The Book of Mormon’s ethic of mournful wakefulness, with David Charles Gore [MIPodcast #109]
The Book of Mormon has important things to say about how we say important things, according to David Charles Gore. He’s author of The Voice of the People: Political Rhetoric in the Book of Mormon (Maxwell Institute, 2019).
Gore says it’s not enough to be in possession of the truth. We also have to know how to share it in ways that actually reach other people’s hearts. The Book of Mormon seems to be a cautionary history in this regard, calling readers to develop what Gore calls an “ethic of mournful wakefulness.”
Gore’s Maxwell Institute Guest Lecture is available here.
David Charles Gore (PhD, Texas A&M University) is associate professor and department head in the Department of Communication at the University of Minnesota in Duluth. Gore regularly teaches courses on the history and theory of rhetoric, including its application to globalization and Stoic philosophy. His work has appeared in Philosophy & Rhetoric, Argumentation & Advocacy, Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, and a variety of other venues.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
David Charles Gore says the Book of Mormon has important things to say about how we say important things. It’s not enough to be in possession of the truth. You also have to know how to share it in ways that actually reach other people’s hearts.
Gore is a professor in the Dept. of Communication at the University of Minnesota at Duluth. And he’s spent decades researching rhetoric, which is the art of discussion and persuasion. And he brought that training to bear on a scriptural text he loves—the Book of Mormon. He wrote about it in his new book, The Voice of the People: Political Rhetoric in the Book of Mormon. It was published by the Maxwell Institute.
Are there false ways to share true things? How can we make our words count in a world of strife and competing opinions? David Charles Gore says the Book of Mormon provides some striking answers to these questions.
And if you have any questions or comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast you can send them to me at email@example.com.
HODGES: David Gore, thanks for coming to the Maxwell Institute today.
DAVID CHARLES GORE: Thanks for having me, Blair.
HODGES: You bet. It’s great, we just published your book, The Voice of the People. Congratulations on getting the book finished.
GORE: Thank you. I’m excited!
HODGES: How did you hear about this series that it’s published in? It’s a three-part series Adam Miller and Joe Spencer did called “Groundwork.”
GORE: I heard about that series talking to Adam and Joe years ago, even before I think the series started with Maxwell back when it was Salt Press, and shared with them the idea I had for this book and they were interested and we started talking over a long period of time and things moved around for them and then it got snuck in here.
HODGES: For the “Groundwork” series they wanted to have scholars bring their field of expertise to bear on the Book of Mormon. So, Joe Spencer did that with some of his work. They had a book by Jad Hatem, who is a philosopher, who looked at the Three Nephites. And then you come from a different background, talk a little bit about what you brought to the Book of Mormon.
GORE: I was really interested in using the theory of rhetoric to read the Book of Mormon. I’ve been curious about whether or not the Book of Mormon has an implicit rhetorical theory in it. I’ve also asked that question about other Latter-day Saint scriptures.
Is there a way we could discover, in these texts, something that teaches us about how to persuade each other? I think about persuasion as one of the key ways we relate to each other. Clearly these texts are about relationships, as much as anything.
HODGES: Your book is making a simple claim. You say that, “the Book of Mormon makes a real and serious contribution to our understanding of the human predicament.” What is the human predicament?
GORE: Well the human predicament is the life of mortals. It’s about dying, and it’s about trying to make meaning while we live, before we die, so that our lives are meaningful and purposeful in the here and now. Also, we can make some kind of lasting contribution that perhaps might even extend beyond our life to the other people around us.
HODGES: I like one of the ways you describe it in the book as “trying a build a shared reality.” The human project is sort of about humans working together to try to build a shared reality. What are some problems and opportunities people face in that effort?
GORE: Building a shared reality for me means that we’re moving in the same direction, that we’re looking for common ground with each other instead of simply trying to build a world for ourselves. Which is one of the predicaments of mortality, is that we want to build a reality that is good for us, we want to build it for ourselves exclusively. Often times that means we forget other people, or we leave them out when we’re thinking about the kind of world we want to live in or the way we want to shape the world we do live in.
I think that’s obviously highly problematic, that tendency to want to other go at it alone or to build a shared reality that really isn’t in its essence shared, but it’s a reality that belongs to a few people exclusively and also tends to exclude others.
That’s one of the problems that we face in that quest, what Wayne Booth says is the “quest for effective communication,” the quest for finding common ground that we can share together. Again, I think there’s that tendency to either think about the ground as uncommon. That is to say, “not shareable,” or “no reason to share it.” But also, really to sort of neglect that connection or obligation that we have to each other.
HODGES: You call your book, “a work of rhetorical theology.” That was an interesting phrase. Is that unique to you?
GORE: I don’t know if it’s unique to me, but I was interested in the work of Jim Faulconer and Joe Spencer in scriptural theology, and this idea of connecting what you’re doing to the text.
So for me, thinking about the ways we can draw out a rhetorical understanding of the world from the scriptural texts was my goal. I’m not a theologian by training. I don’t have any background in theology per se, but I’m interested in that question of how rhetoric as an art of public life can relate to theology, which in essence used to be an art of public life and isn’t necessarily an art of public life today in the secular world that we live in. I think it’s been marginalized from public life in some important ways in the modern world.
But at the same time, I think it’s also ascendant in some ways. I actually think theology—it’s going to be a swing back in the next five hundred years, if you will, of theology and theological thinking as a way of relating to and understanding the world.
HODGES: Five hundred years, stay tuned! We’ll see if that turns out to be right.
So, the study of rhetoric itself, this is your field of expertise. When a lot of people hear rhetoric, they probably think of rhetoric as having a negative connotation, like empty words or something like that. Tell people a little bit about what rhetoric is.
GORE: Rhetoric is a slippery term to be sure. That’s partly because it comes out of ancient Athens, where Plato tries to give rhetoric a bad rap. His goal in doing that is to show that there are people who are interested in primarily using words in a superficial way.
HODGES: This is how famed Latter-day Saint scholar Hugh Nibley has talked about it. For people who aren’t familiar, he didn’t like “rhetoric.”
GORE: Yeah, absolutely, he didn’t. I’ve sort of engaged with his position on rhetoric, because I think that it could be broadened. In the sense that, even for Plato, there was a kind of rhetoric that probably exists somewhere that was good for the soul. It could point you to justice, and could help you answer for your own crimes, or answer for your own sins. That’s not an easy rhetoric for us to summon.
Again, I don’t think it’s what comes naturally. I think what comes naturally is often a desire to make ourselves look good. And, again, as I say, to build up worlds for ourselves, that are not necessarily connected to the needs of the people around us. That’s a real challenge when it comes to rhetoric.
As I say, it’s a slippery term that has this really long history, and it’s a contested history. If you hear the word rhetoric used in newspapers, on television, it’s almost always used in a derogatory way, to describe speech that is empty or self-interested.
I think there is a lot of speech like that, but I also believe in what James Boyd White calls “living speech.” What he means by that is speech that moves us towards justice and love in its essence. It’s speech that we really believe in when we say it. We’re really saying something we believe in. That’s living speech. I think that’s the kind of speech we want to try to aim at.
It’s not the kind of speech, again, that we’re surrounded by all the time. It’s not a kind of speech that comes naturally to us. What we’re surrounded by are things like advertising, propaganda, clichés, trivialization in discourse and language. That kind of speech is actually quite destructive and it also supports what James Boyd White calls this notion of the “empire of force”– it’s speech that is designed to dehumanize people.
HODGES: Treat them like objects instead of subjects?
GORE: Yes, treat them like objects and subjects. That kind of speech is speech that we need to learn how to speak against. We need to learn how to summon the resources of a speech that is alive with conviction and that can actually express genuine love and that actually pursues real justice in the world.
HODGES: What do you analyze then? Do you sit down and look at the words that are being used or the structure of arguments? What does a professor of rhetoric do to analyze speech?
GORE: In its essence, I’m a teacher of public speaking. So, I’m interested in people who stand up in front of audiences and make speeches. But I’m also interested in any kind of rhetorical artifact that comes from that kind of discourse.
So, in Mosiah chapter 29 in the Book of Mormon you have a letter written by a king to his people, and the letter is one way of teaching them about government and about politics, in essence. In Alma chapter one, you have Nehor who is making a speech to defend himself after he murders Gideon.
These kinds of discourses all fit under the title of rhetoric. So, what we’re really looking at is artifacts that are intended to persuade. We’re trying to see what kind of arguments were used in those artifacts.
HODGES: As in, was it logic? was it emotion?
GORE: Sure, how did it tie all of those things together? Rhetoric is really interested, not just in logic by itself or emotion by itself, but how both of those things are brought together into human beings all at once. We’re both emotional and logical at the same time.
HODGES: I don’t believe in the separation, actually.
GORE: I don’t either, I very much don’t. I think rhetoric is an art for making sure we don’t separate those things. We look at the whole person as historically constituted that we live in history, that we’re living at particular times and in particular places, and we have particular allegiances because of that.
So that’s very subjective in one sense. But it’s also about our emotional and rational powers, reasonableness.
HODGES: The tools that you’re bringing to the Book of Mormon, they can be used on any sort of argument, they can be used on any kind of text. Would you characterize this kind of approach to the Book of Mormon, as being secular in a way? Are you bracketing ideas about ultimate truth, and God and faith? How does that work?
GORE: That’s a great question. When I saw Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s  talk at the Maxwell Institute, this summer, I went back and went through my text to make sure I didn’t use the word “bracket,” because I share his conviction that we shouldn’t really bracket our faith.
At the same time though I was really interested in asking the question, What does the Book of Mormon tell us about politics? I think in the modern world we’re led to believe politics is secular. So, in a way I was interested in asking this question: Can there be secular consequences to sacred rhetoric? But, not in the sense of wanting to bracket religious faith, but on the contrary, to show that religious faith can in fact inform our practical circumstances and our practical situations and that predicament that we’re all stuck in.
HODGES: Religious claims, in many cases, are themselves speech acts.
GORE: They absolutely are, and they’re constituting that desire to persuade other people. And people are often persuaded by them at the same time. So, it’s important to think of them that way.
HODGES: It’s funny, you’ve done a book that talks about religion and politics. It’s extremely cliché to point at that those are the things that people say you shouldn’t bring up in polite conversation. But there is this line from your introduction that really caught my eye. You said, “One of the greatest honors we can give other people is to argue with them.” That’s uncommon, to hear someone praise arguing!
GORE: What I mean by that, of course, is making arguments, not “having” an argument. The distinction here is appealing to people’s rational and emotional energy. Using that to help them understand one another and again, to develop that common ground. When we’re prepared to argue with another person it’s also a sign that we’re prepared to listen to them, and in our desire to listen to them we’re showing a genuine respect for who they are at their core, in their essence.
We’re also showing a desire to appeal to who they are, and to make that kind of living speech that actually goes to their heart and affect them, not just in their mind, but also in their heart, and make them think about and see the world in a new way.
HODGES: That is a crucial point, because right now you’ll see some people online or wherever praising the idea of free speech and of “saying it like it is,” and there shouldn’t be “safe spaces.” In these types of culture-war arguments, you would say the whole context needs to be paid attention to. So if you’re arguing with someone, you should pay attention to power dynamics, for example?
GORE: Absolutely. I think that’s right. I think a lot of the speech that circulates today is crafted to keep thought at bay. To not interrogate the way that we are, in fact, connected to the words that we speak, and the way that, in fact, our character is caught up in the things that we say, not just the things that we do.
I think there’s a desire sometimes to want to distance our self from both the consequences of what we say, their effects in the world, but also from a kind of sense of ownership over them. Plato asks, do we treat our words as legitimate children or illegitimate children, right? How do we take responsibility for what we say? I think there’s a big tendency in today’s world to want to shift that responsibility to blame other people for what we say even, or to say things that, as you say, dehumanize people, make them less than, call into question their value because of whatever distinction might be the soup of the day. But that’s something that I think is really problematic. It shows a disrespect.
That, again, goes back to what I mean about arguing with people as a sign of respect, because if you’re really engaging people, then you’re not insulting them, and you’re not being superficial, and you’re not just talking about things in a glib way or in a way that makes yourself look good. You’re actually trying to engage with them in that creation of a social world together.
HODGES: Togetherness. There’s a great little phrase you have in there—and it works better in writing than audibly—but it’s “insight rather incite.” You’re seeking insight in a conversation, rather than to incite someone.
GORE: That’s exactly right. I think the tendency sometimes is to use speech to light a fire under other people and to really get their goat I guess, so to speak, or make them feel bad about themselves. I think, really, we should be trying to understand each other, in essence.
HODGES: You’re bringing your training to bear on the Book of Mormon in particular. You’re a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You look to the Book of Mormon as inspired scripture, but you’re also bringing your academic tools bear on it. Talk a little bit more about what it’s like for you as a believer to bring scholarship into conversation with scripture. Were there any tensions there? Were there fresh insights? Benefits? Drawbacks?
GORE: There were a lot of tensions there. For me as a Latter-day Saint who never attended BYU, I’ve never been in an educational environment that was informed wholly by my religious belief. I didn’t come to BYU as a student. I’ve never taught here, and I teach a state school as the University of Minnesota Duluth, which is a secular institution to its core. Trying to juggle that act has been interesting professionally.
At the same time I think, even perhaps more intensely when I was writing the book, there were moments when I would feel a deep sense of anguish about what I was saying and a deep sense of concern about the consequences of what I was saying, because I didn’t want anything I wrote to be used by the kinds of people that are sometimes referred to as “fundamentalists.” I didn’t want to be saying something that would connect religion and politics in a way that would support the “empire of force,” that would support people drawing distinctions between different kinds of people or allowing political conflict to flourish, to feed political conflict.
I wanted it to be about justice and love in its essence, and about speech that could create that kind of discourse in the world and would be used in that way. And I thought about that a lot. Like, how are these words going to be used? How could they be used in the future, in fifty years or a hundred years, if there were a dominant political party that was somehow religious as well at the same time?
I don’t know. Those were thoughts that sort of ran through my mind of, “What are the consequences of this?” And that tore me up inside. I mean, there was a lot of fear and trembling, I would say, that worried me as I wrote this because I didn’t want to be feeding any kind of narrative that would be dehumanizing or trivializing to the experience of certain kinds of people.
HODGES: Did you find resolution to that angst?
GORE: Not necessarily. I think readers will have to decide if that happened! But I think I certainly felt often as I was writing that there are ways to express ourselves that can be meaningful and that can be distinctive, in the sense that saying something that’s important, that matters, but that also leaves enough room in the discourse for not just clarity, but also moving us towards goodness, I hope.
HODGES: I notice you tend to avoid the terms “liberal” and “conservative” too. Talk about that choice.
GORE: The word “liberal” does appear one time in the Book of Mormon. The word “conservative” does not appear there. [laughter]
But I tried to avoid both terms in the sense that what I think the Book of Mormon teaches us about persuasion is bigger than those distinctions. And I wanted to keep it at a level that was larger than those kinds of disagreements. I really wasn’t interested in proof-texting the Book of Mormon or trying to make arguments about my own political beliefs, which honestly, I’m not even sure what my own political beliefs are. They are certainly not liberal or conservative. They can’t be labeled in that way. And I was definitely not interested in allowing them to be labeled in that way.
And so, I was trying to write, not in an idealistic way and trying to separate myself from the concerns of the real world, but simply to show that the conflict between “right” and “left” is ultimately, as I believe it is, the wrong conflict for the future.
HODGES: Yes. Who knows how long it will be a relevant division—
GORE: Yes. And it really comes out of the French Revolution. And it’s something that I think is probably not serving us very well anymore. I was hoping that I could aim at something that pushes beyond that.
HODGES: But at the same time, I think what you’re saying can apply to this situation as well, because you’re making arguments about, if people want to claim being a liberal or a conservative, how they might better go about talking about being a liberal or being a conservative.
GORE: I very much hope so! Because I think if we focus on the principles of rhetoric that might be embedded in the story of the Book of Mormon, we might discover that. You’re absolutely right.
We could be better at whatever kind of politics we believe in if we practiced it the way that this work suggests we might. Which is to say, if we could practice it with a little bit more of a mournful tone and with an eye towards accepting our own faults and our own shortcomings, and the faults and shortcomings of our own position or side, so to speak.
It isn’t just about individual faults, but about the failure of parties, the failure of human organizations to really succeed at establishing justice and love in the world. The kind of approach that would help us to see these in broader terms, I personally hope that it’s relevant to people that want to practice whatever politics they want to practice. But that’s why I kept the focus on principles I think—or I tried to.
HODGES: That’s right. You mentioned mournfulness. That’s a heavy theme in the book and we’ll return to that.
We’re talking with David Gore. He’s associate professor and department head in the Department of Communication at the University of Minnesota Duluth. And we’re talking about his new book, The Voice of the People: Political Rhetoric in the Book of Mormon.
As you’ve done this project, how have you seen the Book of Mormon comparing to other world literature that you’ve look at. So, you’ve talk about Plato and other literature that you used in classes and have had students evaluate. How does the Book of Mormon compare as a work of writing?
GORE: I have never taught the Book of Mormon in class, so I’ve never compared it in that way, how it would resonate to students. But for me, it compares favorably, obviously. It’s the work that has captured my imagination, that I can continually find myself returning to again and again and again.
I compare it in the introduction to the Meditations of Marcus Aurelias, which I think is another work that is really designed to promote or foster ethical thinking and also ethical speech. And I think the Book of Mormon is a lot more scattered. I mean, the thing that’s so interesting about the Book of Mormon is that I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a text that has as many layers, as many complexities as the Book of Mormon has. There are flashbacks and there are references to stories from before and after, and you never really know where you are or when you are when you’re reading the Book of Mormon.
The complexity of that text is finally starting to be realized by both literature scholars and philosophers—humanists of all kinds who are finally coming to terms with actually engaging in the text itself, which is not an easy thing to do. Often you can get things wrong, you know, one of the things that is really helpful now are the Wikis out there that can help you to try to keep the names and the places straight, because it’s a mess!
HODGES: I’ll put a pitch in for the Maxwell Institute Study Edition of the Book of Mormon here. One of the things Grant Hardy tried to do is help people know where they’re at and when they’re at and who they’re with—
GORE: Yeah, and speaking of Grant Hardy, his text is the one that I used throughout this book project because I find it such a helpful way to read the text. The work that he’s done there is invaluable in terms of squaring the text up and allowing you to read it and understand and follow who’s speaking and who’s saying what or what kind of text you’re dealing with, that sort of thing, it’s amazing.
HODGES: Yes, so go pick up a copy of the Maxwell Institute’s Study Edition of the Book of Mormon! [laughs] Thank you.
Alright so, your book is a nice 200 pages. That’s nice and tight. But people might be surprised that you only cover three chapters of the Book of Mormon in that space!
GORE: Yeah, that’s right. Well, and actually probably three chapters was ambitious, honestly. I think that, as I say, the text is so complicated, so complex. It has so many layers that it would be difficult to deal with larger chunks than that. The reason why I came at this portion of the text in particular—
HODGES: And I should say, this is Mosiah 29 and Alma chapter 1 and 2—
GORE: That’s exactly right. Which is the story of Mosiah ending the monarchy, establishing the reign of the judges, which then quickly dissolves into civil war and ends as the last verse, I think, of the chapter is a heap of bones piled up, dead bodies from the civil war. So, it goes from good—Mosiah has these really good intentions for the government; he has really purposeful aims and objectives.
HODGES: And he lays them out specifically!
GORE: And then is goes to really bad and then really worse, you know? Very fast. In five years these people have torn each other apart. That kind of apocalyptic element of the story is what drew me in. But I also was really caught by the phrase, “the voice of the people.”
Twenty years ago when I first started thinking about writing this book, that phrase, “the voice of the people”, was something that I was really fascinated by and it occurs many places in the Book of Mormon, but I think nowhere more intensely as in Mosiah 29, and Alma 1 and 2. And so I was really interested in that phrase, but also understanding the larger context, like you said, the context in which voices speak and the broadness of that context.
And that’s what’s fascinating about these chapters, because there’s so much happening in terms of Mosiah referencing other texts, I think, and drawing upon, certainly the book of Ether, because he just translated that before he made the change in government. But also a lot of other texts are sort of circling around these three chapters. So, I really wanted to explore that. And I didn’t think I could go any farther than that, honestly.
HODGES: It filled the book so, yeah. [laughter]
You say when you started the project, you assumed that government regime types were a crucial part of good governance. In other words, the right kind of system would lead to the right kind of good life for people. That the text would make it clear whether it’s better to have a king or have a system of judges or have something else. But then you surprised yourself in the course of research?
GORE: Probably the most popular reading of what Mosiah’s doing here is, he’s establishing a democracy or a Republican government like we have in the United States. And I don’t think that’s what he’s doing at all. I think the quicker we dismiss that reading, the faster we’ll get to understanding what he’s up to.
HODGES: What are those obvious points that you would point to that suggest that’s the case?
GORE: Bushman mentions the reign of the judges—
HODGES: This is historian Richard Bushman, right?
GORE: Yes, Richard Bushman talks about the phrase “the reign of the judges.” And then also the fact that these judgeships tend to be hereditary as well, it appears. Not always, but it certainly does happen. So, a lot of suggestions that “the voice of the people” is not about voting either. I mean, it’s not anything like what we think of as democracy in that sense.
But I think at the same time, like you said, with references to regime size, that I think is interesting about this text and what I came to understand and what I wrestled with as I was writing this, Blair, is the question about kingship. Because Mosiah 29 says two things. It says one, if you can have a just and righteous king to be your king then you should want that. It’s better than any other form of government. And then it also says, but since you can’t always have that, you better not have it! And that’s kind of a weird situation to be in.
But for Christians, the idea is that Christ is the king and that he will come back and reign. And so that was hard to wrestle with, too, as I thought about consequences about what I would write in my interpretation of what’s happening, you have to really think about, “Does this prepare us to be monarchists after all?” What’s that relationship there? But I think, at the end of the day, the realization came to me that the type of government you have is not always the most crucial factor in determining the type of person you can be or the type of community you can have. I think I’m believer in democracy in the modern world, but I am also intrigued by its shortcomings.
HODGES: Yeah. And there’s a quote from you where you say, “Dispositions in the people have a far greater effect in the Book of Mormon than the regime type.”
GORE: I think this is a really good example. There must have been some kind of social pressure operating on Mosiah. He has a lot of reasons for ending the monarchy. One is that his sons don’t want it. They don’t appear to want it. And two, I think there was also some other pressure on him moving away from monarchy. And so, how does he do that, and what is the best way to do that? I think it’s complicated. I’m not sure I answered your question, what was your question?
HODGES: It was basically yeah, this idea that the dispositions in the people have a greater effect than particular regime type. And you laid out, kind of, Mosiah’s concerns.
GORE: Yeah, Mosiah has these concerns, but at the end of the day what he’s trying to do is instruct the people to accept a new type of government that requires them to accept the burden of governing. He tells them, “Look, being a king is really a pain. It’s really hard. You have to do all these things for your people all the time and then they complain.” And so, he’s really quite serious about it!
HODGES: Heavy is the head that wears the crown—
GORE: Yes! That’s right. And in that essence is this attempt to try to say, “Hey, you know, everyone needs to share in carrying the burdens of the public.” And you can only do that if you’re ready to answer for yourself, to accept your own shortcomings and your own failures and then also work to repair the world and the consequences of those failures in the world, right?
HODGES: So those are the dispositions—
GORE: Yeah! The disposition is really that willingness to shoulder the burden of the public and a willingness to accept that you’ve contributed to part of the problems in the world, and you can do something about those problems if you’ll take action.
HODGES: The Book of Mormon seems preoccupied with hearts. You talk about this in the book, that the heart is returned to time and again. How does rhetorical theory deal with that element?
GORE: I don’t know that it does. Certainly, there have be rhetorical theorists like Augustine and other thinkers over time who have thought a lot about the role of the heart and what we’re saying. I think what’s interesting about the Book of Mormon is that it tried to help us imagine the consequences of what we’re saying—not just for other people but for the speaker. And so, what is our responsibility? How can our words corrupt ourselves even? And not just corrupt other people. If they enter into the hearts of other people in a way that diminishes them or causes them to diminish or dehumanize others, then I think ultimately there’s a corruption that can enter into the heart that can spread throughout society in really problematic ways.
HODGES: That seems like a really interesting thing the Book of Mormon can bring to the study of rhetoric, is this, talking about disposition as an element of analysis that rhetorical analysis could look at, right?
GORE: Absolutely, absolutely. I think there is a lot to think about that could be drawn out of the Book of Mormon. I’ve tried to show that.
One of those elements is that relationship that our speech has to the quality of our character. And that’s always been a preoccupation for rhetorical theory to be shared. But I think that the Book of Mormon takes an interesting approach, because it does use that metaphor of the heart as the locus or the center of not just our emotional life, but our understanding in life. And if that becomes corrupted or particularly if our ability to show compassion to other people and to show a willingness to meet them where they are becomes corrupt, then I think we’re in a really bad place as a society.
Any society would be in a bad place if people became so caught up in their own interests and their own well-being that they disregard the rights and the well-being of others. And I think there’s troubling signs that we’re moving in that direction from time to time whether—Obviously those troubling signs have always existed because humans have always struggled with that reality. But I think there’s a kind of meanness in public life that worries me. And I think it’s related to this notion of our speech. How is our speech related to our heart? I think that’s an interesting question and I think the kind of meanness we see in public life extends from that.
HODGES: Yeah, I realized as I’m reading the book that the title itself has a double meaning. I assume you intended this, but the title phrase “the voice of the people,” we might think of voting or of having a say in government. But “the voice of the people” indicates the way we talk to people in general.
GORE: Absolutely, yes. And in fact, that meaning of the phrase is far more important to me than the first one. So, I’m less interested in the ways our voices can have political consequences in the sense of politics being about securing power in a particular moment. Instead I want to think about how our words contribute to the way of life that exists in our cities.
HODGES: One thing I didn’t see you get into is the notion of how we hear calls for “civility” in dialogue. I think those calls are important. Then I’ve also seen responses pointing out that calls for civility have sometimes been used to tamp down oppressed people. So, let’s say people in really dire straits are angry, and make that visible and manifest with anger and instead of paying attention to the problem, we onlookers say, “Oh they are using mean words,” or “They’re yelling” so you know, we can ignore them.
GORE: Yes, civility is a double-edged sword for sure. And sometimes it’s used by those in power to quash speech that might challenge their power, right? And by calling someone “uncivil” or by calling someone “obscene” sometimes, we’re allowed to deflect from the fact that some situations are obscene, right?
A lot of rhetoricians have used that to good effect. Like, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his book The Signifying Monkey, he basically says, “A lot of obscene speech in African American discourse is about calling attention to the obscenity of racism and the obscenity of slavery.” And when you just dismiss that rhetoric on the basis of it not measuring up to some standard of civility, you’re actually saying that civility is accepting the obscenity of racism and slavery.
And so the question is, how do we move beyond that to speech that can nevertheless still live, in the sense that we can mean what we’re saying and that it can have, not just a positive effect on the world, but an effect on the world that helps us face the negativity and the underbelly of social life and of public life?
Mosiah wants to remove anger from politics. He’s unquestionably motivated to avoid anger and contention in politics. Ironically, anger in politics is exactly what happens with Nehor and Amlici—
GORE: Almost immediately, right?
At the same time though, that desire to want to push us beyond anger and to be motivated by a desire that sees contention as problematic, I think, shows a certain kind of approach to civility that’s important, right? And that really has to do with how we treat other people.
It’s not so much about saying outrageous things or trying to dismiss people who say outrageous things because they’re outrageous. But it’s really about trying to respond to that outrage and to see if there isn’t something in the outrage that really needs to be dealt with, that really needs to be focused on and addressed. Because often there is, but we don’t want to see that because we want to just sugarcoat it.
HODGES: Because it might require you to change something?
GORE: It for sure will! Yeah, exactly!
HODGES: We can’t cover every chapter of your book in depth, but I wanted to zoom in on your discussion of Mosiah 29. We’ve talked about it a little bit already. It’s a succession crisis of sorts. Mosiah’s the king, he’s trying to figure out a way to change the government. He’s kind of looking into the future and seeing there might be some problems, so he’s trying to change the situation ahead of time. Abolish the monarchy, but not relinquish all power. That’s really tricky. You say the speech he gives in chapter 29 is an example of “didactic rhetoric.” This is a technical term that your field brings. I want to give people a sense of some of your technical analysis. Talk about didactic rhetoric.
GORE: Well “didactic rhetoric” is speech that’s intended to teach the people. And what he wants to teach his people is a new form of government. I say that Mosiah appears to be a monarch who’s lost his faith in monarchy. But interestingly enough, what’s also really important is that he doesn’t abdicate the throne. He doesn’t give up his own responsibility to govern that he’s already accepted.
But he also wants to create space for his people to measure up, so to speak, to the demand that public life places on them. The demand to be connected with other people and to share things in common with them and to see how our lives can influence other lives and to be influenced in their turn. So, he needs to teach him how to do that, and he’s frustrated because they don’t immediately know how to do it. And I think they don’t immediately know how to solve their problems or how to accept their responsibility of governing. So, he’s got to work to teach that. He’s got to work to foster that in them.
HODGES: What Mosiah’s doing is a lot more complicated. It’s not just some simple morality play or some basic plot. This is kind of intriguing, what he’s trying to do. It’s complicated.
GORE: Absolutely, absolutely. And he knows it’s complicated and he realizes that there’s not going to be a simple solution to the challenges existing in this society.
HODGES: One of those challenges being inequality.
GORE: One of those challenges is inequality and the other major challenge is that you have this influx of people. You’ve got the Church, the people of Alma, and the people of Limhi that have all come from different places and different times. And then you have the people who are already there in Zarahemla. It’s quite a complex, layered civilization or society.
And so, they have to grapple and wrestle with a lot of inequality in their relationships with each other and a lot of inequality in their understanding of what the role of public life is. Clearly, there’s a huge group of people in this society that want a monarch and don’t want to shift to this reign of judges and who do everything in their power to reestablish a monarchy. First by legitimate means within the system, and then just by tearing the whole system apart. And so, that force to maintain a monarchy is clearly really strong in this society.
HODGES: What do you think was behind that? Because we get the story from the perspective from people who are rooting for Mosiah. They’re gonna put his best foot forward. Then we get to see Nehor and these others, but we’re seeing them through the lens of the people who are rooting for Mosiah. What was behind it? Why did they want a king so bad?
GORE: Well, the simplest answer, I think, is that they wanted to maintain the inequality that existed, or they wanted that inequality to work in their favor. That’s probably the simplest answer.
I think it might be too simple, because I suspect there might have been other forces at work. Although that would probably be my answer. I think that sense of wanting to exploit the inequality to their own advantage is a strong force.
HODGES: As you’re talking about this story, you also apply it to today. For readers today, it’s not just a history lesson, you’re not just bringing us through a history lesson. Here’s a quote I wrote down I really liked. You ask, “How can we foster anxiety for equal chances? How would our communities be stronger if this anxiety was a greater part of the practice of politics—an anxious politics?”
GORE: I think that concern for giving people an equal chance is a really problematic thing, and it’s something we don’t do enough of in our own society. In fact, particularly in the United States now, social mobility for example, moving from one class to another to another is at a low point, one of the lowest points I think it’s ever been. So, I’m interested to ask, what does Mosiah mean by that “equal chance”? That every person should have an equal chance. And I don’t know what it means, but I think it’s—
HODGES: Right, he doesn’t lay it all out.
GORE: He doesn’t really specif,y and we don’t really know for sure. But clearly, he’s driven by this desire to promote and foster equality in relationships and to foster justice in that equality.
HODGES: And we get to see his new system tested right away. He gets it set up and in Alma 1, what happens next?
GORE: Well, a couple things happen. One is this individual, Nehor, establishes a church of his own, which I call a cult of personality, in which he tries to create a discourse around himself that benefits him and that puts him in a really good light. It makes him popular.
HODGES: What kind of rhetoric is he using?
GORE: That’s a good question! I would say it’s a rhetoric of self-indulgence. He wants to make life easy for himself. He doesn’t want to have to do any work. And of course, this is the side we’re getting from those who oppose him. But I think this is probably accurate, that there are certainly speakers out there who are self-interested, they only want what they want for themselves and they’re going to say things that will get that for themselves without really having to face any consequences for it.
I think he wants to establish this organization to serve his interest and to make him look good and to make him popular. And he pursues that to the best of his ability. I think in doing that, though, he also is allowing his anger to get the best of him. So, in a way, he’s really a perfect example of what Mosiah wanted to curb, which was this self-indulgence that could lead to murderous anger.
HODGES: One thing the book points out is rhetoric is kind of neutral tool. It’s a hammer. It can be used to hit someone, or it can be used to build a doghouse or something.
GORE: Yeah, well I have some problems with that.
HODGES: Go ahead, yeah.
GORE: I think that there is a sense in which a lot of rhetorists today talk about rhetoric as a tool, but you can’t flip an egg with a hammer. S, there are different kinds of tools that we have in the world. And what kind of tool is rhetoric? Rhetoric is a tool for public life; it’s a tool for helping us understand each other and to secure agreement with other people. It’s a tool for relating to other people in really crucial ways. But it can also be a tool for manipulating and for propaganda. And I think that’s where you’re absolutely right.
In that sense, it has characteristics of a tool in that it often appears neutral. But as we know, many tools are not neutral in the sense that they actually have profound powers that are sort of embedded in their nature, so to speak. So, that’s the question I’m also asking about rhetoric, or that I’ve always asked about rhetoric. I don’t know if I’ve answered it, but I’ve always asked this question about the power of persuasion. How it is that we could influence people for good or evil. And also, how speech itself is designed to sort of bring us along and bring us together. But it can also be, at the same time, very divisive.
HODGES: Are there ways that people try to achieve bringing people to the good and establishing good with bad rhetoric and bad methods?
GORE: Undoubtedly, for sure. I think that’s part of the problem with any kind of discussion of social influence is that motivation is such a big part of it.
In the twentieth century, certainly one of the big thinkers in rhetoric is Kenneth Burke and he’s really interested in motives. And he’s interested in trying to understand human motives in all their complexity, because he knows that we’re not just motivated by just one thing at any given time. And we have to be on-guard then against the ways that our motivations can manipulate us.
Like, we can think, “Oh, I’m doing good here. So, I must speak these words because I’m a do-gooder.” But we all know the negative impact of do-gooders. They’re not always actually doing the good they think they’re doing. And so that ability to question your own motives is important. And then a desire not to manipulate the desires of other people. But again, that’s not an easy thing to do.
HODGES: And the intrigue isn’t through either. You’ve talked about Nehor, but after he’s gone the people are headed for a civil war. You cover that in the next chapter on Alma 2. What’s kind of the synopsis of that one?
GORE: Before that we get to Amlici. We sort of have this, what are referred to as “The Troubles” in Grant Hardy’s edition, of the people. And these troubles have to do with a greater contention, a greater level of antagonism. Even to the level of fist fights and conflict breaking out that’s physical. And rhetoric is typically supposed to be right speech. It’s not about forcing people or using the threat of force to get people to do what you want. You’re actually trying to appeal to them doing it for their own sake. And so, rhetoric is often seen as a kind of anti-force, or a force opposes physical force. And so in that respect, there’s something emerging in that society where they’re just becoming more comfortable with physical violence of one kind or another.
And I think again, you can see parallels of that in a lot of different cultures, a lot of different places that when we stop checking ourselves, then we can allow that conflict to start to flow in ever bigger currents in society. And ultimately, that leads to the civil war in Alma 2.
And that, again, revolves around a person, Amlici, who’s very much like Nehor. I think he’s a Nehorite to his core. And he wants to make himself king. And it says here that he’s a very cunning person. He’s a wise person when it comes to the wisdom of the world. And so, he’s probably a sophisticated person in that sense. He knows which way is up and down in politics. And so, he tries to work to set up a situation where he can be elected king or that the voice of the people would appoint him as king. And he does that. He tries it and he fails.
And I have this image of a political campaign at the end of the day and there’s some people that are really happy and there are some people that are really miserable because one side won. Amlici’s side is the side that loses, and yet he has his people anoint him king anyway. It’s like, he comes through this legitimate process, he fails, he’s mad, so he’s just like, “Do it anyway.” And that kind of discourse or speech is totally about doing what you want for yourself. He’s not concerned about the society that he’s living in; he’s not concerned about the people whose lives are going to be spent in this war. He’s really just interested in gaining power for himself.
And I’d like to believe that people like that are a caricature, but well there probably are people like that in the world. I don’t think I know very many of them, but I’m sure there are some people like that who would do anything they could to get in power and stay in power, whether by legitimate or illegitimate means. And he’s one of those people. So, I do think they exist.
And what’s the consequence of it? Well, the problem is that he stirs up all these people to be really angry, too. They were probably sad, and they were probably a little bit angry, but they weren’t necessarily going to go kill people until he starts—it says specifically that he’s riling them up to this kind of violence. And I think that’s where you start to really cross the line. I mean, you’re not using a rhetoric of justice at all there. You’re clearly just doing something for your own self-aggrandizement, for your own side.
And so that raises some important questions for us about how we react to other people. What are we trying to do to persuade other people? Are we really thinking about what’s best for the good of the whole group? Or, are we really only thinking about what’s best for ourselves? Or for our particular side? And I think once we start to go down that road then we’re in danger of dividing our communities. We all know there are a lot of fault lines in our community, in every community. But particularly now there are political fault lines where, if we go down that road and we push each other, it’s likely that there’s going to be conflict. And it’s going to turn into having an argument instead of making arguments and appealing to people’s reason.
And I’m not just saying we should avoid those, because I think that’s a problem too. But it’s also about engaging along those fault lines in ways that are respectful, in ways that are measured, and in ways that do fairness to the people that you’re arguing with.
HODGES: That’s David Gore. We’re talking to him about the new book The Voice of the People: Political Rhetoric in the Book of Mormon.
David, let’s conclude by talking about the heart of your book. In the end, it seems to be saying that the Book of Mormon is asking us to choose between two different types of “heartsickness.” You say that there’s the heartsickness that results from this hardening, or the kind of heartsickness that results from grief and empathy.
GORE: One of my readers really didn’t like my use of the phrase, “heartsickness.” And I’m kind of inclined to agree with them. But I do use that term because I think what is interesting about what the Book of Mormon’s telling us is that it really does assume that the heart is the locus, not just of emotions, but also of compassion. And compassion is an interesting term first, before I answer that question about the heart.
Compassion is really, it’s not just about what we think, but also about what we feel, and then also how we enact it in the world. When we think about the heart in that sense, as being about feelings but also actions and also some kind of effect on other people, it does seem to be true that our heart could be corrupted by selfishness. And if we’re not careful, over time, that can really harden into a cruelty. And not just in unkindness, but a genuine cruelty to other people.
On the other hand, I think the life that the Book of Mormon calls us to live is a life of humility and it’s a life of accepting our faults, as Mosiah says, “Answering for our sins.” Whatever those might be. And answering for them is not easy, but if we try to get ourselves into a place where we’re ready to do that, where we’re prepared to do that, then our hearts are going to be softer in that sense and they’re going to be more pliable. Fleshy, I think, rather than stony, the coldness and the hardness of the stone, you know?
And so to me, the Book of Mormon has really put before us these two realities. And it does it in a way that’s almost a caricature of the dramatic in the sense that you could become so bad that you could do this stuff. Whether that’s in the book of Ether, that you could destroy your entire society and tear everyone apart to the last man standing, right? And then you cut off his head and then that’s it. One guy is left. That’s really, really extreme.
Most of us are probably somewhere in the middle where we’re really trying to get by and we’re not paying that much attention to the ease with which we are willing to show compassion to other people. But if we did look at that a little bit more, or a little bit more closely, then I think we might discover some resources for building stronger communities. And that’s really what, I think, this discourse is about. It really hinges on that willingness to show compassion to other people and to do the hard work of having a relationship with other people, because they’re never easy. Or, do you want to short-circuit that and just get what you want all the time? And there’s that impulse all the time.
HODGES: I kind of want that. [laughs]
GORE: Yeah! There’s always that temptation to go that direction. And it’s with great ease that we can often find ourselves in that situation. So that’s the challenge, yep.
HODGES: And the words that you use are “mourning” and “wakefulness.” You say the Book of Mormon is “calling us to a political rhetoric and an ethic of mourning and wakefulness.”
GORE: Yes, those words are right out of the Book of Mormon. And what I think happens at the end of the civil war is that people realize what they’ve done to themselves. And they look around. And that realization is a mournful realization. They are sorry for all the damage they’re done and they’re sorry for the corruption that they’ve allowed to enter into their society and the contention that they allowed to enter in.
But at the same time, that mournfulness awakens them to a new sense of duty, a new and profounder sense of the obligations that they have to each other. What they owe each other and what they owe to the good of the public life. And so that’s the key part of that heartsickness that heals. It’s not about not having a weighty heart or a mournful heart. In fact, it can only come through that. It can only come through being sorry for what you’ve done and being sorry for the ways that you might’ve used speech to get yourself ahead. And seeing when you did that and why it was wrong and then trying to undo that, the consequences of that in the world. Or at least do not do it again! At the very least, don’t do it again! Learn a new way to speak so that you can really relate to other people in a way that’s genuine and compassionate.
And again, compassion, like civility, has a dark side to it. So, I don’t want to just use that word in a trivial way. But I think the real weight of—
HODGES: What’s the dark side of compassion?
GORE: Well, I suppose it’s, for one thing, thinking that you know what’s good for other people.
HODGES: It can be patronizing?
GORE: Yeah, it can be patronizing, or it can also be, I suppose, a cover for other kinds of actions, I guess. Yeah, I don’t know.
Think about really, really having a feeling of being with other people and being for other people. That’s what we need to cultivate. That is what I think the Book of Mormon invites us to cultivate in the way that we speak to each other. How prepared am I to be with you and be for you, and recognize that what you need might not be what I need, but I still might be able to give you what you need? And certainly, if we can come together and give each other what we need, then we’re doing something that’s really profound and meaningful. And it might be small, it might seem small on a one-on-one level, but when we multiply that out across society and across a culture and we’re really interested in that betterment of the whole.
I think that’s the thing. Are we paying attention to just ourselves and what’s good for us? Or are we paying attention to what’s good for the whole? And it’s easy for us also to trick ourselves into thinking that what’s good for the whole is really what’s good for us. There are obviously all kinds of ways to go wrong here.
HODGES: Well, the Book of Mormon shows that. The ending of the book is not happy, this is a tragedy. This book does not end in success.
GORE: Yes! And that’s exactly what I say in the book. I call that the “tragic side of politics.” The tragic side of politics for me is realizing that, first of all, that you never did measure up to your potential. It’s not just politics, this is also in our own personal lives. We never did measure up to the true potential we had, and we should mourn that. We should also mourn the fact that no one else is living up to their potential.
And we also have to mourn the genuine failure and the want and destructiveness of history. And not just history from the past, but right now! The ways that history is alive right now in the present doing damage to people. Dehumanizing and trivializing their reality, dismissing the nature of their experience, so on and so forth.
And so, the need for us to become conscious of that is ever apparent. It’s right in front of us all the time. And yet there are ways that we can speak that sort of color over that, so we don’t have to see it, or that make it easier for us to dismiss it. And I think that a mournful and wakeful approach is saying, “No. Be awake to that! Urge yourself to want to dismiss these things or trivialize them.” Instead, be ready to mourn with other people and be ready to mourn with them in a way that can build a better community. And again, mourning your own shortcomings, but also mourning the failure of politics of the community to realize its own potential as a whole.
HODGES: As you made this argument in this book, was there any practical takeaway? Was there something that changed in you as you did this project about how you speak?
GORE: Wow, that’s a really good question.
HODGES: Or where you got called up short? You know, you notice something—
GORE: Well sure. I notice that all the time. That was obviously a big part of the book, is that I realize that isn’t just me, but our political systems everywhere whether they be the petty politics of university department or a collegiate faculty or something—
HODGES: It can happen in a ward.
GORE: It can happen at any level. It is happening in those places. And the question is, how do we move in a direction that it can elevate that? And I’m really thinking about that. Again, I go back to this concept of mourning. I think it certainly has served as an invitation for me to be more consciously prepared to mourn. I don’t know that I’ve learned how to do that yet, but I certainly want to try.
HODGES: And mourn in a way that leads to wakefulness.
GORE: Precisely. That wakes me up to—
HODGES: That’s the hard part for me. That some things are so discouraging and that can lead to just turning off.
GORE: Yeah, it can. And it can lead to a sense of real despair or hopelessness. And that’s not what I mean by “the tragedy of politics.” In fact, I think the tragic nature of politics is to realize that you still have a work to do.
HODGES: You still have to do stuff! [laughs]
GORE: Politics is about the fact that there is still work to be done! And the tragic thing is that your work will never accomplish everything that you hope it will! And so, you’ve got to deal with that. But you still have to do it. So, this reminds me, one of my favorite Jewish proverbs is that “It’s not given to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” So, you have these things that you must do and you have to also do them realizing that you’ll never complete them. You’ll never perfect them in that sense of complete and you’ll also never finish them in a sense that we’re done having to build shared realities, because that’s part of being human. That’s the predicament we’re in. This desire, this need to continue to build shared realities and find common ground with other people will always be our faith as human beings. It’s always there.
HODGES: That’s the predicament in our communities, that’s the predicament in the Book of Mormon, and that’s the predicament in the book The Voice of the People: Political Rhetoric in the Book of Mormon.
David, thank you so much for coming and talking to us today.
GORE: Thank you for having me Blair. It’s been a pleasure.
HODGES: And we’ll let listeners know as well, David is speaking here at Brigham Young University tomorrow. By the time this episode comes out, that lecture will already be available. You can go to YouTube now and it’ll be ready for you to watch. You can listen to this interview and you can see David talk more about the book in his lecture.
Thank you for listening to another episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Before we go, of course, I want to read a review of the month. And this one comes from someone called “dsabey.” I don’t know if I’m saying that right, it’s spelled d-s-a-b-e-y. Apologies if I’m getting that wrong, but here’s what they said:
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The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)