My local library went into deep freeze about two months ago, not even accepting book returns. So I’ve had my current pile of library books for about three months now. Which means I have read every page of Stanley Fish’s The First: How to think about hate speech, campus speech, religious speech, fake news, post-truth, and Donald Trump (2019). Let’s talk about the last chapter, “Why Transparency Is the Mother of Fake News,” then relate it to the ongoing discussion of transparency within the LDS Church. Is there such a thing as too much transparency? If so, what is the optimal degree of transparency?

The Author. First, a word about the author. Stanley Fish is a postmodern literary theorist who started out life as an English prof and is now a law prof. In Europe, if you are a postmodern literary theorist you are also a philosopher of sorts. But Anglo-American philosophy at the university level is much narrower than Continental philosophy. So the broader field of Continental philosophy is often found in English departments in the United States. Fish has expanded beyond his academic discipline, becoming something of a public intellectual like Noam Chomsky or Paul Krugman. He published op-eds at the New York Times, including ‘Transparency’ is the Mother of Fake News (May 7, 2018), on which the chapter in the book is based. Most importantly, Fish is a bright, clever guy who writes very interesting books.

The Law. Why does an English prof turn into a law prof? The obvious reason is that law profs are paid better. But it turns out a literary theorist, an expert in putting words and sentences through a literary grinder and spitting out something interesting, can bring some real insights to the study of law. This is evident in a couple of earlier chapters in the book, “Why Hate Speech Cannot Be Defined” and “Why Freedom of Speech Is Not an Academic Value.” Short version: The law is a lot messier than you think. But I can’t talk about everything in the book in one blog post. So let’s talk about “transparency.”

Transparency in General. Fish examines the claim “The more speech, the better” in light of The Internet, which puts that slogan to the test. The promise of The Internet and its cousin Social Media is a copious free flow in unfiltered information that will somehow improve life for you and me and everyone else. The key claim is that The Internet gives us access to unfiltered information. Instead of journalists and editors and publishers deciding what could be put in print or not, we get access to everything. Fish spends most of the chapter showing that access to everything has negative consequences as well as possible benefits.

First, open-meeting laws. Maybe forcing your local town council or state senate committee to conduct its meetings in public rather than behind closed doors inhibits open and candid discussion by participants. It almost certainly does. Remember your American history course when it talked about the Constitutional Convention in 1787? The members met for four months over the summer … behind closed doors. They were very careful to avoid leaks. James Madison took careful notes of the proceedings, but did not publish them for fifty years. So forcing meetings to be open and public may suppress meaningful discussion. Had the Constitutional Convention been a public affair, we might not have a Constitution.

Second, the illusion of neutrality. Fish questions whether the claim of unfiltered information via The Internet really holds up. “[T]he more this gospel is preached and believed — the more the answer to everything is assumed to be data uncorrupted by interests and motives — the easier it will be for interests and motives to operate under transparency’s cover” (p. 156). Fish critiques the idea that more communication and engagement between everybody would solve the world’s problems. He quotes a Facebook press release that claims, “By enabling people from diverse backgrounds to easily connect and share their ideas, we can decrease world conflict in the short and long run.” Fish calls this magical thinking. He believes “human difference is irreducible” and no amount of Internet or social media interaction is going to eliminate conflict and difference.

One last quote from Fish, then we’ll get to the Mormon stuff. He rejects the idea that there is neutral, objective language that we can use resolve conflict and settle differing opinions. As you read this quotation, think about Mormon discourse, what you read in The Ensign or the Gospel Topics Essays, or what you hear in Conference.

There are only vocabularies attached to particular practices and constituencies, vocabularies whose meanings derive from those practices, meanings that are local, shared by members of these constituencies and opaque to outsiders. When persons from different constituencies clash, there is no common language to which they can refer their differences for mechanical resolution; there are only political negotiations … the content of which is not truth-telling — although truths are occasionally told — but propaganda, threats, insults, deceptions, exaggerations, insinuations, bluffs, posturings, in short all the forms of verbal manipulation that were supposedly to have disappeared in the internet nirvana. (p. 158)

Mormon Transparency. Let’s think about transparency in a few Mormon contexts. First, financial transparency. Yes, it would be nice if the Church released financial statements to show tithing revenue collected, investment revenue and gains, assets held, and expenditures on various activities. Until the early 1950s, the Church did release such financial statements, so the idea that the Church can’t do that or that it is some wrong for the Church to release financial statements doesn’t hold up. But you have to balance that against the fact that if financial statements were released, the primary result would be critics of the Church, both internal and external, would simply have a shiny new resource for criticizing the Church. The tithe-paying membership isn’t that interested in the details, but all the critics are. So from the point of view of the Church, there is little to gain. Government entities and corporations are required to release audited financial statements. But the Church isn’t, so it doesn’t. Personally, I think the Church ought to release audited financial statements, but there are good points on both sides of the question.

Next, what I’ll call document transparency. Opening the archives. For a long time, access to LDS archives (a blanket term for whatever basements, vaults, or safes store various documents and artifacts the Church holds) was fairly limited. Given the Church’s history of conflict in the 19th century with both the government and critics, it’s easy to see how a “don’t give them anything” mentality developed. When Fawn Brodie wrote her pathbreaking biography of Joseph Smith (first published in 1945), she consulted a lot of documents, but she was not granted access to documents in the LDS archives. Contrast that with John Turner’s recent biography of Brigham Young. He received broad access to documents in the LDS archives. They have even released the Council of Fifty minutes, long withheld from any access. (The image to this post is the title page of the published minutes.) With sixty bucks and three clicks, you can own a copy yourself. It’s easy to forget how far the Church has come on this measure.

It gets trickier when we talk about historical transparency. It’s tempting to think that senior leaders or LDS historians or the functionaries who maintain the LDS archives know what really happened on this or that particular topic and the world would be a better place if they’d just be candid about it and tell the real story. This attitude is pervasive in certain Reddit groups and discussion forums critical of the Church. Some of us may feel this way on particular topics. But this is a messier problem than it appears. Fish’s commentary quoted above is on point here: “When persons from different constituencies clash, there is no common language to which they can refer their differences for mechanical resolution; there are only political negotiations … the content of which is not truth-telling …”

Truth about disputed historical issues is not like some nugget sitting on the ground that you can pick up and show the world. On almost any historical issue worth discussion, there are different points of view championed by professional historians, much less the wildly differing opinions held (and circulated on the Internet) by non-historians of various stripes. And religious issues are more contentious than the average historical topic. And Mormon issues are more contentious than the average religious topic. Most of the time, there simply is no historical nugget lying around to be grasped and displayed. It’s always messy. There are always different points of view.

I think the Church deserves credit for all of the resources directed to the Joseph Smith Papers Project, which represents substantial progress for both document transparency and historical transparency. The Gospel Topics Essays are a little iffier. They certainly engage in controversial topics and do so more candidly than any previous official LDS publication, which represents real progress for historical transparency. But there still seems to be a goodly measure of exaggeration and misrepresentation going on.

Let’s throw one more category into the mix: revelatory transparency. The term “revelation” is used a lot more freely in LDS discourse now than previously. The D&C is full of revelations that are printed texts. If you say, “Joseph received a revelation about kingdoms of glory in the afterlife,” and someone says, “Oh yeah? Show me,” you pull up D&C 76 on your smart phone and say, “Read this.” But the ending of the priesthood and temple ban under President Kimball and the more recent gay marriage policy statements under President Nelson don’t have texts. They are definitely claimed to be revelation by the Church and are termed “revelation” in LDS discourse, but there is no text. Any answer to the “Oh yeah? Show me” question is a lot messier, partly because there is no canonized text (just letters, speeches, and various articles or books discussing it) and partly because LDS leaders simply don’t want to talk about it.

Conclusion and Questions. Long post, sorry, but maybe it’s worth it. I think the bottom line from this short discussion is (1) that “transparency” is more complicated than is generally acknowledged, and (2) in several areas the Church is doing better than you might have expected.

Here are some suggestions for the comments:

  • Name your favorite Gospel Topic Essay and what it was finally transparent about or what it was still deceptive about. It’s nice the Race and the Priesthood essay officially acknowledged that black men received the priesthood in Joseph Smith’s day.
  • Say something nice about LDS transparency: “It’s really nice that the Church finally ….” It’s really nice that the Church finally released the Council of Fifty minutes.
  • Share a gripe about LDS transparency: “I sure with the Church would ….” I sure with the Church would release financial statements.