By kathy french
Jul 23, 2010
If people like to condemn dissent, Utah is the place.
Patriotism, opposition to communism and the unquestioning duty to
obey authority are essentials of Utah culture. Embedded in this
conservative culture is a group identity that requires conformity.
Questioning authority is taboo; not just questioning the authority of
a political or religious leader, but questioning obedience to the group.
The group's world view tells individuals what to believe and how to
act. Dialogue to address differences is often absent. One Utah County
activist said, "To some people dialogue means questioning.
Questioning…doubting… skepticism… It's a very slippery slope, and the
end of it is you're communist or liberal. To them that equals evil."
In the past four years 135 Utah peace activists have been interviewed
in a Utah Valley University oral history project. Their stories
record historical events, motivations and community responses.
To these peace activists, questioning, studying and dissenting are
the moral responsibilities of individual patriots. Opportunities to
protest war and weaponry abound in Utah. National peace and anti-war
movements, weapons of mass destruction, fallout from the Nevada
nuclear test site, nuclear missile motors, the threat of MX nuclear
warheads: We have had all of these and more. The stereotype of peace
activists as long-haired radical lawbreakers is far removed from reality.
Few peace actions are noisy and eye-catching; fewer yet are illegal.
Most peace work is quiet and deliberate, undertaken through
combinations of dialogue and action. The goal is progress toward
justice, equality and nonviolent relationships, and ultimately, peace
on Earth now.
Utah's cultural reactions to dissent often are knee-jerk and extreme.
To some conservatives, protest rallies are synonymous with riots (or
the threat thereof). Activists are derided as communists, liberals,
nutcakes or criminals. They are sometimes stigmatized in families,
workplaces and neighborhoods.
Dissent in Utah is punished in many ways. One activist tells of
watching LDS Institute students pelt Lowell Bennion with food and
trash when he spoke in favor of blacks receiving the priesthood in
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During the Vietnam
War another activist was part of a nonviolent group that blocked the
train tracks to Ogden's Defense Depot. Although not arrested, she was
expelled by her high school and castigated by her church leaders, who
without grounds accused her of engaging in sex and using drugs.
Utah peace activists have been physically attacked. During the
Vietnam War one activist was cornered and beaten by FBI agents. A
second was kidnapped and held at gunpoint by persons unknown. Stones
were thrown and shots fired through the window of a woman who
publicly supported the Equal Rights Amendment, and she received "a
litany of death threats."
Another activist's home was burned. Curses and bottles are routinely
thrown at sidewalk peace demonstrators. An undaunted activist said,
"I think we ought to be talking more about what kind of people find
it necessary to threaten and kill somebody who disagrees with them
and why that is defined as American."
Utah's dominant LDS religion is aligned with the culture's
conservative values. When they feel discord between their values and
those of the LDS Church, some activists leave. Peace activists who
remain in the LDS Church tend to find spiritual common ground and to
moderate their public words of dissent. There are challenges and
joys. A discouraged older woman would have left the church except for
the effect on her children and neighbors.
One Latter-day Saint said of her activist mother that she has "an
emotional and spiritual maturity that most people never get to…She is
able to give love and service without expecting anything in return.
So it [neighbors calling her communist] just washed off her." A third
activist, who very much loves her church, quips, "They need my
perspective in Relief Society."
Utah schools of higher education have grappled with their responses
to dissent. Posters announcing liberal speakers or dissident events
often disappear from campus bulletin boards. During the anti-Vietnam
War and anti-apartheid movements, the University of Utah sometimes
tried to quell the dissent that many in the community found
offensive. Gradually, university and community members became
accustomed to legal forms of dissent.
Former Brigham Young University students and faculty have documented
the institutionalization of restricted dialogue, banned speakers and
punishment for political or social dissent. Utah State University
activists rallying for peace have sometimes confronted threats of
violence, both on and off campus.
UVU administrators and student leaders received death threats when
filmmaker Michael Moore visited, and Utah legislators delayed funds
for a new library. Voicing anger felt by many in Utah Valley, a local
student wrote, "People who support Moore should leave our state."
In Utah's "culture of obedience," the response to dissent is often
automatic and harsh.
Yet other Utahns who see activism in their conservative communities
respond with relief and joy.
Many activists form their own groups that support an activist identity.
One young activist suggests that lack of dialogue contributes to the
political explosions we sometimes see in Utah.
She reminds us of our history, saying that many people applaud the
Boston Tea Party or the suffragette and anti-slavery movements.
The same people "respond to contemporary reformers in very callous,
hateful, cruel, defeatist ways. I would hope for myself and for any
person in the world that they would be as fair to the reformers who
are trying to do work now as they are to the reformers who lived and
died giving them the things that they enjoy."
The first 75 interviews in the Oral History of Utah Peace Activists
can be read at Utah State History Archives and Utah Valley University
Sutherland Archives, or viewed on line at
uvu.edu/library/archives/peace.html. This project is supported by
UVU, the Utah Humanities Council and Utah State History.
Kathy French lives in Pleasant Grove and teaches at Utah Valley
University in Psychology, Peace and Justice Studies, and