Friday, June 29, 2012

Common Human Decency

The following represents my initial response to a friend inquiring about certain observations he has made of different Mormon and post-Mormon communities (particularly communities in which certain potentially problematic behaviors occur).  My friend was interested in questions like these: What does it mean to be Mormon, post-Mormon, ex-Mormon?  How is Mormonism coherent?  How can a good Mormon, post-Mormon, or ex-Mormon community thrive?  What does healthy Mormon, post-Mormon, and ex-Mormon behavior look like?  I am not trying to answer any of these questions definitively, so please don't anyone jump on me for being too harsh or ignoring an important point of view.  These are just some rambling thoughts I have had, and I am writing them here now because I am stuck in an airport with nothing better to do.

The LDS church is not a coherent organization. Mormons are not correlated. They maintain a semblance of order and coherence by wearing the same clothes, saying the same things in church, etc., and believing that all of this is cosmically important somehow.  While there are some doctrines that leaders like to push as true explanations of Mormon behavior that they want to correlate, the truth on the ground is that people get baptized, serve missions, and go to the temple for a plethora of unique and personal reasons.  They come to the church for different reasons.  They practice ordinances for different reasons.  They find Mormonism compelling for different reasons.

In my view, many Mormons inside the LDS church follow Jesus' admonition to be like little children.  They are genuinely sweet, well-meaning, and adorable, but they are also naive -- and capable of growing up into anything from the Dalai Lama to Adolf Hitler.  As a general rule, growth is good. Maturity is good. But it is also dangerous: teenagers are proof of this. When you take the LDS blinders off of adult "children" in the church, many of them don't know how to respond. They try everything (e.g. drinking, swinging), and it doesn't always end up well. But here's the rub: many people fall into the same behaviors inside the church (without having existential crises or "coming of age" as adults). There is, quite frankly, no place on earth where you can escape the fact that you make decisions, and that those decisions don't always lead to the results you would like. The most we can hope for is that people will learn from their decisions, especially the bad ones.

The church attempts to help people learn by scaring them away from "bad" decisions. (Unfortunately, some of the things it is scared of are emphatically not bad, like coffee or honest history.)  But this is not really a workable solution for many folks (and it is even worse for society at large than the alternative, which is to admit that mistakes are always going to be made, and to take steps for dealing with them that do not involve pretending that we can make them vanish by heroic acts of willpower). Imagine how my life would be if I decided to train my toddlers to rely on me for all their bathroom needs forever. At some point, the little tykes need to learn how to wipe their own butts, even if they occasionally get some poop on their hands.  It washes off.  Rebellious teens grow up, in most cases, to be nice, responsible adults.  They learn the law of the harvest ("if I want these results, I need to cultivate this kind of behavior").  People need to make mistakes in order to learn and grow.  They need to "fall" the way Eve falls, partaking of the tree and accepting the good and the evil that comes with that.  Much as some of the overprotective among us would like to keep our fellow humans from learning in the school of hard knocks, there really is no other way.  A man who is only faithful to his wife (or anyone) because he thinks some celestial bureaucrat is watching at all times has not learned what fidelity means.  He doesn't know what virtue is until he gets acquainted with vice (on some level: I am not saying that we must all experiment with everything that presents itself to any one of us, only that we have to be free to do so).

Lack of failure actually explains many of the problems in our LDS culture. Striving with all our might to avoid failure, what we really do is avoid understanding it when it occurs (inevitably).  We create textbook examples of what Nassim Taleb calls the lucky fool.  The lucky fool has a good life, and he thinks he knows exactly how he got to be so lucky.  He knows what clothes to wear, what friendships to cultivate, what books to read, what kind of sex to have, what to drink, where to work, etc.  Wanting to help the rest of the community out, he gives terrible advice to other people, not because he means badly (quite the contrary), but because he cannot see that his circumstances are not universal.  He cannot see that wearing a tie has nothing to do with his success, that reading a particular book has nothing do with it, that his method of having sex is not a panacea for all human ills.  LDS Mormonism is a rampant breeding ground for lucky fools: they become our leaders.  When their advice fails, they have no response other than to deny that protocols were properly followed ("you must not have been wearing my lucky tie right -- no sacrament for you!"). They have no idea how to deal productively with failure.  Preaching shame and fear doesn't really work: the "bad" kids don't buy it, and the "good" ones do themselves more harm than good by taking it seriously.  Instead of facilitating personal evaluation and adjustment, it hardens moral positions that are already there: the "bad" kids learn that they are hopeless rebels, and they revel in being wicked; the "good" kids learn that they are hopeless rebels, and their hearts are broken.  What they don't learn is how to change themselves.

A really wise man once said that there is no such thing in life as success or failure, only feedback. The way to cure lucky fools is to let them see that success and failure are just the same thing -- that there is no such thing as success without failure! People need to make mistakes. And just as we all have (and need) different kinds of success, so we all have (and need) different kinds of failure. Some people need to get drunk and throw up everywhere at least once. Others need to sleep around. Some of us just need a nice cup of Turkish coffee and a book chock full of intelligent heresy. As there is not a single perfect blueprint for success, so there is not a single perfect blueprint for failure. Each man must craft his own perfect catastrophe as a catalyst for future success. Every Eve must eat her own apple. I cannot prescribe one for you, and yours will not necessarily do anything for me. The "God-shaped hole" some people speak of in the soul of every man is one that each person must fill for himself. Some of us will not approve for ourselves what others choose to fill the hole: even among the most correlated Mormons, this is true; I think back to missionary companions I did not see eye-to-eye with. Humans thrive on tension, opposition, and the like ("there must needs be opposition in all things"). The key is to leverage this feature creatively rather than destructively.  You have to take people's communal incoherence and let it grow into something ordered.

As I see it, when Mormons question their childlike faith, they enter a radically new world. Some of them are going to grow slowly. Some are going to grow up fast. Some are going to require one kind of failure to facilitate their growth; others will require a different kind.  Some are going to make their friends blush (or find new friends), and others are going to make friends proud.  There is no coherent, unitary, sanitary post-Mormonism (speaking globally).  So what is a decent post- or ex-Mormon chap supposed to do?  How should he address his fellow doubters or unbelievers?  What kind of moral standards can he get behind?  How can he preach effectively, usefully, to people who no longer fit the church's model of obedient little children?  If it were me, I would just preach what I deemed to be correct principles, throw in the necessary caveats ("nothing I say trumps your personal experience"), and then let people govern themselves. I wouldn't have organized groups or a "brand" or any of that stuff.  That just creates unnecessary opportunities for people to make unhelpful generalizations ("All post-Mormons are drunks, whores, etc., because I know this one person somewhere who did something that destroyed his life!").  Personally, I am not at all opposed to communities (whether they unite around faith or doubt, which seem like the same thing to me now).  I do not think these communities should be centralized or correlated: let the people living in them run them (as informal meet-ups or formal affairs with constitutions, by-laws, the whole nine yards: whatever the different communities want). If individuals want to drink, or swing, or whatever, then it's on them (not any guru or podcaster or other "authoritative" figure: grown-ups have to wipe their own butts).

There are limits in each one of us to what we can pleasantly endure in ourselves and other people.  The hardest lessons to unlearn, I think, are visceral ones. Let me be honest and make myself vulnerable to illustrate the point. I think of homosexuals having sex, holding hands, kissing, etc., and I just want to barf -- not because of God (whom I don't really believe in as a person), or because I am a mean person (I like to think: I haven't ever attacked anyone for being gay, and I don't go around persecuting them). There is something deeper there, something integral to me that sees homosexuality and screams, "That is not for you, buddy!" As a good little Mormon, I learned that my deepest feelings (like this one) were the voice of God speaking to me (this is OK, so far), and that He had the same plan for me and everyone else (this is emphatically wrong: whatever the universe was thinking when it devised all of us, it did not make us to be carbon copies of each other).  Many people whose intellects have left fanatical Mormonism still have their minds planted there firmly.  They still barf when they see homosexuals (or swingers or drinkers), and they naively expect everyone else to barf, too. But it isn't going to happen. It shouldn't happen (for reasons that become apparent when we look at the lives of people who have needs and experiences very different from our own).

The underlying question here is simple: how do we come together harmoniously when we are not all exactly (or even remotely) alike? There are many viable answers. (1) Sometimes, we simply don't come together. I don't go to gay bars, and I probably never will. That's OK! I don't think the gay bars need to worry about making themselves more attractive to clientele like me. I don't expect or want them to. I want them to do their thing: I just don't want to be part of it. (2) When we do come together, we create boundaries (the laws of the group): in order make sense and cause minimum damage, these boundaries need to be local -- something that individual friends and acquaintances hash out face to face.  (3) On a global level -- where huge, geographically and culturally diverse groups like the LDS church or the audience of a popular podcast exist -- the only things that work are principles. The principles have to be rigid enough to mean something, while still being flexible enough to accomodate the vast differences in that far-flung audience.  They can be, and it is not really as hard as one might think.  Take fidelity, for instance.  In itself, all fidelity means is trust, honor, integrity, honesty.  It doesn't mean that no one should ever drink or have sex with multiple partners or whatever.  It means that if I promise not to drink, or have sex, or leave a chalk circle I have drawn around my feet, I will abide by that promise.  Fidelity inevitably looks different to different people.  That is OK.  Some people will swing (or drink or be gay) and still be honorable, upstanding folk. And some will lie and reveal themselves as toxic (to anyone who gets too close: you cannot trust a liar; even if you try to, you don't really).

In summary, let me invoke and enlarge upon an analogy my friend made. Imagine that we are all sailing about helter-skelter on rafts washing in life's currents. The LDS church tries to be a kind of lighthouse, pointing out the dangerous rocks that threaten to sink us. Unfortunately, some of us find that the church's beacons are too far inland to offer us really useful protection.  So the  enterprising spirits among us try to make salvation more accessible, building new lighthouses directly over the rocks we have discovered and pointing them out clearly to fellow travelers.  Some travelers see our new beacons and appreciate them. At the end of the day, however, people are always going to crash their rafts. It's what people do. The most any of us can do (whether in or out of the LDS church) is help folks prepare well on their own for the inevitable.  We don't need to make ourselves absolute moral authorities, providing the universal blueprint for every human life: I can live my truth without being threatened by yours.  The one thing we cannot do is lie.  I have to be honest with you, and with the community, about who I am, what I want from the community, and what I am willing to contribute to it.  Joseph Smith died largely because he was not willing to let people in the community expose lies that he and several people close to him were telling.  In my view, it was the lies that brought him down more than any of the other questionable behaviors in which he was engaged.  (I am not saying that those behaviors were not problematic, only that they were not necessarily problematic, if he went about them honestly, e.g. asking men and women point blank if they would be willing to admit him as an active third wheel in their marriage.)  People are willing to forgive an honest deviant: if I walk into a gay bar and some man propositions me, I choke back my puke and say, "Thanks, but no thanks."  If I walk into a public restroom at the airport and am groped without my consent, I go ballistic.

As my wife says to our toddlers, "Use your words, and keep your hands to yourself!"  If they can do it (and learn to wipe their butts, too), then so can grown men and women.


  1. And if you walk into the security line at the airport and get groped without your consent, it's your own damn fault for entering a public space, anymore.

    You bring up fidelity: ``It means that if I promise not to drink, or have sex, or leave a chalk circle I have drawn around my feet, I will abide by that promise.''

    What bugs me about the `chalk circle' approach to honor and morality is that it teaches that there is never a reason to reevaluate a decision made when you were younger and had less information. I'm not advocating breaking your word flagrantly or anything, but isn't there a place for rational behavior even if it belies past decisions? Even the D&C points out that there really is no such thing as a `covenant breaker'---if the covenant is not kept, it is simply null and void, as if it had never been made. It seems to me that honesty is less a matter of immutability and more a concern of communicating your views and aims clearly to the people you love.

    1. I agree about the necessity of communication. Sometimes, the nature of our reality changes, and we have to change the chalk circles we have drawn around ourselves. That can be done openly, amicably, honestly, and respectfully. Joseph did not have to slink around without telling Emma what he was really up to. He should have squared with her (and the whole community).

      Live with your identity, by all means, but don't make that identity depend on other people taking you for something you are not.

    2. Right. External pressures for arbitrary conformity (the Hinckley--Bednar earring complex) produces infantilized adults.

      A case study in lucky fools: consider how Mormons love to point to their mission and say that all the good in their life came from it. Of course it did---they live in a culture that privileges and values that experience. If you were a Muslim and memorized the Quran, you'd be an honored scholar; if you were a Quaker and had done the same thing, it'd be mostly irrelevant.

  2. And as for airports, I am coming to a place where I view them as another luxury I would rather avoid. If you don't have to fly, why on earth would you subject yourself to that? Maybe at some future date they will just strip all the passengers nude, anesthetize them, put them in straitjackets, and pack them efficiently into a cargohold -- to be woken up whenever they arrive at their destination.