Last week, a bizarre demand was thrust on me by a flier advertising a leadership training program: “BECOME YOURSELF!” the photocopied handout vigorously proclaimed. Who, I wondered, does this flier suppose that I am being right now? Obviously not J. Nelson-Seawright; otherwise, there would be no reason to request that I become J. N-S, would there? Perhaps I have, without quite realizing it, been impersonating Woody Allen? Or Gabriel Garcia Marquez?
While the instruction to become myself seems nonsensical when taken at face value, it can in fact have a kind of meaning when embedded in a broader network of ideas and meanings. In this particular case, I am almost certain that the desired set of meanings originates in the self-help theory retailed by Phil McGraw, Wayne Dyer, and so forth. Self-help theory typically assumes that each of us has an authentic self, indeed almost a Platonic ideal version of ourselves, that is hidden by acquiescence to societal demands — such as courtesy, familial responsibility, honesty, punctuality, morality, and so forth. If only we could decide to abandon our commitment to those societally imposed pressures, we would be able to recover and express our authentic natures, thereby in effect becoming ourselves. Hence, the perplexing instruction on the flier is perhaps best understood as a request that I cease acquiescing to any request or demand whatsoever.
Yet there are other systems of meaning within which the instruction to become oneself might be seen as having genuine meaning. For example, we could read the flier in light of the now somewhat archaic definition of “become” as “to agree or accord with; suit, befit, grace.” Using this system of meaning, “become yourself” is a request for the reader to behave in a manner which is appropriate to the reader’s social position — a rough equivalent, I suppose, of asking someone to “act their age.” This reading makes the slogan perfectly comprehensible, but I am delighted to note that the final message it produces is the exact opposite of the intended self-help meaning.
Being asked to become myself reminds me, of course, of the many times that advertisements in various media throughout my childhood and young adulthood instructed me, “Be All You Can Be.” Obviously, three of the things that would be possible for me to become over the next few days — three of the things I “can be” — are a purse-snatcher, an arsonist, and a corpse. Do the US Armed Forces have some kind of interest in convincing me to be all of those things? How am I supposed to fulfill the instruction to be all that I can be, an instruction that would seem to require me to become each of those things and also simultaneously not to become any of them?
I think the old military recruitment ads presupposed something like the following network of ideas: the reader or viewer is an adolescent or early adult male who feels adrift in life and who believes that he is not living up to his potential. This audience member could achieve much more in life, if only he had discipline and focus. Hence, a term of service in the Army will help the young man live up to his full potential — and therefore become the very best possible version of himself — by supplying the lacking personality traits through rigorous training. Hence, “Be All You Can Be” means something like “Serve in the Armed Forces to Acquire Discipline.”
Yet other systems of meaning can make this slogan have the opposite practical implication. Suppose that the concept of “being all you can be” is translated in utilitarian ethical terms as “adopting the course of life that results in the greatest good for the largest number of people.” If the reader/viewer of the advertisement in question was deciding between either joining the military or becoming a doctor and participating in humanitarian medical work among AIDS sufferers in sub-Sarahan Africa, the utilitarian ethical reading of the slogan may well favor the non-military career, the many and substantial positive results of military service notwithstanding.
It is helpful to think of phrases like “Be All You Can Be” and “Become Yourself” as hollow slogans. I would define a hollow slogan as a short phrase whose meaning depends radically on a network of presuppositions, concepts, and meanings that are not universally accepted within a given society. Hence, “Get down!” or “Sign on the dotted line” are not hollow slogans; their meanings are fairly well established among English-speakers. But “Become Yourself” is a hollow slogan because a substantial number of people within our society have networks of meaning that lead them to want to interpret the phrase in ways that differ from the original intent. It’s likewise important to keep in mind the difference between hollow slogans, as I’m using that term, and empty phrases or phrases with no meaning whatsoever. “Have a nice day” in contemporary American conversation seems to me to have no meaning at all, whereas hollow slogans do have non-trivial meaning when connected with background theories and conceptualizations.
All of this seems important to me because Mormon boundaries with respect to belief and membership are defined in terms of hollow slogans. It seems to me that, beyond the standard Christian affirmations, a fully-acceptable Mormon must be able to say with conviction: “the Book of Mormon is true,” “the Church is true,” and “President Hinckley is a prophet.” Yet we require no creedal affirmation of the correct interpretation of each slogan, we conduct no catechism in which authorized explanations of each phrase are offered, and our worthiness interviews rarely involve in-depth probing of the actual belief system standing behind each claim.
Hence, the woman who bears her testimony that the Book of Mormon is true may be expressing a personal belief that the book is an inerrant history of the pre-Colombian Western Hemisphere, that the book is a dramatic prophetic expansion of a much smaller ancient source, that the book is important to her because it has brought her closer to Christ even though she has no particular interest in its historical claims, that the book is a genuine 19th-century prophetic composition, or one of many other sets of ideas. Each of these possibilities is consistent with the affirmation that the Book of Mormon is true. Therefore, while some of us might classify these meanings as falling at quite different levels of spiritual or intellectual progress, each possible meaning is a kind of testimony of the Book of Mormon. Similarly diverse sets of meanings lie behind statements about the truth of the Church and the prophetic calling of Gordon B. Hinckley. Thus, each of these affirmations seems to fit within the category of hollow slogans.
The title of this post emphasizes the brilliance of hollow slogans. What does that brilliance entail? In my view, hollow slogans in the church are wonderful because they create unity out of diversity. They allow people with sometimes remarkably different fundamental beliefs and perceptions about the gospel and the divine to share language, affirmations of faith, and as a result the sacred intimacy of fellowship. Hollow slogans help us, as a people, to meet the divine command of unity by masking our inevitable mortal confusion and differences in perception about the most sacred things. Surely that result is worthy of some celebration.
I’d like to close this post by expressing my conviction that the Book of Mormon is true, that the Church is true, and that Gordon B. Hinckley is genuinely called to be a prophet.