Guest Post: They Weren’t Trying to be Mean…
(DefyGravity Just graduated from BYU in theatre education and history teaching. She’s a theatre addict, avid reader, anglophile and she’s been a raging feminist since she was in junior high, which fortunately hasn’t scared away her husband of two years.)
A few months ago I went to hear bell hooks speak at Utah Valley
University. She is a social critic and writes about inequality based
on gender, race, economic circumstances and sexual orientation. (Her book “Feminism is for Everybody” is a fantastic read. ) She told a story that stuck with me. The head of her college department, a white women, asked bell hooks and another black female colleague to review a book chosen for the whole department to read. Both women found the book racist and said as much. The department brushed their concerns aside and assigned the book anyway. When bell hooks approached her about her decision they got in a screaming match (her words) and this women made it clear she had little respect for bell hooks’ opinion. Naturally, bell hooks was angry, and did not want to talk to this woman until she had gotten her head around what had happened. Other colleagues urged her to renew her relationship with her department head because she was such a nice person. She hadn’t meant to be insensitive, so she should just let it go.
I’d been thinking about this story for months, when, a few weeks ago, we had a lesson in Relief Society about being offended. Most of the comments took the route you would expect. People talked about forgiveness, about giving people the benefit of the doubt, of not getting upset because people generally don’t mean to be offensive. This mentality permeates our culture as Mormons, and possibly as Westerners. If someone does not attend to be offensive we are not allowed to offended.
Before hearing bell hooks speak, this lesson would have frustrated me, but I wouldn’t have known why. Now I know; good intentions do not excuse offensive comments. If we let sexist, racist, homophobic or cruel comments pass unaddressed because it is not meant to be offensive we allow sexism, racism, cruelty and hate to persist.
There seems to be a belief that forgiveness means that you never talk about the even that needed forgiving. You suffer in silence and never tell the other person that you were hurt. I’m not sure where this mentality came from, but I would like to suggest another, as I did in Relief Society. We have a duty to forgive, but not a duty to forgive in silence. We owe it to ourselves and the person that offended us, especially in sexist, racist, etc. situations, to say that we were offended and why. If we don’t, how will they know that they are being offensive. As was said in Relief Society, people generally don’t want to be rude. We are not doing them any favors by letting them be unintentionally offensive. We are helping to perpetuate dangerous attitudes by doing so. So instead of seeing offensive as an opportunity to forgive, maybe we should see it as an opportunity to teach what we have learned to others.
As I write this, I wonder if I have the right to say that I can and
should teach other people. But so much of our formal and informal
church settings are about us teaching each other. In church meetings, visiting teaching, Relief Society meetings, we teach each other. No one says that we must listen to everything everyone says, nor that everything everyone says is right. But that doesn’t take away their, and our, right and responsibility to teach each other the best we know how.
There is a scripture often applied to priesthood holders about
reproving and correcting with sharpness and love. Could this not apply to situations of offense? Can’t we say that we are offended and explain why in a loving way instead of suffering in silence? Can we use Christ as an example of teaching with kindness as well as of forgiveness?