Sometimes We Need–and Get–Help Getting It Right

One of the basic insights of pragmatics, a subfield of linguistics, is that “in attempting to express themselves, people do not only produce utterances containing grammatical structures and words, they perform actions via those utterance.”[1] That those speech acts can wield great power is hardly a new concept; consider the declaration recorded in Genesis: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”

Closer to our own experience, declarations of an ecclesiastical authority–perhaps a temple sealer, mission president or bishop–likewise have great influence over the course of our lives: We might be joyfully united for time and eternity with a dear loved one, assigned to a challenging companion in the mission field or, perhaps, suspended from a Church-affiliated school as a result of declarations made in a particular context by a speaker with an authorized institutional role.

In contrast to declarations made under the auspices of a divine being or an institution, individuals are at a relative disadvantage, which may be magnified or minimized according to the ways and means society has developed for stifling or amplifying individual voices. 

According to some anthropologists, “homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language” that allowed us to “ingest, store and communicate a prodigious amount of information about the surrounding world,” including and, perhaps especially, about human relationships through, well, gossip:

It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.[2]

Although gossip enjoys an exclusively negative connotation in LDS discourse, it isn’t necessarily a synonym for damaging falsehoods and can even serve a greater good:

Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands, and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation. […] Rumour-mongers are the original fourth estate, journalists who inform society about and thus protect it from cheats and freeloaders.[3]

In light of the importance of reliable information for both individuals as well as society at large, it’s no wonder that the Church expends considerable resources in getting things right. Its virtual global newsroom even hosts a blog featuring a category called “Getting It Right,” in which Public Affairs staff heap praise or, as the case may be, criticism on “news articles, blog posts or videos that provide accurate and fair reporting on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as those that misrepresent the faith to readers.”

The blog format is by nature less formal than an official news release or statement, and when it comes to setting the record straight, “Getting it Right” entries sometimes adopt a scrappy tone, as in these recent entries: “Slate.com Article About Mormon Missionary Health Care Swings and Misses” and “In the ‘Blood Moon’ Story, It Was the News Media, Not Mormons Who Needed to Be Calmed“.

For those familiar with the blog’s bare-knuckled approach to maintaining balance in an arena in which the stakes are admittedly high, a recent post responding to coverage of the BYU sexual assault issue probably comes as no surprise. Public Affairs throws down the gauntlet straightaway, accusing the Salt Lake Tribune of aggressive reporting and making “extraordinary claims” about the existence of a rape culture at BYU and the contribution of Church doctrine to that culture. What’s more, the Tribune did so without giving the Church an opportunity to respond, resulting in a charge of “‘gotcha journalism’ — a practice unworthy of any serious newspaper seeking for balance in its reporting.”

That it pains Church leadership to have that word used next to BYU in the media is abundantly clear from this post. And I can understand the feelings of bewilderment mingled with frustration that must overcome the members of an organization when its efforts over many decades to establish and maintain a wholesome university environment based on gospel principles and an Honor Code in which students commit to keeping their clothes on and hands off result in articles associating its flagship university with, of all things, rape culture. It is a hard thing to take public heat for something that one believes does not exist.

But taking offense at the label “rape culture” because one associates it, inter alia, with “some gangs and some undisciplined conquering armies” rather than a cherished institution misses the point: features of campus life at BYU do make life difficult for victims of sexual assault, which, incidentally, doesn’t require that administrators regard rape with benign indifference–ignorance of unintended consequences suffices. According to people interviewed for the “gotcha piece” in question:

Of more than 50 people who have told The Tribune they were sexually assaulted while attending BYU, a majority said they did not report the assaults — most of them citing fears that they would be held guilty of chastity violations, either for the assault or for prior sexual contact.

Any university has a problem when its students feel unable to report or even discuss with trusted ecclesiastical authorities what the Church agrees is “a serious criminal offense.” Thankfully, the “deeply personal stories of victims of sexual assault” at BYU don’t reflect “the ideals BYU or Church leaders follow when responding to victims.” But the intent of administrators doesn’t cancel out these experiences; rather, these experiences–which were first given a voice as a result of the Tribune’s reporting–underline the unintended gap between theory and practice.

The impetus for change came, in this case, from without; I consider this a feature rather than a bug of the Tribune’s reporting. First, it’s impossible to address a weakness in ignorance, and second, institutions are better at declaring than they are at listening.  For raising awareness of a problem–which even if not widespread nevertheless calls for action; recall the injunction to leave the ninety and nine and go after that which is lost–the Tribune should at least be acknowledged as having played a constructive role.

As for the discomfort some feel about criticism leveled at cherished institutions, President Nelson taught that the process of perfection is one even the already very good must undergo:

Scriptures have described Noah, Seth, and Job as perfect men. No doubt the same term might apply to a large number of faithful disciples in various dispensations. Alma said that “there were many, exceedingly great many,” who were pure before the Lord.

This does not mean that these people never made mistakes or never had need of correction. The process of perfection includes challenges to overcome and steps to repentance that may be very painful.

Given the seriousness we attach to the words of Jesus Christ and his command to achieve perfection, a response to the Tribune’s reporting could be appreciation rather than indignation, especially since this reporting is what prompted BYU to undergo what appears to be a productive process of introspection. BYU administrators have determined that more could be done to “help BYU work toward the elimination of sexual assault on campus” and “better handle the reporting process for victims of sexual assault” and is even soliciting feedback to help “foster a safe, respectful campus climate.”

We know that whether spoken by individuals or institutions, words matter. We used them to conquer the world. We use words to hurt and bless, to condemn and save. Each utterance is a fresh opportunity to shape the world around us, and in my view, the exchange initiated by the Tribune giving voice to the voiceless is helping BYU and the Church get it right. It’s a work in progress, of course; if a newspaper or misguided individual makes an error along the way, well, I suppose the Church with its well-staffed Public Affairs department, global newsroom, television station and daily newspaper will remain in a position to correct them publicly. In the meantime, let’s hope that the feedback being solicited from the BYU campus and community help it get things just right.

 

[1] George Yule, Pragmatics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 47.

[2] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, (London: Vintage Books, 2015), 21, 24, 26.

[3] Ibid., 26–27.

Comments

  1. Very diplomatic, Pete. Let us indeed hope that BYU gets it right.

    In the meantime, one can only shake one’s head at yet another example of rank amateurishness and sophomoric petulance coming out of the Newsroom. The fact that the original release had a typo for the church’s own name in it is emblematic of a certain sloppiness that one can only count as ironic when it is presented under the heading of “getting it right.”

  2. There’s a time aspect that seems relevant. Gossip and journalism moves fast. The internet and blogs even faster. The Church moves slowly. After weeks of reporting, BYU is now forming an advisory council to explore and recommend. The difference is stark and probably irreconcilable. I am sympathetic to the Church’s plight (less so in this particular instance because I believe that at important levels the issue was known and conscious decisions made in the last few years, not the last few weeks), but the genie of speed and wide dissemination is not going back into the bottle. The Public Affairs department is going to be back-footed over and over again and it would serve them well to practice appreciation rather than indignation.

  3. Red Black says:

    “deeply personal stories of victims of sexual assault” at BYU don’t reflect “the ideals BYU or Church leaders follow when responding to victims”

    This statement from the Church was off-putting when I first read it. It’s more so in reading your post about the Church’s getting it right blog – which I had not known about.

    I had wondered why someone in the press office hadn’t realized this comes across as stating the victim’s accounts don’t reflect what really happened. It now appears this may have been the intended meaning after all.

  4. I’m at a loss to explain either the need or the manner of this response from the Newsroom. It ill becomes the Church, really, to get into a spat with a newspaper, especially in this manner. Correct inaccuracies. Emphasize love for victims. But this does neither of those things.

  5. Right. There was absolutely no need for the response, and it only serves to put the church in an even worse light. Sometimes the best PR move is to not make a PR move. Sometimes silence is the best choice.

  6. I’m blown away to learn that the Church has a sarcastically-named blog that seems to serve no purpose other than to grumble internally about how unfair the world is.

  7. Luke Nelson says:

    I think you misrepresent the “gotcha journalism claim. It’s not just that they were not given a chance to respond, it’s that they were promised a chance to respond, a promise which they say the Tribune broke.

  8. cookie queen says:

    An extremely well written piece. “Spat with a newspaper ……” did make me wonder.

  9. I think there is a reasonable objection to characterizing BYU as having a rape culture. Do rapes occur? Of course. Are they underreported? Undoubtedly. Does BYUs policies make the underreporting worse? No way they don’t make it worse. But I would also believe the incidence rate is lower than almost any other university. Rape culture is associated with systematic cover ups, frats, alcohol, etc. BYU certainly has a problem but accusing BYU of rape culture starts off the conversation from the wrong place and isn’t fair to places with rape cultures.

  10. BYU certainly has a problem but accusing BYU of rape culture starts off the conversation from the wrong place and isn’t fair to places with rape cultures.

    I get that those who associate rape with marauding armies or unchecked fraternal excesses have a hard time discussing rape and BYU in the same breath, but in my view this is not due to the Tribune’s coverage which is clear and careful enough to be taken seriously:

    Outdated Mormon teachings that placed much of the blame on women are tough to quash even if the church officially has changed its attitude. […] Today, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints takes a healthier approach in its official pronouncements.

    Reasonable people can disagree and all that, but this is hardly the work of a firebrand.