Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Correcting sexism in Mormon culture with doctrine

This article focuses on Mormon culture and doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as I understand them). Although its primary intended audience is members of the Church, I hope it will be of interest to all of my readers. We members of the Church are not perfect and our actions and culture do not always measure up to the doctrine we believe in and strive to live by.

A week ago, I attended a discussion with a congregation I frequently visit about dating. It was suggested that it's now 2016 and that women ought to feel free to ask men on dates if they're so inclined. A friend of mine replied that when she's done so, she's been told that asking was outside of her gender role. In some cases, she lost friendships as a result.

My friend feels stuck. She wants to date but isn't currently being asked on dates. Being proactive, it seems, has only caused problems. While I hope that some of my thoughts help her, my primary goal is to change our culture so that it aligns more closely with our doctrine, which I believe to be true.

I take exception to many of the ideas I've come across, but I care about the people who subscribe to these ideas. My purpose is not to tear any person down – but I have no respect for sexism and won't waste words talking around it.

Genuine concerns

I'm sympathetic to men who struggle to deal with situations like this gracefully. It's certainly more common for a woman to ask a man out now than it was a generation ago, but it's still not an everyday occurrence. I'm guessing that most Mormon men who are asked out are caught slightly off guard. In Mormon culture, it's particularly difficult for men to handle situations where they might hurt a woman's feelings; sayings like, "Take care not to make women weep, for God counts their tears," permeate our culture. (The quote itself is taken out of context from a talk by President Monson.)

Even when men aren't worried about hurting feelings because they've been taught to be, they're well aware that if they get in the habit of doing things that are perceived as unkind, word will get around. In a community like the Salt Lake Valley, reputation is golden and many men are careful simply for self-preservation. In smaller communities of single Mormons elsewhere, reputation is even more important.

These concerns are genuine and I feel for the people who find themselves in uncomfortable situations. However, no amount of discomfort or surprise or any other explanation that makes a flaw understandable suffices to make that flaw excusable. We strive for perfection (Matthew 5:48), so it becomes us to find ways to improve when we find that we are at fault.

Honesty

One fundamental problem here is honesty. Although I have no doubt that the men in question believe in gender roles and such, I imagine that if they were interested in the girl asking them, they'd oblige a little oddity. In many cases, the real reason they're turning down the date is that they're not interested.

I've said before that we owe it to each other to be honest. It's not enough to make statements that are factually true; we must also mean their implications and be honest in our silences.

It's perfectly understandable to be ill at ease when asked on a date you don't want to go on. But hiding that discomfort behind disingenuous statements about gender roles is not just disrespectful; it complicates dating for these women. They may come to fear asking other men out because of the reaction when a clear, gentle rejection might not. It's unfair to these women and to other men.

It's personal

Not everything that's cultural is doctrinal and not everything that is doctrinal is cultural. Furthermore, not every person will apply doctrine in exactly the same way.

The most concise exposition on the doctrine on the family is The Family: A Proclamation to the World. I'll quote the portion of the proclamation that specifically addresses gender roles without abridgement:

By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners. Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation.

To many of us, this quote conjures pictures of stereotypes from the 1950s. But a careful reading makes it clear that such stereotypes are not justified. The statements about the primary responsibilities of fathers and mothers are immediately followed by two crucial statements: First, that fathers and mothers are equal partners; Second, that some adaptation is necessary.

Since the statement about doctrine specifically allows for individual adaptation (and since not one of us fully knows the circumstances of anyone else's life), we are unjustified in telling anyone else how they should apply these doctrines in their own lives. This means that no man is in a position to tell a woman whether or not she should ask men on dates; not only is nothing said in authoritative statements about who asks whom, we know that individual circumstances necessitate individual adaptation. Every person (or couple) should prayerfully study the doctrines and consider his, her, or their circumstances. As we ask questions like, "What is right?" and "What will bless my family?", we are likely to receive individual guidance.

What are you looking for?

And since husbands and wives are equal partners, any interpretation of gender roles that makes a partner superior or inferior to the other is incorrect – and interpretations that make partners feel superior or inferior are probably incorrect for that couple. Many couples have mom stay at home and that works well for them. Others have circumstances, possibly including emotional issues tied to traditional gender roles, that may change how the ideal fits onto their lives.

I think we all ought to be extremely cautious about any conception of gender roles that makes either sex passive (such as one that requires that men do the asking). Our doctrine makes it clear that "the children of men ... have become free forever ... to act for themselves and not to be acted upon" (2 Nephi 2:26). Sadly, it seems that many Mormon men misunderstand this doctrine and follow instead a culture that teaches them to look for maids instead of wives.

Friendship

I'm also concerned by the fact that my friend lost friends by asking them on dates. The fact that one person expresses romantic interest in another shouldn't, in most circumstances, prevent their friendship from continuing as it is – and a date needn't always come from romantic interest (see especially page 5). This, of course, requires maturity and good communication. What were these friendships really like? Are we so afraid of frank conversation that we can't get over little hurdles like this? Can men and women be friends without romance, even if one is romantically inclined and the other isn't? We all owe it to ourselves and to our friends to examine the way we approach our friendships. We likely can all focus a little more on other people and less on ourselves.

Be courageous

Interacting with other people, especially when romance gets involved, is tricky and sometimes painful. We can alleviate much of the pain in these interactions by seeking out true doctrine and choosing it, even if following the doctrine means violating social norms. It takes courage but allows us to be true to ourselves, kind to others, and faithful to God.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Essential freedoms

A few months ago, I found myself frustrated by a confluence of changes in my life and changes in laws regarding health care. As frustration always does, it caused me to think. When I said something about it, a friend of mine suggested a book about health care policy that he quite liked. He tends to lean much further left than I do but his opinions are well reasoned and I jumped at the chance to understand solutions to the problem.

A few pages into the book, it became clear to me that the book mentioned and then didn't address what was, to me, the most important question about government involvement in any area of life: what is the government's role? This book probably tried to be impartial but because it ignored that question, necessarily only considered solutions palatable to progressive thought.

I don't identify as a progressive, so the book completely failed to convince me. But I don't identify as a conservative or as a libertarian, either. This led me to the question of what, exactly, my political theory is. I can shoot holes in the political theories that I see around me for days, but it's counterproductive to do so. I wanted to make a statement about what I actually do think. This has taken considerable thought and yet will probably develop over time. It's an exposition on what I think and what I believe. I encourage my readers to consider my ideas carefully and weigh them against other political ideologies. That said, there is plenty of room for disagreement and I also encourage my readers to stick to what they believe.

I'm unable to form ideas about what government should and shouldn't do without a framework of philosophy. I make no apology for basing my political theory on religious doctrine; whether or not our conceptions of life and of humanity are religious, we all have our own ideas and they affect our thoughts on related subjects. I believe that people live on this earth for a purpose: to learn by experience. Before being born, we lived with our Father in Heaven. He was so good and so perfect that choosing to live by the righteous laws He embodies was the obvious choice. To illustrate, if a single lie immediately destroyed all of our relationships, we'd all be scrupulously honest. The consequences for our actions were inescapably clear and although we chose to do correct things, this was not entirely due to our own spiritual strength.

In contrast, our mortal experience causes us to "walk by faith, not by sight" (https://www.lds.org/scriptures/nt/2-cor/5.7?lang=eng#6). That is, the consequences of our actions are apparent but not clearly and not immediately. We choose to believe in principles and to live by them. Because of this lack of vision, we are not compelled by our knowledge to do what will lead us to happiness; we are free to choose what we want. These choices have a profound impact on us. Not only do they determine the course of our life, they change us. Our purpose here, then, is to choose good things so that we will have progressed spiritually by the end of our lives.

Part of the way that we learn from our choices is by experiencing the fallout that comes from them. Making it impossible for someone to succeed diminishes that person's freedom. But so does preventing failure. Happily, the expectation of each of us is not that we will be perfect; in a sense, God's mercy is a shield from personal responsibility. In another sense, He is lending us strength so that we can take responsibility for our actions. Were it not for this mercy, we would all be doomed and the progression which is our purpose here would be impossible. It is important to note that although He forgives us our sins, He rarely removes their effects from our lives. If I hurt a friend and then turn to Him, He will forgive me and give me strength as I try to mend the friendship, but He leaves our friends free to choose how to trust and how to love.

This freedom to choose defines our mortal experience. The role of government is to protect these freedoms. A government is successful to the degree that its people are free to make choices and take responsibility for them. To this end, governments identify and protect rights, such as the rights to life, liberty, and property (see Wikipedia for more on Locke and the Declaration of Independence).

Of course, rights are not absolute: one person's right to life comes into conflict with another's right to liberty, as either the one person has a right to life and the other is not free to remove it or one has complete liberty that trumps the other's right to life. This sort of conflict is where governments and laws come into play: their purpose is to protect and balance these rights so that their citizens can make choices and take responsibility for them – for better or for worse.

To the (extreme) libertarian, public utilities and accommodations seem problematic because they require government intervention and are not obviously related to the protection of life, liberty, or property. To the progressive, public utilities diminish the overall cost of providing the necessities of life. Although my political theory sounds somewhat libertarian, I side more with progressives on this issue – and it is consistent with my political theory. I'll explain with an example.

The infrastructure necessary to deliver electricity and gas to homes requires flexibility on the part of everyone involved. I would have neither electricity nor gas were it not for lines that go through my neighbors' properties and through my own. I have no natural right to dig up my neighbor's lawn, so if the people who own property all around me chose to not permit it, I could have no access to these things. In a cold climate such as the one where I live (and without a fireplace to burn wood), these things are literally a necessity of life. The same argument could be made for internet access; it is not necessary to sustain life but internet access (inside or outside one's home) is necessary in order to lead a normal life in our society. Accordingly, it is reasonable and consistent for a government to establish and regulate public utilities.

Another counterintuitive example of how government and freedom interact is in regulations of monopolies. For an individual, having only one choice for where to go for a product leads to diminished freedom, especially when the supplier gouges prices because of that monopoly. This is visible today in the way that internet service works in the United States; local governments give monopolies to companies who build, buy, and maintain infrastructure to provide internet service to customers. There is often nominal competition, as one company will have exclusive access to phone lines and another to cable lines. But these companies operate with scarcely any regulation or competition and they take advantage of it.

So although I agree that government power and bureaucracy should be minimized, the point of such minimization is enhancing our freedom to choose – and the current system only serves to guarantee that all options are terrible. Internet service providers have exclusive access to the cables upon which we rely for service. Since the government has granted them a monopoly, it must also regulate the business that occurs through that monopoly to protect its consumers. Yes, regulating these things diminishes the choices available to the companies in question – but it enhances the overall freedom of the people involved.

One natural result of such a definition of freedom is that it is not only impossible to measure; it is sometimes impossible to tell if a change increases or decreases freedom. This subjectivity means that my philosophy is a guiding principle and not a decision procedure. This means that every point of law deserves individual consideration and that there is room for disagreement, even among people who subscribe to the same philosophy. So please, dear reader, take the time to consider as you vote, write, and speak what effects your ideas will have on the freedom of individuals to choose and to take responsibility.