Naughty and Nice

You know how you can’t swing a dead cat in Church without smacking into someone talking about how wicked our day is?

Something about that . . . not sitting quite right with me. Can’t quite put my finger on it. Until this morning, when I read this article by Patrick Stewart (who I’d like to drool over a little but can’t, what with my recent diatribe re: the Twimoms and Jacob, but, hey, at least he’s old enough to be my father instead of my son. Wait, is that worse? But I digress.). Money quote:

Worse, there were those who condoned the abuse. I heard police or ambulancemen, standing in our house, say, “She must have provoked him,” or, “Mrs Stewart, it takes two to make a fight.”

Lightbulb: that’s why those “we live in a wicked age” statements bother me. I do not dispute that our age is a wicked, depraved one by certain measures. But by other measures, it is almost unimaginably better than the Good Olde Days. Better if you are an abused woman. Better, for that matter, if you are any woman. Better if you have a disability or a mental illness. Better if you are a member of a racial minority group. Better if you aren’t a fan of smallpox or typhus; better if you are partial to clean water or mass literacy.

I understand that those “wicked like unto Sodom” statements are a convenient Mormon shorthand for talking about a world where little girls have the word “juicy” splashed across their bottoms and only slightly older boys click through to things that I can’t even imagine. But I’m concerned that the shorthand unintentionally creates room for a perverse kind of nostalgia that remembers only the stable, happy families from days of yore and forgets what a whole host of “isms” inflicted on the families of everyone else.

This reminds me of Helaman 7:7-8:

Oh, that I could have had my days in the days when my father Nephi first came out of the land of Jerusalem, that I could have joyed with him in the promised land; then were his people easy to be entreated, firm to keep the commandments of God, and slow to be led to do iniquity; and they were quick to hearken unto the words of the Lord—Yea, if my days could have been in those days, then would my soul have had joy in the righteousness of my brethren.

This passage is an almost laughably inaccurate description of Nephi’s day. So apparently selective historical memory is not new. I am grateful that so many other things are.

47 comments for “Naughty and Nice

  1. I agree 100%. I would not want to return to the 50’s or earlier. I have heard a couple of General Authortiies state that when they say they want a return to “the good ‘ol days” they don’t mean the days of racism, etc. They mean a return to old fashioned virtues such as chastity, fidelity, loyalty, honor, duty, etc. None of those virtues are prevalent in today’s society. Can you imagine a woman taking off her clothes on prime time TV in the 50’s? I watched just that on a show last night (commercial network TV, 9:00). Can you imagine a man and woman, not married, in the same bed in the 50’s? I watched that last night,also.These are the days of wickedness and vengeance spoken of in the scriptures. Our society is ripened in iniquity. But I’d rather live today and not see women abused, racism practiced openly, and other political atrocities like McCarthy of the 50’s.

  2. Julie,

    I think that Larry makes a useful point, one that gets at exactly what it is that members of the Church are referring to when they decry the amount of wickedness in the world. It is that the incidence of wickedness has not necessarily increased, but our exposure to it has. Both of Larry’s examples have to do with things he saw on TV. Nevertheless, women did take off their clothes and sleep with men with whom they were not married in the 1950s. Further, you could see plenty of nudity in pre-Code movies (back in the 30s and 40s). Larry is correct to point out that “immorality” is more often portrayed, even glorified, in mass media. But I don’t think that means there is actually more immorality out there. Further, by the same logic Larry uses, we can conclude that ours is the most pious age in the history of the world, since I have BYU TV on my satellite, as well as 5-10 other Christian TV channels, something no other civilization has (not) enjoyed to date.

  3. I believe it was C. S. Lewis in “The Screwtape Letters” who has Wormwood talk about how the devils adjust their approach to different times and cultures.

    I have no desire to go back and live in an earlier time; I’m too enamored of our social and technological progress. At the same time, I really do believe it’s getting harder to raise kids in righteousness. Sandra and I saw a dramatic shift in what our kids had to deal with during the 20 years we spent raising teenagers, and we have great sympathy for our kids now raising kids of their own.

    One can wish for a more moral and righteous society without rolling back the clock. I firmly believe the Millennium will be far more advanced both socially and technologically than our current day. But, in the end, even that period will not be immune to Satan. ..bruce..

  4. ah, nostalgia for the way we never were…

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Julie.

    The good old days weren’t so good for most people. I’m not sure that the world is getting any more wicked, even if it is getting wicked in different ways. After all, on a lot of measures, the world is a better place now than in the past. Crime is certainly down, for one.

  5. I also have had difficulty about that subject. I do try to politely point out that some things in the world have gotten better even though some things have gotten worse. It is difficult, however, when someone is trying to make their point about how horrible things are right now.
    Unfortunately, there really are areas that parents really can legitimately be a little nostalgic about the good old days. I still remember adults whining about how the world had changed and it didn’t used to be like that. I’d roll my eyes and think they should just get used to it and get over it. Now, though, I get it, because just when I get used to something being the new normal (about sexual morality or how it is portrayed on the radio or on TV or in a movie, for instance) it changes AGAIN and I have to adjust AGAIN about what is apparently acceptable in the world today.

  6. Thanks for this, Julie. Excellent. Except that you’ve sort of stole some of the thunder from a post I was about to do. So I can’t thank you for that.

  7. Elder Perry quoted Ronald Reagan in the last conference as saying he did not want to go back to the past but the past way of overcoming challenges. I think that is a good quotation. After all, it was our parents and grandparents who overcame the racism and other bad stuff, not us. The 50s and the 60s were the end of one era and the beginning of another, not a monolithic era of its own.

    Personally, I have always felt that the fault of the 1960s is that many tried to throw the baby (our core values) out with the dirty bathwater.

    But what I find interesting is that many Latter-day Saints don’t seem to be worried as much about the immorality that our priesthood leaders constantly decry; instead, they look to economic conditions, fears about society and alleged political corruption as the indicators of wickedness. And yet we know that in material and political terms, the world and U.S. are more free and prosperous right this minute than they ever have been in the long past. Violence due to wars has gone way, way down (several thousand casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan does not compare to 1 million in the battle of the Somme or thousands of deaths within minutes at Gettysburg). People freak out about swine flu but 50 million people died of the flu 90 years ago and somehow society survived. Crimes against children are down but parents don’t’ even let their kids walk to school. I am inclined to believe that the true challenge of our day is to choose the most important things and stick to core values when prosperity and technology seem to have eradicated many of the consequences of gluttony, wonton sex, etc.

    So why are “men’s hearts failing them”? I think its a combination of 1) having lost our moral compass in an age of credit health and wealth and 2)our choosing to listen to messengers of worry (Olbermann, Beck, Drudge, etc).

  8. I have no idea where the word “credit” came from…that was supposed to say “great” :)

  9. Kirk is still better than Picard, but great point. I never like the “wicked” talk because it seems so out of line with Hinckley’s teachings about how we live in such a fantastic wonderful time. I always loved that about him.

  10. Somehow I think those “wicked like unto Sodom” comments made by the members of the Church mean far than a mere concern over a world where “little girls have the word “juicy” splashed across their bottoms.”

    It’s true we often overlook many of the advances society has made. President Hinckley stated repeatedly how blessed we were to live in the time we do. In doing so, he often alluded to the fact that while wickedness is ever increasing, so also is righteousness, light, and knowledge. Contributions to technology and medicine, as well as advances in human rights and equality, are often overlooked or taken for granted, particularly by those of us too young to remember the days in which we had “to walk uphill both to and from school.” :) We have much to be grateful for.

    That said, I think we can oversimplify things by stating that an acknowledgment of an evergrowing gulf of wickedness is also somehow a condemnation of times past; or, that by so stating, we are somehow expressing a longing to turn back the clock. There is just as much danger in downplaying the moral degradation of the world as there is in having a lack of gratitude and appreciation for the things God has blessed us with in these modern times. Wickedness, however, is growing. That’s not an opinion. That’s scriptural, and has been attested to by modern day prophets. And, if we downplay that, there can grow a feeling of “all is well”; and a complacency can development about standing up to the evils of our times.

  11. Also, I think the scriptural reference you presented in Helaman only suits the argument on its surface.

    Nephi, the son of Helaman, lived in a time when wickedness reigned. No righteous leaders were found in government, secret combinations filled the land, and Nephi’s words fell on deaf ears. I believe he longed to live in the days of the Nephi of old in order to glory with “him”, being Nephi, and with those who followed Nephi and were quick to keep the commandments of God, being the Nephites. At least at that time, they had a righteous government (Nephi) and a group of people, mostly, seeking to uphold him and fight against wickedness (Lamanites). Nephi, son of Helaman, had neither of those.

  12. Very nicely said. And if I weren’t so vocal about my Twi-Mom issues, I should join you in a little Patric Stewart drooling. I always knew you had good taste.

  13. Julie, agree with the general sentiment. When people lament our wicked days, I often ask them what times, overall, would have been better. And I usually can’t get an answer.

  14. Ha, you’re so right about that Helaman quote.

    Personally, I’m glad I’m raising my children now. Once I had to give some sweet sister an earful when she was lamenting the wickedness of now and how glad she was her children were grown.

    And Chris Pine was a fun Kirk.

  15. I agree with you in so many ways…and yet…and yet….

    We have been told it will become harder to keep our covenants. There is a level of moral decrepitude that former generations have not seen, so I think there is something to the notion that there is something different about ‘our day’ compared to the past, at least in some ways.

    But as President Hinckley was always reminding us, there is also so much about which to be grateful and much good coming with the hard times. The positives of our day are helping the work move forward much more than ever before.

    My thought is perhaps that we can’t talk about one without talking about the other. If we are going to be sobered by the negative, we should be amazed by the positive. That whole opposition in all things thing.

    Oh, wait, I’m just repeating what Drew said. So what Drew said.

  16. I think the agency scriptures about opposition apply here as well. As more amazing tools become available at an exponential rate, the potential, latent and realized, for both good and evil increase simultaneously.

  17. H’mmm – I made a comment and it is not here. It was certainly not the type of comment that one would expect to be censored, so I am wondering if I forgot to hit the “submit comment” button.

  18. “In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, “[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized.” Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world. This change in sensibilities is just one example of perhaps the most important and most underappreciated trend in the human saga: Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.”

    That’s from Steven Pinker on the history of violence:

    Ever get the feeling that many of our church leaders are obsessed with sex?

  19. >There is a level of moral decrepitude that former generations have not seen

    An assertion without evidence…?

  20. if y’all think these days are bad, I recommend you read up on the 14th century. I think we’ve got it just slightly better.

  21. I really love the commentary you provided on the Helaman verses. I’ve often thought the same thing as I read those verses – but somehow never actually enunciated or wrote down the idea.

  22. As much as I love to joke that I wish the second coming would get here before my girls become teenagers, I have to agree with your opinion. Sometimes it is kind of popular to lament on how evil and wicked everything is.

    But at the same time, we have more temples now than ever. In the last year 10 new temples were announced. Although wickedness seems to be available everywhere we turn, we can also find more instances of righteousness, too.

    I agree with your message. And I can’t imagine life without the internet, cell phones, flushable toilets, and epidurals. (among other things)

    Thanks for the post.

  23. Don’t be so hard on yourself over the TwiMom/Patrick Stewart issue. You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. The fact that I find Mariska Hargitay to be exquisitely beautiful would in no way justify my participation in EQ parties wherein grown men drool and fawn over Hannah Montana. Neither does is prevent me from condemning (even theoretically) the same.

    Stellar post.

  24. Outstanding, Julie.

    Culture warriors often make the fundamental mistake of seeing the past through rose colored glasses, and then proceed from that point to make all kinds of erroneous conclusions.

    I once saw a letter from a bishop in rural Utah in the 1870s. He had written to Brigham Young to request some advice about what to do with all the wild youth in his ward. They were drinking applejack, gambling at horse races, and there were lots of shotgun weddings. At the time, I had a calling involving the youth in my ward and we had some of the same problems — word of wisdom, inappropriate entertainment, and chastity. It was an eye-opener to see that we weren’t the first ones to deal with these problems.

    In addition, it is useful to remember that the percentage of babies born out of wedlock was about the same in parts of colonial America as it is now.

  25. Also, for anyone inclined to believe that the Utah of 100 years ago didn’t have all kinds of moral problems, I strongly recommend reading Prostitution, Polygamy, and Power, from the University of Illinois Press. This book documents convincingly how prostitution was tolerated in Utah from the Manifesto until about 1920. Today we can’t imagine dozens of brothels operating within a few blocks of temple square, but our great-grandparents certainly could.

  26. Usually when LDS people are talking about how wicked the world has become they are talking about post sexual revolution cultural changes regarding chastity and family structure. You can clearly see in the data that a massive change has taken place in this area of the human exp in the West.

    I would agree that violence is way down worldwide in the past few decades esp. I have not seen any data regarding family violence. I would imagine its up since the sexual revolution since unstable families are statistically more likely to exp domestic violence. The counter argument is that both or culture and legal system have changed regarding domestic violence pushing rates down. I would be curios to see some data on this.

  27. Julie, I love that you highlighted those verses from Helaman.

    I first read them in the same manner when I wrote an undergrad paper on religion and civil life in eighteenth-century France. I came across grumblings from a Catholic Bishop, complaining about the number of people who slept during Mass, or who showed up late for the meeting, or who whispered constantly to each other, or who wandered out in the middle of a sermon. And he was complaining about the disregard for decorum, and chastity, during some of the summer festivals. And so on.

    A couple of weeks later I was reading that passage in Helaman and thought — wow! I doubt First Nephi would have characterized his time the way this Nephi does!

    It’s also worth pointing out that being mistaken about history didn’t disqualify Nephi son of Helaman from being entrusted with tremendous gifts from God. His authority from God was given in spite of his weaknesses and mistaken assumptions, not in the absence of them.

  28. The lamentations about the wickedness of the present day are usually associated with praise for this “choice” generation that was saved for these perilous latter days. It’s confusing: I thought I was in the reserved valiant generation, but now they’re saying that about my kids.

  29. I don’t disagree with you overall, Julie, but I might quibble with a few of your points. It’s better to be disabled now, for example—IF you survive through prenatal testing/abortion, and of course so many of those babies don’t. It’s indisputably better to be a privileged woman in a developed country—but human trafficking continues at a horrifying scale that is only made possible by modern globalization, so disadvantaged women in developing countries continue to be very vulnerable, maybe even moreso in certain contexts.

    Modernity is an accelerant for human nature, amplifying the good and the bad, because it distributes more power to more people. We’re more able to express our natures in material ways, both good and bad.

  30. Rosalynde, I’m going to quibble with your quibbles. Aborting disabled children can be a great evil, but I’m not certain that it is a greater evil than the methods used historically for dealing with disabled children (the midwife intervening, exposure, deposit at a convent or foundling hospital for neglect and a near-certain death before age one).

    Is there more human trafficking now than there was 200 years ago? I have no idea. Even if there is, we now have a consensus in western cultures that such a practice is abhorrent, which we, obviously and tragically, did not have 200 years ago.

  31. Julie based on my research there was a lot more human trafficking 200 years ago then today. Tens of millions of slaves were shipped by both European powers west and Arab slave traders east. Slaves heading to the sugar plantations in the Car. islands and South America where knowingly being sent to their deaths.

  32. “Modernity is an accelerant for human nature, amplifying the good and the bad”

    So how come we’re not burning cats anymore (see my previous comment)? Michael Vick aside, I think modern culture has reduced our taste for wanton cruelty and violence.

    Plus, things like ending the slave trade. I think it’s a bit twisted to think that premarital sex is worse than the slave trade.

  33. If anything, I think that the gap between the “world” and the Church of God (the righteous people, not a church organization, mind you; membership in a church has never made one a good person) is widening.

    OTOH, it’s sometimes easier to see the difference between the wicked and the righteous.

    We need to raise our kids so that their eyes are open very early and they have as much freedom to choose things that they can take responsibility for. That way they learn to choose and take responsibility; and they will, if they get a chance.

    So trying to bring our kids up in vacuum will not work in today’s society, IMO. One day they’ll step out in the world and go crazy one way or another.

  34. apropos the swinging of dead cats, Wiggers’ new Asbury biography suggests 18th-century Methodists were occasionally persecuted by people who struck them with dead cats. anyone have a clue where Julie M. Smith stands on Methodism?

  35. wondering, your comment makes me think of Norbert Elias’s work “The Civilizing Process,” a history of early modern manners that traces advancing thresholds of shame around violence and sex. In the end he basically chalks it up to state formation, as I recall. Anyway, it speaks to the same observation.

    I suppose one way to think about this problem is to what extent human nature is socially constructed. If anyone knows the answer to that question, please let me know.

  36. If one wonders how wicked our age is then only look at the idea that two consenting homosexual adults who have children would actually want the same legal rights that heterosexuals do!! The very idea! Good thing the Mormons are willing to spend millions of dollars and lots of effort to stop it. Oh the horror! Surely we must be in the last minutes of the last day….

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