Thursday, July 23, 2015

Passive and Active Verbs

In a recent blog post of mine, I said, "No one was lying to you, even if what they were saying wasn't true." A commenter named Morris replied, "Whether intentional or not, being misled is being misled." I disagree strongly.

The heart of my disagreement comes from the use of the passive verb. While the subject of the sentence is not performing the action of a passive verb, someone is performing the action, since verbs are action words. If I have "been misled," someone somewhere was misleading me. I read the word "mislead" literally. "Mis" implies "wrongly" and "lead" means "guiding to a location or conclusion." So "mislead" implies malice, a desire to get the person where they ended up.

Not every misunderstanding is a result of being misled. Here's an example: I screwed around in high school and did not graduate with the rest of my class in June. I had to take a summer class at a community college and transfer the credits back to my high school district. I received my diploma in October.

Now, if you asked me when I graduated high school and I said, "I was in the Class of '96," that is sort of true, but also misleading. I know you will assume I graduated in June with the rest of my class and I'm not stopping you from assuming that. But if I say, "I received my diploma in October of 1996," and what you take away from that is that my high school weirdly handed out diplomas in October, I didn't mislead you to that false assumption.

How much of a burden is on me to make sure you don't make such an assumption, or to clear it up once it happens? It depends on the harm done, I think. If you say, "Oh, how weird that your school did that," I might correct you, but if we're in a large crowd and the conversation has already turned to something else, is there really any value in saying, "Now just hold on a minute! You seem to believe my high school's schedule was the culprit when in reality, it was my failure to attend class!"? Probably the only result of that would be a lot of people standing around thinking, "This guy doesn't know how to converse in a crowd." (And that assumption would be true.) If you turned to my wife and said, "So what was it like not graduating until October?", then there would be a reason for me to let you know that she graduated in June like a normal person.

Church members have made all kinds of assumptions about church history or Book of Mormon claims. I don't think God is supposed to correct our harmless assumptions. Go ahead and think that a clean-shaven Moses led sacrament meetings from a pulpit in a dark suit while singing along to an organ. You're wrong, but go ahead and think it, because it doesn't do any harm.

The harm of these false assumptions has come in having them cleared up in less-than-helpful ways. It's less-than-helpful when conspiring men and women who seek to destroy your spiritual well-being get a foot in the door with a morsel of truth that allows them to follow it up with a mountain of lies. It's less-than-helpful when you ignore saving truths because the source didn't clear up all your prior misconceptions so now you think the source is untrustworthy. So the church doesn't need to correct our misunderstandings of Nephite weaponry because we can't be saved with a false concept of "sword," but when the false concept of "sword" allows people to lead you astray, the church has a responsibility to act.

Underlying all this is another (false) assumption that church leaders are always in a position to clear up false assumptions because they see all false assumptions as false. In reality, they are just people who are also making some number of false assumptions. Mormons don't like to hear this, but the leaders have never said otherwise. There's a bon mot about "Catholics say their leader is infallible and don't believe it; Mormons say their leader is fallible and don't believe it." Maybe none of your leaders have cleared up what a Nephite "sword" looked like because they were all thinking, like you, that "sword" means sword. Someone signed off on Arnold Friberg's paintings. (And I know this week I've come to be an Arnold Friberg critic, and that's not what I want to be at all. Dude could paint. He had to make assumptions that, at the time, seemed logical to everyone around him. I hope someday to be ridiculously-rich enough to have one of those "George Washington praying at Valley Forge" paintings in my living room like all Mormons who've made it.)

To say "I was misled" implies someone is doing the misleading, or at least could have stopped it from happening. It's the language of one struggling with feelings of betrayal. To help overcome those feelings and forgive those you think wronged you, start with using less-charged language. You weren't misled. You misunderstood. Even if you perfectly understood the speaker, that just means both of you misunderstood together.

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