Community Voices: The Dictates of Our Own Conscience

“We claim the privilege of worshipping almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” (11th Article of Faith)

Three vignettes in no particular order.

===

Priesthood meeting on Sunday started on an odd note when the instructor told us to gather our chairs in a circle. Long tradition held that the chairs remain in the six long rows used for opening exercises there in the cultural hall, and that the 8-15 elders who stayed for quorum meeting spread out in those rows according to the dictates of their own conscience.

My conscience demands that I sit near the back where I can read on my iPod, read my lesson manual, or read my book (currently Rough Stone Rolling) without drawing anyone’s attention. I’m listening carefully, but I also get a little fidgety if I don’t have something else to do while I listen. I try not to talk much because I tend to run on at the mouth, then feel bad for being a blowhard.

I also tend to quip quietly to myself about what the teacher says. It’s not heckling–I don’t intend to be heard by anyone except myself and those sitting very close by–but it is usually responsive, if tangential, to the lesson. It’s a bad habit I picked up years ago and have never been able to consistently rid myself of. I literally think out loud, with the effect that I mutter nearly constantly in response to the teacher’s points.

So it was with more than a touch of trepidation that I grabbed my chair (second to last row, second seat from the far right end) and sat in the circle next to the quorum president and just off-center.

The instructor promptly began speculating on the literal age of the earth and the question of organic evolution. He moved on to wondering if the earth was created before or after the council in heaven, then segued on to whether Eve was more righteous than Adam in the Garden of Eden because she followed the greater commandment after Adam refused.

Not surprisingly, I kept us a fairly constant externally evident internal monologue throughout–a fact that the teacher noted and called on me regularly to express more loudly, that the quorum president answered in muttered quips on my left, and that seemed to amuse the brother on my right.

Eventually, the instructor pointed out that we had little hard doctrine on any of those questions, but that there was a great deal of speculation on all of them. He recommended that we study, discuss, and pray for greater understanding, but that we also understand that the answers may not have direct or meaningful relevance to our individual concerns.

I liked the lesson. A lot. But I still plan to sit near the back and off to one side next week. I will still mutter throughout the lesson. But maybe I’ll leave the book in my bag just this once; I didn’t read a single word last week, yet the lesson still seemed full and interesting. My conscience dictates that I at least try to pay full attention next time–and maybe even speak out loud once or twice.

===

Tuesday was political caucus day throughout my state. Both Republicans and Democrats meet at the same elementary school in my area, so it’s not uncommon for someone to get lost and end up in the wrong room. (In a fun twist, the Democrats turned to the right at the front door and Republicans turned to the left.)

I ended up sitting in the back chatting with an older gentleman who knew he was in the wrong room, but chose to stay anyway. He explained his theories on how to stop illegal immigration by salting a five-mile wide strip along the border with Mexico with high-level nuclear waste, how we should use retinal scans as lie detectors in airports to stop brown people (male, aged 25-40) from flying without direct challenge, and how he wasn’t nearly dishonest enough to actually run for public office.

I don’t really agree with much of anything that gentleman said, but I do appreciate that we have regular political caucuses where we actively encourage people to get together and express themselves according to the dictates of their own consciences. I also appreciated that no one felt the need to argue, shout, or otherwise tamp down this gentleman’s free expression. When he finished he simply got up and left as the rest of us went about the business of the caucus.

Maybe he was looking for a fight and left disappointed. Perhaps we did him a disservice by not offering vigorous debate. But none of us could think of anything to say, so we remained silent. I’m still not sure that was the right approach, but I’m also not convinced there was a useful alternative.

I need to think about that one some more…

===

Over the years on various AML forums I’ve been fairly roundly criticized from various quarters for failing to offer firm statements of belief about literary schools, genre selections, questions of artistic merit, authorial honesty, and other elements. I suppose that makes me wishy washy or indistinct, except that I have very specific opinions and beliefs about all of those things.

Perhaps I should be bolder in making pronouncements about those sorts of things, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why. Ultimately, I think most of those ideas are subjective and few such pronouncements would be relevant to how I pursue the dictates of my own conscience in art, in politics, in questions of doctrine, or in issues of expression.

Which hasn’t kept me from bloviating at length about any number of topics. But I do work to keep the conversation going as much as possible. I withhold more aggressive statements not out of a fear of offending or a lack of opinion, but out of a sense that I seem to shut down more conversations with my opinions than I seem to encourage. And I consider that a shame, because the primary point of forums like this one is to hear a diverse set of views from a wide variety of voices.

So it’s been more that a bit disappointing over the last few weeks to see so little participation here, and so little conversation arising out of some truly interesting ideas expressed in some wonderful voices.

Maybe we’re too polite for our own good. Maybe we’re afraid of offending. Maybe we’re just trying to sit back to allow room for others to speak. Whatever the case, the relative silence is nowhere near as interesting, informative, entertaining, or instructive as a good, boisterous discussion. Better impolite but active than silently kind–at least in this forum.

We claim the privilege of engaging ideas, schools, esthetics, markets, and literary methodologies according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow (mayhaps even demand) others the same privilege, let them express how, where, or what they may.

Please do so. It’s okay…I promise.

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17 Responses to Community Voices: The Dictates of Our Own Conscience

  1. Ed Snow says:

    I think the main reason we love J. Golden Kimball so much is not that he cursed (of course I love him for that) but that he was unafraid of being himself and saying what he thought. He lived in a day when everyone knew him and his family, so there was no suspicion cast on his actions, no matter how unorthodox or salty.

    Today, especially online, we are a transient group and don’t really know each other except through through our disembodied voices primarily. This causes us to often mistrust each other and misunderstand each other. No one can see our body language (emoticons just don’t cut it) and understand that even though we vehemently disagree, we’re still loyal to each other, or at least to the ideals of Mormon letters. I think this causes conflict and constrains dialogue, but we should be unafraid and trust that others will "get us" eventually if we continue to participate.

  2. Th. says:

    .

    Well said.

    I think that anyone’s presence on this forum can be taken as evidence of good faith.

  3. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Maybe too many of us are like the people at your caucus, Scott. We can’t think of anything to say in response.

    Or maybe we just can’t think of anything to add.

  4. Th. says:

    .

    Or maybe we don’t speak English.

  5. Ed Snow says:

    Is it possible that the blog needs more branding, more exposure, more self-promotion? How many AML members are there? I know this blog has been announced to the membership via email, etc. Is it possible that the AML core responds to Irreantum and the creative writing and lit crit in that publication, but not the informal writing and criticism here, much in the way that Woody Allen wouldn’t pay attention to an amateur blogger, but will take notice when A.O. Scott writes up his movie in the Sunday NYTimes? Or perhaps our topics are not popular/controversial enough in the Bloggernacle to get someone motivitated to comment?

  6. Moriah Jovan says:

    One "set" of things that hinders me is 1) lack of time, 2) lack of interest in any one post, 3) lack of background knowledge. I’m not versed in Mormon letters. I’m here to hang out with other LDS writers and maybe learn something (albeit haphazardly) and maybe, if I think I can contribute, to do that too.

    Another thing is that this is somebody else’s playground. I cut my forum/message board teeth in Usenet, which is an open playground and can get really brutal. Even after all these years, I’m still adjusting to the kinder, gentler nature of blogs and a lot of PHP/UBB-type forums, which are owned by someone and moderation ensues. I try to respect that as if I were going into someone else’s house, and if I think I’m getting too Usenet-y, or suspect I could get too Usenet-y, I’ll pull back or pull completely out of the conversation.

    The last thing I find is that on a lot of blogs, the conversation shuts down when someone declares their opinion as fact, never giving any thought to someone else’s experience and/or worldview, and then that person doesn’t stick around to discuss it. When/if the other experience/worldview is expressed, nothing is forthcoming saying, "Oh, okay, I get it. I don’t agree, but I see what you’re saying" or some such thing. Conversation just stops when the disagreement has occurred.

    Is this too nice? I don’t know. Sometimes it says to me that people are not willing to READ someone else’s opinion much less think about it and discuss it. And sometimes it says to me that people have busy lives and forgot they commented. I do that all the time, and sometimes I go away for a while and think about it and then come back, but a lot of time has elapsed and so it doesn’t seem relevant anymore.

  7. Mark Brown says:

    The line between engaged, thoughtful, honest conversation about a meaningful topic and an obnoxious, flame-war/pissing contest should be pretty clear but online, it so rarely is. One man’s vigorous debate is another person’s angry fight. The earlier comments about not being able to see body language, hear a tone of voice, etc. were right on.

    I’ve appreciated how much more civil the conversations have been here than they were toward the end of my involvement with the AML listserv. (I eventually just unsubscribed because there was so little meaningful conversation and so much angry sniping.) Yes, sometimes there’s a lack of comments on certain posts here but I think it has more to do with some of the things Moriah mentioned – a lack of time, a lack of knowledge about a given topic, or just a plain ol’ lack of interest in the subject.

    Plus, I don’t think there are really that many of us here. AML isn’t that big and the number of those actively participating online is smaller still. This is totally a guess but I’d figure we’ve got less than twenty active readers/participants here – and that’s including the perma-bloggers. It’s not a lot of people but, as with so many things, I think quality matters more than quantity. And the quality of writing and thought here is very high. I’d put it against any other blog of its sort anywhere.

    I’m sure it’s frustrating for posters to not get much feedback sometimes but that’s the writer’s life. Sometimes you kill, sometimes you don’t. You post again when it’s your turn and perhaps that’s the time you strike a nerve. Who knows.

    All I know for sure is, I’m glad this blog is here. I check it several times a week for updates and I’m always happy when there’s something new to read and think about.

  8. Kathleen Woodbury says:

    One thing you can do to stay in a conversation on the AML blog is to be sure to check the "notify me when new comments are added" space below the reply textbox–every time you comment–just to make sure.

    You’ll receive an email that tells you what has been said in the conversation along with a link back to it, and that makes it easier to come back and say more.

  9. Melinda W. says:

    I read all the posts, but I don’t comment much because I don’t feel like I have much credibility since I haven’t published anything (yet). And frankly, some of the finer points go over my head. I guess that’s another way of saying I lack background knowledge to participate in some of the discussions.

    Have you gotten this blog listed at some of the LDS blog aggregators, like Mormon Archipelago (http://www.ldsblogs.org/) and Mormon Blogs (http://mormonblogs.org/)? Or perhaps do some guest posting exchanges with places like A Motley Vision or By Common Consent. That might let more people know about the AML blog.

    I like it here. I bought Jonathan Langford’s novel "No Going Back" after reading about it at this blog. I’ve recommended it to friends.

  10. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Melinda, publication is most definitely not a requirement for joining in. Neither is some arbitrary level of education. If you have insights, or if there is something you feel is missing from the discussion, please, share it with us.

    No one here can think of everything, and we don’t expect them to. Part of the point of offering our thoughts on the AML blog is to get feedback from others who may understand things differently. The more people we have offering their ideas, the greater the perspective and the more we can all learn.

  11. Th. says:

    .

    When I was merely a guestposter at Motley Vision, I didn’t write unless I knew I could get a slew of comments. And I was successful. Those three posts are up to 168 comments, which ain’t bad.

    But as a regular contributor now, my job has changed. Instead of being brought in to provide the wow, I try to broaden the field. Interviews, reviews — stuff less frequently glamorous, but important to the field of Mormon Arts generally.

    Contrary to my first AMV post that ragged on blogging http://www.motleyvision.org/2008/guest-post-theric-jepson-on-the-sin-of-saint-onan/ , I now feel that a high-quality blog has two tasks. The first is the highly gratifying creation of discussion. But the second is to create a googlable collection of essays that will matter.

    One problem with AML historically, is that, for instance, no record exists of the early conferences. All that (presumed) brilliance is lost. No one has access to it. We may be merely recreating what was done thirty years ago.

    But that won’t happen again. Because now we are creating a record. Something that will last.

  12. I am absolutely open about the fact that I know almost nothing about the on-line world, and would welcome volunteers to help us with on-line outreach. What I mean is, someone who can DO the work, not someone who can tell me great ideas of what could be done. If you have know-how and a few spare minutes per week, please contact me. I believe there is a lot more we can be doing to increase our community and visibility, but AML leadership is consistently short-handed.

  13. Scott Parkin says:

    My original intent for the post was to bemoan the ways that we Mormons judge and dismiss each others’ ideas, then move on to question each others’ moral or spiritual fitness. At least in discussions in AML forums over the years there seems to have been an awful lot of moral judging going on about things that I’m not convinced are moral or spiritual issues.

    It’s always difficult when discussing literature because on of the basic drives of fiction is to explore edges and transitions. Yes, we write to entertain, but whenever the question moves from craft to art we also admit that we write to convince.

    Which requires that we as readers judge the arguments and decide whether it makes sense to us. Which makes it very easy to take the next step and decide that the author who presents an idea we disagree with must also be individually and personally wrong–aka, either honestly deceived (and in need of missionary work) or immoral and in need of condemnation.

    While I don’t dispute that the activity might sometimes be fair, I think we could easily cut back on how much and how often we engage in moral judgment (with a clear separation of moral sifting [deciding what I find moral and useful, and holding fast that which I find good] versus moral judging [identifying something as universally corrupt for all people]). I would like to see more discussion of interpretation that does not then go on to question intent or spiritual worth of the author.

    To me it’s a matter of degree. The cost of discovering virtue in some works is too high for some readers; the ability to discover that same virtue in those same works is a pearl of great price and an element of testimony for others. The act of exposing and explaining those different approaches, and of exposing and describing those different interpretations of the same text is a useful activity–far more useful in my view, than creating barriers of separation based on aesthetic choices that seem more a matter of taste than ultimate correctness (in my view).

    But as Mark pointed out, that was more a practice of the old AML-List, and not so much an issue here–a fact that I realized as I was thinking about this idea last week, and which led to two related thoughts that changed what I wrote.

    Many of us are so busy fighting old battles that we fail to notice when the problem has changed shape sufficiently to demand a new approach. I’ve noticed that a lot in Mormon literature; some of our best writing solves problems that began solving themselves many years earlier.

    I think that’s part of what happened to me. This blog is not the AML-List, though it shares many voices with that other forum. And our challenges are not quite the same.

    One of the challenges here seems to be a thinness of participation at times that is nearly the perfect opposite of times of greatest challenge over on the AML-List. Perhaps it’s the public nature of the thing (as Th. points out) with its persistence and easy searchability that tamps down elements of discussion out of fear of future embarrassment. Maybe it’s the proliferation of other forums that divide the focus and attention of participants. Maybe it’s the education of the participants and simply a matter of generational shift.

    So I changed from a discussion of incivility to an observation on insufficiency. Which is not a criticism so much as a simple disappointment, because I really like conversation, and learn more from hearing others’ views than from expressing my own. I already know what I think; I want to refine and improve my own views by hearing what others think.

    It’s good that the problem keeps shifting. The difficulty is that the solution needs to shift, too.

    Thanks for the good suggestions so far. I look forward to more of them.

  14. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    FTR, Scott, I was impressed with the way your choice of these three vignettes moved my thoughts, challenged me, and yes, I’d say lead me to consider how individual we are in the way we participate. It opened my appreciation for those who both write the blog and those who comment.

  15. Wm Morris says:

    I have not had and probably won’t have for a few days yet much time to read and comment, but I just wanted to pop in and say that I’m a big fan of your distinct indistinctness, Scott.

  16. Scott,

    Good vignettes. The great advantage of a good story is that it’s often more true than any interpretation that can be derived from it. The downside, of course, is that it also tends to attract less response…

    I am, of course, pleased to discover that someone found and liked my book from this blog, especially since in some ways the book itself was a child of the earlier AML-List. Melinda, I’d encourage you to post your response to it on my blog at http://www.langfordwriter.com/blog if you haven’t posted it somewhere else. I always like hearing what people thought about my book and how they reacted.

    I think that many of the reasons people have given for relatively low participation hold true. My own participation waxes and wanes based largely on my work schedule and whether I feel like I’ve commented too much recently.

    I also particularly liked Theric’s comment about the dual role of online venues as (a) fostering conversation, and (b) creating worthwhile content. I feel like I’ve done too much of the former and not enough of the latter in recent years. There are books I need to read, book reviews I need to write…

  17. J.Scott Bronson says:

    So many things conspire to deprive…

    Yes, time is a big issue. I’m writing this at 12:54AM because I don’t have to be up at six in the morning. And I don’t have to share this little laptop with anybody because they’re all asleep or gone. It’s my daughter’s computer and everybody wants time on it. Six in the house. We have a desktop, but for two months now we’ve been having a devil of a time getting it to connect to the Internet. Frustrating.

    I’ve been involved with two plays back-to-back. Won’t be done with that ’til the end of the month.

    When I have a few minutes to sit, I usually fall asleep. Last month I missed my deadline for posting on this site. I penned something over a multi-day period of time and had about an hour and a half on my assigned day to type it up and post it. When I sat down to do that, I fell asleep. Could not stay awake.

    I haven’t been to this site for about three weeks.

    I really wish that I had time to join the conversation here. But I barely have time to throw out my monthly contributions. I am very happy, though, that there are folks who do have some time. I catch up on what y’all are saying from time to time, and I really enjoy it.

    It has taken me a quart of an hour to type this up…keep dosing…

    Talk amoungst yourselves. I’ll listen in as much as I can.

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