Public Relations – “Spin” – Mitt Romney – How Will Mormonism Evolve? – Cognitive Dissonance

I just finished listening to an excellent CBC presentation with regard to the current state of culture, and a number of the factors that will influence where we go from here in that regard. You can find the program at…. Today is a work day for me, but I will jot down a few thoughts that were stimulated by CBC before hitting the books.

Edelman, the Mormon Church’s spin doctor, was interviewed. He talked about the importance of the democratization of information, and the radical and beneficial effects that will have with regard to our society. The Hinkster might want to talk to him about where this is headed. Or, the big H can call me. I won’t even charge for my advice.

The way in which the use of communications devices, and in particular video cell phones, are now used to transmit information from anywhere into the public consciousness was discussed at some length. For example, it is easy to find uncensored video footage taken by soldiers with regard to the war in Iraq (or any other war in which you are interested) on the Internet. Gone are the days during which governments could control the perception of war (or other elements of social reality) by controlling press access to the events in question. To its credit, the US government has not attempted to prevent soldiers from taking or sharing video footage of this type. Some of the US government’s most recent and acute embarrassments with regard to the war effort have been a direct result of video footage of this type. There is a new kind of accountability between the government and the public as a result of the explosion of communications and information technologies.

On the other hand, there is a lot of handwringing (mostly by journalists) with regard to the reduced role journalists play in the culture formation process. They used to be the gatekeepers of the massive news enterprises that decided what kind of information most of us ingested each day. They held the government’s feet to the fire by asking tough questions, and then reported and analyzed what they were told. Now, many governments (and most notably the US government) understands that they can deliver their message directly to the public through the Internet and other forms of media. So, they sidestep the journalists.

The decline of mainstream journalistic influence may cause an increase in governmental power (and executive power within government) as a result of a decline in governmental accountability. If journalists are not there to ask hard questions, who will ask? I think that is a fair point.

However, journalists and others now have access to massive amounts of information generated by the democratic information gathering and dissemination processes I have already described. A lot of people are now in a position to ask tougher questions than ever before. Think Guantanamo Bay.

The real problem is that governments are developing various excuses not to deal with journalists, or anyone else who wishes to call them to account. This is what should be resisted. As long as we do this, I think the overall trend is great.

In addition, when we think about how the dynamics described above function in the context of the secrecy oriented, non-democratic institutions like the Mormon Church, the same concerns don’t exist. The Mormon Church has never been more than marginally accountable to journalists, or to anyone else. Now, the information democratization forces that are putting pressure on the US and other governments are also putting pressure on the Mormon Church. This will likely continue, and can be counted upon to fundamentally shape the way the Mormon Church functions in the future.

Think, for example, of the kind of meta or non-verbal communication I mentioned a day or two ago on SLDrone’s thread. Since some of that is relevant here, and that post will eventually disappear, I will repeat what I said.

“I have come to believe that those who remain quietly on the inside of Mormonism with changed beliefs may be the key to radically modifying Mormonism over the course of a generation or two. The reason for this has to do with how social communication works. Military studies have shown that, for example, a kind of meta-communication occurs as different kinds of weapons are used (or not) and initiatives are taken (or not) during military exercises.

For example, if one army bombs the supply lines of the other (which can be done at any time), guess what will happen next? This is a kind of conversation.

Similar examples can be found within economics. For example, business corporations routinely skirt the rules against price-fixing by nudging and winking at each other in different ways while setting their prices within certain ranges and refusing to budge. Those who see this often respond by holding their price line as well. When on party breaks rank, most others follow suit. This works particularly well in markets what that are dominated by a few players. Think OPEC, though it is big enough to be hard to control.

Consider, then, what happens within your local Mormon ward when many of the people who seem to be successful, intelligent, etc. tend to decline significant callings, don’t hold temple recommends, don’t bear their testimonies and on the rare occasion when they are asked to give talks or teach lessons, they talk about metaphor, art and science instead of Scripture and testimony.

This kind of behavior sends powerful messages, many of which operate below the conscious spectrum. Over the course of a generation or two, the very nature of Mormonism will change as a result of this alone.

The presence of moderates of this kind within Mormonism, even if they dare not talk about what they believe, will cause significant changes from the inside that would not likely occur if everyone who disbelieved simply stood up and left.

Larry Iannacconne’s research indicates that one of the best ways to keep a religious institution strong is to maintain the cost of membership at a high level. This could mean throwing out everyone who is not prepared to bear testimony in black-and-white terms, do what was required to hold a temple recommend, et cetera. The Jehovah’s Witnesses use this system, and their growth has been significantly above the Mormon growth levels for a long time.

So, my view has moderated. I still encourage everyone who can to speak out. But I recognize that those who feel that they cannot will still play a significant role from the inside in remodelling Mormonism. Those who hope for utter collapse are, I fear, waiting for Santa Claus. And I think, overall, that the combination of these two forces (contricism from outside and quietly changing behavior from within) is likely to lead to the most desirable outcome. My thinking related to that point is too convoluted to attempt to lay out here.”

Think of all this in the context of Mitt Romney’s current run for the Republican nomination. He is a sharp double-edged short sword from a Mormon perspective. A Mormon in the White House sounds like a dream come true from the Mormon perspective. What could more clearly indicate that Mormonism has “arrived”? However, courtesy of Mitt Romney many Mormons are going to learn an awful lot about their own religion. It will be hard for them to stick their heads in the sand and simply avoid the message this time. They are intensely interested in the outcome of this political process, and hence will read the newspaper reports with regard to Romney and the progress he is making toward the US presidency. Whatever is discussed in that regard will enter the Mormon consciousness in an unprecedented way.

If people like us play our cards right, we can have a significant influence over how much Mormons learn about Joseph Smith and Mormonism during the next little while. Remember, the journalists now have access to democratically produced information instead of the relatively narrow sources upon which they used to rely. With many people like us feeding the same basic information to as many journalists as possible, the probability of Romney being put on the spot with regard to various Mormon issues approaches 100%. And the probability of his answers to those questions ending up in the public spotlight courtesy of the mainstream media approaches the same number.

Hence, it is extremely probable that Mitt Romney will in effect teach many Mormons far more than they have ever before had the opportunity to learn about the reality of their religion.

The basic issue to emphasize is that of trustworthiness. Every time we get the chance, we should put this front and center.

Start with Joseph Smith’s trustworthiness. Given the man’s track record of deception with regard to his sexual affairs and many other important issues that came up during the course of his leadership of the Mormon community, why should he be trusted with regard to anything that is not nailed down tight by trustworthy third-party verification? What standard of trustworthiness should be used? In general, the more important the issue of the higher the quality of evidence required. But in Joseph Smith’s case, let’s not set the bar too high, and use the standard required for a relatively modest investment. When anyone who’s not already socially or emotionally committed to Mormonism applies this to Joseph Smith, they tend to be unwilling to accept anything of importance the man has had to say. The only people who believe Joseph Smith after becoming familiar with most of his story are those who already have a significant commitment to Mormonism. Social psychology eloquently explains why we should expect this to be the case. It applies to Mormonism as well as to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Young Earth creationists, alien abductionists, Scientologists, et cetera.

The most reasonable way to characterize Joseph Smith in this regard is to say that he was often in tight spots. That is, he got himself into trouble and found his control over the Mormon group slipping away. In these cases, he needed to find ways to get people to obey him, and then said and did what he needed to do to get that job done. This is not an unusual human characteristic. And, Smith was charismatic and hence able to get away with far more than most other people in similar situations.

The fact that a lot of Smith’s lying had to do with sexual indiscretion makes his the kind of story that should make headlines.

The trustworthiness issue can then be extended from Smith through various generations of Mormon leaders into the present generation. For example, given the nature of scholarly work with regard to Mormon history, on what basis is it reasonable for Mormon leaders to now use the lesson manuals they do with regard to missionaries, Sunday School, and even for credit classes at the university level? If Mormons are so happy, what about all that anti-depressant use in Utah?; Utah’s bankruptcy rate?; Utah’s MLM participation, spousal abuse, etc rates?; etc.

Again, these issue should be put front and center with regard to Romney whenever we have the opportunity to communicate with members of the press and others who may have the ear of those people. I have sent a couple of e-mails to journalists who have written articles with regard to Romney, I intend to continue to do that from time to time, and encourage others to do the same. I think many perhaps underestimate the power, at a time like this, that can be exercised in this way.

In short, Mitt Romney’s run for the US presidency will create a massive information spike that will be driven into Mormonism’s heart. It is highly probable that this will reduce the power of Mormonism’s leaders, and increase the power the average Mormon perceives herself to have relative to the Mormon institution. You don’t have to accept callings; give money; go on missions; etc. Do what makes sense, not what you are told to do. etc. This is what almost happens when information circulate is improved within a human group.

One of the reasons for which this spike has the potential to be so influential is that Mormons will, in the case of Mitt Romney, have a rare opportunity to compare their personal reaction to bits of information related to Mormonism’s foundational beliefs, to the reaction of the general public to the same information bits. Consider the following in this regard.

Generally speaking, the populace at large does not care about Mormonism. Hence, the debate with regard to Joseph Smith’s deceptive nature, Book of Mormon geography, DNA and the Book of Mormon, etc. is carried out at the fringe of the Mormon community. The few Mormons who hear about this at all, generally only hear what exmormons say (and we know exmormons are not credible because they’re generally sinners like Simon Southerton), as well as what Mormon apologists and leaders have to say. It is easy for most Mormons to brush the issues off in that context.

It is entirely another thing to see Mormonism’s foundational truth claims debated in national newspapers, become the subject of jokes by people like Jay Leno and Bill Maher, etc. in a context where it’s obvious that virtually everyone with even half a brain just shakes their heads and laughs at the Mormon position. Mormons will come to see themselves as they should — as people who resemble in many ways the young earth creationists and Scientologists when it comes to the credibility of their core beliefs.

It will be extremely difficult for many Mormons to tolerate seeing themselves in this way. So, the information Mormons will ingest courtesy of Mitt Romney will dramatically raise the levels of cognitive dissonance within the Mormon community. This will bring many thoughtful Mormons to the point at which they can no longer hold literalist Mormon beliefs, which in turn will dramatically decrease their willingness to obey Mormon authority.

Near the conclusion of the CBC program, one of the commentators indicated that the ability of those who wish to manipulate culture to use spin for that purpose depends upon two things: ignorance and apathy. Mitt Romney’s run for the US presidency will create an intense interest within the Mormon community that will cause everything relevant to that (including “real” Mormon history) to receive an unprecedented degree of attention. This will work against both the ignorance and the apathy that has to date kept many issues with regard to Mormonism’s history and current social practices off the radar screen of the typical otherwise well-informed Mormon.

All of this almost makes a guy want to shout “Hallelujah!”.

So, how will the Mormon Church attempt to spin this? I don’t think they will have any choice but to use Mitt Romney’s run for the US presidency as part of the Mormon mainstreaming project. They cannot credibly dispute the nature of the information that will be put on the table with regard to Mormons history, and the history of its beliefs. All they will be able to do is distance themselves from that, using institutions like the Catholic Church as their model, and claiming that this is always been what they have done, though some misguided (and likely unintelligent) former Mormons did not see that. I sure hope they play this card in public, since many of the newly enlightened Mormon crowd will feel insulted since they too did not read or question because they were obedient to Mormon authority.

And, the Mormon Church will of course emphasize Mormonism’s similarities to mainstream evangelical Christianity every time that chance offered.

I doubt that the Mormon Church itself will make any official pronouncements. They will leave this to the goons at FARMS, Meridian, various blogs, etc. These are Mormonism’s modern intellectual Danites. You got a dirty job to do, you know who to call (indirectly, of course).

However, the perception these Danites will create will not be questioned by Mormonism’s highest leaders, and over the course of a decade or two will cause a significant reshaping of the way in which the average Mormon person coming to maturity will perceive her relationship to the Mormon institution.

One thing I wonder about is the extent to which the Mormon Church will attempt to use tools such as the so-called “viral” marketing we are beginning to see on the Internet. These take advantage of the fact that for the time being at least, what we see on the Internet at youtube, on bulletin boards, on blogs, etc. is generally perceived to be more genuine — less “spun” — than what we see in newspapers or on television, at least as long as what we’re looking at has a homemade look and feel. People who wish to shape public opinion for commercial, governmental, or ideological purposes, are beginning to take advantage of this, thus creating a new kind of spin. Hence, video footage (such as the famous “wig out” bridal video) is staged to look like a real-life event, put in a place where it is likely to be assumed to be a real-life event, while in fact being an early step in a marketing campaign for shampoo.

I have no doubt that the Mormon Church and other ideologically based institutions have already begun to use tools of this kind. We should be on the lookout for them.

Edelman, the Mormon Church’s public relations guru, is clearly tuned into this kind of thing as indicated above. I doubt he will have any moral compunction with regard to using this kind of thing to further Mormonism’s interests.

So, in this communications rich age, Mormonism does have a God, and He does provide Mormon prophets with direct inspiration. But his name is not Elohim, it is Edelman.

These thoughts are rambling, incomplete and can no doubt be critiqued from a number of different points of view. If anyone cares to do that, I will come back later and respond.

Now, I’m off to read some of the best literature known to humankind — the Canadian Income Tax Act.

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