“Are you willing to understand another view even as it pressures and challenges your view?” — Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife
Interview with Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife
Written by Sherrae Phelps
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife is a licensed psychotherapist with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Boston College. She wrote her dissertation on LDS women and sexuality and has taught college-level courses on human sexuality, as well as community and internet-based relationship and sexuality workshops. She is a frequent contributor on the subjects of sexuality, mental health, and spirituality to LDS-themed blogs, magazines, and podcasts. She lives in Chicago with her husband and three children where she maintains a private practice. http://www.finlayson-fife.com
When someone disagrees with, diminishes, or challenges our views or beliefs, it throws us off balance. It feels like a personal attack. It creates tension. That tension can ignite growth, but if coddled it can distort our ability to see the situation accurately and limit our ability to respond with moral integrity and courage.
In an interview with Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, a licensed psychotherapist, she explained that “it’s easy to be threatened by change and to want to call it evil. Our first instinct to something that is foreign or with something we don’t know is that it must be bad. It’s just in our DNA to do that. And I think it is really important to be very cautious to write something or someone off before we give it a thoughtful integrity based response.”
Think of Teva from Fiddler on the Roof. How often were his beliefs challenged? And not by outsiders, but by his daughters whom he loved and cared for deeply. He was constantly wading through the legitimate challenge of finding a way to love his daughters and his beliefs. If we’re not careful, the fear that arises when our beliefs are challenged can cause us to respond with emotional immaturity. That poor response can damage relationships and erode our character. However, grounding ourselves and responding with moral integrity transforms those moments into pivotal milestones.
Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to be a Lamanite, growing up with the perspective that the Nephites wronged your fathers in the wilderness? What if you were a descendant of Laman or Lemuel and listened to the stories told to you by your parents and grandparents and other trusted individuals from your community? What would it be like for you to then have a Nephite share with you their beliefs which contradicted your own beliefs? Would it be wise to just toss aside everything your parents told you and to trust this stranger? Would it be wise to just dismiss and diminish what this Nephite was telling you? Would you defend your parents and their traditions? Would you stop and listen to the Nephite?
If you were a Nephite would you listen to a Laminate explain their views? I’m not talking about listening so that you can feel good about yourself for giving this poor mislead Lamanite a chance to talk about their beliefs, all the while giving them a pat on the knee with a smile that is more dismissive than attentive. But would you really listen to their perspective even if it threatened your view?
What if someone is asking you to consider and understand their views and beliefs? And what if their views and beliefs conflict with yours? What if they are suggesting that you might be seeing things wrong? How do you sort through the differing perspectives between you and those around you so you’re not agreeing just to avoid rocking the boat, even though you don’t really agree, but also so you’re not just stubbornly holding your ground without even listening to another’s perspective?
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: “When I was at BYU, my brother was reading a lot of church history and he was going through a faith crisis and he wanted to talk about it and I hated the fact that he wanted to talk about it because it was pressuring my view. I found it very threatening and so I remember as I was driving back to my dorm one night praying to God that I was going to take distance from him I was not going to spend as much time with my brother. I remember having a very strong impression that that was dishonest of me and unloving, and that the truth could withstand love. Whatever is true could withstand knowing and caring about my brother. So even though it terrified me I didn’t take distance from him.
“I was afraid that maybe I would not believe and I didn’t want to not believe. I was afraid of the historical realities that were challenging. I was afraid of another idea about who Joseph Smith was. I was afraid it would break me from my view.
“Are you willing to understand another view even as it pressures and challenges your view?”
But are all conversations discussing conflicting beliefs valuable to engage in? What about controversial conversations? Is there value in listening to offensive ideas? Are there times when it is morally courageous to give others platforms to speak and other times when it would do more damage than good?
As a first-year student at Williams College, Zachary Wood joined a student organization called Uncomfortable Learning. He recalls: “As the president of Uncomfortable Learning at Williams College, I had the job of bringing speakers who would offer different viewpoints from those we were typically exposed to on our liberal campus. First, I invited Suzanne Venker, a self-described anti-feminist who claims that feminist women are waging a war on men.”
“When eventually we had to cancel Venker’s appearance due to concerns about her personal safety, I followed up with an invitation to John Derbyshire, a divisive pop-math author and opinion journalist who’d publicly defended white supremacy, advised readers to stay away from groups of black people, and.. claimed that blacks had lower IQs than whites.” (1)
But like Suzanne Venker, John Derbyshire never got a chance to speak. Adam Falk, President of Williams College, canceled the speech. In a statement explaining his reasoning for the cancellation, President Falk said:
To the Williams Community,
Today I am taking the extraordinary step of canceling a speech by John Derbyshire…The college will not provide a platform for him.
Free speech is a value I hold in extremely high regard. The college has a very long history of encouraging the expression of a range of viewpoints and giving voice to widely differing opinions. We have said we wouldn’t cancel speakers or prevent the expression of views except in the most extreme circumstances. In other words: There’s a line somewhere, but in our history of hosting events and speeches of all kinds, we hadn’t yet found it.
We’ve found the line. Derbyshire, in my opinion, is on the other side of it. Many of his expressions clearly constitute hate speech, and we will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community.
Sincerely, Adam Falk, President (2)
Is there a line? Are there some conversations that are valuable to engage in and others that are would be wise to avoid?
The motivation matters in making wise decisions about engaging in difficult conversations. “What’s motivating the speaker? Is it about a genuine sharing of an idea and a perspective and a point of view,” says Dr. Finlayson-Fife, “or is it about trying to basically get you to agree with their view and reinforce them? Is it about withholding validation or keeping on the validation in order to make you agree with their view?”
Is there a difference between the friend that is constantly sharing anti-mormon literature with their devout mormon acquaintances and the relative that is constantly sharing LDS literature with those who have cut ties with the Church? The difference lies in their motivations. Are their motives genuine and sincere or manipulative and controlling?
When differing beliefs are being discussed, it can be tempting to take a hold the of the false security in over exaggerating the flaws of those who see things different than us to feel more justified in our own views.
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: “There is so much vilifying of the other side and creating a caricature of the other view that you make it so you don’t have to deal with what’s true in it. This is very dangerous for us as people, very very dangerous for us, and very easy to do especially the way that we consume the news and the way that reinforces the caricature of the other side. It makes us weaker because we aren’t dealing with where we are blind and we’re not caring about the collective. And when we won’t look at where we’re wrong we make ourselves weaker.”
When conflicting beliefs collide, whether it’s over the traditions of the ward Christmas party or BYU’s Honor Code, it’s tempting to create caricatures of those who stand on the opposite side of your view. It takes a lot more emotional maturity to step back and look at where we might be wrong and blind and to understand the views of others. When your views are under pressure it pushes you to think more deeply about your own beliefs and even question them, and it can be tempting to retreat from this discomfort. But this discomfort, when faced with integrity and love, has the power to refine your character and deepen relationships even if you do not change your opinion or switch sides.
Dr Finlayson-Fife: “I know for myself that there is a feeling of when I know that I’m just reactively blowing off an idea because I don’t want my current idea to be challenged. And it doesn’t mean that the challenging idea is all correct, it just means there’s probably something in it that I just don’t want to deal with. I can tell in myself, even though I always hate it, when I’m just trying to blow off an idea that I don’t want to deal with rather than taking an honest look at it and looking at what I might not be interested in dealing with. But something in there tells me there’s truth in it that I need to look at, and the reason I don’t like it is that it’s inconvenient. It means I have to grow up my own view, it means I have to expand myself towards other people when I’d much rather just be right as I see things currently. But I think it’s a self-honesty thing and I can feel it when I’m just trying to minimize something so I don’t have to see it.”
Why are some people better at navigating the challenges and tolerating the discomfort of having their views challenged? Why are some people better at grounding themselves when someone disagrees with their beliefs, views, and perspectives?
Dr. Finlayson-Fife: “Some people handle it better because they trust themselves. Some people have learned to trust themselves because they’ve been willing to struggle with questions and struggle with the issue of what’s right and wrong. They haven’t defined themselves based on what everyone else has told them to be and so they trust their ability to think through something and they trust their ability to struggle with it honestly.
“I think those who have run their lives by seeking other people’s validation feel threatened when someone is pushing another view because they know that validation pressures them a lot. So they feel afraid of the part of them that is driven to comply or agree. Or they feel challenged by the invalidation that’s going to happen by somebody having a different view than them. So they may resist the acknowledgment or the awareness of that difference because they’re too validation based, or too dependent on validation.”
Understanding the views of others is an honest act of humanity, it’s an act of love and respect. And love takes courage and strength.
- Zachary Wood, “I invite White Supremacy Apologist to Campus. Here’s Why,” The Guardian, Jun. 23, 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/23/uncomfortable-conversations-campus-zachary-wood
- Falk, Adam, “John Derbyshire’s Scheduled Appearance at Williams,” Williams: Office of the President, Feb. 18, 2016, https://president.williams.edu/letters-from-the-president/john-derbyshires-scheduled-appearance-at-williams/