Some conversations I’ve had in the past months have touched on the idea of individuality. The concept can play surprisingly different roles in people’s narratives about Mormonism.
For instance, some good friends who I’ve known for many years are in the process of leaving the church. Conversations with them sometimes discuss the idea of individuality. I would paraphrase some of their assertions along these lines: “Aspects of church doctrine and culture — important among them, the multiplicity of rules on everything from earrings or tattoos to alcohol, tithing, church attendance, and so on — force a type of conformity that prevents me from fully expressing my individual personality. Only outside the confines of Mormonism can I really be an individual.” It’s a familiar theme — similar complaints are aired regularly on the internet, on bloggernacle blogs and DAMU sites and elsewhere.
Conversations with a different set of mostly young church members in California suggest a very different way that individuality can play a role in the Mormon narrative. One refrain I’ve heard somewhat regularly goes along these lines: “All of my friends at school are drinking and hooking up, and I feel lots of pressure to do the same. My Mormon identity gives me the strength to resist that pressure, and thus to preserve my own individuality. If I weren’t a Mormon, I’d probably be much more of a conformist and less of an individual.” Similar assertions come up regularly in some discussions in church contexts, as well as online.
These narratives are striking in their disagreement. Both of these narratives draw on common baselines. Both narratives give a very high worth to the idea of individuality, and both evaluate Mormonism in terms of how it affects that individuality. Yet both of them situate Mormonism, and Mormon rules in particular, in very different ways in that analysis. In one narrative, Mormonism and Mormon rules reinforce and protect individuality; in the other narrative, they stifle individuality.
Is one of these narratives wrong? Is it possible that they’re both right? In what ways might Mormonism (and Mormon rules in particular) foster individuality, and in what ways might it stifle individuality? I think our answer to that is going to largely depend on how we frame different actions as being expressions (or not expressions) of individuality.
Take alcohol, for instance. Is it a sign of individuality to drink alcohol? Or is it a sign of individuality not to drink alcohol? The act can easily be cast in either light. One could assert on the one hand, “all of my Mormon friends conform to church rules; but I retain my individuality by drinking alcohol.” On the other hand, one could assert (in most non-Utah environments) that “most of my classmates and co-workers drink alcohol; but I retain my individuality by refusing to drink.” The same dichotomy potentially applies to everything from tattoos or body piercings to sex. (Is cheering for the Yankees a sign of individualism or of conformity? Context matters a lot; and ultimately, the answer may depend on whether you’re in the Bronx or at Fenway.)
Also, I have to wonder to what extent these sorts of decisions are based on different tribal affiliation, rather than individual iconoclastic tendencies. Does the Mormon really refrain from drinking because she wants to assert her individuality? Or is she really saying: “Most of you belong to one tribe, which allows alcohol. I belong to another tribe, which does not.” How do we measure the relative individuality of our actions? Do we measure them against the tribal norms (no drinking), or against larger societal norms (widespread alcohol use)?
(And of course, if tribal norms are societal norms, then the two analyses may dovetail. In a largely Mormon-dominated environment like Utah, there may be little in the way of societal norms that differ from church norms.)
And ultimately, why do we think that individuality matters? Or rather, why are some types (but only some types) of individuality prized? It’s clear that not all non-conformity is good. No one proudly asserts their individuality by refusing to wear deodorant, for instance. Why are drinking or not-drinking, tattooing or not-tattooing, important ways to assert one’s individuality — but refusing to brush one’s teeth is not? (Does individuality really exist, or is it all just variation in tribal affiliation? There’s no non-tooth-brushing tribe.)
What do we really mean if we say that we prize individuality — and how does this value fit into our various Mormon narratives?