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Petri dish

This is a post with questions and musings. If you want answers or opinions, try a talking head show.

I watched the women from the FLDS compound on The Today Show. I see photos of them out of their element in the newspaper. My thoughts run something like this (unedited and a more than a little judgmental):

  • They are all so similar in styling and mannerisms. Little House on the Stepford Prairie.
  • They look vacant, robotic. Who holds the remote control?
  • Their lifestyle is bizarre and they don’t even know it.
  • They are brainwashed by their leaders.

And then I stop myself.

Am I any different?

  • I make a point to fit in to my tribe.
  • I am often on auto-pilot. I follow the rules and question them not too often.
  • My lifestyle does not seem bizarre to me.
  • Am I brainwashed by my society? (and by this I don’t mean me, specifically, but all of us)

Sure, my community of mainstream-America is much larger than the FLDS one, but does size give legitimacy to enculturation?

Perhaps groups and brainwashing go together. To assimilate into a group, an individual must surrender some of her own values to the group’s values. We know that a shared value is not necessarily a moral value — if it were, we would not have had institutions such as slavery.

When I studied political philosophy, my professor likened “culture” to a Petri dish. You know, like a throat culture. Oh, how I detested it when the doctor triggered my gag reflex with a swab and then deposited any collected micro-organisms into a dish full of some sort of goo. In this culture the little buggers would grow.

I envision myself growing in a giant Petri dish, surrounded by my culture. I live it, breathe it, observe it, develop in it, and cannot imagine being outside it. My every thought I think is filtered through the lens of the dish. I am incapable, most of the time, of seeing from outside the dish, because my usual level of consciousness doesn’t offer that perspective.

So do I have any right to judge these women? If I had been planted in their Petri dish, would I be any different?

Given the same circumstances, would you? Really?

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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21 Responses

  1. Here’s the first interesting point. When the war began, I made it a point to stop reading the newspaper. The news still leaks in–obviously–but I know almost nothing about the FLDS compound. I’ve heard about a compound and there were children there. And that’s where my knowledge stops. Isn’t that bizarre–I made this point to turn off the news and if you put up your hands enough, it truly barely creeps in. Which is also pretty scary how I’ve been living for years now. But it was self preservation.About the women, I think it’s really easy to judge someone else’s culture and excuse your own. When I step back and really listen to myself describe things that are dear to me they sound bizarre. Ridiculous. And yet, they make sense in practice. In context.

  2. Hi Lori,I love this thought-provoking post. You know I taught for a long time at a community college with all sorts of different world-views — as, we hope, a place of higher learning provides…one of the wonderful things about learning…and my students often challenged what they saw as my liberal ‘moral relativist’ point of view…most of the time as it related to my complete inclusivity on topics related to GLBT issues.While I didn’t change the way I taught I had to acknowledge how my own worldview shaped me and by extension, my teaching — which I think is all anyone of us can do — acknowledge the lens through which we see the world and come up against difference, or what we view as difference.I’ve struggled with the FDLS issue because I understand how strong the tenets of their faith must be, and how unshakeable that must seem to them — if one’s faith requires ‘x’ — and that is how you are taught that you are brought into God’s grace — well, you can understand their adherence to principles an outsider might think unthinkable. What is one person’s ‘cult’ is another’s religion. What a thorny, thorny issue.Personally, I believe that our lives and minds flourish in the light of knowledge and education of the world — as much as we can get about others, their customs, their history, their religion, their traditions — not simply from the perspective of an outsider but from the compassion perspective of the interior world…I fear these children haven’t had the opportunity to gain the skills to seek that out for themselves someday.Thanks Lori,Pam

  3. To make choices you have to know there are choices. When I think of these women I don’t imagine that they know there is any other way. Still, even in medevial times there were women who earned a burning at the stake for having a mind and the nerve to speak it. Had I been born in a different century, I think I may have been one of them. But would that have been good?This is a great discussion topic . . .

  4. You bring up great points, and they are ones I’ve thought about too.Technically, we’re all brainwashed into our beliefs. I no longer practice nor follow the way I was raised, and it took a lot of time to undo that brainwashing. Of course, my brain has been washed with other ideas now…so one could argue that it’s six of one and half-dozen of another. 😉Honestly, I don’t know enough about this FLDS situation to judge it. I’ve purposely not read or watched much about it, because it disturbs me. It’s a slippery slope. People should have the freedom to practice whatever religion (or lack thereof) that they want. And, people should never have to fear for their physical safety. If the children (or other people) are being physically abused, that’s one thing. If they’re being “forced” to believe a certain way, well, that’s another. Like I said before, from certain perspectives, we’re all being “forced” to believe (or not believe) in <>something<>.Situations like this serve as a reminder to me that certain people in this country are very good at shouting for the need of <>Freedom of Religion<>, when in reality it only counts if the religion matches their own. The last time I checked, that wasn’t <>truly<> freedom.

  5. Honestly, I think you’re right and most of us would be like them if that’s where we grew up. Most people do not have attitudes and behaviours that are wildly different to those we grow up with.

  6. I have wondered about this too – so many people look on other people as misguided for their beliefs. I’m sure there are many people who think I’m misguided for being an atheist. What really bothers me though is at what point does the state get to make that judgment? At what point does religious freedom run up against what society as a whole considers wrong? It’s a thorny question.In the end, though, we are all trying to fit into our own groups. Some just try harder than others.

  7. Mel — exactly. About the context. Maybe that’s another thing the Petri dish is.Mrs X — that thorny issue is at the crux of all societies: how do you balance the values and rights of an individual with the values and rights of the group? Obviously, there is no static answer.Caro — exactly.CP — excellent point about those most vocal about religious freedom for everyone. It is often code for “religious freedom for everyone to do things MY way (the right way).”Beagle — oooh, you’re making me think. I often wonder if I would have the courage to speak my mind/make an unpopular choice if it really cost me something.Pam — I love your last paragraph.

  8. You have a good point. I know I am brainwashed in many ways and some of those I recognize and some I don’t. The thing that bothers me most about this compound is the lack of other viewpoints and possibilities. At least in our more mainstream culture we can imagine and possibly pursue a different individual truth.

  9. Chicklet — :-).Geohde. — sorry I didn’t provide a link. How Americocentric of me.Joanne — through most of human history (and in many places today), once girls reach menarche, they are marriageable. The idea of choice and personal direction is a relatively new one. I’m not saying that either way is right — just that the “right” way has a context.Some cultures today consider “our” ways abuse: making babies sleep alone; pushing kids out of the home when they become adults.

  10. I don’t judge them for their lifestyles…I judge them for any role they played in the abuse of their children.

  11. My husband and I have debated this topic three days in a row now at dinner. I think the women should be allowed to be with their young children at least, perhaps aged 6 or less, because the thought of a child, expecially a very young child, being away from its mama, is really bothersome to me, and I imagine could cause trama to the children which can and proably will scar them for life, without years of intervention of a good therapist. The women did what was culturally appropriate, however foreign that is to most of us. They may have been risking their lives or safety had they spoken up to protect their young daughters from early marriages. They were coerced by the men in the organization. I think that any men who had sex with underage girls should be punished, but regardless of the law, I do not agree with punishing the women or the children.I understand that other women in this country are coerced by their husbands into doing illegal things, and I understand that they should be held accountable for their adult choices. But this compound seems to reduce women to a child-like state. I think the women seemed totally stoned when Larry King interviewed them. They sound like robots when they talk. It’s too bad adults can’t be tried as children. I heard someone make the point that most children are emotionally abused to some extent, does that mean we should remove them all from their parents?

  12. This whole thing creeps me out so much that I can’t pay any attention to it.But, of course, you’re right that when the whole world is crazy, if you’re sane, then <>you’re<> the crazy one.

  13. I have done my fair share of investigating the Mormon culture because we almost re-located to Utah (and I wanted to know what we might be in for in terms of neighborhood culture before we did so). Part of that was reading up on the fundamentalist side of things.My thoughts include:#1 – Men who sleep with underage girls should go to jail. Period. # 2 – 2nd, 3rd, 4th wives, etc., who applied for and accepted child welfare benefits whilst living in the compound should be punished (unless their husbands forced them to do this).I seriously have no issue with polygamists who (1) do not take or become wives under the age of 18 or (2) do not accept welfare benefits as “unmarried” women with children. There are so many legal alternative lifestyles in the U.S. that we might as well let this one be one of them.Regarding compound-lifestyle and the young women, the word “complicit” comes to mind. The men were complicit. The women — their mothers — were complicit. Sometimes it takes much courage to not be so complicit. And as far as the women not knowing what was going on was wrong. C’mon, I think tucked away, gated communities, secret lives where you can’t leave would be a sign to any person…Thanks for a thought-provoking post Lori!

  14. You know? I’ve had the same exact thoughts. To be perfectly honest, though I find the idea of living this lifestyle inconceivable for myself I really don’t care if other women want to. In fact, had it not been for the fact that this group had made a habit of engaging minor girls for the purposes of sex and marriage I would not have a problem leaving them alone in the least bit.For me, the issue with the minors is the only stumbling block because you are subjecting a child who lacks the experience and intellectual resources to make a decision for herself to the rigors of an adult institution of marriage and all its attendant responsibilities. Of course, I think we all know several of the reasons why these older men target the youngsters, but the fact remains that drafting a mere <>child<> for the purposes of sex and procreation is just plain wrong. An adult woman should be left alone to make the decision for herself but a child should never be put in a situation in which the affection of their guardians is dependent upon them surrendering to such situations.(And even though I am more than willing to live and let live in the event that plural marriage only involve adult women I still find the whole thing rather odd and not a little like middle eastern culture.)

  15. I don’t see a lot of difference between the lives these women are leading and the lives of others who choose to live in a religious community.The question that turns in my mind is whether or not they have free will to leave. I don’t know enough about the FLDS to say one way or another. And I also don’t know where the line between free will and self-imposed or imposed coercion lies.Then there’s the question that others have already asked about when religious beliefs conflict with what society generally approves or disapproves. Subjectivity makes that very difficult to tease apart.

  16. Contextual morality? Most issues are only right or wrong within their context, and so are subjective. But I belive there are some issues which have objective value. Some actions are wrong regardless of societal context. Like slavery. And like child abuse.

  17. This is a gooder, cuz I put myself up on my pedestal and think these bitches are crazy – and then someone like you points out that we might be one of those bitches if our circumstances were different, and I think, well, maybe they’re not crazy. Maybe we’re the crazy ones… cuz they seem kinda happy in their own weird way? And really, I bet people look at me jabbing myself with needles, spending $10k for a kid, and think they’d never do that and judge me… yet how little do they know about where I’m at and what I’m going through.

  18. I am here via Time Warp “from the future” and really enjoyed your post Lori. I appreciate your perspective on this. I used to always think that I if I had been alive in the 1960’s, as my parents were, that I like them would have been somewhat of a hippie and would have protested things that I believe in and walked with Martin Luther King Jr., as they did. However, as an adult and mother today, I have been surprised at myself that I have not gotten more involved over the years in social justice issues, like they did and have continued to. It may be in part because I married someone who has some differing political views than I do and thus I am less likely to get involved in some things, as I might be if we saw everything eye to eye. So I totally get what your saying about the Petri Dish and wondering if you had been born into their life if you would just go with it or see that there was something that didn’t feel right about it and try to change things or get out. Very interesting to think about.

    Thank you for sharing and for participating in Time Warp this week! I hope that you will “do the Time Warp again” with us in the future! 🙂

  19. what an amazing post and interesting thing to contemplate. I am forever asking “WHY”, but (and this might get very personal and uncomfortable..and I’m sorry) I also grew up in a house where Secrets were kept, voilence was employed to have us behave, I was hit, scolded, and I watched my parents fight and love passionately. There was no “calm” in my house. Yet, I look back on it and I see it that way, I remember it being angst ridden but loving, and for me it was normal. No I didn’t like it, but where was I going? I was a child and I loved my parents and I felt like ALL FAMILIES must fight like this (and I was judgey with friends who families didn’t…not in an envious way, but a :”WTH is wrong with your family?” kind of way

    while I wasn’t raised in a cult…(HA) I was raised with fear, with intimidation and I can only thank God that it wasn’t as severe as this is, that I wasn’t permantently scarred from it.

    WOW, I am so sorry for writing all that, but it did give me a lot to think about .

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