Most organizations face a dilemma. On the one hand, too much factionalism and resistance and they break down into feuding, balkanized fragments. On the other hand, without any pushback, they turn into an echo chamber of yes men. The trick to success is to harness the power of loyal opposition.
Thus the Chinese wisdom saying: “A thousand yes-men cannot equal one honest advisor.”
Evangelicals often talk about what happened to King Ahab and yes men as false prophets. Others refer to Warburg, where Martin Luther was sheltered from Pope Leo.
And even Forbes talks often about Yes Men and the peril they represent.
I got pulled into a conversation on the topic when I tried to bring up the Ensign and Church messages with someone who had left the LDS Church. They pulled up LDS.org and started reading the August Visiting Teaching message. Next thing I knew they had thrown their iPhone across the room and told me “This is the sort of thing that is the f*cking reason I left the church!”
So I read the article, and got to talking about it with friends. It turns out that the entire 2016 year of Visiting Teaching messages were not drafted or chosen by the Relief Society Presidency but were picked for them and written by the all male correlation committee. As you might suspect, the messages often are mostly men lecturing women on things such as to how to suffer joyfully.
The August lesson consists of two lectures from men, with a small, non-substantive ornamental note in the middle by a woman. The express design for the entire year of articles is to show how the values of the Proclamation on the Family works in application. The first lecture in the August article is on not saying anything but positive things.
The core of the lesson is the story of a woman with cancer, who because of an ill guided surgery, has crippling pain. Doing the daily family ironing caused her such pain that she would have to break in the middle of it to go cry in her room.
When her family noticed her pain, what did they do that illustrates the spirit of the Proclamation?
- Take over the ironing so she was not in such pain?
- Trade lawn mowing or other services with another family in return for ironing?
- Wear wrinkled shirts?
- Pool their lunch money to pay for shirt laundry services?
- Let her suffer for a year until they could afford, by saving lunch money, a better tool for ironing shirts?
The point of the lesson is that the Proclamation’s spirit led the family and the father to pick choice 5. That story was used as an example of caring for a family in the spirit of the Proclamation. Notice that it is a story told by a man about what a man did as a lecture to women about how to live their lives. It was held up as an example about how a real man cares for his wife.
The untold part of the story includes a 13 year old Elder D. Todd Christofferson going to his grandmother. He asked her teach him how to make bread so he could start making bread for the family as a way to help his mother. He was unaware of the pain ironing caused his mother until years later or I suspect he would have also had someone teach him to iron. That part of the story wasn’t seen as worthy of publication by the committee of men.
There is a shout-out to Jacob 3:7 in the Book of Mormon, which is about how the Lamanites were more righteous than the Nephites because they had rejected polygamy, and there is an encouragement to use kind words.
The bulk of the lesson is about how if a woman is in such pain that she breaks down crying from it, the proper response is to let her suffer for a year and then do something that lets her keep suffering at a reduced rate rather than change things so she doesn’t suffer at all. If we do that, let the women suffer, but reduce their pain after a year so they don’t break down crying in their rooms so often, then we are real men.
The biggest problem with this article is that this message isn’t directed at the men; this is the Visiting Teaching message for the women of the Church. I’ve been told by a number of women that the real lesson is that the Proclamation means they should expect to suffer, weep, and iron. The message is that they would be lesser women if they could not fulfill stereotypical household tasks. The message is that the family’s cleanly pressed shirts were more important than a cancer-stricken woman’s comfort. Ultimately, the message seems to be that real women who embody the spirit of the Proclamation never complain, should expect to feel pain, and should show gratitude for new irons instead of expecting the men in their lives to stoop to this domestic task.
As one woman put it:
This message is ostensibly written for women, and yet the woman in the story is completely passive. Things happen to her. She never acts. My first question was not “Why didn’t the men in her life…?” It was, “Why didn’t she…?” Who was she helping by crying alone, in her room? Why would this be held up as an example when she did nothing but suffer??Why didn’t she teach her sons to be compassionate and take responsibility for the operation of their own household? What kind of sick pretense for womanhood is this?
I am so done with this message that women are never to act, that the only role for us to fill is to spend our lives doing menial labor and, if we’re really ambitious, to ask a priesthood holder to do something more exciting on our behalf and then support him in it by doing all the yucky parts he doesn’t want to be bothered with, if we really feel inspired to do so. Otherwise, we should just be quiet and work, and go in our rooms to cry alone if we absolutely have to.
I did get some discussion on how such a tone deaf lesson could be sent out. I got comments that asked how a group of men could write lesson after lesson like this, an entire year of them, for women who do not seem to get the same message from the lesson that the men think they are sending out.
I was told that in many of the committees, the lower level people who do the work are very afraid of offending anyone. They ruthlessly self-edit. Then, when something is proposed for publication, even something as flawed as this lesson, rather than pointing out its flaws, everyone just nods and says yes for fear of offending anyone. I asked if Elder D. Todd Christofferson was really that fearsome. I was told no. Definitely not. He is exactly what you would think of someone who started baking the family bread at age thirteen and then kept them in fresh bread until he left for college to try and make his mother’s life better.
A despot leader wasn’t the problem. It never got to Elder Christofferson ever expressing anything but love and kindness. The people below him self edit. They have created a culture of yes men so thorough that this sort of tone deaf train wreck gets into print without challenge That is the result of the lack of a loyal opposition.
I’ve since been talking with my wife’s best friend growing up. Kristine Lesperance’s dissertation chair had her gathering literature on the topic and doing specialized graduate readings on it. The bottom line: Without honesty and pushback, without a loyal opposition, a culture of yes men will go off into the weeds.
Such a culture will generate lessons like this year’s sequence wherein the topic of the Proclamation on the Family is hammered home with tone deaf lessons such as the August one. Such lessons lead to people like me getting blindsided by the anger and response of people like the person I was trying to share the gospel with.
What do you think?
- Do we need a mechanism for pushback or do we just need “yes men?”
- Was the August lesson exactly what women needed to hear?
- What is the lesson a woman should have gotten from the August lesson?
- Is there something better out there that shows how a family is nurtured other than by letting women cry in pain by themselves in their rooms while the men become heroes of the story by skipping lunch for a year?
- Is there a better lesson this year that I should have focused on rather than just wandering into this one?
- If you had to face the five options that family had, which one would you have chosen?