Some people are less attached to wrong opinions than others.
When Joseph Fielding Smith confronted directly about this [statements he made about space exploration being against God’s will], he apparently shrugged and said “Well, I was wrong, wasn’t I?”, an attitude shared by regrettably few of his fans. (Press Conference, 23 Jan 1970; David Farnsworth reprinted in March 2015 Ensign)
Is freely admitting when we are wrong a good thing or a bad thing? Does it change being wrong?
Does it change how firmly we should hold opinions?
It’s a very good thing. Being wrong is a part of being human–it cannot be avoided, regardless of how intelligent, well educated or wealthy you are. Being able to admit that you are wrong is to embrace life as it is, not as anyone wishes it to be.
Yes, freely admitting error changes the nature of the error. If I admit error, my commitment is to the truth. If I cover up error, my commitment is to my own ego. The outcomes of those two divergent commitments differ dramatically.
One might think that frequent error would change how firmly a person holds opinions, but it seems the opposite is actually true. Dunning-Kruger is in full effect, especially as the costs of admitting error have become so high.
I disagree so strongly with the statement, attributed to Boyd K. Packer, circulating among us Mormon folk, that not all truth is useful and should not always be used to guide us. (His example of that is insulting in the worst patriarchal way, as he exercises the elitism afforded him about his own aging body, and it disingenuously does not illuminate his point.)
Instead of that point of view, I believe that truth is always valid, just maybe not equally valuable in every case, and most valuable when tempered by compassion. But it is a truism that the truth can be elusive, and when we hit an obstacle, it’s often because there are facts we aren’t considering. Better to remove the blocks and blinders to improve our clarity.
This is a wonderful post. It is highly relevant in this age when so many teach that truth is relative and everyone is entitled to do whatever feels good.
In reality, there is truth and there is falsity. There is right and there is wrong. Truth and right simply are, they do not morph and change at the whims of the masses.
Those who are wrong should admit it and should change. Indeed, those who find themselves in the Dunning-Kruger camp will find out that they have lived a life devoid of true joy.
It’s important to admit error and take ownership of mistakes. It’s part of being a responsible, mature adult. Which makes me wonder why, even in this modern. supposedly enlightened world, there is no shortage of people who are notoriously allergic to holding themselves accountable and giving apologies when necessary. Dallin H. Oaks comes to mind. His motivation might be to protect the Church the best way he knows how (though I strongly disagree with this approach) and perhaps has enough hubris to believe that anything he says or does is automatically sanctioned by God, regardless of the consequence. My late father is another; I never once heard him utter an apology or own up to a mistake until he was in agony on his deathbed. In his case, he probably viewed apologies and admissions as signs of weakness, like many men of his generation. Then there is the most recent former U.S. President, who’s inability to take responsibility for wrongdoing is legendary. In his case, that quality in him is most likely pathological, as he truly believes that he is incapable of doing anything wrong.
I believe one of the major impediments to growth in the Church is the persistent myth of prophetic infallibility. If the membership of the Church as a whole could just get comfortable with the idea that the prophet and other Church leaders are human beings who make mistakes, despite their good intentions, we as a Church would finally be able to leave behind a lot of our institutional baggage. We never hear Pres. Nelson say “I’m sorry about Policy X, it was a mistake” or any such thing, but I can only imagine how positive it would be for the Church if he did. And while they don’t openly claim to be infallible, they certainly don’t refute the idea, and tacitly encourage the myth. Elder Uchtdorf came closest to publicly shattering the myth (by vaguely suggesting that Church leaders have “made mistakes” but without naming any leaders or specific mistakes) and for it he was demoted and exiled.
Mr Charity: life would be much easier for me individually and for the Church organizationally if everything could be classified as “right” or “wrong”, “true” or “false”. But that’s not reality. The world is rarely black and white. There are many shades of gray (at least 50 ha ha).
At the risk of being labeled a moral relativist, I believe that good moral judgement is often needed in life, not righteous platitudes. And you better hope I’m right for the sake of the Church because I could list 100 instances without even looking it up where LDS leadership statements appear very very wrong. Better to assume they were off a few shades of gray don’t you think?
Here’s where I think we have a problem. Some leaders seem to think, using Oaks’ model: GOOD: Admitting fault when you are wrong. Reluctantly. When forced by bad publicity. BETTER: Avoiding making claims when you are less certain so you don’t have to later admit fault. BEST: Being very certain and confident that you are right so your authority is never in question; if you are wrong, never admit it.
Aside from admitting when we are wrong, we also need to: 1) be very very careful asserting opinions in areas where we have insufficient expertise, particularly if 2) those areas impact the lives of other people, especially if 3) the ones negatively impacted are *mostly* not us. Examples: men giving women instructions, straight people judging LGBT choices, denying the existence of trans people, white people being tired of talking about race, etc.
Although it is popular, moral relativism is absolutely wrong. The modern entertainment industry likes to promote moral relativism as a desirable philosophy, but it causes great harm. For that, there should be an apology.
Reality television show is full of people who believe that there is no right or wrong, and if it gives pleasure, nothing else matters. They behave on screen as if they were Imperial Russian Princesses set loose in an unwatched palace.
This lifestyle has devastating consequences that cannot be avoided. Rates of crime, disease, and broken families are increasing exponentially. For the irrefutable fact is that wanton sexuality and substance abuse cause great harm. Anyone who preaches against basic moral values under the guise of relativism should apologize for being wrong.
JCS, perhaps you should watch less television. And why doesn’t someone with such a black and white world view like yourself not find it duplicitous to hurl bolts of judgement from on high while still partaking liberally of that which you are so appalled. Not sure you noticed, but the overwhelming majority of people in the world are nothing like the narcissists on reality TV.
In their own ways, Angela and JCS are really saying the same thing. The understanding that people have of morality can change over time. In fact, it should change. The understanding that early church leaders had about race was very much in line with what “popular culture” taught and believed. But now, we all realize that their view was undeniably wrong.
Ironically, the church teaches that we are on the earth in order to learn and grow, including learning when we are wrong. It would do a tremendous amount of good for current church leaders to admit that they are not perfect, past leaders were not perfect, past leaders were absolutely wrong about some things, and current church leaders are sorry and apologize for it.
Our purpose on this planet truly is to learn. This includes learning when it is time to change our thinking. If we go through life never changing or mind from the time we can think until the time we die, we have wasted our existence.
Hugh Nibley was once quoted as saying something like “I assume no responsibility for anything I wrote more than three years ago”. I have paraphrased that phrase often in my own life, saying “I assume no responsibility for anything I said more than three minutes ago.”
There is being wrong…and there is outright lying. Word has it that there is one advocate of “The Father of All Lies” who – according to the Washington Post – lied over 30,000 times while serving in some office. I can’t recall the guy’s name, but that would sure take a lot of backtracking to make all that right.
May I point out that substance abuse can be part of a disease process? Purdue Pharma, owned by New York’s Sackler family, makers of OxyContin, have been sued by many states for their contribution to the opioid epidemic. They claimed OxyContin was much less addictive than it actually is. They convinced a generation of physicians to prescribe large quantities of their product, thus creating addictions.
The Sacklers earned BILLIONS of dollars on the backs of our teens, middle-aged, and elderly citizens. And newborns. Heart wrenching.
Walmart, and at least one other pharmacy chain, has been accused of distributing voluminous amounts of painkillers. Their defense is that they did nothing illegal.
The Sacklers have entered into settlements, all the while also claiming they did nothing wrong. Recently a bankruptcy judge took the unusual step of protecting them from civil suits, even though they never even declared bankruptcy.
For many years the Sacklers bought respectability by making strategic donations to various Ivy League universities.
People that become addicted are routinely vilified.
Yes, apologies matter. Along with accountability.
“ Reality television show is full of people who believe that there is no right or wrong,”
Which is why people tune in and watch—because it is so out of the norm people find it entertaining.
What about the Garden of Eden?
God gave Adam and Eve two competing commandments.
Everything in life isn’t black and white or right or wrong. Thou shalt not kill, but what about in self-defense?
I’ve also wondered if sometimes Church leaders refrain from admitting mistakes for legal liability reasons?
Maybe decouple the concept of infallibility from seer/prophet/revelator. Reading Greg Prince’s Gay Rights and the Mormon Church it is clear that the Authorities could not have been more backwards on this subject, utterly without a clue. Same with women, to this day. Two female speakers last Conference? That’s not an oversight, it’s a slap in the face and utterly incomprehensible. How many more young women will leave the Church as a result? I just don’t understand any of this.
From my experience, most members of the church will readily tell you they don’t see the Q15 as infallible. But they will draw some sort of distinction between when leaders give opinions vs speak as inspired by the Lord backed up with something like JS’ “a prophet is only a prophet when…” etc.
And thus the problems persist. Leadership can hide behind vague, undefined mistakes/imperfections while still inflicting harm on membership with untouchable doctrines and policies. What the Q15 need to concede isn’t that they can make mistakes, which everyone knows, but rather that the process of *revelation itself* is fallible—that revelations and doctrines can be wrong. That we can all be wrong when we think we’re being moved by spiritual impressions. Humans are messy. Feelings are messy. Even when you’re the prophet.
I actually agree with BKP that not all truth is useful; I even use the quote every now and then. But I do think he erred in knowing exactly what truth is useful. I don’t particularly care who won the Ping Pong world championship in 1983, and I don’t think that not-knowing hurts me one bit. Understanding the origins of the church has had a great deal of influence on the course of my life, so I would deem that more useful.
The truth that of most useful is that which informs and impacts decisions, actions, or attitudes. Truth is actually more useful if it corrects an error or challenges a preconceived notion. The ability to say “I was wrong” is dependent on learning and acknowledging such truth.
One of my favorite quotes on this topic comes from the economist John Maynard Keynes.
“When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”
To me *not* admitting when you were wrong reveals way more about you and your weaknesses than admitting you were wrong.
JCS: Psst, reality TV is loosely scripted. People are cast, advised and edited to maximize the drama. We can’t conflate them as people with the persona they are motivated to portray. In other words, reality TV is an oxymoron.
The church seems to be reluctant to admit past wrongs and apologize out of fear that doing so will alienate its older members. This is faulty thinking.
By failing to admit error, the church is rapidly losing young people. The availability of information these days means that younger members can read all of the outrageous statements of prior leaders about race, equality of the sexes, and such. The young people feel that they cannot be a part of an organization that refuses to admit error.
What this is leading to is parents who find that a majority of their kids have gone inactive or have left completely. Then the parents ask themselves what is left to stay for. In order to maintain relationships with their kids, parents have to dial back the spiritual talk in the family. Many feel that if the church won’t move to keep young people as members, then does it really care about keeping families together.
Rockwell, your take on the BKP quote is probably just fine in the context in which you apply it, and I’m sure I would accept it. I recognize that this is often complicated, and needs some nuanced judgment. But we know that what he meant was something malignant and damaging to people who are harmed by boundary maintenance in church settings. That their truth isn’t useful when it contradicts the revelation of modern prophets, and that they and their local leaders should deny such truth, and favor prophetic revelation instead. I believe that is a toxic approach and will reap consequences typical of truth denied.
Also, I very much hope that when you use his quote that you mercifully leave out that dumpster fire of an example.
Rockwell: “I actually agree with BKP that not all truth is useful; I even use the quote every now and then. But I do think he erred in knowing exactly what truth is useful. I don’t particularly care who won the Ping Pong world championship in 1983, and I don’t think that not-knowing hurts me one bit. Understanding the origins of the church has had a great deal of influence on the course of my life, so I would deem that more useful.”
It’s good for people to decide for themselves which truths are important to them and which aren’t. It’s not okay when people try to decide which truths should and shouldn’t be important to other people.
It’s particularly bad for a leader to use their influence over a community to get the community to apply pressure on people with the goal of minimizing what’s genuinely important to them.
It’s particularly bad for someone to tell others which truths should and shouldn’t be important to them in an effort to hide truth from them.
Mdearest, I totally agree with you. BKP’s application of the idea was really terrible.
It was inaccurate for me to say “I use the quote”. More accurately, I have unintentionally used the idea, and when I did it was kind of the opposite of what BKP was saying. It’s in a comment on some blog post somewhere, I was asked if I thought something was true, and I said it probably was true, but not particularly useful. I didn’t realize that I had probably heard that phrase from BKP. And BKP was probably rolling in his grave when I said it. If I believed in that sort of thing.
It’s an interesting topic especially in light of Joseph Fielding Smith’s oversized role as an explainer and expander of LDS teachings in the 20th century. I wonder if any single person had a greater role in normalizing the priesthood and temple ban than him. His writings in the 1930s seem to have been adopted by the First Presidency in their letter in the 1940s. His son-in-law BRM’s writings just echoed the teachings and supported those writings.
As far as admitting being wrong, the example of travel to the moon was required only because there was no other possibility in the face of the fact that it happened (no indication that he was a conspiracy theorist that the moon landing was faked 🙂 ).
More difficult for the brethren is if they are wrong on more subjective matters where they claim revelation, and seemingly it is even more difficult to suggest that their predecessors were wrong.
In other words, their position is sometimes that revelation may require something that we don’t like or we find distasteful or incorrect by some current standard. And it may be changed in the future due to the “ongoing restoration.” They would say that doesn’t mean it wasn’t originally inspired. And second, they would say, a revelation might be received and then we build or identify reasons/rationales for the revealed matter. Those reasons very well might ultimately be wrong, but they would say that doesn’t affect the specific claimed revelation (see Neil Anderson GC April 2018 and footnote 13, for example). Ergo, no apology, no admission of being wrong.
Fair enough that with changed circumstances there should be changed approaches.
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