This evening I was having dinner with a well-known professor of sociology from Stanford. Near the end of the dinner, he was discussing genetic research in Utah. He said the only problem is that the research is entirely focused on the men because the Mormons don’t care enough about women to keep their genealogy.
I cringed, and one of my colleagues quickly tried to intervene. “Is that true, Gordon?” she said in a tone that made it clear she was inviting correction. Turning to the professor, she said, “Gordon’s a Mormon, you know.” Of course, he didn’t know, and his embarrassment was already apparent, but I was not going to let him off easily. Perhaps now that I am past 40 I am getting a little curmudgeonly with religious bigots.
I asked, “How would women be excluded from the genealogical records? Do you mean to suggest that they aren’t recorded at all?”
Professor: “No. But I was told that it was impossible to trace a woman’s line.”
Gordon: “But if it is impossible to trace her line, then you couldn’t trace most men either, could you? After all, women have fathers. Do they just rip the whole line out, or are you suggesting that they just don’t connect fathers and daughters?”
Professor: “Ummm, I don’t really know. It’s just what I was told.”
Gordon: “Well, I would ask my wife, but I haven’t allowed her to speak to me for many years, so I’m not sure whether she would have anything to say.”
This version of the conversation probably appears more confrontational than it felt to most of the people at the table. It was clear that he was confused, and I was genuinely interested in figuring out whether there was some interesting fact about the genealogical records that lay at the root of his confusion. (Does anyone here know?) Nevertheless, when it became clear that he couldn’t produce the fact and had simply swallowed this oppression story whole, I made my smart-aleck comment and changed the subject.
Confronting religious bigotry is always a challenge. My inclination has been to expose the erroneous beliefs gently, often attempting to use humor rather than indignation. (You may not think that my last quip was funny, but most of the people at the table know my wife and realized immediately how ridiculous that portrayal was.) The problem with my approach is that it does not encourage discussion, which could serve an educational function. Of course, this professor was not in the mood to discuss his perceptions; he just wanted to move the conversation elsewhere. Which I allowed him to do after only a short time on the hot seat.
UPDATE: I edited the post to remove the professor’s identity. People say and think stupid things, and although I was quite angry at this fellow for his ignorant comments, I decided that his mistake should not be immortalized on this blog.