Friday, July 15, 2011

A Question of Perspective (and Priors)?

[Ponderings on the 21st Century rehabilitation (?) of Paul H. Dunn]

Recently I encountered a presentation by Greg Prince[1] in which he seemed to discount the “embellishments” of Paul H. Dunn[2] (1924-1998) because
1) the pressures of performance were so great;
2) most everyone was/is doing it;
3) it was done in the spirit of metaphor & parable; and
4) the “embellishments” involved only two stories.

1) Are not the pressures of performance part of the test of integrity—and amongst the Three Temptations? If one feels the need to fabricate/embellish (without disclosure)—WHY? To create/maintain reputation? For the satisfaction/renown of changing lives/perspectives? For the sake of “lifting the people” (58:00) with inspiring insights? But WHY fabricate when there are many verifiable, awe-inspiring stories from the lives of others? WHY did Paul Dunn need to be the hero of his inspirational fabrications? Does this have any déjà vu likeness to casting oneself from a pinnacle in order to witness how God did miraculously intervene in one’s life?[3] We are all subject to temptation and Paul Dunn is not alone in succumbing (in whatever degree) to the ubiquitous temptation of “puffing résumé.” Nor is he alone in having defenders who countenance questionable acts because they were purportedly based on good intentions/causes/desires, or even “excusable” provocation. It is the recycled tale of thousands.

2) Will “Most everyone does it!” or “So-’n-So has done worse!” ever appease the demands of justice?[4] Or must we invoke the quality of mercy by openly repenting and confessing: “I am truly sorry. I should have known and done better. Please forgive me. I was weak and foolish and prideful. I forgot my calling was to glorify Thee, not me. I am committed to repenting, to taking responsibility, to being accountable, to rebuilding trust.” Was that not the substance, in part, of Bro. Dunn’s, “An open letter to members of the Church,” published October 26, 1991 in the Church News.[5] So why does the man who asserts “I knew [Paul Dunn] a lot better than anyone else in [this] room” (1:02:20) choose to discount the fabrications because of his friend’s remarkable gifts, long-time service, and good intentions (59:00)—particularly when Paul Dunn himself, in his own confession, chose not to excuse himself, but to ask for forgiveness?

3) And when did metaphor (like leaven, seed, bread, water, etc.) become equivalent to heroic stories of self-aggrandizement? Where are the analogous scriptural parables that center on the heroic parable-teller? They don’t exist. The Savior’s parables were simple stories concerning objects, nature, and unnamed persons[6]—as in tares, mustard seed, hidden treasure, pearl of great price, householder, lost sheep, unmerciful servant, good Samaritan, unjust steward, laborers in a vineyard, talents, two sons, ten virgins, sheep/goats, sower, etc. One has to process the symbolism—dig for meaning and application via mind and spirit. Can Paul Dunn’s fabrications really be called parable when the story idea was transparent and when a primary effect of his presentations (intended or not?) was to create goose-bumps of WOW what a remarkable, worthy, witty, gifted, blessed servant of God (some of which was probably true)?[7]

4) And if there were only two stories (war and baseball) as Prince adamantly asserts (1:01:15), what are the mathematics of mendacity when these alleged, two stories were told numerous times in numerous places? If one lie is told 70 times—is it one lie or seventy? And is it accurate to lump several incredible stories into two categories—war and baseball—and then insist there were really only two stories?

Here are a few more questions to ponder for the scientist in Bro. Prince, et al.:

a) Can kindred spirits[8] and dear friends be objective about one another’s weaknesses and failings? Are friends not as capable of misjudging in positive ways as strangers are in negative ones? Motivated reasoning weighs heavy as science and experience confirm. “If you have a strongly held belief with an emotional component, the brain defends information that reinforces those ‘priors’ and is skeptical of information that challenges them. … People who hold these hard priors filter information to support their perceptions.”[9] We all do it, and without awareness of a “priors” bias, are we not all more prone to biased judgment—whether pro or con?

b) Surely it is vital to our safety and welfare to judge trustworthiness in others, especially regarding our spiritual stewards. What does it convey if false, personal stories, presented as true, can be excused because they were intended for good ends? Where do the fabrications begin and end?[10] Who can tell? Who can remember?

c) Speaking gifts and skills can be impressive, but if self-focused fabrications are resorted to for effect are such fabrications worth it when damage to credibility spreads well beyond the fabricator? And should we forget/ignore that Dunn’s fabrications were discerned by many long before his exposure and confession, negating his intended effect for those persons?

Paul Dunn’s redemption is in God’s hands, though for us, his life (and confession) may be an important lesson on how difficult it is to navigate the Three Temptations; and how grateful we (and he) can be for forgiveness and the gift of mercy.

[1] Audio posted May 20, 2011: . (Numbers in brackets hereafter indicate the approximate time location on the audio button). Most of the Paul Dunn references are found between 32:23 and 41:48; and 55:27 to 1:02:43. Greg Prince’s main defense of Paul Dunn is found between 55:27 and 1:02:43.
[3] New Testament Matthew 4:6
[4] “… for the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.” Book of Mormon Alma 45:16; see also D&C 1:31. Do fabrications about God’s manifestations in one’s life, amount to the “bearing of false witness,” a proscription of The Ten Commandments? What would our response be to a ward member who made up stories in bearing testimony about God’s goodness to him/her?
[5] See the words of his confession at .
[6] Except for a beggar named Lazarus at Luke 16:19-31
[7] “He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh his glory that sent him, the same is true, …” (New Testament John 7:18). "For not he that commendeth himself is approved, but whom the Lord commendeth." (New Testament 2 Corinthians 10:18) A question only God (and maybe Paul Dunn) can fully answer is whose glory and commendation was being sought in creating the fabrications? From the record, does it not seem some of both?
[8] “We were on the same wave length” (8:53); “These three men [David O. McKay, Leonard Arrington, Paul H. Dunn] were some of my heroes growing up” (10:23). Dunns and Princes developed a wonderful friendship (40:15).
[9] From the work of political scientist Hank Jenkins-Smith of the University of Oklahoma as quoted, in Newsweek, October 13, 2010, pp. 29-30 by science writer Sharon Begley about voter tendencies—observations that seem applicable to almost everything that requires choice.
[10] Is the Cat story (35:30) not also a case of fabrication? to write a letter of (pretended) sympathy which he allegedly sent and a second one detailing “what he wanted to say” but which he could share only “with the ladies” of the Relief Society and Young Women’s program. Though he and others, including Prince, found his preferred draft highly humorous, that is not the only perspective. Another view is that his “amusing” reply manifest an incongruous degree of hypocrisy and sarcasm. Perhaps, if Paul Dunn had taken himself and others a little more seriously, he would not have left the tarnished legacy he did. There is a balance in all things and he seems to have lost it for a time.