In January of this year, I was interviewed about some of my research for the Salt Lake Tribune’s religion coverage. After some early work on Mormon Twitter, I recruited friend and colleague Amy Chapman to start looking at the way that the #DezNat Twitter hashtag was using alt-right discourses in its reactionary response to the rest of Mormon Twitter, which trends more progressive. These discourses are well-documented and persisted, but DezNat participants regularly deny any political motivations. Peggy Fletcher Stack’s excellent article from January neatly sums up the dilemma of trying to describe this particular movement:
It is not, strictly speaking, an alt-right political group. It is not a club for disenchanted Latter-day Saint Republicans. It is not a haven for Donald Trump loyalists. It is not necessarily a refuge for white nationalists, anti-maskers or anti-vaxxers — though some adherents appear to identify with all these viewpoints. … Created in August 2018, the hashtag enlists loosely aligned, self-appointed warriors to defend the doctrines and practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their battlefield is the internet. They blog, post, tweet and share memes, slapping the #DezNat identifier on Facebook groups, websites, podcasts and YouTube channels, triggering pushback from anxious onlookers.
In a comment in the same article, a Latter-day Saint spokesperson described DezNat as “not affiliated with or endorsed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” and the article further noted that:
He noted the governing First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles condemned the recent violence in Washington and lawless behavior. The church also denounced white nationalism after the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., saying, “white supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them.”
This is a good preliminary response to DezNat. There is an undeniable and deliberate pattern of far right (including white nationalist) content in the hashtag and among its users—some of the founder’s early tweets rail against immigration without even invoking Mormonism, and one of the hashtag’s first adopters (and a future Latter-day Saint missionary, since LDS worthiness interviews don’t screen for this sort of thing) used #DezNat to show off patches reading “Make Rhodesia Great Again” and “Rhodesian Foreign Legion.” It’s good that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is officially denouncing this kind of behavior.
However, in the weeks following the publication of this article, I started to feel dissatisfied with the use of the label “alt-right” to describe DezNat. This isn’t to say that it’s inappropriate (see examples above), but I think it puts the emphasis in the wrong place. In her memoir Uncanny Valley, tech journalist Anna Wiener writes about her experience working at GitHub during a time that far right groups were harassing the company. Some time before, while also at GitHub, Wiener had been involved in deciding what to do about members of the misogynist, anti-feminist Gamergate movement who were using GitHub respositories to store information for coordinating the online harassment of women identified as enemies and targets. Before long, she noticed some similarities between the two groups:
I mentioned to a coworker how striking it was that all internet harassment now seemed to follow a playbook: the methods of the far-right commentariat were remarkably similar to what we had seen, eighteen months prior, from the troll bloc targeting women in gaming. It was like an entire generation had developed its political identity online, using the style and tone of internet forums.
Is this just how things are now? I asked. It was bizarre to me that two different groups would have the same rhetorical and tactical strategies.
My coworker was a connoisseur of online forums and bulletin boards. He looked at me askance. “Oh, my sweet summer child,’ he said. “They are absolutely the same people.”
The same is true of DezNat, and I think it’s time that critics, researchers, the media, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints start focusing on DezNat as problematic because of its aggressive anti-feminism and homophobia, with less emphasis on alt-right, far right, White nationalist, and similar tropes. Let me quickly acknowledge here that I realize that this is making an artificial distinction. Wiener’s point (which is echoed in plenty of scholarly investigations of the far right, both online and off) is that anti-feminist movements are far right movements. The racist aspects of the far right are intertwined with its anti-misogynist and homophobic aspects, and it’s important not to overlook the latter. I think the way to do so is to start focusing on the latter.
Another quick caveat: This doesn’t mean that we don’t call out the latter. I have mixed feelings about doxxing (a post for another time), but when The Guardian recently
identified an Alaska assistant attorney general as a supporter of the Mormon-derived extremist group the Deseret nationalists who has posted a series of racist, antisemitic and homophobic messages on social media
it allowed the BYU Law School, the Alaska Department of Law, and other institutions to take appropriate action. However, please note the following passage from a follow up article from The Guardian:
In response to questions about DezNats, and the church’s willingness to disown them, Douglas Anderson, the church’s media spokesman, wrote in an email that the group was “not affiliated with or endorsed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Anderson added that “in recent months, church leaders have spoken directly on such issues as condemning the recent violence in Washington DC and lawless behavior, the evils of racism … and peacefully accepting the results of political elections”.
These are all good things for Latter-day Saint leaders to speak directly on, but contrast it with my colleague Amy’s comment earlier in the article:
But Chapman said she had long observed the account… and “the thing that struck me the most about the account was its negative attitude towards women and LGBTQ people”, adding that misogyny, homophobia and transphobia are recurring motifs in DezNat discourse.
Note that the Church’s distancing itself from DezNat is based entirely on the “alt-right” aspect of the movement—not its anti-feminism or homophobia, which our research suggests is more prevalent—and at least as aggressive—in DezNat discourse. It’s good that the Church does not approve of these “alt-right” aspects of DezNat, but how does the Church feel about the movement’s aggressive anti-feminism? About its cruel homophobia?
I’ve been thinking about this post for a while now, but it’s become especially salient this week. In a recent address to BYU faculty, beloved Latter-day Saint apostle Jeffrey Holland raised concerns about signs of openness towards queer students on the Church-operated campus, describing queer advocacy as “wounding students and the parents of students who are confused about what so much recent flag-waving and parade-holding on this issue means” and asking for “loyalty to prophetic leadership and devotion to revealed doctrine,” touching (intentionally or not) on more than one DezNat talking point while doing so. Perhaps most worrying in this context, though, is Holland’s later comment:
My Brethren have made the case for the metaphor of musket fire, which I have endorsed yet again today. There will continue to be those who oppose our teachings and with that will continue the need to define, document, and defend the faith.
So, sure, Latter-day Saint leadership has spoken out against some far right discourses, and a Latter-day Saint spokesperson has specified that DezNat is not endorsed by the Church. These are both good steps, but DezNat has never seen itself as far right, and it doesn’t mind borrowing violent metaphors to talk about the need to defend the faith. DezNat participants will—and already have—seen Holland’s comments as an endorsement of their views and their work, and it’s frankly difficult to come to a different conclusion than this.
White nationalism needs to be called out wherever it is, including in DezNat. I think it’s time, though, that everyone (especially the Church) start thinking more about this movement’s take on gender and sexuality.