Have you ever heard a fellow church member defend something that you suspected they didn’t really feel that strongly about or that they may have even disliked, but they pretended to like or agree with?
Actually, a good place to see this in action is to watch some of the Black Menace video snippets in which many of the respondents who are being asked questions about feminism, gay rights, racism, polygamy, etc., know the church-approved answer, but also know that it’s not the socially acceptable answer, so they punt. They say things like “Hmmm. That’s a really great question. I haven’t thought much about that. I guess I would have to research it more.” There is literally an entire genre of TikToks of people mimicking these dodgy non-answers in response to what should be obvious questions like “Should gay people have human rights?” and “Should black people be allowed to breathe on campus?” It’s pretty entertaining.
I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite novels of all time, E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. In the novel, our heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, is traveling with her chaperon, Charlotte, who is trying to mentor her in being genteel and socially acceptable as Lucy comes of age. Lucy’s own instincts are to be kind and to tell the truth, to share confidences as she sorts out her feelings, but Charlotte is steadfastly teaching her that “tact” and following social rules are more important than being truthful, and it’s particularly bad to be kind to the “wrong sort” of people. She also learns that Charlotte is more interested in policing her thoughts and desires than in being her loving and supportive confidant. By contrast, Mr. Emerson, a fellow traveler in their pension, is always offending others by simply saying what he thinks. The clergyman Mr. Beebe attempts to intervene on his behalf, while not entirely approving of him.
“He has the merit–if it is one–of saying exactly what he means. . . It is so difficult–at least, I find it difficult–to understand people who speak the truth.”E.M. Forster, A Room with a View
I was recently listening to a Hidden Brain podcast in which they were discussing a specific form of self-censorship that occurs in social groups: preference falsification. This is different than just keeping your mouth shut when a controversial topic is introduced. The stakes are higher. You have to actually pretend you like the thing you don’t like (or to dislike the thing you do like, I suppose).
There are a few examples that readily came to mind. The first was a gospel doctrine class last year in which the teacher asked what the difference was between “blind obedience” and “obedience.” Here’s the dirty little secret we aren’t allowed to say: obedience is not all it’s cracked up to be. We aren’t in the army where obedience is a matter of life and death. If you were to take these congregants out of the pews and put them behind a desk in their workplace, not one of them would be defending the merits of “obedience.” This authoritarian mindset to human church leaders is also not preached by Jesus in the New Testament. It’s a feature of our current church culture to “get in line” and be “church-broke” as leaders joked about behind closed doors. It’s a feature of many conservative churches. As the teacher pointed out, unironically, the difference between blind obedience (bad) and obedience (good) is that with obedience (good) you pause and think before you obey. This is why they don’t serve Diet Cokes at Church, because I would have totally done a spit take in that moment, all over the back of the head of the person sitting in front of me.
Another example of preference falsification that I thought of was a ward friend who chatted me up at a wedding. She sheepishly admitted that she didn’t really like the temple, but she was sure that if she went more often she would like it. I said, “Don’t bet on it.” Why should she assume that doing something she doesn’t like more often is going to change whether she likes it? When I was a kid, eating liver made me gag. Eating more of it would have just made me gag more. I told her that lots of people feel that way, that some love it, and some don’t. Different strokes for different folks. She’s not defective for not liking it. Even David O. McKay said it wasn’t his favorite. I don’t know her personal reasons for not liking it, but I do know that many people admit in private settings that they don’t. You just can’t say that in Relief Society or you’ll be outed as unfaithful. There might be negative social consequences. You must pretend to like it or you are the problem.
Which brings us to the crux of why preference falsification works, especially in authoritarian cultures. If you can use the natural human tendency to want the approval of their social group to also get them to promote ideas or practices that you want in that group, you can turn victims into victimizers. This was an interesting twist in the podcast discussion. Authoritarians will deliberately popularize unpopular practices (for example, the invasion of Ukraine) by creating enough social pressure that even those who are hurt by an action will police others’ support of it. In authoritarian regimes, this is done by making a public example of anyone who dissents, either using violence or humiliation. This deters others by triggering their survival instincts. Within the church, excommunication is one method to squelch dissent. Another is leaders speaking out against dissenters, characterizing them as unfaithful, shrill, angry, demanding, agitating, playing the “victim,” political, or any other description that allows their issues to be sidelined. These signals unleash the Kracken of social stigma against those so identified. Rather than be ostracized, people pretend to like what they do not or participate in the conspiracy of silence by tuning out and shutting up. “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” Matthew 7:6. Getting to know what we really think about something is reserved for those who are proven trustworthy.
Looking at anonymous survey statistics is always interesting because there is such a code of silence around these “taboo” perspectives in the Church that it’s easy to assume everyone is in lock-step with any idea that the brethren throw out there, even when they secretly are not. For example, it was surprising that less than a third of Millenials support the Word of Wisdom as it is currently taught. That means two out of every three of them disagree, a clear majority, but they probably aren’t saying so openly. While 56% of Church members said that they would follow the brethren against their own conscience, 44% said they would follow “personal revelation.” While it’s troubling a majority would do something they consider wrong just because a leader told them to do it, nearly half of your fellow congregants disagree with this stance. Are they vocally defending obedience to leaders in all cases or wisely keeping their mouths shut, or are they speaking up about their true preference? I don’t know about you, but in my ward, there’s no way nearly half of them would openly say that you can follow your conscience or personal revelation if it contradicts a church leader. I would peg the number of non-cowards at around zero.
“We see even larger differences on the question of whether Mormons are troubled by the church’s culture of obedience. Nearly seven in ten Boomer / Silent Mormons said they were “not at all troubled” by “the Church’s emphasis on obedience and conformity.” In contrast, only 44 percent of Millenials were not at all troubled, a twenty-five point drop. . . Merely believing in God may not be enough to hold these young adults in the fold when they disagree on social issues or feel they do not fit in the culture.”The Next Mormons, Jana Reiss & Benjamin Knolls
As the Next Mormons book makes clear, those with the fewest doubts are those who have very few social connections outside the Church. It’s really only easy to keep up the doubt-free bubble when everyone around you sticks to the party line, reducing your need to defend the indefensible. You don’t have to explain your socially unacceptable positions to a non-believing audience because everyone around you is already in on the conspiracy to avoid talking about it. Only in one-on-one conversations where the masks are put down do we hear about commonly held, but not voiced, positions like not liking the temple, supporting LGBT people, hating or fearing polygamy, and believing past church leaders were racist. But those with their whole lives ahead of them (e.g. Millenials and Zoomers) are less likely to find it appealing to keep up the charade of falsified preferences forever.
- What examples of falsified preferences have you seen among the membership?
- Have you told the truth about your preferences (that went against the “party line”) and experienced social consequences?
- Do you think this is a growth & retention problem the Church needs to deal with?