You’re Probably Not as Edgy as You Think


“Subculture deviance” is a theoretical perspective in the sociology of deviance that, in response to the question of why people deviate from societal norms, posits that people simply adhere to the norms of a subculture that is at variance with the broader culture. In other words, people who think they’re being radical, edgy freethinkers are often actually just following another crowd that has its own set of norms and values. 

As somebody who grew up in the 1990s Utah sacred canopy I’ve seen this play out many times in the Latter-day Saint context. Person is a super strict Latter-day Saint, goes to graduate school or otherwise immerses themselves in some other environment whose norms and values are at tension with those in the Mormon belt, they convert and are still vehement warriors for the truth, but in a different direction. 

For the purpose of this post I’m not questioning their conversion: they may be right, but what they aren’t is edgy, unique, or independent thinking, and in certain subcultures within Mormondom the iconoclast label comes part and parcel with its identity. However, true iconoclasm, where you think everybody but you is going crazy, is incredibly uncomfortable; it’s not an experience people usually revel in. Years ago I read the letters of Thomas More as he was traveling down the pathway that eventually led to his execution, and I was struck at how non-martyrish it felt. If there was a way to not provoke people (and keep his head) and stay true to his beliefs, he would have taken it. Indeed, he was desperately trying to find some sort of loophole that would get him out, but the final end of it all was unavoidable. 

The letters of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Protestant minister in Germany who was executed for his opposition to the Nazi regime) while he was in prison show a similar theme, when even he had his moment of doubts. 

I feel that, in some way I don’t understand, I find myself in radical opposition to all my friends, I become increasingly isolated with my views of things, even though I was and remain personally close to these people. All this has frightened me and shaken my confidence so that I began to hear that dogmatism might be leading me astray–since there seemed no particular reason why my own view in these matters should be any better, any more right, than the views of many really capable pastors whom I sincerely respect.  

Conversely, when people have large subcultures supporting them in their anti-establishment behavior or views it doesn’t look like this. If you’re chaining yourself to a temple, you probably have your reward online or maybe even in a major media publication, even if some in the Elder’s quorum view you askance. We see this in the Latter-day Saint community especially, which itself is essentially a subculture within a broader culture, so people whose ideologies are, say, more in concert with those of sociocultural elites can claim to be iconoclastic when in fact they are comporting with an ideology that is even more predominant and socioculturally powerful. Furthermore, with the rise of the digital the Latter-day Saint sociocultural domain and sacred canopy is becoming even more porous and limited, so the sob stories about people stuck in insular, judgy, tight knit conservative communities (the plot of who knows how many Hollywood films) becomes less grounded in reality and more in stereotype or media narrative as such influence dies off and more and more the problems intrinsic to the other side of pendulum swing become salient as atomistic hyper-individualism takes over. So congratulations if you’re on that side, you’ve won, but the world in the rubble of religious communitarianism is not some Dead Poet’s Society or Chocolat fantasy where secular humanism allows people to unrestrictedly reach for their potential as human beings, but an atomistic world with exploding mental health problems and declining populations. 

One of the most famous social psychology findings is from the Asch experiment, where groups of research “subjects” gathered in a room were shown cards of lines of varying lengths, and were asked to state which ones were longer. In reality, only one person was a true research subject, the others were part of the research team, and the confederates stated that a line that was clearly shorter was in fact longer, with the finding that in most cases the actual research subject made an obviously erroneous judgment at least once to comport with the crowd. The people who consistently answered correctly, popular opinion be damned, were in a small minority, and in the debriefing reported that they felt stress when it came time to say what they knew what was right. However, if even one person disagreed along with them it made it much easier, and this is the situation we often find ourselves in in Mormonland. Whether you’re an anti-vaxxer who thinks that the Church has naively bought into a government narrative, or you’re waiting for the old timers to die off so the Church can get a revelation that conveniently brings it within the Overton window of the social left in the United States in the year 2022, you have your supporters (who you might spend more time with than the people actually in your ward). Maybe you’re right, that’s not the point of this post, but what you aren’t is unique or even particularly freethinking. You (and I!) are following a crowd too, because that’s what humans do. 

8 comments for “You’re Probably Not as Edgy as You Think

  1. I don’t think you understand progressive or exmormons as well as you think you do. It is also not clear who your intended audience is. At times the OP seems to write directly towards “you” the exmormon/progressive Mormon that thinks they are so freethinking and original. At other times that audience is “them”. For sure it isn’t “us” because the OP doesn’t make any attempt to understand us and I include myself as a long time reader of this blog as a part of “them” or “you” but definitely fitting the category of progressive and now exmormon that the OP seems to be writing to or about.

    Leaving the church was not motivated by any attempt to be “unique” although I might accept “freethinking.” I certainly felt like to freely think and to be honest about my beliefs staying wasn’t an option. If anything leaving the church made me realize how not unique and different I was. I was just like everyone else now – not special and one of the set apart peculiar people of the the Latter-day Saints. Like I was just one of 99.8% of the world population that doesn’t believe in the truth claims of the church. It didn’t feel edgy and cool. It felt like I was losing my people and my religion. And to the rest of the world exmormons are still not cool or edgy either.

    It still seems like the thing you are most critical of is that people dare to be liberal. Your tone is very dismissive about that as well.

  2. I’m not implying that ex-Mormons categorically leave the Church in order to be edgy. Sure, some of that happens occasionally (like just about everything happens occasionally). The OP is simply directed towards people who bask in their edginess when they’re not. The edgy iconoclast is more part of the liberal Mormon (or liberal Utahn) self-image than the conservative self-image (although that may be changing with the rise of the “loyal opposition” types from the right), so to some extent this is naturally more geared towards one side than the other, but that isn’t the point per se.

  3. Maybe it’s because I live outside the Jello Belt, but I don’t know any progmo/exmos who seem to care about being edgy. Personal integrity and/or feelings of betrayal seem to be more relevant values.

    There is some superiority when it comes to social/political/history issues, but since orthodox members display the exact same type of superiority from their side of the fence, it seems to me that this is more of a human characteristic than a progmo/Exmo charateristic.

  4. You are still wrong about progressive Mormons and their motivations and I don’t understand why you keep trying to write critical pieces about or to them. Who are these people that “bask in their edginess”? What is the point?

  5. Maybe it is a jello belt issue (presumably because they are in fact at variance with the predominant culture). For example, demeaning but common quips about Utah lemmings are one of the first things to come to mind as an example, but still, even if you disagree about the relevance of that particular religious demographic to the OP, the more generalized point of the OP still stands.

  6. Because “plucky free-thinking upstart sticks it to the stodgy religious establishment” has been a common element of our culture for centuries? Because you don’t have to click very far before tripping over allegations of stifling conformity and brainwashed masses? Giving some specific examples would help Stephen’s case (although I’m not sure the fallout would be worth it), but it’s silly to pretend this kind of thing doesn’t exist.

  7. When you chat with an exmo/progmo in person, they are saying ‘demeaning but common quips about Utah lemmings?’ Or do you mean that these kinds of comments are common by the type of people who frequent twitter, comment boards, etc., and seem to enjoy being insulting?

    Guessing the second…?

    My argument still applies, and I don’t think you are measuring what you think you are measuring. Orthodox extremists on twitter & comments boards are just as good at insulting exmos/progmos. They think they are just as clever and superior as the exmo/progmos think of themselves. Some people are just lousy.

    To be honest, I don’t know why one would want to go after the online extremists and pretend they represent the average exmo/progmo. Or for that matter, why go after deznat or other online extremist orthodox members and pretend they represent the average member….

  8. Are the “different” following a crowd or is there a crowed formed by those that are different? In the true sense there is ONE that is truly unique or different that attracts others to the uniqueness thus starting a new tribe of like-minded people that found each other. Joseph Smith would be one of the ONES. He was doing church different for the times. As one who is obviously and painfully different from everyone else in my quorum, its not a pleasant place to be. I feel if we were still living the law of Moses, I would get stoned for my “different” beliefs in every meeting I make a comment. My sin is actually researching church history and knowing what the church was like from the beginning. You cant read our history in depth, IMO, and be the same after. But not many members read our history outside of what is spoon-fed to them at church, seminaries and institutes. Not the complete history. They leave most the “warts” out. So I do think I am edgy compared to the orthodox EQ I attend. And they do too as my name is on their stones they carry. :)

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