Over on Meg Stout’s blog, someone who says they’re a friend of mine (and I have no reason to doubt they are) has taken issue with my approach here to Meg Stout. But I think this friend is right: my exchanges with Meg have not been my “finest hour.” I’ve been frustrated and a little angry, and it shows. He or she says there are three problems with my approach. I’ll take them one at a time. Unfortunately, I’ll have to do it here, as Ms. Stout does not allow me to post over there.
First, the insults. He has referred to you on other forums as “either delusional or incredibly dishonest, or both. I’m thinking it’s both” and described your posts as “comedy gold”. I respect his usual balance and restraint, but we all have off days (I certainly do). I don’t think this is Runtu’s finest hour. I do not think that insults or mockery have any place in serious discussion. They demean the writer. If an argument is weak then present a stronger counter argument. If readers cannot grasp the intricacies then we should not stoop to insults, but should find a better way to present our evidence. If we are taking among friends we simply have to say we have looked at the evidence and strongly disagree: our reputation will do the rest. The world has too much hate and not enough careful thought.
It’s true. I have insulted her. It’s frustrating to be have someone ridicule and insult me in public and in private conversations and then not allow me to respond. That’s no excuse, but it does explain my frustration. Do I think Meg Stout’s approach is dishonest? Yes, I do, and I’ve explained why, but I can say that without the personal insults and mockery. So, I hereby publicly apologize to Meg Stout for treating her disrespectfully.
My second problem with Runtu’s attack is his apparent raising of evidence to be higher than its necessary masters, clarity and logic. Regarding clarity, he refers to your algorithm as “a complete misunderstanding of how historical evidence works.” This may be true in the sense that historians do not use algorithms, but maybe they should. I think most historians do not understand how algorithms work. Writing an algorithm is not a proof that a claim is true, it is simply a way to clarify what would otherwise take several paragraphs to write. If more historians could clarify their work then the world would be a better place.
I think my friend misunderstands where I am coming from, so perhaps I haven’t been clear. My problem with Meg’s approach isn’t disagreement over how evidence fits, but rather her complete disavowal of documentary evidence in favor of naked speculation and assertion. To give an example, there is no documentary evidence whatsoever that links Nancy Winchester to John Bennett’s “sex ring,” and yet Meg simply asserts that it happened and goes with it. Similarly, my criticism of her “algorithm” isn’t that evidence can’t be weighted, but that the algorithm is unevenly applied, as can be seen in how she views evidence regarding John Bennett and Sarah Pratt. A historian is supposed to look at the evidence as it is, not engage in double-standards or invent things out of whole cloth.
As for logic, those who worship evidence can easily forget that evidence must be the servant of reason. So it does not matter how many people said “I slept with Joseph” if all of these people only said it to protect the church and their own polygamous marriages 50 years later. Similarly it does not matter how many diaries at the time said “Joseph was horrible to me” if the sexual implication is dependent on the later confessions referred to. I am not saying that Runtu has ignored those points, I am just concerned at the naive implication that evidence can ever stand on its own.
I can reassure my friend that I do not believe “evidence can ever stand on its own.” What I am concerned about is logic taking the place of evidence. A historian looks at available evidence and makes logical conclusions from that evidence. What Meg has done is to use reason and logic instead of evidence. Let me give an example of what I’m talking about. A coworker this morning was telling me that she has a dog that likes to eat socks. This morning she found several socks from a laundry basket on the floor, and the dog was choking. It’s fairly safe to conclude that the dog had eaten a sock, and sure enough, it eventually vomited up a sock. Meg’s approach is to overlay a conclusion onto a situation without any evidence (see the Nancy Winchester discussion). Returning to the dog example, Meg’s approach would be to “propose” that before coming to the current owner, the dog had been used in dog fights in El Paso, and the sock eating was a post-traumatic reaction to the abuse it had suffered. It’s bizarre to me that anyone can read Meg’s writings and not see what’s going on. No, evidence doesn’t stand on its own, but neither do reason and speculation. We use reason and logic to make sense of the evidence, not to replace it.
My third and final problem with the attacks on Joseph Smith is that they ignore the bigger picture. As Lindsay Park said on Feminist Mormon Housewives (and she is no supporter of Joseph), the sex is not the point. From the point of view of the girls, being unable to socialize with other boys (because the girls were technically married) would be far more serious. There are also bigger forces at work here, as I hope to show.
As Adam Archer mentioned on the latest “Mormon Expression” podcast, what is it that exmos want? The destruction of the church, or to change it? And how do we think that change will happen, realistically? It seems to me that the only realistic hope for change is to expose the staunchest believers to all the evidence, but in a non threatening way. By saying “yes we can look at every document, without being scared by the word pedophile” you are easing the church in the right direction, in my opinion.
I’m not sure what bigger picture I’m missing. I have repeatedly said it’s not the sex that is the point, as my friend put it. I do not want to destroy or change the church, for one thing. How strange that anyone would think that.
What I think is going on here is an inability to separate my problems with Meg Stout’s methodology from some perceived “attack on Joseph Smith.” I’m not interested in attacking Joseph Smith and never have been. For some strange reason, people continue to insist that I think sexuality in Joseph Smith’s marriages is a proven “fact,” and they apparently believe this hard assertion (which I’ve never made) is the main point of disagreement with Meg Stout. It’s not, and in fact it’s not even related to my disagreement with Ms. Stout. I will simply say again that an honest historian or historical researcher cannot invent evidence out of whole cloth. Speculation and assertion cannot replace documentary evidence.
Either way, I would like to say in the end that I feel bad that a friend of mine would be afraid to challenge me openly. I’m certainly not averse to being told when I’m wrong, and I will always admit it when I am shown to be wrong.
Again, I apologize to Meg Stout for getting personal. I should not have reacted in kind to her repeated insults and attacks.