Guest Post: They Weren’t Trying to be Mean…

by DefyGravity

(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?

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36 Responses

  1. Michiko says:

    I agree that honesty and straightforwardness (combined with mildness–no yelling, please) about an insult is far better than just letting it go. Being honest, though it may be awkward and uncomfortable for both parties, allows the offender the opportunity to gain insight and apologize, whether she takes that opportunity or not. I’ve been on the receiving end of such honesty and though it was painful to hear, I appreciate what I learned because of it.

    Just to add to the notion of “sharpness”. This quote by the late Glenn Latham has been instructive to me:

    “In 1954, while I was serving my mission among the Native Americans of New Mexico and Arizona, a frequent visitor was Elder Spencer W. Kimball of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. One evening in the mission home, he and I were discussing D&C 121:43. He said, “If I had the authority to do it, I would rewrite that scripture to read ‘correct betimes with directness.” I have cherished that moment with Elder Kimball for over 40 years and have, through a lifetime study of the human family, come to appreciate his great wisdom and insight.”

  2. BethSmash says:

    I have noticed that we particularly allow older people to say offending things, and we excuse them with, “well… that’s how they were brought up.” But those comments, even with the understanding of “that’s how they were raised” can still be hurtful, and should be addressed. My grandma sometimes will say something horribly racist – and I usually have a talk with her about it – and it’s usually a saying or something that she didn’t even think about, and when I tell her how bad it is, you can tell that she didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings and she avoids using the phrase we discussed in the future.

    We should do the same thing that we do for children. I remember once when I was little a neighbor came over to play and he gave me something and then took it back and I yelled, “Indian Giver!” to him as he ran away, since I’d heard it before and I knew what it meant, but I didn’t realize how horribly insensitive it was. But my mom, hearing me yell it pulled me aside and told me what it meant and how it came about and how we shouldn’t use phrases like that, and she did it very nicely because I didn’t realize how rude it really was (I was probably about 6). I agree that most times people don’t realize what they’re saying is offending and if someone would just point it out, nicely and with love (like my mom) we can make the world a nicer place at least.

  3. Amy says:

    I see your point that sometimes it is appropriate to let the person know they have offended and why. And this may be difficult to do. But, I often think when someone says something that could be construed as offensive that I could be offended, but I choose not to be and just go on. In fact, although I remember saying this to myself quite a number of times, right now I cannot even remember any of those offensive things. There are appropriate times to just “let it go”. As a parent, I think it is completely appropriate to correct my children when they say something offensive- knowingly or not. However, there are many other situations where I do not feel it is appropriate to correct someone and that it’s best to let it go. I have a friend who sometimes says things that could be construed as offensive. And instead of confronting her directly, I can bring it up in different ways and times that are less accusing. Over the years, I have seen this technique work much better that confronting her directly. Wrong or not, it’s difficult for some people to hear they are doing something wrong and their instinct is to fight back. That does no one any good. I think that instead of trying to be the political correctness police, we should just think of what Christ would do.

    • DefyGravity says:

      My argument would be that in many of these cases Christ would say something. I agree that immediate confrontation is not always the best option, but I don’t believe that Christ let cruelty go by unaddressed. He used moments of insensitivity to teach as well as forgive, which is the model I’m speaking for. That doesn’t mean we call everyone out on everything, but we can still say something without being hurtful or confrontational. Christ was a strong person who spoke for what he believed to be right, even when others didn’t like it. I believe that aspect of Christ’s life, and his forgiveness are often lost.

      • Amy says:

        Point well taken. I agree that sometimes there is a time. However, in my experience (which I understand may not be everyone’s experience), there are many people who spend so much time finding the problems and offensiveness of what others say that they miss so much of what is good that they may say as well and end up being sad or mad and wasting their time on that.

  4. Whoa-man says:

    Great post. I think about this often. The typical conversation about offense in church discussions is troubling to me. It takes all of the responsibility of the offender and puts it on the offendee to forgive, move past, ignore, and/or “not let it bug you.” I have a hard time with that. There are things that are not okay to say and I want people to know that. Hate speech or discrimination clothed in religiosity is still not acceptable and I have every right to say as much. I love the idea of correcting with directness.

    What I’ve realized with my family and friends is that there is a lot of “benevolent” sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. People who claim they are not discriminatory and have not had many personal experiences with prejudice and just don’t realize what they are saying is hurtful. These are the hardest cases for me because by bringing it up makes it look like I am being the one to nitpick or look for reasons to be offended because other people don’t see the -isms. UGH. Any tips?

    Michiko, I love that quote. Thank you.

    DefyGravity, can you say something about why bell hooks name is not capitalized? I was surprised by that.

    • alex w. says:

      I agree about the responsibility of offense. It’s so strange that we (as a church) put so much emphasis on responsibility, but then we have this subject of “taking offense” that throws it all off.

      Another way I’ve seen ‘offense’ in the church is as a way to dismiss people who have concerns/issues with the church. For example, my fiance no longer attends church, and he has had to explain time and again that it’s not because someone hurt his feelings. For some reason, a lot of people seem to want it to be the reason. I guess then, in this current taking-offense mindset, it’s because it’s HIS problem, so they don’t need to worry about what led him to move away from the church. That is, if they are offended, it’s not our problem, because its their fault, not ours.

      I think it’s totally do-able and good to try to avoid offending people, because causing pain because you were careless is never okay. We’re so keen on taking responsibility for everything else, so why not this? (I know it’s not necessarily that simple, but that’s the basic idea.)

    • DefyGravity says:

      That’s a decision she’s made about her name, I think just a way of not falling into traditional rules of doing things, a way of defining herself outside of social rules.

      As to tips, I find this easier in group settings, where you can make a comment without having to direct it at one person in particular. I also try to point out the other side of a belief, to say that there are other ways of thinking, and their validity. Often just pointing out the other side without actively criticizing the other person works if you can figure out how. It’s hard, and I”m not as good at it as I wish I were…

    • Amy says:

      “It takes all of the responsibility off the offender and puts it on the offendee to forgive, move past, ignore, and/or ‘not let it bug you.’ ”
      I agree with this to a certain extent, but in my opinion, when we are encouraged to “move past” and not be offended, we are not asked that because God or anyone else thinks that offensive speech or behavior is acceptable. I believe that we are asked to do this because this is something within our realm of control. We cannot control how someone else chooses to express themselves, but we can control if we encourage our angry and hurt feelings. It’s not fun to feel angry and hurt and I think that we are encouraged to let those feelings go so that WE can be happier people.
      My opinion is that there IS a time to speak up and let someone know they are being offensive. I also believe that more often it is a time to just let let it go.

  5. Howard says:

    There is a difference between being offended, taking offense and letting offensive comments pass. Taking offense is immature. Suffering in silence may be immature. Well intended offensive comments in sexist, racist, etc. situations are obviously ignorance or subconscious biases and are effectively dealt with by patient consciousness raising. Cathartic rants as often seen on the blogs get no where except to make the ranter feel a little better.

    • alex w. says:

      I don’t think that this is a cathartic rant that has to go nowhere. Even if it just makes those of us who read it think about how we treat the issue, it’s a worthwhile start in not hurting our fellow human beings with negligence.

      • DefyGravity says:

        I agree. As a ranter, I don’t see this as a rant, merely an observation I wanted to share in case it helped someone else.

    • Howard says:

      I wasn’t calling this a cathartic rant or any kind of a rant. …it’s a worthwhile start in not hurting our fellow human beings with negligence. So that would be consciousness raising?

      • Caroline says:

        oh good. I too wondered if you were implying that this post was a rant, which didn’t seem accurate at all to me.

        I think you make a really good point that situations like this are opportunities for consciousness raising. That’s how I want to think about it too– though at the time, I am often livid and need time to calm down before I can kindly address the problem and offer an alternative perspective.

  6. jks says:

    Sometimes someone who is being offensive is offensive simply because they have a different opinion than you. For instance a racist comment like “Chinese parenting results in smarter kids.” We sometimes have to let things go. We sometimes have to realize that people have faults and we can’t fix them all.
    However, I believe in sticking up for myself and sometimes drawing a line, especially with my kids around. The other person doesn’t have to change their mind, but I feel it is sometimes important to be willing state my opinion.

    As for other kinds of meanness, I can think of one person who is very direct and abrupt and does not come off as “nice.” She has other wonderful qualities that show she cares about others and is willing to go out of her way. However, verbal niceness is not a talent she possesses.

  7. Macha says:

    This is awesome. I recently read Carolyn Jessop’s second book Triumph, and in it she talks about different kinds of forgiveness. It was really influential for me, to know that forgiveness doesn’t mean subjecting yourself to repeated abuse. That’s not what forgiveness means. You can forgive someone by letting go of your anger so that you can renew your relationship with someone you care about. You can also forgive someone by letting go of your anger because you don’t want that person to affect you at all anymore; you don’t want them or their abuse in your life anymore. Forgiveness can mean different things, but it definitely doesn’t mean just putting up with abuse.

    • Kmillecam says:

      Thank you Macha, I totally agree with this. Forgiveness is so often connected to many other emotions and processes, but it’s not the same thing and it doesn’t have to mean that we allow abuse to continue.

  8. Diane says:

    I have left the church largely over this issue. I came back to church after being homeless and sick and I was not prepared for some of the just plain nastiness of some of the people. I was sitting in the foyer talking to my RS President and this older black women not only looked up and down, but, stated that I was never hungry while I was on the streets and if I was, I should have eaten out of the garbage can.

    She would say nasty stuff like this to me every Sunday, in front of people and no one would say anything. I finally got fed up one day and gave her a what for, I didn’t care it was in the chapel. I had enough, but, now my resentment is for other members who witness this and stood by and did nothing, I have tried to open a dialogue about this and no one wants to take responsibility. All they say is So and So is just like that. Well, no, So, and So is like this because you have all allowed her be have like this with certain sisters and why the hell should I have to go home feeling like crap?

    I literally felt like I was back in high school again with a bully and everyone standing around pretending like they didn’t hear anything. It came to the point where I could not support my leadership anymore because I felt they did not support my right to be there without being harassed, I raised my hand in non support and I got the ugliest stares and it was just odd.

    That was the beginning of the end and that’s when I knew I had to leave. You can forgive people, but, it doesn’t mean you continue to allow them to abuse you and make you feel worthless

    • DefyGravity says:

      Amen. Thanks for sharing this, and I’m sorry that garbage like that happened to you, and happens in general. This idea that something can be cruel and people pull out “well, that’s just how they are,” is slightly absurd. Just because something is a certain way, that doesn’t make it ok.
      It’s like when people say “I’m not racist, sexist, judgmental …” then proceed to make a racist, sexist, judgmental comment. That amazes me. Just because you say you’re not offensive, that doesn’t mean that you actually aren’t.

    • Kmillecam says:

      I’m glad you stood up for yourself. That’s always hard to do, even with help and support. That you were able to do it in the face of NO support is very inspiring. I’m sorry you had to go through that.

  9. Diane says:

    You got that right, I was just in a facebook conversation who was doing just that, My friend has posted a link with a very good article attached to it about illegal immigrants. The article was written by a prominent newspaper person. And some other idiot who was a friend of the friend, got on a rant, about Mexicans saying how they don’t contribute to our society and they refuse to learn English. Yada, Yada Yada. And I wouldn’t let him get away with it and then he started to attack me because I wouldn’t allow him to malign.

    I say we need to open our mouths when we hear people spew their ugly crap and if it makes people around us uncomfortable, then so be it. I don’t think Christ wants us to be on the side lines witnessing this kind of behavior and not doing something about it

    • Caroline says:

      Diane,
      I’ve been in situations a little like that. For me, it starts with the church playgroup email list, where someone will email some right wing political rant. Both times I’ve sent emails asking people to keep in mind that there are Mormons on both sides of the political spectrum and to please keep politics out of these church email lists. I don’t think I endear myself to anyone when I do this, but I think it’s important to not just let it go on.

      Your situation was way more vicious, however. I would have been livid if I had seen racist rants coming from people. I’m glad you spoke up.

  10. Diane says:

    Sorry, It should have said, I would not let this person malign a group of people who have not done anything to him

  11. Geoff-A says:

    I agree that yes we should not be offended easily. But we should also be carefull not to give offence, and not to assume, if we exclude others offensively, that their problem is that they have been offended.
    Our Bishops wife always has good intentions. She regularly phones up people and corrects what they have said in their testimonies or comments in classes.
    I have had run ins with her on a number of occasions and after a long Temple Recommend interview(in which the bishop asked why I was attacking his wife by questioning her, in class) agreed to try and make peace with her. The discussion went round and round with me saying I had a right to express my beliefs, and she saying that what she said had the support of the Bishop, the Prophet and The Lord, and if I did not accept her view I was could only be lead by satan.
    I dont feel offended, but have decided to leave church until some more inclusive leadership is called, after 50 years of continuous activity.

    • Caroline says:

      Wow, Geoff. That sounds like a hideous situation. I’m glad you insisted on your right to state your beliefs, and I hope better leadership gets called soon.

    • Amy says:

      Definitely your situation is sad, Geoff. However, I am even more sad that you decided to let a select few keep you from getting blessings you are entitled to by being active in the church. OBVIOUSLY the Bishop’s wife is out of line, and I wonder the fine line the Bishop has to tread being married to her.
      I feel that I can relate at some level, because I have definitely had issues with a Bishop in my life and thoughts would come to my head, “How can this be true if HE was called to be Bishop?” However, in my case, I was able to see some good he was doing for others, and that perhaps I didn’t need him for my testimony. I don’t have a testimony of Bishop so and so. I have a testimony of Jesus Christ. And he calls imperfect people to lead in his church. And they DO make mistakes. I know that, I was called to be Relief Society President, and I just pray that I am not saying offensive things, but I have a feeling at some point I will offend someone if I haven’t already.
      Geoff, I really hope you’ll reconsider your leaving the church and I’m sorry you had that experience.

  12. This belief that we need to forgive silently is my big complaint about working for the Church–when people got mad at me, I had no idea! And instead of them being able to forgive quickly and thoroughly, it was their backstabbing and silences and looks that eventually made me realize there was something wrong. And I had to be the one to ask them what was wrong. It was so frustrating. How could I improve when no one would be open with me?

    I often think that members of the Church would do well with a big dose of communications classes. Any offense can be handled if people would just dare to talk about it. Gospel essentials? How about Gospel practicals?

  13. Diane says:

    I received my resignation letter the week before the last conference. I still watched anyway. I was really pissed off about the one talk about being offended.

    I wrote a letter to salt lake saying that there is a big difference between between being offended and being abused. I told them I didn’t leave the church because of being offended and I wish people in leadership would at least acknowledge why I left

    The response I got was a standard form letter stating that the knew God was working in my life and this was from Pres U secretary. To say I was a little disappointed was an understatement, It also tells me I was right to leave because I knew I was never going to receive any kind of acknowledgement, which to me is a necessary part of forgiveness. There has to be an acknowledgement from the other party to say they get what they did was wrong, and why it was hurtful. Otherwise, to me it seems like the forgiveness is hollow and doesn’t really mean anything

    • Howard says:

      I’m a little confused Diane you left the church due to the nastiness of some members yet you expect acknowledgement that you had been abused from the First Presidency?

    • Kmillecam says:

      I don’t think there’s anything wrong with expecting more. I expect people to acknowledge abuse all the time, because that’s the way I intend to make a difference in our society. If a member is being abused, I think the First Presidency should acknowledge it.

      • Howard says:

        Kmillecam How would the First Presidency know if a specific member had been abused by other members?

      • Amy says:

        Interesting that we think that is the job of the First Presidency. OBVIOUSLY Diane was mistreated. And yes, someone should’ve helped stand up for her. But, it is not the job of the First Presidency to acknowledge all of our hurt and abuse. They are only men. Christ is the one who can do that.
        I am wondering of those who are saying they are leaving the church because of abuses or offenses from other members, are you leaving because you no longer feel the church is true because of what happened and the fallout; or are you leaving because you are mad and hurt?

  14. Diane says:

    @ Amy

    I would say Yes to any and all of your questions to a varying degree. I’m still processing alot of what happened, and I’m sure a lot of people are tired of hearing me talk about it, but, I think its’ because to a certain degree they think I’m bad mouthing the church by discussing the situation in a public forum.
    And, I also think that many think along President Hinckley’s line,” You can leave the church, but, you can’t leave it alone.” And here is my response to that I think those of us who leave are trying to hold a mirror up to those in the church to let them know that the is not the one size fits all that they try to project, and if change is to come, it should come from people like me and thousands of others like me and it won’t make the church any weaker.

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