Silence and Diplomacy

By: hawkgrrrl
July 12, 2011

To paraphrase Jon Huntsman Jr., diplomacy is the art of saying something when there is nothing to say, and saying nothing when there is something to say.  Blogging (and 24 hour news) is pretty good at the first half of that, but fairly lousy at the second half.  That’s because blogging relies on rehashing old arguments, hyperbole, and straw man arguments.  Somewhere between the neutral and the sensationalistic lies journalism.  And if you take one step toward sensationalism, there’s blogging.

Diplomacy and silence may be the wisest course of action when dealing with authoritarian cultures like China or perhaps the church (I’ll draw the parallel in a minute).  I was recently reading an interview with Henry Kissinger in the Wall Street Journal about China.  Although the interviewer’s questions were pretty straightforward, Kissinger’s answers were often as cryptic as a fortune cookie:

  • “Nationalism will play an important role.”
  • “The issue of reform will be substantially up to the next group of leaders.”

When asked “What are the historic sources of Chinese vulnerability, and what are the current ones?” Kissinger essentially shut down the interview, saying:  “It’s that I don’t know whether I choose to talk about it at this moment and in this forum . . . .  And I don’t mind dropping the interview and I don’t mind you saying that I refused to go any further and pay the price for it.”   Why does such a renowned diplomat end with this abrupt and awkward halt?  He gave clues in a few additional statements:

  • “I am trying to protect the option of a political relationship between the United States and China.”
  • “Is it possible to achieve enough of a cooperative pattern [with China] to avoid sliding through a series of mutual misconceptions, of stepping on each other’s toes, into a situation where an ultimate confrontation becomes inevitable?  And looking at the fact that we have not known how to end our little wars, I have no great hope that either side would know how to end such a conflict . . . Am I optimistic that it’s going to be done?  No.”
  • “Experience has shown that to seek to impose them by confrontation is likely to be self-defeating–especially in a country with such a historical vision of itself as China.”
  • “I have not joined public denunciations in order to preserve the possibility of maintaining influence on human rights issues.”

The bloggernacle is full of people who would like to see reforms in the church.  There are groups of people who write and form activist groups to try to push for change.  Are they likely to be successful?  IMO, this depends entirely on whether the church is as autocratic as it claims to be or not.  I tend to think it is not.  However, those seeking change should bear in mind Kissinger’s advice on working with China (arguably the most autocratic country out there today – well that we have to talk to anyway).  To paraphrase some of his methods:

  • Pick your battles.  Kissinger sidestepped talking about economic sanctions so he could maintain influence in speaking up for human rights.  Prioritize.
  • Don’t swing at every pitch.  Sometimes the best thing to do is walk away from an issue, even if you have an opinion.  It’s not exactly the old adage “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” but it’s related.  You only have so many negative things you can say about an organization before you will be marginalized by that group.  The more autocratic the organization, the fewer negative things you can say and retain influence.  Use your words judiciously.  Give enough praise to balance your criticism.  Look for positives.  State negatives as neutrally as possible.
  • Consider context.  What are you saying to whom?  It matters.  Are you talking about the organization or to the organization?  Are you talking openly and visibly to enemies of the organization, and if so, what are you saying to them?  These are questions effective diplomats consider.

Why do we speak and reduce our influence?

  • When we are beyond the influence of the organization we are speaking out against
  • When we want the glory of being right and we lack self-control or judgment to be thoughtful about what we say
  • When we want the approval of like-minded people more than we want to influence change in the group

Essentially, we give up influence to find allies to wage war.  We move from diplomat to enemy.  And maintaining influence is the key to diplomacy and the only way to encourage change.

OTOH, if the church is not as autocratic as it claims (which I believe), then blogging and speaking up does have influence, provided that it is done as an insider to the church and done diplomatically.

What do you think?  Is the church open to change?  How autocratic do you think the church is?  Is Kissinger right that diplomacy requires judicious silence when dealing with autocratic organizations?  What evidence do you have to support your assertion?  Discuss.

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23 Responses to Silence and Diplomacy

  1. Stephen Marsh on July 12, 2011 at 7:27 AM

    Very well said. Very well said.

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  2. Howard on July 12, 2011 at 7:41 AM

    There is no opportunity for dialog with the First Presidency or the 12 only top down monolog exists they don’t even take questions from the audience. The civil rights movement was about consciousness raising not diplomacy and it eventually resulted in lifting the priesthood ban. Diplomacy is occult conversation in a public forum with the express desire of not raising consciousness.

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  3. mh on July 12, 2011 at 8:06 AM

    pakistan is another country where we need to be sensitive about diplomatic relations. congress just cut $800 million in military aid and that has complicated the relationship. I am not sure if that was a wise course of action.

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  4. Morgan D on July 12, 2011 at 8:19 AM

    I think you are reading too much into Kissinger’s non statements. He has a whole book on the subject (titled “On China”) so his silence could be a smart way to say “buy my book” without sounding so crass. I haven’t read the book yet but I’m pretty sure he tackles the issues that he didn’t in the interview. (Since your post is built upon his non answers I would grab a copy and check). Like many scholars he may not want to condense 100 page answers into a sound bite.

    But I love Kissinger and his book on “Diplomacy” is still one of my favorite reads so I appreciate starting my day with a little Kissinger.

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  5. Mike S on July 12, 2011 at 8:43 AM

    Regarding the Church, I don’t really know. I obviously post things I would change if I were in charge, but I don’t know that anyone really cares what I think – especially not at a level where it may make a difference.

    The thing that DOES give me encouragement, however, is that the biggest changes in the Church HAVE come from popular opinion or a reaction to the society around them.

    - Members didn’t like reenacting various ways of dying in the temple – they changed the endowment to take them out.

    - Society accepted blacks and increasingly protested against the Church and BYU for their continued racist policy – blacks got the priesthood

    - Society rallied against polygamy, even to the point of marshaling federal laws to seize resources, etc (ironically much like we currently do against fundamentalist LDS members). And, in spite of polygamy being taught as an eternal principle and monogamy being the thing that led to the fall of nations – we changed it too.

    - Garments have changed as fashions changed – with a lag.

    - The waltz used to be preached against by prophets as “evil”. Now the waltz is taught in YM/YW as an approved activity.

    So, many of the changed in the Church, whether profound or minor, have come about because of reactions to society and people’s opinions. If they didn’t, we’d still be practicing polygamy, drinking wine and coffee, wearing ankle and wrist length garments, denying blacks the priesthood (unless we use Joseph Smith as an example in which case they WOULD have the priesthood), etc.

    I do think it need to be respectful

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  6. Aaron R. on July 12, 2011 at 9:36 AM

    Howard, I actually think that one of the changes which as followed Pres. Uchtdork (according to him at least) is to have Apostles allow time for Q&A.

    To the topic, does blogging influence the Church and how should we do it? I think the key here is that it might but that we should not be too concerned if it does. If we think we are being heard by writing here then I think we will become frustrated and miss that really what this is all about is community and faith.

    Writing about Mormonism online is about connections and the opportunity to explore our faith with others who share some of the same values. In that sense our silence is valued only if the online community values it .

    Great post.

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  7. Jeff Spector on July 12, 2011 at 10:00 AM

    I remember a regional leadership meeting with President Hinckley a week before he became President of the Church in 1985 where we had a Q&A session. The “Q’s” were pretty bad and luckily his sense of humor made the “A’s” much better. I have been in other meetings where Q&As were part of the session.

    I really like the post and the tone. I think change can happen using our still small voice and not the big thunderous harrumph.

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  8. iamse7en on July 12, 2011 at 11:23 AM

    Ahh, Kissinger, one of the more open latter-day gadiantons. War criminal, conspirator, and all-around evil man.

    “Control oil and you control the nations; control food and you control the people; control money and you control the world.”
    -Henry Kissinger

    Perhaps this is why Kissinger overthrew so many dictatorships (to install our own dictator) and started wars: to maintain dollar hegemony feeding off a ponzinomic banking cartel.

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  9. KLC on July 12, 2011 at 1:04 PM

    I have been in a Q&A session with President Packer. There was a lot of silence, there were a few rhetorical softballs and there was some bloviating by people interested in impressing a GA. I’m sure there were some serious questions that wanted to be asked but no one dared ask them. A real Q&A session should have a way to anonymously ask and a GA willing to entertain the kind of questions that will only be asked anonymously.

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  10. BrotherQ on July 12, 2011 at 2:41 PM

    Elder Richard G. Scott attended our Stake Conference a few weeks ago. He not only had a “Q&A” during the Saturday evening adult session, he also did it in the youth session on Sunday morning. He answered every question (and the questions were of varying quality, of course), and did it with grace, humor and seriousness. The questions ranged far and wide. One man asked if the Church supported the Israeli or Arab side of the conflict in Palistine. Another asked a complicated question involving temple sealings/divorces and what happens in the hereafter. I was impressed with his candor. Of course, no one was jumping up to challenge him about the historical underpinnings of the Book of Mormon, but that seemed less important than the real-life questions that were asked and answered. It was uplifting. It felt good. I had the feeling that it would be fun to sit down with him one-on-one and ask every question that I have had in the past years about Gospel subjects. But I think in that situation I would probably be more interested in hearing about his life and experiences.

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  11. Jake on July 12, 2011 at 3:09 PM

    I don’t think the principle of saying nothing when you have something to say works when it is taken out of a leadership, or diplomatic setting. It seems to be saying that we should not say anything when we see a problem. Does this mean that when we see someone about to hurt themselves we should remain silent? Obviously not. People speak out because they see something they think is wrong, or dangerous or could cause damage to people. People don’t want change simply for the sake of change it is raising a warning voice or a voice of concern.

    Perhaps, if we were in charge it might be or in a position of power it would cause us to lose influence. I can see how if an Apostle was to speak out it would reduce influence I can think of the case of Elder Jensen and prop 8 for example and in such a context the basic principle would be correct, or even a seventy or area authority. But I think as for rank and file members as long as we speak out in a non-antagonistic way, and do it whilst showing our faith I don’t think it causes us to lose our influence.

    However that said. Perhaps maintaining silence is useful in gaining influence. In my experience those in leadership like to call those who conform and won’t challenge them, and in keeping silent it prevents being labelled as a non-conformist, thus helping to get into a position of influence. I guess in order to cause change you need to be in a position to make a change and that requires jumping through a few hoops silently to get there.

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  12. hawkgrrrl on July 12, 2011 at 9:57 PM

    Aaron points out the role of the bloggernacle as a faith exploration community. The best thing about it, too, is that for any brethren who are looking to see what the thought trends are among the membership, they will see community sentiment and consensus vs. rogue opinion. Discussion is another good form of diplomacy.

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  13. Chino Blanco on July 12, 2011 at 11:30 PM

    I haven’t gotten the impression that Huntsman holds back when prognosticating about China. I’d suggest that Mormon bloggers follow his lead and speak freely when it comes to discussing your church.

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  14. Aaron R. on July 13, 2011 at 4:38 AM

    Jake, I am not sure I follow your logic. For example, it is far easier to ignore a dissident than a permanent member of your council or inner circle. Certainly there is a point at which credibility can be completely lost (cf. Henry D. Moyle). Are you saying that the dissident has no influence to lose and therefore cannot lose their influence?

    In all honesty. I have written some posts with a specific intention to effect change. For example, my post on female leadership in LDS missions and also more recently on having Church outside. However these are most often written in my more exasperated moments and they rarely make me feel better about my relationship with the Church. In this sense therefore I think being able to discuss what we want is good but I think we need to be honest with ourselves about our motivations. If we can do that then I think that if someone does happen to read it then we are far more likely to come across as Hawk describes. Which I also think is a very positive feature of what we do here.

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  15. Cowboy on July 13, 2011 at 9:25 AM

    Why try to reform the Church? Sure there are things we don’t like, but I thought the whole purpose of the Church was to assist in effecting a change in us. If the Church bends to the whims of culture it runs the risk of losing its divine image.

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  16. Howard on July 13, 2011 at 10:28 AM

    Why try reform the church? Well, let’s see shall we pretend that Jesus told TSM to build a shopping mall instead of taking care of those dying from malnutrition, thirst and disease? What about homosexuals shall we pretend we can to turn them into heterosexuals just because BKP says we can? What else shall we pretend while we attend?

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  17. Cowboy on July 13, 2011 at 2:51 PM

    That’s my point Howard. I struggle to understand the nuanced view of the Church institution and Prophets as good intentioned but fallable men. If Jesus wants the Church to build a mall and persecute homosexuals, blacks, women, and any other demographic…who am I to argue with him. If Jesus doesn’t want the Church to do those things, and he lets them anyways (in a spirit of tolerance) then what is the point of the Church. More or less the negatives counterbalance the positives yielding an ineffectual and purposeless organization. I get that some people hold to this imperfect view, but personally I don’t get it. In my mind, I would think that each of those issues are serious enough to warrant an intervention from God, so what would be the purpose in a membership driven reformation. The need for reform begs the question of true authority and Church with Christ at the helm. So, I see it more as an issue of whether to stay or leave.

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  18. Cowboy on July 13, 2011 at 2:57 PM

    Reforms in government (particularly democratic or U.S. governmental theory) are different from theocracy’s. The Mormon Church claims to recieve it’s power and authority from God. Allegedly that power is diffused in a top down fashion, such that changes in doctrine or course to be applied to the whole Church/world, must come from God through his Prophet.

    In U.S. political theory the government derives its power through the consent of the governed. Hence, the people are entitled catalyze reform as they themselves are the literal embodiment of the political authority of the government.

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  19. Howard on July 13, 2011 at 5:01 PM

    So what would be the purpose in a membership driven reformation? How did the civil rights movement lead to OD2?

    Btw as an aside Cowboy I enjoy your comments.

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  20. Cowboy on July 14, 2011 at 11:24 AM

    First, I guess that’s my point. If a portion of the membership is pushing for reform, I would argue that they are probably being shortsighted if the reform is for serious change. The first question that they should entertain is “why does the Church need reform?”. In other words, is the problem with the Church or with me? If it’s the Church, then what does that mean. It seems quite absurd that God is out of touch with the needs of his members. So I would suggest forgoing reform efforts, and just find a better place to be.

    Secondly, while I think that the Civil Rights movement precipitated in social changes that ultimately resulted in the Church’s “policy” change – the Official Declaration was ten years behind the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the social movement that encompassed most of the 1950′s – 60′s. The reasons that I have heard argued for the change in policy range from athletic sanctions against BYU athletic teams, to the influence of sympathetic liberal GA’s such as Hugh B. Brown, to the complications of delineating black ancestry in South American mission fields where membership was growing (including Temple construction). Take your pick.

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  21. Howard on July 14, 2011 at 12:05 PM

    Don’t you reasons for lifting the priesthood ban contradict you assertion that it seems quite absurd that God is out of touch with the needs of his members?

    OD1 and OD2 the only revelation we can point to since the D&C was published came about because LDS presidents pursued God not the other way around and they did it because things became uncomfortable for them.

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  22. Cowboy on July 14, 2011 at 3:20 PM

    “Don’t you reasons for lifting the priesthood ban contradict you assertion that it seems quite absurd that God is out of touch with the needs of his members?”

    No, because socially God seemed to be about ten years behind American society. I would consider that “out of touch”. Ethically he was about one-hundred years behind, ie, if the ban was wrong – he tolerated it for a very long time.

    “OD1 and OD2 the only revelation we can point to since the D&C was published came about because LDS presidents pursued God not the other way around and they did it because things became uncomfortable for them.”

    You could make those arguments, but we should note that both Official Declarations were a 360 on a former revelation and instituted policy. It’s not the same conditions as the alleged revelations that led to the Word of Wisdom, or even section 132. Regarding the WoW Joseph Smith brought about a revelation for which there was no precedent and at least didn’t contradict existing revelations. Likewise for polygamy. You could argue that he approached God and was enlightened, whereas with the Official Declarations God was revoking something that was instituted and tolerated (If you believe God leads the Church, then at least you would have to believe that the Priesthood ban at minimum didn’t bother him enough to wait over 100 years to address it.). So, I don’t think it falls into the same category as search, ponder, pray, prophecies. Afterall, searching and pondering would have led to some very explicit teachings on both OD subject matters.

    “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.”

    Asking God to reconsider on his policies, in light of Mormon teachings, could arguably be akin to Joseph Smith asking the Lord three times to let Martin Harris take the manuscripts home.

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  23. hawkgrrrl on July 14, 2011 at 9:40 PM

    Changes can be needed for a variety of reasons, but the notion that God is a micromanager is what I think is absurd.

    Cowboy asks: “In other words, is the problem with the Church or with me? If it’s the Church, then what does that mean.” To a certain extent I agree with his logic of this argument – if the church is so flawed, why not go elsewhere – but I think the key is that most of the changes discussed in the ‘nacle are not major changes, nor are they doctrinal, and this is a church of revelation which means it’s going to change.

    People are quick to point out that revelation means God’s in charge, but that’s only half the story. It also means people are receiving (or not) whatever God is sending, usually when they ask for enlightenment (ask a stupid question, get a stupid revelation), and then they interpret what they get the best they know how given their own personal and cultural biases.

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