Friday, January 27, 2012

"If you drop a white glove in the mud...

the mud doesn't get glovey."

I learned this at church when I was about 10 years old, I think.  The lesson was about choosing good friends and was very much of the "be wary of the big scary world" variety.  The idea was that you might choose to socialize with other kids who don't have the same 'standards' as you, thinking that you can be a good example, but really you'll just get all dirty like them.  So, you know, just hang out exclusively with the other Mormon kids who never, ever do anything naughty.  I think that, taken out of the Mormon "we're better than everyone else because we have higher 'standards'" context, the white glove metaphor conveys some pretty good advice.  Everyone should use a little common sense when choosing their friends.  We probably shouldn't choose to hang out with people who often find themselves in dangerous and/or illegal situations, lest we find ourselves innocent but in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The problem with establishing 'values' and 'standards' is that they set up judgmental attitudes.  They go beyond "You should stay out of trouble and that will be easier if you choose friends who aren't always getting into trouble." They imply that you are better and certain choices are better than others.  They put behaviors on levels and they set up thresholds below which behaviors are 'bad'.  This allows even trivial behaviors like drinking coffee or laughing loudly to become 'sinful'.  And of course, institutionalizing standards and telling people that those standards ARE their personal standards (or else) completely precludes free thought and eliminates free will. 

This nifty little wisdom gem has been popping into my brain a lot lately, but not in the context of choosing friends or examining behaviors.  I've been thinking about group think.  And, I've been thinking about the spreading of bad ideas.  Bad ideas become trendy when people just believe everything they read or hear.  A bad idea might start as a whisper - false conclusions based on bad science or fraudulent data published in a small, sub-par science journal - and quickly become an echo chamber - a single public media outlet picking up those false conclusions and publishing them with big flashy headlines then other media outlets following suit (sometimes without even referring to the primary journal source and merely relying on the story published by the first media outlet) and then the public, seemingly hungry for bad, un-collaborated information, eats it up.  The whisper could be Andrew Wakefield quietly publishing data collected irresponsibly (at best) or, fraudulently (at worst) and the roar bouncing around the echo chamber could be a loud-mouthed celebrity saying silly idioms about "mother's intuition" on the Larry King show and suddenly anti-vaccination is trendy and hip among wealthy all-knowing mothers in Marin County, California and other havens for granola parenting.  But, what's the harm? Right

Well, aside from dead innocent children, the harm is that good ideas, with good data backing them up, fall into a puddle of bad ideas that are already widely accepted and just sink.  The mud doesn't get glovey. The problem here is that many people don't question their sources (unless they are providing inconvenient information) and instead choose sources based on what they WANT to hear and not based on credibility or evidence. 

But, let's think about religious indoctrination for a moment.  Who doesn't WANT to believe what the rest of their family believes? I think that's totally understandable.  And, it's so easy to read only what is published by the church and slap a tidy, intimidating, little label, like "anti-Mormon", on anything else (and even on anything published by the church that doesn't match with the whitewashed version of church history taught in Sunday School).  That way, one can keep their white testimony glove from falling into any information that might muddy-up the religion or church.  Well, if testimonies are based on incomplete or bad information, then white testimony gloves are over-rated.  But, if our minds are white gloves, religion is super muddy!