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":
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CrOL-ydFMI




27 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Fantastic post! Really strikes at the heart of an issue that I know I battle with and one that I have seen debilitate the BYU student social climate. If you haven't already I would get a hold of Arbinger's work. Leadership and Self Deception, The Anatomy of Peace and the Choice. All great reads and they really hit the issue on the head along with providing solutions.

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  3. It's always a wake up call when we are led to view individual burdens placed on those around us. It awakes a sense of compassion that I find to be healing--as in it corrects my poor judgment of others and makes me think twice before calling them out. I think of the growth I've had through 'suffering' and understand that no one can seize that from me, nor I from them. It's led me to respect the sufferings of others--no matter their current condition. Thanks for putting things in perspective again Scott. Good luck in your teaching.

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  4. This is a great post to read for anyone who might be looking into going out to BUY too. I never wanted to go there for classes because of my perceived 'stereotypical' student mindset. I opted for online courses from home, but after reading this I'm more willing to give it a chance. We all have things to overcome - and judging people shouldn't have to be one of them.

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  5. Your conclusion at the end will be inspiring for some and will definitely create positive feel goods for many readers. However, the logical leaps that you use to build your argument at the beginning are so flawed that I had trouble even getting through them to finish the rest of your article.

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    1. Could you be more specific for me? I'd love to respond to your criticism but at this point I can only guess at what that is. I don't want to try and have a dialogue with you just to have you feel like you're being misrepresented.

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  6. A few comments; some food for thought
    1) Your claim that the second group's description of the BYU community is less empirical than the first group's observations is completely a matter of opinion. Empirical means to be based on or verifiable by observation or experience. I'm not sure how you can dismiss the observations of (from what it sounds like) a significant number of individuals as "less empirical" without giving an explanation for that.
    2) Your point that your students can't point to one specific person in class and label them that way is a flawed argument. Have you ever challenged them to point out a specific person in the class? People base stereotypes off of both their own experience and the words of others. It would be just as difficult for you to challenge a student in your class to pick out a specific person who is "family-centered" as it would be to pick out a specific person who is "naive". Both are nebulous concepts.
    3) I am one such BYU student who definitely falls into the category of thinking that on the whole, BYU students are naive, marriage-hungry, sheltered, and extremely close-minded. Perhaps the individuals you interact with say these things with rancor, but it is quite a stretch to say that if you view people that way you automatically place yourself above them. I can point out the fact that so-and-so is marriage-hungry, and do so without malice. The fact that people are so sensitive about being seen as marriage-hungry and sheltered is indicative of the fact that there might be, well, a slight problem with such things.

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    1. Thanks Alexis- My response:

      1) I am working with the definition of "empirical" found in the Oxford English Dictionary, which reads: "That pursues knowledge by means of direct observation, investigation, or experiment (as distinct from deductive reasoning, abstract theorizing, or speculation)." My students' first group of adjectives is obviously more empirical in the sense that there is observable data to back it up: Utah is one of the most Republican states in the country, 90% of Utah County residents label themselves as religious, etc. The second group falls under "abstract theorizing," because, while the student may (or may not) have viewed someone who bears those characteristics, they still must develop a personal definition for those terms and then use (pretty weak) deductive logic to apply those definitions to a group.

      2)No, I have not asked my students to point one out, though it might be a fun experiment that could result in a "Lord of the Flies" type atmosphere in the classroom. I know, in my encounters with students, that it is rare for one of them to fit that description, so even if my students did point one out, I'd be able to convincingly argue against that accusation. On the other hand, it is actually quite easy to see that my students are "family-centered." Some are married, some bring their kids to class. Many ask for extensions due to a sick child, a funeral, or a wedding, all of which are evidence of a family-centered mindset. Yes, this term can be a shaky one, just like the term "naive," but if I asked my students to point to a student who is "family-centered," they'd probably just point in the direction of the squirming baby or wandering toddler.

      3) I disagree. In order for you to (successfully) label someone as close-minded, you must also believe that you are open-minded. In order to label someone as naive, you must believe that you are at least marginally more experienced than they are, or else you would not recognize their naiveté. And you're right, people ARE sensitive about these labels. I believe that's why they are so quick to use them-- if they can be the one to push the label on others, then it logically follows that they aren't worthy of the label themselves.

      Yes, these labels aren't always used with malice. Our society (both religious and secular) necessarily functions on the idea that people are superior to others in some way. But my argument is that EVERYONE has some form of unique superiority that is being suppressed by this tendency to marginalize people based on (what can be) more blatant weaknesses.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I appreciate your thoughts.

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    2. One of the most liberating experiences (years long process) of my life was realizing just how "naive, socially awkward, sheltered, [and] shallow" I really am. It is quite possible to believe, correctly, that others are these things without placing them in an imaginative lower class. I could be wrong, but I think it may be more fundamentally accurate and healthy to stop trying to convince people that they, and others around them, are not the things you appear to believe are negative and try to show them that they are in fact neutral and irrelevant. People can and should be respected despite any character "weaknesses" or "superiority". Our worth as people do not revolve around what we can contribute.

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  7. Well put, thanks

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  8. Great article though in my opinion this is less Provos problem and more the worlds problem. Thanks for sharing.

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  10. I agree with the comment above. It's probably a common mindset in America and the world at large to deal with this superiority and labeling. I think this philosophy is adapted to Provo's cultural fingerprint through the lens of a college town. We're relatively intimately connected through social media, the intrusiveness of living with roommates, and the personal connections (invited and uninvited) that come from being part of a ward. It seems to highlight our need to compare because we are particularly well-versed in the details of each others' lives. Labels inevitably follow based on both our compassion and insecurities.

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  11. I lived in BYU housing for a few years though I wasn't a BYU student. I didn't enjoy living there at first and feel that my attitude must have been similar to the ones expressed in the beginning of this article. As I began to get to know individuals and learned to love them I began to love my experience there. There are so many people that have changed my life because they were willing to open up to me and be vulnerable.
    I have often felt frustration at how my peers would look at the world around them. Their comments, as mine had been at the beginning, had an air of negativity. I lacked an ability to express just what this negative attitude was, but I think you captured it. Getting to know people and understanding what they suffer helps us love and connect with others. Life is more fulfilling that way.
    Thanks for the blog.

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  12. One thought not yet mentioned is that we (I think most people) often project our own motivations, beliefs and feelings onto others because that is how we feel about ourselves. Many young people dislike others who are just like themselves because they dislike the way they are personally. These are just some additional thoughts on the subject. People think that because THEY feel that way that everyone else must feel the same way they do.

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  13. Hey Scott,

    Great insights! I don't want to detract from those at all or the overall message, but I would like to offer a request. Using the example of the guy who was very nervous about speaking, you said "don't worry, I didn't deduct anything" (speaking of your class rule to deduct a point by using notecards). I know you'd think this to be the charitable thing to do, but I ask you to reconsider your mindset. As a former teacher, I find that you actually do the guy a disservice by being "lenient" on him. Sure, he struggles to publicly speak and you saw him visibly struggle, but what message are you sending him by not taking away that point? "Oh, the professor agrees that I am terrible at speaking and need some leniency. Poor me!" You probably initially think my comment is heartless and nitpicky, but these small leniencies really do hurt one's self image over time

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    1. Devin,

      Thanks for your read and for the comment. Don't worry- I don't see your comment as heartless and nitpicky. In fact, you've touched on one of my biggest struggles as a teacher. It seems like I'm constantly trying to find balance between an endless amount of variables, especially when it concerns the question of strictness vs. leniency. I very much value the principle that you are espousing, but I also wonder if it's an error to hold twenty completely different people to the same standard, despite their unique background and abilities. I do think, however, that I too frequently err on the side of leniency. This, as you point out, is something I should continue to reconsider and improve upon.

      Thanks again.

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  14. The challenge I see presented is that we are one of the few communities that actively tries to present ourselves without weakness. In provo it is looked down on to outwardly show your suffering or weaknesses. As if showing that you don't follow the rules because you struggle automatically drops the struggle part and all they see is that you don't follow the rules. I agree we need to see the human side of one another, the side that suffers but still strives. But I believe our core issue is that we as a community by and large shun the idea of looking weak. However I believe that although we shun the idea of weakness, the true genuine showing of one's weaknesses actually does yield mutual respect. Therefore ultimately it's an individual wall to climb in order for us to create a truly genuine community.

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  15. The challenge I see presented is that we are one of the few communities that actively tries to present ourselves without weakness. In provo it is looked down on to outwardly show your suffering or weaknesses. As if showing that you don't follow the rules because you struggle automatically drops the struggle part and all they see is that you don't follow the rules. I agree we need to see the human side of one another, the side that suffers but still strives. But I believe our core issue is that we as a community by and large shun the idea of looking weak. However I believe that although we shun the idea of weakness, the true genuine showing of one's weaknesses actually does yield mutual respect. Therefore ultimately it's an individual wall to climb in order for us to create a truly genuine community.

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  16. It is unfair to criticize or label a population as "naive, socially awkward, sheltered, shallow, and marriage-hungry." If a population wants to protect their families from the evils of the world, that is their prerogative. More empathy and altruism is an ethical, beautiful goal. But that's barely scratching the surface of the Provo Problem. Have your students also depicted Utah county (just to be fair, include Rexburg and eastern Idaho on that map) as "homogenized", "hive mind", or "willfully ignorant?" Other vigorous red states include Alabama and West Virginia. Notorious for poor education, healthcare, and religious fervor, pockets of residents consciously ignore literacy, eschew diversity, and vote with their Bibles.
    The Provo Problem isn't just that every kid grows up reading Ender's Game or Brandon Sanderson, memorizing The Princess Bride or Napoleon Dynamite, and listening to U2 or Imagine Dragons. The BIG issue is the "capital T Truth" that David Foster Wallace mentions in his speech 'This is Water." Our consciousness is the everyday stuff around us that we don't always recognize "day in and day out." And Utah County culture actively ignores the "water" much in the way the two younger fish do in DFW's opening allegory. If fascist Utah county had banned music, films, and literature they didn't condone (let's pretend for a moment this doesn't happen) then asking for a little more understanding and less criticism would be right on the table. I can't criticize a college student if his government and family burned books and sanitized media (Cleanflix). But they DO have access to other consciousness (water) and willfully choose to ignore it. When ultra-conservative sub-cultures (like Utah county or the Bible Belt) vote away the human rights of others who live differently, we take issue with the Provo Problem. Are others criticizing Utah for moral high-ground? Probably so. But I reject the naiveté because it's spreading like wildfire. I mean honestly? Who defends ignorance and teaches at a major university? Give the alternative viewpoint a fair shake: other cultures drink beer and coffee, marry same genders, and might have to get an abortion as a last resort. Failure to recognize the diversity makes it awfully difficult to 'turn the other cheek.'
    In closing, given the choice between Utah county and the hillbilly South, I'd take the latter every time. 1st, because the food is better, and 2nd because Southerners don't try to sell me Vivint and doTerra during home teaching.

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    1. After having lived in the South a couple of years I must agree with you- I never trust the phrase "BBQ" when I hear it in Utah.

      I also agree with a lot of what you're saying, though I'd like to rephrase it a bit. I think your major concern (correct me if I'm wrong) is that I'm defending/promoting what DFW calls "the default setting," or a refusal/inability to acknowledge opposing views or mindsets. It appears that you think this is a cultural epidemic, and that the only cure to such an epidemic would require someone to no longer agree with the views of the Church or Mormon community.

      I can't feign to speak for anyone else, but I can tell you that from my perspective, I feel wrongly accused. For example, I've never read a Brandon Sanderson novel. But I do have a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita, Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil," and Frazer's "The Golden Bough." I've read Dawkins, Darwin, and Hawking. I don't say this to be pedantic, but to show that my decision to study and teach at BYU and to live the corresponding standards are, to the best of my efforts, NOT the result of my "default setting." Can't I be open-minded and still disagree with you? Or is there a specific brand of open-mindedness that I have to subscribe to before it is validated?

      I don't mean to say that your points are unfounded. Do some people participate in this community because it is default, because it is easy? Certainly, and tragically so. But there are members of the community (especially its leaders) that fervently encourage us to escape that default setting and live the way we do because we have recognized "water," and made a conscious decision to do so.

      I respect your right to your opinion and your point of view, but I worry that maybe you are determined to view this demographic as the metaphorical equivalent of DFW's "ugly, selfish SUV" driven by "inconsiderate drivers" and refusing to see the motives behind actions that you are perceiving and disagreeing with.

      Hopefully my response didn't come across as condescending or malicious. Thanks for the comment.

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    2. Sorry for the late/vacant response. The cultural epidemic in which residents prefer naiveté is accurate, but I definitely don't think people have to abandon their faith to recognize others as valuable 'paradigms' on similar paths as theirs.
      You recognize that I've observed what you defend and claim: Provo doesn't deserve criticism for innocent faults. But your response was to list how only you are different from the rest rather than analyzing the community. Please don't shift the goalposts.
      As for different "brands of open-mindedness" I'd have to spend more time with you than just on a blog post to determine what you mean by that.
      It's fairly obvious that Utah county is the embodiment of SUV drivers. There's a bumper sticker that submits "you're not stuck in traffic, you ARE traffic." In my experience with them, Provo problems are people who think "I'm stuck in traffic" or "I want to get out of the crowded suburbs and move where there's more room to breathe." Then they immediately create more suburbs and less breathing room all the while satisfied that the grass is so much greener there.

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  17. I think this comment is further illustration of the author’s point. Anonymous has chosen to label Provo residents as “homogenized”, “hive mind”, and “willfully ignorant” because as a group, the majority choose to vote conservatively. But start talking to individual residents and you will have a difficult time finding one of those “homogenized” individuals who is not related to or loves someone who is of a different ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc. There are probably a number of young adults who come to BYU somewhat “sheltered”, because they were raised by parents who wanted to protect them from some of the harsher realities of life. But life has a way of catching up to everyone, and it is virtually impossible to stay sheltered for long. Even in this “hive mind” community, people suffer and are empathetic to the suffering of others. They do not choose to ignore consciousness, rather they turn to their core beliefs and values as a means of staying centered, having hope, and dealing with those tough things. Most of us absolutely not only recognize diversity, but embrace it. Go ahead, just ask us. But we will not turn our backs on what we fundamentally believe to be Truth.

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  18. Meh. I'm always about honest self-evaluation and improvement, but I feel like this philosophy would lead to even more self-doubt. That's the LAST thing we need - those of us who struggle to enter and sustain relationships.

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  19. Thank you for the wonderful discussion! I learned a great deal by reading through this discussion thread. My thanks to all who put meaningful time and effort into writing their comments, and also to you, Scott for the article. It was all a pleasure to read.

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  20. As a convert, I actually would paint a lot of lifelong and faithful members as socially awkward and naive. I wouldn't say close-minded as much as sheltered (from different viewpoints, not circumstances). Marriage hungry is a BYU stereotype all over the US, not limited to BYU students. Ask Church members anywhere in the states.

    People can also apply second hand labels. My your thought process, no one could call themselves stupid because they'd have to be smarter than themselves to figure that out. Untrue. You asked them what they think about BYU students. They repeat what they hear, which is the basis of their opinion. You didn't ask "what surprised you about byu students", which qould lead to answers based on their own experience, against the stereotype. or "what do a lot of students you've met have in common"

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