In the “Entertainment and Media” section, the For the Strength of Youth booklet advises:
Do not attend, view, or participate in anything that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way [p. 11; all page references are to the PDF version].
I saw this bit of FtSoY quoted recently in a discussion somewhere on the Bloggernacle (sorry–I don’t recall where), and it struck me as being overly absolute. In any way? For violence in particular, doesn’t this rule out all kinds of sports and virtually all movies? Isn’t this a little unrealistic?
Running into this statement got me to wondering about whether this type of absolute phrasing was common, or if this was just an isolated example. To find out, I read through the rest of the FtSoY booklet. I was actually pleasantly surprised at how few similar statements I found, but I did find several others that I think have the same problem. In this post, I’ll quote the statements from FtSoY that I think are a problem, and then explain what I think is wrong with them.
Here are the other absolute statements from FtSoY that I think have the same problems:
“Immodest clothing is any clothing that is tight, sheer, or revealing in any other manner” [p. 7].
“Be honest with yourself, others, and God at all times” [p. 19].
“Never do anything that could lead to sexual transgression” [p. 36].
“Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings” [p. 36].
So what’s my problem with these lines from FtSoY? I think they’re unrealistic, counterproductive, inconsistent with other Church standards, and too vague. I’ll discuss each of these problems in a little more detail.
My first problem with these absolute statements is that they set unrealistic standards. Not just unrealistic really; unachievable. For example, with the first statement, it’s just not going to happen that a teenager will never attend, view, or participate in anything that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way. Take violence alone. Like I said above, following this standard would mean teens pretty much aren’t seeing any movies at all. FtSoY isn’t asking them to pass on movies that have a lot of violence, or movies that have purposeless violence. It’s saying don’t attend anything that’s violent in any way, so even movies that feature nothing more than a shove are off limits. The standard also rules out most sports, for either viewing or participation. Football and hockey are obviously out, but so are soccer, basketball, wrestling, lacrosse, and water polo. Sports where competitors don’t come into direct contact with each other might be okay, so perhaps gymnastics, skiing, and curling are okay.
Or take the statement about being honest with everyone “at all times.” Social interactions are packed with situations where little white lies are almost inevitable (not to mention a that they’re virtually always a better choice than telling each other how we’re really feeling and what we really think of each other’s shoes and haircuts and parenting choices). Certainly I agree that it’s easy to justify lies that shouldn’t be justified, but FtSoY is saying that justified lies just don’t exist, and I disagree.
Or how about “do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings”? (The “else” refers to the fact that this sentence follows a sentence with specific prohibitions.) I’m sorry, but we humans didn’t get to having seven billion of us on the planet by having sexual feelings that are easy to suppress. Particularly when you’re a teen (or at least that’s my memory), pretty much all you have to do to have sexual feelings aroused is to be alive. This standard is impossible.
Anyway, you probably get my point. If you disagree, I’m guessing your objection might fall along one of two lines. One objection might be that high standards aren’t bad, because if you set standards high, people might not reach them, but they’ll do better than if you set them low. Like Leo Burnett famously said,
When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.
The problem is that I think this approach might work for some teens, but I think there’s a pretty large group that it won’t work for. Me, for example, as a teen. I was (and am still to some degree) neurotic, easily guiltable, and obsessive. If you set impossibly high standards for stable, self-confident teens, you might have them happily reaching to do the best they can. If you do the same for neurotic teens, you’re more likely to have them discouraged and exhausted.
Another possible objection you might have is that I’m just pushing the FtSoY statement to absurd extremes to argue against it. Of course FtSoY isn’t saying that teens can’t watch or participate in sports that have any violence: that would be ridiculous. Of course it’s not saying you always have to give your honest opinion of your friend’s new hairstyle. If this is your objection, then I think you’re just making my argument for me. It is absurd to tell teens such things. But I’m not having to push what FtSoY says at all to get to absurdity. I didn’t add the categorical words like anything or in any way or at all times to the statements to make them sound over the top. That’s how they’re actually written. They are over the top.
If standards are set impossibly high, and teens (inevitably) can’t follow them, it seems likely to me that this will make at least some teens feel like it’s not worth the trouble to try. If a teen tries to avoid anything that might arouse a sexual feeling, but inevitably finds that she has them anyway, she might decide that since she’s failed already, why not go ahead and have sex with her boyfriend? Similarly, if a teen slips up and doesn’t offer a fully honest evaluation of his girlfriend’s new outfit, maybe he’ll decide that since he’s broken the standard anyway, he might as well start a pyramid scheme and cheat on his taxes.
The problem of setting any binary standard is that when you draw a line between things that are “okay” and “not okay,” you have to lump together things that are not alike. The strategy of drawing an impossibly restrictive line (so that everyone will be across it at least some of the time) seems to be based in a desire to clearly separate behaviors that are clearly not bad (say returning a lost item to its owner) from those that are bad in the mildest possible way (say cheating on a Buzzfeed quiz to make yourself look good to your Facebook friends). This strategy might work as long as you can keep people focused on only that region of badness. But the problem, as I’ve suggested already, comes up when you consider all the behaviors that are lumped together on the “not okay” side of the line. Given that they’re all in the same category, teens can’t be blamed for thinking that they’re all equally bad, when of course the reality is that they are not. They can differ dramatically in how serious their consequences are, and it’s not clear that drawing a bright line between good behavior and mildly bad behavior is the best way to discourage moderately and severely bad behavior.
Inconsistent with other Church standards
The absolute statements from FtSoY are far more restrictive than standards taught in the rest of the Church. I think the most obvious comparison is to the temple recommend questions. FtSoY says “Never do anything that could lead to sexual transgression.” The corresponding temple recommend question just asks if you live the law of chastity. It looks like FtSoY is constructing a five mile wide hedge about the law. Never do anything that could lead to sexual transgression? Well, all kinds of ordinary everyday acts could lead to sexual transgression, like attending a mixed-sex school (if you’re straight), or working in a mixed-sex workplace. Are these off limits for teens because they could lead to sexual transgression? For that matter, what about YW/YM joint activities? If teens attend these and get to know each other too well, who knows what could happen? Sexual transgression certainly is within the realm of possibility. Giving up such things as mixed-sex schools, employers, and church activities is well beyond standards anyone else in the Church is held to.
Similarly, telling teens to “be honest with yourself, others, and God at all times” is a far tougher standard than asking whether you’re “honest in your dealings” with other people as the temple recommend questions do. By asking about “dealings,” I think the temple recommend question neatly sidesteps the issue of helpful little white lies that I raised above. By contrast, by saying “at all times,” FtSoY confronts the question of little white lies head-on, and condemns the practice.
As an aside, the comparison of FtSoY and the temple recommend questions makes me appreciate the temple recommend questions for sticking more at the level of asking about principles, and not getting down in the details of specific applications like FtSoY is sometimes prone to.
I’ve been arguing that these FtSoY statements are too absolute, so it might sound odd for me to turn around and complain that they’re also too vague. The reason I’m making both arguments is that they’re about different aspects of the FtSoY statements: they’re too absolute in categorically forbidding behaviors, but at the same time they’re too vague in explaining what those behaviors are.
Consider defining pornography, for example. Elder Oaks once said,
Young women, please understand that if you dress immodestly, you are magnifying this problem by becoming pornography to some of the men who see you.
Setting aside all the problems of treating women as objects that have been discussed at length on the Bloggernacle, Elder Oaks is setting up a really low bar for defining pornography here. An immodestly dressed young woman is pornography. But Elder Oaks’s definition is not universally agreed upon, I think, even in the Church. This means that teens can be held to quite different standards in different wards. In one ward, a bishop might condemn teens for associating with friends who don’t cover their shoulders, because that would be participating in pornography, while in another, a bishop might save his condemnation only for teens who are looking at what might be more generally agreed upon to be porn (e.g., depictions of sexual acts).
As I’ve already suggested above, there are similar definitional problems for words like vulgar, immoral, and violent in the FtSoY statement at the beginning of this post. The statement about clothing also has this problem with the word revealing. Clothes are immodest if they are “tight, sheer, or revealing in any other manner.” Revealing of what? Can I reveal the shape of my head? The fact that I have hands? My ankles? Given the fact that this is a booklet written by men, and that it has more specific guidance for teen girls that teen boys on modesty of clothing, it’s likely that the concern is with revealing breasts, specifically. But that’s not what FtSoY actually says. It says “in any other manner,” which kind of makes it read like a call for teens to dress as mummies.
The combination of the absolute part and the vague part is particularly troubling: absolute prohibitions on vaguely defined behaviors means that teens are rigidly held to a high standard, but the standard itself is unclear. The situation seems almost guaranteed to produce wide variability in what teens are actually taught, depending on their leaders’ interpretations of the vaguely defined terms.
All of the FtSoY statements I’ve cited could easily be revised to be less absolute. For some, the absolute words could just be cut out. For example, how about this?
Be honest with yourself, others, and God.
Without the “at all times,” I think it makes the same point, but without pushily condoning compulsive truth-telling in situations where it will needlessly hurt others. Another possibility would be to use the temple recommend question as a model:
Be honest in your dealings with others and with God.
I dropped the honesty with yourself part, but self-deception seems like kind of tangential to the issue of honesty with others anyway.
In summary, I think I understand the motives of the writers of FtSoY. They’re worried that teens are facing hugely consequential choices every day, and given the potential for a few bad choices to have long-lasting consequences, they want to prevent teens from making any such bad decisions. I don’t agree, though, that their strategy of building big hedges about the law with these absolute statements is the best way to achieve this end. I think teens would be better off with less absolute, more realistic standards that are more in line with other Church teachings.