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Learning from Intense Conflict

Reflecting on what we’ve been learning as a team from the conflicts over January 6th and abortion.

The decision to publish parallel pieces last week exploring competing perspectives on January 6th was a controversial one—both among our readers and our own staff. The idea of a second piece was prompted initially by the strong claims made in Daniel Ortner’s first essay (“Kingmen on January 6th”)—arguments that were robust and solid, but which led to a discussion about how Trump-supporting brothers and sisters of faith would receive them. One of our staff members mentioned having a loved one present at the January 6th rally—and how her experience didn’t seem to be represented well at the congressional hearings taking place.    

So we decided to reach out and feature that experience—with a request that this individual focus largely on sharing her experience without too much extrapolation or commentary. Further changes made to the essay since its publication have made it much clearer the author was not denying real violence that took place (for instance, adding another qualification, “To be clear, I was only in certain locations that day—and was only witness to happenings around me. And none of this is to deny that actual violence and wrongdoing took place that day”). 

Even with making such cautions, some of us have been genuinely surprised by the resulting uproar—including demands for retraction and a public mea culpa. That has not felt right. But we do want to take seriously concerns that have come up.  

Mindfulness teacher Thomas McConkie once taught that the presence of intense conflict— especially when that conflict is enduring—suggests that “there are still more lessons to be learned” by all involved. The implication is that not until those lessons are truly learned will the deeper conflict be resolved. Well aware that brothers and sisters of faith resonated with the perspectives shared in each competing essay, we have wondered these days what is it that we’re missing in the entrenched conflict over electoral security in our country? (a debate that’s not going away—see Federalist article this week about the upcoming election).

What is it that we haven’t yet learned as a people that allows this conflict to not only endure but to get worse?

Just a day after these parallel essays, of course, the Roe and Casey decision was overturned by the United States Supreme Court. Writing in the New York Times that same day, Dr. Karen Swallow Prior from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary reflected, “The judicial fiat of Roe v. Wade jump-started the culture wars that have poisoned our political process and brought us to a place of polarization and unbridgeable division.”

Few conflicts have been as intense and enduring in America as the grinding, wearying battle over abortion. It’s equally worth asking what is it that we haven’t yet learned as a people that allows this conflict to not only endure but to get worse? In what follows, we share a few insights that have come up over the last few days in the wake of both conflicts—demonstrating both divergent perspectives on our own team, and an explanation for why the (updated) essay remains on our site.   

1. Wariness about giving our critics more ammo. Some of us have been concerned—even embarrassed—that the perspective in the second article was featured at all. We get a hard enough time as a magazine when we write about gospel teachings contrary to the prevailing dogma of the day. The last thing we need is to give critics more “ammo” to dismiss other rigorous thinking featured here because of pieces perceived to be overly partisan or infected with conspiracy thinking.  

Of course, on some level, recognition of the danger of true conspiracy or “secret combinations” is implicit to Latter-day Saint faith and any who take the Book of Mormon seriously. But how to discern reality from delusion is harder than many people seem to appreciate (see “Discerning True From False Conspiracy”). 

2. Fostering a better conversation sometimes hurts. Others on our team felt good about the decision—even after the backlash. Several of us were fascinated by the juxtaposition of the perspectives and the nudge towards a more complete picture of the day’s happenings. 

Through comments and back-channel chatter, we’ve seen these articles used to explore some important questions:

  • What is the reasonable Overton Window on events surrounding January 6th?
  • Are all voices being represented in the hearings? 
  • Who has the right to share their opinion publicly? 
  • Is our response to something we don’t like one that exhibits meekness, humility, and a spirit of learning?
  • Is it appropriate for public discourse to invoke scripture and prophets in partisan matters?
  • What is the value of first-hand experience?

Of course, both January 6 essays invoked doctrinal teachings in partisan ways. Some have also pointed out that first-hand experience is valuable if someone is in the place and time where/when something is occurring—but when that experience is out of sight from the event in question, its relevance is more suspect.  

No matter the qualifications, some remain uncomfortable that this other perspective is shared publicly—seeing the evidence for what happened that day so overwhelmingly clear that attempting to broaden or nuance the picture seems almost unethical. We can’t imagine, however, that silencing this minority view will do anything other than galvanize these deep concerns among the millions of Americans who continue to hold them.  

All in all, we appreciate these questions and the engagement with our efforts. Although Public Square Magazine received a fair share of criticism for running these articles, we also received notes of appreciation. One reader said, “Public Square Magazine has never been in the business of publishing polite views. They publish controversial views compassionately, which I think is important and very unique.”

3. Hearing both sides can also be painful. One member of our staff who is a true moderate feels battered by the views and behavior on both the left and the right of American politics. She is not afraid of deep study and research and reads opinions from every possible side of a question, seeking out reliable sources of information from all over the political spectrum. Although originally fearful that the January 6 hearings would be a spectacle of Democrats’ grandstanding, she has watched every hour of the January 6 hearings and has found them to be far different than she expected. While doing so, she suffered a range of uncomfortable emotions. This is the kind of pain she thinks is valuable in finding out what is true. That kind of emotional stretching may not be optional if we want to learn more and go beyond our own biases.

In case you’re wondering why we don’t feature competing views on more explicitly moral questions such as abortion or sexuality, it’s because we are Latter-day Saints. And we are not going to hold in question the fundamental teachings of scripture and prophets. If that’s what you want, of course, there is no shortage of places to find it.

4. Truth requires light. By some estimates, hundreds of thousands of people were at the “Save America” rally on January 6th. Millions of Americans continue to believe the claims made there about the election.

As long as these viewpoints are only allowed to be heard and considered in obscure back-channels (like Rumble), it arguably harms the effectiveness of our public square.  If we’re only allowed to hear half the conversation, it becomes more difficult to trust the conclusions we’re hearing. Allowing all voices to be heard—including those we deeply disagree with—helps us all move on. (Indeed, some of our editors believed that the second article revealed the justification, circular logic, and cognitive dissonance at the root of many election conspiracies).

What do you think the public square is supposed to be?

There are many readers who are disinclined to believe in more ominous narratives, but because they feel that the point of view is being hidden from them, they’re never fully able to dismiss it. To them, this article didn’t promote the conspiracy theories but helped those who had some sympathies to it realize that even when they were allowed to hear this point of view, it still didn’t stand up to scrutiny.

5. Uncharitable readings. Some have interpreted the earlier version of the article as suggesting some extreme possibilities— e.g., “Does that person really think that everything was all staged and faked?” 

The answer is:  no!  That interpretation would definitely be concerning, but it does not represent the author’s perspective. To the degree the original article conveyed this, we take responsibility for lapses in our editing process. The article has been clarified to make this more clear.  To reiterate, the author of the personal story did not condone in any way rioting or insurrection. She simply did not witness any of that in her experience on January 6, 2021. And her account focused on what she personally saw and experienced while in Washington, D.C.

In our view, both articles featured similar helpful qualifications. For instance, Daniel Ortner did not call everyone who voted for President Trump a Kingman. Rather, he said, “My focus is on those who resisted the peaceful transition of power.” If we really want to seek the full truth about any issue, it does seem to us that hearing different perspectives gives us more to ponder. 

This would not be the first (or last) time our efforts to invite more understanding and allowance of dissenting views have elicited pushback. And sadly, we witnessed much of the same divisive rhetoric in response—including personal attacks on the authors (and Public Square Mag). These included: 

  • “The author seems dumb.”
  • “Uninformed, naive, should they be representing any viewpoint?”
  • “Authors by being there [that day] must support insurrection.”
  • “Flat-earthers”
  • “Low-key advocating of outright conspiracy theories”

To be clear, there are many valid points being raised by critics worth discussing. But good-faith critiques aside, we were honestly saddened that many of the reactions filled in the blank with the most uncharitable readings of the author’s intent and message. Why does that happen so often, with so many unpopular views?  What is it that we get out of creating cartoonish characters of our opponents’ views? 

6. Holding hard questions humbly. This whole situation is also a reminder of the wisdom of simply holding our own perspectives—on either side of any hot issue—with greater humility. As one of our staff members wrote, “I’m hanging back. I’m hesitant to form opinions because everything seems so diluted. I try to listen to others’ opinions and give them space in my mind and heart. Conflict causes an ache inside me and I withdraw. I believe most people are good people and not trying to hurt others. In these hot contentious topics, I find myself seeking for real truth and not trying to align with my previously held positions or win one for ‘my team.’”

7. How dare you publish this! This weekend, we’ve seen large groups of people demanding that U.S. institutions align with their own views—and insisting that anything else is illegitimate.  From the editor’s point of view, I must confess to my own weariness and growing impatience at the outrage culture wherein our primary efforts are focused towards demanding things be the way we want.  In this case, that manifests when the primary response to an article seen as problematic is to publicly agonize over how anyone allowed it to see the light of day.  

Perhaps a little more backbone would help all of us navigate these kinds of questions. And less fragility. If something is shared that challenges your own views or deeply offends your own sensibilities, that’s a great opportunity to pose a challenging question, scrutinize the argument, and point out what it’s missing. For instance, one critic astutely pointed out that this essay reflected a “right-wing version of ‘mostly peaceful’” rhetoric like we heard with riots last summer. What a great insight! This person was essentially highlighting the danger of engaging in pretense like the left did regarding the violence of the BLM protests.  In order to heal as a society, we agree that it’s critical to avoid answering one bad partisan narrative with its counterpoint on the other side. Rather, we need to be completely honest with each other and willing to acknowledge and mourn for the sins of our own side. 

Such a great perspective. Let’s dig into more of that. But please spare us all the name-calling and character attacks. Thoughtful, good-hearted people disagree on all sorts of things (even when the experts mostly don’t).  That’s the simple reality. So, let’s please stop pretending our public square would be stronger if it were dominated only by consensus views and official narratives about anything (the election, the pandemic, climate change, or sexuality/gender).

It’s not. And this is the very atmosphere, as noted earlier, that paralyzes public exchange and makes people on all sides (of every issue) impervious to learning new truths. For instance, if the anonymous author was misguided to share any of this, could the fact that she and others have been forced into a corner with their backs to the wall have something to do with why they have doubled down on their own concerns?

That’s what any of us would do when backed into a corner. And it’s related to the social media patterns Jonathan Haidt highlighted as making us less collectively intelligent and more “stupid.”  If we can’t share our honest thoughts with each other—and when we do receive swift retribution—why would we expect any other outcome? Learning does not happen in an atmosphere of hostility, condemnation, and fear—not in our homes, not in our faith community, and not in our country.     

8. Crossing your red line. It’s also worth acknowledging that everyone has a “red line” when it comes to acceptable disagreements—hinting at an issue about which (in their judgment) it is not okay to disagree openly (see “Is it okay to disagree about this?!”).

In recent years, that list of red lines has continued to growfrom dominant views on systemic racism and climate change to pandemic response and electoral security. Unsurprisingly, a remarkable 62% of Americans reported holding political views they’re afraid to share in a 2020 Cato Institute Survey— reflecting a rise in four points since 2017 when 58% of Americans agreed that “the political climate these days prevented them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.” It’s important to note that these fears were not exclusive to any particular side—crossing all kinds of divisions, with majorities of Democrats (52%), independents (59%), and Republicans (77%) all agreeing they have political opinions they are afraid to share.

Can you feel the chill in the air?  Among other questions, we wrote in that essay, “We wonder if it’s okay to have questions about the legitimacy and security of our recent election—or, perhaps, does harboring such concerns classify us as ‘traitors’ and ‘seditionists?’” 

There is an inherent messiness to a healthy public square—as different views collide in our search for truth.

As the article continues, “Is it okay for followers of Jesus to disagree about any of this (or not”? Herein lies the difference between “red line” questions—and other, more acceptable questions.  In the case of the latter, thoughtful, good-hearted people may well openly disagree—and decide to carry on a rousing conversation about those differences.

9. What makes a healthy public square? Even with saying all this, for those who have been scandalized by the fact we would publish a perspective like this, what do you think the public square is supposed to be?  A place only for perspectives that line up nicely with official expert consensus? Or perhaps anything that doesn’t offend your own deepest, most cherished views?

It’s true that rigorous review of evidence, scientific study and expert opinions should always carry weight in our public conversation. But so often, more time and experience reveal limitations in their own conclusions.

That’s why, in our view, there is an inherent messiness to a healthy public square—as different views collide in our search for truth.  This won’t be the last time something we publish pushes some buttons. In order to feature the range of viewpoint diversity among people of faith—and open it to critical scrutiny—we still believe there is value in attempting to feature contrasting views wherever possible, including the most sensitive and important of questions. If we’re making people on both sides a little uncomfortable, we feel like we’re doing our job (stay tuned, conservatives, for a well-reasoned gun control essay from two professors coming tomorrow). 

10. A note on bothsiderism. One of the friends of our magazine wrote, “this isn’t a time for bothsiderism. January 6 and all it represents (then and now), constitutes an existential threat to our democracy. A fond remembrance of how good the food was on the Titanic completely misses the point.”

We’re grateful when people trust us to hear good-faith critique like this. And we do agree with the real threats to democracy represented in fomenting widespread distrust in our electoral security. But we’d recommend keeping an eye on that word—bothsiderism—which has been increasingly applied to a growing array of topics. Topics about which it is not proper to question the prevailing orthodoxy. Would it surprise any of us to see that list continue to grow, as will the retribution to those who defy it? 

None of this will resolve all of the pointed concerns raised by last week’s articles. But we do hope this will provide some more context on our decisions and thinking.

About the author

Public Square Staff

Our core team, including our Editor, Managing Editor, Communications and Media Directors, Visual Display Director and Copy Editor.
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