrows [even though I felt they were entirely relevant to the conversation], to the threat of being ‘removed’ from the roster if John Dehlin thought you were too much in favor of the Church’s stance on homosexuality or something (which happened to Chris Bigelow), etc.

It was a slew of related problems that made me question my value there and [made me feel] like I could be more valuable somewhere else.

My point being here that Andrew is (possibly) assuming too much when he assumes I didn’t want to be around non-believers because non-believers are yucky.

Heck, what was I doing on Mormon Matters with John Dehlin in the first place? It was specifically to be around a whole spectrum of belief and non-belief and to engage in dialogue and to have my views challenged and to challenge other’s views.

Which brings me to the main point of Andrew’s post and the main thing I disagree with him about. 

Fortresses and Keeps

I like Andrew’s metaphor of fortresses and keeps. The idea he presents is that some safe zones are more to keep others out (fortresses) while others are more to keep people in (keeps).

While accepting the value of both, Andrew goes on to suggest that maybe keeps are a bit more virtuous than fortresses.

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… As I’ve thought about the reasons that I blog, I realized that I blog to be challenged… 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.

But it seems to me that Andrew is making a mistake here by equating fortresses and keeps with things like comment policies. Again, a quote from my offline conversation with him:

I do disagree with you on a few points. In particular, I think all of blog land is keeps almost by definition because we are public and that the only fortresses on the internet are things like Facebook groups. I’m going to write-up my own response.

Consider my own post that started off this conversation. It was done from a blog that fits Andrew’s description of a “fortress” with imposing walls (moderation policy) meant to keep people out. Yet how much did those wall actually control the conversation?

It seems to me, not at all.

In fact, like Andrew, I also blog specifically to take my ideas and have them challenged. The whole point of me declining Sunstone publicly (after asking if they were okay with that) was so that it would start a broader conversation. I have had considerable excellent analysis of my views and even an insult or two thrown my way for expressing my opinions. (As noted previously, sometimes even after I changed my mind.)

Blogs Are All Keeps

Blog land happens on the Internet which is the ultimate easement property. All public blogs are keeps. The fortresses are Facebook groups where they keep themselves safe from other opinions so that the discussion stays pleasant.

The very most you can hope for in blog land is to remove a bit of the pooh in your backyard so that your home smells a bit nicer so that people living there want to stay. Outside of that, you’re public and you’re open. The very fact that you are blogging means you are going to attract the type of challenges Andrew is seeking. So I hesitate on accepting Andrew’s proposed view that comment policies (even strong ones) are somehow antithetical to seeking public challenge and therefore some sort of “fortress.”

Going to Jr. G and M* to Let the Dialogue Finally Begin

Here’s the real truth. I believe that my move away from Mormon Matters to Jr G (and later M*) was a move to start real dialogues, not end them. Until I started writing on Jr. G and M*, there were certain topics that Mormon Blogland had never so much as touched and weren’t at all happy that I was touching now in a place they couldn’t shut me down. What Andrew perceives as a fortress meant to keep people out I see as the start of actual dialogue that was impossible before.

The Values of Mormon Bloggers

If you ask any member of any Mormon Blogging community, they all share the very same values: open and honest discussion done in a respectful way. We all despise insults, hate speech, personal attacks, ad hominem attacks, and misrepresentations of the ‘other point of view.’

But there is this problem, you see. It’s that we human beings aren’t really all that good at distinguishing between real dialogue and the things listed above that we despise.

We all too often confuse ‘respect’ for ‘pleasantness’. If the conversation isn’t pleasant, then we perceive it as disrespectful.

Worse yet, ‘honest opinions’ seem like ’personal attacks or insults’ to us and we confuse ‘disagreements’ with ’hate speech.’

Or consider John Dehlin’s recent concern that the very existence of an open assessment of his views would therefore be equivalent to an ‘ad hominem attack’. (And until the articles comes out, we can’t assess if it was or wasn’t an ad hominem attack.) I would suggest this is because we aren’t all that good at knowing what a real ad hominem attack actually is.

Real Dialogue is not Always Pleasant

Here is a secret for you. I happen to know that Andrew S really and truly is interested in honest dialogue. Do you know how I know? Because when we talk one of us often breaks off the conversation in a huff. And then we make up later and try again.

You see, real dialogue often feels a lot like a bite in the rear. It’s not always very pleasant and can be very jarring. Most likely you’ll initially think that the other person must be dishonest or insincere. More often than not, you might experience real dialogue as hate speech or a personal attack even if it was nothing of the sort.

If you are someone who finds real ‘dialogue’ fun and pleasant, I assert that the most likely scenario is that you have yet to actually start having it… and likely you avoided it while tricking yourself into thinking you are have it by creating a faux-open community to replace it.

And that is why I am no longer a fan of the Mormon Matters approach to open dialogue. My feeling is that by trying to be the ‘one stop shop’ they end up having an illusion of open dialogue without actually having it. And I think this illusion can be quite dangerous.

Instead, I’d encourage people to stop trying to figure out what comment policy is the ‘most open’ and instead accept that comment policies do not matter. Because, you see, at any given moment you have the right to write your own opinions on your own blogs and to respond to that dang post that wouldn’t accept your comment.

And this always was the secret to real and open dialogue. You have to be willing to expose yourself to opinions you don’t like and then be openly critical of them in your own public community. If you’re doing that, you’re probably engaging in real dialogue. If you aren’t doing that, and instead trying to build a single ‘open community’ you’re probably really just avoiding real dialogue and replacing it with faux-dialogue.

Real Dialogue and Real Hate Speech

In saying this, I don’t mean to imply that just because we imperfect human beings often see real dialogue as hate speech that therefore there is no such thing as hate speech. That’s the problem that is so difficult to solve. There is such a thing as real hate speech. There is such a thing as personal insults. There is such a thing as ad hominem attacks. There is such a thing as being disrespectful. But often we just can’t tell the difference between those things and real dialogue.

The US Constitution solved that problem in probably the only way it can be solved. They simply allowed free speech, including hate speech. (But see my post on portrayals of racism in the media as a counter point to this. Perhaps we have room for improvement here.)

If you honestly do feel that something is hate speech, then you probably have no choice but to trust your best judgments. That your best judgments might be entirely dead wrong is a given. In the end, you get to make your own choices about what conversations to participate in and where to put your energy. And that is how it should be. No one is forcing you to real opposing view points that you find offensive.

But I, for one, no longer believe in the Mormon Matters and Sunstone approach to open dialogue about Mormonism. I think they are nothing like an open forum. In fact, I think they are an engine of a certain point of view and any move too far away from that point of view would, of necessity, be corrected. That their point of view is a necessary thing, I have no doubt. But I also think they have high incentive to make themselves look more open than they really are.

The Holy Grail of Open Dialogue

Here is what I believe now: I think we should stop seeking the holy grail of openness by creating the perfect open blog for open discussion. I think we already have the holy grail of openness: it’s called the Internet. Now we just need to start to use it.

The beauty of the internet is that there is no way to actually stop real dialogue from taking place, even though we all too often (though we’ll never even admit it to ourselves) wish is wasn’t happening and wish instead to create a fake (but safe) dialogue in its place.

My only real complaint is that I wish there was a lot more cross-talk between Mormon blog communities. We have our platform for real dialogue. Now we just need to learn to actually use it. And who knows. With time, maybe it will become pleasant and fun.

6 thoughts on “What is Real Dialogue?: A Response to Fortresses and Keeps

  1. Bruce, good, thoughtful post, as usual. A few points:

    1)Some people seem to believe they have an “open” community. Then, the following takes place: a commenter writes a polite, controversial comment that disagrees with the majority of the people in the community (let’s call it political incorrectness). Then the people of the community bully and gang up on the person who expressed an unpopular opinion. Polite disagreement (or bringing up counter points) is fine. Bullying, personal insults and ganging up on somebody (which happens all the time on some blogs) is unbecoming of latter-day Saints. This does not make you “open.” This shows that you truly are afraid of alternative opinions and are in fact quite “closed.” What you are doing is setting boundaries that deliberately close off your community to unpopular opinions. In that environment, thoughtful people with different opinions will simply go away, although a few crazies will hang around (for what reason I do not know). Then, you point to the crazies as evidence that your opinions are superior. The reality is you have never even opened yourself up to thoughtful disagreement, because thoughtful disagreement is vilified.

    2)All blogs have comment policies. The question is: where do they draw the line? This is a good thing. Nobody wants to read expletive-filled tirades. Don’t condemn another blog because that blog has decided to have a comment policy that is different than yours. Your blog also “censors” other opinions, either through bullying (see number 1) or through enforcing your own, different comment policy.

    3)A post is the writer’s “intellectual property.” The writer can decide his own comment policy on his own intellectual property. Again, you enforce your own comment policy in different ways (see 1 and 2). If the writer enforces his own (different) comment policy, you must recognize that the writer is different than you, has different purposes and has his/her own way of doing things. True tolerance is recognizing this.

    4)It is not an insult to you for a writer to express an unpopular opinion. Blogging is an imperfect art. Sometimes people are just putting out ideas for their own peculiar reasons. Unless a post is directly aimed at you, it is not an insult to you for the person to contradict an ideology or worldview that you have. Direct attacks on specific people are different. Attacks on an ideology are attacking ideas, some of which you may currently have, but who knows your ideas may change, perhaps even by being challenged by that very post!

    5)Stop taking things so seriously. It is just a blog. If something offends you, choose not to be offended. Or go write a polite rebuttal.

  2. Much of this post was presented as a dialogue with Andrew, and that is very significant. There are very few people writing in these websites who are really interested in others’ thoughts that they don’t share. Not just tolerate, but actively fascinated by what’s going on in another mind that isn’t going on in his. Andrew does have this fascination with others’ thoughts, is an extreme outlier in this regard, and consequently is very interesting to read.

  3. Great post! I don’t agree with everything but I think it’s wonderful that this dialog is taking place about not being able to dialog!

  4. What a meta-meta-discussion. This isn’t just talking about talking. It’s talking about talking about talking.

    Earth to Bruce! Come in, Bruce!

  5. I think Bruce would agree that he is often living in a David Bowie song (“ground control to Major Nielson”), but I think he likes it that way. I love you, Bruce!

  6. I appear to have missed this post.

    man, my analogy stunk.

    And this always was the secret to real and open dialogue. You have to be willing to expose yourself to opinions you don’t like and then be openly critical of them in your own public community. If you’re doing that, you’re probably engaging in real dialogue. If you aren’t doing that, and instead trying to build a single ‘open community’ you’re probably really just avoiding real dialogue and replacing it with faux-dialogue.

    I like this. I still think this is possible from one blog, though. in my post, I wasn’t really aiming to ultimately suggest that either the keep or the fortress was the most virtuous…I would like to tear down all walls, whether the ones that seek to keep people in, or the ones that seek to keep people out. I think I called this tentative new ideal (in my stinky analogy) the “open field” or the “city marketplace.”

    How can we be openly critical of opinions we don’t like in our *own* public community if we have either a M* model or a MM model? It seems like these models allow us to be openly critical of opinions we don’t like in *other* public communities, but not really in our own. (safe zone ultimately = blind spot for criticality IMO.)

    you say at the end of this post:

    My only real complaint is that I wish there was a lot more cross-talk between Mormon blog communities.

    maybe the complaint you have (multiple blogs don’t promote critical, real conversations as often as they should or can) and the complaint I have (single blogs don’t promote critical, real conversations as often as they should or can) are reflections of the same underlying problem that isn’t really particular to either medium (a single blog or a network of blogs), and as such, there isn’t really an ideal solution to switch to one format or the other, because the problem lies completely elsewhere.

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