I want to expand on thoughts expressed by commenters in the Sunday PM General Conference Open Thread, specifically, “…Or maybe, if we’re going to talk about how wise mothers are, and what good teachers, and read sentimental poems about grown men longing to hear their mothers’ voices, we could just, y’know, hear their voices….”
The immediate context of this comment was Brother Foster’s talk, “Mother Told Me,” but the point applies to the entire conference, and more broadly to women’s influence in the church. I’d like to delve deeper into an analysis of some details in Brother Foster’s talk. I want to emphasize that this should not be read as a condemnation of the whole talk. It is both much narrower (a quibble with just one particular example he selected), and much bigger (the whole situation of women in the church), than his talk. Also, on some level, this is just a golden opportunity for me to geek out on some of my favorite geeky topics: logic, paradox and feminism.
To start, I’ll give a brief primer on logic, paradoxes and “strange loops.” This is me in full geek-out mode, so if it bores you, kindly skip ahead to the ** and you won’t actually miss anything critical (only the coolest topic known to humankind, but do as you like).
Logic is the study of truth, and how to derive or discover new truths from existing truths plus derivation rules that we agree are guaranteed to lead us to truth. A classic example is: “All men are mortal (a truth), Socrates is a man (a truth), Therefore Socrates is mortal. (follows from the two truths using rules of derivation)” Logicians would like to think that all statements can likewise be shown to be either true or false using the phenomenal awesome power of logic. But the Greek philosopher Epimenides ruined all that by coming up with the Liar’s Paradox. This is a sentence that can be neither true nor false. It is a self-contained paradox. The sentence is:
This sentence is false.
If we take the sentence as true, then we must conclude that it is false. If we take the sentence as false, then we must conclude that it is true. In both cases, we reach a contradiction. It turns out that when logical statements or systems are allowed to talk about themselves like this, it tends to wreak havoc. This havoc from self-reference is a pattern repeated again and again in logic, geometry, set theory, computer programming, and even art and music. Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach is a feast if this has stimulated your appetite for the luscious excitement that is self-reference and paradox, or, as he calls it, “strange loops.” (This is sufficient to introduce the concepts of logic, self-reference and the resulting paradoxes, and now you can really feel free to skip ahead to the ** without missing anything.)
But since we’ll later go on to tie in feminist issues, we may as well look at another very classic, and very man-centric, example of a strange loop, the Barber Paradox. This is essentially a rewording of Russell’s Paradox, which Bertrand Russell discovered while attempting to bring all of set theory into a nice logically clean and tight package. The [BYU-ified] Barber Paradox:
BYU has one barber, and he’s a man. All the men at BYU are clean-shaven (there are no beard cards). Some men shave themselves, others go to the barber. RULE: The barber shaves all the men, and only the men, who do not shave themselves.
Does the barber shave himself? (if he doesn’t, he must; if he does, he must not!) 
** And now we have reached the part of this post that actually relates to Brother Foster’s talk. In his talk, he relates a humorous anecdote about a boy who says, “father is the final word in our house, because mom says so.” Foster is doing two things here. First, and this is the thesis of the entire talk, he is telling us that women’s voices are wonderful and powerful, in some ways more so than men’s. Second, he is training us in a method. He is teaching us that to discover the truth about whose voice has power in an organization, in this case the family, we should disregard the words the boy says and instead focus on the epistemology of what he says. In other words, who delivered the final word (the mother) is more important, more revelatory about the true possessor of the final word power, than the words themselves.
But an interesting thing happens when we try to apply Foster’s method for analyzing power structures to his own talk. Boiled down very crudely, we can state the point of Foster’s talk in a way parallel to his anecdote: “women’s voices in the church matter, because I, a man, said so.” But per the mother anecdote, we are to disregard the words saying that women matter, and examine the epistemology, which says that men matter. Looking at it this way, an anecdote embedded in the talk has told us to disregard the talk. (But if we disregard the talk, then we also disregard the anecdote, reverting us to our default stance of heeding conference talks. Oh, strange loops, how you fascinate me!)
Of course Brother Foster never cited his own manhood as a reason why we should heed his talk, and this is a cynical framing. I listen to conference to be uplifted–and I am!, not to keep tally of male vs. female speakers. But, this time ’round in particular, with so many talks emphasizing women’s roles and motherhood, and–while I don’t keep tally!–seemingly fewer women than I remember seeing in the past, it did get hard to ignore. This brings us back to the suggested alternative to the many we-love-women talks, which would be, of course, to simply hear from more women in conference. RS General President Julie B. Beck made a prescient comment in the Saturday morning session of conference, quoting Eliza R. Snow saying that women do not need to be overly praised and coddled. In closing, I’ll cite a third speaker in this conference, who quoted a proverb that nicely encapsulates the paradox of a parade of male speakers saying that women’s voices are valued, “your actions speak so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.”
 Ok, I really can’t resist giving just one more set theory example (see how addicting these paradoxes are?). Imagine if you have some lists, and some of your lists are lists of lists, but you are concerned about the possibility of a list that includes itself. So you make a list of all lists that do not include themselves, so you can be sure to avoid those self-including ones. Does your list of all lists that do not contain themselves contain itself? [Cue “dun-dun-DUN!” chords.]
 Question: When I insert sentences into this post that talk about this post itself (e.g., “And now we have reached the part of this post that actually relates…”), am I creating an environment ripe for paradoxical strange loops? Answer: Probably. Question: What about when I insert sentences which talk about the self-referencing sentences in this post, including themselves? Answer: oh dear, we might be entering a strange loop right now.
 Aware of the danger of paradox that attends self-reference, alarm bells should sound when you see that phrase, “[apply] to his own talk.”