While driving back from a wonderfully enjoyable Thanksgiving visit with my sisters, I saw an electronic billboard by the side of the highway. It was the kind typically used to announce construction ahead. But this one wasn’t doing that. Instead, it said, “All lanes open.”
This struck me as an odd use of the billboard. Isn’t the default state of a road to have all of its lanes open? Why the need to announce this with a billboard? That the announcement was needed suggested that the road had been under construction, perhaps for a long time, and was now open, or perhaps that it had been scheduled for a construction project that had been cancelled.
I thought for a while about this question while driving. (Yes, it was a loooong and boooring drive. Why do you ask?) I think what this case illustrates is that stating what should be obvious calls into question whether it’s actually obvious. It should have been obvious that all the lanes on the highway were open. The presence of the sign calling my attention to this fact suggested that in reality it wasn’t a given that all the lanes should be open; like I said before, maybe they had been recently closed or had been scheduled to be closed.
Thinking about the phenomenon even more generally, it appears that this is a situation where saying one thing has the effect of suggesting the opposite thing. If I had seen no billboard, it’s unlikely that I would have spontaneously wondered whether any of the lanes were closed. But once I saw the sign telling me that all the lanes were open, I started mulling over reasons why it might be necessary to tell me this. I did start thinking about lanes being closed, which was the opposite of what the sign had told me.
I think this inadvertent suggestion of the opposite by stating what should be obvious occurs in two church settings. First, in the recommendation (but not requirement) that boys and men blessing and passing the sacrament wear white shirts, and second, in General Authorities’ frequent assurances that women of the Church are loved and appreciated.
The Church Handbook says this about the issue:
Those who bless and pass the sacrament should dress modestly and be well groomed and clean. Clothing or jewelry should not call attention to itself or distract members during the sacrament. Ties and white shirts are recommended because they add to the dignity of the ordinance. However, they should not be required as a mandatory prerequisite for a priesthood holder to participate. Nor should it be required that all be alike in dress and appearance.
What if the last two sentences were dropped from this section? Ties and white shirts are recommended, and that’s it. The last two sentences run into the same problem as the “All lanes open” billboard, I think. They state what should be obvious: wearing a white shirt shouldn’t be a requirement and having everyone dress alike shouldn’t be a requirement. Unfortunately, in doing so, they bring to mind their opposites. Why would there be a need to explicitly point out that these aren’t requirements if there weren’t people who were making them requirements?
I think this is particularly a problem because many Church members seem to relish the idea of living a slightly “higher” (i.e., more restrictive) law than everyone else. If no tobacco or alcohol is good, no chocolate or white bread is better. If no R-rated movies is good, no PG-13 rated movies is better. I think these lines in the Handbook are well intended, but given the commonness of the idea that more restrictive is better, I wonder if they don’t sometimes have the opposite effect that they’re intended to have. They may inadvertently put into readers’ minds the possibility of making white shirts and identical dress requirements to bless or pass the sacrament.
Consider a hypothetical alternative wording of the Handbook, and imagine what its likely effect would be. Setting aside the line about what is recommended, what if the Handbook reminded us about non-requirements like this?
It is not required that priesthood holders who administer the sacrament be circumcised.
Well of course it’s not required. But if the Handbook went to the trouble to say so, it would suggest that some people think it’s required, and given that it’s more restrictive that just letting any old priesthood holder administer the sacrament regardless of the status of his foreskin, I suspect that at least a few local leaders would hastily implement this new higher law.
You can make up fun examples all day. What if the Handbook said this?
The sacrament table need not be shaped like the Salt Lake Temple.
Well of course it doesn’t need to be. But now that it’s been suggested . . . maybe it would be safest to do it just in case.
Assurances to women
General Authorities frequently give talks in which they tell women how essential they are, how much good they do, and how loved and appreciated they are. I suspect this is obvious enough that I don’t need to provide examples, but just in case, here are a few from the past decade or so:
- President Uchtdorf: “You are an essential part of our Heavenly Father’s plan for eternal happiness.”
- Elder Cook: “Much of what we accomplish in the Church is due to the selfless service of women.”
- President Hinckley: “Women are such a necessary part of the plan of happiness which our Heavenly Father has outlined for us. That plan cannot operate without them.”
- Elder Ballard: “There is nothing in this world as personal, as nurturing, or as life changing as the influence of a righteous woman.”
- President Faust: “I do not have words to express my respect, appreciation, and admiration for you wonderful sisters. . . . We are humbled by your acts of faith, devotion, obedience, and loving service, and your examples of righteousness. This Church could not have achieved its destiny without the dedicated, faithful women who, in their righteousness, have immeasurably strengthened the Church.”
These things should be obvious. Of course the Church couldn’t function without women and of course women are essential to the plan of salvation happiness. But when these things are said so often, their obviousness is called into question. Would women get this much reassurance about their importance in the Church if there weren’t clear reasons for them to question their value in the Church? That General Authorities address this issue so often seems to me to be tacit admission that they know lots of women feel less valued in the Church than men do. I’d like to believe they are also aware that, at least in some cases, it’s simply the sexist structure of the Church, and not some failure of local leaders or neuroticism on the part of the women that’s driving this feeling.
You probably get the idea, but just because alternative examples make the point more clearly, here are a couple. Consider the message that would be sent if General Authorities were constantly reassuring other groups of Church members of their value:
You left-handers are a crucial part of God’s plan of happiness for his children.
Even though the content of this message sounds completely benign, the fact that they were singled out for reassurance would probably make left-handers feel immediately less valued.
I do not have words to express my respect, appreciation, and admiration for you wonderful Black people.
Again, even though on the surface it might sound benign, the singling out of Blacks suggests that they have reason to feel less respected, appreciated, and admired.
One objection to my conclusion that stating the obvious calls into question that it is in fact obvious is that people state obvious things in conversation all the time. For example, if you ran into me at church while I was holding my 13-month-old daughter, you would likely feel compelled to point out that she is, in fact, the cutest kid ever born. (You probably couldn’t help yourself. I would understand.) This is a pretty obvious thing to say, but it doesn’t really suggest that my daughter’s cuteness has been called into question. I think this is because the intent of casual conversation is typically more to maintain relationships than to convey information. In the examples I’ve cited above–the electronic billboard and Church pronouncements in the Handbook or over the pulpit–it’s pretty clear that the primary goal is to convey information. So this is a limiting condition for my conclusion.