I recently read Orson Scott Card’s “Walking the Tightrope” from A Storyteller in Zion. The title had not sounded familiar when I began reading, but by the end of the first paragraph, which references the controversy over Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, I remembered that I had, in fact, read the essay—and forgotten it completely.
“Walking the Tightrope” is positioned historically between the excommunication of Sonia Johnson in 1979 and the 1993 excommunication of the September Six, making it a contemporary voice in the late-twentieth-century Mormon culture wars. In the essay, Card compares the division between the Mormon intelligencia and the Church hierarchy over matters of intellectual freedom, particularly the breakdown of communication and understanding, with an apparently similar division within the Muslim community. Card suggests, in both instances, that the heated reactions from all sides stem from a failure to acknowledge fault in one’s own actions—and in forgetting that “the finger of blame points both ways.” More specifically, Card argues that Mormon intellectuals, as insiders, tend to know what buttons to push to get a rise from the hierarchy—much like Rushdie knew how to anger Muslims in his depictions of Mohammed in his novel—and therefore are partly responsible for the “clamping down” on “non-official voices in the Church” that occasionally happens. Furthermore, he goes on to suggest that the public too often rallies behind “non-official” voices that are unworthy of them. Rushdie is one example he gives, and Sonia Johnson is another. In both cases, Card sees insidious intents—deliberate efforts to upset, disrupt, corrupt, and offend. Such destructiveness, it seems, is at the heart of Card’s objections to them. For him, their words do nothing but tear down.