Losing Perspective

Over at the Evil Blog, those raving, intellectual apostates have finally gone too far. Brace yourselves–Russell has had the audacity to promote khaki pants for missionaries! Scandalous! Outrageous! I’m not sure I can visit T&S anymore. Steve, remove the heathens from our blogroll, forthwith!

What Russell obviously doesn’t know is that non-black and non-navy pants aren’t just prohibited in many missions–they are downright evil.

How do I know this? Because one of my mission presidents never ceased to remind me of it. Every couple of zone conferences, President “B” would grill into the elders’ heads the moral distinctions between black/blue and green (O.K., not khaki, but close enough). Elders who wore dark pants were “dignos de ser representantes de Cristo.” Elders who wore green pants were most definitely NOT “dignos de ser representantes de Cristo.” The moral dividing line between the colors was completely black and white (green).

Why did he do this? Well, presumably President B figured the mission needed a rule regarding pants colors. This makes sense. After all, if you don’t have a rule of some kind, some elder in the mission is bound to wear something outrageous. (Remember Elder D from the MTC? He bought himself a pair of Argentine leather pants, and I shudder to think how often he would have worn them without this rule). But couldn’t President B have just explained the rule as a necessary, albeit somewhat arbitrary, act of line-drawing?

“Elders,” he could have said, “You need to dress in a relatively standardized fashion, so that you are recognizable as missionaries. You also need to dress in such a way as to not draw undue attention to yourselves. Therefore, I’ve decided to implement a mission rule regarding pants colors. From now on, you can wear blue pants and black pants, but not green or khaki pants. There’s nothing wrong with these colors, per se, but we need to draw the line somewhere, and this seems a fairly easy place to draw it.”

But President B didn’t say this. Instead, we got treated to a fire and brimstone lecture (I exaggerate, but not by much) meant to inculcate the strongest of taboos regarding the color green. You could’ve been forgiven for thinking that Christ himself was offended at the color. Of course, you can predict the reaction of the elders. Many embraced this teaching fully, while others quietly scoffed at the silliness and consequently had a difficult time taking President B seriously on any number of other topics.

I wonder if President B’s decision isn’t representative of a tendency in the Church more generally, whether in the mission field, within wards (think Bishops instructing the Youth), within families, or wherever: If you want a rule, a norm, or a taboo to be taken seriously, blow its importance way out of proportion and you’ll be sure to get higher levels of compliance. And the result, inevitably, is that a certain portion of your listeners have a really hard time taking anything you say seriously.

When every little mundane, trivial decision in the Church is imputed with cosmic significance, we may be able to better ensure norm compliance among a certain portion of the membership. But I wonder if this doesn’t consistently come at the cost of alienating another portion, or at least diluting the effect of other norms that really are important. Maybe, just maybe, we ought to be open and up front about the nature of our rules, and keep in perspective the relative importance they have in the grand scheme of things. Or am I the one that’s losing perspective?

Aaron B

Comments

  1. Back to the topic at hand, I had a little email discussion over this topic and it brought out something that is possibly interesting. Principles should be used to derive rules and policies. It seems that Aaron’s prez was trying to go the other way, and create a new (and wrong) principle from an arbitrary rule. I am still not clear on what this teaching was since the only real detail is the “worthy to be representatives of Christ” comment, but it seems that from the rule prez B worked backwards to prove that the color green itself is evil. Aaron please correct me if I am wrong and this is not what he was doing. I fear that in your desire to make the episode seem outlandish you have failed to actually describe what it was that was said or taught.

    Now back to being off topic… I am new here, so maybe this has come up before, but does anyone else find it odd or inefficient that this thread started at T&S, moved over here for Aaron to rant about PB, and now has a follow-up article on T&S. Is this common practice? It seems that taken to the extreme neither blog would be independent of the other and that they could just merge. Or does having two blogs make it easier to churn out material? Aaron certainly wouldn’t have posted his main entry at T&S since there it would be more appropriate as a comment, so he puts it as an entry here where it can get more attention. Now I am just blathering…

  2. Before hordes of the T&S faithful vent their wrath in print, it should be emphasized that Aaron is actually agreeing with Russell and that we are really quite happy to have him on the blogroll. He’s our kind of heathen.

    Not all leaders blow every decision up to cosmic proportions, but when they don’t members are often quite happy to do it for them. What member wants to be told, “Generally I make callings by inspiration, but for this lowly calling I just picked a name off the ward list and it was yours.” Just referring to every calling as ‘truly inspired’ avoids a lot of explaining, I think.

    Framing every rule or policy as a divine injunction works the same way. What else can they say? “I didn’t think this new policy was important enough to pray about.” That won’t do. “I prayed, but got no clear response on this new policy.” Nope, that sounds too much like a stupor of thought. So one ends up with every new rule or policy being confirmed as God’s will and therefore being really important. Even pants.

  3. Bob,

    I for one am glad for all the crazy experiences of my mission that taught me how to make distinctions. Was it fun at the time? Nope. In fact, it was infuriating, but I learned what I could do about those situations. Looking back, I wouldn’t trade it for a less frustrating experience.

    I do agree that BYU is an odd place. I am glad I didn’t go there. That is probably a topic for another day though.

    I do think that you might be expecting too much from imperfect leaders. I think that Eugene England’s “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel” addresses this issue well. In short, imperfect church members (and by extension leaders) provide the best environment for us to try to perfect ourselves in.

    It isn’t clear to me that perfect mission presidents would produce better missionaries than our current imperfect ones do. So again I ask Aaron, were YOU able to make the distinction? Are you better off now for having had that experience?

    later,
    John

  4. danithew:

    Check out my post entitled, “Why is the world more wicked now than ever before?” In it, I discuss what I like to refer to as “superlative disorder”.

    http://www.bobandlogan.com/archives/000042.html

  5. Aaron Brown says:

    Imperfection X, Y or Z.

    Aaron B

  6. It seems that you are attaching cosmic significance to your mission president’s trivial quirks. :)

    His approach probably appealed to some people, obviously it didn’t appeal to you, and from the sound of it I don’t think I would have liked it either. Maybe it was the best approach that he was able to take for the mission. Maybe you and others will be better leaders for having thought about the approach and deciding to take a different one in your own life.

    In any case blowing the origin and importance of rules out of proportion doesn’t strike me as a widespread problem.

    I agree with Dave that it would create a mess to have to discuss the divine (or not so divine) origins of every policy and decision.

  7. John H: “More than a few times I hear the “Proclamation on the Family” referred to as a revelation. “

    And I’m sure the GA’s would be shocked…shocked!…to learn that the members are mis-interpreting it this way.

  8. Anonymous says:

    John said:
    “”You couldÂ’ve been forgiven for thinking that Christ himself was offended at the color.” … Is probably an exaggeration. At least it is phrased in such a way as to express a concept without committing to it.”

    I really don’t know what to make of your comments. To me, it only makes sense to talk of “exaggeration” if we’re trying to evaluate facts. I don’t even know what it means to call my comment (quoted above) an exaggeration. How would one even begin to evaluate this? I obviously didn’t take a poll to evaluate elders’ responses. I don’t know precisely what various elders thought about the connection between Christ and green, exactly. I don’t know that “cosmic” is a word that anyone would have used but me. The comment was just my way of trying to underscore the very serious import that was being assigned to the teaching, at least judging by the president’s rhetoric. How could my comment be interpreted as anything else?

    “It is too bad that you don’t have details. Did your mission have a newsletter with a message from the president? Did he ever write a monthly message on the subject of green?”

    Why is this too bad? I don’t get it. No, my mission didn’t have a newsletter. Who cares? I’m sure if I had interrogated President B after one of his speeches, he may have elaborated on the nuances of his own views, and they may have appeared less wacky. But this is all beside the point. My story is not an exercise in trying to pin down the President’s formal theological views. I am just commenting on his rhetoric, as it was received and interpreted by the elders (and not just by me).

    I think you’re wanting my story(ies) to do something that they’re not designed to do, and indeed, could never do.

    Aaron B

  9. Aaron Brown says:

    John said:
    “… it seems that from the rule prez B worked backwards to prove that the color green itself is evil. Aaron please correct me if I am wrong and this is not what he was doing.”

    I think I understand the concept you’re discussing here, but no, I don’t think this captures what was going on. I can’t read President B’s mind, of course, but I tend to believe that the President was simply trying to ensure higher compliance with his rule by exaggerating its importance via overblown rhetoric invoking good and evil. I believe that as a strategy, this kind of thing works with some elders. I also believe that it causes other elders to take their leaders less seriously, largely because the ludicrousness of the teaching is so evident.

    I could say other things about this type of rhetoric, by the way. I could say that, regardless of the consequences to the particular elders, one shouldn’t B.S. the reasons for one’s rules, for simple reasons of honesty. But that’s another post …

    “I fear that in your desire to make the episode seem outlandish you have failed to actually describe what it was that was said or taught.”

    This seems like a good occasion to clarify a few things. When people tell stories, they tend to exaggerate. However, I maintain, and will continue to maintain, that my stories are not exaggerated. It would be easy to make up all sorts of fantastic tales, but truth is often stranger than fiction, and I like to stick to truth, thank you very much.

    As to the specifics of President B’s comments, I obviously cannot remember, all these years later, EXACTLY everything that he said. For what it’s worth, I don’t remember the word “evil” ever leaving the President’s lips. That’s my word. However, I do specifically recall the “no son dignos de representar a Cristo” comments vividly. In addition, I do recall mulitple elders referring to the practice of wearing green pants as “iniquo” shortly thereafter, which is likely a word that President B used.

    “anyone else find it odd or inefficient that this thread started at T&S, moved over here for Aaron to rant about PB, and now has a follow-up article on T&S. Is this common practice?”

    Nobody plans the cross-pollination, so your concerns about “efficiency” are misplaced. The nature of the T&S-BCC relationship is as Steve described, and some of us (certainly me) find others’ posts in the Bloggernacle to be good springboards for tangential ideas that we’ve been tossing around in our heads for awhile. You’ll find that sometimes we are parasitic on T&S, and sometimes they are on us. As long as everyone’s paying attention to me, that’s all that matters. :)

    By the way, if you want to see inefficiency, check out the way I’m posting at both BCC and Sons of Mosiah right now, shamelessly cross-referencing both blogs so everyone can make sure and read all of my rants.

    Aaron B

    P.S. Bob, I know I owe your blog another post. My apologies for

  10. John, I think you’ll find that we at BCC serve a niche market: intelligent mormons. As such, the other blog serves a wider audience.

  11. John, Steve,

    The Bloggernacle doesn’t have parasites. It has barnacles. We are bloggernacker barnacles clinging to the carcass of the beached T&S whale … beached on the shores of religion, philosophy, theology and law — which topics I still think would be well represented by the acronym RePTiLes.

  12. John, we’re clearly the parasites. T&S is the 800 lb. gorilla of the mormon blog world, and most sites in the Bloggernacle tend to orbit to some extent around T&S. The interconnectedness of T&S and BCC (we share some authors, we all know each other, etc.) also tends to cause our blogs to gravitate towards each other.

    I’d also doubt that you’re out of your depth….

  13. My bro-in-law somehow manages to be a very cool guy, despite the fact that he is a Texan. Being a former New Yorker, I’m not sure how my sister brought herself to marry him. :)

    One good thing about it: we now appreciate BBQ a lot more.

  14. Nah, the guy’s from Texas, and everyone knows they’re crazy – that’s not news.

    (Sorry Texans, couldn’t resist)

  15. Nice post you had there Bob. I left a little comment about my disappointment over the fact that I didn’t have an original idea. :)

    Isn’t it kind of funny how often this happens though? I just always think it’s the most worst thing that could possibly ever happen. Ever! And it’s always happening! :)

  16. Not to get off the subject, but when I lived in Texas, our Bishop cancelled the primary’s “trunk-or-treat” since it was “celebrating Satan’s holiday”, and this guy was a former stake president. Perhaps Sunstone could run a news blurb on that.

  17. Of course the Proclamation was revelation… you think a bunch of old guys could’ve just come up with it on their own?? Sheesh.

  18. Steve,

    Perhaps you are right, in which case I am out of my depth. They do seem to feed off each other though. Maybe one is a parasite.

  19. The “Proclamation on the Family” gets used in some interesting ways. I believe the Dean of Admissions (who is LDS) at a certain medical school I won’t name received a copy of this proclamation in the mail, with a letter complaining about the acceptance policies. I guess some people feel that their white, male returned missionary relatives are being slighted against in the admissions process. I’m not sure exactly what the Proclamation on the Family had to do with this — though maybe it has to do with the proper male role as a medical doctor — er, I mean provider. :)

  20. Whoa … holy unclosed boldness going on there.

  21. Aaron Brown says:

    “The question remains, when your prez spoke on other issues that were serious did you personally have a hard time taking him seriously?”

    Although I can’t point to any specific instances where I consciously said to myself “President B made ridiculous comment X about pants…. Therefore, I’m going to ignore Counsel Y,” I would say that I probably did develop a more skeptical attitude than I otherwise would have. And that’s part of the point of this post: If you make ridiculous claims when you’re in a position of authority, those that see the ridiculousness for what it is are likely to have a hard time taking you seriously on other issues. Ergo, avoiding prima facie ridiculousness is a good thing.

    “Were you as a 19 or 20-year old missionary able to distinguish between silly exaggerations and the important stuff?”

    Well, that’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? I like to think I could, but who am I to say? And assuming that the admonition re: pants was a “silly exaggeration,” I observed missionaries who clearly didn’t distinguish the way I did (and thought everyone should). Once again, this goes to the heart of my post: It’s too bad that we can’t inculcate rules by just describing them as what they are, rather than exaggerating their import for the short-term gain of higher rule-compliance, but at the cost of long-term loss of perspective as to what really has profound religious significance at what doesn’t.

    “I do think that you might be expecting too much from imperfect leadersÂ…. imperfect church members (and by extension leaders) provide the best environment for us to try to perfect ourselves inÂ…. It isn’t clear to me that perfect mission presidents would produce better missionaries than our current imperfect ones do.”

    This is all fine and good, but it really misses the point of my post in a crucial way. I am not generically bemoaning the fact that church leaders are imperfect. I can agree with you and Gene England that serving under imperfect leaders may have its advantages. But this surely shouldn’t be a recipe for avoiding discussions of any and all “imperfections,” since imperfections (generically speaking) can produce (unspecified) desirable effects. What I am doing is saying “Here is an example of a particularly type of phenomenon that I’ve witnessed. I think it has negative effects. I think that jettisoning it would be a net positive for the mission field/Church. Let’s have a discussion about this.”

    I really think it’s unfortunate how so many of us get mired in the rather trite observation that “the leaders of the Church are imperfect, and that’s O.K.!” as if it’s some sort of religious panacea to be trotted out whenever someone relates a story or makes a point about Church leadership. My post assumes that we all know Church leaders aren’t perfect. Duh! What I would like to do is get beyond that rather mundane observation, and have an interesting discussion re: how to think about/what to do about Imperfectio

  22. “However, I maintain, and will continue to maintain, that my stories are not exaggerated.”

    I am not saying that the facts of the story are exaggerated. I am willing to believe your MTC group had collected 17 enemas. I do think that your characterization has some flourishes. The problem is that you admit to the exaggeration in the post, making it difficult to know when you are and are not exaggerating. For example, I think that:

    “You couldÂ’ve been forgiven for thinking that Christ himself was offended at the color.”

    Is probably an exaggeration. At least it is phrased in such a way as to express a concept without committing to it.

    Later you imply that the “trivial decision” was given “cosmic significance” or at least you shift the discussion to that level. Cosmic significance to me implies an eternal principle, but maybe I am just looking for exaggeration at this point. :)

    It is too bad that you don’t have details. Did your mission have a newsletter with a message from the president? Did he ever write a monthly message on the subject of green?

    Also, did you understand what he was trying to do at the time? Did you brush him off as nutty? Were you able to take him seriously on other topics or was it all more of the same?

    Thanks,
    John

  23. “Were you as a 19 or 20-year old missionary able to distinguish between silly exaggerations and the important stuff?”

    Even if Aaron was unable to make the distinction, it wouldn’t be his fault. This is the whole problem with fabricating a ruled-based mini-society whether it be on a mission or at BYU. All of a sudden, fornicating and growing a beard are assigned the same level of importance: they’re just both wrong.

    If those in charge would focus on real issues, then we peons wouldn’t have to live a life of making distinctions.

  24. Aaron Brown says:

    … slacking. I’ll be on over shortly.

  25. When every little mundane, trivial decision in the Church is imputed with cosmic significance

    You just hit on something that I’ve noticed sometimes. I have sometimes thought about consciously recording instances of this in writing but I haven’t gotten around to it.

    What I’m talking about is the use of superlatives in church gospel doctrine lessons. For example, if a person teaches about family home evening, then they are likely to say that family home evening is the most important program the family can participate in. If the lesson is about chastity, then the most important thing a member can concern themselves with is maintaining their personal purity. Whatever the person is teaching about is the worst, the best, the most important… etc. and etc.

    I’m not sure I’m writing this very well but it’s kind of funny to me that this mission president said green pants were evil. This seems to be part of the problem we have with putting extra emphasis or the ultimate emphasis we can on whatever it is we are teaching about.

    What I’m scared to ponder is the possibility that I do the same thing. If I went back and looked at old post comments, I would be ashamed but not surprised to find I fell into the superlative trap I was just talking about. It’s easy to do.

  26. Aaron,

    I am sorry if I tried to find more meaning in the story than was there. I guess it is a retelling of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” with you as one of the villagers.

    The question remains, when your prez spoke on other issues that were serious did you personally have a hard time taking him seriously? Were you as a 19 or 20-year old missionary able to distinguish between silly exaggerations and the important stuff?

  27. Actually I’ll take Dave’s comments even further. I tend to think most Church leaders are pretty rational and reasonable when it comes to implementing rules. It’s at the grassroots level where some overzealous members get a hold of the information and it becomes a divine commandment.

    Three examples:

    Sunstone reported on a story in southern California about a Stake President who outlawed the annual youth Halloween party because it was a pagan, evil holiday. After we ran the story, we got a letter from a counselor in the Stake Presidency telling us we were nuts – the Stake President had no problem with Halloween, it turns out. He just asked some of the youth if they would rather go to a ward party, or if they preferred going out with their friends. Not surprisingly, they wanted to go out with friends.

    We didn’t want to be reporting bogus stories, so we checked with our sources and did some digging. It turns out it wasn’t the Stake President at all, but a member who heard his decision and started spreading the word that it was because Halloween was evil (where Sunstone’s source heard it reported in a Ward Council meeting – and no one corrected the idea).

    Example two: A friend of mine goes to the temple and strikes up a conversation with a temple worker. Eventually the talk turns to beards. My friend asked the worker how he felt about the new policy forbidding beards among temple workers. The man replied, “Well, a revelation from the Lord is a revelation from the Lord.” My friend, a little taken aback, asked if he really thought the injunction against beards was a revelation. Equally taken aback, the temple worker replied curtly, “Of course it was!”

    Example Three: More than a few times I hear the “Proclamation on the Family” referred to as a revelation. In particular, one woman in my gospel doctrine class refers to it as the voice of Jesus. And here I thought it was called a “proclamation” (not a revelation) for a reason.

  28. All these stories from Aaron B. and others have given me an idea. (Actually, I’ve just stolen an idea from elsewhere.) As I suspect some of you know, this week the blog de novo (http://www.blogdenovo.org/) is featuring Survivor: Blogosphere! Here’s how de novo describes it:

    “TEN (or perhaps fewer, if some of them have bailed on us) brave men and women have declared themselves up to the challenge of outwitting, outposting, and outlasting the competition to become De Novo’s first Survivor and get the chance at fame and fortune, or at least as much fame and fortune as we can provide by letting them post with us for the rest of the summer — and perhaps longer, depending on how it works out. We’ve developed a series of bold and unusual challenges, including the challenge of coming up with some bold and unusual challenges. They will begin tomorrow, and continue until the contestant pool has shrunk to just two. Those two will then compete in an ultimate Survivor: Blogosphere final competition that will truly determine who is the real Survivor.”

    Perhaps it’s time for Survivor: Bloggernacle! (This would give, for exampe, Aaron–the Bloggernacle’s equivalent of WingsandVodka on de novo–and Kingsley a chance to settle their score.) Anyone game?

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