Weaponized Opinions and Ideological DMZs

When David Hume said that “reason is…the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”, he thought it would “appear somewhat extraordinary.” Maybe it did in the mid-18th century, but a 21st century audience takes this assertion in stride. It’s not that human nature has changed. Humans have always held opinions and they’ve always been held for non-rational reasons. What’s changed is that we’re more aware of the extent of our opinions and of their frequently irrational nature.

We’re more aware of this for two reasons. First, the narcissism of social media and the tribally partisan nature of our society make us painful aware of everybody else’s opinions. As a group, we can’t shut up about the things we think are obviously true, even though things that really are obviously true (like the sky being blue) don’t generally require frequent reminders in the form of snarky memes.

Second, there’s a growing body of research into the reasons and mechanisms by which humans acquire and maintain their beliefs. It’s become so trendy to talk about cognitive biases, for example, that the Wikipedia list of them is becoming a bit of a joke. Still, the underlying premise–that human reason is about convenience and utility rather than about truth–is increasingly undeniable and books like Thinking, Fast and Slow or Predictably Irrational make that undeniable reality common knowledge.

In fact, we can now go farther than Hume and say that not only is reason the slave of the passions, but that it is only thanks to the passions that humans evolved the capacity for reason at all. This is known as the Argumentative Theory, which researchers Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber summarized like this:

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation.

Oddly enough, I can’t find a Wikipedia article to summarize this theory, but it’s been cited approvingly by researchers I respect like Frans de Waal and Jonathan Haidt, who summarized it this way: “Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.”

If the theory is right, then the human tendency to believe what is useful and then to express those beliefs in ways that are farther useful is part of the story of how humanity came to be. This might have been deniable in Hume’s day, requiring an iconoclastic genius to spot it, but it’s becoming a humdrum fact of life in our day.

Our beliefs are instrumental. That is, we believe things because of the usefulness of holding that belief, and that usefulness is only occasionally related to truth. If the belief is about something that’s going to have a frequent and direct effect on our lives–like whether cars go or stop when the light is red–then it is very useful to have accurate beliefs and so our beliefs rapidly converge to reality. But if the belief is about something that is going to have a vague or indeterminate effect on our lives–and almost all political beliefs fall into this category–then there is no longer any powerful, external incentive to corral our beliefs to match reality. What’s more, in many cases it would be impossible to reconcile our beliefs with reality even if we really wanted to because the questions at play are too complicated for anyone to answer with certainty. In those cases, there is nothing to stop us from believing whatever is convenient.

And it’s not just privately-held beliefs that are instrumental. Opinions–the expression of these beliefs–add an additional layer of instrumentality. Not only do we believe what we find convenient to believe, but we also express those beliefs in ways that are convenient. We choose how, when, and where to express our opinions so as to derive the most benefit for the least amount of effort. Benefits of opinions include:

  • maintaining positive self-image: “I have such smart, benevolent political opinions. I’m such a good person!”
  • reinforcing community ties: “Look at these smart, benevolent political opinions we have in common!”
  • defining community boundaries: “These are the smart, benevolent political opinions you have affirm if you want to be one of us!”
  • the buzz of moral superiority: “We have such smart, benevolent political opinions. Not like those reprehensible morons over there!”

Opinions aren’t just tools, however. They are also weapons. If you want to understand what I’m talking about, just think of all the political memes you see on your Facebook or Twitter feeds. They are almost always focused on ridiculing and delegitimizing other people. This is about reinforcing community ties and getting high off of moral superiority, but it is also about intimidating the targets of our (ever so righteous) contempt and disdain. We live in an age of weaponized opinion.

Which brings me to the idea of a demilitarized zone.

A demilitarized zone is an “is an area in which treaties or agreements between nations, military powers or contending groups forbid military installations, activities or personnel.” The term is also used in the context of computers and networking. In that case, a DMZ is a part of a private network that is publicly accessible to other networks, usually the Internet. It’s a tradeoff between accessibility and security, allowing interaction with anonymous, untrusted computers but restricting that access to only specially designated computers in your network that are placed in the DMZ, while the rest of your computers are stored behind a defensive firewall.

The same concepts make sense in an ideological framework.

A typical partisan might have a range of beliefs that looks something like this:

The green section doesn’t represent what is actually good / correct. It represents what a person asserts to be correct / good. The same applies for the red portion. So, these will be different for different people. If you are, for example, someone who is pro-life then the green category will include beliefs like “all living human beings deserve equal rights” and the red portion will include beliefs like “consciousness and self-awareness are required for personhood”. If you are pro-choice, then the chart will look the same but the beliefs will be located in the opposite regions.

And here’s what it looks like if you introduce an ideological DMZ:

The difference here is that we have this whole new region where we are refusing to categorize something as correct / good or incorrect / bad. This may seem like an obvious thing to do. If, for example, you hear a new fact for the first time and you don’t know anything about it, then naturally you should not have an opinion about it until you find out more, right? Well, if humans were rational that would be right. But humans are not rational. We use rationality as a tool when we want to, but we’re just as happy to set it aside when it’s convenient to do so.

And so what actually happens is that when you hear a new proposition, you (automatically and without thinking about it consciously) determine if the new proposition is relevant to any of your strongly-held political opinions. If it is, you identify if it helps or hurts. If it helps, then you accept it as true. Maybe you use the same “fact” in your next debate, or share the article on your timeline, or forward it to your friends. In other words, you stick it into the green bucket. If it hurts, you reject it as false. You attack the credibility of the person who shared the fact or thrust the burden of proof on them or even jump straight to attacking their motives for sharing it in the first place. You stick it in the red bucket.

If you’re following along so far, you might notice that what we’re talking about is certainty. One of the popular and increasingly well-known facts about human beings and certainty is that certainty and ignorance go hand in hand. The technical term for this is the Dunning-Kruger effect, “a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.” Even if you’ve never heard that term, however, you’ve probably seen webcomics like this one from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

Or maybe this one from xkcd:

The idea of a DMZ is related to these concepts, but it’s not the same. These comics are about the vertical ignorance/certainty problem. Lack of knowledge combined with instrumental beliefs cause people to double-down on convenient beliefs they already have. That’s a real problem, but it’s not the one I’m tackling. I’m talking about a horizontal ignorance/certainty problem. Instead of pouring more and more certainty into (ignorant, but convenient) beliefs that we already have, this problem is about spreading certainty around to different, neighboring beliefs that are new to us.

How does that play out in practice? Well, as a famous study revealed recently, “people who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.” That’s because–without a consciously defined and maintained DMZ–they immediately categorize new information into the red or green region even if it means magically becoming bad at math. That’s how strong the temptation is to sort all new information into friend/foe categories is, and it’s the reason we need a DMZ.

So what does having a DMZ mean? It means, as I mentioned earlier, that you can easily list of several arguments or propositions which might work against your beliefs, but that you don’t reject out of hand because you simply don’t know enough about them. It doesn’t mean you have to accept them. It doesn’t mean you have to reject the belief that they threaten. It doesn’t even mean you have investigate them right away.. It just means you refrain from categorizing them in the red bucket. And you do the same with new information that helps your cause. If it is about a topic you know little about, then you go ahead and put it in that blue bucket. You say, “That sounds good. I hope it’s true. But i’m not sure yet.”

There’s another aspect to this as well. So far I’ve been talking about salient propositions, that is: propositions that directly relate to some of your political beliefs. I’ve been leaving aside irrelevant facts. That’s because–although it’s easy for anyone to stick irrelevant facts in the blue bucket–the distinction between relevant and irrelevant facts is not actually stable or clear cut.

One of the problems with our increasingly political world is that more and more apparently unrelated facts are being incorporated into political paradigms. There’s a cottage industry for journalists to fill quotas by describing apparently innocuous things as racist. A list of Things college professors called ‘racist’ in 2017 includes math, Jingle Bells (the song), and punctuality. This is a controversial topic. Sometimes, articles like this really do reveal incisive critiques of racial inequality that’s not obvious at first. Sometimes conservatives misrepresent or dumb-down these arguments just to make fun of them. But sometimes–like when a kid in my high school class complained that it was sexist to use the term for a female hero (heroine) as the name for a drug (heroin)–the contention really is silly. And so part of the DMZ is also just being a little slower to see new information in a political light. Everything can be political–with a little bit of rhetorical ingenuity–but there’s a big difference between “can” and “should”.

If you don’t have an ideological DMZ yet, I encourage you to start building one today. In networking, a DMZ is a useful way to allow new information to come into your network. An ideological DMZ can fill the same function. It’s a great way to start to start to dig your way out of an echo chamber or avoid getting trapped in one in the first place. In geopolitics, a DMZ is a great way to deescalate conflict. Once again, an ideological DMZ can fill a similar role. It’s a useful habit to reduce the number of and lower the stakes in the political disagreements that you have.

Even after all these years, North and South Korea are technically still at war. A DMZ is not nearly as good as a nice, long, non-militarized border (like between the US and Canada). And so I have to admit that calling for an ideological DMZ feels a little bit like aiming low. It’s not asking for mutual understanding or a peace treaty, let alone an alliance.

But it’s a start.


What Does Scientific Research Say About the Infamous Google Memo?

Image result for googleI’m sure most of you have heard about the controversial Google Memo making the rounds throughout the media. Social psychologists Sean Stevens and Jonathan Haidt provide an excellent source for those interested in browsing the academic literature on the subject. They provide both supportive and critical responses to the memo as well as highlight findings within the research that both agree and disagree with the memo’s assertions. Overall, they conclude,

1. Gender differences in math/science ability, achievement, and performance are small or nil.* (See especially the studies by Hyde; see also this review paper by Spelke, 2005). The one exception to this statement seems to be spatial abilities, such as the ability to rotate 3-dimensional objects in one’s mind. This ability may be relevant in some areas of engineering, but it’s not clear why it would matter for coding. Thus, the large gender gap in coding (and in tech in general) cannot be explained as resulting to any substantial degree from differences in ability between men and women.

2. Gender differences in interest and enjoyment of math, coding, and highly “systemizing” activities are large. The difference on traits related to preferences for “people vs. things” is found consistently and is very large, with some effect sizes exceeding 1.0. (See especially the meta-analyses by Su and her colleagues, and also see this review paper by Ceci & Williams, 2015).

3. Culture and context matter, in complicated ways. Some gender differences have decreased over time as women have achieved greater equality, showing that these differences are responsive to changes in culture and environment. But the cross-national findings sometimes show “paradoxical” effects: progress toward gender equality in rights and opportunities sometimes leads to larger gender differences in some traits and career choices. Nonetheless, it seems that actions taken today by parents, teachers, politicians, and designers of tech products may increase the likelihood that girls will grow up to pursue careers in tech, and this is true whether or not biology plays a role in producing any particular population difference. (See this review paper by Eagly and Wood, 2013).

Check out the research for yourself.

Making Business Ethics a Cumulative Science

Such is the goal of Jonathan Haidt and Linda Trevino in a recent Nature article. “Imagine a world,” they write,

in which medical researchers did experiments on rats, but never on people. Furthermore, suppose that doctors ignored the rat literature entirely. Instead, they talked to each other and swapped tips, based on their own clinical experience. In such a world medicine would not be the cumulative science that we know today.

That fanciful clinical world is the world of business ethics research. University researchers do experiments, mostly on students who come into the lab for pay or course credit. Experiments are run carefully, social and cognitive processes are elucidated, and articles get published in academic journals. But business leaders do not read these journals, and rarely even read about the studies second-hand. Instead, when they think and talk about ethics, they rely on their own experience, and the experience of their friends. CEOs share their insights on ethical leadership. Ethics and compliance officers meet at conferences to swap ‘best practices’ that haven’t been research-tested. There are fads, but there is no clear progress.

The authors argue that societies “would be vastly better off if we could improve business ethics. Efficiency would improve (http://www.ethicalsystems.org/content/ethics-pays), enlarging the pie, and workers would be treated better, removing some of the animus directed toward capitalism and free trade in recent years.” However, three obstacles stand in the way:

  1. The hyper-complexity of business ethics: Proper business ethics requires understanding of “the individual, the group, and the legal and cultural ecosystem” as well as “the alignment (or misalignment) across levels, and within each level.”
  2. The risk aversion of firms: “Why take unnecessary risks by inviting strangers in to poke around and ask questions, knowing that these strangers will then publish their findings, even if they say they will hide the name of your company? Request denied.”
  3. The siloed data problem: “[W]hen it comes to sharing data, the walls are higher. Data is normally kept private and only shared with other researchers under limited conditions, particularly when it benefits the researchers in some way. When those data are (rarely) gathered from real companies, which are concerned about downside risk, the walls are even higher…Most companies collect little or no data about their ethical culture, and if they do, they most likely would not share it with anyone.”

Haidt and Trevino continue,

What can we do to get the business and research communities together, and to establish the sorts of long-standing trusting relationships that can lead to longitudinal studies in which data is gathered using the same instruments over the course of several years and many companies, while various interventions are tested? This is the holy grail of business ethics research.

In 2014, a group of ethics researchers from many subdisciplines came together to form a research collaborative called Ethical Systems (see EthicalSystems.org). We were formed to address the hyper-complexity problem. We began by summarizing the existing research on topics as varied as accounting, fairness, business law, human rights, conflicts of interest, ethical culture, and whistle-blowing. Our initial goal was to aggregate the vast and varied research literature and make it accessible — always for free — to business leaders and especially to ethics and compliance officers. (Because culture and regulatory frameworks differ by country, we have limited our work to the United States so far, but we plan to expand globally in the future.)

Our second goal was to bring researchers together from multiple subfields and link them to the many business leaders who have begun to realize that they can’t just focus on compliance with regulations; they must invest in improving their ethical cultures. We have found a great deal of interest in working together from all the relevant groups — including federal regulators.

This is an exciting development.

The Lord Delights

Ananias restoring the sight of Saint Paul by Pietro De Cortana (Public Domain)

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Some General Conference talks hit me with such unexpected force that I can never be sure if there is something particularly forceful in the talk, something especially resonant in the hour, or some coincidence of circumstance that makes it stand out so clearly from the other (also good) talks of the session. I can’t explain it, but it’s what happened when I read Elder Marion D. Hanks’ talk, Trust in the Lord. I hope I can share a couple of reasons why I loved it so much.

The Lord delights to bless us with his love.

The idea that there is a God who not only does bless us with love, but who delights to do so is arresting. It reminds me of a quote from Jonathan Haidt that has always stuck with me:

Although I would like to live in a world in which everyone radiates benevolence towards everyone else, I would rather live in a world in which there was at least one person who loved me specifically, and whom I loved in return. (The Happiness Hypothesis, page 131)

Specificity is vital, and it goes both ways. God is not merely some generic, omnibenevolent abstraction. God is a title that refers to persons, like Jesus Christ and His Father, and they recognize and love each of us individually. This simple idea, that “The Lord delights to bless us with his love,” can pass by unnoticed like just another ornate phrase, but you should stop and really consider what it means. There is a person out there who sees you, who loves, and who is positively delighted to be able to bless your life.

But Elder Hanks’ talk is not all sunshine, and that is what made me love it all the more:

The power that remade Paul, that poured in love and washed out hostility and hate, did not save him from the great travails, from Nero’s dungeon or a martyr’s death. Christ lived in him, he said, he had found the peace of God that passed all comprehension. Nothing, not tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, death, life, angels, principalities, powers, things present, things to come, height, depth, nor any other creature, could separate him from the love of Christ… Christ died on a cross, and won his victory; his disciples and followers also have been subject to the brute forces and foibles of this world, yet through enduring faith they have shared and will share in that victory.

The Problem of Evil is confounding, and yet I find that religion is never deeper, or more beautiful, or more vital than when it confronts this problem head-on. The idea of a loving God seems so absurd in contrast with a world full of tragedy, war, disease, and disaster. And yet, doesn’t the idea of a God being executed and hung on a cross seem just as absurd? The world mocked Christ and misunderstood His supreme victory as an ignominious defeat, confusing the end of His life with the beginning of our hope. This is a mistake we’ve made before.

Elder Hanks is not speaking theoretically, nor in the abstract:

I am not really thinking in the abstract, but I’m thinking of many noble souls who have met difficulties with courage, like my mother and many others who had little to rely upon—who had little but ingenuity and will and courage and faith. I’m thinking too of a more recent scene—a beautiful young face whiter than the hospital sheet upon which she lay, her sorrowing parents nearby grieving, as a relentless disease consumed her life. Comfort came to them in the quiet knowledge of the nearness of a Savior who himself had not been spared the most keen and intense suffering, who himself had drunk of the bitter cup.

It is awful what some of us are asked to go through. And—in terms of principles like fairness or justice—it is just as awful that so many of us are inexplicably not required to pay the same high price. I don’t think I could ever love or even respect any leader—including a God—who asked their followers to go through what they were not willing to do. But Jesus is not the kind of leader. Jesus did not shy from the shadows; he walked through the deepest shade.

This talk is more than a meditation on suffering and joy and darkness and light. It is a stirring and humble call to action:

We know that the Lord needs instruments of his love. He needs a Simon Peter to teach Cornelius, an Ananias to bless Paul, a humble bishop to counsel his people, a home teacher to go into the homes of the Saints, a father and mother to be parents to their children.

This is one of those talks that makes the General Conference Odyssey worth it for me. No matter how hectic and stressed my life becomes, my soul needs testimonies like these.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

The Real War on Science


New York Times reporter and best-seller John Tierny published an excellent article with City Journal in which he argues that the Left has waged a far more damaging and effective war on science than the Right, despite narratives to the contrary. The whole article is worth reading, but among his examples include:

  1. Extensive confirmation bias (and other biases) in the social sciences that result in skewed research, particularly regarding research comparing left-wing people and right-wing people.
  2. Taboos against valid research: for example, discouraging or outright condemning research that (a) explores genetic differences between genders or races (unless the genetic differences relate to differences in sexual orientation) or (b) finds negative impacts of single-parent households, LGBT parenting, or putting children in childcare versus stay-at-home parenting.
  3. Politicizing (and thus corrupting) research on (a) genetics and animal breeding (contributing to the eugenics movement of the early 20th century),  (b) overpopulation (contributing, Tierny argues, to China’s immoral and disastrous one-child policy), (c) environmental science (contributing to many different problems, such as increased death tolls from malaria when DDT was restricted or the spread of dengue and Zika virus due to needless fears of insecticides), and (d) food science (pushing low fat diets and greatly increasing American consumption of carbohydrates).

Tierny argues that possibly one of the greatest casualties of the Left’s war on science is the reputation of scientists. As he puts it: “Bad research can be exposed and discarded, but bad reputations endure.”

The whole article is worth reading, but here is a sampling:

In a classic study of peer review, 75 psychologists were asked to referee a paper about the mental health of left-wing student activists. Some referees saw a version of the paper showing that the student activists’ mental health was above normal; others saw different data, showing it to be below normal. Sure enough, the more liberal referees were more likely to recommend publishing the paper favorable to the left-wing activists. When the conclusion went the other way, they quickly found problems with its methodology.


The narrative that Republicans are antiscience has been fed by well-publicized studies reporting that conservatives are more close-minded and dogmatic than liberals are. But these conclusions have been based on questions asking people how strongly they cling to traditional morality and religion—dogmas that matter a lot more to conservatives than to liberals. A few other studies—not well-publicized—have shown that liberals can be just as close-minded when their own beliefs, such as their feelings about the environment or Barack Obama, are challenged.

Social psychologists have often reported that conservatives are more prejudiced against other social groups than liberals are. But one of Haidt’s coauthors, Jarret Crawford of the College of New Jersey, recently noted a glaring problem with these studies: they typically involve attitudes toward groups that lean left, like African-Americans and communists. When Crawford (who is a liberal) did his own study involving a wider range of groups, he found that prejudice is bipartisan. Liberals display strong prejudice against religious Christians and other groups they perceive as right of center.

Conservatives have been variously pathologized as unethical, antisocial, and irrational simply because they don’t share beliefs that seem self-evident to liberals. For instance, one study explored ethical decision making by asking people whether they would formally support a female colleague’s complaint of sexual harassment. There was no way to know if the complaint was justified, but anyone who didn’t automatically side with the woman was put in the unethical category. Another study asked people whether they believed that “in the long run, hard work usually brings a better life”—and then classified a yes answer as a “rationalization of inequality.” Another study asked people if they agreed that “the Earth has plenty of natural resources if we just learn how to develop them”—a view held by many experts in resource economics, but the psychologists pathologized it as a “denial of environmental realities.”


For his part, Holdren [a previous advocate of forced population control in the U.S.] has served for the past eight years as the science advisor to President Obama, a position from which he laments that Americans don’t take his warnings on climate change seriously. He doesn’t seem to realize that public skepticism has a lot to do with the dismal track record of himself and his fellow environmentalists. There’s always an apocalypse requiring the expansion of state power. The visions of global famine were followed by more failed predictions, such as an “age of scarcity” due to vanishing supplies of energy and natural resources and epidemics of cancer and infertility caused by synthetic chemicals. In a 1976 book, The Genesis Strategy, the climatologist Stephen Schneider advocated a new fourth branch of the federal government (with experts like himself serving 20-year terms) to deal with the imminent crisis of global cooling. He later switched to become a leader in the global-warming debate.


Yet many climate researchers are passing off their political opinions as science, just as Obama does, and they’re even using that absurdly unscientific term “denier” as if they were priests guarding some eternal truth. Science advances by continually challenging and testing hypotheses, but the modern Left has become obsessed with silencing heretics. In a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch last year, 20 climate scientists urged her to use federal racketeering laws to prosecute corporations and think tanks that have “deceived the American people about the risks of climate change.” Similar assaults on free speech are endorsed in the Democratic Party’s 2016 platform, which calls for prosecution of companies that make “misleading” statements about “the scientific reality of climate change.” A group of Democratic state attorneys general coordinated an assault on climate skeptics by subpoenaing records from fossil-fuel companies and free-market think tanks, supposedly as part of investigations to prosecute corporate fraud. Such prosecutions may go nowhere in court—they’re blatant violations of the First Amendment—but that’s not their purpose. By demanding a decade’s worth of e-mail and other records, the Democratic inquisitors and their scientist allies want to harass climate dissidents and intimidate their donors.


Related reading:


“Things Won Are Done; Joy’s Soul Lies In Doing”

This is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

In The Happiness Hypothesis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes,

Richard Davidson, the psychologist who brought us affective style and the approach circuits of the front left cortex, writes about two types of positive affect. The first he calls “pre-goal attainment positive affect,” which is the pleasurable feeling you get as you make progress toward a goal. The second is called “post-goal attainment positive affect,” which Davidson says arises once you have achieved something you want. You experience this latter feeling as contentment, as a short-lived feeling of release when the left prefrontal cortex reduces its activity after a goal has been achieved. In other words, when it comes to goal pursuit, it really is the journey that counts, not the destination. Set for yourself any goal you want. Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer. Th e final moment of success is often no more thrilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack at the end of a long hike. If you went on the hike only to feel that pleasure, you are a fool. People sometimes do just this. They work hard at a task and expect some special euphoria at the end. But when they achieve success and find only moderate and short-lived pleasure, they ask (as the singer Peggy Lee once did): Is that all there is? They devalue their accomplishments as a striving after wind. We can call this “the progress principle”: Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them. Shakespeare captured it perfectly: “Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing” (pgs. 83-84).

I was reminded of this while reading John H. Vandenberg’s October 1972 talk. In it he explains that the Church “extends the invitation to all who so desire to partake of the power of the gospel, which will lift an individual out of oblivion and, in so doing, will give a feeling of satisfaction and happiness not to be found elsewhere. It provides the sources of control for self-improvement, a stable character, and a truly successful life.” In Vandenberg’s eyes, the gospel is about–to borrow Haidt’s term–progress: “It is highly doubtful that there is even one soul upon the earth, regardless of station or age, who does not have ample room for personal growth and improvement. Quoting the words of one of the Lord’s prophets: “If we are no better tomorrow than we are today, we are not very useful.” (David O. McKay, Pathways to Happiness [Bookcraft, 1957], p. 292.)” This fits with Joseph Smith’s original vision of the divine:

Being versus Becoming, Process versus Perfection, Creation, Time, and Eternity…The Great Chain of Being–unchallenged paradigm of a static, orderly, and harmonious universe–was buried beneath the emergent model of chaos, flux, radical transformation, and conflict…If there was one prevailing sense in which Joseph Smith was a child of his age, it was in the avidity with which he reflected this dynamic, fundamentally Romantic view of the world, an orientation that suffused his cosmology, his human anthropology, and even his doctrine of deity.

For Vandenberg, the concept of repentance is “the very essence of change; it embodies the powerful principle of obedience to God’s law and discipline of self. When applied to our lives, it provides a cleansing joy which surges through us.” This doesn’t say, “And when you finally get to the end, you’ll feel joy.” But the constant state of improvement–of “small wins“–brings happiness:

In these principles we find the unfailing power to change. As to the effective use of our leisure time, we have, in the gospel, unnumbered opportunities. As one acquires knowledge of the gospel principles and pursues his course, he can successfully apply those principles to his individual circumstances, whether his position be one of great or meager possessions; whether it be early in life, during his economic production period, or in retirement. The gospel is meant to temper life and to bring it into true balance and fruition…The individual power is attested to in this scripture: “Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.” (D&C 58:27–28.)

Mormons need to remember that it’s about the journey: not the achievement of some static perfection.

The Happiness Hypothesis: An Interview with Jonathan Haidt

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

Over the past couple years, I’ve done several conference presentations on the subject of a Mormon theology of work. Recently, I compiled much of the research from this various presentations and submitted it to BYU Studies Quarterly. I was thrilled to find out earlier this year that they will in fact be publishing it. The last section of the article looks at insights from management literature. I was fairly satisfied with it, but then I picked up Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom and began kicking myself for not reading it sooner and incorporating it into my paper. Haidt explores the divide between conscious and unconscious mental processes, the social nature of reciprocity and hypocrisy, and the benefits of love, adversity, and sacredness. But what jumped out at me was his overview of the “pursuit of happiness”: happiness rarely comes from achieving goals (that emotional high is fleeting), but from striving to achieve them. It is making progress that brings up happiness. I read Haidt’s The Righteous Mind first, but I enjoyed this one just as much.

Check out the interview with Jonathan Haidt below.

I Dissent

Asch Experiment Cover 800x400

I just finished listening to a bunch of science fiction stories in rapid succession so that I could cast informed votes for the annual Hugo awards and post the reviews to my new blog. That done, I returned to some of the non-fiction audiobooks I’ve been waiting to get into, especially Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. It’s been a fantastic spring day, and there was an exquisite, gentle evening breeze as I walked the dog. Meanwhile, Professor Steven Gimbel explained the impact of World War II on the field of social psychology:

In the first half of the 20th century, psychology had the luxury of debating whether a subconscious mind existed and whether scientific methodology required limiting the field of study to stimulus and response, but after the horrors of World War II, psychology changed… The specter of the Holocaust raised deep and troubling question about the human mind and its relation to authority… The reaction to Nazi atrocities in the scientific world is shaped by what are perhaps the three most famous psychological experiments: Stanley Milgram’s obedience study, Solomon Asch’s group think study, and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison study.

I think Millgram’s and Zimbardo’s experiments are the most famous. At least, those are the ones that I’ve read about and seen the most. I was familiar with Asch’s study as well, but I haven’t seen it come up as often, and I was unprepared for how deeply a simple remark made by Gimbel would strike me. It hit so forcefully that I hit pause on the audiobook (to keep that thought forefront on my mind), came home, opened my laptop, and began this blog post.

In Asch’s study, participants were given a simple task. They had a reference image that showed a vertical line, and then another image that showed three vertical lines. One of the three matched the vertical line in the reference image, and all they had to do was pick out the correct match. They were asked to do this 18 times. The trick is that the participants were seated at a table with seven other people who were secretly in on the experiment. On the first two rounds, these seven individuals all gave the same answer, and it was the correct one. But on the third trial, these individuals all gave the same incorrect answer. Over the course of the next 15 trials, the seven plants gave the wrong answer 11 times, and in each case all seven of them gave the same incorrect answer.

Asch Experiment

So you’ve got eight people seated around a table answering a perfectly obvious question. Seven of them have just given the identical, incorrect answer. The point of the experiment was to find out what the eighth person–the only real subject of the study–would do. Given that this is considered one of the “three most famous psychological experiments” you can guess how it turned out even if you don’t already know: 75% of subjects went with the group consensus (even though it was obviously wrong) at least one out of the 12 times when the seven fake participants picked the wrong answer.

There are all kinds of interesting details to the study, especially when it comes to the rationales that the participants gave afterwards to explain why they had refused to go along with the group or why they had, at least some of the time, opted to go along with the group despite what was clearly true. But here’s what Gimbel said about the study that so arrested me:

Asch expanded the study to see what would happen. He showed that the bigger the majority, the stronger the pull to conform, but that if even one person dissented before the test subject, that the test subject was then more likely to voice his different view. Asch showed empirically that having someone else agree with you is a powerful tool in making people willing to take a contrary position. But, if that person [the test subject] were deserted by his fellow dissenter, conformity followed rapidly.

Now, before I continue, I want to take a moment to explain that–contrary to popular opinion–I’m not interested in attacking conformity. Conformity gets a bad rap in movies like Dead Poet Society.

The sentiment in that clip is hogswash. Unfortunately, so is most anti-non-conformity sentiment. There’s an entire guide to being a non-conformist, but–like all such ironic anti-non-conformity statements–the actual point is that non-conformity is bad because it’s a kind of conformity.


So, even the anti-non-conformists are trapped in an non-conformity mindset. Conformity can’t catch a break. Which is a shame, because conformity is actually pretty important in helping to form human society and–because we are social animals–to form who we are as well.

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt introduces this concept in a chapter called “The Hive Switch.” He starts with an example of exactly the kind of military drill (e.g. marching) that Dead Poet Society maligns, citing Wiliam McNeill (a World War II veteran) describing drill this way:

Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.

After his service, McNeill studied this kind of conformity (which he called “muscular bonding”) and found that it “enabled people to forget themselves, trust each other, function as a unit.” What works like Dead Poet Society miss is that conformity is a path to collective consciousness. In the same chapter that begins with marches and drills, Jonathan Haidt goes on to discuss ecstatic mass dancing, awe in the presence of nature, hallucinogens, and raves. One of the roles of conformity, in other words, is to enable humans to access a “hive switch” that flips our identity from individualist to collective. The term “collective” often has negative connotations (like conformity itself), until one realizes that it also implies (as McNeill points out) selflessness and trust.

Writing in The Origins of Virtue, Matt Ridley emphasizes a similar point. One of the grand puzzles of human nature is that–alone of all animals in existence–we have the capability to come together in large groups to work for collective goals without close genetic ties. In his book, he surveys a lot of literature on evolutionary psychology and game theory trying to explain why it is that human beings, in practice, are able to escape the prisoner’s dilemma. The prisoner’s dilemma is the most famous game theory scenario, and it proves that–if humans were strictly self-interested and rational–we would effectively never cooperate in large groups. And yet, we do cooperate in large groups. Is there any theoretically explanation for this? Yes, it turns out, there is. The only kind of society in which cooperative strategies can survive without being overwhelmed by cheating free-loaders is a conformist society.

There is one kind of cultural learning that makes cooperation more likely: conformism. If children learn not from their parents or by trial and error, but by copping whatever is the commonest tradition or fashion among adult role models, and if adults follow whatever happens to be the commonest pattern of behavior in the society—if in short we are cultural sheep–then cooperation can persist in very large groups.

So, instead of just making fun of non-conformists for also being conformists, it’s worth keeping in mind that conformity is a route to selflessness and, perhaps, the key to humanity’s unique ability to successfully cooperate in large, unrelated groups. But, if that’s not enough, keep in mind that things like language itself only work because of conformity. If we all tried to be non-conformists in our language, then communication would be literally impossible.

This was a long digression, but it’s something I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while anyway. To get things back on track: I don’t think non-conformity is a laudable goal in itself, but I do think that diversity matters a lot. I worry about echo chambers and I worry about group think and I worry about bubbles. And I worry about that eighth person, sitting at the table, staring at the line, wondering what on Earth could be happening that everyone else is reporting a reality that is the opposite to what he feels. I’m not really worried about whether or not this person gives the correct answer (more on that at the end), but I am very worried that this person feel empowered to give their honest answer.

This is what I had in mind when I recently read an older Slate Star Codex piece: All Debates Are Bravery Debates. In the piece, Scott Alexander argues for being charitable about extreme positions as follows:

Suppose there are two sides to an issue. Be more or less selfish…

There are some people who need to hear both sides of the issue. Some people really need to hear the advice “It’s okay to be selfish sometimes!” Other people really need to hear the advice “You are being way too selfish and it’s not okay.”

It’s really hard to target advice at exactly the people who need it. You can’t go around giving everyone surveys to see how selfish they are, and give half of them Atlas Shrugged and half of them the collected works of Peter Singer. You can’t even write really complicated books on how to tell whether you need more or less selfishness in your life – they’re not going to be as buyable, as readable, or as memorable as Atlas Shrugged. To a first approximation, all you can do is saturate society with pro-selfishness or anti-selfishness messages, and realize you’ll be hurting a select few people while helping the majority.

In terms of explanation, Scott Alexander is right on the money. He says, for example:

This happens a lot among, once again, atheists. One guy is like “WE NEED TO DESTROY RELIGION IT CORRUPTS EVERYTHING IT TOUCHES ANYONE WHO MAKES ANY COMPROMISES WITH IT IS A TRAITOR KILL KILL KILL.” And the other guy is like “Hello? Religion may not be literally true, but it usually just makes people feel more comfortable and inspires them to do nice things and we don’t want to look like huge jerks here.” Usually the first guy was raised Jehovah’s Witness and the second guy was raised Moralistic Therapeutic Deist.

That sounds familiar, and I think we all have friends who used to be really extreme in one direction, and now they’ve gone overboard in the other extreme. Where I disagree with Scott Alexander, however, is in accepting that this kind of overreaction is basically acceptable. In my experience, both Ayn Rand (who says greed is good) and Peter Singer (who argued against any special concern for family members) are just plain bad. I don’t care how selfish you are, Peter Singer is still overkill. I don’t care how selfless you are, Ayn Rand is still crazy.

So this is the world I find myself in. When I look around, I feel like the eighth guy at the table on several issues. To pick just one that we talk about a lot here at Difficult Run, go with minimum wage. I’m looking at the discussions around me, and I just can’t really believe what I’m hearing.

But when I look around for people who will stand up with me and dissent, what I see is a lot of what Scott Alexander is describing. Take “socialism.” The term, in almost all debates you will see today, has no solid meaning. It’s just a flag. And on one side you’ll see these “taxation is theft” ultra-libertarians charging against the flag of socialism and on the other side you’ll see all these people who seem to have forgotten the second half of the twentieth century rallying around the flag of socialism. Maybe some of the “taxation is theft” folks escaped Soviet oppression (as Ayn Rand did, not by coincidence) and a lot of the “Mao? Stalin? Who were they?” socialists do come from elite backgrounds in the world’s leading capitalist economy, so “to a first approximation” their points are valid. That doesn’t mean they are actually helping matters when they add their extreme, absolutist viewpoints to the discussion. Technically, the “taxation is theft” guys are going to side with me to oppose minimum wage hikes, but I really wish they wouldn’t.

Too often it seems like your choices are either (1) conform to the political fad of the day or (2) engage in extreme, overreactions. Pick your poison.

But I don’t want to pick my poison.

I don’t, for example, want to have to pick and choose between conformity and diversity. I value both. Conformity is essential for language, is vital for social cohesion, and is–in short–the glue that holds the fabric of our society together. Anyone who says they are a nonconformist is lying or a sociopath, just like anyone who says that they don’t care what other people think about them is lying or a sociopath. Everyone is a social animal, everyone cares what (some) other people think, and everyone conforms (to some group). But if you overemphasize conformity, then you get group-think. You stifle creativity, restrict free inquiry, stifle scientific curiosity, and hamstring debate and compromise. We need diversity, too. We need both.

Here’s the reason I wrote this post. Here’s the thing that Gimbel said, about the Asch experiments, that really stood out. What did it take to empower that eighth person to answer honestly? They didn’t need anything extreme. They didn’t need any theatrics. They didn’t need Ayn Rand and they didn’t need Peter Singer. All it took was one person just calmly, quietly validating what they saw.

In Asch’s experiment, the truth was obvious. In the real world, on most issues where there is a lot of debate, the truth isn’t obvious. What’s more, I’m going to be publishing a post (hopefully soon) called “Nobody Gets It All Right” that will say just that: based on my understanding of history and various biographies, everybody is wrong about most of what they believe. And I take that to heart. I have a lot of opinions. Most of them are probably wrong, at least in the sens that–two decades or two centuries from now–the things I think are true will be either discredited or (more likely) irrelevant.

So I do want to dissent. I do want to raise my voice–calmly, politely, modestly–and say that the emperor’s got no clothes on when it appears to me that the emperor, in fact, does not have clothes on. But the basis of my dissent is not “I am confident that I am right.” At this point in my life, that conviction alone is not enough to stir me to publish a post. Instead, my motivation is something like, “I am dedicated to living in the kind of world where people speak their minds honestly.” Because, if I have to pick just a few areas where I want to place a very high degree of confidence–like only two or three–that’s going to be one of them.

There’s a bit of conventional wisdom about Internet debating. The point of the debate is never to persuade the other guy. The debate is always for the sake of the audience. There’s truth to that, but it can be taken too far, and made into a philosophy where arguing online is a gladiatorial spectator sport with both sides essentially playing to their respective fan bases with no interest in sincere, honest interaction with each other’s points. That’s not what I want to do.

Instead, I just want to be the one guy at the table who says, “I see things differently” that thereby enables the eighth guy to have an easier time in saying the same thing.

That, in a nutshell, is one of the fundamental reasons Difficult Run exists.

On the Inevitability of Worship

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

I was very struck by Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s statement in How to Worship that “[God] has planted in our hearts an instinctive desire to worship, to seek salvation, to love and server a power or being greater than ourselves.” I imagine it’s a claim that would strike many as controversial, but it brought to mind quotes about the role of the sacred in the lives of atheists and agnostics.

First, there’s Jonathan Haidt (an atheist) citing Mircea Eliade’s concept of “crypto-religious” behavior in The Happiness Hypothesis. The argument is that secularists have

privileged places, qualitatively different from all others — a man’s birthplace, or the scenes of his first love, or certain places in the first foreign city he visited in his youth. Even for the most frankly nonreligious man, all these places still retain an exceptional, a unique quality; they are the “holy places” of his private universe, as if it were in such spots that he had received the revelation of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary daily life.

According to Haidt, Eliade captured his feelings perfectly: “Even atheists have intimations of sacredness, particularly when in love or in nature.”

Haidt and Eliade are from alone in making this observation. The Bonobo and the Atheist, Frans de Waal (also an atheist), describes how science can function as a religious pursuit:

Instead of turning to religion, the majority of us are agnostic or atheist. This shouldn’t be taken to mean that science answers questions of meaning and purpose, however. Even the scientists who recently confirmed the “God particle” knew that it was a far cry from confirming why we are on earth and even less whether or not God exists. No, the big difference for scientists is that the thirst for knowledge itself, the lifeblood of our profession, fills a spiritual void by religion in most other people. Like treasure hunters for whom the hunt is about as important as the treasurer itself, we feel great purpose in trying to pierce the veil of ignorance. We feel united in this effort, being part of a worldwide network. This means that we also enjoyed this other aspects of religion: a community of white-minded people. At a recent workshop, a retired astronomer teared up while discussing humanities place in the cosmos. He stopped talking for two minutes, causing his audience to become restless, before explaining that he had pursued this question since childhood. The site of images from billions of light-years ago still overwhelms him, making him realize how much we are connected with the universe. He wouldn’t call it a religious experience, but it sounded very much like it.

If, as Eliade, Haidt, and Gleiser agree, there is a tendency towards the spiritual in all of us, then Elder McConkie’s second statement is also true:

The issue is not whether men shall worship, but who or what is to be the object of their devotions and how they shall go about paying the devotions to their chosen Most High.

Elder McConkie speaks fairly sternly about worshiping the wrong gods, and maybe a little too sternly. He says,

If a man worships a cow or a crocodile, he can gain any reward that cows and crocodiles happen to be passing out this season.

And also:

If he worships the laws of the universe or the forces of nature, no doubt the earth will continue to spin, the sun to shine, and the rains to fall on the just and on the unjust.

By contrast, however,

But if he worships the true and living God, in spirit and in truth, then God Almighty will pour out his Spirit upon him, and he will have power to raise the dead, move mountains, entertain angels, and walk in celestial streets.

I don’t disagree. I just think John Locke may add some perspective as well: “I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.” In other words, what we really believe–and what we really worship–is not so much about names or beliefs as it is about action. Which is exactly what Elder McConkie goes on to articulate with his extensive–and vitally important–list of worship examples.

To the extent that we know love, we also know an aspect of God. To the extent that we act on that love, we worship Him. And this is true, even if we do not mean to do so. It’s not about the words you say. It’s about the life you live.

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

True Motherhood and True Fatherhood

Father and Child - Small

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

The talk that struck me the most this week was Elder A. Theodore Tuttle’s The Things that Matter Most. He began his talk with an excerpt from a Deseret News article about how racing greyhounds, which are trained to chase a fake rabbit around the track, don’t even know what a real rabbit looks like. According to the editorial Elder Tuttle quoted:

We chase social pleasures on a glittering noisy treadmill—and ignore the privilege of a quiet hour telling bedtime stories to an innocent-eyed child. We chase prestige and wealth, and don’t recognize the real opportunities for joy that cross our paths.

This immediately reminded me of Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis. In the book, Haidt—a social psychologist we often cite here at Difficult Run because of his work on Moral Foundations Theory—distills important lessons from a variety of world philosophies through the lens of psychology. According to Haidt (writing in a followup book), “One of the greatest truths in psychology is that the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict.”

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt talks about the rider (the conscious, deliberate, rational side of our minds) and the elephant (the intuitive and emotional side of our minds). As an intuitionist, Haidt puts a lot of emphasis on the intuitive sides of our nature (the elephant). He underscores how important our intuition is (even to logical, analytical thinking) and also highlights how sophisticated our intuitive natures are. However, there are drawbacks, one of the most important of which is this:

The elephant cares about prestige, not happiness, and it looks eternally to others to figure out what is prestigious. The elephant will pursue its evolutionary goals even when greater happiness can be found elsewhere.

The elephant is the product of evolution and natural selection. It cares about prestige because status—in primates—is what provides access to reproduction. It doesn’t care about happiness or fulfillment because happiness and fulfillment are, from a genetic perspective, kind of beside the point. This is why the pursuit of prestige—nice job, nice car, nice house—is so irresistible. It’s embedded in our biological natures. And it’s a treacherous trap, as Haidt points out, because pursuit of prestige is always a zero-sum game.

If everyone is chasing the same limited amount of prestige, then all are stuck in a zero-sum game, an eternal arms race, a world in which rising wealth does not bring rising happiness. The pursuit of luxury goods is a happiness trap; it is a dead end that people raced toward the mistaken belief that it will make them happy.

Sound familiar?

Elder Tuttle then points out that the people who are most vulnerable to being trampled when our inner elephant charges off in search of status and prestige are the people we care about the most:

Our most flagrant violations, perhaps, occur in our own homes. We chase worldly pleasures and neglect our own innocent children. When did you tell stories to your children?

Every single night I pray for help in resisting this. When you’re a parent, the days crawl and the years fly. Children are miracles from God, but—like many of God’s greatest miracles—they are in danger of being overlooked and neglected.

On Sunday I taught Gospel Doctrine and we focused on the murmurings of Laman and Lemuel in chapters 16 – 18. For the first time, I noticed a very definite pattern in the slow hardening of the hearts. At first, in chapter 16, all it took was a lecture from Nephi to bring them to repentance. Later, when Nephi’s bow broke, it took the indirect voice of the Lord (through the Liahona) to bring them to their sesnse. Later, when Ishmael died, the voice of the Lord directly was required. Finally, when Nephi started to build a ship, it took a threat of physical violence to humble them. The problem wasn’t that Laman and Lemuel murmured. Everyone murmurs. It’s that their hearts grew harder with every passing trial.

But when the penultimate confrontation came it wasn’t a result of trial or tribulation. The argument that prompted Laman and Lemuel to tie Nephi to the mast of their ship for days wasn’t the result of hardship. The spark that started that fire happened when things were going well. The ship was built, the supplies were loaded, the journey was easy, and there was no hard work to do. And that was when the greatest crisis erupted. Which explains why Elder Tuttle writes:

The trials through which today’s young people are passing—ease and luxury—may be the most severe test of any age. Brothers and sisters, stay close to your own! Guide them safely! These are perilous times. Give increased attention. Give increased effort.

You want a simple example of this? Screen-time is the easiest. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not one of those families with no TV and no screens. My wife is getting her PhD in computer science and my job is in software development. My kids are expert Minecraft players and I enjoy playing Castle Crashers with them. We’ve watched Avatar: The Last Airbender all the way through twice and started it a third time. So screens can be—and are—a part of this family. But they’re also perilous. The older your kids get, the easier it is to tell them to leave you alone and have them actually do it. An infant can’t leave you alone. A toddler can sometimes, but only for a few minutes. But a 9-year old is perfectly capable of entertaining him or herself for a few hours or more. Throw in a TV or a video game console or an iPhone and you could—if you wanted—basically live in the same house as your children and never really interact with them.

That is the peril—for them and for you—of “ease and luxury.” As a parent, I have learned that the greatest tragedy is not that your kids don’t listen to you. It’s that they do. If they hear “I’m busy” often enough, or “Daddy doesn’t have time” frequently enough, the message does sink in, and then there’s no way to take it back.

These are indeed perilous times. Growth is always risky. It is always perilous as your children grow more independent and begin to take on more and more freedom for themselves. But that ordinary course of getting older is even more perilous in our society, which makes it so easy to curate digital connections and so easy to forget the flesh-and-blood variety.

And finally there is this:

The responsibility rests on the family to solve our social problems. Youth search for security. They search for answers to be found only in a good home. No national or international treaty can bring peace. Not in legislative halls nor judicial courts will our problems be solved. From the hearthstones of the homes will come the answers to our problems. On the principles taught by the Savior, happiness and peace will come to families. In the home youth will receive strength to find happiness.

As I wrote about last week, I believe this to be entirely literal. Laws and governments are a superficial veneer on society. They are important, but they are not essential. What matters more than formal institutions are the informal ones: friendships, associations, churches, clubs and—far, far and away the most important—families. This is born out be reams of social science research (another topic we cover at Difficult Run, especially Walker Wright) which underscores the empirically validated truth that stable families are the most important ingredient for stable, prosperous, safe, flourishing, happy societies. It’s not rhetoric and it’s not exaggeration. It’s the truth: the family is the one and only solution to our deepest social problems.

The world doesn’t believe this. “The world is full of foolish schemes.” Many of these schemes are attempts to root a stable society in some foundation other than families. They will not work, and—to the extent that they lead people to turn their attention away from the life-long endeavor of nurturing families—they will lead to unhappiness and suffering.

What is wanted, first and foremost, is true motherhood and true fatherhood. And, as Elder Tuttle writes, we must “face the fact that true fatherhood and true motherhood are fast disappearing.”

He doesn’t spend as much time talking about what those concepts mean. I think the world continues to have a relatively robust account of what true motherhood is about. We continue to understand, to a greater degree than with fatherhood, the dignity and importance of mothers who nourish, protect and care for their children. But fathers—especially if you judge by the bungling, incompetent depictions in popular television—are viewed more and more as auxiliary and disposable. In contrast, Elder Tuttle describes true fatherhood this way:

Fatherhood is a relationship of love and understanding. It is strength and manliness and honor. It is power and action. It is counsel and instruction. Fatherhood is to be one with your own. It is authority and example.

The line that speaks the most to me there is that “Fatherhood is to be one with your own.” I haven’t finished processing it, but it continues to resonate long after I first read it, a bell reverberating on and on in my heart, and calling attention to a message I haven’t fully received yet.

I have learned, in my marriage and in my parenting, that the messages I’ve been taught by the world about being a husband and a father range from irrelevant to insidious. I’m still learning to sift the true meaning of fatherhood from the surrounding chaff. I don’t have it all figured out, but talks like this encourage me to keep going and help guide me along my way.

Here are the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week: