An opinion piece in response to Boyd K. Packer’s latest LDS general conference talk from the Salt Lake Tribune, 13 April –
Of Gays, Greeks, and an LDS apostle
Aristotle must have furrowed his brow from on high when he heard LDS Church apostle Boyd K. Packer speak on the virtue of tolerance during the church’s General Conference this past weekend. Packer claimed that virtue, in excess, becomes vice, and that tolerance in particular can become a trap.
But the oft-repeated slogan, “moderation in all things,” distorts what Aristotle meant when he theorized about virtue. (Notice how the saying contradicts itself; to be coherent it should read “moderation in all things, except moderation.”) Luckily, Aristotle said just the opposite.
You can’t have too much virtue because virtue is not the kind of thing you can count. Being virtuous means doing the right thing, at the right time and place, in the right way, for the right reasons. It is a notoriously tricky concept, not a simple numerical mean.
Consequently, virtue sometimes even requires acting in ways that are downright extreme, depending on the context. But don’t mistake Aristotle for a moral relativist. For him, there is an objectively right thing to do in every situation.
This situation is no different, and its gravity does not escape me. Openly criticizing an apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not come without risk. I walk on perilous ground, but the difficulty of the task reflects its value. Packer’s past remarks provided opportunities for me to learn self-restraint. “He’s still learning. He’s only human. His intentions, however misguided, are good,” I told myself.
But now is the time to practice other virtues, namely courage and forgiveness.
When Packer not-so-subtly compared gays and lesbians to snakes invading the “Garden of Eden,” gobbling up innocent baby birds, his words became vice. This satanic image is striking and profoundly degrading. Aristotle said that there are many ways to fail when aiming at virtue, but only one way to succeed. Thus imperfection is something we must tolerate, and a simple misunderstanding of a tough concept like virtue is easy to forgive.
However, a consistent pattern of degrading a downtrodden group, and failing to admit wrongdoing, requires more. Packer, who is next in line to the church presidency, owes a serious apology to the LGBT community and its allies. We may disagree, but we are not satanic.
Some might say that such an apology would undermine respect for the church, but I believe the reverse is true. Where a mistake was made, growth can come from correcting it. And again, the difficulty of the task reflects its value. Much healing can come from exchanges of forgiveness. Virtuous acts inspire others, and give tangible example for all who have eyes to see; as Aristotle eloquently said, “something beautiful shines through” them.
I can forgive Packer his mistakes, and we must not forget or minimize the harsh words that have been returned to him. Given the history between Packer and the LGBT community, this is a unique opportunity to make many wounded people whole again. But that cannot be achieved without apologies.
As Mormons, we care a great deal about what goes into our mouths, but perhaps we should tolerate less of what comes out of them. We shouldn’t worry about being too kind, courageous, or loving. If having too much of a good thing is possible, then that thing probably wasn’t so good to begin with. Perhaps tolerance is one of those things.
But there is another, higher virtue upon whose goodness we can agree. It is love. So my suggestion is this: Let’s spend less time tolerating each other and more time loving one another. If we can do that, then something beautiful will undoubtedly shine through.
McKay Holland is a Salt Lake native and a doctoral candidate in moral philosophy at Georgetown University.