Tag Archives: quote

Quotes, authority and truth

UPDATE: Apparently, Dr. King did say it. Well, some of it. Kind of. And we think we know who started it. Maybe.

By now, people have probably seen both of the following in the aftermath of Osama Bin Laden’s death:

“‎I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

They have also probably seen this Atlantic article (or a derivative thereof) about how the quote is misattributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. He never said it. And we don’t really know who started it.

Wait, wait...don't tell me!

Most people use the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote to encourage sobriety during the news of Bin Laden’s death. Others use this idea that the quote is misattributed to excuse their jubilation. What most people don’t ask is, why does a misattribution make the quote somehow less valuable?

It’s human nature to appeal to authority. After all, authorities usually know a lot about whatever they’re an authority of. For the most part, even the most independent, iconoclastic hipster or libertarian still makes appeals to authority on a daily basis. If you’ve never seen Australia with your own eyes but talk about Australia as if it is actually there because you read it in a book, that’s an appeal to authority, just as much as someone uses a Founding Father quote to prove that their economic policy or ideology is “right.” Appeal to authority is important and even necessary when constructing our world view.

But then we get into cases like this Martin Luther King, Jr. quote. Just because Dr. King didn’t say it, does it automatically discredit the information? Why do we like this quote? Is it a profound truth, one that resonates within our souls, and we simply want to give credit where credit is due? Or do we believe in it more, that it is somehow “more true,” because a famous civil rights leader said it? If, instead, it was our grandmother, or a drunk off the street, does it make it somehow “less true”? We all like to think that we, as people, are more interested in actual truthfulness of statements more than who said it, but do we act like it?

All of these are important questions to ask when it comes to considering the validity and worth of any quote.

“I hate quotes. Tell me what you know.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson 

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Ethos and the Mormon hierarchy of quotational worth

“I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

So my friend Beth said on my last blog post:

I think I would like to see your treatises include more source material. I only mention it because it seems you like to use your blog as a forum to encourage sch0larly discussion, but you don’t include, for example, what Hugh Nibley had to say on the subject.

Same with your discussion on polygamy. It’s mostly your thoughts and opinions, but since you’re wanting to incite greater theological discussion I think actual quotes from the Manifesto would have been warranted.

I took this as pretty good advice, and so for the last entry on our Mormon version of American exceptionalism I set out to find quotes of varying opinion to present to you, the wonderful reader. Immediately, I ran into a problem — which quotes were “good” and which were “not-so-good”?

By good and not-so-good, I’m talking about a complex metric system that involves relevance, accuracy, and authority. Everyone has their own metric system to determine what somebody said is actually worth anything. Generally speaking, this metric system is pretty consistent within subcultures and the arguments they use. For example, in an academic setting, using your little brother’s opinions to back up your own in a paper will net you with a big fat zero, while using an anecdote of your sweet little brother’s kind actions will net you big rhetorical points with a talk during Sacrament meeting.

The Mormon Quotational Worth Hierarchy, or, who said it matters most

Mormons, too, tend to have a hierarchial system of “quotational worth.” It generally trends in this direction (the more important ones listed before the least important ones):

1. Anything Joseph Smith said
2. Current general authorities (i.e., Thomas S. Monson)
3. Old general authorities (i.e., Brigham Young)
4. More recently revealed scripture (i.e., Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants)
5. The Holy Bible (note: JST counts as #4)
6. Non-members we like (i.e., C.S. Lewis, whenever the Pew Forum has something nice to say about us)
7. The Founding Fathers (i.e., Thomas Jefferson, Mormonism’s favorite deist)
8. Non-members we’re neutral on (i.e., Emerson)
9. Other scriptures, sort of (i.e., Qu’ran, the Apocrypha, Dead Sea Scrolls)
10. Academics (hissssss)

Your mileage may vary. For example, some liberal Mormons I know would say that academics are definitely at least higher than the Founding Fathers, while other more Constitutional Mormons would say that what the Founding Fathers say has more clout than the Holy Bible. And some people I know might say that the Qu’ran is a pretty neat piece of scripture and will put it around #5 or #6. My own hierarchal system does not match the one I just listed; this one is more of my very general guess of how a “standard” Mormon might grade quotational worth.

To illustrate, let me show you these quotes:

“If I had a choice of educating my daughters or my sons because of opportunity constraints, I would choose to educate my daughters.”

“You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation.”

– Gloria Steinem, prominent feminist

Show this quote to a good, orthodox Mormon, and they would say, “Ugh, so typical of a feminazi,” and they would dismiss it without further thought. But who really said these quotes? Brigham Young.

“If I had a choice of educating my daughters or my sons because of opportunity constraints, I would choose to educate my daughters.”

“You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation.”

– Brigham Young

Ah! Suddenly, this quote becomes worthy of discussion for our Church. Mormons would sit together and ask, “What does Brigham Young mean? What does education constitute? Why do daughters need education more than sons?” Why? Because of who said it.

How Important is Ethos compared to Pathos or Logos?

For those who need a refresher course on classical rhetoric, Aristotle argued that there are three modes of persuasion — ethos, pathos, and logos. Pathos and logos are pretty easy to understand — pathos deals with the emotional aspect of the argument, while logos deals with the “logical” side of the argument. Ethos is slightly harder to understand, but the basic idea of ethos is the rhetorician’s “moral authority,” or how much the audience trusts and believes the speaker.

A good argument will consist of all three of these modes — it will make sense, it will have emotional weight and impact, and the speaker is trusted and respected by the community. If you don’t have ethos, no one will listen to you in the first place. Without logos, your ideas will not make sense. Without pathos, there is little drive or motivation for action. But when you rely solely on pathos, your arguments become emotionally manipulative. When you rely solely on logos, your arguments become dry and weak. And when you rely solely on ethos, well, you have what many people call “blind obedience.”

Do we as Mormons accept arguments solely on ethos? This is not to say that ethos is worthless, but rather that a good argument utilizes all components of a classical argument (pathos, logos, and ethos). Do we put too much emphasis on ethos and ignore the others (though longtime members might say we go overboard on the pathos, too)? We are taught (some would say conditioned) to follow what the prophet says, no matter what. We are taught that who says what very much matters, but just how much does this matter? Should we and do we as a culture consider quotations (or teachings, or ideas) on the merit of their actual content instead of who said it?

Quotational value fluctuation

Of course content does matter, and ethos cannot always carry the day in our culture. I’m reminded of a talk given by Spencer W. Kimball in 1978 titled “Strengthening the Family — The Basic Unit of the Church” in which he recounted a hymn we once had called “Don’t Kill the Little Birds,” and then gave a very anti-hunting anecdote:

“I had a sling and I had a flipper. I made them myself, and they worked very well. It was my duty to walk the cows to the pasture a mile away from home. There were large cottonwood trees lining the road, and I remember that it was quite a temptation to shoot the little birds ‘that sing on bush and tree,’ because I was a pretty good shot and I could hit a post at fifty yards’ distance or I could hit the trunk of a tree. But I think perhaps because I sang nearly every Sunday, ‘Don’t Kill the Little Birds,’ I was restrained.”

According to those who remember that talk, many said that the Mormon hunting community hated this quote, and would even openly mock President Kimball’s reading of the verses. Ethos did not matter as much this time as content (though it is important to note that those who witnessed such mocking behavior were severely disturbed and scandalized). At the same time, if you mention this to someone who is rabidly “anti-environmentalist” (whatever that means), they may do this uncomfortable shuffling of feet and attempt to reinterpret what President Kimball really meant, or perhaps will introduce another quote from a (take note) General Authority that contradicts this statement and trump that as somehow “more true,” because again, we as Mormons are uncomfortable with the idea of rejecting an argument out right from an anointed servant of God.

On top of that, note that many Mormons joke that C.S. Lewis is the “Thirteenth Apostle” because he’s the most quoted non-member in General Conference. Why? Because so many of what he says could have come right out of an apostle’s mouth:

“The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him — for we can prevent Him, if we choose — He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.”

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 163

And, content again plays in part when C.S. Lewis says something like this:

“I am afraid I am not going to be much help about all the religious bodies mentioned in your letter of March 2nd. I have always in my books been concerned simply to put forward ‘mere’ Christianity, and am no guide on these (most regrettable) ‘interdenominational’ questions. I do however strongly object to the tyrannic and unscriptural insolence of anything that calls itself a Church and makes teetotalism [abstinence from alcoholic beverages] a condition of membership.”

– C.S. Lewis, in a letter replying to a woman he corresponded with in Salt Lake City, quoted by Marianna Richardson and Christine Thackeray in “What C.S. Lewis Thought about the Mormons”

“Well,” Mormon C.S. Lewis fans would say, throwing their hands up in the air, “I’m sure he accepted the gospel in the next life.” And when asked why this information is not as good as the previous quote from Mere Christianity, they would probably respond with, “Well, he’s not the prophet or anything.” Again, ethos takes precedence (even though C.S. Lewis introduces a very strong argument that “teetotalism” has very little scriptural support). Once again, the ethos argument comes out.

Ethos — what is it good for?

So again I ask, how important is ethos in an argument for Mormons? Does it trump pathos and logos? Is who says it more important than what is being said or how it makes us feel? Is “[insert priesthood office here] So-and-so said it and that’s good enough for me” really good enough?

“I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self security. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.”

– Brigham Young

But what if Hugh Nibley said the above quote instead? Or Billy Graham? Or Martin Luther? Or Ralph Waldo Emerson? How does that change the value of the quote, for better or for worse?

And yes, I’m still digging up stuff on Mormon American exceptionalism. Don’t worry; I haven’t forgotten.

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“Divine, Messianic Force”

This is a fascinating video of 10 more obscure Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes. Every quote in this clip is powerful and Dr. King’s rhetoric at its best, but it’s quote number 7 is what I really want to talk about:

And don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, “You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I’m God.”

– Martin Luther King Jr., in a sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967 titled “It’s a Dark Day in Our Nation.”

There’s a fairly popular teaching in our Church that ebbs and flows with the cultural winds on American exceptionalism. It’s the idea that this land is a choice land, blessed above others, a promised land where good people are led and blessed and become prosperous as long as we follow God. Because of this, the United States of America is God’s chosen country for bringing about His work[1], and this, of course, includes the Constitution and the Founding Fathers springing forth from the well of Divine Inspiration. For many Americans, the Restoration and the last dispensation of the latter-days could not happen anywhere else because specifically America is just that awesome with religious freedom and all. Imagine, we say, if the Restoration happened anywhere else before it did? It would have been squashed like a tiny bug by giant, oppressive, narrow-minded governments! It would have never been given the time and ability to flourish like it would have in America! According to this mind view, no new deviations of Christianity ever occurred between the establishment of the Catholic church and 1830 (hint: This is not true; see also Reformation).

Some members see this as problematic as the Church transitions from an American church to a global one, and most non-US members either ignore it or see it as a quixotic American quirk that doesn’t really hold as much importance as principles like agency, the plan of salvation, the family, or saving priesthood ordinances. However, in the US at least, many Mormons fiercely hold on to this cherished ideal almost as much as guns, and especially in dark times such as recession, the fall of our capitalist banks, and the fact that our president is a fundamentalist Christian turned Islamo-Kenyan-non-American terror-bomber-in-chief, this sentiment is experiencing a great deal of popularity currently within the Jell-O Intermountain Corridor.

Martin Luther King, Jr., however, sees a massive problem in this kind of American exceptionalism, and that is arrogance. This sermon was given in the height of the Vietnam War, a time when America truly saw itself as the policeman of the world, stomping the Commies where’er they be found. Of course, hindsight if 20/20 and we saw the ultimate aftermath — a humiliating military defeat tactical withdrawal, and a massive humbling experience for the United States that would last until Ronald Reagan, who gave the US the wonderful gift to feel smug about itself again. For Dr. King, exceptionalist thinking brings about arrogance, and we should never let anyone think that we, for one minute, are some kind of messianic force for good in the global community. It leads to dangerous thinking, and it leads to lost lives.

It was a big problem with the Nephites, too, the previous recipients of God’s double-edged promise regarding the Promised Land known later as ‘Merica. Repeatedly, the Nephites were warned that only when we follow God’s commandments would God continue to let them even exist on this sacred ground. And what was the number one problem with the Nephites?

Pride. We even have a cycle named after them in Mormon terminology.

I can’t help but wonder if Dr. King is right. Maybe the whole exceptionalist thinking, the feeling that we’re living on special land and somehow that in turn makes us special, is incredibly dangerous and we should do away with it all together. Maybe this land really is special. Maybe it really does have some kind of special blessing-inherent property. Maybe the Constitution really is God-inspired, 3/5 included. Maybe even the Founding Fathers, warts and all, were inspired as well. But! Does that make us special, just by association? Just because we won the birth lottery and happened to be born in some specific, man-made, artificial political borders?

I don’t think Dr. King thinks so. And I’m inclined to agree with him.
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[1] This conclusion is not a very solid one. Does the scriptures mean that North America as a continent is blessed? Then what about Canada? Is Canada the chosen land, too? Sadly, this question would cause many American Mormons to hesitate or say no. Then why America? Because we wrote the Constitution?

In addition, most scholars seem to agree that the Book of Mormon stories, if they ever occurred, would have occurred more likely in the Mesoamerican region. So does that mean in all actually we were wrong and Mexico is actually the blessed nation? Many people point towards the fact that many patriarchs declare South Americans descendants or adoptees of the tribe of Mannaseh as spiritual proof that they are Book of Mormon descendants. So…maybe the blessed messianic nation is actually south of the border?

Or maybe the promise of blessings for obedience and destruction for disobedience isn’t necessarily geocentric?

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