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Power Does Brain Damage

A couple of years ago, there was a fascinating essay in The Atlantic about the results of several studies on power and how it affects empathy. It wasn’t good news. It turns out that the longer people hold power, the more difficult it is for them to see the world from any point of view but their own. Even if they gained power by being able to express empathy, they lost this capacity because they weren’t practicing it and because the wielding of power taught them to trust themselves over anyone else. I think this study has some serious significance for Mormon leadership, from the ward-level bishops up to the highest levels of power in the Quorum of the Twelve.

According to one study cited in The Atlantic, people who have power become more impulsive, less risk-aware, and they lose the capacity to “mirror” others, even on a trivial level like being able to copy them making a letter the way someone else does rather than the way it appears to you. The study suggests that part of this problem is the way that subordinates around the powerful tend to become sycophants, fueling the sense of rightness that all of us want to feel, but which the powerful are perhaps most vulnerable to believing because they are, after all, in power. Does this sound anything like Mormon leaders? I think it does.

It used to be that leaders tried to remind members of the church that they were just like everyone else, that they weren’t special or more righteous, that they had been chosen because they were faithful, but that we were all part of the body of Christ and that everyone was valuable, even the lowest nursery leader. Gorrdon B. Hinckley said “adulation is a disease I fight every day.” Bruce R. McConkie quite emphatically said, after the 1978 revelation that blacks were to be allowed full fellowship in the Mormon church, “forget everything I said,” and Joseph Fielding Smith famously said, after he was proven wrong about men landing on the moon, “I was wrong.”

But there is also a strain of “follow the prophet” teachings within Mormonism that pressure members to look away from any flaws. Ezra Taft Benson taught the fundamentals of following the prophet and many have harkened back to Brigham Young’s promise that the prophet cannot lead the church astray because God would strike such a prophet down. These days, it seems that the system of promotion within the apostles leads members to believe that gerontocracy is God’s system of choosing His mouthpiece on earth, because the prophet is the apostle who lives longest.

Unfortunately, this system also leads our leadership to be the most likely to be suffering the prolonged effects of empathy brain damage. The longer these men are in power, the longer they talk only to each other or to other male leadership, the less often they talk to regular members, particularly in situations where they are not treated to leader worship, or are not surrounded by sycophants, the worse the problem gets. In the studies cited in The Atlantic, those in power who are told about the problems in their empathy and their mirroring skills still could not correct the problem. Whether this was because they had suffered brain damage too severe to reverse or because they didn’t believe they had a problem wasn’t clear.

But it’s clear to me as an observer who has stepped away from Mormonism that the prophet and the first presidency are unable to show empathy to many groups of those suffering, including LGBT members and women. The last conference with President Oaks speaking and the talk given by Russell M. Nelson the week before conference at BYU about the policy of exclusion are classic examples of their growing lack of empathy. Nelson claimed that the policy of exclusion was “about love” for the children of same-sex married Mormons. But no one who listened to his talk could possibly believe it was about love. It was, instead, about legal battles the church is anticipating fighting in the future. It was about protecting the image of the church. It was about the recent legalization of same-sex marriage and the Mormon church’s need to draw a boundary line.

The adjustment to the policy — was that about love? I wish I believed that it was, but I don’t. I think that, too, was about the image of the church. It was about looking like we are harming children. It was about making it look like there was still empathy at the highest levels of church leadership. But what it wasn’t about was about church leaders being actually able to sit with LGBT members and hear their pain and process it in an empathetic way. Because they cannot do that anymore. They’ve lost the ability to hear another person’s point of view and consider than it might be more correct than their own.

Oaks showed this clearly when he argued in his conference talk that he urges members to show love to the LGBT community, and then went right on to insist that The Family Proclamation’s phrasing about “eternal gender” actually meant “biological sex as determined at birth.” This is a ridiculous idea in terms of science, not to mention psychological knowledge about human identity. Just to mention a few problems, there are several conditions that might cause a disjunction between biological sex and genetic sex markers that would not be clear at birth. Hormones can conflict with chromosomes. And then there are intersex conditions where sex cannot be determined at birth at all. But none of these matter to Oaks at all. Because he is no longer capable of empathy.

What Nelson and Oaks are capable of is caring about the image of the church. That is, they care about the image of themselves as loving and caring. That is about power. That is not about actual love or empathy, however. They are certainly not the only people in power with this problem. It’s all over the world, in particular where white cis/gender men have been in power for far too long. I suspect it’s also part of the reason that we are seeing more and more cases of bishops, stake presidents, and seminary teachers who are sexually abusing those in their care. Yes, the church also seems to invite those who are already sexual abusers to come join us because we cover things up as an institution and we ignore victims. But I also wonder how many abusers we are creating by giving them power and damaging their empathy centers.

Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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