Zelophehad’s Daughters

How to Fly into a Moral Panic without Really Trying

Posted by Melyngoch

A moral survey of today’s journalism looks like a doomsday scenario. Content-free screeds, partisan punditry, and dubious but shrill alarmism are at an all-time high. Informed and fact-based reporting is at an all time low and groundless moral outrage is booming.

Yeah, except just kidding, I made that all up. I don’t know very much about the history of journalism, and I don’t know if Richard and Linda Eyre, who are responsible for the claptrap linked above, are the worst thing ever to happen to journalism, if they’re typical of journalism at this moment in western-America, American, or Western history, or how journalistic trends in Utah in the present compare to those in other periods and other places. I certainly don’t know enough to make claims that anything is an “all-time” anything. I mean, seriously, all-time? How much would I have to know about the world to make a non-hyperbolic statement with the phrase “all-time” in it? Probably a lot more than Richard and Linda Eyre do.

But let’s try! Avatar is the highest-grossing film of all time,[1] A Tale of Two Cities is the best selling novel of all time,[2] and the eruption of Krakatoa was the loudest sound of all time.[3] Of course if you take a look at the footnotes, you’ll see some caveats alongside the citations, and furthermore, I’m happy to agree if you feel that I might want to check the sources on information coming from Wikipedia. These are empirical claims, on a narrow topic, based on quantified data, and yet they’re still not straightforward or incontestable. The Eyres, who are not sociologists, and have not consulted any sociologists, should probably back off from statements like “Divorce, fatherless kids, cohabitation, chosen singleness and family separation and break-up are at an all-time high.” Another tip: Maybe just don’t use the word “statistically” in an article where you’ve neglected to offer a single statistic.

Of course, there aren’t any footnotes in the Eyres’ article, because there aren’t any citations, because who needs data that might just add nuance and confusion to your enormous, bold, hair-raising claims about the scary, evil, secular world? Just as not everything that is true is useful, not everything that is useful is true,[4] and the Eyres definitely have some use for these non-truths. I’m sure they honestly don’t know that the U.S. divorce rate has been falling since 1981,[5] or that teen pregnancies in the U.S. have been reduced by a third since 1991.[6] I’m also sure they wouldn’t really care, because all the data in the world can’t change their central thesis, which I’d loosely paraphrase as: Look how much better we are than other people.

I’ve got plenty of criticisms for the Eyres. Stylistically, for example, I could do with a couple fewer claims posing as questions. (Twenty-five sentences in this piece, and seven of them are rhetorical questions. Do the authors on some level recognize that they come off as pompous asshats and are trying to mitigate that element of their tone without actually examining the content that makes them sound that way?) Obviously they have no grasp of the difference between subjective and objective truth (I suspect that when they refer to “an inevitable and irrefutable link between an orientation to family and a belief in God,” they just means that  that there is absolutely no way for anyone to refute this correlation so that they’ll believe it.) As a childless, single person, I’m not sure if I should be insulted or relieved to be lumped in with all the selfish, secular, divorce-touting, family-nuking, great-‘n-abominable churching types. I think they way they’ve characterized me is rude and stupid, but I’m also okay not being invited to their side of the line in the sand that they’re insistently, and somewhat arbitrarily, drawing here. That line in the sand, that desire to separate good from evil along the lines of like-us and not-like-us, to make difference as distant and threatening as possible, is where I move from criticizing this kind of thinking to being disgusted by it.

These people certainly didn’t invent the idea that the world now is the worst it’s ever been (a trope so old its laughable), and they’re obviously giving voice to a last-days last-outpost-of-God mentality that pervades Mormon culture, but I’m intrigued/grossed out by the Eyres’ article in particular because of how baldly they display what it is exactly that makes these ideas so appealing. It’s an invitation to be smug. The wickedness of the world is actually to our benefit, because it makes us look so much better. That’s the real silver lining — our virtue shines so much brighter against the dark background of a vice-filthy world. There are two churches, the church of evil secularism and the church of selfless religiosity, and we sure as Shiblon are card-carrying members of that second one, the good, unselfish family-friendly people who have transcendent spiritual experiences and pray about our inadequacies. As long as there are only those two churches, only those two groups, those two categories, those two types, we know exactly who we are. We never need to ask hard questions about morality in the world, evaluate complicated ethical issues or situations, or engage anything we find different and difficult with a willingness to find good in it. The answers are easy, and we’re always right.

Anything that’s set up to be us-versus-them is bound to be more about us than it is about them. The Eyres paint the world outside their sphere with a broad, harsh, mindless brush, because that justifies that self-satisfaction with which they want to paint, equally broadly,within their sphere. It isn’t just an ill-informed or unresearched way of thinking and writing about the world; it’s a way of dismissing and despising people who disagree with you, make different choices than the ones you make, or believe differently than how you believe, without ever having to look closely enough to see if there might be something virtuous or praiseworthy among those people in spite of their difference. This stuff isn’t just inaccurate, stupid, and poorly written; it’s thoroughly immoral. I’m no rock star of moral goodness myself, but I do know enough to stay away when people start picking up stones and looking all eager to be the ones to start the throwing.

——————–

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_highest-grossing_films#Highest-grossing_films_adjusted_for_inflation; this refers only to theatrical revenue, and of course if we adjust for inflation, Gone With the Wind still outstrips Avatar by around thirteen million dollars.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books; I’m going with novels as a category rather than books because something like the Bible probably far outstrips Dickens in terms of both printing and distribution, but it’s virtually impossible to do more than estimate the number of copies produced or sold over the centuries of its existence.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krakatoa; actually, even if it is the loudest sound heard in recorded history, there’s absolutely no way to know if a louder sound has been heard elsewhere (and more to the point, elsewhen).

[4] As long as I’m citing things, I think I stole this line from Eve.

[5]see for example, Besty Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, “Marriage and Divorce: Changes and their Driving Forces,” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Winter 2007; http://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/jep.21.2.27

[6]Centers for Disease Control, “Vital Signs: Teen Pregnancy — United States, 1991–2009,”  http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6013a5.htm?s_cid=mm6013a5_w. Interestingly, the CDC is still concerned about teen pregnancy rates because other developed countries have them so much lower. They also show evidence that teen sexual activity has gone down.

19 Responses to “How to Fly into a Moral Panic without Really Trying”

  1. 1.

    Great rebuttal! Richard and Linda Eyre represent the worst of tabloid-type Mormon reporting. This isn’t the first offensive diatribe they’ve put out, and unfortunately, I feel quite certain not the last.

  2. 2.

    The DNews is just a collection of blogs in print.

  3. 3.

    Melyngoch,

    Loved the post and loved the “not everything that is useful is true” quote. I am not afraid to say that that has to be the best quote of all-time!

    Their post wouldn’t bother me so much if I didn’t feel like it exemplifies mainstream Mormonism these days. I have benefitted so much from knowing people who are very different from me. I wish we didn’t have to preach fear of difference. By doing so we’re missing out on a whole world of goodness and beauty.

  4. 4.

    I have found that over that last year or so that the Deseret News in General has become not so much a Newspaper but just a tool to mostly promote the type of the stuff the Eyre’s write.

  5. 5.

    “Anything that’s set up to be us-versus-them is bound to be more about us than it is about them.”

    In my experience, It is fairly common to hear the question in Sunday School, “And what does the world teach us about X?” The answers are usually things like: money is the most important thing, or you should have sex with whomever without any kind of commitment or relationship, etc. When you look a little deeper into this question and its common answers, it seems a little ludicrous that we can summarize a vast, diverse non-LDS group’s thoughts into such simple statements. But I think you are right, these types of answers are more about framing what LDS people *don’t* believe than about framing what everyone else does believe.

  6. 6.

    The self centred arrogance of the Eyres is colossal. The Muslim people are also family friendly, and have a high birth rate, except that there are 2 billion of them and they are the fastest growing religion on earth. I bet they are not included in the Eyres in group. Who will a searcher for family values notice?

    It would be funny except these are the kind of people being called as Area Presidencies, and then forcing the message on the rest of the church membership. So the church becomes more narrow and less questioning.

    We just had a training meeting for Stake Presidents in Queensland Australia, and the main messages were that the church and religion in general, are under attack from governments and others, and that the family is under attack(code for gay marriage I think).

    There is no evidence given just the bald assertion and no opportunity to question the assertion.

  7. 7.

    Amen and ditto. Of course there are those within the membership of the Church who don’t hold court with Richard and Linda Eyre, but sadly they are rarely if ever given the megaphone. It sad that rather than take a good look in the mirror and examine ourselves and our prejudices, too many Mormons hold up to the world what they think is a mirror but turns out instead to be a hastily scribbled drawing of a bug-eyed monster.

  8. 8.

    I’ve no problem with the OP. But I find some irony in the comments — decrying the Eyres for tilting at windmills and at the same time condemning attitudes of a multi-national church based on anecdotal experience. I might even say something like…it’s sad that rather than take a good look in the mirror and examine ourselves and our prejudices, too many in the bloggernacle hold up to the church what they think is a mirror but turns out instead to be a hastily scribbled drawing of a bug-eyed monster.

  9. 9.

    I agree that the Eyres are shooting way beyond the mark with both their hyperbole and in their general assessment of the world’s moral condition.

    I could say the same of some of the comments. Smugness and misplaced righteous indignation can be a two-way street.

    Yeah, the divorce rate is going down, but it’s primarily because the marriage rate is going way down, particularly among the non-college educated. Only people who really believe in marriage are getting married anymore, and that number is shrinking with every generation. So in the U.S., we have 40% of the kids in America born out of wedlock, with much higher percentages in some demographic segments. As a group, out of wedlock kids tend to inherit big disadvantages. Compared to 50 years ago (less than 5% out of wedlock and marriage being pursued in all socio-economic categories), as a society, we’re in the process of building up to some kind of tipping point, and it isn’t looking like the good kind.

    So while a lot of the Eyre essay’s tone and innuendo is indefensible, it’s not hard to defend the notion that certain aspect of society are headed in the wrong direction. The general authorities certainly are united on that much.

    The Eyres didn’t (and generally couldn’t) support their assertions? Made some indefensible generalizations? Fine, point that out and talk about that. But let’s not engage in hyperbole of our own by pretending that their shooting beyond the mark means there was never a mark to begin with.

  10. 10.

    Clever turn of my words, James. But anecdote or not, it has been my lived experience to frequently read or hear within a Church setting overly general statements about how horrible the world is becoming. I can’t pretend such things never happened to me simply to avoid sounding negative or dismiss them simply because they don’t encompass the experience of everyone in a multi-national Church. And since I’m not the only one expressing such sentiments, perhaps there is some validity to the comments you find distasteful, just as I will readily admit there is validity to your comment about how some in the bloggernacle also turn the Church solely into a bug-eyed monster.

  11. 11.

    And since I’m not the only one expressing such sentiments, perhaps there is some validity to the comments you find distasteful…

    Do you apply the same logic to the statements about how horrible the world is becoming?

    Fwiw, there is much that concerns me about modern society and yet at the same time I find there is much to celebrate as well. So too at church; while there are some attitudes I find harmful, my fellow saints also pleasantly surprise me on a regular basis. In the world and at church I think it is relatively easy to find evidence of attitudes and behaviours that backup whatever our point of view may be.

  12. 12.

    Exactly to the final paragraph of your last comment, James. It’s simply a matter of what you and I are choosing to emphasize in this comment thread. But even then you’ll find that in my first comment I don’t think everything is bad. I made clear that I recognize not all members of the Church hold the same viewpoint as expressed by Richard and Linda Eyre. Indeed, I could have spent a lot of time writing about the exceptions. But pointing out the good wasn’t my purpose at the time. I don’t comment on somebody’s excellent hair when we are discussing a nosebleed.

    And James, when you throw my words back at me suggesting that “perhaps there is some validity to the comments you find distasteful” you should also read what I wrote right after. In plain sight I admitted that there is indeed validity in your comments and those written in a similar vein. So I’m not certain what point you were trying to express.

  13. 13.

    Your last comment suggests that you think those that don’t share the same view as the Eyres are the exceptions. Or even that the good within the church is the exception. I have no idea how you could come to such a conclusion based on anecdotal evidence.

    And, yes, you admitted there may be validity in my comment (about the judgmental nature of the bloggernacle) but my question was does that logic – i.e. because several people hold to an opinion there must be some validity to it – mean there must be some validity to the Eyres claims, seeing as you know so many members, the majority in fact, who share those same opinions?

  14. 14.

    I’m afraid you have misjudged me and my views concerning the goodness of the members of the Church, which is totally understandable given the format through which we are communicating. I suppose our little discussion is not going to reach an full agreement. I understand why you may feel my thoughts are foolish and I appreciate your thoughts, even if you don’t think well of me. Although I don’t agree with everything you said, such ideas keeps me humble.

  15. 15.

    No worries, Andrew. I recognise this format is far from perfect. I’m sorry for my misunderstanding. I’m sure in person we’d understand one another just fine. All the best.

  16. 16.

    I love your response, Melyngoch! I particularly like your point about how the Eyres make assertions about all these bad trends being at an all-time high without backing them up with any data. I don’t find this at all surprising, though. The way lots of people talk about the evils of the world makes pretty clear that it’s not an empirical question about the world getting more evil. It’s an article of faith! Who needs data when you know it’s the Last Days, and therefore the world must by definition be getting worse by the minute?

  17. 17.

    As long as I’ve been alive, people like the Eyres have been saying we live in the worst of times. Worst compared to what? The 20th Century was filled with racism, sexism, World War, the holocaust, the threat of nuclear destruction, etc….was that better than today? It’s unfortunate that people can make a living spouting this nonsense.

  18. 18.

    The list of people who make a living off of their nonsense is large and growing. It is very unfortunate that a number of LDS members make their living by selling to their fellow church members, books, blogs and insurance. Which raises the question why do members of the church support questionable quality just because the originator is a fellow church member? but that is another article.

  19. 19.

    you might be interested to know that the Eyres column has now been suspended by DesNews for egregious plaigarism.

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