Don’t Shoot the Messenger!

In response to Ashmae’s thoughtful reflections on the dearth of women’s voices at the last General Conference, a reader shared the following comment on a popular social media website:

You are all focused on the wrong thing. Why does it matter who said it as long as it is truth? The message is far more important than the messenger.

Someone else made a similar comment here on the website, so it must be a thing:

I don’t think it matters who speaks to be quite honest. It’s what is spoken about that is important and it applies to everyone.

I admit that my first response was to heave a sigh of exasperation. After all, as members of a culture steeped in the rhetorical traditions of our fathers, we all know that the credibility of the messenger matters at least as much as logical arguments and emotional appeals as a mode of persuasion.

Well, you don’t have to take my word for it; I’m just an anonymous guy on the internet. So let’s do a simple thought experiment instead: Would it make no difference to you if the prophet, a member of your ward or a homeless drug addict called you to repentance for your clandestine green tea habit? Or from whom would you be most likely to accept (let’s assume the same) advice about how to raise a rambunctious child—your pediatrician, a relative or that busybody behind you in the checkout line?

So of course it matters who speaks! But upon further reflection it occurred to me that perhaps there is something aspirational about these comments (though one would have to ignore the purpose for which the arguments were deployed)—wouldn’t it be nice if we were able to recognize and accept the truth when and where it is uttered with no regard to the status of the speaker (and conversely, to avoid being led astray by stuffed shirts)? Are you ready to sit at the feet of women sharing truth, whether they are speaking from the pulpit at General Conference or writing on a blog?

Or is that an egalitarian bridge too far into a domain where hierarchy and authority are as responsible for creating the message as much as sharing it? I mean, consider the two-or-more-earrings episode—if anyone but the prophet had said that, would it have received any traction at all as a guide to Mormon dress and grooming?

Where do you fall on the issue of messengers and messages?



  1. Your comparison of anybody except the prophet to a drug addict is a bit extreme. It seems like you’re deliberately avoiding the actual question asked: if the messengers that delivered the message are all sanctioned messengers, does it matter which one delivers it?

    And in the purest sense of the text of the message, then no, it doesn’t. If we are concerned about secondary messages, e.g., messages we’re sending related to the delivery of the message, then it does matter.

  2. Mary Ann says:

    “My dear sisters, whatever your calling, whatever your circumstances, we need your impressions, your insights, and your inspiration.” -Russell M. Nelson

    Why bother encouraging women to speak up if it doesn’t matter who is speaking?

  3. Of course the source matters. Try this example. On the first day of my freshman PoliSci class at BYU the professor handed a paper to each student with the quote “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” He asked us to discuss whether we agreed. The catch? Half the papers attributed the quote to Thomas Jefferson. The other half attributed it to Joseph Stalin.

  4. It matters who is speaking not primarily due to position of authority, but of experience. Using Dave K’s example, if the students all knew it was Jefferson (a revered authority) who made that quote, and then I (a nobody) spoke against it, I think I could sway a number of people if they listened to me, because I have the benefit of hindsight (Jefferson was all for the Whiskey Rebellion and thought for the longest time the French Revolution was a fantastic thing — until all his old friends and their children were executed).

    Ashmae wasn’t arguing that the conference talks weren’t inspired. But inspiration is usually based on experience (otherwise, it’s overt revelation), which means that women could have given different messages that were also inspired, because they have different experience.

  5. Another data point is the BOM’s account of Alma and Amulek. Both gave essentially the same testimony to the Zoramites, but Amulek’s voice was particularly convincing (or at least astonishing) because he was a member of the native community. The people knew him. Likewise, wherever possible the church prefers to send local saints as missionaries rather than foreign imports from the states. Again, the source matter.

  6. Lindsey Smith says:

    We believe that men and women are different.
    We believe that righteous women will one day be like Heavenly Mother (who?!) and righteous men will one day be like Heavenly Father.
    We believe that Heavenly Father is 1) all knowing 2) all powerful and 3) all loving.
    “All” is a superlative; it means greatest, best, total, etc.

    … So what exactly is the destiny of the women, if not the same destiny as Heavenly Father?… Sort-of knowing? Sort-of powerful? Sort-of loving?
    … And with so many unknowns about women, and with every good, noble, noteworthy attribute given in it’s fullness to God the Father, is it any wonder that
    a) women read into every little practice/ happening/ verse/ text /talk searching for information about their destiny
    b) that we simply don’t value the words of women.

    It’s no surprise that we place more value on the words of someone with the title “authority” (a person or organization having power or control) over the words of someone with the title “auxiliary” (a person or *thing* providing supplemental help or support.)
    As a woman, it’s just so @#$%^ difficult. One of my tiny requests would be that at the very least we stop using the phrase “Restored Gospel” because the “ed” on restored sounds all neat and tidy and finished and complete. The fact that we know almost nothing about our Heavenly Mother/ our potential, and yet we congratulate ourselves on having “the restored truth”, but minus info on the women, it all seems so incomplete.

    May these conversations about the role of women not be the tangential path that leads people to Hell, but rather part of the rugged climb that leads us ever closer to the restor*ed* gospel of Jesus Christ, where both of our Heavenly parents matter.

  7. I’m not very articulate compared to you BCC regulars, so I may not state this very well, but here goes. Not only does “who’s speaking” matter, but also the context of the setting, and the speaker’s “position” related to the setting. At GC, I am always most interested in hearing from those I accept as prophets, seers, and revelators (PSRs), meaning of course the First Pres & Q12, who also happen to be men. Does the fact that they are all men bother me? No.

    Secondly I’m interested in hearing from those with stewardships that include me and my family, ESPECIALLY general auxiliary presidencies, who I think should speak at every general conference in GENERAL sessions. Drop the women’s session – the entire church needs to hear these worldwide leaders in the general sessions. I’m thinking here of RS, YW, and Primary presidencies — that makes 9 women and 15 PSRs that I’d like to hear from in every conference. I’d probably include the general SS presidency here as well (another 3 men). That would make 27 “must have” individuals spread over 5 sessions (4 general sessions and Priesthood session).

    For some reason, I just don’t feel the same way about 70’s, even if they have an assignment of general church stewardship, such as the YM presidency, missionary department, genealogy, etc. Probably because these programs are so priesthood related I figure their content will be covered by the people listed above.

    It’s not to say that I don’t appreciate GAs (70’s, etc.) who have a wealth of experience, insights, and valuable instruction to share – their talks can be extremely powerful and, since there is more diversity in the multiple quorums of the 70, so interesting and uplifting. Maybe we only have 2/3 RS, YW, SS, and Primary presidencies speak in any given GC to make room for the 70s to speak.

    To sum it up, GC is a special case. It’s a world conference of the church – I hope and expect to hear from the church’s world leaders and the current structure doesn’t bother me (with heavier male than female world leaders). However, my expectations of stake conference and sacrament meetings are different because the context and purpose of those meetings is also (in my mind), entirely different. I would be not only disappointed, but disturbed, if the speakers were only selected from the leadership.

  8. Angela C says:

    mjb33: “It seems like you’re deliberately avoiding the actual question asked: if the messengers that delivered the message are all sanctioned messengers, does it matter which one delivers it?” I think this misses the point entirely, at least as I read what Peter is saying. Referencing “sanctioned” messengers means that their authority is how we know whether the messages are true. Peter, OTOH, is saying do we have the ability to let go of the authority fallacy to recognize truth regardless the source. So yes, a homeless drug addict is an excellent example. I would hope we can hear and recognize both wisdom from “fools” and folly from “wise men”; otherwise, what’s the point of the Holy Ghost?

    But I also see that many people really can’t get past the importance of the person’s role and mistake authority for truth. That’s a human condition, one Jesus railed against.

    eileen369: I agree with this. Why aren’t we hearing from speakers whose stewardship is relevant to more of the audience. I have for decades felt like the 70 who are asked to speak or give prayers often act like they are in an audition for the role of apostle. I saw this same type of behavior among some of the upwardly-aspiring elders in my mission. When we almost never hear from the presidencies over Primary, YW, and RS, and we instead hear 95% from just Priesthood roles, it’s easy to begin to see those other groups as an afterthought at best, completely unnecessary to the function of the church. Which is unfortunately (as I learned firsthand) how a lot of the elders in my mission saw the women who were serving, if they saw us at all. There is a serious lack of respect and taking women seriously among some portion of the men in the church. Meetings like last weekend just reinforced that.

  9. Andrea S says:

    To those who appreciate the messsages from all authorized messengers, please also try to have sympathy toward those of us who struggle (whether just a bit or a lot) with the gender disparity at conference. There are many of us who would be comforted by even a few more female speakers, with their unique experiences and inspired messages, at each session. You would still be gettIng an excellent conference experience with uplifting messages all around. As a bonus, those around you who struggle would perhaps struggle just a little less on those days. Perhaps this would be a boon for all of us.

  10. FarSide says:

    For me, when evaluating the words of any speaker, I take into account their expertise and their stewardship. When, for example, Elder Nelson attempts to dismiss the Big Bang theory by comparing it to an explosion in a printing shop creating a dictionary, the illogic of his argument is easy to reject because he is neither a scientist nor does his calling as an apostle require him to instruct us in the manner in which God created the universe. When, however, he offers guidance as to how I can lead a more virtuous life and be of greater service to others, then I pay closer attention because these are matters as to which he has experience and which are clearly within his area of responsibility. This, of course, does not mean we should always defer to experts or discount the possibility that a non-expert may have an insight that has eluded the “professionals” in a given field.

    Which brings me to the question of our conference speakers. If you start from the premise, as do I, that those who are called to senior leadership positions—both male and female—typically have led admirable lives, have rendered admirable service to others, possess, in certain instances, good administrative skills, and are reasonably well educated, then what basis do we have for assuming that a member of the Quorum of the Seventy will offer more inspired counsel than that provided by the Second Counselor in the Relief Society Presidency? Indeed, aren’t the chances better that we will receive additional inspired perspectives and teachings if we invite those to speak whose experiences and backgrounds differ from the regular stream of general authorities who, at times, seem as if they all came from the same factory?

  11. Pokemom says:

    I feel strongly about these discussions on voices, authority, and wisdom–whether the voices are women’s or not. I don’t want this post to lead to the exact same discussion as the comments to Ashmae’s post. So, I will try to respond to Peter’s questions about messages and messengers.

    First, those quotes:
    “You are all focused on the wrong thing. Why does it matter who said it as long as it is truth? The message is far more important than the messenger.” And “I don’t think it matters who speaks to be quite honest. It’s what is spoken about that is important and it applies to everyone.”

    There are lots of logical problems with these statements as they are used to justify the status quo. But for me, the overriding problem with these quotes is that the choice of messengers determines the content of a message, and it determines the delivery of the message, and it affects how people receive the message.

    So, if we are eliminating the female messengers altogether, we just don’t get the same messages, or the same delivery, or the same appeal to the receivers, that we would get if we had women’s voices. If we eliminate messengers from other countries, we have similar problems. Etc. Statistically, you could get so granular to feel you could never represent all “messenger groups.” But we could definitely do better.

    So sure, what is spoken in conference applies to everyone. But what are we missing out on? Missing out on because we exclude content, we exclude methods of delivery, and we exclude some people’s ability to hear the message because **the messenger matters.**

    Second aspect of shooting the messenger–with Ashmae as the messenger. It was astonishing to me how antagonistic some people were toward Ashmae’s and others’ simple statements that the lack of womens’ voices made them hurt. Let’s listen to everyone without jumping to judgement. Really. As a society, we need to listen more.

    As for me, responding directly and personally to Peter’s last question–what is my gut response to messages and messengers. I did a quick self-evaluation, and yes, I do evaluate people’s authority when they speak to me. To me, authority is a combination of many things, and I don’t accept someone’s authority without evaluating it. One of the greatest marks of authority to me: humility. Another great mark: life experience. Another: a person’s willingness to listen to and synthesize multiple ideas. Another: their compassion and empathy toward me and others I care about. Some of the most “authoritative” are the most foolish, and I will cast aside especially any fool who asserts their own authority. I look for wisdom wherever I might find it. Who are the wisest among us? How do they become wise? Those are the people I want to listen to, and sometimes the hardest to find..

  12. Bryan H. says:

    The last time we had this discussion in the bloggernacle it was pointed out to me the irony of it all.

    If the liberals are right that there is nothing special or essential about gender, then they should not care if men or women give the message because the gender of the messenger does not matter.

    However if the conservatives are right that gender matters then they absolutely should care about the gender of the messenger because otherwise they will miss out on perspectives and experiences that are different and unique because of their gender.

    But what happens the same people who tend to argue against gender essentialism ask where are the women, and those who believe in it defend the status quo.

    I think the objections you quote from Facebook etc. would have merit if we lived in an ideal world, where messengers are mere conduits of pure inspiration. But we live in fallen world and our genders, race, intellect, experiences, and everything else all influence how we interpret and communicate divine truth.

  13. Thanks, all, for your stimulating and constructive responses.

    But we live in fallen world and our genders, race, intellect, experiences, and everything else all influence how we interpret and communicate divine truth.

    Indeed; even if one views the state of the world more neutrally, experience shows that this is exactly what we do. Of course the messenger matters—for good and ill.

    For the most part, considering the messenger is good idea that helps us filter out the charlatans, etc. who would be our ruin if we heeded them. On the other hand, sometimes we become too enamoured with celebrity, fortune, etc. and ignore truth from the lowly and poor, so to speak, also at our peril. In the scriptures, for example, the unlikely messenger is a recurring theme, with Christ portrayed as an especially obvious example of someone the people weren’t expecting to hear from.

    At any rate, I believe that pausing for a moment to consider the often inconsistent and byzantine ways in which the messenger does matters to us—at times more than the message itself—is time well spent.

  14. As mjb33 said, if we are concerned about secondary messages, then it does matter. I think we should be concerned about secondary messages. I don’t remember all the words spoken in a GC session, but I do remember if none of the words was spoken by a woman.

  15. Exactly. In fact, there’s a whole sub field of linguistics–pragmatics–devoted to studying how more is communicated than said, looking at how contextual meaning is communicated and interpreted. Much of the frustration in communication is found in the gap between those two (subconscious) efforts.

  16. I had a friend make the comment that the messenger didn’t matter on one of my threads. To me these types of comments seem like a way to shame me into silence for caring. I like your spin hear, hopeful if not so, so far from reality today.

  17. If the gender of the messenger doesn’t matter, then who could possibly object to more of those messengers being women?

    Seems to me that the only way you get women outnumbered nearly TEN to one is if the gender somehow DOES matter.

  18. From Handbook 2 – 4.6.1

    “Council members are encouraged to speak honestly, both from their personal experience and from their positions as organization leaders. Both men and women should feel that their comments are valued as full participants. The bishop seeks input from Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary leaders in all matters considered by the ward council. The viewpoint of women is sometimes different from that of men, and it adds essential perspective to understanding and responding to members’ needs.”

    Essential perspective…

    Let’s walk the walk. If it’s not happening at the highest levels of leadership, then how can we expect it to happen on a ward level? One meaningful action would be to drop the ‘auxiliary’ designation for Relief Society, Young Women and Primary. Can something be both essential and auxiliary?

  19. One other thing. the phrase about women sometimes having different viewpoints from men suggests that men’s viewpoints are the default, or that all women (or men) have the same viewpoint. By limiting the number of women’s sermons and prayers in general sessions, we all lose.

  20. God Himself apparently doesn’t care about who the messenger is. The Savior was a poor carpenter and Joseph Smith a know-nothing 14 year old boy. In fact LDS often proudly proclaim – look how unknown and uneducated the men were who restored the gospel and translated the Book of Mormon.

    Maybe we’ve transitioned to a culture where messengers do matter and you must have a Ivy League pedigree and a particular gender to be a prophet.

  21. nothing assumed about your food allergy says:

    Messengers matter because they will give different messages. Why don’t we just have one Q12 person unloading a bunch of fabulous truth in one 16 hour filibuster talk and call it General Conference? Because hearing form different individuals gives us different messages. Different ideas. Different perspectives. Provided it is not overly correlated, of course.

  22. Elizabeth says:

    “my first response was to heave a sigh of exasperation” That was the response to many of the women’s opposing comments on your and Ashmae’s thread. It was pretty clear that if a woman doesn’t agree with the OPs premise, that woman’s voice is not welcome. You may talk about how much you value our thoughts and experiences, and how much those add to the conversations all you want, but if your first response is “a sigh of exasperation” your words don’t mean much.

  23. A big factor of conference is checking ourselves and our spiritual state by looking at people who aren’t just supposed to be giving us messages but also standing as examples. If we only see men or Americans then that part of the message of conference isn’t being done as well as it could be.

    That said, I’m sure they recognize that. In the past there have been more women. I suspect or at least hope this was unintended. I certainly am not going to draw big conclusions from one conference especially when there was a change of leadership to the degree there was. Hopefully next time though we’ll have many more women.

  24. Lindsey Smith says:

    Your point only reinforces the idea that God doesn’t care which *man* gets the revelation, as both examples you shared were men. I really don’t think we can discuss whether the messenger can be separated from the message until we acknowledge the reality that as our doctrine stands, God prefers to communicate with and through men.

  25. It was pretty clear that if a woman doesn’t agree with the OPs premise, that woman’s voice is not welcome. You may talk about how much you value our thoughts and experiences, and how much those add to the conversations all you want, but if your first response is “a sigh of exasperation” your words don’t mean much.

    No doubt I’m guilty of preaching water and drinking wine in some way or another, but I’m too thick to see it in a post where I made no hay of the commenters’ identity, nor did I dismiss their arguments out of hand. Besides, if they’re right, the only thing that matters is the truth of what they say; we’re under no obligation to have any regard for who they are, and none for the message either if it is in error. I think we should acknowledge the ways in which we think the messenger matters and then get over ourselves if that is preventing us from hearing truth. Or something. I’m still thinking things through and in doing so trying to take the voices I hear seriously.

  26. “It was pretty clear that if a woman doesn’t agree with the OPs premise, that woman’s voice is not welcome.”

    This is not what I saw. I didn’t see any pushback on comments where someone said that they weren’t bothered by the lack of female voices. The pushback came on comments that implied or directly stated that Ashmae shouldn’t feel the way she feels, that she is unfaithful or looking to be offended, that there is some key piece of information she hadn’t considered. I’ve always found that disagreement is welcome and discussed here. However, comments that suggest the poster is unrighteous or unaware of real truth usually receive pushback.

  27. Great comments. Example matters….follow the prophet/brethren….if the leadership considers womens’ voices to be equally important and a valuable resource of inspiration and instruction…we would see it from the pulpit. You gotta walk your talk to show people that it matters to you. I’d like to see all those big leather chairs filled with a balance between Mr. Mac and Coldwater Creek separates.

  28. I don’t know. I think some things need to be said by certain people in order to be heard and accepted by the listener. For example, let’s just try a few quotes. Can you imagine anyone other than President Uchtdorf saying these? Seriously, read them and recall his voice saying these words. Then try to imagine them having the same impact if anyone else had said them.

    ‪”The art of life is not controlling what happens to us, but using what happens to us.”‬
    “Once we give up searching for approval we often find it easier to earn respect.”
    “We need to remember across generations that there is as much to learn as there is to teach.”‬
    “Each person must live their life as a model for others.”
    “Memories of our lives, of our works and our deeds will continue in others.”
    “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions.”

    (Seriously, read those with Uchtdorf’s voice in your mind.)

  29. Marshall McLuhan famously said that “the medium is the message.” I think he was talking about transmission media like books, TV, and movies. But his insight is no less applicable in this context. That messages ostensibly from God come almost exclusively through men conveys all kinds of information without considering their content at all. Men are more worth listening to than women are. Men are more godly. Men are more important. These are messages I would hope Church leaders would want to actively avoid conveying, so I am flabbergasted that they are willing to continue to let the ratio of male to female speakers be so high, and indeed, to increase it.

  30. Ronkonkoma says:

    Let’s recognize the fact that members are going to hear primarily from General Authorities during conference and that’s not going to change.

  31. Put me in the camp that says the messenger matters. As a very small personal example, I remember some years ago going to the then annual women’s broadcast. My experience had always been that many women at the Tabernacle pulpit were wives and mothers who shared a certain speaking voice and speaking style – what I’ve heard called (meaning no disrespect here) the East Bench Voice. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve heard plenty of valuable messages from them. But that night we heard from a member of the then new general RS presidency, a never-married professional woman, who had neither that sweet voice nor the cadences that accompany it. I sat up straight. My singles ward friends around me sat up straight. Here was someone, we all said afterwards, to whom we could listen and relate. She got it. She got us. Since then she and I have diverged on a few things, but she was a beacon and an example at a time when I really needed one. Could somebody else have said the same things she did? Some of them yes, some of them no.

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