Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Playing around with bigotry.

Recently, The Book of Mormon Musical began showing here in my city.  Naturally this has brought some attention to the church in local media, including an article in a local paper and a short interview with out Stake President in a local newscast.  Naturally the Church takes the high road, not protesting against the play or even denouncing it directly.  Instead the Church has purchased full-page, inside the front cover ads on the playbill encouraging people to read the book now that they've seen the play.  Well done.

Any negative message from the Church, no matter how it was worded, would be counterproductive.  It would leave people with the impression that perhaps the play makes a valid critical point of some kind.  Critics would pounce accusing us of being afraid of a harmless play, wanting to censor others, and worse. 

Well, I am not representing the Church, I'm just a regular everyday Mormon.  I would never seek to limit the free speech of others, and I'm not going to limit my own free speech either.

I'll admit that I haven't seen the whole play, I can think of hundred better ways to spend my time and money, but I have seen some of the musical numbers and read a couple detailed synopsis of the play and I have some comments based on what I have seen in those sources.  These are comments that should have been made by any pundit or blogger who want to uphold freedom of religion, but it looks like many of them fail to notice the connection.

Obviously the play is crude, vulgar, filled with profanity, deliberately blasphemous and wildly inaccurate in it's portrayal of Mormons, missionaries, our faith, civilization in Uganda and more.  No surprise given it comes from people responsible for TV shows and movies of a similar bent.  People going to see it know it will be like that and won't mistake it for some kind of documentary.

So no big deal, right?

Well, perhaps not.  All humor has to have some intersection with something that is perceived as being true or the joke falls flat.  When audience members laugh at a joke at our expense in that play, how often will that perceived grain of truth be something that is actually true?  How often will the 'truth' they perceive be that Mormons are lacking in judgement and rational thinking skills, or that all LDS missionaries are ignorant social misfits or liars, or that religion is general is a foolish concept.  While people won't view it as a documentary, I expect a great many of them will view it as symbolic of how things really are.

This connects with why we don't have people performing in blackface any longer, portraying those of African heritage as shiftless, lazy and ignorant comedic characters.  Those performers were funny to people in the past because racist attitudes lead them to see the act as having an element of truth.  Today we don't share those attitudes, so the act loses it's connection with truth and we see it as the racism it is.  Likewise with performances that vilified Jews or any other minority group.  People didn't see themselves as racist, they just considered their views accurate.

But it's harmless right?  All just a bit of fun that doesn't mean anything.

Again I would disagree.  We like to think we are rational people ruled by our minds, but the truth is that we are deeply emotional people most of the time and what we feel often has more power over us than what we think.  This is why some works of art are seen as dangerous by totalitarians.  They can't tolerate a play or painting or book or song that will sway the emotions of the people against them.  They ban and suppress anything that could incite opposition.

An example of this is Shen Yun Performing Arts, a company based in New York that is dedicated to preserving ancient Chinese culture through traditional dance and other performing arts.  I took my wife out to see their show as her Christmas present and we were blown away by the beauty of it.  What I did not expect was there they also had a dance number portraying the current persecution of believers of Falun Gong by the Chinese government.  It was poignant and powerful.  Many members of Shen Yun are Chinese citizens who want to promote greater freedom in their homeland.  Shen Yun is not permitted to perform in China.

For some, The Book of Mormon Musical will become the thing that leads to them investigating and even joining the church, but for many others I expect the result will be a hardening of their heart against the message of the restored gospel.  I also expect that the play will promote that idea that people of our faith are intellectually deficient.  Why hold Mormon views on marriage or anything else as worthy of respect and consideration when Mormons discredit themselves by believing in a religion like that?  

Mockery has the effect of dehumanizing the target and relegating them to second class citizen status.  It leads people to feel justified in denying them their rights or persecuting them in other ways.  While totalitarians will ban arts that would incite opposition against them, they will also promote arts that attack and demonize their enemies.

The mocking of any religion promotes religious bigotry and it is a swipe at religious freedom itself.  While there are some out there who recognize how this play encourages that (see the links below), mostly it seems to be a good stealth weapon.  

 I'm not saying that this one play is going to create some huge wave of persecution against Mormons or anybody else.  It will have it's day and fade away.  But I am saying that it is a sign of the times we live in, evidence of a larger trend in society that Mormons need to be aware of so they can oppose appropriately.  It is a call for us to let our light shine all the brighter.  The less truth people see in those who mock us, the more their mockery will only damage themselves and the sooner people will see that play and anything like it for what it is.

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Related Links
"MORMON" MUSICAL IS PURE BIGOTRY  - Bob Lonsberry

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