I recently came across an essay one of my BYU professors shared in 1991 or 1992. As an English major at that time, BYU felt far more open-minded and heterodox than it currently does. We weren’t sure where the Church would land on various controversial topics, but progress seemed likely.
These events were in the pre-September Six time frame which occurred just after my graduation. It was in this pre-backlash moment when one of my professors (a real favorite) published an essay that I have thought about occasionally since then, with varying levels of agreement and dissatisfaction. In the essay, he makes a few central points:
- That faculty (and students!) cannot take political positions without reflecting on the university.
- That activism may be immature and wrong, but reactionary anti-activism, to squelch dissent, is worse; you can tell the approach is worse by how defensive its proponents are.
- That ignoring activists’ and minority voices contradicts our stated values of freedom, integrity and respect for truth.
POLITICAL ACTIVISM AT BYU
Where do I stand on political activism? It’s more a matter of where I sit: solidly on the fence. From here on the fence (I’m an expert fence-sitter–been here since the War in Heaven) both activists and anti-activists look wrong.
BYU political activists are wrong to assume they can take political positions without involving the university. As BYU professors and BYU students we represent not only our position but the institution’s, whether we like that or not, intend that or not. No matter how carefully we insist on our personal opinions, in public we will be allowed no private opinions. We see ourselves as ourselves first, BYU issue second, but the citizen in Orem will inevitably see us the other way around; she will rise from the television news where we have said “This is not the view of BYU” saying, “George, that woman from BYU says…”
We cannot separate ourselves from the university in the public eye unless we actually separate ourselves. I learned this lesson the practical way. When a university president attempted to curtail my God-given constitutionally-guaranteed right to political activism, I accused him of coercing me to “lie by silence.” He responded with a reminder that “there is a longstanding tradition in academia–those who disagree with the host institutions go to another institution.”
So my activism was wrong, officially wrong. But the university president’s anti-activism was wrong, too. Wrong to say “love it or leave it.” Wrong to think my opinion didn’t matter. Wrong to fail to realize any university (and certainly BYU with its enthusiasm for freedom and its urge toward integrity and its respect for truth) is not just its president, but us–all of us, students and faculty and staff and all of us.
And maybe most crucially BYU is our minority voices, our dissonant voices, our differing voices. Maybe we contribute most to each other not through our similarities, the things we already have in common, but through our differences. Maybe there must needs be opposition, and maybe that need is greater on this homogenized campus than on most. Maybe institutions grow like trees, with stable orthodox solid deadwood at the core, on the tiny periphery the crucial expansive living edge. Maybe our minority voices are not merely tolerable but vital to our BYU growth, our expansion, our repentance. And heaven knows we need repentance.
So from here on the fence it looks like we’re all wrong at BYU about political activism. Some activists among us appear irresponsible, even immature. Some anti-activists among us seem reactionary, even repressive. But I can clearly see, from this fence-sitting vantage point, who’s least wrong.
I was embarrassingly old when I realized there were other points of view about life than the one I thought was the only one. When I finally got around to asking my mother, “Which ward is the Catholic Ward?” Mom’s answer stunned me. Her revelation that people viewed the universe from other than my true and living perspective stung me to come up with a surefire key to recognize, in an unsettling world of competing perspectives, the best perspective. I think it’s a key we can agree on even though I invented it at the age of eight: Can’t we identify the truest perspective, the most accurate view, as the least defensive perspective, the position least protective of itself, most open to the truth of competing perspectives?
The measure for me of the maturity of a viewpoint and ultimately of its truthfulness is its openness, its capacity for listening to other points of view. From here on the campus fence, BYU political activists don’t do too well by that measure. Anti-activists at BYU, in their refusal to listen to activist concerns, do worse. Sometimes I wish the activists would quiet down. Maybe they could if the rest of us would listen up.SW
We certainly seem to be in another reactionary moment in the Church, and these same controversial conversations keep coming back, still without any satisfactory resolution. The potential of women in the Church feels far more limited than it did when I was a student, although there has been slow, often unacknowledged, progress. The Church’s stance on gay people is both better (in contrast to actual torture) and worse (in contrast to the freedom and potential for happiness that exists outside the Church). The racism in the Church frankly feels worse than it did at that time, although the amazing BYU Black Menaces didn’t exist back then. Sometimes activism just brings the reactive nastiness to the surface, making it hard to ignore. It was doubtless easier when I was a student to imagine that things were better than they were.
I have mixed feelings about my professor’s assertion that students represent the university in the same way I dislike the idea that individual members are obligated to represent the church. Certainly, when I took part in the anti-white supremacist rally, my motive was to represent the Church as being anti-bigotry. And yet, nobody saw Conchar Farr as speaking for the Church as a whole, just as one faithful viewpoint within the ranks. But it’s untenable to expect every individual to consider all their statements and opinions in light of the Church’s current priorities rather than their own experience and values. It renders every individual a propaganda machine.
It also makes the Church look bad when people are clearly not being real. I am reminded of a comment someone made on one of the blogs years ago. He said he wasn’t a member but was in discussion with the missionaries, and just seeing that there were Mormons having these types of discussions made him feel that it was probably a good church to join. Ahem.
Under Pres. Hinckley, the “I’m a Mormon” campaign took the opposite approach from this reactionary anti-activism crackdown, by showcasing individuals as having diverse opinions, life experiences, and trajectories. The project showed that diverse perspectives made the organization stronger and more attractive than requiring all Church members to represent the same correlated opinions and lifestyles. This made us appear far less defensive and more open-minded. Are those days gone?
The other problem I see with my professor’s assertion is that the more conservative a person is, the less likely they are to value diverse perspectives, instead giving extra weight to authority, which in our gerontocratic church tends to be reactionary and protective of the status quo. Expecting those who don’t find the status quo satisfactory or even consistent with the gospel to shut up and toe the party line is to exchange the gospel for a cult of (conservative) leadership; Jesus was a revolutionary, not a reactionary.
Additionally, my professor’s description of activists as “immature” feels like a simple generational tug-of-war. It’s entirely possible to be elderly and immature. As the old adage goes, you can have ten years of experience and wisdom or ten individual years of reliving the same experience without growing, which further crystallizes your existing opinions and conclusions. Are some still fighting battles they lost when they were young? The fact that BYU still equates beards with the sexual revolution is telling.
Leaving one’s Church is easier the younger one is, and if the rising generation isn’t understood and can’t influence the direction of our Church, they will not want to inherit it. If we conflate the Church with the opinions of the elderly and excoriate the twenty-somethings for their idealism as if it’s a sin, we might as well write the obituary for our religion now.
- Is it fair / wise to expect all Church members (and BYU students) to temper their words and actions as a reflection of the Church? Why or why not?
- Do you agree with my professor that the least defensive perspective is the least wrong?
- How do we increase our willingness to listen to other perspectives? Are church members only willing to listen when opinions are backed by leaders?
- Is the Church progressing and growing over time or is it relitigating the past?
- What does the Church call activism? Is their definition the same as yours?