It seems to have become an odd tradition to inadvertently overhear a single General Conference talk that makes me want to deconstruct its message. This time it was Robert Hale’s talk on Sunday morning.
He spoke about how to respond to those who criticize the LDS church or its teachings. By the end, I felt slandered and deeply misunderstood. To illustrate why I felt this way, I combed the first half of his talk (the work got too tedious so I stopped there) for words describing members of the LDS faith and their actions and similarly for words describing its critics and their actions.
My unscientific list shows the essence of how Hales (and many other Mormons) see themselves and the people who disagree with them. Mormons often see themselves as long suffering martyrs. They tend to perceive any religious disagreement as an attack. Perhaps this results from the circle-the-wagons mentality that protected Mormon pioneers.
I am a critic of the LDS church, yet I hope that those of you who know me can’t recognize me in Hales’s stereotypes. If you can, it is because you’ve seen me on my bad days. I’m not always like that. Some days, my criticisms come from a pure concern for the truth and for the well being of my family, friends, and neighbors. I can disagree and criticize while being civil and, in a word, Christlike.
Hales’s talk represents a failure of communication. It demonstrates that he has failed to reach out to understand the ideas and motives of critics like me. He assumes that behind every criticism is ignorance and hatred. He believes that if we disagree we must not truly understand or that we want to pull down and destroy. He assumes that we fit his stereotypes without taking the time to verify his assumptions.
The sad thing is that he wants the world to listen to him. Why should they be expected to if he doesn’t extend the same courtesy to the world? He must have missed the fifth habit of highly effective people: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.
The common Mormon vision of themselves as martyrs in a war against evil isolates them from seeking to understand their neighbors. This mindset reminds me of North Korea’s view of the United States. North Koreans have been taught that the U.S. is pure evil. Many North Koreans probably believe that they live in the noblest, strongest, most virtuous nation on Earth. The truth is that they live in relative deprivation and ignorance where electricity is a luxury. Their cloistered lives prevent them from learning the truth about themselves and their enemies. If they were allowed to see for themselves, they might not call us paragons of virtue, but they would confess that we aren’t all that evil.
Hales’s talk is the equivalent of a North Korean propaganda poster designed to create a bigoted us-versus-them attitude.
I confess that I am not immune to retreating to the mental ghetto of prejudices and tribalism. So let’s live bigger than that. Let’s listen to each other before we retreat into stereotypes and ignorance. Let’s break free from our personal North Koreas.