George Pyle: When authority is its own worst enemy

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Dallin H. Oaks speaks to youths at a special devotional Saturday, June 15, in Oakland, Calif.

“Revelation had indeed no weight with me, as such; but I entertained an opinion that, though certain actions might not be bad because they were forbidden by it, or good because it commanded them, yet probably those actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us, in their own natures, all the circumstances of things considered.”

— Benjamin Frankin, Autobiography

We worry about people who don’t follow the rules, who disturb the peace, ignore legal and/or religious authority, not so much because of what the individual does but because of the contagion it might create.

We fine, imprison, criticize, deport and excommunicate, even when it might be difficult to pinpoint a real victim, because we fear that if we don’t, other people will see what someone got away with and expect to get away with the same thing, or something worse. And everything falls apart.

Fair enough.

But if you really, really want to tear down the moral authority of parents, teachers, police officers, judges, prophets or anyone else whose job it is to hold it all together, just being an individual scofflaw won’t cut it.

To really tear down authority, you have to hold authority.


This summer’s mandatory example of a teacher or vice principal messing up somebody’s prom or graduation experience — there’s always one — comes to us from the Alpine School District — specifically Lehi High School. That’s where one of the few graduating seniors of Native American heritage was told at the last minute that the eagle feathers she had added to her commencement mortarboard, as a statement of solidarity with her ancestors and family, were not allowed and that if she wanted to walk across the stage with her classmates she had to take them off.

Which she did.

Here’s where we could launch into an altogether justified screed about how the lily-white authority structure in the Utah County community is dispiritingly clueless about the cultural importance of eagle feathers, flowered leis, etc., etc. But the better question about someone else wearing feathers on her hat is, “Who the hell cares?”

A young woman’s very special day and she thought the best way to mark it was by adding something to her hat. The idea that some person in authority should trouble himself to step in to prevent such an abomination suggests that that person didn’t have anything of importance to do that day. Or was jealous that the graduates were the focus of the day, that they and their families were enjoying themselves and everything about it, and realized that this was the last chance he would have to be a real killjoy. Just because.

Good luck trying to gain the respect of next year’s graduating class.

Meanwhile, over at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, high-ranking poobah Dallin H. Oaks was catching some flak for a recent statement warning church members of "culture of evil and personal wickedness in the world,” including, among other things, the “increasing frequency and power of the culture and phenomenon of lesbian, gay and transgender lifestyles and values.”

Well. One can only conclude that Oaks is concerned that too few millennials are fleeing his, and many other, religious organizations. That he wants to make dead sure that more of them start streaming for the exits, the way people do when their team is down 10 runs in the ninth inning.

That’s too bad, as religious leaders have often called us to the better angels of our nature on matters from civil rights to help for the poor. When they forfeit their moral authority, the way Oaks did in that speech, it is a loss to all of us. One that, apparently, we will have to live with.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune staff. George Pyle.


Twitter, @debatestate