A (Wo)Man Hears What (S)He Wants to Hear …

Over the weekend, a talk was presented in a church meeting that encouraged women to embrace their roles as nurturers and peacemakers, and to be grateful that they are given those innate abilities.  They were also advised to not worry too much about who is in charge, because much work is done behind the scenes, and it doesn’t really matter who gets credit.  No, Silly, not that talk.  This talk.

I’ll summarize it for you, in case you didn’t follow the link.  As part of a women’s outreach program held at the Unitarian church, a famous feminist who has published books about discovering your inner Goddess made a presentation that praised women while simultaneously defining their roles in terms that are specific to their sex.  But instead of reminding her listeners that children are worth sacrificing for, Dr. Bolen reminded them that they have an important part to play in saving the world.  How do we account for the difference between the way Dr. Bolen’s and President Beck’s talks were received?  Are feminists really offended by the notion of essential gender differences, or is it all just about having babies and doing housework?  If President Beck had encouraged women to use their innate nurturing abilities to recycle and work for peace, would her talk have met the same objections?  I’m not trying to single out feminists; there are plenty of other examples.  The point of this post is to observe that we all are pretty good at selective listening.

I honestly feel sorry for teenage boys this week.  After Elder Perry’s talk in priesthood meeting, young men are never going to hear the end of the take out your headphones/quit playing video games/get a job broken record.  I wouldn’t be surprised if that topic was the subject of thousands of family home evenings last night.  And as a veteran father of teenage boys, I know that it occasionally needs to be said.  But does anybody want to bet me some real money that Moms and Dads will focus more on their son’s headphones that they will on their own anger, which was denounced by the prophet in the same meeting?  I think the tendency to know exactly what other people ought to do while feeling pretty good about ourselves is a sin, and that it ought to be resisted.

I was part of a conversation yesterday in which a woman took some satisfaction in describing the hectic nature of her life.  She not only homeschools her large family, she also runs a part-time business from her home.  She spends several hours in the van every afternoon, shuttling her children to their school, athletic, drama, music, dance, and debate activities.  She pronounced herself very happy with her role as mother, and was pleased that President Beck had bluntly and boldly told “those people” the facts of life.  I was tempted to say, in a smartalecky manner, that “smart mothers do less”, but I doubt she would have even known what I meant.  And in her zeal to hear only what she wanted, she apparently missed Elder Oaks’ talk completely.

When people talk about their favorite conference speakers, they often describe them in terms of speaking style.  “He really lays it on the line.”  “She doesn’t pussyfoot around.”  “He give it to you straight.”   It has been my experience that when I have used phrases like that, it has been when I have taken some glee in seeing someone else put in his place.  If I start to look forward to listening to Gordon B. Hinckley in the hope that he will lay the smack down on somebody, I have reduced his role from spiritual leader to that of a trash talking NBA power forward.  Are we not better than that?


  1. I actually prefer when someone lays the smack down on *me*. It makes me feel like I’ve actually been to church.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    Mark, very interesting, and very provocative, particularly with regards to the last paragraph. Picking and choosing seems an inevitable consequence of our fallen natures — what, in your view, is a practical antidote to such tendencies? I know that being in tune with the Spirit is the magic cure here, but surely there are real-world steps we can also consider to open our minds a little.

  3. madhousewife, I’m glad there are people like you. And the fact that people are different no doubt accounts for the varying reactions to conference talks. Some of us want some more challenges, others are already at their limits.

  4. pdmallamo says:

    Exactly what is it that Mormon women still don’t know about the importance of raising children, after all these years and all those talks on exactly that?

    Coming up: Yet another rush on Prozac in Utah.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    pdmallamo, you’re missing Mark’s point.

  6. Madhouse – Interesting. I prefer to go to Church and be uplifted and inspired to rise above myself and be better than I am. It makes me feel like I’ve actually been to Church.

  7. I agree. There is a bit of taking away from conference only what you want to, like indignation on behalf of imaginary teenagers with imaginary scolding parents, for example.

    I do agree with the sentiment that we shouldn’t look for “he really told them” over “what is he trying to tell me” but I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t mention I did cry a tear or two at President Hinckley’s talk because sitting by me was my brother in law, who is 16 and was absolutely pissed at his dad (who had grounded him from video games because he was doing poorly in school). It was an answer to a prayer for me.

  8. pdmallamo says:

    Actually, I was addressing the talk itself, not Mark’s comments. Sorry, I should have clarified.

  9. Great post by the way Mark. While I think discussing how a talk may have made us feel is can be a crucial post-conference exercise, it’s INCREDIBLY important to recognize that our own preconceived notions may be affecting how we listen. We should acknowledge that our own interpretations aren’t definitive. We should also be humble enough to seek to understand how others may have perceived something that was said. By doing so I truly think we expand our own spirituality and understanding, even if we ultimately feel that our perspective is right.

  10. Eric Russell says:

    Marc, what’s the difference? It’s all the same thing – just different ways of describing it.

    Mark, good stuff. I disagree, however, with the suggestion in the last paragraph that the preference for straightforward speakers is necessarily motivated by the “glee in seeing someone else put in his place.” There are other motivations for preferring language that is other than vague and generalized.

    pdmallamo, approx. 94% of general conference subject matter is the same over the course of the last few decades.

  11. Cute, Matt W. Very cute. But they aren’t imaginary. The father sitting next to his son in front of me thought it was funny to elbow his son in the ribs every time Elder Perry touched on the stereotypical shortcomings of teenage boys. I would have paid ten bucks to see the boy elbow his old man during the talk about watching our tempers.


    I disagree, however, with the suggestion in the last paragraph that the preference for straightforward speakers is necessarily motivated by the “glee in seeing someone else put in his place.”

    Oh, I agree with you, Eric. I only meant to say that for me, that has sometimes been the motivation. I been appalled at myself, and have wondered of that applied to others as well.

  12. Eric – In my mind the difference is astronomical. A “smackdown” seems to me to be the polar opposite of an inspiring call to rise above oneself. It evokes images of hellfire and brimstone and is premised around guilt while the call to rise above oneself is premised on hope. It makes us want to be better and leaves us hopeful that we can rather than simply making us feel bad about ourselves. I’ve encountered both many times during my life in the Church.

  13. pdmallamo says:

    Eric, the orations are pretty much all the same in North Korea, too, but at least they have the flag shows.

  14. pdmallamo, why not just post the words “please ban me” it is faster and more efficient…

    Mark IV: I guess I was more trying to point out that we focus on what we are sensitive to, rather than what is real or imaginary. Sorry, I was not trying to lay the smack down.

  15. Eric – I am, of course, speaking abstractly to try and illustrate the difference I see between the two. With regard to the “encounters” I made reference to, I’m perfectly will to grant that, as Mark has pointed out in his post, I could have been listening selectively.

    In general, I think we should also take it upon ourselves to put thought into how talks and lessons we give will be perceived to see if there are ways we can help prevent selective listening among those we teach. A little nuance can go a long way.

  16. Nick Literski says:

    I’m convinced that many religious people simply crave marching orders–not only for their own guidance, but as Mark suggests, for “easy” ways to distinguish the “less faithful.” Back in 2005, Hinckley invited members of the LDS church to read the entire Book of Mormon in the last six months of the year. The response was dramatic. Before long, it had morphed in public discourse into a “challenge,” and even a “commandment.” I managed an LDS bookstore at the time, and I can tell you it certainly affected sales of Book of Mormon cds, as the “deadline” drew nearer. In my own ward, the bishop issued a directive for home teachers to obtain a specific report from every member of every family they home taught, so that he could know who had “followed the prophet” and who had not. All the while, Hinckley’s concurrent, masterful talk on forgiveness (including a rebuke of the present criminal justice system) went entirely ignored.

    I still remember standing just outside the Tabernacle, listening to Ezra Taft Benson tell the men to “arise from the dust” and get married. Being a newlywed at the time, I admit I felt a smug satisfaction that I was already doing what others “needed to be told” to do. (OH, OH, the irony…..)

  17. Eric Russell says:

    OK Marc, Elder Oaks recent GC talk: Smackdown or inspiring call to rise above oneself?

  18. pdmallamo says:

    My only point, Matt W. (#14) is that if you have the flags, you don’t need the Prozac. I don’t understand why that is so impolitic.

  19. Easy does it, PD.

  20. I agree, but I think we can narrow this a bit. I think peoples’ ideologies embue some things with the quality of a red flag in front of a bull. Come near those things, and you trigger tremendously strong, often emotion laden responses as people believe themselves (or their identity-oriented attachments) attacked. I disagree with Marc that nuance makes much of a difference. Last conference (or the one before?) Pres Hinckley, who has encouraged girls to get education, chastised young men for not seeking enough, and for warning them that this fialing will make other hopes and dreams, including marriage, more difficult, particularly because young men are not attending college at the same rate as young women. Though in line with current sociological findings, and directed at young men to work harder and be more ambitious in their efforts, for some, this was a red flag, an implicit discouragement against girls getting more education. Connecting good motherhood with things in the home was a red flag for this same group in a way that recycling is not. Anger, forgiveness, the book of mormon, video games–none of these have the quality of a red flag, so no one gets nearly as upset about them.

    THis isn’t an attack on feminists, either–they are just the example at hand. Every ideology or identity formation has red flags like these.

  21. tesseract says:

    This is my theory. I think there are two generalized methods of motivation: fear and hope. The person who is motivated by fear/guilt (and is likely an iron rod-type of person) will respond better to the smackdown talk. The person who is not motivated by fear/guilt (liahona-type person) will responds much better to a loving/hopeful talk.

  22. Eric – I only heard 1/2 of it, so that assessment will have to wait until I read it or listen to it again. As a general point, and as I pointed out earlier, I feel like I’ve encountered both a lot in the Church and in Conference for that matter. My response in (#6) to madhouse in (#1) was simply noting that I apparently we like the exact opposite in terms of Church services. “Smackdowns” typically aren’t effective in motivating me, whereas I tend to respond very well to talks that I find more uplifting and inspiring. That doesn’t mean they don’t “call me to repentance”… they often do. But their general tone is one that encourages me to rise above myself and be better rather than one that, as the description entails, “smacks down.” Henry B. Eyring captures much of what I’m trying to get at here in his 1989 BYU speech “Come Unto Christ.”

  23. There’s a literature on tradeoffs associated with my ideas, by the way–one that identifies protected or ‘sacred’ values, which, if in the eyes of someone are traded for regular or everyday values, constitute taboo tradeoffs, and produce angry or scandalized responses. Feminism, like any other symbol system, creates taboos like this. Teenage boys, alas, do not have an ideology that makes taboos especially for them, and certainly not a group that advocates on behalf of them.

  24. Peter LLC says:

    Being blunt/direct/whatever is no particular art. Vague generalizations and platitudes are not the only other options.

  25. I think that just like the scriptures state about the body needing different parts so do each of us need different oratory styles in order to hear. Mormon oratory is generally boring so we get excited by talks like Julie Beck’s or Elder Oaks’ and our dear Prophet who can speak so well at the age of 97 on relevant current issues. That we can hear is amazing to me when most of us usually listen on autopilot.

  26. Thought Police says:

    No more bagging on Julie Beck, all. That’s not the topic of this post. Threadjacks will be zapped.

  27. The person who is motivated by fear/guilt (and is likely an iron rod-type of person) will respond better to the smackdown talk. The person who is not motivated by fear/guilt (liahona-type person) will responds much better to a loving/hopeful talk.

    This is remarkably condescending, and yet probably accurate. :)

    I don’t know that everyone fits into one of two categories. Some of us drift from one to the other depending on our circumstances or stage of life. Temperamentally, I find myself prone to feel guilty in general, so if I’m going to feel guilty anyway, I like to have my guilt well-defined. When I’m depressed, all that hope and love stuff just leaves me cold. (I’m kidding. Maybe.)

    As far as I’m concerned, hope is the flip side of fear, and “smackdown” talks do appeal to my better nature–the part of me that knows I can do better. Talks with a softer touch generally feel like they don’t apply to me. It may very well be a psychological problem, but I’m comfortable with that.

    Anyway, my original point was not that one kind of talk is better than another–obviously each of us has a unique take on any given one–but that I’m not particularly interested in going to church to have my righteousness affirmed (by distinguishing myself from whichever kind of sinner is receiving the smackdown this time) but to learn how to be a better person.

  28. In reading over the comments, I’m not really clear who bagged on Sister Beck above, so I can only assume you meant me which bewilders me. I responded in the abstract to another comment which praised “smackdowns,” while also responding to the substance of Mark’s post (see comment #9). At no time did I ever mention Sister Beck and the only one of my comments really alluded to her talk (see comment #9), but that allusion was anything but critical towards her. If anyone took my comments as “bagging” Sister Beck, then I suggest they are, to borrow from Mark’s original post above, “selectively” reading my comments.

  29. Marc, it wasn’t you. It’s OK. The offending comment was deleted.

  30. Antonio Parr says:

    I’ll add my pseudonym to the list of folks who look forward to General Conference talks that put me in my place (although I will confess to being suspectible of “ah ha” moments when there is a talk that drives home an issue of personal interest that may be at odds with others that I know in the Church).

    Elder Faust did that last conference when he spoke on forgiveness — I couldn’t think of anyone to whom that talk was more relevant than me, and I was grateful beyond words for the challenge and the inspiration. President Hinckley’s talk on anger had a comparable impact. These are the precious moments in General Conference when I feel most grateful to be a Latter-Day Saint, warts and all.

  31. Antonio Parr says:


    I know that word!

  32. Steve, thanks for tasering the offending comment.

    People, we can agree or disagree with what we think is the substance of Beck’s talk, but one thing I don’t think we can legitimately do is accuse her of being out to lunch. She chose a counselor who is single and one who comes from the third world. We can assume that she is quite familiar with the particular trials of childless women and of women raising children in situations that are less than ideal. We reveal our own ignorance and lack of imagination when we rant about her being out of touch with reality.

  33. Whew! Thanks Steve :)

  34. Good post, Mark. It reminds me of how, at the Last Supper, when Jesus told the disciples that one of them would betray him, they all said, “Lord, is it I?” They didn’t say, “I bet it’s Judas, the cheat! Or maybe Peter–he’s such a stubborn hothead.”

    Too often I think we use conference talks as ammunition against others, without allowing the messages to pierce our own hearts.

  35. Mark, your observations about the man elbowing his son in the ribs during Elder Perry’s talk made me think that the dynamic you describe often plays out is in terms of certain “problem” groups, groups often described in terms of problematic acts seen characteristic of them.

    Youth are one such problematic group–they’re seen (rightly or wrongly) as particularly vulnerable to sexual temptation, technological addictions, and general laziness and obnoxiousness. There’s some overlap here with men, who as a group are often seen to persist in adolescent proclivities in a way that women aren’t. So men, like youth, are sometimes described as bumbling oafs who never quite get it and are always on the verge of a porn addiction. And then there’s that fine problematic group, women of the world, who sacrifice femininity and families to their (our?) worldly ambitions.

    Problematic groups are pre-fab targets for smackdowns, I suppose, so it’s perfectly acceptable to categorically rip on their problematic behaviors, or elbow group members in the ribs during talks about the faults seen as characteristic.

    I really like what several others have said about considering our own sins. Personally I’ve found that a central message of the gospel–that in a very important sense, the only sins that matter are my own. I constantly have to keep reminding myself of that, however–I find the temptation to go digging around in others’ psyches in search of their sins instead of examining my own is shockingly strong.

  36. Most of us automatically point out the flaws of others, in our own minds, even if we can control our mouths. Why should conference time be any different? We don’t all change our thought habits just because it’s the first weekend in April or October.

    When I teach RS, I like to start by reminding everybody to try to remember to think “me, not you” and “us, not them.” How does this apply to me? How do we apply this to us? It’s a useful way to think. When I apply the “me, not you” application method, I tend to find stuff I need to work on, not my husband-kids-mom-neighbor, me.

    This can backfire when someone talks about something I’m already really working on, not necessarily successfully. The “me” can get a little touchy, weepy. Especially if the speaker fails to acknowledge that s/he knows how hard most of us are trying. If I really respect someone, it makes the lack of slack chafe all the more.

    Ah well. Something else to work on. :) (Are smileys allowed here? Or are they just a bit too cute?)


  37. Anna, thank you, and I know exactly what you mean about ammunition. I’m ashamed to admit that sometimes the motive for my gospel study has been focused around an effort to store up ammo in anticipation of an argument. Missionaries, I think, are especially susceptible to this danger.


    in a very important sense, the only sins that matter are my own.

    Thanks, you said in one sentence what it took me an entire post to express.

    Jami, That seems like a good approach for a teacher. And yes, smileys are allowed, but you need to know that BCC is home to a pretty grim bunch of people. ;-)

  38. Steve #2

    I have to ask why “being in tune with the Spirit” isn’t THE real world step (answer)? Not that any of us do it perfectly, but isn’t it the only perfect way to obtain truth?

  39. sigh, Abish.

  40. tesseract says:


    I just re-read what I wrote and it does come off condescending. Sorry! What I was trying to say was that different people respond more effectively to different type of motivators. I know you can’t fit everyone in two categories, but that was my poor attempt of making sense of it all. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reacting better to either motivation or style of talk (smackdown vs soft touch) or whether you might be classified as a liahona or iron rod. I think we’re all striving for the same goal and trying to be better people!

  41. Smiley faces are allowed – when I’ve been abstaining in order to fit in? (I should add that, as a convicted smiley face aholic, I will continue to strive to abstain – since the alternative is the type of binge that earned my former smackdown.)

  42. Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat???? :-O

  43. Steve, I like Abish. One of my kids . . . oh, never mind. :-)

  44. I actually prefer when someone lays the smack down on *me*. It makes me feel like I’ve actually been to church.

    I find those talks useful, but I really enjoy the talks that make me feel full of light, that speak peace to my soul. I always enjoyed Elder Faust for that reason.

  45. The world lost a powerful light when he passed didn’t it?

  46. YouNeverKnewMe says:

    “Are feminists really offended by the notion of essential gender differences, or is it all just about having babies and doing housework?”

    It’s not about being “offended.”

    It’s about naturalization of the cultural.

  47. Picking and choosing seems an inevitable consequence of our fallen natures — what, in your view, is a practical antidote to such tendencies?

    This is probably obvious, but I find it harder to ignore the stuff I need to hear when I read back over the talks later. It’s easier to zone out and miss the parts I don’t like as much when I’m just listening.