In Nephi Anderson’s short story, “On the Border-land of Light,” his protagonist meets a woman who knows little of Mormons:
“Have you never been down in the lower valley?” he asked.
“No, never. You see we were afraid of the Mormons at first,…
…but now I know that was foolish.”
“And you have never read a Mormon religious work?”
“No, and I don’t care to. I am a Christian woman, and don’t care to change my belief.
(“On the Border-land of Light,” Juvenile Instructor, 29 (1 September 1894), 538-542.)
Of course, this seems rather silly to members of the Church, but not unfamiliar. Our missionaries are used to hearing that prospective members have been told not to talk to them and not to read LDS materials. Our missionary efforts are largely characterized by efforts to find the open minded, and by actions that help people become more willing to listen.
It might be simple, then, to claim that we should be open to listening to others, just as we want others to listen to us. But it is much more complicated than that.
Despite the nursery rhyme claim, words can hurt. Every parent who has comforted their child after a playground disagreement knows that the hurtful remark can reduce a child to tears. Adults are hardly imune, and if anything seem to be getting more sensitive over time. Words do have power to hurt, and to help.
If you think about it, you realize that writers must believe that words have power, or why bother to write? We, Mormons, believe that they influence others, or why would we send missionaries out to, basically, use words to influence others?
So, if words do have power, aren’t there things that we should not listen to? In my view there are some, especially when children are involved. I don’t think that I want my six-year-old reading erotica, nor do I think I should be reading literary pornography.
But in my view there is precious little that we shouldn’t be open to reading or to listening to. There is a social aspect to all this also. If we want others to listen to us, we must listen to them. If we want to live in an society that is open to our ideas, we must be open to the ideas of others.
This social aspect of reading and listening is vitally important. In the extreme, the fear of the power of words leads to ostracising those with unusual ideas. I’ve heard stories of non-Mormon parents who refused to let their children interact with Mormons–apparently since some of our words might influence them, they don’t want their children to hear any of our words.
It is in this vein that the events of the past week (and also U.S. politics of the past decade or so) disturb me most. Political discourse has turned nasty, and since words have power, it does make a difference. Lies and half-truths are spread, and the extremists don’t want to hear what those they disagree with say.
Today, the President of the United States is to speak to school children. The speech, released ahead of time, is quite good, I think, and its content is hardly controversial. The words, hopefully powerful words, seek to encourage children to do better in school and make a positive impact on our society. The content of the speech makes you wonder what the fuss is all about. [Personally, I think this is a nice model for the kind of speech that a President should give to children -- and I'd be open to such a speech at the beginning of every school year.]
I know words can be powerful. Even if the President was going to make a more political speech, I’m not sure that children should not hear such words. Is it so bad for children to learn about political speech, or for parents to have to explain to their children why they disagree with the President? Do parents really expect their children to side with the President on political issues over their ideas, and would it really make a difference in their home if they did?
What is most disturbing to me is the idea that somehow, just because they disagree with the President’s political positions, now those opposed to his policies don’t want to listen to anything he says, no matter how innocuous.
And, most importantly for LDS Church members, can we really justify not allowing our children to listen to the President and still expect our neighbors to listen to our missionaries?