My discussion of the debate between Stephen Smoot and Heartlander Johnathan Neville prompted a discussion of another topic in the comments that I want to expound upon here. The myth of the traditional apologetic style has been around for a long time. I’ve never seen examples of this style. What I have seen is the usual inter group dynamics on both sides of the debate that can be found in politics, sports, military units, and even debates about television. Labeling one side of the debate as mean when both are similar in behavior also shows an astounding double standard.
First the double standard: Years ago William Hamblin was very upset with the new direction of the Maxwell Institute and made some criticisms of Ben Park. The watch dogs of FARMS attack dogs erupted with disdain and jeering for more of the “traditional style” and mean apologetics that was damaging to a junior scholar and tried to make him lose his job.
Yet I found a similar example with the situation reversed. A short time later David Bokovoy sided with the MI people supposedly under attack. In his defense he specifically called out Stephen Smoot among others in harsh terms. Instead of saying it was unwise, mean, or nasty for a senior scholar to call out a junior scholar, and the potential damage it could do to his career, the same people that criticized Hamblin praised Bokovoy for speaking truth to power and unmasking the evil apologists. Both individuals were criticizing someone’s behavior, but when it was done by the supposedly superior new direction folks it was brave and praise worthy but when done by Peterson, Hamblin or Smoot, it was mean and nasty.
The myth of the mean Dan Peterson and old school apologists has grown into an article of faith in some circles. I’m not defending every interaction he or they’ve ever had, or every article they have ever written or published, but I believe this myth of an arching style is unfairly attached to them. Proponents of the attack style might point to Ralph Hancock’s words when he defended “sharpness of tone,” “irony,” and “measured indignation” (Perspectives on Mormon Theology: Apologetics, p. 98.) I’m not denying those styles exist, but I am saying that for whatever behavior you criticize about FARMS you can find the same or similar behavior on the other side.
The Interpreter writes negative reviews of books as does the new direction Maxwell Institute. Both sides have rolled their eyes at the other and disagree about methods. I have personal correspondence that includes petty behavior from the supposedly superior new direction folks. I’ve been asked gotcha questions at conferences by new direction folks and it went without comment. When Hamblin and Gee asked a difficult question, it became another example of the mean FARMS people. In one nasty incident, a new direction individual literally got in the face of an old school apologist at a conference and told him to go to hell.
The behavior seen on both sides is a result of group and inters group dynamics that include several factors. It is common to view “the other” as a monolith group that is different, mean, stupid, and then view every interaction through that filter. This has especial value in political discussions and I’m sure the readers of this post are ready to jump in the comments with their examples of mopologists. The discussion among groups of like minded individuals often uses a short hand and simplistic view of opponent’s beliefs and mocks them. Sometimes people who are normally kind and decent get stuck in the mire of online debates, having a bad day, and in many cases the individuals are behaving less than their better selves. When these less than stellar behaviors are coupled with inter-group dynamics the behaviors are more easily seen in the other side and furthers divides the two. This happens even though their behavior in incredibly similar. Historian Richard Hofstader pointed out this ironic fact in his classic essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, pointed out how opposition groups often become what they oppose. “The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy.” But the FARMS people are mean and nasty and we poop rainbows.
This post isn’t an attempt to categorize every interaction and the entire groups and sub groups of scholars, critics, and interested individuals. As churchistrue can testify, trying to categorize people can get messy very quickly. Personally I have no problems with either side. I’ve submitted to both the new direction Maxwell Institute and Interpreter, and I’ve published several pieces with the latter. I’m very proud to publish with an organization that still cares about the AR and not just the MS part of FARMS. And that’s why I think it was created, not so it can continue to be “mean” and “nasty.” I can’t speak for every publication of course, and there was one piece by Duane Boyce that had a multitude of serious issues, but even that doesn’t reflect or prove the myth of mean and nasty apologists. (Ironically enough, I really liked his book so even his case isn’t simple.)
In conclusion, I think the behavior of various groups within, outside, and about Mormonism are closer in behavior than many think. I think that because of incredibly specific examples of behavior I’ve seen from both sides, but also because of what I’ve seen around the internet in debates about every subject, and because of what I’ve gathered about group dynamics. This post isn’t an invitation to discuss that one time (or many) an apologist was mean to you, or to express your disdain for Dan Peterson, but to offer a thoughtful reconsideration of common ideas.