Thursday, December 5, 2013

Debunking the Sound Bite Gospel: Selflessness is Not the Virtue You Think it Is

During the past couple of months I've been teaching the Communications merit badge to my boy scouts.  In the first lesson, we covered forms of communication.  One element of this lesson that produced a lot of conversation was the use of symbols.  What we learned is that symbols are a very efficient way of conveying a lot of meaning very quickly.  When used well, they can be extremely effective at communicating ideas, concepts, and principles.

The sound bite is really just a verbal symbol.  The purpose of the sound bite is to call back to memory broader ideas and themes than the simple words contained in the sound bite itself.  There is, however, a pesky little detail about effective use of symbols and sound bites: they only really work if the intended audience understands the context and agrees on its meaning.  The use of sound bites becomes even more problematic if the sound bite itself conveys bad or false information.

In earlier writing, I've alluded to the problems of what I'm beginning to call the Sound Bite Gospel.  That is, the collection of teaching and beliefs in Mormonism (or any religion for that matter) that relies on brief sound bites.  I specifically called out the "Doubt your doubts" sound bite because its use seemed to obscure the greater context of open inquiry into faith and doubt.  The sound bite, as it appeared, became nothing more than a bludgeon with which doubt and disagreement with orthodox Mormonism is to be suppressed.  Nothing could be further from the speaker's actual intent.  The sound bite, it turns out, failed to convey the full message of the teaching.

It probably doesn't take long to figure out why the Sound Bite Gospel concerns me so much.  Without mutual understanding of the meaning behind the sound bites--and it is nearly impossible to get millions of people to come to mutual understanding on a simple sound bite--the sound bites are wildly ineffective.  Sound bites also suffer from problems of recall bias.  As we get further removed temporally from the delivery of the message, the original context of the sound bite becomes more obscure.  The natural inclination is to take the sound bite as the full and complete message.

In a recent lesson at church, we discussed a talk from the April 2013 General Conference, and I was agitated that there were two sound bites in particular that got a lot of attention from the group.  The text that formed the basis of our discussion follows, and I've highlighted the two sound bites that got the most attention.

Before you go reading this lengthy excerpt (and, ironically, reading the full excerpt isn't really necessary to follow the discussion), let me just point out that there is a wealth of good information in this talk.  In this seven paragraph excerpt, I've highlighted all of two sentences.  Hardly seems like something to complain about, right?  Just remember that my complaint is not that the talk is lacking in good information--my complaint (well, one of the two) is that the sound bites that became the focus of the discussion barely scratch the surface of all of this information.

First, I have observed that in the happiest marriages both the husband and wife consider their relationship to be a pearl beyond price, a treasure of infinite worth. They both leave their fathers and mothers and set out together to build a marriage that will prosper for eternity. They understand that they walk a divinely ordained path. They know that no other relationship of any kind can bring as much joy, generate as much good, or produce as much personal refinement. Watch and learn: the best marriage partners regard their marriages as priceless.
Next, faith. Successful eternal marriages are built on the foundation of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and adherence to His teachings. I have observed that couples who have made their marriages priceless practice the patterns of faith: they attend sacrament and other meetings every week, hold family home evening, pray and study the scriptures together and as individuals, and pay an honest tithing. Their mutual quest is to be obedient and good. They do not consider the commandments to be a buffet from which they can pick and choose only the most appealing offerings.
Faith is the foundation of every virtue that strengthens marriage. Strengthening faith strengthens marriage. Faith grows as we keep the commandments, and so do the harmony and joy in marriage. Thus, keeping the commandments is fundamental to establishing strong eternal marriages. Watch and learn: faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the foundation of happy eternal marriages.
Third, repentance. I have learned that happy marriages rely on the gift of repentance. It is an essential element in every good marital relationship. Spouses who regularly conduct honest self-examination and promptly take needed steps to repent and improve experience a healing balm in their marriages. Repentance helps restore and maintain harmony and peace. 
Humility is the essence of repentance. Humility is selfless, not selfish. It doesn’t demand its own way or speak with moral superiority. Instead, humility answers softly and listens kindly for understanding, not vindication. Humility recognizes that no one can change someone else, but with faith, effort, and the help of God, we can undergo our own mighty change of heart. Experiencing the mighty change of heart causes us to treat others, especially our spouses, with meekness. Humility means that both husbands and wives seek to bless, help, and lift each other, putting the other first in every decision. Watch and learn: repentance and humility build happy marriages. 
Fourth, respect. I have observed that in wonderful, happy marriages, husbands and wives treat each other as equal partners. Practices from any place or any time in which husbands have dominated wives or treated them in any way as second-class partners in marriage are not in keeping with divine law and should be replaced by correct principles and patterns of behavior.
Husbands and wives in great marriages make decisions unanimously, with each of them acting as a full participant and entitled to an equal voice and vote. They focus first on the home and on helping each other with their shared responsibilities. Their marriages are based on cooperation, not negotiation. ... 

Want to know what else really bothers me about these sound bites?  Too bad, I'm going to tell you anyway.

They're dead wrong. If you're trying to build a relationship, I can't see how you can possibly succeed and follow this counsel.

The first sound bite, "humility means...putting the other first in every decision" is a derivative of the belief that marital happiness is rooted in selflessness.  That philosophy looks good when cross-stitched onto pillows, but it fails miserably when translated into reality.  Taken to an absurd extreme, complete selflessness means a couple would just fight about making sure the other person has their needs met first rather than having their own needs met first--that is, in practice, this extreme wouldn't resolve any problems that existed under complete selfishness.

Avoiding that extreme, this sound bite still fails to recognize the idea of an equitable relationship.  Equitable relationships are those that balance the needs of every entity in the relationship over the long term.  That means that one entity in the relationship may be prioritized over the others for a period of time, but at other times, the prioritization will change.  As long as the priority time given to each of the entities is equal over a long period of time, the relationship is equitable.

At this point, I should probably back up.  I just threw in some odd relationship terminology.  Wouldn't 'partner' be a better term than 'entity?'  Not necessarily.  You see, in a relationship between two partners, there are three entities with needs that must be met1.  In the figure below, one partner is represented by the red circle, and the second partner is represented by the blue circle.  The third entity is the shared needs, or the relationship between the two partners, that is represented by the intersection.  The key to building a successful relationship is not complete selflessness (nor is it complete selfishness) but open and honest attempts by both partners to satisfy the needs of all three entities.  That means each partner should be displaying both selfishness and selflessness.
A relationship between two individuals involves three entities.
Not surprisingly, this takes a lot of talking and listening.  Inevitably, you're going to find that the needs and desires of these three entities come into conflict with one another.  According to the sound bite gospel, the resolution of these conflicts is achieved through cooperation and not through negotiation.  I object to that sound bite on the grounds that cooperation and negotiation are two sides of the same coin. 

Negotiation need not be entirely adversarial.  In a relationship, it probably shouldn't ever be adversarial.  Mutual and collaborative negotiation is the process by which cooperation takes shape.  If the partners can openly discuss their opinions and views on which entities needs should be prioritized, the partners can then negotiate a mutual agreement to how to prioritize those.  Something about persuasion and long suffering (look at that!  a sound bite2!) comes to mind when I think about this.

But let me get back to my point.  I've linked to a talk that has some great pointers on building relationships.  You should read the talk in its entirety, but scratch out the sound bites.  Enjoy the rich context and content of the message; not the narrow, bastardized version presented in the sound bites. 

And remember this: happy individuals make for happy relationships.  Happiness should not be measured instantaneously, but over periods of time (no shorter than a couple of months).  If you can balance the needs of all the entities in your relationships, you'll find better potential for happiness as an individual and in your relationships.  Really, it's okay to be a little bit selfish.

1 In more abstract terms, the formula for the number of entities involved in a relationship between any number of partners is: 

 Clearly, this becomes very complex when you figure in family relationships. A relationship between three individuals has seven entities, for example. 

2 But please, go read up on the context of that sound bite. It should be illustrative on the negotiation/cooperation relationship.

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