I have, for the most part, tried to publicly stay out of the raging debate about last year’s controversy at the Maxwell Institute. The one blog post I made (at the time) on the subject avoided making any judgments about the decision, or speculating on the many details. In the other blog post I made six months later, I also avoided making any kind of judgment on the decision made at the Maxwell Institute. I have, instead, focused my limited public comments to responding to what others have been saying about the whole hullabaloo (in the first: what others were saying a the paper in the second: what others were saying about Dan Peterson), and I intend to continue that trend today.
A number of developments have unfolded over the last 3 ½ months or so since I commented. The paper written by Greg Smith has been publicly circulated by the Interpreter Foundation, and the Maxwell Institute has announced its new editorial leadership of the Mormon Studies Review and tried to articulate its new direction. It looks promising, but I’m still taking the “wait and see” approach. I am very interested to see how this all unfolds. But, none of those are what I would like to comment on.
Instead, my attention was caught by something called the 100 hour board. This is a board for and run by BYU students, and only students. The idea is that you can post a question on anything at all, and one of the official “answerers” (not sure what else to call them) will respond to your question within 100 hours. This board recently fielded a question about this controversy. The answer was given by one going by the screen name “Waldorf and Sauron,” and was, for the most part, quite good. After his/her formal answer, however, W&S went into some “editorializing” which is, in my view, not well informed and thus a disservice to the questioner and others who frequent the board. Though I did comment on this on the board, it appears that the 100 hour board has no intent of publishing my comment or making any corrections to its answer based on the information I gave them, so I am going public, as it is called in presidential politics. The following are a few of my thoughts.
While, as I said, the answer itself is fairly good and informative, I did have one quibble with the middle sentence (bolded by me) of this paragraph:
Rumors spread in the Bloggernacle that John Dehlin had not only intervened to get a negative article about him canned, but also had contributed to the demise of the Mormon Studies Review. Speculative posts like this this this popped up but no one had actually been able to read the article in question. No one is still entirely sure what happened inside the church leadership hierarchy to suppress the review, nor to what extent that incident connected to the firing of Daniel Peterson.
My issue here is that I am the third “this” in that sentence, and while I appreciate the publicity, I want to go on record as saying that that sentence does not actually reflect the nature of my blog post at all. While I briefly sketched what could be known about the controversial events at the time, I deliberately avoided going beyond the indisputable facts on the matter. What I did choose to comment on more extensively was the nature of the Greg Smith paper, but none of that was speculative for me. I had already read the paper. Yes, you read that right. As of June 29, 2012 I had in fact seen and read (about 80% of) a draft of Greg Smith’s paper, but at the time I was not at liberty to disclose this. Shortly after the controversy had sprung I had emailed Greg Smith asking if he would be willing to let me see a copy of the paper, to which he graciously obliged under the condition that I not spread the word around. And I am not the only advanced reader. A small handful of persons at that time had also been privileged to read the paper, contra W&S’s assertion that “no one had actually been able to read the article in question.” I had read it, and I frankly would not have been commenting on its contents otherwise, as I prefer to avoid being party to the spread of rumor and hearsay.
Anyway, that is enough about me and my minor quibble about how my work was described. Onto the “editorializing.”
Poorly Written, Intellectually Dishonest Editorializing
The editorial portion of the response opens with the frank statement that the article is “absolutely a hit piece,” and it is a “poorly written and intellectually dishonest one” to boot. Smith is said to have used “only negative examples ripped from their historical context” and “entirely glossing over Dehlin’s equally-frequent expressions of faith and promotion of pro-LDS writers and thinkers.”
Without any quantitative data, one can’t really say whether or not Dehlin’s appeals to pro-LDS people and expressions of faith are “equally-frequent” to his expressions of doubt and promotions of critics. But, as someone who has been paying attention to Dehlin from a distance for about 3 years or so, I would say in my view that the expressions of doubt and promotion of critics has been decidedly more frequent than the opposite. But that is really just an aside to the point I would like to make.
More to the point I would like to make is the false dichotomy upon which these sorts of criticisms rest. Many who have commented on the events have made the assumption, at least implicitly; that the review is either a balanced, fair, objective review of Dehlin and his activities with Mormon Stories that presents the whole of the man and the enterprise, or it is a one-sided, slanderous, character assassination. I am here to tell you – and you might want to sit down for this – that the paper is neither.
I know, earth shattering, right? What the paper really is has been grossly and hopelessly overshadowed by all the hype about what everyone else says it is, even before they saw the paper. As a result, when it was finally released, most people went and read it and found in it what they were expecting to see. If they had been told, and believed, that it was a hit piece, they saw a hit piece in every word. If they had been told, and believed, it was a fair and objective review, they saw a fair and objective review. Few, if any, got to read the paper without such preconceived notions in their head.
Now, just what is the paper? Well it is a review, and it adopts a certain framework, or paradigm if you will, from which to review Dehlin’s activities with Mormon Stories. In this case, that framework is the sociological study of “leave takers” or “apostates,” taking Dehlin as a sort of case study, given that his leave-taking process and waffling on matters of faith have been uniquely public. It also considers the role Dehlin potentially fills as secular exit counselor for other leave-takers. In that light, Smith’s review focuses on the information most relevant to that point. So, if by “negative” people mean information that portrays doubt and dissatisfaction, then yes, Smith’s review focuses on such, and naturally does not focus on other aspects that fall outside that framework. (This begs the question, however, why is such inherently considered negative?)
Furthermore, the review does mention, albeit briefly, the some of the pro-LDS work Dehlin has done and the expressions of faith he has made, but does so in a way that focuses on how Dehlin used those promotionally to gain the trust of active but struggling members. This fits the paradigm of Dehlin as an exit counselor who is thus trying to gain the confidence of those whom he perceives as needing his help. Smith also talks about other things Dehlin did to build an LDS friendly image in order to reach a certain audience – all part of gaining trust of those he would like to help. This is where my commentary from June about latent vs. preferred text comes in. Though Smith does not use that terminology, he makes the case that in trying to build trust with struggling yet believing members, Dehlin crafted a preferred text (or explicit message) of pro-LDS, faith building, “open” discussion, all the while having a latent text (or implicit message) which was decidedly against the Church.
None of this is too say there was no apologetic intent – I think there was. That intent was to raise awareness of Dehlin’s agenda as an “exit counselor” helping people out of the Church, thus preventing Dehlin from further misleading, as Smith perceives it, struggling members who desire to maintain faith.
Now, one certainly could critique Smith’s attempt at this framework, argue that he is misusing the sociology, argue that the whole paradigm in the wrong lens to use in the first place, critique his methodology, his selection and arrangement of evidence, or even argue that his motive was misguided, etc, etc. And I, for one, would welcome just such a response and critique. But that has not been forth-coming, so far as I can tell, and it never will until people start looking past this silly either-or fallacy and start seeing the paper for what it really is trying to do. W&S utterly fails at this and falls right into the false dichotomy.
The Irony of Character Assassination
After spewing a few more sentences – which ironically are loaded with epithets and derogatory rhetoric – about how awful Smith’s review is, W&S then takes a dig at Smith’s qualifications. Smith was “never trained as a historian, media critic, sociologist, religious studies scholar, or any sort of scholar at all — he’s a Family Practice medical doctor who apparently never finished his Bachelor's degree. Smith was just entirely over his head here, and didn’t have the methodology or experience to do justice to such a project.” And this is W&S supposedly cutting Smith some slack.
So Smith is just a poor, stupid MD who is way in over his head. The truth is, Smith was in an honors undergrad program which he left after getting into grad school without a degree – something that is considered a distinction, not an embarrassment. Doing it required that Smith have better grades and better references than the other kids in this class. Despite not finishing the bachelors program he was in, he does have a bachelors degree (awarded to medical students who did not finish theirs, if they complete certain prerequisites), and he has done graduate level course work in physiology research methods. In my own personal interactions with Smith, I have found him to be both intelligent and erudite. I have also found him to be extremely well read, on a variety of topics, including history, social criticism, sociology, and religious studies. He may not be an academic with full academic training on such topics, but I would consider him an adequately informed layperson for a project like the one he undertook.
One must wonder what the qualifications of this anonymous student are for judging such work. More to the point, though, is just the pure irony I see in W&S’s blatant character assassination of Smith during an editorial about how Smith engaged in character assassination.
I, for one, really wish this would all fade to black already. More than anything, I really wish uninformed people would stop “editorializing” about it. If Waldorf and Sauron had simply left his/her answer as it was before the editorialization, I would have found it to be a fair and decent summary of events. Unfortunately, he/she decided to go beyond that, making a series of arguments by assertion (providing no evidence) and making some unfair statements about Smith’s qualifications and background. In doing so, W&S did a major disservice, in my view, to those who are trying to sort this mess out.