As a Mormon, I often heard that living in Utah would "make or break" one's faith. I lived there for about four years and I have to confess I agree to some extent. While I lived there not only did I struggle to fit in, I quietly struggled with a little bitterness and shame that something I loved so much (my Church and my faith) was so closely connected with such blatant and dangerous cultural flaws. All the typical stuff you hear from people who criticize my Church about sexism, vacuousness, deception, intolerance, etc, have a valid basis in aspects of Utah culture.
Now, for those of you who are from Utah or hold it close to your heart, (or for those who want to bash it) this is not an anti-Utah blog post, believe it or not. Quite the contrary. This has to do with my journey of acceptance and tolerance. I miss Utah. I don't love EVERYTHING about it, but there is a lot to love.
As I mentioned, I was ashamed. When friends came to visit from out-of-state, especially if they were not of my faith, I must confess I was paranoid that they would observe the cultural flaws and assume that that was somehow a representation of my faith. Some of the cultural commonalities that people often casually (and sometimes formally) mistake for the doctrinal requirements of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. moral imperatives) included being Republican, being interested in making lots of money, thinking that being a stay-at-home Mom means you don't need education or to do anything outside your home, associating the goal of perfect character with a perfect/clean-cut appearance, even if that means plastic surgery, and many more. Now, poor Utah gets a lot of flack for this stuff ALL the time, and with good reason. Some of it is appalling. But let's be honest, culture is weird in that it seems pervasive, even though not everyone in that society participates in these gross misconceptions of good values, and even many who do rarely participate in all of them. I knew a lot of truly sincere people who were simply doing their best to be amazing people and who would love and accept anyone. It's never fair to judge a society only upon it's failures because there is so much more to the whole than that. But this is something I've learned more since moving away from Utah. I was so frustrated with the hypocrisy for a while that I couldn't see beyond it. As seems to be expressed by SO many others, I truly believed this hypocrisy was uniquely a Utah phenomenon.
So let's talk hypocrisy. What is it? A lot of people tend to think that it's when someone doesn't practice what they preach. Wrong. I do that all the time. There are things I genuinely believe in that I am genuinely trying to do or develop but I haven't gotten there yet. I'll still promote those behaviors, even if I haven't mastered them myself because I believe in them. The word "hypocrite" comes from the Greek word ὑπόκρισις (hypokrisis) which means “play-actor”. It has to do with putting up a front so that others will think we are something we're not. In my mind it has everything to do with taking any quality that is viewed in a positive light by our culture and instead of trying to develop that quality for the sake of being good, one adopts the outward appearance of that quality for the sake of attracting praise. Because somehow along the way the main stream culture of Mormonism became conservative, being Republican or politically conservative became something that people used to judge if someone was "really" or "sincerely" Mormon, or a "better" Mormon, even though political leanings are peripheral to the essence of the gospel, since the essence of the gospel can be manifested or applied in a multitude of ways when it comes to government. Of course, when one lives in a very homogenous society where what it values is very clear and unanimously agreed upon, it becomes harder and harder to avoid hypocrisy. In a diverse community where values are varied, one has an easier time doing what they feel is right regardless of others' opinions because people don't have the convenience of judging each other based on a few widely shared priorities. In a homogenous community, an individual may actually care about being a good person, but they may gauge their success at attaining certain attributes by how others respond to them, and they might unknowingly, bit by bit, transfer their efforts from developing that attribute, to developing the outward appearance of that attribute. It can be a tricky mix of motives sometimes not even recognized by the individual. It's very hard to ignore or cast off praise and admiration, because those often serve good purposes in our interactions with one another.
So, is this rampant hypocrisy unique to Utah or to Mormons? The more places I've lived, the more I've come to learn that the answer is NO! It's called being human. So let's go back to when I was getting ready to leave Utah and live in New England for the first time. I had experimented with reserving meat-eating for colder months and not shaving my legs. (Utah gasp!) I was politically far more liberal than I'd ever been. (Utah gasp!) I really questioned my relationship with the environment and was getting excited about being around people who could relate to these various parts of me that were viewed as either extreme, inappropriate or stupid in Utah. I began to mentally build up New England as my personal promised land where I'd be understood and appreciated. Whereas Utah values family, chastity and righteousness (things which I also value) Massachusetts seemed to share the other half of my values; namely, compassion for the less-priviledged, open-mindedness and environmental conscientiousness. Of course, it's not as if those from these two states can't or don't ever agree on what is good, but when I say "values" I guess I mean "priorities".
Well here I came driving across the country with hope in my eyes searching for "my people". What I found surprised me a bit, sometimes hurt and disappointed me, but ultimately offered me hope once again. Of course, just as many of the people I associated with in Utah were loving and kind, many of the people I associate with in Massachusetts are truly open-minded and have been generous and accepting of me. Some of the kindest people I've ever met are from here. But just as there are branches of hypocrisy growing from the positive values of family, chastity and righteousness in Utah, there are plenty of branches of hypocrisy that grow out of compassion for the less-priviledged, open-mindedness and environmental conscientiousness here. One of the most blatantly obvious is the hypocrisy of "open-mindedness". I can't count how many times I've heard the phrase, "inviting everyone to sit at the table" or talk of making sure everyone is included and respecting and rejoicing in diversity. The funny thing is, this place is not very diverse. In fact the only type of diversity here I would say is mainly diversity of sexual orientation. Other than that, it's mainly a bunch of white hippies who all share the same values. Well, then there are those really ignorant, intolerant, religious types, but they're kind of that other crowd. Wait. What? What about inviting everyone to the table? It's not as easy as it sounds and not as complete as a lot of people in the area want to think it is.
The other day Ben and I were eating at a local deli and overheard a conversation in which these people kept dropping references as if they had a famous relative. "The other day I was hanging out with my black bisexual friend..." Now, is there anything wrong with being open-minded and rejoicing in diversity? Of course not. But the self-congratulatory tone of the conversation was a perfect example of how hypocrisy begins. It's no longer just about being a good person and it becomes a chance to say, "Look at me! Look at how OPEN-MINDED I am!!" Of course, it's only open-minded if we're tolerating attributes we think are good and everyone else thinks are bad. But being tolerant of what we perceive as "the norm"? Not a chance. Of course, in this process the definition of the "norm" has been effectively changed and it's the same closed-mindedness that exists anywhere else, just for a different group.
I was genuinely surprised by some of the hypocrisies I found here and was even more surprised when I discovered some comfort in them. I began to change my thinking on Utah. I had previously been bitter, but I began to soften. I began to think more about my own hypocrisies. I began to realize that the "us and them" mentality is very natural, sometimes productive, though often quite damaging. It's nearly inescapable. I began to realize what it means to be human. It is so natural to want praise and to be highly regarded within the set of values our community holds dear. This has weird side-effects regardless of the values of the culture. No matter how good family, integrity, and open-mindedness are, our own vanity can turn them into bizarre requirements we place on others or ourselves. It's tempting to end this post by saying, "I guess we should all just stop judging each other and just get back to 'cleansing the inner vessel' and trying to be good people." But for some, setting that up as another value might just end up branching off into us trying to come up with outward ways to show or judge who is really sincere and who is just trying to impress everyone. Maybe it would be better to just admit that we're human and do the best we can.