The Book of Mormon, written specifically for our times, is a warning in so many ways, but there is a caution that we should not miss. That is the consistent and emphatic plea about the perilous and destructive power of false and manipulative narratives.
When you look at the book through that lens, suddenly you see it everywhere. Again and again the people are “stirred up to anger”, even to the dissolution of their own nations, by the ideas and arguments that take hold of them with such power they cannot shake them. They hold on to them with self-destructive ferocity that colors everything else. Constructs can become concrete, suffocating and self-sabotaging.
We see demonstrated that a story is more powerful to corrupt than a sword, a philosophy more killing than poison. What a people believe can undo them. The way we are taught to construe our world powerfully shapes our attitudes and actions.
The Lamanites live in a continual state of anger to the point of being a “wild, and ferocious, and a blood-thirsty people, believing in the tradition of their fathers, which is this—that they were wronged in the wilderness by their brethren, wronged while crossing the sea…wronged while in the land of their first inheritance” and they had everlasting hatred that Nephi, a younger brother, became the leader and left with what they saw as birthright blessings…(Mosiah 10:12,13).
Nehor’s wildly popular secular philosophy that “all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble” (Alma 1:4) not only subtracted a Savior from the constructs of his followers’ thinking but surprisingly opened the door to their savagery and intolerance. Nehor’s philosophy, that sounds so generous and accepting, proves to be the undoing of the Nephite nation, the cause of the wars described in Alma, and the ferocity that fueled the fires that burned the believers in Ammonihah.
Zeezrom, and his fellow lawyers in Ammonihah, were motivated by monetary gain and neatly, with their narratives and philosophies, “did stir up the people to riotings, and all manner of disturbances and wickedness, that they might have more employ, that they might get money according to the suits which were brought before them.” (Alma 11:20).
It is clear that capturing the minds and spirits of a people can be used to manipulate them to their own destruction, and often the manipulator has that very end in mind. They hope to use the ensuing chaos and step into the power vacuum, as did the heinous and scheming Amalickiah. Or they hope their more progressive religion will replace the foundation they have purposely destroyed. Or they plan to use the destruction of a community for their own end.
If the Book of Mormon peoples can be engaged by narratives that ultimately hurt them, we are even more susceptible today with our constant barrage of news and people hoping to color and interpret the news for us. We are rushed at 24 hours a day with a semi-truck of narrative that can easily convince us of views that might ultimately hurt us, destroy our nation or steal our freedom.
Condoning the Rioting
The social unrest, violence and frenzy of these last few days strike me as one of those times. Let me be very clear that racism or prejudice in any form is, as our prophet President Russell M. Nelson said, something of which we need to repent. He said, “We abhor the reality that some would deny others respect and the most basic of freedoms because of the color of his or her skin.”
Yet, there are those who try to teach us that to be appalled at what happened in the horrific murder of George Floyd and the racism it reflects means you must not only condone the rioting which is still shredding our country, but cheer for it. You must jump into the craziness and add your match as our big cities burn and fires are set right by the White House and at police precincts. You must cheer as a business goes up in flames that an immigrant built dollar by dollar, or jeer at the policeman who is hit in the head by a baseball bat.
You must not criticize the gang of men who beat a woman with a two-by-four when she pled with them not to destroy her store.
Where do we get such logic, such either-or positions? How is it that some of the most elite among us, who have influence over millions of other people have jumped on board to condone the burning and destruction of our cities and private property of terrified citizens, who are already despairing because of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic? What’s the sick rationale behind burning a building that says “black-owned business”? What’s the rationale behind burning any business or any city block where residents still have to live?
As one writer noted, “Popular sentiment on social media suggests you’re either willing to forgive or overlook the rioting or you’re not really with the protesters.” Those who don’t condone violence, this suggests, are adding to the social injustice. The only virtuous ones are those like the many Hollywood stars who have made large donations to bail out the violent rioters.
In this way, as The Federalist notes, “Hollywood elites are now actively encouraging the destruction of the nation’s burning cities.” Make no mistake, with every dollar they are virtue-signaling how virtuous they are.
The narrative goes like this: violent outburst and destruction is a necessary part of creating social change. National Review noted the kind of enflamed rhetoric we are getting. “A Northwestern University professor Steven Thrasher argued in Slate magazine that ‘the destruction of a police precinct is not only a tactically reasonable response to the crisis of policing, it is a quintessentially American response, and a predictable one . . . property destruction for social change is as American as the Boston Tea Party and the Stonewall Riots.’ Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times journalist who recently received a Pulitzer Prize for her work on the 1619 Project, tweeted out a more subtle endorsement of the riots: ‘I hurt for the destruction like everyone else. But the fact of history is non-violent protest has not been successful for [black] Americans.’”
The argument goes that, “Burning and looting, then, are naught but natural and appropriate reactions to longtime abuses. It is the system which is most directly at fault — not the rioters, who are viewed either as pawns in a game beyond their comprehension or as agents of vengeance who can do no wrong.”
A writer in The Atlantic also calls riots patriotic. She writes, “Many people are asking if violence is a valid means of producing social change. The hard and historical answer is yes. Riots have a way of magnifying not merely the flaws in the system, but also the strength of those in power. The American Revolution was won with violence…The Civil War was won with violence. A revolution in today’s terms would mean that these nationwide rebellions lead to black people being able to access and exercise the fullness of their freedom and humanity.”
So, rioting in her estimation is a way to exercise the fullness of freedom and humanity. What about the freedom and humanity of those whose property and health are destroyed? Or the freedom and humanity of those who have been killed in these riots? Did they have a choice of being part of your political statement?
Again, as noted in National Review, some “have tended either to explain away the crimes of violent protestors or to justify them as righteous and inevitable.” It goes a step farther. The logic is that if you don’t stand with the violence, there is something hateful, immoral or blindly privileged about you. At very least, you are without political conscience.
As Jamilah King said in Mother Jones, swelling outrages like this or the confluence of events in 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated “pushed nearly anyone with a political conscience into physical action.”
Not only that, she insists, this kind of outrage actually unites us. She said, “On some level, every one of us stuck in our own private world of controlled chaos. To be human now is to be isolated, uncertain, and scared. It’s no wonder that so many people have taken to the streets. Outrage is a unifying emotion. It’s intimate and collective.”
It’s hard to conceive that the riots in our cities are unifying, that the anger and chaos and burned buildings bring connection. What kind of a narrative do you have to push to make people buy this? How many times do you have to repeat something so conceptually backward before it is broadly accepted?
She goes on to suggest, “America’s long, violent summer has begun. Buildings will burn and people will die…It would be naïve and downright dangerous to expect anything different.”
How can it be anything but dangerous to capitulate to this idea that rioting is inevitable, virtuous, connecting and intimate? Just because a narrative is oft repeated even by intellectual influencers of our day, does not mean that we should be so naïve as to believe it. Nor should we be pressured to believe it by those who insist that to be against racism is to be for violent rioters.
We cannot be cowed before violence or condone it. Ironically, those who push it as somehow a national catharsis or claim it is the only way to bring social change, must not be aware of the many studies that indicate otherwise. It has been noted, “Empirical research has come out persuasively showing that riots in the past have not generally swung public opinion toward the causes they are rooted in.”
In fact, those who worked with Martin Luther King and made such a major step forward for equity were devoted to non-violence and purposely practiced how to respond with moderation and calm even if they were provoked. George Floyd’s family has pled for the violence to stop. Those with sound heads know that violence backfires.
Peaceful protests can have their place to point out problems, but, unfortunately, violence only unleashes more violence, even creating an appetite for it, stirring and augmenting anger until it boils over. Success at trampling society’s structures can lead to a heady power to do it again and to believe that violent coercion is the only way to change. Especially if certain elites cheer while the fires burn our cities and won’t step forth with their voices to condemn it. There is a certain glee and power in the idea of “Burn, baby, burn.” What kind of self-hatred allows a city to burn and calls it good?
Where does this all lead? No place good. There are many already who believe that racism is America’s only story, as they dismiss every other good thing about this nation where people from all over the world flock hoping to gain citizenship.
Those who come to utterly disdain a nation cannot save it or the institutions that have granted freedom, safety and opportunity to so many. Do these gifts need to be extended further? Yes! Have there been stains upon this ideal? No doubt. We have witnessed it. But the tone of our times has become one expressed by a writer overhearing a conversation between her two daughters in the wake of these riots.
“My eighteen-year old daughter walks past my door, deep in conversation with her older sister about what is happening in our city and country. ‘America’s never been good, ever. Since day one, it’s been bad,” she insists, while listing the other countries where she believes police reform efforts have been in place for far longer.
“Her sister agrees, but my husband pushes back, trying to offer a more tempered view of this country. He tries, but is left gasping for words.”
I sorrow for George Floyd and his family and every other person who has lived in fear. I also sorrow when I see people condoning this mad frenzy of violence as inevitable and noble. I remember the Jaredites who fought by day and then when night came “took up a howling and a lamentation” (Ether 15:16) for their losses. That misery wasn’t enough to stop them. They just turned around and fought the next day.
What do we do if we burn ourselves up?
I sorrow for something else and just as fundamental—the idea that America should be discarded because some events and some people have not always lived up to its ideals. Free people, working together, have the opportunity to change things. Angry people put themselves ultimately in bondage and divide themselves in groups at everlasting odds with each other.
I do not buy the narrative that if you condemn the rioting, you are blind to the need brought into such unforgettable focus by George Floyd’s death. It is not true. The Book of Mormon teaches us to be wary of false narratives in sheep’s clothing.
President Nelson also made the point clear that you can be against racism and also against violence . He said, “We believe in freedom, kindness and fairness for all of God’s children.”
He also said, “Any nation can only be as great as its people. That requires citizens to cultivate a moral compass that helps them distinguish between right and wrong. “Illegal acts such as looting, defacing, or destroying public or private property cannot be tolerated. Never has one wrong been corrected by a second wrong. Evil has never been resolved by more evil.”