Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Day 158: First Encounters with Prejudice

Term end has brought a flurry of research and writing activity, and quite a bit of back-and-forth with my supervisors regarding essay drafts. I chose to write one essay on why polygamous Mormon men in Utah voted for woman suffrage in 1870. (Note: polygamy has not been practiced by my church since 1890, but remnants remain, none more persistent than the belief that we still practice it, or that break-off groups who practice are somehow part of the faith. To call a member of the FLDS "Mormon" is like calling Baptists Catholic - a complete non-sequitor.) It's been a fascinating survey of early belief systems, and why my forebearers practiced something, eventually openly, by which they were universally initially repulsed.

It has also been fascinating to encounter the first hint of bias through the editing process. One of my supervisors is endearing, for, among many things, his affable nature, open and notorious foibles, and dizzying intellect which often is able to anticipate at least two or three thought steps ahead of me. In any event, he has been exceptionally kind to me since my arrival six months ago. In his courtesy, I have often wondered if he was trying to over-compensate for awkwardness he thought I felt about being Mormon in a "heathen" setting. (I'm pretty sure he thinks I have always lived in Utah before moving here and have never encountered a non-Mormon, despite the fact that my resume demonstrates a residence in DC for five years prior to moving to England.) In reviewing my polygamous suffrage essay draft, he made one comment about my reliance on Leonard Arrington's Great Basin Kingdom, published by Harvard (the volume which essentially made Mormon history and Mormon studies a valid topic of academic inquiry). In what my supervisor called his stream-of-conscious written edits and comments, he said I relied heavily on Arrington, and that I needed to provide a bit of bio on Arrington to demonstrate whether he was a "Mormon" historian or a respected historian, as if the two were mutually exclusive.

That comment stuck. So much in England is subtle, but this comment unconsciously revealed that my supervisor thought someone could either be Mormon or respected in academia. Interesting, because in the next breath he praised Richard Bushman, a faithful Mormon and historian at Columbia. I started to perceive through this and verbal comments that he made during our review session that the awkwardness I felt in our interactions perhaps wasn't based on his worry over me, but in this essential dichotomy in his thinking about Mormons: he thought generally that they couldn't be respected historians or academics, and yet I was capable of getting into Oxford and Richard Bushman was a good historian. Perhaps unconsciously, he was struggling with his personal experiences with Mormons and what he believed to be true in the abstract. Perhaps Bushman, and maybe myself, caused friction to his mental constructs. I wondered whether this friction was an element of the awkwardness in the relationship.

As I contemplated this interaction and the dimension it added to my doing well here academically and how that might help my supervisor and others overcome their conscious and unconscious prejudices, I learned of those who encountered more open anti-Mormon prejudice from those who discovered they were friends with a Mormon, me.

From a bigger perspective, if something were really true (and I believe my faith is), it would make sense that there would be opposition on a consistent basis. That prejudice exists is natural. Rather than being offended by it, a more constructive route is to acknowledge its existence as a non-personal phenomenon and commit oneself to being the kind of person whose life contradicts it. Perhaps this is why the Savior tells us that "by their fruits ye shall know them" - it's not only a method to sound judgment, but of being a good emissary for one's church.


  1. In the circles in which moved and the places I lived before moving to Oxford and meeting you, I only ever encountered one Mormon and learned very little about the faith from her. So, everything I (thought I) knew about Mormons before meeting you was from TV or the papers. I thought that Mormons practised polygamy and my misunderstanding was only reinforced when I watched and read scandalous reports about the arrest of Warren Jeffs in 2006. The image of a Mormon woman that I had in my mind was of a woman wearing a drab shapeless dress with a beehive hairdo that could rival Amy Winehouse’s ‘do! I know not to believe everything they tell you in the newspapers, but I've never had any reason to pay much attention to my grossly incorrect preconceptions of Mormons until now.

    Having learned a great deal about the Church of the Latter-Day Saints from you, I now associate the word "Mormon" with a wonderful, kind and deeply religious people. Now that I have such positive associations with the word "Mormon", it strikes me as very strange when I mention the word to other people and get a strongly negative reaction. I was speaking with someone at a social function recently and the topic of gay prejudice came up (I can't recall the context). When the conversation turned to reactions of religious people, I started to tell the girl that I have a Mormon friend and... before I could complete the story (which was to be a very positive picture) the girl scoffed and started ranting about how awful Mormons are - how much they try to preach and how judgemental they are. She didn't stop ranting soon enough to avoid embarrassment when I managed to complete my story and conclude by saying that I think some religious people do have prejudices towards the gay community, but that I think people who are truly religious (like my Mormon friend) would never be so judgemental of others. I actually believe that many religious people use their religion as an excuse to be hateful towards people who have a way of life to which they object. They conveniently ignore that part of the bible that teaches them to love their neighbour etc. and instead focus on those parts that support their own pre-existing prejudices and discomforts with a way of life that they don’t understand.

    As someone who has a great deal of love and respect for a wonderful Mormon woman, I too encounter prejudice from other people and feel the need to defend my friend from ignorant accusations against her faith. Why are people so ready to believe what they are told by reporters who will always look for scandal? If we are to believe what we read in the papers, then surely all teenagers in London are knife-wielding tyrants who rampage the streets at night mercilessly stabbing innocent old men who make the fatal mistake of looking at them the wrong way!! The papers often tell stories that have the capacity to paint an entire section of the community in a negative light. Muslims have faced similar difficulties in the wake of 9-11. But in a place like Oxford, surrounded by such intelligence, I have found myself regularly shocked at the ignorance and closed-minded behaviour of some people when faced with a way of life that they do not understand.

    For what it's worth, Lorianne, you are a fantastic advocate for your faith and no-one who has met you could possibly continue to hold any negative views of Mormons - at least not without a great deal of difficulty in matching up their misguided pre-conceptions with the reality that you represent.

  2. I just became aware of this post and don't even know if you will see this comment. I believe you misinterpreted what your advisor said to you regarding Arrington and Bushman. You are looking for bias where there is none.

    I am a historian as well and the first thing taught on prospective historians is to examine and look at not only the facts written in a book, paper, etc., but at the author's bio and background. Everyone has a natural bias about every subject and that bias influences one's writing (whether consciously or subconsciously).

    The fact that your advisor suggested you are relying too much on one source is a valid point just as his point that Arrington is a Mormon. A fundamentalist faithful Mormon will have a very different view than someone of a different background looking at the same set of circumstances. Also as a historian, you should know that relying on one source too heavily (whether Mormon, non-mormon, martian, or whatever) does not produce good history.

    Your professor is trying to get you to take an objective look at your source- Is this person truly a professional historian, or someone whos research may be too far skewed in one way or the other. As I stated earlier- bias exists in EVERYONE'S writing. It is our job as historians to look at as many sources as we can, and try to make an objective analysis of the facts without letting our own bias taint our work.
    Your blog clearly has a bias for example. To an outsider it seems as if you are viewing everything through a Mormon perspective and you are perceiving an anti-mormon bias with this advisor. You are then puzzled though that he praises Bushman (a Mormon) but then you state "I started to perceive through this and verbal comments that he made during our review session that the awkwardness I felt in our interactions perhaps wasn't based on his worry over me, but in this essential dichotomy in his thinking about Mormons."
    This is an assumption and if you really feel as if he feels this way, you should have asked him directly. Myself as an outsider- going off of what you said about him, I only see an advisor trying to guide you into writing a better paper where you see an anti-mormon bias. Do you feel that as a Mormon, you cannot scrutinize other Mormon history? Do you feel that history pertaining to the Mormons but not written by one is less valid? If your answer to both these questions is "yes", I would advise you to please step back, take a look at the entire picture, and re-evaluate said answer because not to do that would result in more bad history.

  3. WCUHistorygrad: I would agree that investigating the bias of sources is a legitimate endeavor and should always be pursued. However, here, it was the framing of mutually exclusive options - was this historian Mormon, or legitimate - the provided the bigoted flavor? Airington couldn't be a Mormon (or one who was employed by the Church) who was also a good history. This even though the work was published by Harvard. Too, I did not quote Airington but a few times in a fairly longish piece. It was this comment in context of a much larger issue that constituted a turning point for me, as I chose no longer to work with my assigned supervisor, to my detriment. It was an unsavory blemish in my Oxford career. I did address the issue to another Oxford don, but was dismissed and so I chose to and try to make the best of the situation by relying on other faculty. When in the end it turned out that the bigoted don was the most qualified to advise on my thesis, it was too late to overcome the negative impact of my decision, especially as the University failed administer anything like justice in the aftermath.

    I believe now that my doing so was for the best, and that my choosing to forgive and go a different path was, too, but it stung for quite a while - both the discrimination and the negative impact it had on my work in my choosing not to work with this faculty member.

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