Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Cultural Pseudo-Truth

Last night my wife and I watched a television program on the civil rights movement (No, this is not another MLK/Mormon post, it just starts there). I was not alive during the heart of the movement, so it's very foreign to me. It's hard to imagine that all of this happened not so long ago, and that racism was so recently acceptable in our society. How do we explain this? Were all those racists bad people, and now we are so much more moral? I don't believe so. I believe most of them were generally good people. So how could they be so wrong about race issues? I believe it is because of a phenomenon I'll call cultural pseudo-truth. (If there is already an accepted term for this, please let me know.)

In general there are two sources of truth: science (or, more generally, reason) and religion (or, more generally, faith or revelation). Some questions are best answered by science, and some are best answered by religion. However, I think we overlook the influence of a third, false source of pseudo-truth: culture. I believe that, unfortunately, much of the "truth" that we take for granted comes from this third source. Racists in the past accepted that blacks were inferior. Not many people, even good ones, thought to question this cultural norm. It took a revolutionary leader, Martin Luther King, along with other brave individuals to bring scrutiny to this belief.

When I accept the reality that at least some of the things I believe are a result of my culture, and not based on some more sure source, I think of two important questions related to Mormonism:

First, how does cultural pseudo-truth affect how others view us? I think most of the reasons some people think that Mormons are "weird" is a result of the culture that we are compared against. The Word of Wisdom, temple worship, and the missionary program are a few things that are pointed out as things that make us weird. I could go into why I believe each one seams weird when viewed through a cultural lens, but when viewed from cultural neutrality are not all that weird. Not to dwell on a sensitive topic, but I'll just point out that our culture views clothing as an expression of our light-heartedness (Think Joe Boxer and t-shirts with sarcastic comments on them that are all the rage with the kids these days). In such a culture, it's no wonder why Mormons are considered weird for associating some spiritual significance to an article of clothing. However, such a view is not unique in the world, as demonstrated by orthodox Jews wearing yamacas, and other current and historical examples.

But, before we Mormons start congratulating ourselves that we have risen above cultural pseudo-truth, let me explain my second important question: How does cultural pseudo-truth affect how we view the world? Are there things in our culture that we accept as true which cause us to view those who do things differently as wrong? Not surprisingly, it's harder for me to come up with examples of this. Clearly it's harder to recognize cultural pseudo-truth in myself than it is to recognize it in others. One possible example is family size. Mormons traditionally have large families (although this is less so recently). If we assume, for a moment, that this is a cultural phenomenon, and not doctrinal in some way, should it influence how I view someone who chooses to have a small family, or no family?

Or perhaps there is something even more dire. Perhaps I, like the racists of times past, hold some deep conviction rooted in my cultural that is actually dead wrong and deeply harmful. The problem is: how would I know?

20 comments:

Nick Literski said...

I can't pretend to have an absolute way of determining this, Mike, but I have a useful "rule of thumb." I would suggest that the more vehemently a group expresses its outrage at an idea, the more likely it is that the basis is cultural, rather than reason or religion.

If you think about it, most LDS simply don't get up in arms over religious disagreements. Nor do LDS typically proclaim loudly against science or reason. Rather, they respond with high emotion over cultural issues, such as politics, or even the recent protest against the Provo Gold's Gym.

Mike said...

Thanks for your perspective, Nick.

I agree that it seams political viewpoints are particularly vulnerable to cultural prejudices.

As far the Provo Gold's Gym issue, I've heard about it but don't know much about it, so I can't comment much on that.

Mike said...

A discussion at Burning Bosom on this topic led me to this talk by Elder Stone. I remember hearing this talk, but it struck me much harder this time since I had been pondering the topic.

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