Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Passive-aggression's incompatibility with Zion

The following essay is derived from a letter that I wrote in the late 2000s.

Salt Lake City attorney and former state legislator Frank Pignanelli once wrote that "Utah is the global headquarters of passive aggressive nonconfrontational conduct.” When I first read those words, I thought to myself, "That's it!" I had been trying to figure out what the deal is with the way a lot of Utahns treat each other and, thanks to Pignanelli, I learned that it had a name! “Passive-aggression" is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot, so, wanting to make sure that I understood exactly what it is, I looked it up on the internet's answer to the Oracle at Delphi, Wikipedia.

I was intrigued to learn that there's a debate in the psychiatric community over whether being passive-aggressive should be considered a personality disorder or just a behavior. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association once listed passive-aggressive behavior as an "Axis II" personality disorder but in a subsequent edition (DSM-IV) it was relegated to "Appendix B (Criteria Sets and Axes Provided for Further Study)." The reason being that the behavior does not meet the criteria of a disorder because it hasn't been found to be pathological or debilitating. Passive-aggressive people can function normally and maintain steady employment; just don't count on them to be the life of the next office party.

As I read the list of common signs of passive-aggressive behavior, alarms started going off in my head. I'd seen these signs before. Ambiguity, avoiding responsibility, blaming others, not expressing hostility or anger openly, fear of competition, fear of authority, making excuses, lying, obstructionism, resentment and resisting suggestions from others. This is only a partial list and a passive-aggressive person may not show all of these traits.

As I read this information, I knew I had to be completely honest with myself when I asked, "Have I ever been passive-aggressive?" I certainly have. While I try to address problems directly, there have been times when I've bottled up hurt feelings, been resentful and tried to pass the blame onto others. All it lead to was tension, anger, depression and either a delayed solution to the problem I started with or no solution at all.

I'm of the opinion that one is not predisposed to being passive-aggressive, it's a learned behavior. Learned in the home and even in a community. But why is it so prevalent in Utah? I think it comes from the attitudes and interpretations of people in what is referred to in politically correct circles as "The Predominant Religion of the Community."

LDS theology speaks of "Zion," a community (historical and symbolic) of individuals with "One heart and one mind" where there is no contention, no poor, and only joy, love, and righteousness. Latter-day Saints like to think of their church and themselves as Zion "in-the-flesh." Their logic being, "We believe the same things, we're good neighbors and we look out for each other." Now I'm not saying that Mormons don't believe the same things, that they aren't good neighbors or that they don't look out for each other but I don't think such a description constitutes being of "one heart and one mind." There's a great deal of denial going on when it comes to how the people of "Zion" really feel about each other. A great deal of evidence for this can be found at your local court house on any weekday. There you will find business partners, neighbors, friends and families turning to injunctions, lawyers and litigation to solve all those problems that don't exist in "Zion." There are certainly many hearts and many minds who have their own beliefs, dislikes and agendas. But that still doesn't answer the root question. Why all the passive-aggressive behavior?

Many of us in the LDS community have heard the caveat "avoid the appearance of evil," but I think it's taken to a different level where Utah-Mormon culture is concerned by trying to avoid the appearance of conflict and ill will amongst members in order to maintain the illusion of a "Zion-like" community. The problem is that these aren't just appearances. They are real conflicts and real ill will, which in and of itself is nothing to be ashamed of—it's human nature—but by trying to avoid their appearance, we're just denying that they exist. A major problem with attempting to control outward appearances is the fact that Zion is not defined by its appearance. It's defined by intangible concepts of heart and mind. It's not unheard of for people to look like they're getting along despite the fact that they hate each other. To deny the conflict, hurt feelings and tension that naturally arise between people—even those sharing a common belief system—will only compound those feelings; and if someone is unwilling to acknowledge those issues openly they will manifest themselves in other ways like resentment, complaining, obstructionism, not expressing hostility or anger, i.e. passive-aggressive behavior.

What has me concerned about this is that such attitudes are precisely what stand in the way of genuinely reaching a state where one can honestly say they are living in a Zion-like society. Avoiding conflict doesn't make it go away. If we insist on bottling up our negative feelings (heart) and not being open about what we're thinking (mind) when there are problems between us, our passive-aggressive behavior will foster what the technology industry calls "FUD," Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, in the hearts and minds of those we're in conflict with. It's easy to say, "I'm not doing anything" when we're exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior. But it still affects those around us, sometimes in more detrimental and enduring ways than an actual confrontation.

But how do we get past these deleterious feelings and mindsets? We start by acknowledging them. By being open about our hurt feelings and addressing misunderstandings between each other with love and understanding, we can be better able to let them go without the need for lawyers and litigation. But the most important thing that we must understand is that we need to be willing to forgive those who have wronged us and, in turn, be willing to seek forgiveness from those that we have wronged. Once we are able to do that, we will truly be on our way to becoming Zion.

Revised: 2023