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Ideological Isolation

I watched a television series called Boy Meets World when I was younger.  I've been catching some reruns here and there recently.  One character I had completely forgotten about was a bully, with his two cronies.  The cronies are sniveling yes men who do whatever the bully tells them to do.  Of course, these three are a caricature, but this phenomenon happens all the time in real life.  Seeing an example of it in a thread on Facebook this morning is what sparked this post.

I was talking to my students the other day about race problems.  It's a topic I like to discuss with them, to get their perspective on the issues.  One of them mentioned white privilege.  I pointed out that one of the dangers of white privilege is that we white people don't feel privileged--at least, not always.  More often than not, a privileged member of a society does not feel that ey is privileged, rather ey feels like a normal member of the society and that everyone roughly has more or less the same life as ey experiences.  I don't notice that I'm less likely than a black person to be arrested or pulled over or sentenced to decades in prison.  It's not something I think about on a regular basis.  And I wouldn't even know if it weren't for statistics to show that it's true.

It feels really good when I make a post on Facebook and my friends start complimenting me on it.  I say something clever or insightful or witty and I get friends who say how clever or insightful or witty it was.  They praise me for it, they voice their agreement of it.  It feels great.  I love it.  I'm grateful for their words of support.  But there are times when it scares me--when I take a step back and realize how dangerous that can be.  I assume that in most cases, these friends are being sincere and just want to relate with me in a positive, friendly way, and really do feel like I'm saying something worthy of the praise.  But I know the effects that such praise can have.  I've seen it.  I've seen it in church and I've seen it as an atheist.  I've seen it in many places.  That kind of ideological isolation is what led W to believe that there were WMD's in Iraq and that invasion would be the best option.

How does it work?  It's a natural part of our biology.  It's who we are.  We have evolved the trait of cronyism.  We have survived as a species, in part, because of our ability to form alliances with other humans and to build close-knit social structures with them.  We need to be able to trust people, but we need a reason to trust them.  We trust people who gain our favor--people who make us feel good.  We trust people who are similar and distrust those who are different.

Why is it bad?  It causes disharmony.  When I was a Mormon, I often heard disparaging things about people with differing beliefs.  Often people would talk about how misguided the Catholics or Jews or Baptists were.  People would say bad things about non-believers.  Being part of the community, I often joined in and made my own disparaging remarks.  Nearly ever testimony borne on Fast Sunday included an assertion that the LDS church is "the one true church on the face of the Earth."

I see it among the irreligious as well.  People become so jaded against religion that they despise anyone who asserts any religious belief at all.  The comment I read this morning was "Am I the only one that is sick of pandering to delusional lunatics?"  This is not uncommon.  It isn't representative of atheists, but it certainly isn't unheard of.  Sadly, it's much easier to dismiss all religious people as lunatics or imbeciles than to admit that intelligent, rational adults can believe in supernatural beings and powers.

I believe this is the true danger of ideological isolation.  One becomes more and more radical until the point where anyone who differs is completely dehumanized.  Christians see atheists as heathen sinners worthy of eternal fire and brimstone.  Atheists see believers as schizophrenic, frenzied witches foaming and frothing at the mouth.

A friend sent me an article from Jeffrey R Holland, one of the apostles of the LDS church.   I have noticed that I've often felt a distaste at hearing or reading about Mormon beliefs or words from Mormon leaders.  Sometimes this distaste was so strong as to prevent me from reading their words at all, to simply dismiss it all as garbage.  I read this article because my friend asked me to.  I admit that I skimmed through many parts of it, but at least I did get the general idea of the message conveyed.  I found that reading it revived many memories and feelings I had while I was Mormon.  I remembered why these words were so valuable and dear to me as a Mormon.  I remembered the reverence I held for the words of the prophets and apostles back when I was a believer.

Why is this significant?  I have been in several different groups of ex-Mormons.  There are some differences, some are more civil than others, but in most of these groups, there is a lot of Mormon-bashing going on.  It's understandable.  People are venting their anger and frustrations toward a church that has wronged them in some way or other.  I understand.  But I see the danger.  I see the vitriol.  I see the poison.  It doesn't have a healing effect.  It has the opposite effect.  Some of these people have been ex-Mormon for decades and are still violently bitter about it.  They haven't calmed down and recovered from their hurt, if anything they've only become more bitter and hurt over it.  The LDS church leaders are painted as villains, out to fool anyone blind enough to fall for their evil plan.

That's the point of ideological isolation.  You must isolate yourself because your views have become so radical that to any outsider, they're completely laughable.  Mormons hide many of their doctrines from outsiders, using the phrase "milk before meat" when teaching people about the church as an excuse to hide their more bizarre beliefs from those who know little about the church.  I don't want that.  I don't want to be protected by people who believe what I believe so I can continue to believe it.  I need to be exposed to people who believe differently so I can question and challenge my own beliefs.

It's not easy.  I hate people telling me I'm wrong.  I hate being proven wrong.  I hate being wrong.  I get angry when someone disagrees with me.  It often becomes personal and emotional.  It feels awful.  But I need it.  I acknowledge the value of it.  I know that most of what I've learned in life is because I have been offended by someone telling me I'm wrong.  In fact, this very thing happened in my introduction to proofs class at BYU, my freshman year of college.  My instructor taught us about countability.  He went through the proof that the set of rational numbers is countable and then Cantor's diagonalization argument to show that the set of real numbers is uncountable.  I was furious.  How could there be more than one infinity?  I set out on a quest to prove my teacher wrong.  This anger is what led to my eventual understanding of the concept, and I used this knowledge of cardinal numbers in my PhD dissertation.  It made me a better person.  If I had remained unexposed to ideas that I felt were threatening, I never would have been able to graduate even with a BS in math.

What I need to learn is how to take criticism.  I need to learn how to disagree with someone without being unkind to them.  I need to learn how to expose myself to differing viewpoints and new ideas.  I need to understand the thoughts and feelings of my "opponents".  And I need to stop thinking of them as opponents.  I need allies who tell me when I'm wrong.

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