Zelophehad’s Daughters

The Word of Wisdom as a Cultural Marker

Posted by Galdralag

Anthropologists have long scratched their heads at the organizational logic underpinning kashrut, the rules and regulations surrounding the proscription, prescription, and preparation of foods in Judaism, also called “kosher laws.” Why are only animals that both chew cud and have cloven hooves permissible? Why only fish that have both scales and fins, thereby eliminating species like catfish, sharks, and all shellfish? Why are locusts okay to eat while nearly every other species of insect is forbidden?

Various arguments have been put forth, one of the most common being that of basic health. At the time when the Torah was being codified, so the reasoning goes, parasites like trichinosis were very common, vaccines didn’t exist, and, in the absence of thermometers, it was difficult to determine if meat had reached the requisite temperature to be safe for consumption when cooked over an open flame. Others argue that it was about differentiation. The Law of Moses generally contains a constant proscription on types of mixing: no linen and wool should be woven together (Deut 22:11); two different crops should not be sown in the same field (Lev 19:19); a kid should not be cooked in its mother’s milk (Deut 14:21); and the Israelites should not intermingle with the Canaanites and others. Even the word “holy,” repeated many times in the first five books of Moses, is based on the Semitic root q-d-sh, whose meanings include separation, differentiation, and designation for a specific purpose (see, e.g., Lev 19:2, “…Be ye holy, for I the Lord God am holy.”) Separation and categorization, this line of thought suggests, were the driving forces behind kashrut.

Yet neither of these two arguments seems wholly satisfactory. Even if they were combined – if we say it was about health and differentiation – something seems lacking. Perhaps, some say, the arguments may be combined and simultaneously reconceptualized in order to reach a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts: kashrut is about defining one’s people as recognizable and distinct to both insiders and outsiders. The very fact that all of the regulations cannot be explained as simply good diet and nutrition means that said regulations can appear arbitrary. Those who abide by this arbitrariness are unique and different – and easy to spot at dinnertime. And cultures are often defined by their unique, seemingly arbitrary practices.

One could easily apply the same thinking to the way that the Word of Wisdom has come to operate in Mormon culture. Like the system of kashrut, most of the recommendations included in Section 89 make good health sense. Smoking is without question dangerous; excessive alcohol consumption leads to all manner of health problems, not to mention societal ills. It is wise and humane to eat meat sparingly, and fruits and vegetables contain essential vitamins and nutrients. Yet, again like kashrut, the Word of Wisdom is difficult to explain entirely as a diet and nutrition plan. Tea, for example, is commonly held to have as many – if not more – health benefits as possible detriments.

Could the Word of Wisdom also serve as means of differentiation and self-categorization? It seems likely, particularly when we examine the ways that, as a culture, we have chosen to emphasize specific aspects of Section 89 as defining points of orthodoxy and proper observance. Nowhere does the text indicate that, for example, a lack of coffee in one’s diet should serve as a litmus test of piety – yet it has become one. In other words, we have pinpointed as religiously significant precisely those elements of the Word of Wisdom (i.e., abstention from coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco) that, when observed, make us unusual in broader American culture. Focusing on eating fruits in season or on eating little meat would not go far in demarcating us to our non-LDS neighbors as having a distinct, different diet. But never drinking coffee? That’s uncommon. By observing these rules – by avoiding those items (tea) that seem arbitrarily frowned upon  – we impose upon ourselves a defining cultural marker of difference.

In my next post, I will argue that our current focus on modes of dress, particularly our growing equation of covering the deltoids with modesty, can also be explained as a means of anthropological differentiation and self-marking.

17 Responses to “The Word of Wisdom as a Cultural Marker”

  1. 1.

    Yep.

    I wish we would more fully and openly acknowledge the WoW as a defining cultural marker in our conversations in the Church, rather than obsessing about the alleged natural law of health that the WoW, in its alleged fulness, would supposedly embody.

    AB

  2. 2.

    Jared Diamond (the anthropologist) explained it well:
    “”” It’s whenever there’s a group, you have the problem of figuring out who really is a member of your group. And who is just pretending to be a member of the group for advantages. That may be part of the reason why humans have these very complicated cultures, including languages and body mutilation.

    If I come into a group and I say, I’m really a long-lost member of your group but I can’t speak your language and I haven’t tattooed myself. Then it’ll immediately be obvious that I’m not a member of your group. So all groups have what are called “expensive” ways of identifying themselves honestly so that you can’t just fake it.”””

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/491/transcript

    The WoW and our modesty standards function as expensive ways of differentiating ourselves from everyone else. It’s practically impossible to avoid alcohol in business. It’s practically impossible for a woman to buy a wardrobe off the rack that covers her shoulders. All this effort serves to prove to ourselves and others that we’re really serious about our commitment. It gives us shared cultural experiences that make it easier for us to form deep friendships with others who have also been through all the hassle. And it helps us figure out who is really Mormon and who is just pretending.

    I’ve noticed I’m more bothered by my formerly Mormon friends posting pictures of alcohol on Facebook than by their notices that they don’t believe in God any longer. This is strange, since Jesus himself famously loved wine. But it takes effort for me to realize this and think it through – my first reaction is instinctual when I see people transgressing our cultural code. It feels like a personal rejection. The power of culture.

  3. 3.

    “The WoW and our modesty standards function as expensive ways of differentiating ourselves from everyone else. It’s practically impossible to avoid alcohol in business. It’s practically impossible for a woman to buy a wardrobe off the rack that covers her shoulders.”

    Expensive in what way? I grew up in Florida where LDS membership was rare, and I never had to justify my lack of drinking alcohol in any setting whatsoever. And even in Florida, women can find clothes that cover their shoulders. It’s not that hard.

    I would also submit that the Word and Wisdom and modesty standards are not “just” about differentiation. There’s actually a lot more to it than that.

  4. 4.

    Although it is plausibly informed by health concerns, it makes sense to me to understand the WoW primarily as a means of cultural differentiation. One of the dangers of construing it as a health code is that we have a tendency to impose our current fashions about health onto the text. For example, I’ve heard it asserted repeatedly that the central point of the WoW is not to get fat. (!) Neither set of texts—D&C 89 itself nor the codified interpretations furnished by Correlation—supports that reading. I’ve also heard ex-Mormons lament the hypocrisy of members in good standing eating high fructose corn syrup while avoiding wine, which has been shown to have health benefits. I don’t find hypocrisy to be a helpful heuristic for understanding this behavior; rather, it should signal to us that the WoW is playing a different role in its community than the latest fad diet is playing in North America, and the two aren’t in particularly close contact.

  5. 5.

    “Although it is plausibly informed by health concerns, it makes sense to me to understand the WoW primarily as a means of cultural differentiation. One of the dangers of construing it as a health code is that we have a tendency to impose our current fashions about health onto the text. ”

    It’s more than “plausible” that the WoW is concerned with health. That is apparent when you read the text. Why do you use “plausible”?

    I acknowledge that there are dangers of misinterpretation, but that is true for any text or any scripture. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater isn’t necessarily taking the WoW seriously, either.

    It has always been interpreted as a health “law”, spiritually and physically, from Joseph Smith’s day to present day. Reducing it down to just an anthropological tool is a misreading and ignores the pesky “revelation” part of it.

  6. 6.

    I originally wrote “obviously” and then changed it to “plausibly” because I’m talking about both the scriptural text and its current “official” interpretations (which are fairly different from each other), and while health plays an undeniable role, I’m not totally sure of the degree to which the official material on the WoW continues to be informed by the health concerns of the church’s host culture(s). It’s a religious dietary code, not a diet.

    Out of curiosity, why is the text revelatory if it’s understood to play the role of a (lifelong) diet but not if it’s understood to play a role in creating a “peculiar” people?

  7. 7.

    Perhaps I wasn’t sufficiently clear in my argument. I am not saying that the WoW (or kashrut, for that matter) have nothing to do with health. I am trying to say that a health code is not the only, and possibly not the primary, function the WoW serves in our community. Insisting that it is only about health, and not acknowledging its other community-buttressing and demarcating functions, seems reductive to me.

  8. 8.

    Out of curiosity, why is the text revelatory if it’s understood to play the role of a (lifelong) diet but not if it’s understood to play a role in creating a “peculiar” people?

    This, too.

  9. 9.

    Okay, I think we were talking past each other for a little bit. I completely agree with you that the WoW’s primary function is not solely about physical health. And I think a close reading of the actual text supports that assertion.

    However, I suppose I disagree on the implications/meaning of that.

  10. 10.

    @Michael I suppose we can have different experiences – in my work, alcohol is an important part of socializing and flows freely at conferences and group activities. People don’t always understand why I don’t drink, and have occasionally pressured me pretty hard to join in.

    As for women’s clothing, yes it’s possible to find clothes with sleeves, but it takes work (and lots of layering with shrugs and cardigans) to fix things up. Take this randomly selected webpage, for example:
    http://bananarepublic.gap.com/browse/category.do?cid=5037

    All this work we do creates shared cultural experiences that are an important part of the practice of Mormonism. They set us apart. As Jared Diamond says, it’s important for groups to find ways of setting themselves apart – and the WoW and modesty standards are two of the big ways we do so.

  11. 11.

    @RecessionCone,

    I’m in the military, so I certainly haven’t been sheltered from alcohol. But I think because I look like a meany (or at least, put out “don’t mess with me” vibes), nobody has felt it necessary to try to pressure me into drinking.

    So let me ask you all the question that I think is implied by the particular subject of being “culturally set apart”. How did Joseph Smith clue in on proposing such an anthropologically sensible course of action?

  12. 12.

    @Michael As Galdralag suggested, maybe it was a revelation? =)

  13. 13.

    (I mean Kiskilili, sorry for the misquote.)

  14. 14.

    I wish we’d acknowledge the cultural marker function more often. There isn’t anything wrong with have cultural markers but because of our culture we sometimes we confuse righteousness with covering our shoulders and sin with drinking an iced tea. Discussing that these partly serve as cultural markers could help us view others more charitably. I considered this issue in its relation to modesty recently on my blog (http://cowgirlsandlamanites.blogspot.com/2013/07/what-is-modesty-definition.html).

  15. 15.

    Enjoyed the post, Galdralag. I also wonder if not swearing is a cultural marker as well.

    Assuming a cultural marker is an important part of the WofW, I’m curious what you think about its value as such. In what ways is it helpful or harmful to set ourselves apart in these ways?

  16. 16.

    I really like this, Galdralag:

    “The very fact that all of the regulations cannot be explained as simply good diet and nutrition means that said regulations can appear arbitrary. Those who abide by this arbitrariness are unique and different – and easy to spot at dinnertime.”

    I kind of made a similar argument a while back when I blogged about commandments being optimally unreasonable. If they’re too reasonable, there’s no reason to think we’re following them because they’re commandments (after all, it’s just reasonable). If they’re too unreasonable, we don’t follow them.

    I’m really looking forward to your discussion of modesty rhetoric using this framework!

  17. 17.

    I wonder if the seemingly arbitrary selection of coffee and tea as products to avoid had anything to do with the Mormon drive for self-sufficiency, since both would have been available only as imports?

    If I understand correctly, even wine and liquors were not completely taboo as long as we had the legal ability to manufacture them ourselves. Then as prohibition took hold and legal production shut down, fermented and distilled drinks moved to the “not a drop” section of the WoW.

    Just some random thoughts as I munch happily (and righteously) on dark chocolate covered coconut. :)

Leave a Reply