…There was a debate, in the late 1800s, about whether “imagination” was simply a turn of phrase or a real phenomenon. That is, can people actually create images in their minds which they see vividly, or do they simply say “I saw it in my mind” as a metaphor for considering what it looked like?

Upon hearing this, my response was “How the stars was this actually a real debate? Of course we have mental imagery. Anyone who doesn’t think we have mental imagery is either such a fanatical Behaviorist that she doubts the evidence of her own senses, or simply insane.” Unfortunately, the professor was able to parade a long list of famous people who denied mental imagery, including some leading scientists of the era. And this was all before Behaviorism even existed.

The debate was resolved by Francis Galton, a fascinating man who among other achievements invented eugenics, the “wisdom of crowds”, and standard deviation. Galton gave people some very detailed surveys, and found that some people did have mental imagery and others didn’t. The ones who did had simply assumed everyone did, and the ones who didn’t had simply assumed everyone didn’t, to the point of coming up with absurd justifications for why they were lying or misunderstanding the question. There was a wide spectrum of imaging ability, from about five percent of people with perfect eidetic imagery to three percent of people completely unable to form mental images.

Dr. Berman dubbed this the Typical Mind Fallacy: the human tendency to believe that one’s own mental structure can be generalized to apply to everyone else’s.

via LessWrong.com.

Of everything I ever read in high school or junior high, my favorite passage was a selection from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life that was used as a selection for an AP English test section. Here’s just a tidbit:

The written word is weak. Many people prefer life to it. Life gets your blood going, and it smells good…this writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else. An ordinary reader picking up a book can’t yet hear a thing; it will take half an hour to pick up a writing’s modulations, its ups and downs and louds and softs.

When I read that passage, I felt, for the first time in my life, like someone really understood my troubled relationship with reading. For, growing up in honors, gifted and talented, AP, and other classes for supposedly promising students, I felt that there was this emphasis on having a love of reading that I simply didn’t have. Give me a video game over a book any day, I thought.

Mountain Summit

But Annie! She understood that how anemic the written word is! Visual media…movies, television, video games, and things like that…they can ensnare an individual immediately…but one doesn’t “fall” into the written word. Instead, they have to climb up and over a rocky summit and then rappel back down into the valley depths waiting beyond. And the only gear one has in this pursuit is a frayed rope…a tenuous connection threatening to give with any outside push.

Eventually, after having discussed this passage with others (who were not quite as enamored with it as I was), I thought — rogue thought that it was — that perhaps others simply experienced books and the written word in a different way than I did. Whereas I don’t “see” much of anything, no matter how much descriptive prose the writer etches into the face of the cliff to serve as grabbing ledges for the imagination, perhaps others simply were better equipped to scale the mountain?

Although I wouldn’t have a name for it until years later, I now realize that I had fallen prey to the Typical Mind Fallacy.

Why does this happen?

Inverted QualiaI think that on a day-to-day basis, we don’t spend too much time thinking about how differently others could perceive the world. (There I go…with that “we” language. Maybe I should be ok with admitting that it’s I who wants to think that my experiences are relatable to others. For the sake of this discussion, though, let’s just pretend that this applies to all of us, OK?) Since we have our own lens (and many times, we don’t recognize that it is there…we take for granted that what we see is what actually exists), we don’t recognize that our lenses may be peculiar to us.

But even when we do get to thinking about it, I think that we fundamentally want to believe that we are all the same. Or, at the very least, we want to believe that our subjectivities are normal, representative, or relatable. That the thing that you would recognize as “red” is also the thing I would recognize as red. But this isn’t just an assumption we want to make about our inner subjectivities. We want to think that our experiences are relatable to others.

What does this have to do with Mormonism?

One trend I’ve noticed recently is this trend of people asserting their experiencing of Mormonism as being more valid or authentic a representation of Mormonism than some other representation. What I’ve noticed is that it usually happens in couplets…some article in the media will come out, typecasting Mormon one way…and in response, various individuals will respond with their own characterization of Mormonism. For a recent example, take Ian Williams’ piece in the New York Times Room for Debate. Therein, he asserts:

[Mormons’] much-vaunted “worldliness” comes from the missionary program, but when the missionaries go to Brazil, Angola or New Paltz, N.Y., they experience those places wholly through the prism of religious conversion. They are there to spread gospel and baptize, not to revel in local custom. In many cases, Mormons see the world, but they don’t get it.

To this commentary, James Goldberg responded by asking whose world is realer?

Because of my church, I’ve seen [the world] up close. I’ve helped struggling people in two continents move out of apartments due to all sorts of crises, from crooked landlords to persistent gunshots at night to serious vandalism by drug-addicted friends. I’ve eaten in homes where the first language has been Spanish, Navajo, Telegu. Where it’s been German, Turkish, Portuguese, Russian, Marathi, Farsi, French.

And no, I wasn’t following the news when I was a missionary in the former East Germany, and I never went out clubbing or whatever people do in your world to get to know the locals on a European trip. But I’ve sat in an old woman’s apartment and listened to her struggle to make sense of what she remembers feeling when she saw Hitler at a rally in her youth. “He was like a god to us then,” she said, “like a god.” And I’ve been cooked meals by women who served in that war, and who can never forget the hunger they felt as the war dragged on and ended with near chaos in its wake, some of whom walked for hundreds of miles from confiscated homes toward uncertain futures. I’ve learned by experience how to recognize someone who won’t feel right unless you eat every last scrap on the plate. And learned deep respect for the endurance of the old.

(Definitely check out the link for more.)

What’s interesting about Ian’s post and James’s response isn’t just that the two individuals see very different sorts of things as comprising the “real world,” but that the two see very different sorts of things as comprising Mormonism. For Ian, Mormonism is stifling and naive…while for James, Mormonism is eye-opening and gritty.

Fundamentally, James’s and Ian’s characterizations aren’t new. The dance between people like Ian and people like James’s positions on Mormonism is as old as the religion itself. Not to go too far back in history, however, just last week I was contrasting Carrie Sheffield’s Mormonism with Carl Cranney’s Mormonism, but even they weren’t the first to go through this pattern.

Most importantly, these aren’t isolated to a few individuals. As you’ve read the characterizations of the church from the various links in this article, you may have found yourself agreeing with one and disagreeing with its counterpart, based on your own experience with the church.

Joanna Brooks
Can Joanna Brooks, the media's most popular Mormon, even accurately portray Mormonism?

A while back, Joanna Brooks had a big story with Belief Blogs for CNN. If you’ve ever seen or heard Joanna via her involvement with Mormon Matters podcast, her blogging at Ask Mormon Girl, Religion Dispatches, or Feminist Mormon Housewives, then much of her story and position as reported in the CNN article shouldn’t be new to you, but I was intrigued by a comment that Ralph Hancock was quoted in the article for:

Who she is and what she believes rankles Ralph Hancock, a political science professor at BYU who’s taken her on in an LDS blog review called The Bulwark. Simply put, he says in an e-mail, “Joanna thinks or assumes that Mormonism is compatible with (or intrinsically drawn toward?) a contemporary liberal-progressive agenda – and I think not.”

The thing is…Hancock isn’t the only one who thinks that Joanna Brooks is mistaken when she lives a Mormonism that seems resistant or anathema to her liberal-progressive politics. Disaffected and ex-Mormons also often find issue with Joanna’s approach, as forum posts and Facebook comments revealed. As caedmon at PostMormon wrote:

She writes about (and believes?) in a Mormonism that doesn’t really exist.  Like other new-order mormons she wants there to be a big-tent Mormonism, a safe place for questions and doubts.  But that is not Mormonism as it truly is.

She can pretend it is because she isn’t married to a Mormon priesthood holder, has a career, and doesn’t live in the morridor where every move is watched by the overlords who are ready to jerk you back into line.

Also like many other new-order mormons she seems to know about many of the troubling issues but refuses to look over the edge at the conclusions.

Even if the orgnization she wants Mormonism to be existed, it still wouldn’t be ‘true’.

Today’s Questions

  1. What is Mormonism “as it truly is”? To what extent do you recognize that your answer to this question says more about you than it does about Mormonism?
  2. Why do different people come to have different understandings of what Mormonism at its core is?
  3. What would you like others to recognize Mormonism as?
  4. How would you go about showing those others that Mormonism is like that (whatever “that” is)?
  5. Earlier, Hawkgrrrrl introduced a metaphor comparing the church to a diet. One point that came out through that discussion was that, as with diets, the church might work for some, but not for others — and there often is tension between our individual experience and others’ competing experiences. Do you take into consideration that your experiencing of Mormonism simply may not be how others experience it…how does that play into how you practice the religion?