There was a talk on Sunday that brought up the idea that of confusion vs. clarity. I was listening from a distance, letting the ideas float over me in the gym while I sat on an ass-numbing folding chair. Who is confused? Who is clear? What does clarity mean? Is clarity just consistency of opinion? Is it confidence? Can you be “clear” but wrong?

The speaker mentioned several different dichotomous pairs:

  • the world vs. the Church
  • young people vs. adults
  • good vs. bad
  • past vs. present

These ideas were all intertwined in various juxtapositions. Things that used to be “good” are now “bad.” Things that used to be “bad” are now “good.” Young people are confused. (Even some) adults are confused. The World is confused. The Church has clarity. The past was “good and clear.” The present is “bad and confusing.”

These assertions felt muddled to me, partly because of how vague they were. What are the things that the speaker thinks used to be good that are now bad? What are the things the speaker thinks are confusing? What are the things the speaker thinks are bad that are now good? What is “the World” to the speaker? Does the Church have clarity on those things? Is the Church confused? Were the things that are now “good” really bad? Were the things that are now “bad” really good?

Since I don’t know what specific things the speaker meant, and since there was a big bruhaha over LGBT issues at BYU, I assumed he might be referring to homosexuality being “bad” but called “good” by his rhetorical opponents, but he could have meant something else. He said it was confusing for young people, but it seems to me that young people being “confused” is what old people say when young people disagree with them. Young people don’t have the historical knowledge that older people do. They don’t carry the same baggage we do. Things are generally more clear to them than they are to us as a result. Things that are a change to older people are not a change to younger people. Things that are crystal clear to my kids are sometimes more gray to me.

For example, the words we use to identify groups of people change over time. Today we say “Asian” rather than “Oriental,” and it feels *wrong* to say “Oriental.” When my assistant referred to people as “Oriental” I grimaced and said, “Don’t you say Asian?” She said, “I am Oriental! That’s just what Americans say, la!” (She was Singaporean). Then my other assistant chimed in, “I’m Indian, not Asian. I know everyone says ‘Asian,’ but India isn’t Asia. It’s one billion people. Call us Indian!” (He also corrected me when I called his city of origin Mumbai. “It was Bombay until ten years ago! I know Bombay is English colonialism, but I grew up in Bombay, not Mumbai. They made up Mumbai!”) When I explain this to my kids, we all shrug. To them, it’s still Asia, and it’s still Mumbai. That’s what their friends say. To me, it’s not quite as clear. I have older friends.

There was a fantastic article at Washington Post written by a college professor about the fears parents were having about the supposed “liberal” indoctrination of their children in universities, a fear E. Holland said was driving parents and donors to complain to Church leaders. Aside from the fact that we are now being run by a mob of Karens (who think BYU is being run by a liberal woke mob), the fear that young people are being indoctrinated at college seems to be misguided for a few reasons: 1) they are just growing up, and 2) it really sounds like some of these parents are upset if the conservative “indoctrination” they did with their kids didn’t stick now that those kids have left home. From the article:

I have heard the complaints of conservatives who believe that American colleges are indoctrinating their children. I don’t understand this. From where I sit, this complaint is only rooted in the fear that their children might acquire some empathy and understanding.

I am amused why many conservatives believe those of us who teach in college hold such sway over their children. They could not be more misinformed. My students regard me just as they regard all old people: as someone they have to deal with until they return to the company of other young people.

The professor quoted in the article also talked about the fact that most of the “controversial” topics that were concerning to these complaining parents (Karents?) were being raised by the students, not faculty. For the first time, students were comfortable raising concerns, coming out, asking the tough questions, brave enough to face censure from the group, and they were the ones who wanted to have bigger discussions about tougher topics.

Over a decade ago, I was visiting my home ward and I ran into the Sunday School teacher I had when I was thirteen. We were deliberately difficult, challenging authority, talking in class, reading the dirty parts out of novels in the back of the room, eating food in class, tipping our chairs up. We were the worst. Our teacher was a college professor from French Guyana, a very smart man with a thick accent and an adult education mindset. Seeing me as one of the ringleaders, he assigned me to teach the class as his substitute several weeks that year. It was tough, but a valuable lesson for a few reasons: 1) I could see firsthand that we were a bunch of a-holes, 2) I had empathy for his position as teacher, but most importantly 3) he took me seriously enough to engage with me as a “peer.” He extended trust in me as if I were an adult like he was, someone who could take an adult responsibility like teaching my own peers in a class.

When I met him all those years later, I apologized for my terrible behavior in his class, and he emphatically and graciously stopped me. “Never apologize for the things you did as an adolescent,” he gently corrected me. “These are the things you must do to become an adult. You must learn to stand on your own, to have your own ideas and thoughts. We all must do this.”

A couple years ago, I shared this story with some of the ward friends I grew up with who also had fond memories of this man. One of my friends said, “Oh sure, he says that now, but I know for a fact that when he was going through it, he’d get home from church, close the door and celebrate finally being done for the week, not having to deal with us for one more week.” I can totally believe that, too. I’ve experienced a nursery migraine firsthand, despite not being a migraine sufferer. I don’t hold it against those kids, but some of them were definitely trying my patience. Kids are self-centered, and they live in kid-world. We can’t control them. We can guide and teach them only with their consent.

I just finished watching the Netflix series The Chair, (**SPOILERS FOLLOW**) about an English department in a liberal arts college, with its first female POC chair. One of the professors is teaching about the concurrent rise of the absurdist movement and fascism. He mentions by name several of the fascists, including Hitler, making a quick “Heil, Hitler” gesture as a rhetorical attention getter. Students in the class have filmed this action, then make a meme of it. Protests break out across campus. White supremacists feel emboldened, drawing swastikas in public areas and saluting him on campus. He faces scrutiny by the institution which wants to fire him for this, even though none of them believe he is a white supremacist or a Nazi sympathiser. They all know this is purely an issue of optics and a careless gesture being blown into something it was not.

When he meets with students to discuss the situation and apologize, his apology is rejected because 1) he apologizes for their reaction, not his action, 2) he expects them to educate him about why it was wrong, and 3) he doesn’t understand the situation they are living in, their reality. That last point is perhaps the crux of this issue. Older generations may think they have clarity about certain things, and so may young people, but we are also prone to confusion. Making a “Heil Hitler” gesture thirty or forty years ago might not have emboldened actual Nazis to think you are an ally. Honestly, the German teacher in my high school used to do that, which we took as a self-deprecating joke at the time, like he was poking fun at the one thing every American thought about when we heard a German accent. Everybody knew Hitler was the most evil human who ever lived. Nobody openly admired him. That’s not necessarily the world we live in now. Some things that were hidden are open.

Things that used to be good are now bad? I’m not sure those things were really “good,” so much as neutral, unless those things aren’t really “bad” now, and maybe this is a conservative strawman argument. Things that have changed over time:

  • How educated we are. When we understand something on a cursory or shallow level, it can look different than when we dig deeper. Simple may feel clear, but it’s not all there is to the story.
  • How polarized we are. Polarization increases with time. We are growing apart, not closer together, and it’s now more common align in opposition to something we hate than to rally around a thing we love. This results in less understanding and empathy with those we see as on the “other” side. Their views become incomprehensible to us, and ours to them.
  • Social media exposing things we didn’t used to see. Things become normalized the more we are exposed to them. I did not know what a “furry” was before social media, for example. That wasn’t me being confused. I just learned about something that I had never encountered before.

What do you think?

  • Is clarity an illusion? Is confusion really just disagreement? Is clarity overrated?
  • Is it more important to be right or to be willing to have the conversation?
  • Is indoctrination of young people a mirage? A bad goal? How do we respect the process of growing up, even when our kids reject our ideas?
  • Have you seen The Chair? What were your thoughts?