We’ve all seen depictions of the famous three “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” monkeys. Today they symbolize a hiding, head-in-the-sand approach to life, to borrow another animal reference—in this case that of an ostrich—who wants to ignore the truth.

Embracing this stance allows us to turn a blind eye to misconduct and even to the evil around us. We can justify not getting involved because now we are acting nonjudgmental, even noble. We don’t condemn, we don’t gossip, we don’t even register wrong behavior. And, while Christ teaches us to love all mankind and be careful not to find fault, He never meant that we should shrug and cave in to moral decay. From His day to ours, church leaders have said we must be strong and stand for what is right.

So is the statue wrong? Should we not cover our eyes and ears when we encounter something contrary to God’s laws?  Let’s look at the original meaning of that statue.

It was never meant to imply endorsement of sin, or even acceptance of societal decline while we merely look away. A pretty good summary of its initial purpose actually aligns with one of the phrases we hear in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Stand in Holy Places.

Those monkeys were meant to teach important lessons. When we allow our eyes to wander, when we gawk at inappropriate media, when we justify prurient entertainment, we are drinking in evil through our eyes. We all know how difficult it is to erase those mental images. They can haunt us, entice us, and become the first steps into addiction and bondage.

Scientists have found a direct correlation between viewing violence in video games, movies, and TV, and behaving aggressively. And if you don’t think that what we see influences our behavior, why do advertising agencies spend billions of dollars on commercials? They know the science.

How much safer—and wiser—we are if we avoid looking at evil in the first place. “Hear no evil” meant the same: Don’t take into your body that which can poison.

What about the third monkey? Anciently he represented the outcome of what can happen if we avoid seeing and hearing that which is immoral. If we don’t look at or listen to wickedness, we will be less likely to speak about it. To put it in modern terms, Garbage In, Garbage Out. If we don’t contaminate our souls, we will radiate goodness and light, instead of spewing the negativity of the day.

This ancient wisdom can actually be found in the propriety teachings of Confucius and in Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, as well as in the tenets of Christianity and other faiths. 1200 years before Christ, Zoroastrianism taught “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” And, of course, the Bible offers so many admonitions to avoid the very appearance of evil, that you could write a book on just those passages.

Joseph Smith also highlighted this concept in our Thirteen Articles of Faith which include “…If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”  Sometimes we hear this so often that we don’t stop to analyze how he put that. He didn’t just want us to appreciate that we’ve stumbled upon a great piece of music, art, or literature—we are to seek out good works that elevate us.

Wise religious leaders—and others such as Thomas Paine– realized that if we can control what we see and hear, we will control our speech and our very lives. Gandhi advised seeing our minds as a white sheet we should not contaminate. Henry David Thoreau said, “It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.” Simply put, we’ll be happier.

But here we are in this modern day, swimming in a sea of cleverly disguised messages and images that can pull us down and destroy us. The answer, then, is to resist living the unexamined life. Instead of lapping up whatever is trotted out before us, we can think and choose deliberately. We can seek. We can analyze the long-term result of ingesting material that degrades us. If we have to justify it (“There’s only one bad scene”), that should be a red flag.

We cannot control all the evil in the world. But we can control its impact on us and on our families by taking a stand and drawing the line. Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin said, “The storms of the evil one can be stopped at the very entrance of our homes.” We can pick what to see, hear, and speak. Those monkeys actually represent our agency to choose, and choose wisely.  

Hilton’s books, humor blog, and Youtube Mom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as an Inter-Faith Specialist for Church Communications.