Recently, a “scandal” at BYU has topped several prominent news sources. Most of you have probably heard about it. If not, here’s a link where you can read about it. I’ve seen stories posted all over Facebook about it, and the near universal reaction has been ridicule, chastisement, anger, and shock towards the guy who wrote the note.
Here’s what I think:
First, the guy was unkind. He was most definitely insensitive and a bit condescending. He also misunderstands human sexuality—women should not be blamed for the unchastity of men. A man is responsible for his own unchaste thoughts, and blaming women for those thoughts is an abdication of responsibility. Feeling “unsafe” in an environment where women dress differently than you are accustomed to is something that we might just need to learn to live with, given the world we live in today.
However, the girl’s dress is technically a violation of BYU’s Honor Code. The Honor Code says that “dresses, skirts, and shorts must be knee-length or longer,” and that “clothing is inappropriate when it is … form fitting.” Campus administration has repeatedly clarified that leggings are, indeed, form fitting and therefore against the Honor Code. From the looks of the picture, the girl’s skirt is only halfway to her knees, and she supplements it with leggings. By the strict definition of the Honor Code, she is in violation.
The girl signed the Honor Code. She read it, knows what it says, and agreed (with her explicit signature) to abide by it as a condition of attendance at BYU. It is a contractual agreement that she is obligated to follow, and she knows it. She may disagree with it, but that disagreement doesn’t negate or obviate her commitment, and her duty to honor her commitment.
However, I personally don’t care. She can wear what she wants—let her professors, roommates, and ecclesiastical leaders care. It’s not my place, as a stranger, to care. I think it would be untoward to walk up to a stranger and comment on their dress and grooming—unless it was a violation as severe as nudity, for example.
However, I think it IS appropriate for roommates, close friends, family members, professors, and ecclesiastical leaders to speak with those they feel are violating the Honor Code. While it may not be a stranger’s duty, the Honor Code itself makes it a duty to “encourage others in their commitment to comply with the Honor Code.” In other words, while I may be presumptuous to approach a stranger and criticize their dress, I have committed to encourage others to live by their agreement. I think there is nothing wrong with approaching a roommate or a close friend and encouraging them to live by the standards they’ve agreed to, so long as it is done “only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” In fact, I think we probably need more of that in general.
We all need to be more teachable. Today, we’re so easily offended that even the intimation that we ought to change our behavior makes us feel resentful. I think we should all stop taking offense so easily. Even if someone else is self-righteous and condescending, I think we could learn to respond with more grace. When someone steps out of their place and accuses us of wrongdoing, instead of lashing out with resentfulness, we can quietly examine ourselves and see if they’re right. If they’re right, we should change. Just because the other person was wrong to say something doesn’t mean what they say is wrong. We can and should be willing to accept instruction and calls to repentance, even if they are poorly or inappropriately offered. Only pride ignores truth that it knows to be truth because it is delivered in an unappealing way.
Also, we generally don’t seek vindication from others unless deep down, we feel we have done something wrong. The fact that this girl has turned to her peers for vindication is telling. Note: she didn’t turn to the Honor Code for vindication. She didn’t turn to the words of the prophets for vindication. She didn’t turn to the scriptures for vindication. She turned to public opinion for vindication. That leads to what I think is what is most interesting about this scenario.
We take cues from our peers. We all do. It’s how we moderate our behavior. It’s how we decide what actions are appropriate. Consider, for example, my experience a few months ago. There was a plate of cookies on the table. I didn’t know whom they belonged to, so I didn’t eat one. Later, one of my roommates returned home. I asked, “Are these your cookies?” He said no. I asked, “Whose are they?” He repled, “I have no idea,” and then he ate a cookie and went into his bedroom. What did I do? I ate a cookie. I had no more information than I had before. All I had was an example from a peer. His actions legitimized mine in my own eyes.
Many, many psychological studies show that we rely heavily on our peers to tell us what is right and what is wrong. However, what should we rely on? Public opinion shifts and changes, but the teachings of God do not. Rather than comparing ourselves to our peers, perhaps we should compare our behavior to the principles found in revelation (both ancient and modern).
Right now, the idea that standards for modesty are cultural artifacts that change over time is very popular and widespread. This may be true. But even if this is true, the prophets have still instructed us to be modest, and have defined modesty in terms very similar to what has been encoded in the BYU Honor Code. Maybe modesty isn’t about sexuality… maybe it’s about preserving the peculiarity the Lord’s covenant people. Maybe God simply doesn’t want us to dress like everyone else dresses. God is known for wanting a peculiar people, and that’s OK. And if that is true, then looking for vindication from the masses is not going to put this girl in the right—because vindication in these terms doesn’t come from public approval, but from the revealed word of God and the instructions of His servants.
Criticize the rationale we sometimes provide for the Lord’s instructions to be modest all you want, and you may be right. But faulty apologetics doesn’t make the doctrine or the instructions false. The instructions still stand, and are still being delivered by the mouths of the Lord’s servants, who are watchmen on the tower. And for that reason, there is nothing wrong with BYU’s modesty guidelines in the Honor Code. They aren’t too restrictive and they aren’t too narrow unless you measure them by the standards the world has handed us. And if we judge by the world’s standards, who is the master of our conscience? The Lord, or public opinion?
My final point is that I’m saddened by the BYU and Latter-day Saint community’s reaction to this note. Let’s assume that the guy was wrong to write it. Let’s assume he was condescending, self-righteous, and stepping out of his place. Even if that’s true, our collective reaction is simply wrong. Let me explain why.
Viewing pornography is a sin. Indubitably so. However, when one amongst us is outed as a pornography addict, how should we react? How would we react? I don’t think that public ridicule would serve any useful purpose. I don’t think that most of us would ridicule him, mock him, berate him, scold him, chastise him, etc. Most of us recognize that even as a sinner (and likely no more a sinner than any of the rest of us), he is part of our community and in need of the Atonement like the rest of us. We would want to embrace him with fellowship and love, kindness and persuasion, patience and forgiveness.
How is the sin of self-righteousness any different? It’s a sin, like viewing pornography. And how have we treated this anonymous individual? With the same scorn, ridicule, beratement, and mocking attitude that we would adamantly and thoroughly condemn if directed towards someone whose sin was viewing pornography. Why is it any different?
There is a difference, and it’s a telling one. When someone commits the sin of viewing pornography, it doesn’t make us feel uncomfortable with our own foibles. When someone commits the sin of self-righteousness (perhaps equally wrong), it does make us feel uncomfortable with our own foibles. So we’re unwilling to treat the latter with the same degree of tolerance, forgiveness, and love that we are willing to grant the former. We just don’t like feeling uncomfortable with ourselves and the way we live. Because we lean on public approval as our conscience on these matters (rather than revealed truth), we want to alienate from the public sphere those who won’t lend their approval.
Alienate, I think, is a key word here. We learn a lot in psychology about in-groups and out-groups. When a member of the in-group behaves in a way we don’t like, we want them to be part of the out-group. So we alienate them. It’s a natural social process. It’s analogous to a single-celled organism’s mechanism for expelling waste. If we can’t physically distance ourselves from an unwanted individual, we humiliate, ridicule, and berate them, and by so doing expel them from the in-group, and make them part of the out-group. Ridiculing someone turns them into the Other. It makes them no longer part of us. So in that sense, it’s one of the most effective ways to enforce the social boundaries of the group.
One of us did something dumb. A member of our community might have a skewed perspective on the world. And instead of responding with “persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned,” we’ve responded with ridicule, shame, and scorn. The exact way a tribe responds to a group member that it wants to make into an outsider. It’s as if we’re all a little pricked in our consciences, as if we all feel a little threatened by this guy and his deviant behavior.
I propose that instead of engaging in this tribalistic cleansing ritual, we self-examine a little more. We don’t have to feel threatened by him, regardless of whether we’re in the right or not. We can afford to look inward, and see if we really are collectively failing to live by a particular commandment or principle. We can afford not to be offended, and to respond with more grace. We can afford to proffer this person the hand of fellowship, even though he’s a sinner. Who among us isn’t?
An additional danger in all of this is that we seem to assume that if the guy was wrong to write the note, then the girl must have been right to wear what she did. Why can’t both parties be in the wrong? She’s clearly in violation of the Honor Code, and so she’s clearly broken her written agreement to abide by it. It’s not my place to pull her aside and tell her that, nor is it any stranger’s place to do so. But that doesn’t make her behavior right.
Truthfully, of the two wrongs, I think hers just might be worse. Not the wrong of wearing what she did, but the wrong of turning to the public for vindication. In so doing she is riling up an entire population to verbally bully and ridicule the person who wronged her, as well as giving fodder to media critics of the LDS church and BYU. Anti-mormon critics are having a heyday with this, circulating it as evidence that mormons are sexist. I don’t think she’s considered these consequences. Rather than having a forgiving, self-examining heart, she’s initiated and participated in a public cleansing ritual of ridicule that has unfortunate, unintended consequences.
I say this not because I want to publicly chastise or ridicule her. That is not my intention in the least. I’m saying this because I think we all need to consider the cascading consequences of our actions. We need to all take a step back, and consider whether our initial reactions are always the right ones.
In short, the sin of self-righteousness is just one sin among sins. But because we are all plagued by conscience, we tolerate it much less than other sins. It’s possible to err in both directions.