By sheer chance, I came across a 28 June 2013 blog entry by Jana Riess that I missed when it first appeared — probably because I was in the throes, then, of finishing off several articles and dealing with urgent practical matters and beginning to pack for departure, a couple of days later, on a nearly month-long trip to England.
Anyway, I quite liked what she had to say about civility online, and I empathize (on the basis of abundant personal experience) with her laments about angry, impolite, immature insults and attacks (up to and including death threats), so I decided to share a link to her remarks on my own blog. Here it is:
I also began skimming through the comments following her short article that accumulated during my relatively Internet-free time in England, and I was pleased to see my Evangelical friend John Morehead and my friend and former student Nate Oman among those weighing in.
I absolutely concur with her (and their) plea for better online behavior.
But then I ran across a comment by one Fred W. Anson, an Evangelical Protestant critic of Mormonism, that included this passage:
“I think you can understand why I found your article as encouraging as I did the firing of LdS Apologist Daniel C. Peterson – who made a career out of ad-homineming, belittling, insulting, and character assassinating Mormon Critics – from The Maxwell Institute. “
According to Mr. Anson, I’m the parade example of the kind of “misbehaving Mormons” to whom Jana Riess was referring.
Happily, Dwight Rogers (whom I don’t believe I know), in a response to Mr. Anson on several points, included this:
“Regarding Dan Peterson: You claim that he uses ad hominem attacks against his critics or the critics of Mormonism. I have followed him a lot and I don’t see that. I have seen him use a kind of mocking or sarcastic approach when the original material by the critic started out with that tone. This approach would be in keeping with Proverbs 26:5 which says ‘Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.’
‘I have consistently seen Dan point out the non-historic and non-factual statements made by critics of Mormonism. Dan used better first-hand sources rather than the third hand and out of context sources the critics typically use.”
To which Mr. Anson then replied as follows:
“On the issue of Dan Peterson, I’ll just say that your stance runs contrary to what those on the other end of the behavior that I’ve noted (as well as their friends and colleagues) have reported.”
Whereupon he cited several passages from Jerald and Sandra Tanner about an incident from 1994, to which, one of these days, I’ll probably have to devote a blog entry. (Suffice it to say that Mr. Anson, along with his source, the Tanners, has the incident significantly wrong.) He then continued:
“Finally, please remember that it was a planned, lengthy article on Mormon Stories founder John Dehlin – that allegedly was filled with ad-hominem attacks and attempts at character assassination on John – that ultimately led not only to Peterson being fired as Maxwell Institute editor but a complete overhaul of the institute.
“So my critique of Peterson stands.”
Happily though, in fact, the lengthy article to which Mr. Anson alluded (and on which he very clearly pronounced judgment without ever having laid eyes on it) is actually up online, as is a second article (“Return of the Unread Review: A Mormon Story”) intended to accompany it and put it in perspective. They can be inspected, and readers can decide for themselves whether it’s really fair or just to describe the first article as “filled with ad-hominem attacks and attempts at character assassination.”
But Mr. Anson wasn’t quite finished yet:
“This isn’t to say that Peterson isn’t a nice guy – several of my friends and colleagues who know him personally have told me that he is. However, it seems that often his passion for defending the Mormon faith blinds him to Christ’s clear teaching …
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
– Matthew 5:43-48, The Joseph Smith Translation
“… and often seems to turn him into a fanatical bully.
“Gordon B. Hinckley, on the other hand (see my other post), not only “got” Christ’s commands in this area, he challenged Latter-day Saints to remember and obey them.
“Perhaps someday Mr. Peterson will too.”
I’m amazed when I read things like this. I’ve developed a pretty thick skin, but I’ll admit that it’s sometimes a bit discouraging to be falsely (and, in my judgment, quite ironically) accused of defamation, character assassination, and flagrantly unchristian behavior. To have, in fact, made a career out of such reprehensible misdeeds.
I saw a message board thread the other day in which a handful of my veteran critics were earnestly discussing (with, I suspect, varying degrees of sincerity) whether my closing remarks at the most recent FAIR conference, earlier this month, represented a declaration that I was finally going to turn away from my vicious and mean-spirited past. Which, to me, is almost precisely analogous to wondering whether I’ve stopped beating my wife.
Along with others, I’ve personally asked several times for specific examples of my exceptional nastiness, a few specimens of the personal insults and cold-hearted unchristian cruelty that have been typical, apparently, of my sordid public career. Very few of my critics have even made the attempt to furnish anything of the sort, though I’ve been assured several times that there’s no point in supplying any particular illustrations since my repellent bullying fanaticism is visible virtually all the time and almost everywhere. The few examples that have been offered have, in my experience, without any substantial exception relied upon wild and hostile misreadings.
I deny the charge that I’m a “fanatical bully,” a nasty piece of work who doesn’t give a fig for the heartaches and pains of people who cross my path and who actually (some say) takes pleasure in the sufferings of others and hopes to inflict further suffering where possible. I say it’s false, and a slanderous mischaracterization. I’m astonished, given what I really and obviously am, that there’s even any occasion for me to deny the charge. Virtually nobody who actually knows me, I would guess, would think me capable of the kind of behavior that’s often attributed to me — and there’s excellent reason for their opinion of me. I don’t claim to be perfect; I acknowledge only one perfect life. But, as mortals go, and particularly as mortals go who are routinely involved with controversial issues and regularly subjected to very harsh personal criticism, I think I’ve done reasonably well. I’m naturally a rather sunny person, disposed, by parental training, to be a nice, polite fellow. I find it difficult to sustain grudges, and very rarely lose my temper. I’m what used, at least, to be called a Type B personality. I have plenty of flaws, and I’m acutely aware of them. But habitual impoliteness and nastiness, to say nothing of hatred and cruelty, simply aren’t on any plausible list of my defects.
So claims that I’m driven by rage, consumed with a desire for vengeance, obsessed with hostility toward those who disagree with me, unconcerned about the feelings of others, hard-hearted and nasty, are genuinely perplexing to me. Frankly, I regard them, for the most part, as casually accepted slanders — where they’re not outright lies.
I suffer from no messianic delusions, and I harbor no fantasies about particular demonic persecution (beyond the common lot of humankind in this fallen world). But there is, I’ve begun to think, something distinctly weird, something profoundly uncanny, about the truly baseless notion, devoutly held in some circles as an article of unexamined faith, that I’m something of a monster and an embarrassment to Mormonism. That the idea has grown so healthily among some people in such poor and inhospitable soil — that soil being the truth about me, what I write, how I think, and how I act — is, genuinely, rather mysterious.
But, once again, I invite specific examples of the horrible, hateful, fanatical ways in which I’ve allegedly mistreated people in print and online over the years. Since they’re supposedly routine with me, my regular way of life, and the supposed basis of my entire unholy career, they shouldn’t be difficult to come up with. Those eager to supply them are welcome to post them to the comments section of this blog.
Otherwise, in the absence of clear evidence of such corruption and depravity on my part, I would encourage fair-minded people out there — to say nothing of charitable people — to consider the likelihood that the charge is, on the whole, defamatory and false, and therefore, if they encounter it, to refuse to spread it or to endorse it without solid and specific warrant. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” says the ninth commandment.
Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.