Why do people hate honor students?

Recently during my morning commute, I saw a bumper sticker ahead of me that read, “My Dog is smarter than your honor student.” Aside from the interesting capitalization (why capitalize “dog” over “honor student”?), I started to wonder what it was about American society that drives people to affix hard-to-remove stickers on their primary modes of transportation declaring their belligerent attitudes towards honor students.

I’m not so much interested in why people brag about their children being honor students; parents bragging about their children is nothing new (especially if your parents are Asian like mine). What’s much more interesting is the cottage industry that has sprung up around the dismissal of honor student achievements (by comparing them to dogs) or downright threatening honor students (such as the bumper sticker that reads “My kid can beat up your honor student”). It’s understandable if someone grows annoyed at the constant bragging of peoples’ honor students (though think of the last time you actually saw an unironic declaration of pride for their child’s honor student status as a bumper sticker – I can’t remember either). Maybe they say a flippant remark or make fun of them to their friends. But something drives a person to pay money to buy a bumper sticker and then take time to actually put it on the bumper of their car because they hate honor students so much. This is a significant amount of effort to declare one’s opinion about honor students. And certainly it says something about our society when such a cottage industry can exist (and thrive).

Social critics in the United States often accuse our society of having a strong anti-intellectualism streak. Do these bumper stickers prove them right?

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Slaying Shakespeare’s Holofernes with a series of tubes (and cat pictures)

“Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years. How they feel to us now tells us whole stories of our ancestors.”
– Stephen Fry

 

During our morning commute, my wife and I discussed – what else? – internet memes, because we are those kinds of people, I guess. I mentioned how a friend on Facebook wrote a status asking anybody else if they have also felt the feeling of reinvigorating enthusiasm in an art they had long become complacent in. I left a reply with a picture of Pikachu patting a Caterpie on the back with the caption, “I know that feel bro,” because I am that kind of person, I guess.

I proceeded to tell my wife how “I know that feel bro” is one of my new all-time favorite Internet memes, how it seemed to perfectly encompass that feeling of deep resonance with someone else’s obstacles, plights, or victories. I struggled to capture the words in describing this to my wife, when she patted me on the knee and told me straight-faced, “I know that feel, bro.”

This is why I love my wife.

But on to more meme-ish matters, what about “I know that feel bro” captures my heart so? A lot of people have complained that the Internet has broken English, and no better place to see this than the battlefield known as Internet memes, wherein lies a hundred thousand million broken letters, words, phrases, and sentences, where weapons of mass grammatical destruction are deployed on a regular basis. Or, that is how the pedants wish to portray the state of the English language on the vast plane we call the Interwebs. But I would beg to differ.

What is it about terribly written English and the Internet? One cannot blame simple ignorance – while the leakage of Internet memes into places like Facebook have certainly diluted the demographics, for a while now, the vast majority of people who created memes were 20-30 years old and educated, if not a bit cynical as a whole and underachieving. The use of broken English may have originated in the first of the memes – cat photos with captions – because the idea of a cat (and, subsequently, dogs, frogs, penguins, and honey badgers) mastering the English language is only slightly more absurd than their daily adventures and mishaps. But there is something joyful, even pleasurable, in manipulating the English language, in breaking it and bending it and reshaping it to fit your own whims. This activity is what poets have enjoyed for centuries.

In a way, the Internet has become a collective Shakespeare, not that epics of masterful insight into the human condition are regularly produced from the keyboards of a million bloggers (though the Internet has certainly produced some epic things, see also: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, The Guild, the Woot.com product descriptions, et al). Rather, the Internet collectively imitates arguably Shakespeare’s most lasting legacy on the English language – the popularization of completely made-up words. Some words he just mashed together, some he stole and bastardized from other languages, and others he just made up completely. That’s the kind of English maverick he was. He didn’t care about the current rules; he broke the rules constantly and made you like it.[1]

But back to the Internet – over the course of a decade, it’s spawned a cavalcade of new words. Email, for example, or log on, blog, and (shudder) webinar. But the meme community has also spawned some very sticky catchphrases that have, (perhaps) against all odds, conquered the general American English landscape. Perhaps most noticeable is the word “fail,” once a verb, now nouned into existence (often found with the superlative “epic” attached to it). This new usage of the word “fail” has become the new “-gate” for many journalists (think goodness). Even people who have only a perfunctory access to the Internet are familiar with the term. And now, as memes continue its expanding pervasiveness, an entire generation of high school students now say things out loud like “I can has x?” or “y all the z!” or “like a sir” or “why you no x!” Even popular phrases such as “true story”, “I lied!” or “oh God why” have taken on new meaning thanks to the Internet memes of the world.

Yes, some people will look at this as some wholesale genocide against the English language, but I would counter that the pure joy and appeal of using such phrases is its subversive nature against the English language. People began employing terrible English because they well understood the rules of language. It’s why turns of phrase like “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” or “The play’s the thing, to catch the conscience of the king” or “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try” tickle the fancies of English lovers everywhere. These sentences bend and break the general syntax structure; they play with grammar and vocabulary and connotations of words. They defy general expectations of what English is supposed to look and sound like. And that’s why poorly written English memes have become so popular as well.

Sure, over time, the memes will lose their punch and soon people will use them as everyday language, even when they don’t understand where the phrase derived its meaning, or why it was so popular in the first place. Many of Shakespeare’s manipulations and innovations within the English language are also duly employed by many everyday English speakers everywhere without a second thought to their originator. Many strange phrases in English are like that, such as “turn of phrase” or “bee’s knees” or “between a rock and a hard place,” employed by many, its history and implications understood only by a few. That’s the way English evolves.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Internet memes is the accidental nature of it all. I doubt that the very first person to utilize the nounified version of the word “fail” did it deliberately, savoring in the delicious, poetic deviance of it all. In fact, this very popular usage most likely was born out of ignorance or, ha, an English fail. But the English speaking community in turn appropriated it for their own as a flagship of Internet speak, if you will, a dialect that created a sense of identity and belonging that mutated into a widely popular new usage of a very old word. The War on English that the Internet is waging (which many assert is happening) is not necessarily a wave of barbarians beating on the Hadrian’s Wall of the English-speaking Rome (this metaphor just got weird). Rather, it is the age-old war between dialects, a verbal rebellion against the authorities-that-be who seek to control and preserve language for their own purposes while rarely understanding why.

But sweeping, romantic linguistic ideology aside, if anything, the vast popularity of the Internet meme (and its ability to invade the English langauge offline) has proved the old adage that a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the works of William Shakespeare. While, perhaps, we have not seen the exact wording of Shakespeare produced by the incessant pounding of a billion bloggers at their keyboards, we have seen the spirit of Shakespeare and his adventurous, subversive use of the English language emerge from the ruthless environment of billions of memes competing against each other until the very best (or, at the very least, the most infectious) rise to the top and proliferate into our language. It is, you could say, an almost beautiful accidental poetry.

________________________________

[1] In fact, that’s how you could term all of Shakespeare’s career – a giant love affair with the English language. In his first play, Love’s Labours Lost, he fires the warning shots with the character Holofernes, a side act for the main story, involving a bunch of over-educated pedants dicussing the English language and how horrible everyone is and how awesome they are. Holofernes, the most pretentious of them all, talking about someone else’s English speaking:

He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer
than the staple of his argument. I abhor such
fanatical phantasimes, such insociable and
point-devise companions; such rackers of
orthography, as to speak dout, fine, when he should
say doubt; det, when he should pronounce debt,–d,
e, b, t, not d, e, t: he clepeth a calf, cauf;
half, hauf; neighbour vocatur nebor; neigh
abbreviated ne. This is abhominable,–which he
would call abbominable: it insinuateth me of
insanie: anne intelligis, domine? to make frantic, lunatic.

The true irony (which Shakespeare may or may not have intended) is that Holofernes’ practice of pronouncing the ‘b’ in ‘debt’ and so forth have fallen mostly out of favor, even though he would swear up and down until he was blue in the face that we are mangling the English language. Such is the way language goes.

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A (humorous) meditation on death, loss, and fatherhood at two in the morning

It sounded like a cross between gagging for air and a forced, scratchy cry. My wife and I immediately jumped out of bed, sprinting towards the baby’s room. We flung upon the door and snapped on the lights. My wife pulls my son out of the crib. Normally a heavy sleeper, he is completely motionless.

“No no no no no no no no no no no no no no,” we stammer continually. I force my finger into his mouth, trying to detect any sign of breath. His eyes flicker open and he cries once, more out of annoyance than anything else.

“Oh, thank God,” I say, breathing in deeply. He wriggles in my wife’s arms, elated that both of his parents wanted to play so badly, they had waken him up (rather than the other way around).

“Want to stay up a bit with him, just to make sure he’s okay?” my wife asks. I nod. We take him back to our room, where he crawls over us, clapping and laughing.

I have had several brushes with death before. Once, while swimming in the ocean, a massive wave overpowered me, and the undertow dragged me across the sand, holding me under the water and unwilling to let go. I finally popped up for air and staggered to shore, bruised and cut. Another time, while hiking up a waterfall, I watched my friend lose his grip and slide uncontrollably towards the bottom. We watched helplessly until he thankfully caught hold of a root sticking out of the waterfall’s rocky face, from which he climbed back to safety. Another time, I collapsed while hiking up a hill towards a Buddhist temple in Korea. My mind realized as my whole body contracted into a ball, tingling and unable to breathe, that perhaps I might die. I was oddly at peace, but remembered that I had just started dating my first girlfriend (and future wife) two weeks ago, and she would be furious that I died while away and that maybe I should fight for life instead of giving up. Lucky for the both of us, I was spared.

This brush of death (or the perception thereof) was something wholly different, a completely new monster. I have rarely felt such a mind-numbing, awful terror that gripped my brain and heart and lungs with so much ferocity. At the birth of my son, I wondered if I would ever be one of those parents who would jump into a burning building to save his child. The thought seemed so foreign, so difficult to comprehend. At that moment; I got my answer. I would have done anything to hear my son cry again, even take my own life. There was no question.

I contemplate this new feeling, equal parts awe-inspiring and terrifying. My wife and I are silent as my son climbs on our legs and arms, a solemn assembly of parents who had just experienced (if only briefly) our new, absolutely worst nightmare.

Then we heard the sound again, loudly, outside of our window. We looked at each other.

“A cat!” we hissed together. Relief floods into our faces, then embarrassment. My son giggles, as if to gently laugh at us. The clock reads 2 a.m. I’m just glad it’s the weekend, because (as predicted) my son decided to stay up for two more hours before going back to bed.

“Oh, my son,” I whisper into his hair as I hold him close. “I’m so glad you’re okay. You have no idea. But seriously. You need to go back to bed.” He patted my cheek condescendingly, then crawled away to play with a ball of yarn.

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Following adventure

My son crawled swiftly over to the bookcase and started pulling out books one by one and throwing them onto the floor around him. I shook off my shocked expression and swooped in, grabbing him and pulling a copy of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy out of his mouth. This had never happened before; ever since he started crawling, it seemed every day was a new episode of the What Can I Put Into My Mouth Show. I looked grimly at the bookcases as my son wriggled and protested. I would have to reorganize them so that all of the important, valuable books were on top.

My personal library is the closest thing you can get to peering into my soul. It’s developed organically over the years, collecting into a certain order developed over years of tinkering. Now, I would have to redo it all if I didn’t want my son gnawing on my 1950 edition of an RLDS Book of Mormon or the books I “borrowed” from my father’s library. Somehow, it felt like desecration to me, another significant part (and loss) of my life in upheaval from the arrival of my son.

That’s really what parenting is about, drastically reorganizing your life to make room for another. Somehow, marrying my wife was much easier — we meshed our libraries together with very little overlap and yet with great mutual interest. My wife has since then read (and been horrified) by my copy of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and I’ve read her copy of The Chronicles of Prydain series, which I had never heard of before I met her. Deciding to get married was a conscious choice on our part, made because we felt we were pretty compatible with each other. There was little reorganization.

But a baby — you don’t get to choose a baby. How I wish sometimes that my baby would sit still and look at his picture books with me. We could, father and son, sit on the couch together, reading books and exploring the world through literature and words and stuff. But no, he likes to climb on things with relish and crawl into trouble, a perfect foil to his adventure-adverse, neurotic, acrophobic father.

(If we were hobbits, my son would be an adventurous Baggins, while I would be a deplorable, cowardly Sackville-Baggins. Shameful, I know.)

A horrible thought crosses my mind. What if I hate what he likes to read, or worse yet, what if he doesn’t like to read at all? What if I introduce him to the things I love — Lord of the Rings, Avatar: The Last Airbender, board games, or CBC’s Wiretap — and he hates all of them? What if he likes other things, like sportsball statistics and cars and other testosterone laden activities?

My son is still wriggling under my arm, crying out angrily now, as I stand in front of the bookcase while this terrifying alternate-possible future flashes before me. I take a deep breath and put him down. He looks up at me. I smile at him. The answer seems simple, if difficult. I’ll just have to make room on the bookshelf for books on sportsball and cars and rock bands. And maybe I’ll have to overcome some of my more adventure adverse, neurotic, acrophobic (and really, lots-of-things-phobic) tendencies to hang out with my son. I let out a deep sigh. I can compartmentalize phobias, right? Right?

My son is tugging at my pants, as if to say thank you. I know it’s ridiculous — to think that my baby not only has the cognitive ability to understand the turmoils of an uncertain, nervous parent but also to read my mind — but the delusion is comforting. I pick him up, and lower my forehead at him. He bumps mine with his and laughs.

“How about this book?” I ask, pulling one out. “Look, this is a monkey — wait a second, that’s a picture of a chimpanzee, but it says ‘Monkey.’ Chimps aren’t monkeys; they’re apes! This book is wrong!”

My son patiently sits for a couple of minutes as I furiously page through the picture book for more inaccuracies. Eventually, he wriggles out of my grasp and crawls away, off to find something else to climb and some new trouble to adventure into, and I follow behind him, nervously, close behind.

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We are all a bunch of babies

Parenting, I admit, has made me incredibly jaded.

Specifically, parenting has made me jaded towards children (babies, especially). But it has also made me jaded towards humanity as a whole, too, which is a feat considering I had managed to maintain a cheery, upbeat attitude towards humanity until now.

Actually, let me back up a bit.

Our culture tends to fetishize children. We ascribe a certain type of wisdom to children, one which can pierce through the guile and treachery of adulthood, revealing the heart of the matter. We argue that they are pure and innocent, that they are wildlife preserves that deserve the most utmost protection from anything nasty, even though the very world we’ve brought them into is the epitome of just that sometimes. Our Church culture, especially, promotes this fetish, mostly because of scriptural stories of Jesus saying we should be like little children, that heaven is made up of little children, and just in general being very protective about little children.

Now, I’m not saying that Jesus didn’t like children. I’m pretty sure he loves all of the children, like he says. But now that I am dealing with a child every day of my life, I have begun to wonder how Jesus actually thinks of us.

I cannot wait until my child grows up. I do not understand how parents can look back on these years with any kind of affection or wonderment (maybe I will later, but I cannot see it now). These past three months have been one of the most difficult months of my life. I rarely get more than four hours of sleep. My train of thought is generally interrupted at least once every thirty minutes by a wail that could chill the blood of a Nazgul. There are large stretches of my life where I am at the mercy of this baby, feeding him (and thus rendering myself useless; it is incredibly hard to do anything without hands), changing him, dressing him, bathing him, playing with him.

Meanwhile, this child could be termed as ungrateful, if he could even feel the difference between ingratitude and gratitude. Babies are a bundle of nerve cells and a very strong, healthy id. Everything the baby does involves him communicating to me that he wants something and he wants something now. He will scream until he gets it. And sometimes he doesn’t want anything. Sometimes, he is just tired, and all he does is scream. He can’t seem to calm himself down; I need to step in and soothe him and reassure him, and even then, he will struggle in my arms and scream at me as if it is all my fault. But eventually, he will calm down, and he will smile and coo at me as if the past hour scream marathon never happened.

There are many times in the day when I will stare into the eyes of my son. I love him fiercely, something that hurts physically sometimes, as if all the emotion in me is squeezed tightly in a vice. I will defend him to the death, if I have to, and perhaps my love will even reanimate me as an undead ghast in order for me to continue protecting my son. It’s that strong.

But there’s always this underlying baseline of frustration. My son begins to scream. I call out to him, let him know a bottle is forthcoming, and he only screams harder. Sometimes, he’s too busy screaming to even notice that I am trying to feed him. What a baby.

Yes, I stare into his eyes and think, This is how God sees us. We are a bunch of babies, a pack of humans that are bundle of nerves and very strong, healthy id. We scream and cry and howl and that’s all we do. I’m sure of it; we are a bunch of babies. And therein lies the predicament God finds himself in. “Come, let us reason together,” he says. Instead, we just scream at him harder, because there is no reasoning with a baby.

Babies are rarely cute. Well, my baby is cute (this has been empirically proven), but most babies I just don’t find that cute anymore. Maybe it’s that lingering baseline of irritation. Maybe constant exposure has taken the shine off of it. But babies are not cute. Babies are infuriating. Babies are ridiculous. But, very importantly, babies represent potential. Unlimited potential.

I’m excited for when my baby grows up. Then I can say, “Come, let us reason together,” and he’ll say, “Just keep the heals coming dad, then we’ll talk,” because we’re playing games. We can talk about religion. I can tell him about my experience and tell him about folklore and language and he will understand. Someday, he will be my equal and peer. He will develop from a screaming id to an adult, with passions and interests and sorrows and joys. We will share them together.

Within us lies a powerful potential as well. God did not create us with the intention of using us as his mere playthings, and I don’t think he really desires us to stay babies. He wants us to be like children, because children hold potential. They are a wellspring of opportunities that unfold slowly over time. God wants equals, peers which he can share creation with. He wants us to reason with him, to converse with him. He wants us to understand as he does. The problem is, we’re sometimes too busy screaming to realize that. But that’s okay; he’s patient. He can wait. He realizes that sometimes all you can do is wait for your child to stop screaming and notice that the nourishment is already there.

There will be 7 billion people on this Earth by the end of the year. 7 billion mouths to feed, 7 billion mouths screaming at God for something. God resides in yonder heavens on a golden throne of holy fire, but sometimes I wonder if every now and then, as he sees us, wailing miserably and selfishly, he feels like he’s in hell.

I am only just beginning to understand you, o Lord, as well as my own imperfections. Forgive me of my screaming and tantrums, for I know now what I do sometimes. Hopefully, it’s a phase, and I’ll grow out of it.

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Mormons, Hipsters, and how we forgot about Jesus

My friend David and I have a sort of dueling blogs kind of relationship. He writes over at Catchy Title Goes Here, and we tend to have pretty divergent views on Mormon culture and how it should interact with the world around us. I guess we can get away with this sort of thing because we avoid name-calling and we’ve known each other since forever.

Recently, our circle of friends is talking about the New York Times article To Be Young, Hip, and Mormon. My friend David talked about how he felt this was an affront to what the Church stood for, that it’s just an article about how to compromise with the world and avoid following certain commandments:

And the most offensive part of the article was at the end where the New York Times writes about What the Church Says and How to Get Around It. The very idea that you want to “get around” the commandments and doctrines of the church, just so that you can fit in with the cool kids, is just unthinkable to me. Either you are a Mormon, you want to be a part of the faith, you want to believe and accept the tenets of this faith, or you do not. And if you do not, then don’t. No big deal. There’s no one forcing you to be Mormon, there’s nothing, other than social pressure, which is, ironically, the only thing encouraging people to be hipster.

The offending portion is in the end of the article, where they write a tl;dr version:

Rebelling, If Only Just a Little

WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS

Many adult Mormons follow the practice of wearing the temple garment, which for men, means long boxer briefs and a scoop-neck T-shirt and, for women, knee-length shorts and a top with cap sleeves.

HOW TO GET AROUND IT

For men, tank tops are out, but you can stay on-trend in a button-down plaid shirt, rolled selvedge jeans and boat shoes. For women, one popular option is the “Zooey Deschanel look” — ruffled blouse, bow collar and a high-waisted pencil skirt.

WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS

Mormons are told not to “disfigure” themselves “with tattoos or body piercing.”

HOW TO GET AROUND IT

Cover up the tattoos or at least try a compromise, like getting a tattoo of a beehive, a Mormon symbol of working together for the common good.

WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS

No beards on missionaries or Brigham Young University students.

HOW TO GET AROUND IT

An allergic reaction to shaving, demonstrated by razor bumps, can score you a “beard card” at B.Y.U.

WHAT THE CHURCH SAYS

No consumption of alcohol, even at social functions.

HOW TO GET AROUND IT

Drink Pellegrino and don’t bother to correct other party guests who assume you are in recovery.

What I found so interesting about all of this is that outside of the tattoo advice (which blatantly defies the “no tattoos” rule our Church has), none of this actually advocates breaking any of the commandments. A beard card is a legitimate tool at BYU for wearing beards. No one said anything about altering or forgoing garments; they suggested clothing options that were still “hipster” yet modest. And nobody advocates drinking at parties; the author advocates drinking fancy bubbly water. In fact, if you simply changed the setting (say, for some bizarre reason, this appeared in the Ensign), this is all legitimate advice in being a faithful member but participating in this subculture (which, for some reason, you wanted to).

I actually found this to be a fun, if not somewhat banal, fluff piece. Why the New York Times is interested in Mormon hipsters (outside of the incongruity with our public image and the hipster fashion movement) is beyond me. Why do they care so much about us? I suppose we really are experiencing some kind of Mormon Moment.

However, a lot of people were really offended by this (or at least upset). David wasn’t the only one; my “Mormon Folks” Google Plus circle was all a-Buzz (see what I did there?) with commentary on this article, mostly negative. They view this as compromising our Church’s core values with the desires of the world. And this is the part I get upset about, for two primary reasons.

First of all, let’s not pretend that the Church has never compromised our core values with the world (see also: Polygamy). Speaking of the document that is now known as the Manifesto (and is actually, very curiously, canon), then-current Church President Woodruff wrote about the Lord’s justification on why we stopped practicing polygamy — the opposition was too much. We’d lose control of our temples; all of our leaders would be jailed; the entire religious movement would collapse under the strain. The impetus was revelation, that God said it was okay, but the explicit justification given (by God, if you are inclined to believe so) is to compromise to the pressure of the world.

Or let’s even talk about tattoos. In certain cultures (such as in Polynesia), tattoos are a vitally important part of their society. It marks rank, age, social prestige, etc. So what did the Church do when large numbers of Polynesians joined the Church? They compromised. Polynesian men can still get tattoos which are important to their culture and standing in society, but with Church permission on a case-by-case basis. This is hardly a strong, black-and-white stance that we often advocate here in the United States.

Now, yes. The key point to every Mormon here is that all of these “exceptions,” if you want to call them that, are regulated by the Church ecclesia proper. Yes. But there are other compromises that were not exactly brought about by revelation. In the beginning, the early Church Fathers taught vehemently against the idea of rampant capitalism; they taught that the nuclear family (a product of the Industrial Revolution) destroyed traditional kinship relationships and was a product of selfishness. They taught that communitarianism was more important than making money. Well, we’ve mostly forgotten those lessons. Sure, you see shades of it here and there, but we’ve actually gone and sacralized the nuclear family structure (See also: Proclamation to the World: The Family) and a good part of States Mormons embrace capitalism wholeheartedly.

Or take women and working. Twenty years ago, President Ezra Taft Benson said by no circumstance should women ever work outside the home. Ever. Then, in the 2000s, we had prophets saying it’s okay when necessary, but should be avoided. Now, in the 2010s, we have an I’m A Mormon ad celebrating a Mormon who is…you guessed it, a working mom who loves her job and doesn’t intend on quitting any time soon.

But this is not what really irks me and really more of a side point than anything else. Here’s my real beef and my second point. The New York Times article is banal and trivial; don’t get me wrong. I think it’s a fluff piece and nothing more. I think the whole hipster movement is kind of ridiculous. But that’s the thing. Our negative responses by and large have done the same thing — we’ve reduced our vibrant, beautiful faith into a banal list of outward appearances.

The advice in the article is really, really shallow. Mormonism isn’t about beards and blouses and skinny jeans and glasses and drinking sparkling water at loft parties and tattoos. Not really. Mormonism is about a beautiful cosmology, about a God who is our Father and who loves us, who sent His Son to die for us in an attempt to save us all from our wretched natures and exalt us to his level. We believe in a religion that not only saves us, but extends the salvic power of Jesus through the chains of our ancestors and our descendants, in infinite web of humanity all embraced and linked together through the power of God so that we can all become kin, and all re-enter into our inheritance as the offspring of deity.

Nowhere in the article (or in the complaints) is this idea. The article is not advocating denouncing Jesus, or abandoning baptism or membership. They’re talking about wearing modest clothing and still looking hipster, for Pete’s sake. And here in lies the Big Problem, both for our perception to the outside world, and our own perceptions of ourselves.

What makes a Mormon Mormon? Is it the way he dresses? What she drinks and where and why? Is it whether or not she has a tattoo or whether or not he has a beard? God forbid this is what we think of ourselves. But this small slip reveals a lot — we don’t require that you just believe in Mormonism, you need to look the part, too. Which I think is sad. How sad is it that we see a guy with a beehive tattoo and we think, “He must not believe in the core doctrines of this Church.” How sad is it when we see a girl drinking sparkling water at a loft party and dodging questions about why she doesn’t drink to avoid social scorn and then looks dejected when everyone else around her is drunk and she’s not having any fun, we think “She has no moral values. I bet she doesn’t even believe in Jesus.” Because that’s what we’re saying. We’re drawing the line in the sand on what makes you a “good” Mormon, and it’s not what you believe, but it’s apparently how you dress and your attitudes towards loft parties.

Sure, people will extrapolate motivations from actions. If you want to get a tattoo but the prophet told you not to, then you obviously believe in the prophet. But then again, I’ve yet to meet a Mormon who is perfect in everything the prophets tell you to do (in fact, every General Conference, my feeds are flooded with Mormons publicly confessing that they could always do better). Whence did all this judgment come from? And why do we keep doing it?

We’re all sinners here. To pull an old card from classic evangelic street preaching, have you ever lied? Have you ever thought an inappropriate thought? Have you ever called your brother a fool? Then you have sinned, and we all stand in need of the atonement of Christ. I love the I’m A Mormon ad campaign precisely because it broadens the idea of what it means to be a Mormon. Sure, they hook you in with the fact that this guy is an edgy photographer, or this guy makes handmade books, or this lady raises bees or this guy skateboards professionally. But when you get to the center, what makes them Mormon? Is it the leisure activities they do? No. It’s what they believe. It’s how they structure their worldview, and what they hope for in this life and the life to come. That’s what makes you a Mormon.

But we’ve yet to absorb the message. We ignore the message entirely, in fact, and often descend into a destructive, futile attempt at brand control. When a newspaper writes a fluff piece about Mormons trying to look hipster while trying to keep the faith and working around commandments that clash with their cultural surroundings in the least conflicting way possible, suddenly we descend, upset and angry, that they have somehow misrepresented us, as if Mormons struggling to blend in with the crowd while maintaining their faith makes you imperfect, a sinner, less than us, and unworthy to carry the Mormon name. The fact that an article which never mentions their faith in Jesus but mentions maybe getting a tattoo or complaining that loft parties aren’t fun (don’t our “strong” youth always complain about how worldly parties aren’t fun in the New Era anyway? When did this suddenly become a sin?) gets us so riled up is sort of telling, and what it’s telling is not pretty. In fact, to me, it’s really ugly.

We’re all trying. And every day, we have to make little compromises here and there, in hopes that our neighbors don’t burn down our houses and drive us out of the country to, oh, I dunno, Nunavut or something. Our compromises just aren’t visible ones; we’re the lucky Mormons. Let’s have a little bit of faith and a little bit of charity. Even for hipsters.

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What part of the brain is agency located?

A massive foundation of Mormon thought and theology rests on the firm rejection of predestination, the idea that God has already chosen who will and who will not go to heaven before the end of someone’s mortal life. Rather, we espouse the idea that we are free agents unto ourselves, and we work out our salvation with fear and trembling on an individual level. God cannot force anyone to heaven, and He coaxes us through love and kindness.

This idea of agency permeates our theology more than many Mormons might realize. It is our solution to the Problem of Evil (and a better one than most Christian theologies can offer). It’s also the basis of our rejection of Original Sin, a very important Christian concept (and also the basis of our rejection of infant baptism). It’s really quite the game changer.

Which then makes cases like Phineas Gage hard to, well, process and understand.

Phineas Gage was a railroad worker who lived in the 1860s. During work, he was struck by, ironically, a large iron rod, and by struck I mean it went clean through his head, destroying his left frontal lobe. Whereas before he was a most conscientious worker, a kind person, and a devoted family man, he became erratic, irresponsible, and seemingly incapable of making any kind of good decision. His professional life suffered greatly, as well as his personal life. In essence, though Phineas Gage the biological organism survived, it’s arguable that Phineas Gage the personality had long been destroyed.

Phineas Gage is used often in psychology textbooks around the world as the  classic example of how personality, as well as the ability to make decisions, is often rooted in biological causes.[1] This also raises some very profound theological questions for Mormons, specifically, (1) did Phineas Gage lose his agency?, (2) how easy is it to hamper the use of agency?, and (3) how much is agency connected to biological constraints outside of our personal control?

To address the first question, I believe most Mormons would say that severe brain damage certainly leads to a loss of agency, especially when it’s accompanied with such drastic personality changes. This falls into line with the idea that mentally handicapped children, for example, cannot exercise full agency and so fall under the category of “without the law” and are automatically covered by the Atonement of Jesus Christ (per Jacob and Moroni).

The second question falls into more chilling territory. Situations such as children dying at an early age (before the age of eight) and children born with mental disabilities such as Down Syndrome are what some might call “extreme” cases. Outside of these unusual circumstances, the Mormon standpoint argues that the vast majority of people in the world still can and do exercise their agency. But can someone else take it away? Gage’s condition came about by an accident, but what if it was intentional? The thought certainly seems frightening.

Of course, there are less extreme implications. What about age, such as dementia? As people get older, and some develop signs of dementia, does their agency diminish? As our understanding of psychological conditions, ranging from depression to anxiety to manic depressive disorder to psychopathy to just plain old neurosis, and their connection to real deficiencies in the body rooted in the physical realm (and not just an attack of a spiritual or more ethereal emotional nature) increases, how do we judge their effects on agency? Is someone truly free if they suffer from dangerous mood swings? And if psychotropic drugs solve the problem, it brings up a new problem, which comes to port full steam with the third question.

As Mormons, we acknowledge that agency can be taken away for biological reasons. We’ve already mentioned early childhood death and mental disabilities. We also acknowledge that substances which alter our brain chemistry can rob us of our agency, which is where a big defense for the Word of Wisdom comes from. Addictive substances such as alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and most illegal drugs will steal away our ability to make decisions, be our own masters, and also to listen to the whisperings of the Holy Ghost.[2]

From here, it’s really not a large leap of faith (or logic) that there are reasons we lose agency that might not necessarily be our fault. We’ve already discussed psychological disorders, such as depression, dementia, manic depressive disorder, and psychopathy, which all often have deep biological causes.[3] But we have not yet discussed the plasticity of the brain in reaction to not just other chemicals (via nicotine, caffeine, or Percocet) but also to emotional events. For example, we acknowledge that children (and adults) who undergo traumatic, stressful events suffer some kind of psychic, emotional damage. How in control (or, in other words, how much agency) does a Vietnam veteran suffering from terrible Post Traumatic Stress Disorder really have? And if a teenager who has had a troubled past suffering consistent abuse (whether physical, emotional, or sexual, or a combination) falls into trouble, or has a difficult time trusting authority figures or making good decisions, how much really lies in the fault of the teenager?[4]

People will accuse me of trying to absolve blame from guilty parties, but that is not the point (though that is a good question to consider — if we acknowledge that agency must be present for true guilt to also be present, how much guilt should we assign to those who may lack some grade of agency?). There is a more fundamental, troublesome consequence of what we’ve observed to be true as far as the human brain is concerned: If agency is such a fundamental part of God’s plan, why did God make agency such an incredibly fragile thing? A person’s ability to choose can be stolen away by a freak accident on a railroad, and, in some cases, people are not born with the capability for agency at all.[5] What are we to conclude when God presents a plan where agency is paramount, and yet creates conditions in which so quickly it can slip out of our grasp without any fault of our own?

I present not these questions to argue against the Plan of Salvation (I am a huge fan of the Plan of Salvation), but rather I point out these questions to perhaps fill in gaps that we have left unfilled, or to re-examine what we believe to know about the plan in order to truly account for who is accountable. Justice and mercy cannot be fully exercised otherwise, and we may unwittingly be condemning too many of our brothers and sisters for actions that may possibly be out of control. In fact, it’s arguable whether we really have much control at all.[6]
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[1] Whenever I mention to people in church that I enjoy studying psychology, I often get suspicious looks. One member asked if it was possible to be a good, believing Mormon and a psychologist at the same time. I believe that it is potentially world-turned-upside-down, status-quo-challenging questions like these that makes psychology unpopular amongst a church with a strong, rigid, hierarchical structure and obsession of eternal doctrine consistency.

[2] This seems to suggest that an ability to commune with God could be based in a biological component (if biological substances can hamper Spirit reception, certainly that means Spirit reception is based somehow biologically). This would explain how many of my friends who suffer from depression mention that they have never had a prayer answered in their entire lives, despite (very) desperate attempts to do so.

[3] I say “often” because of depression. I understand that it is common for people to feel depressed, especially after the death of a loved one, or some other similar traumatic experience. This depression definitely has a biological component, but often goes away on its own. This is very different from the deep-seated, extremely debilitating depression that has strong biological components that simply cannot be “prayed” away.

[4] I have often had people tell me free will does exist; otherwise, how could you have two different people in the same situation but grow up to be so different? For example, some people who come from abusive families vow to break the cycle of violence (and succeed) while others try to break the cycle of violence (and don’t succeed) and others simply (sadly) continue the cycle of violence unhampered. Certainly, free will plays into the occasion. Well, perhaps not entirely. There is an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO) which regulates the breakdown of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. In The Personality Puzzle by David Funder, “A gene that promotes the action of MAO in breaking down these neurotransmitters seem to help prevent the development of delinquency among children who have been maltreated (Caspi et al., 2002; Moffit, 2005).” While this doesn’t mean everything is determined by genetics, it does suggest that even those success stories who overcame difficult origins against all odds may have had help from their biological makeup, something outside of their immediate control, and the inverse should be true — some people’s genes seem to simply stack the odds against them even more.

[5] The trickier problem occurs not in people whom we readily acknowledge to have no agency, but people who may have only been born with (to put it crudely) 50%, 40%, 30%, or even just 15% agency than the average person. Where do we draw the line between accountable and unaccountable? While judging is strictly for the Lord and we are told to refrain from such activity, the cold, hard truth is that the ecclesiastical church must judge, specifically for disciplinary reasons (though also for activities like temple recommend interviews). And when someone is disciplined or denied blessings, rumors start and harsh, hurtful judging begins, even if the fault may lie in “faulty” genes, such as someone born with Down Syndrome.

[6] There’s a fascinating cognitive experiment which recording the typing speed of professional typists. A most surprising result was that the typist would actually hesitate (albeit, for only milliseconds) before typing a typo (that is, hitting the wrong key). However, the typist would still make the typo. This suggests that the brain understands for those split milliseconds it’s about to make a mistake, but for some reason (momentum, perhaps?) makes the mistake anyway. Theologically, the results mirror Jesus’ charitable observation on his overzealous apostles that the spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak. This also resembles (in an exaggerated way) the one instance where no person has any choice in the matter — we will all sin. It’s a decree from God; it’s what makes the Atonement necessary in Christianity. In this one area, we must all abdicate our agency, or at the very least, understand that there may be more powerful biological (fleshy?) forces at work here that override any pitiful attempts on our part to exercise our agency.

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