Ah, the BYU Testing Center.  Like Milgram’s famed experiment, the Testing Center is a perfect microcosm illustrating just how quickly people can convince themselves that the pain they inflict on their fellow students is well deserved. This is what happens when unrighteous dominion is given free rein and an orange vest. As Jim on The Office once said of Dwight Shrute, “Never has so little power gone to someone’s head before.”

So, for those who missed this little kerfuffle, here’s a recap.  For those too lazy to click the link, here goes:  a self-described “curvy” female student left a coordination meeting with her bishop (click on the link to judge for yourself; I think she looks awesome and in no way inappropriate), went immediately to the BYU-Idaha testing center, and was told by the testing proctor that she could not take the test because her pants were too tight.  Other students and testing proctors quickly came to her defense but all were overruled, and she was sent home without being allowed to take her exam.  The student paper printed an article about this, which then went viral.  When asked (the first time), the school gave a loose explanation of the policy, stating that form-fitting clothing is against the rules.  However, as the story about BYU banning skinny jeans gained momentum, the school reversed course and clarified that skinny jeans were acceptable.  The abortion rate in Idaho skyrocketed overnight, and Snoop Dogg immediately set up filming for his next Girls Gone Wild shoot.

Was it a rogue zealot who misunderstood a policy?  Doubtful, since University employees had posted warning notes to fellow students: 

“If your pants are tight enough for us to see the shape of your leg (so, pants should not be shaped like legs), your pants are too tight.  If we can see the shape of your belly button (e.g. you have a tummy), your top is too tight.  The CES Dress and Grooming Standards – that you have agreed to Honor – states that:  “Clothing is inappropriate when it is . . . form fitting.”  (what was in that ellipses?  “in any way fashionable, flattering or contemporary”?)   The “Skinny Jeans” style is NOT appropriate attire (until our power-mad assertion hits national news, when it will once again be totally appropriate).  It also says:  “Dresses and skirts must be knee length or longer.”  Short skirts with tights underneath are short skirts.  If your clothing or attitude (meaning you don’t meekly submit to the heavy handed rebuke of your self-appointed judges and fellow students) does not meet the commitments you have made to live the Honor Code, will you please go home and prayerfully talk with your Father in Heaven (just wait until your father gets home, young lady!) and recognize yourself to be a true disciple (because you’re obviously not one, you harlot) and abide by the Honor Code that defines your commitment to be a disciple.”  As a BYU alum, I can unequivocally state that the Honor Code in no way defined my discipleship.  It defined what I was allowed to wear to school and do while on campus.  Period.

And from a Jezebel article, we see that testing center manager John Dexter who apparently has God on speed dial has declared with certainty and solemnity what God is thinking about this episode of What Not to Wear:

If a student prays and they think that the tight ‘formfitting’ clothing is accepted by the Lord, they have not asked, or have not asked the right question, or they have chosen an answer for their own gratification. I don’t believe the Lord would give approval to anyone to be disobedient to the CES Dress and Grooming Standards.

So, whose gratification is this exactly?  The female student who puts on the Freshman Fifteen and finds her pants suddenly snug?  The leering testing center employee who refuses to back down in his righteous vengeance?  Good thing we have John Dexter on the watch and that he’s there to correct the mistakes of University officials and church leaders who evidently got a different answer from God.  Perhaps his authority even outranks an apostle:

“We do not want an environment on this campus characterized by self-appointed, judgmental, and self-righteous spiritual vigilantes.” — David A. Bednar, Ricks College devotional, Sept. 1, 1998

Maybe it’s like with my kids.  Whenever I say “don’t,” they only ever hear the rest of the sentence.  “Don’t spill that!” becomes “Spill that!,” and “Don’t forget to brush your teeth” is heard as “Forget to brush your teeth.” 

What’s worse, the girl in question (whose bishop clearly didn’t object to her attire) stated that her jeans were not “skinny jeans.”  Women who are curvy have a higher chance that clothes will be form-fitting.  And although skinny jeans are popular with both sexes, based on the articles discussing this issue, females appear to have been singled out disproportionately for correction.  Is it appropriate for a male student to decide what is appropriate for a female student to wear?  Isn’t this a situation ripe for abuse?  Based on my own experiences at BYU I would say males harrassing females over standards was an unfortunate and weird stalker-ish byproduct of romantic interest that I witnessed on several occasions.  It’s also a pretty ineffective way to get a girl interested in you, potential standards-stalkers who may be reading this.

Why does this story sound so familiar?  Oh, yeah.  It’s the exact same thing that happened when a Bishop banned cross-dressing toddlers from the ward Trunk or Treat party.  When asked about it, he said it was church policy and that people who didn’t like it (mostly the non-LDS neighbors who were invited to the event as a gesture of fellowship) didn’t need to come.  When it hit national news, the church came out the next day clarifying that it was not church policy.  I liked the suggestion of commenter Jeremy at BCC to measure PR goofs in BFIM units (Brandon Flowers Is Mormon units = the positive value of people knowing Brandon Flowers is Mormon).  How does this keep happening?

I’ve been reading a great book by Caroll Tavris called Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me):  Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs.  The book covers several concepts that explain why incidents like this have begun to happen more frequently:

  • The higher the price to be in an organization, the more people value it.  Those that have set the highest standards place the highest premium on their membership and may not want the rest of us mucking it up.
  • Some people are self-appointed purity police.  Today it’s skinny-jeans.  Last time it was cross-dressing toddlers.  It might be flip flops in church, facial hair or any number of things.
  • When you treat people poorly, you become convinced they deserve it.  Your brain requires you to justify your behavior to yourself because, after all, you are a good person.  So that person you’ve treated badly must deserve your poor treatment.  “Aggression begets self-justification, which begets more aggression.”
  • Admitting mistakes is too painful.  Once you admit you made a mistake, you realize that you’ve harmed other people, and that knowledge is very painful.  Few people can handle that kind of admission.  It requires backing up to the original self-justification and there may be a high body count along that slippery slope.

But the real reason this keeps happening is that

  • Journalism is having a “Mormon Moment.”  What we do is suddenly of prurient interest.  Because many people don’t know much about Mormons, they want to know what kind of person might become President after Newt Gingrich inevitably self-destructs.  “History is written by the victors, but it’s victims who write memoirs.”  The victims of our culture suddenly have advocates cherry picking stories that rightly demonize the zealotry that some members exhibit.
  • Mormonism is no longer a closed loop system. When external feedback comes in to any closed loop system, logic prevails.  We see ourselves and our justifications in a more realistic light.  When we have a practice that makes no sense at all to outsiders but only makes sense to insiders who have paid a high price for it (e.g. polygamy, skinny jeans, cross-dressing toddlers), we may be caught in a self-justifying closed-loop system.  This is why scientific papers are subject to peer review.

From the book:  “If we human beings are inevitably afflicted with tunnel vision, at least our errors are more likely to be reduced, or corrected, if the tunnel is made of glass.”  And, brothers and sisters, ready or not, this tunnel is suddenly made of glass.  What do you think the next tempest-in-an-herbal-teacup scandal will be?  Predictions, please!

Discuss.