Words and Consequences

We owe Robinson Crusoe to the 18th-century public’s inability to understand satire.

True story. Daniel Defoe did not set out to become a writer. He wanted to be a wealthy merchant, and he had all kinds of idea about how to do so. But he was also a dissenting Protestant at a time when conformity to the Church of England was compulsory under the law. In 1702, Defoe wrote an anonymous pamphlet called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters in which he repeated most of the Anglican arguments for coerced conformity and then took them one step further to argue that those who would not conform should be killed.

It was brilliant satire, but very few people got it. Most people thought it was for real, and it caused a huge stir, with some people attacking and others defending the argument. When Defoe was discovered to be the author, he was tried and convicted for irresponsibly calling for the deaths of Her Majesty’s subjects. He tried to argue that it was satire, but the judges ruled that satire was not a defense. Defoe was convicted and placed in the stocks, ruining his credit and his ability to enter business, so he became a writer instead.

When I first heard this story in a graduate seminar, I was incensed for Defoe. How could those silly judges not get the joke? How could they punish a brilliant writer—the guy who basically invented the novel—for meaning exactly the opposite of what he said? This was why the eighteenth century couldn’t have nice things.

But I don’t feel that way now. I wouldn’t vote to make harsh satire like this illegal. I am quite committed to the freedom of speech. But I also think that writers bear some of the blame when their words are misunderstood and even abused. (Just as they get much of the credit when their words make positive changes in the world). Writers employ language to do things, and words can be powerful and dangerous. Words have consequences. I have been arguing this for some time.

Last week, I had opportunities to argue it twice—in ways that put me on opposite sides of an ecclesiastical fence. Consequently, I was called out by two very different groups of my co-religionists for making statements that, in my mind at least, were entirely consistent with each other.

First, on this blog, I wrote a post defending the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for using the Parable of the Talents—the story of a master who rewarded those servants who invested his money rather than hiding it in the ground—to defend itself for investing money rather than hiding it in the ground.

My point was not that investing money was the only thing that the parable was about; but it was something that the parable was about. As I wrote, “Parables are metaphorical, of course, but the metaphors only work if the core narrative makes sense on its own terms.” Words mean things, and this is something that everyone who uses words has to understand and acknowledge.

The response was immediate and predictable, “How can you possibly say that Jesus wants people to amass money?” the critics asked. “That is a parable about goodness, and love, and serving others. Jesus was always on the side of the poor people. To think that he was on the side of a rich man who wanted more money is a crass misreading of the story.”

My response was, and remains, that, while the vehicle of a metaphor is always a gateway to another meaning, the metaphor itself has to make sense or we can’t get to the larger meaning. The Parable of the Lost Sheep is not really about sheep, but if people don’t recognize that looking for a lost sheep is a good thing, they can’t get to the other meanings of the story. Words mean what they mean on the surface first, and surface meanings can’t be entirely discarded on the way to depth and wisdom.

Just a few days later, I had the opportunity to be part of a Mormon Land podcast from the Salt Lake Tribune. The interviewers asked me about Elder Holland’s recent use of the metaphor of a musket to describe BYU professors who defend the Church, and “friendly fire” do describe those who criticize the Church. This is what I said:

I have no doubt that Holland was using that in good faith as a metaphor. He wasn’t actually telling people to get muskets and shoot their enemies. But I think words and metaphors are important and they have consequences. And in a speech that is is calling for an end to divisiveness and a talk in which he is talking about unity and love and getting along better with each other, to use a marshal metaphor like that, I think really undermines what was the main intent of the speech. . . . . And even though the intent was to use a metaphor, arguing metaphorically for enemies to be killed, that’s a very violent metaphor. And it’s, I think, dramatically at odds with the conciliatory approach that the Elder Holland was making for much of the speech.

I got a number of direct messages on this one asking me why I couldn’t see that Elder Holland was using a metaphor. He didn’t mean actual muskets, and he wasn’t talking about “killing” or “enemies.” He was just trying to make a point about something else.

I agree with this assessment, and I said as much in the interview. But the nature of our metaphors is important because words are important. Language has enormous power to wound and to heal. Using a martial metaphor to describe discussion and disagreement introduces an unnecessary level of violence into the discourse. It makes it harder, not easier, for us to understand each other and work together in love to solve conflicts.

The consistent point that I have been trying to make in these discussions—and I’m going to double down on it here—is that words matter. Language matters. A lot. Meaning matters a lot too, but words are always imperfect conveyors of intention. If people can’t get past our words, they will never know our intentions. Human beings are language-using animals, which is both a blessing and a curse. It gives us the ability to create cooperation, friendship, poetry, and love. But it also gives us comments sections and Twitter. Language amplifies our power to heal and our power to destroy. Anything that powerful must handled with precision and care.


  1. Mark Brown says:

    “Anything that powerful must be handled with precision and care.”

    Yes. And that goes double or triple for someone with multiple graduate degrees in language and rhetoric.

  2. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Thanks for this, Michael, and for your continued insistence that we pay attention to the words we use. Words do matter. The language we use can have consequences. Yes, metaphors are useful. They can be VERY useful in conveying ideas and thoughts that might otherwise require a long discourse. However, the use of metaphor should never be taken lightly, or used lazily by someone who just can’t be bothered to think through the potential implications of what they say. While useful, metaphors are always imperfect and will always fail when stretched beyond a reasonable interpretation. I believe Elder Holland was using a metaphor. I don’t believe he fully understood the implications and the very real and nearly certain expropriation of that metaphor by a segment of his audience (an audience far beyond those immediately in front of him while he was speaking). But not understanding that segment of Church members represents a failing of our Church leaders, and this is an example of the damage that can result from this failing.

  3. Roger Hansen says:

    While this comment doesn’t directly relate to the metaphors, English is difficult language. Words, as defined in the dictionary, have multiple meanings. Frequently, these meanings are totally unrelated or even contradictory. Throw into that mix common slang, and things get difficult. While words are important, we also need to give the talker or speaker a little slack. But I think that Holland stepped over the line with “musket.” It energized the NazNat crowd.

  4. Excellent points. And besides the musket metaphor there were many other unfortunate word choices in Elder Holland’s address – disheartening. Words do matter.

  5. Stephen Fleming says:

    I think the context of the metaphor matters a lot too. When Elder Maxwell used it back in the day, he drew on the context of the small, persecuted saints defending themselves against the big bad world (a much larger entity that wouldn’t find Mormons over which Mormon had little power). When Oaks quotes Maxwell, I think it still fit that context.

    But when Holland used it, his talk seemed to have more enemies: wicked BYU faculty and what also felt like LGBT students who were too outspoken. Those people the church has considerable influence, even power, over, making the metaphor sound much more threatening. So yes, words very much do matter.

  6. Clay Cook says:

    Thanks Michael for helping me understand metaphors a little bit more. I wonder if there are other metaphors in the church that if we could dissect them we could understand things better and get beyond misplaced assumptions. For example could the dark skinned curse in the Book of Mormon and labeling al indigenous people in the Americas and the Pacific Lamanites. Both could be seen as remnants of colonialism but what is on the other side of the metaphor.

  7. This is good. One thing I have been pondering in the melee of masks and muskets is how I react to language also matters. And exploring as you have, granting good faith where good faith is due, while also acknowledging the risks language poses, seems a very appropriate response. Alas, our social media brains are so consumed with being “right” that we forget altogether the Christ-centered mark established and create idols of our own preferences. So this was refreshing. A good practice of President Oaks’ preaching to moderate and unify. Thank you.

  8. Saying Elder Holland used just a metaphor is like saying the chewed gum analogy for chastity lessons is just a metaphor. The people and objects described using the metaphor and their position relative to each other and the actions they pursue all have meaning. Why are groups of people with opposing views automatically at war in Elder Holland’s worldview? Opposition can create conflict but it doesn’t have to. The church invokes the war metaphor a lot. To be fair, it is in the scriptures as well. While the war metaphor has a gravity and seriousness church leaders want to convey in their pursuit of what they believe is gospel truth, it is at odds with their counsel to be civil and kind to those who disagree with us.

    It is especially problematic when church leaders can’t distinguish the defense of LGBT personhood, humanity, and potential from an attack against the church. Often the two go together, with good reason, but I would imagine that BYU professors who openly support LGBT students aren’t intent on destroying the church. Arguing against harmful teachings and critically examining troubling doctrine is not the same as firing shots towards Salt Lake. If there is to be any enemy, it should be the suffering of God’s children and the pernicious lies that devalue a person’s infinite worth and potential based on an unchangeable characteristic.

    I’m sure Elder Holland thinks that the church already has this covered because they preach love and kindness, that all are equally loved of God. But I don’t believe this preaching gives LGBT people a sense of their place in the eternities. It would be one thing if the church was content with divine mysteries regarding the afterlife for all people. But according to D&C and other teachings, leaders have insisted on defining the structure of heaven. Knowing that heterosexual men with potentially numerous wives will rule heaven seems to satisfy them. They don’t look beyond themselves. They showed this with the Heavenly Mother essay, saying what we know is sufficient, the same with the poor woman used in the conference talk with concerns about polygamy, and the same with LGBT people. Where is the seeking? Where is the restoration of more truth?

  9. Thank you, Mary. Besides the violent imagery, one of the most disheartening parts of the talk is Elder Holland’s statement that the leaders of the Church have no revelation for our LGBT brothers and sisters.

    It brings to mind Jane Manning James asking, “Is there no blessing for me?” Evidently the leaders of the Church, being asked for bread from their brothers and sisters in the gospel, have only stones. Which they are (metaphorically) ready to throw at those asking for a blessing.

  10. Bravo!

  11. Fred Voros says:

    Excellent essay. Also excellent comments. I especially appreciated Mary’s. The power dynamic is crucial. Here a powerful institution belittles a powerless minority, indeed singles out one individual. But when others attempt to mourn with and comfort the victims, the institution asserts that it is under attack – that it is in fact the victim. This response is the opposite of exercising influence by persuasion, by long-suffering, b gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.

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