The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin

. . . the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

You probably remember Princess Leia saying this to Governor Tarkin right before he started trying to impress her with the size of his battle station. But I’m not here to talk about battle station size or who might be compensating for what. Instead, I’m interested in Leia’s point about unintended consequences: sometimes pushing directly for some outcome can actually make that outcome less likely.

Specifically, I wonder if the way we in the Church (thinking mostly of General Authorities, but sometimes of the rest of us too) try to solve problems might not sometimes fall prey to this problem. Below are some examples.

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Modesty. fMhLisa recently wrote on modesty that spurred me to think about this more general issue of unintended consequences. She points out that indeed there does appear to be a trend of girls being sexualized at younger ages. But, she argues, by focusing on modesty so much and for girls at such young ages, we as a Church are implicitly agreeing with the prevailing idea that yes indeed, young girls are somehow sexual. We’re contributing to the problem. We’re only differing with the more general trend in what we suggest girls should be doing (cover themselves versus flaunt themselves).

To make progress in having younger girls sexualized less, rather than pushing harder and harder on modesty, with more and better defined rules, we need to actually offer an alternative way of talking to and about young girls that doesn’t take their sexualization as a given. Or, as Rebecca J puts it so well in her wonderful post on the same topic at BCC:

The next time you feel impressed to talk to girls about the importance of dressing modestly, count to 100 and say a prayer. Ask God what nourishment these young ladies need for their souls. And then talk about that instead.

Women feeling undervalued. It’s clear that many women in the Church feel undervalued. Even if you don’t buy all the numbers being passed around about young women leaving the Church (and I’m not sure I always do), the way GAs talk to and about women makes clear that this is a big concern. Their response to this problem appears to be to tell women over and over and in ever more inflated tones, that they are wonderful and important and valued. The problem with this kind of rhetoric is that, as I argued in a post last year, it only suggests its opposite. Why would they need to tell women how much they’re valued if there weren’t good reasons for them to feel that they aren’t?

The solution in this area seems obvious. If the Church were to change in its practice in ways that actually made women feel more valued, there would be no need for all the reassurances. For starters, Caroline wrote a great post in which she outlined many things that could be done even within the framework Church’s existing doctrines and policies. Going further and actually changing some policies (such as allowing women to be witnesses to ordinances, for example) would be even better.

Are Mormons Christian? We like to argue that we are; many other Christians like to argue that we’re not. I think one way we fail here is parallel to the problem with women feeling undervalued. We protest too much, and people figure that if we are that worried about being accepted as Christian, we must really not be. The best example of this protesting too much was the Church’s change to its logo back in the 1990s to put “Jesus Christ” in a bigger font. My guess would be that this only convinced more people that we were shady in our self-labeling than it convinced that we were in fact Christians.

Again, I think the solution here would be simple. If we just gave up on the “we’re Christian too!” rhetoric, we would stop arousing the suspicions of those who think we’re protesting too much. We could also focus more on maybe trying to be Christian in our behavior, and let the labels fall where they may.

Pornography. When people use pornography, it can have a negative effect on their real-world sexual relationships (and relationships more generally) with their spouses. In order to combat this problem, General Authorities hammer at this issue, Conference after Conference, particularly in Priesthood Session. Local leaders often hit the issue too. Porn is evil horrible nasty filthy stuff that will ruin your life. Unfortunately, this approach may not reduce porn usage and may actually increase it. More heated rhetoric surrounding porn can make people who have used it more anxious, and they may actually use porn as an anxiety-reduction tool. (I know I’ve heard John Dehlin make this argument on a few podcasts, but I don’t recall which episodes offhand.)

A better approach to reducing porn usage might get at the problem indirectly. Perhaps the time now spent in Priesthood Session railing on porn could instead be used discussing how men can better take their wives seriously as fully people. If porn is brought up, it could be brought up more briefly and with less hyperbolic rhetoric.

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I’ve tried to think of other examples where the Church did the reverse: realized that its actions might have perverse results opposite the intended results, and backed off on the direct approach. One clear example is in keeping the Handbook secret for a long time, but then with the latest edition, publishing half of it on As I argued once back when the Handbook was entirely secret, the very fact that it was kept secret probably made its contents seem more sinister than they actually were. I think it was a good decision for the Church to publish half of the Handbook openly. (Of course I think it would be good if they did this with the entire Handbook, but even publishing half is a step in the right direction.)

Other possible places where similar changes have occurred are with discussion of birth control and women working for pay. The rhetoric opposing both used to be much more frequent and categorically condemning than it is now. It’s difficult for me to tell, though, whether this is a situation where General Authorities decided that backing off was a better approach, or if they just decided that birth control and women working for pay weren’t actually all that bad.

I know the Church isn’t alone in stumbling into situations where pushing harder for some outcome inadvertently makes the outcome less likely. I’m sure other organizations do it, governments do it, people do it. I really don’t have a general idea of what might make an organization or person more or less prone to this problem, or more or less able to see it when it’s happening. I’d love to hear if you have any ideas along these lines, or more examples of either type–where the Church pushes too hard and accidentally makes a problem worse, or where it has backed off such a situation to avoid doing so.


  1. It’s not the Mormon church per se, but studies show that too much focus on abstinence and eliminating birth control actually results in more teen pregnancy.

    I would likewise say that strongly discouraging people from reading internet sources on church history only creates a situation where the internet information has extra credibility and people used to white wash can’t distinguish fact from fiction.

  2. Just a quick quibble: Book 2 of the Church Handbook of Instructions has been publicly available for many, many years, in pieces. I worked for Church Distribution Services for a few years beginning nearly a decade ago and all of the chapters of Book 2 were separately available for anyone to buy. (You may remember them: each chapter had a different color on the glossy cardstock color and they were all three-hole punched; usually they occupied a full shelving section in the various Distribution Centers.) The change was to publish Book 2 on the Internet and provide public access to a bound volume containing all of the chapters together. But the situation with the CHI hasn’t actually changed; Book 2 was not controlled and Book 1 still is.

  3. Good points.

    I think in addition to what you’ve got here, maybe “missionary” work toward “inactives”. I think people who need a break, or space, or just are dealing with something that makes church going hard feel they have to “duck and cover” to get some peace and it probably makes them more resistant to any sort of participation or “activity” because they are then surrounded by folks pushing for more.

    Additionally church members often feel that visiting and repeating “it was so good to see you at church” or “how do we get you back” is a caring and inclusive behavior but is easily experienced by the receiver of that kind of caring as judgement and superiority.

  4. Thanks for pointing that out, Tom. I didn’t realize that was the case. I guess the step of putting Book 2 online was much smaller than I had thought.

    Zaissa, great point! I know I have several friends who don’t attend church who have said similar things. When people from church are overly zealous in prodding them back in, the result can be that they’re pushed farther away.

    hawkgrrrl, great examples! The forbidden fruit one I particularly like. What’s the joke about how the easiest way to get people to read something is to tell them it’s off limits?

    Shawna, thanks!

  5. The forbidden fruit one I particularly like. What’s the joke about how the easiest way to get people to read something is to tell them it’s off limits?

    Oh man. I had a high school English teacher who once used that kind of reverse psychology on some of his middle school students:

    They were reading a Shakespeare play (I forget which) and he got up in front of the class and said “I was going over tomorrow’s reading and I realized that there were some things in it that are pretty inappropriate, so I just wanted to apologize and say that it’s OK if you don’t do the reading tonight.”

    The next day, one of his students came to class and said “Mr. K., I read the assignment three times and there was nothing bad in it!”

    I don’t know (or recall) if he had a particular reason for wanting his class to read that section or if he just wanted to test the power of reverse psychology / forbidden fruit, but I think he succeeded in getting every single student to read the assignment.

  6. Great post, Ziff! One I would add is that the church leaders are reluctant to explicitly retract old teachings and practices and teach a whitewashed version of their own history. I think one justification for this is to protect and promote the testimonies of the saints. However, these practices can contribute to a sense of betrayal when more historical information is found and a sense of cognitive dissonance when old teachings don’t conform with new teachings.

  7. Excellent post.

    In addition to the above, I do think that the heavy-handed emphasis on marriage has back-fired a bit. At least the pressure to marry as soon as returning from a mission has been lightened. But, I do think that the pressure to marry has caused some people, who were probably just trying to be obedient, to rush into marriages that they were ill-prepared for. Now, divorce statistics in the church are trending like those for outside of it. If, instead, the church were to focus on discipleship (like Chieko Okazaki), I think it would be a lot more helpful for people’s spiritual development. And maybe for getting all those spiritually-enlightened people married!


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