Why Did You Resign (from Mormon Matters)? – The Question of “Balance”

In my first post I gave a bit of my history on Mormon Matters and explained the players that were there when things began. I also covered my previously mentioned reasons for quitting, which included feeling like my interest and the communities did not match and also feeling like Mormon Matters played a certain important role that I was personally disrupting by my presence.

Was Mormon Matters Balanced?

I had come to the conclusion that Mormon Matters was not intended as a true open discussion about Mormonism. (i.e. it claimed to be a “one stop shop” but in fact wasn’t.) I believed that it was (as I said in my previous post)…

… a friendly place to ‘let off steam’ for those that didn’t believe in the LDS Church’s defining beliefs any more (sometimes still practicing, sometimes, not) while still allowing them to interact with a certain kind of Mormon that still believed, but was sympathetic to their concerns. This belief-with-sympathies approach really only worked if the believers were willing to not strongly challenge the post Mormons on their new beliefs or on their concerns.

To explain why I had come to this conclusion, I’m going to post about a number of related subjects. While I doubt I can convince anyone of my position, if I can at least get you to say “yes, I can see why you’d draw such a false conclusion” I’ll consider these post as having wildly exceeded my expectations.

Here are the related subjects:

  1. What do we mean when we speak of “balance”? What is “balance”?
  2. Side 1 vs. Side 2: The (Maybe) Mythical TBM (True Believing Mormon)
  3. The issues of the “We Attack / You Defend” model of “balance.” Why I believe it’s identical to asking one side to be (dialogue-wise) naked while the other gets to wear clothes.
  4. Is there a Tapestry of Mormon Belief? Is there a Tapestry of John Dehlinist Beliefs? Why explanation-to-explanation comparisons are the only form of balance that the scientific community will accept and why that is significant to our discussion of what “balance” means.
  5. What would an actual “balanced” (in the theory-to-theory comparison sense) dialogue look like?
  6. Is it even realistic to expect anything approaching “real balance” on a single website?

This post addresses #1.

What Do We Mean By Balance?

Mormon Heretic masterly blogged about: about whether or not Mormon Matters was balanced.

Mormon Heretic actually went to great lengths to do actual research and to measure how many posts on Mormon Matters were pro-LDS Church and how many were against the LDS Church and to determine how many comments that created. His findings? He found it was all in approximately equal amounts in terms of actual posts. There was a good mix of pro and con LDS Church posts. However, he did find that the “liberal” posts got a lot more comments than the “faithful” ones. (A point I mentioned in my first post in this series.) There was just more interest in liberal posts then faithful posts. It wasn’t that there was a lack of faithful posts.

Mormon Heretic made that post in May of 2009 and I had already quit Mormon Matters by that point. But I happened across it and it got me thinking about my own views of what defines “balance” and how it differed from Mormon Heretics view of what “balance” is.

It’s not that I really disagree with Mormon Heretic: if by “balance” we mean only “the number of posts for or against an idea” then without a doubt Mormon Matters was balanced from the day I started until the day it stopped posting and turned back into a podcast.

But is that the right way to measure balance? I think most people would overwhelmingly say “yes, that is the right way to measure balance. How else would you measure balance save by counting up the for and against posts?”

Isn’t this more or less how the news media measures balance? Essentially the ethics of the news media (which I find to be unethical) is that you take a topic, you go get some quotes and you make sure the quotes include those both for and against whatever the topic is. That is what the news media sees as “balance.”

Yet if you are a conservative, especially before the days of Fox News, you knew the news media was not balanced. And when Fox News came into existence, you tended to think of Fox News as ‘balanced’ compared to the rest. (“They tell it like it is!” Puke!)

But if you are a liberal, you see the pre-Fox News world as “balanced” and Fox News as “imbalanced” — even though they also play the same “balance” card by making sure they include quotes from both sides. How can it be that all news media make sure they include a ‘balanced’ number of quotes for and against something, yet clearly neither is actually balanced at all?

What is “Balance”?

Mormon Heretic seems to have seen “balance” as merely a count of how many posts were pro-LDS Church and how many were anti-LDS Church. If you got equal numbers than – hooray for you! – you are (basically) balanced. He never actually claims this is the quintessential form of balance, of course. And he likely doesn’t believe that either. But it’s hard to deny that at a gut level a “post count” seems like the right way to determine balance.

But as with my example of Fox News vs. all other news outlets, this approach gives an appearance of balance at a fairly visceral level, but in fact has little to do with what we mean by “balance” at a deeper level. But what this deeper level of “balance” really is seems elusive at best. It’s hard to define it other than by going back to the whole “count the posts” or “count the quotes” approach.

What I want to suggest in that “balance” is what I call a “fuzzy concept.” We talk about it like we know exactly what we mean by it and we expect everyone else to understand what we mean by it too. Further, we impute morality to the concept. If someone is balanced they are morally good. If someone is imbalanced, its only because they are being immoral. Probably lying.

Given how we feel about the word “balance” it is perhaps not surprising that my claim that Mormon Matters was in some legitimate sense “imbalanced” (even for a good reason as per my statement above) will be taken as a harsh criticism by some.

In fact, I’m not even claiming that Mormon Matters was not balanced in some legitimate sense. In fact, I think it was balanced in terms of post counts for and against the LDS Church. And that is saying something, I think! (Compare that to, say, Latter-day Main street.) But I want to suggest that there are other ways of thinking of the concept of “balance” and that under some concepts of “balance” Mormon Matters was in fact balanced but under others it was not. Further, I’m going to argue (though in future posts) that there is no way to avoid this problem. Therefore, Mormon Matters deserves no charges of lying or deceit. (At least not on the question of balance.)

Negative Is Weighted More Than Positive

The first issue that makes “balance” such a fuzzy concept is the “negative to positive weighting” issue. We have considerable evidence now that human beings biologically weigh negatives and positives unequally. For example, we feel much more pain over the loss of a dollar then they feel pleasure over the gain of a dollar. This ‘negative bias’ is known to cause people to make poor investing decisions. If a person owns a stock that has lost value, he will naturally want to hold on to it until he gets his money back, all the while missing opportunities for gain. (I have this problem like you wouldn’t believe!)

For the same reason, even if you do match pro and con post counts, there is still going to be a legitimate “balance” issue to be considered.

The Nature of Pro-Posts vs. Con-Posts

Outside of the simple fact that human beings weight negatives more strongly than positives is the fact that a pro-LDS post tends to be a very different sort of thing then an anti-LDS post. For example, an anti-LDS post will often take the form of any of the following:

1. I or someone I know or heard of was personally hurt (or even killed) by LDS doctrines and practices. (An example. John Dehlin’s infamous Marlin Jensen also included his claims (in the comments) that LDS doctrines kill people, but has since been removed)

2. Here are reasons why the LDS Church’s beliefs are all fiction. (A good but subtle example)

3. Look at how happy I am now that I no longer believe. (A straight forward example)

By comparison, a pro-LDS post will tend to take on a form more like this:

A. I enjoy how I feel in Church and I like it (An award-winning example. Yes, there is irony here.)

B. Here is this way you can look at this known (and thus admittedly real) issue such that you don’t have to see the LDS Church’s beliefs as fiction (See here, here, and here)

C. Here is this early and still tenuous connection between LDS beliefs and something that was found in real life, thus suggesting that the LDS beliefs are not fiction (The Chiasmus example)

It’s not hard to see that the two lists do not have equal emotional punch. For example, how many posts on why you enjoy Church does it take to wipe out a serious challenge to your faith, or worst yet, a claim of those comforting doctrines having destroyed someone’s life or killed someone?

The Relationship Between the Two Lists

I noticed that there is a sort of relationship between the two lists.

For example, #3 (happy I no longer believe) is offset by letter A (happy that I believe). Both are actually equivalent, right?

And #2 (it’s all fiction) is offset by letters B (how to deal with such an issue). i.e. the anti-LDS poster can bring up an issue and the pro-LDS poster can defend themselves on that issue, right? So we’re balanced, right?

But #1 (I was hurt by LDS doctrine) and letter C (tenuous evidence of literal truth) are unrelated, however. In fact, letter C (literal truth) is sort of the opposite of #2 (it’s all fiction). A pro-LDS person can bring up some sort of fact that suggests the truthfulness of LDS beliefs and then an anti-LDS poster can freely point out potential problems with that fact. (Such as “Chiasmus happen naturally anyhow” or what have you.) So, in a sense B and C sort of collapse down to a single point.

This then leaves #1 – how the Church damages or kills people –  which really, because it’s personal, is incredibly difficult to ‘defend against’ in any meaningful way without looking like a complete jerk.

Yet, the experiences so mentioned are real enough, right? And so shouldn’t we allow such real life experiences a place in a dialogue between believing and non-believing Mormons?

For that matter, can’t we maybe claim that #1 (LDS doctrine destroyed my life) and letter A (happy to believe) are opposites of a sort? And do they not then offset each other?

Nevertheless, I think at a minimum, if we are being honest with ourselves, we have to admit one thing here. The allowed pro-LDS list is naturally and inherently weaker than the anti-LDS list.

I wrote something about this in my post here.  Apologetics naturally comes off as defensive compared to bringing up issues. Plus our natural anti-supernatural biases tend to kick in. And so apologetics naturally seem weaker than the initial attack (unless the initial attack has no substance whatsoever, as in the Solomon Spaulding claims.)

In reality, there are no number of positive experiences (letter A) that can in any meaningful sense offset negative ones (#1). Really positive experiences (letter A) can at most stand in contrast to positive post Mormon experiences (#3). So I don’t buy the idea that positive experiences balance out negative ones.

So inherently the anti-LDS posters come equipped with much bigger guns than the pro-LDS posters just because of the way human beings compare negatives and positives.

So right away we see an initial ‘balancing challenge’ that seems rather difficult to fix.

Again, I suppose it all depends on what you mean by “balance.” But I hope you can at least see the underlying issue I’m bring up here.

Now maybe you feel like saying ”Sure, but that’s a fact of life and the LDS Church needs to learn to deal with the fact that its doctrines sometimes hurt people. That’s the whole point of having the dialogue! You can’t remove that and still be having a dialogue at all, can you?” And maybe I wouldn’t even argue with that point of view. But at least let’s admit that the two lists are inherently emotionally imbalanced and that is also a fact.

A Side Note: Questions for Discussion

One interesting side note. If we can accept that “balance” is a fuzzy concept, than it naturally follows that there are multiple legitimate possible ways to think of “balance.”

Could it be that the various Mormon Blogs (disallowing wholly post Mormon ones for the moment) might actually be seeking differing forms of “balance”? Maybe we could look at Mormon Matters and W&T as “balanced by post count” while maybe BCC and T&S are balanced based on the rule that negatives out weigh positives. So (this is just a made up example to illustrate) maybe they have 5 pro posts for every con post? And therefore perhaps each type of blog has sought out its own legitimate form of “balance”?

Could you agree with this point of view? Why or why not?

5 thoughts on “Why Did You Resign (from Mormon Matters)? – The Question of “Balance”

  1. Bruce N, when discussing “balance,” you cannot consider the issue without taking into account that more than 99 percent of the world considers one point of view “true” while we consider another point of view “true.” So, right from the beginning the information that people are exposed to is “unbalanced.” To use one example, if you are a Mormon going to school in Colorado, you are likely the only Mormon kid in your class. So, as you grow up you are told repeatedly that your world view on most subjects, but specifically on religion, is wrong/crazy/intolerant, etc. Given this environment, it is a miracle that any teenagers survive to ever go on a mission, but they do. In any case, if the world really were balanced, wouldn’t it be the case that about half of the time the world would be telling Mormon youth that they were on the right side? That certainly does not happen to most Mormon youth in the world.

  2. Excellent, well thought-out post, Bruce! I think you take a healthy approach in recognizing that “balance” is subjective. What’s “balanced” for some isn’t going to be “balanced” for others—and that’s OKAY.

    I wonder a bit about your take on balance of comments, though. Sure, it’s fair to say that controversy sparks discussion more than conformity does. I think the issue goes further than that, though, and reaches into style and voice. Sometimes, “pro-LDS” posts are simplistic and pedantic. Since they’re largely “preaching to the choir,” they tend to be declarations or statements, rather than invitations to dialogue. If someone writes a post about the blessings of paying tithing, few will comment, because (a) there’s already a frequent venue for agreeing with that idea in Sunday School, and (b) it’s a simple statement of belief, rather than the beginning of a discussion. It’s ultimately “just” bearing testimony. That’s not a bad thing—it’s just not a way to spur a discussion of different views and nuances. In my personal observation, the majority of “pro-LDS” blog postings seem to fall into this category.

    There ARE another kind of “pro-LDS” posts, though. Sometimes even “simply bearing testimony” posts turn out to be deeply moving, thought-provoking reflections on how a person’s faith influences their lives. They don’t set out to “preach” or “prove” anything. The writers simply open their hearts and share themselves in a beautiful, profound, and authentic way. Even as a person with very different spiritual beliefs, I love seeing these posts. In fact, a funny thing happens when a believer truly opens their heart in this way, rather than “preaching.” The comments FLOW. Some will just express appreciation, while others will be moved to open their own hearts in a similar way. I think it’s extremely rare to see negative comments on one of these posts, because the vulnerability and authenticity is genuinely moving, regardless of the faith (or lack thereof) of the reader.

    It’s easy to spur comments by challenging the status quo and upsetting half your audience. It takes much greater mastery to open your own heart and genuinely lead others to do the same.

  3. Geoff,

    You make a really good point that I hadn’t really thought much about. (Though I’m sure I already knew it.) There is a sort of fundamental imbalance that probably all religions must face every day anyhow — especially Mormons, but really all religions.

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