Change – Part 2 – Squirrel!

In the previous post, I suggested that leaders of an organization can strategically disrupt the social moment of change agents by removing them from the organization, disrupting or delaying the tipping point required for social change.

Tipping Point of Change

In Damon Centola’s book, Change: How to Make Big Things Happen, he argues that the tipping point for social change to occur is when about 25% of the population is unified in the adoption of the change.

This presumes that the remainder of the population is not unified or is willing to go along in a new direction. Even such minor things as fist bumps or colored shirts require social coordination.

Substantive change propagates through strong social ties. These are your family, friends, church members, co-workers, and others with whom you associate directly and intimately. These small groups ultimately combine and coordinate with much larger groups which making up our communities and countries.

Social change may be as simple as wearing a mask to reduce disease contagion or as radical as a rebellion against an oppressive government, such as the Arab Spring.

People and institutions don’t like change. It is scary and uncomfortable. The results are uncertain. It can be destabilizing. It is seen as a problem to be addressed. The larger the institution, the more resistant it will be to change because coordination is required among a larger population. Yet, the percentage is the same; whether in small or large groups, the tipping point seems to be at about 25%.

Stopping Change

Institutions will naturally react to resist change. An organization that is avoiding change will act to keep the disruptors under control.

By Direct Action

Attacking change agents can be an effective tool and has been used for … well … forever. Just look a autocratic and oppressive governments. People can be compelled to stay in line by sheer physical force which might take their lives or the lives of those close to them. Reaching a critical mass of 25% in favor of disruption can be difficult when they “disappear.”

In business, a new policy or adoption of a new inventory system may be imposed by company leadership. Employees will generally obey because they might otherwise lose their job. They may not like it, but the cost of rebellion is high, making it difficult to reach the tipping point for significant resistance to new programs and policies.

Religion is an interesting case. There is no physical force, paycheck, or legal constraint that can be used to encourage conformity and resist change. Instead, it is the individual beliefs of the members that empower the organization and the leaders. While less substantial than an autocratic government, religious beliefs can invoke all of the moral foundations that bind people very powerfully to their church.

It might sound nefarious to think of our religions as “binding” us, but we are wired to be a part of our groups. Some organizations are better at leveraging moral foundations than others. This can be both good and bad, leading us to improve and grow or lock us in a pattern of stagnation.

By Distraction

In Pixar’s lovable movie Up, we were introduced to a dog named Dug. With the aid of a special collar, his thoughts are converted to spoken English, introducing us all to the powerful distraction of squirrels. (I once printed a picture of a squirrel and pinned it up in my office as a reminder to stay focused on useful tasks.)

Centola points out that distraction is not just a comedic novelty or personal problem, but can be used to stop social change. In fact it has been effectively used by China. (Sorry, this is leading to a loaded comparison, but it is, nevertheless, a good example.)

In 2013, there was a social uprising in the city of Lukqun, a predominantly Muslim region. The government launched the conventional tools of force and misinformation, blaming the “terrorist attack” on Syrian extremists.

They also did something new.

As the conversations and reports about Lukqun began to heat up on social media, Chinese government officials, posing as regular citizens, started to flood Chinese social media with face user posts. These posts were not filled with disinformation about the attacks. Nor with criticisms of independent new reports about Lukqun. (Centola, Changes, p 197)

Instead, these government actors flooded social media with other subjects that spawned heated debates.

They were part of China’s cleverly designed and massively deployed nationwide campaign for social control. Instead of using social media to combat views that disparage the regime, or to debate the nature of the events that took place in Lukqun, Chinese government officers simply created sufficient amounts of random chatter on social media to distract citizens from their legitimate grievances. (Centola, Changes, p 197)

Essentially, further unrest was diluted by distracting the attention of their citizens from the social unrest, dissipating the movement and delegitimizing the oppressed citizens of Lukqun.

FWIW: The government employees that are tasked with this dilution effort are known as the Fifty Cent Party, because of they are ostensibly compensated that amount for each social media post.

Quelling Change in Church

Just as any other institution, the LDS Church must react to internal and external pressures as it tries to maintain necessary stability. But, if it is too resistant to change, innovation, and progress, other problems are created.

The Problems

The LDS Church is facing insignificant growth or, more likely*, shrinkage of participation. This is the same situation faced by nearly all churches in the world as the global culture shifts to a scientific ideology. The following are some broad categories impacting the LDS Church, each of which could be analyzed in more detail.

  • Relevance: Changing social norms regarding the role of women and incorporation of LGBTQ gender complexities are counter to positions of the LDS Church. Advances in scientific knowledge, including critical scriptural studies, explain much of the world we live in. One might even say that “scientific” knowledge has proven to be more effective than religion at providing understanding and meaning to our lives. Resistance to these changes make churches appear archaic, irrelevant, and even damaging.
  • Credibility: The LDS Church was founded at a time of high literacy, as a result the related history is relatively well documented when compared to other churches. The accessibility of information-even on the Churches own website-regarding foundational events, doctrine, and teachings allows for critical examination. This may lead people to question the legitimacy of past and present Church narratives. This is even more of a factor for those that apply critical Bible scholarship and the documentary hypothesis to LDS materials.

So, what is the response? How does the Church combat these problems especially since you can’t change history and many doctrines are considered the divine mandate?

Any organization is expected to act to protect its interests and those of its members. This is not necessarily bad as long as the values of the organization are preserved.

The following seem to exemplify the types actions of the Church that are, or were, intended to preserve its integrity.

Direct Action

Unlike a heavy-handed dictator, church leadership cannot legitimately threaten physical violence. But churches can leverage their doctrine and principles in active ways to motivate members toward desired practices and resist change. In some cases efforts have been successful and in some cases they have not.

  • The traditional family has been an emphasis of the Church for many decades. The Family: A Proclamation to the World in 1995 was issued at a time when conservative voices thought that the family was under attack. The height of this strategy occurred with the Church’s role in opposition to Proposition 8 in California in 1998. While it was effective at motivating and reinforceing orthodox members, in the end, it did not turn out well for the reputation of the Church.
  • Restrictive access to Church archives decades ago was intended to guard against “unfaithful” interpretations and damaging information. This is only viable as long as full control of the information is maintained and no other sources of information are available. The internet changed that. Credibility now requires openness rather than authority. While the Church wants to be credible, openness endangers the credibility when the available information counters past church narratives and prophetic teachings.
  • Excommunication is another tool that is still being employed by the Church. Excommunications are not issued due to someone’s loss of faith in Christ, but for publicly contradicting or criticizing the Church or its leaders. The “forceful” removal of dissidents is intended to delegitimize their cause and keep the Church clean. These actions may be comforting for the most orthodox, but often seem to be intended as a bludgeon to instill fear in those that might step out of line. (The recent case of Natasha Helfer is an example, but scores of others are on the record including, 1, 2, 3, 4.)
  • The funding of apologetic efforts like FAIRMormon (now at FAIRlatterdaysaint.org) and the Maxwell Institute is another strategy to inoculate the more intellectually inclined church members and, by the mere presence of these organizations, comfort those that are not.
  • Requirements for conformity (worthiness) in order to achieve full participation in religious rites and privileges.
  • Appeal to individual loyalty and responsibility can be powerful: “But you promised.” In the church, this has recently been expressed as remaining on “the covenant path,” which has become a popular mantra for church leaders. It is a legalistic, yet powerful term. It integrates a range of moral foundation principles including fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity that bind us to the church.
  • Give direct warnings to members against departing from church teachings; obedience is the first law of heaven. Failure risks their exaltation, blessings, relationship with God, and other powerful principles.
  • Marginalize and shame “doubters” and “lazy learners,” while also encouraging members to restrict study to “reliable” sources.
  • Encourage a dualistic worldview: We have often been taught that we are in a battle with a wicked world. Along those lines, Pres. Nelson has advised members not to speak of doubts with other doubters. Specifically, “stop increasing your doubts by rehearsing them with other doubters.”
  • Develop structured curriculum to reinforce faith and focus attention to the desirable expressions of faith.

I could go on, but you get the point.

These direct actions and messages by the Church are in play with competing relationships in a member’s life and the forces of normal adult development.

Distraction

After reading about China’s Fifty Cent Party and the principle of using distraction as a way to dissipate social momentum, I recalled recent events in the LDS Church.

Generally, the spate of changes and temple announcements during the tenure of President Nelson, have been good. But, they may also serve a secondary and, likely, unintentional purpose; they are a distraction from challenges to the faith of Church members. In other words, if we are too involved with adapting to new meeting schedules, local organizational changes, and new curriculum, we may not look into those pesky problems like Book of Mormon historicity.

Like many of you, whether or not I saw the changes as good, it gave me hope to see the disruption of a few old paradigms. While most of these changes were minor, such as blue shirts for male missionaries and pants for females, change merely for the sake of change helps keeps us flexible for times when substantive change is required.

As these started to roll out, I hoped to also see a shifting of messages from general leaders. Instead of sermons that emphasized Church conformity (worthiness and shame), truth claims, and exclusivity, I hoped to start hearing messages about improvements in pastoral care, a focus on principles of personal fulfillment, incorporation of modern scholarship, and a shift to humanitarian concerns. I saw these types of developments as precursors that would be required in order to expand the cultural perspective of the church in preparation for more substantive changes.

Alas, we are stuck on rinse and repeat (but with a much longer name on the shampoo bottle).

Conclusion

I doubt that the administrative changes deployed during the last few years were a strategic attempt to distract the “doubters” from their doubts, but it is an interesting perspective to consider.

I, for one, was hopeful … and distracted for a time.

Eugene

* The LDS Church does not release attendance numbers, but there are some independent sources that attempt to extrapolate Church metrics using various indicators from disparate sources. The following are a few articles.
Church is True
Mormon Social Science Association
Religion Unplugged

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