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?