Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Provo Problem

Every semester in my Writing 150 class, I assign an essay that is directed towards the (half dozen) readers of the BYU Universe. Because one of the keys of rhetoric is to have an understanding of your target audience, I ask my students to describe the BYU community-- the more specific, the better. I always get the same standard answers: members of this community are typically religious, conservative, family-minded, educated, etc. But in every single class I've had another set of answers that is less empirical (but just as true in the minds of my students): they're naive, socially awkward, sheltered, shallow, and marriage-hungry.

What interests me is that each of my students agrees to this description of the community on the whole, but if I were to ask one of them to point out another student in the class that represented the type of person they had just described, they wouldn't be able to do it. It wouldn't be an issue of cowardice-- it's just that there are rarely students in my class who can be accurately described as naive, socially awkward, sheltered, or shallow. And there's certainly not one who fits all of those descriptors.

Since that's the case, I wonder why my students are so consistently motivated to make this unjustifiable claim. What bothers me is that, in order to argue for this analysis of BYU culture, one has to elevate oneself above an entire group; nobody can claim that someone is naive or socially awkward unless they are personally immune to those afflictions. Any time someone points to someone else and says "look how naive that person is," what they are really saying is "look how much more experienced and wise I am compared to that person."

Think of all the ways we do this. I know you've all heard or used terms like "Vivint Bros," "Belmont Tools," "Utah Mormons," or "Hair School Girls." We do the same with the places people live. "They live at the Village? Someone's got a rich daddy."

Somehow, we've turned into a community of individuals that carries this misconception that we are somehow superior to all the other individuals in the community. This is, of course, absurd.

Maybe everyone really is marriage hungry and that's the problem. Maybe we use these nebulous phrases to medicate our way through the often painful dating process. We see our exes with someone else and are so rarely happy for them-- we say "She's with him?! But he's such a tool...." We often have a very limited idea of what these people are like, but we are so frequently willing to sacrifice our compassion towards others so that we can maintain our high opinions of ourselves. If he's a tool, then the ex has bad judgment. If the ex has bad judgment, then their rejection of us was just another example of that. Who in their right mind would reject US? Unfortunately, this kind of destructive thought pattern, though initially aimed outwardly, always finds a way inside. By placing all the blame on others, we prevent ourselves from recognizing the possibly painful, self-directed truths that we need to acknowledge in order to become a better person.

The best approach to eliminating this mindset comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (go read about his inspiring life), who claimed that “we must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

Do people do things that live up to the stereotypes we give them? You bet. Do they say things that make us cringe? Daily. But none of us are willing to let ourselves be judged simply on the things that we have done or said in our lives, unless somehow that judge is also able to perceive our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions at the time that we did or said those things. We would beg for that right vehemently, and often do. So why are we so quick to deny it to other people? Why are we so unwilling to consider the possibility that other people actually have good intentions?

At the end of the semester, I have my students do a makeshift version of their own TED Talk. One of the few students I've had that could be described as "socially awkward" or "reclusive" was obviously terrified at the prospect of speaking for five minutes in front of all of his peers. It was hard as a teacher to watch him visibly struggle through his presentation. I'd asked all the students to memorize what they were going to say, and he was willing to take a point deduction (don't worry, I didn't deduct anything) in order to have note cards with him. His whole body was shaking and his voice was so tremulous that it sounded like he was about to cry.

When the semester had started, his classmates probably considered him among the "naive, awkward Utah Mormons" that are apparently so rampant in Provo. But if you were to accuse him of that or make fun of him directly after his presentation, those same students probably would've jumped you in the parking lot.

What changed? They watched him suffer.

It's not always visible, and it's not always communicated, but it's always there. Maybe the local "tool" has always struggled with body image and that's why he's constantly at the gym. Maybe the awkward kid comes from an abusive household. Maybe the Vivint Bro is trying to provide for a family when his parents are currently incapable.

Maybe NONE of those things are true. But if we make it our genuine goal to learn about each other then we will always find something to admire. At that point, this ridiculous impulse we have to say harmful things about people will disappear, along with the stunting influence it has on our relationships with others and ourselves.

For a great talk with similar ideas, check out David Foster Wallace's "This is Water":