Zelophehad’s Daughters

Mormon Masculinity and Theological Blood Sport (Or, What We Mormon Girls Look For In the Boys We Date)

Posted by Eve

At this point in my life I happen to be pretty thoroughly acquainted with, and very fond of, two unrelated men able to recite myriads of scriptures and general-authority citations at the drop of a hat. Both are the uncontested theological authorities of their marriages; their wives might timidly pose questions or even more timidly offer their own ideas, often only to be ignored or shot down. When such men encounter one another, ritualized combat or mutual exhortation often ensue; either the combatants joust over some theological point or they join in denouncing the evangelicals, the secular world, or other unenlightened Mormons or Christians (to mention a few of the more popular targets). And as is so often the case in ritualized intellectual combat, the combatants often provoke one another into taking harder and harder stances, shoving softer, more moderate, and more considered, nuanced voices aside. We’ve all sat through a Sunday-school lesson or two that has followed this general outline.

I see no evidence that anything like a majority of Mormon men engage in this sort of thing, but it is an undeniably masculine behavior, one that more men engage in than women, and one constitutive of a certain masculine Mormon identity. Ambitious practitioners may immerse themselves in ancient languages and civilizations, religious history, or philosophy and learn to wield a whole array of scholarly apparatus. Some men learn to bash and to recount their bashing triumphs on their missions, and at the end of their lives, some are evidently still pontificating in high priests’.

Once in a while official anxieties are expressed about the tensions between the intellectual and the feminine (for example, Elder Faust’s 1999 counsel to women not to “lose your sweet femininity” in the pursuit of education). I have to wonder, first of all, if such anxieties aren’t based on an erroneous reduction of the intellectual to this very masculinized ritual combat, and second, if a certain kind of masculinity isn’t at least as incompatible with genuine intellectual inquiry as a certain kind of femininity is. Fluttering around apologizing for one’s very existence isn’t particularly conducive to careful thought, but at least feminine self-denigration implies a certain teachability, an advantage the corresponding masculine pose of self-important blather decidedly lacks.

Maybe the most serious problem with theological blood sport is that it treats the spiritual like any other abstract intellectual system, often severed from any implications for the practitioners’ actual lives. It’s gospel calculus in the sky, and sometimes the practitioners are hot on the trail of a wholly imaginary unified field theory. But whatever else the gospel is, it’s nothing until it lives in us. Its truest realm is ultimately the quotidian, the intimate, the routine–in short, the largely feminine world of domestic relationships and domestic labor, to which we as Christians are enjoined to bring the largely feminine virtues of humility, patience, mercy, and love. For all the evident anxiety about women’s roles and lives, I’ve sometimes wondered if the deeper crisis and Mormonism and other Christianities isn’t one of masculinity. I think, for example, of a Sunday school teacher who week after week assured the class, “Jesus Christ was a man’s man,” clearly because considered in terms of North American culture’s quite rigid norms, some of the things Jesus said, taught, and did might put his masculinity dangerously into question.

Blood-sport theologians sometimes deal with this breach between theory and practice by making the inevitable concession to an idealized femininity, that familiar spiritually pure and intellectually vacant woman, the sweet little supportive wife who makes and serves all the meals while her mission-president husband consults with the elders in his office, the sainted nursery worker who’s never batted an eye over limited geography theory but who lives the gospel more purely than any of us smart men. Or as a minor character observes archly in the movie Shadowlands, “Men have intellect, and women have…soul.” Of such is the kingdom of heaven, the blood-sporters assure us. But if so, they seemingly have little interest in devoting themselves to its perilously feminine ways–or, in some versions, as men they are spiritually incapable of such goodness, driven as they are by their own relentlessly masculine intellects to devour one another.

I’m very much in favor of careful abstract thought about religion as about everything else, and it’s encouraging to see it continue to flourish in all kinds of Mormon venues. But when it comes to the practice of our faith, to our very lives, it’s both necessary and profoundly insufficient. And just like any well-raised Mormon male blushing when affronted with evident cleavage, plunging necklines, and short tight skirts, I find myself embarrassed and dismayed by theological indecency and gratuitous intellectual display.

I am a Mormon girl. I was raised to expect modesty–including intellectual modesty–in the opposite sex.

50 Responses to “Mormon Masculinity and Theological Blood Sport (Or, What We Mormon Girls Look For In the Boys We Date)”

  1. 1.

    I see no evidence that anything like a majority of Mormon men engage in this sort of thing,

    The Mormon bloggernacle isn’t necessarily a representative demographic of Mormonism, but one needs only to compare a few blog posts and comments to see evidence of this in action.

    Brilliant post, Eve.

  2. 2.

    Fairly common in the (2) missions I was in. Some took it to extremes, learning Deseret, brushing up on their Ogden Kraut, just so they could have the psychological advantage over others.

    It’s what a lot of evangelical anti-Mormonism is, now that I think about it… and all that ‘bashing’ over religion accomplishes.

  3. 3.

    Amen, Eve. Great post.

  4. 4.

    I’m very much in favor of careful abstract thought about religion as about everything else, and it’s encouraging to see it continue to flourish in all kinds of Mormon venues. But when it comes to the practice of our faith, to our very lives, it’s both necessary and profoundly insufficient. And just like any well-raised Mormon male blushing when affronted with evident cleavage, plunging necklines, and short tight skirts, I find myself embarrassed and dismayed by theological indecency and gratuitous intellectual display.

    Me, too. I agree wholeheartedly!

  5. 5.

    Eve,

    Far be it from me to tempt you above that which you are able to resist by putting my (fake) yawning cavern of intellectual cleavage on display. Who knows, maybe some other righteous, Gospel Doctrine-quoting scriptorian of a priesthood holder might come along and turn your pretty little head away from your sacred gender role, but I don’t want that on my conscience.

    I think you hit the bullseye. Sometimes the participants in discussions in priesthood meeting remind me of bull moose, shaking their antlers and roaring at each other. What make it even more hilarious is that the stakes are usually so low, and the point of contention so trivial, that it is impossible for an onlooker to even make sense of the argument. Angry ML might have a point – I wonder how much of this is learned behavior from a mission?

    And as is so often the case in ritualized intellectual combat, the combatants often provoke one another into taking harder and harder stances, shoving softer, more moderate, and more considered, nuanced voices aside.

    Don’t you think this applies elsewhere, too? The ongoing political campaign reminds me of a melodrama with stock characters – each side portrays its candidate as a pure, innocent vitim who is being tied to the railroad tracks by the evil man in a black hat who twirls his mustache.

    Although I think you are absolutely correct about Mormon men and theological blood sport, I think that, overall in the church, men are less competitive than women. If you really want to see some blood on the floor after church, go into the RS room. How do we account for that? ECS is right, speaking of the bloggernacle in general, but if we consider just the feminacle, we often see that breathless, desparate need to be right.

  6. 6.

    This is why I don’t like the Sundays that High Priest group and Elders Quorum meet together. This kind of thing seems to be more prominent among the older guys. It makes me wonder if some of us in EQ will morph into annoying old know-it-alls or if the annoying old know-it-alls were annoying know-it-alls even when they were Elders. I hope it’s the latter. I want to believe that I can avoid that fate.

  7. 7.

    I have my own insecurities and unfortunately petty needs to display my yawning intellectual capacity (ha ha ha–such as it is), in spite of my feminine brain, but in general I wonder whether men’s combat in the Church doesn’t focus on theological issues where women’s focuses on childrearing? I think it could be argued that discussion of appropriate childrearing practices is equally a blood sport, although that’s no doubt a topic for a “whole ‘nother” post.

  8. 8.

    This is genius. I’ve been trying to think about Mormon masculiniities and femininities, but hadn’t considered this yet. Traditionally we think of these things in terms of family dynamics, but you really point out the way that spirituality is gendered!

  9. 9.

    Great post, Eve! I like your point about the Sunday School teacher who reminded the class that Jesus was a “man’s man” as a suggestion of a masculinity crisis in Mormonism or Christianity. I think you could find further evidence of this issue arising in Christianity in Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus, in which he discussed different portrayals of Jesus across time. If I remember right, he moved from appearing as gentle, sweet feminine figure to a hulking no-nonsense brute of a Redeemer.

  10. 10.

    I wonder if it partially stems from the learning of ancient languages, philosophies, and modern GA quotes. I used to engage in this type of sport frequently (mostly with men). I took the languages and philosophy classes at first because I simply loved learning things like that, but at the LDS university I attended, I also learned this type of debate that you’re talking about from some of the teachers there (mostly male–although some of the teachers that taught me not to get caught up in those things were also male). It was appealing at one time, and part of the reason I stopped enjoying church–there wasn’t enough of it.

    Now however, I find myself with you Eve. It makes me sad that the more intellectually trained among us (more than likely male in the last generation since their wives usually quit school) feel the need to beat others over the head with their supposed intelligence.

    On the note of Jesus being a “man’s man” this was also a problem at said LDS university, as one teacher was forced into early retirement for suggesting that Christ/God had a feminine side.

    Anyway, I hadn’t thought about these issues in quite this way before, thanks for articulating them so clearly.

  11. 11.

    Astute observations, Eve. This post reminds me of the great discussion on Mormon masculinity a few years ago on BCC. (And why is it that the nacle women are posting the best observations and discussions of Mormon masculinity?)

    I also like Mark’s point. (And, I challenge him to a duel! En garde!)

    Mormon women also often engage in a sort of bloodletting. It is often less formally violent than men’s interaction. But it’s much more serious and earnest about the utter destruction and annihilation of the opposite party.

    You can see all sorts of examples of stereotypically male versus female combat in the bloggernacle. For example, Geoff and Blake (and sometimes Jacob, Clark, et al) at NCT have engaged in approximately 30,000 rounds of continuous back-and-forth about a variety of topics like multiple probations, the nature of the pre-existence, post-existence, spiritual creation, and the like. The arguments are intense and sometimes hard-fought. And they’re also relatively meaningless (how many angels _can_ dance on the head of a pin?), and there’s really nothing in them that prevents the participants from having a (root) beer together afterwards, and sitting on someone’s couch, munching on nachos and watching football.

    The discussion _is_ football. It’s a (maybe intentionally) stylized combat, which can be very heated and intense on the field. And then the whistles blow, and the game ends, and you take off the helmets and pads and uniforms, and you can sit around together and chat.

    Male culture is full of stylized combat along those lines. Ward basketball: We’re going to kill 10th ward, absolutely destroy them. Heated game ensues, with lots of pushing, hard picks, elbows thrown. And yet once you’re off the court, it’s back to, “let’s go over to Bro. Jones’s house to grill some burgers.”

    Women’s combat, it seems (speaking generally, and of course there are exceptions) is really different. Women don’t have institutionalized systems of pseudo-combat like football. And women’s combat is both less open, and more earnest — it seems to often be less about stylized point-gaining, and more about actual blood.

    You can see the difference at a glance, comparing the between the highly stylized jousting of Geoff and Blake, with the deadly serious, naked-blade dagger dances at FMH: These are my life choices, I put my validity as a person into this discussion, and any comment that says that I’m wrong will lead to a blood feud.

    Or just compare Hugh Nibley’s endless ruminations about the economic and communitarian nature of Zion — you can argue those points forever, with no danger of actual blood lost — with Julie Beck’s deadly serious admonitions: If you’re not personally doing what I say, you are a bad mom and a bad woman.

    (To follow on your intellect/soul dichotomy, men in the church often pit their intellects against each other. Women pit their souls against each other. Which is really the more dangerous endeavor?)

    If men in the church are often engaged in blood sport, Eve — and they probably are, playing football hard and occasionally losing a tooth or getting a concussion or even a broken leg — then women in the church are, maybe equally often, engaged in real blood feud. Polite on the surface, all daggers underneath, and be very, very careful what you drink at that Relief Society social. It’s not the helmeted and padded lineman who will get you, it’s the sweetly smiling sister, chatting amiably, who earlier slipped arsenic into your Diet Seven-Up.

    (And of course, these observations don’t apply to _all_ LDS men or women — but I think the general pattern definitely exists. I have no opinion in this comment as to whether it is an innate pattern, or the result of culture.)

  12. 12.

    This is exactly the reason I am glad I work in the Primary. I’m afraid if I was a regular in Gospel Doctrine or in Priesthood meeting, I would engage in this type of bloody battle on a too-regular basis.

    On the other hand, as Kaimi points out, it is easier for men to say, “this guy is an idiot,” and still keep a friendship. I can think a fellow priesthood holder is a gospel idiot and still talk with him about yesterday’s football game afterward. In Relief Society, it isn’t always just the intellectual ego that is the target, sometimes it is the soul. My wife has come home from church crying many times because of something that was said to her in that “isn’t that special” tone of voice that implied she was failing as a wife and as a person. She has stayed at home for months at at time, recovering from something that someone said to her out of a “christian duty” to help her grow in the gospel.

  13. 13.

    I noticed on my mission that it was elders who competed with each other over pass-offs, kanji (chinese characters in Japanese writing–missionaries serving in Japan are illiterate unless they teach themselves these) and vocabulary, races through scripture, etc. While nice that these competitions were intellectual rather than physical (basketball, bike mileage, and curry eating good for that), I interpretted these displays as vying for mission position: moving up through the ranks to DL, ZL, AP.

    Sisters just didn’t care about this stuff and, indeed, we had nowhere to go.

    Likewise, intellectual displays at church, largely among men, have always come off to me as a desire to impress and the pay-off expected (I have thought) was respect and position. Recently, I observed an (embaressing) effort by a senior missionary to show off one week; he usually does not say a thing, but this week, the mission president happened to be attending our branch.

    True, women tend to get more personal as criticisms/attacks/observations about parenting, etc. are taken personally. And we really have no positions for which to vie.

    [ps–I too have heard a man lammenting in SS that we always make Jesus seem like a “girly-man” which, of course he wan’t–according to the speaker the true Jesus is one of wrath]

  14. 14.

    very incisive, Thank you Eve,
    If only we had listened to our mothers ; )
    One of the most dangerous hazards of the priesthood is the desire to climb the ladder and to outrank the other males. It becomes almost unconscious and stems from our own inadequacy. The little known fact is that this display too is driven by fear and a necessarily poor self image. Humility and modesty do not come easy to us until we are at peace with ourselves.

  15. 15.

    Hehe. Well said Kaimi. (Except the “dancing angels on the head of a needle” line which gets to one of my biggest pet peeves — is try to better understand the atonement better really as useless as all that? Really?).

    I actually posted on the masculine nature of the blogging I like to do some time ago. I compared it to a hard fought game of “gorilla dunk ball”. Good times.

  16. 16.

    I thought this was pretty interesting and observant. I have little first-hand experience with this kind of intellectual combat in a church setting. In my mission the competition was to see how apostate you could be, and for some reason Sunday School in our ward is usually mind-numbingly boring (despite the fact that we have many educated people).

    However, I spent several years on BYU’s College Bowl team and am well-versed in intellectual combat. I’ve spent hours in cars with people trying to list all movies that have ever won Best Picture or all Pultizer Prize winning novels, etc. I think I was never as good at College Bowl as most of the guys because I didn’t care as much. There is a definite dearth of women in the arena of competitive trivia, and I think this is why. When I went to a Jeopardy tryout a few years ago at least half the people in the room were men who were about 40 years old.

  17. 17.

    The problem with intellectual bullying – whether of the feminine or masculine brand – is that the bully often thinks they won, simply because the bullied doesn’t find it worth arguing any more. The real end result is that the bully looks like a boor, not an intellectual. When applied to religious discussions, chances are good that the humble, more quiet person has a better idea of gospel principles than the bully and thus the bully misses out on learning something.

  18. 18.

    Fine post, Eve. Your perspective reflects the view that men tend to be systematizers and women tend to be empathizers.

    One might think that blogging appeals to the systematizing doctrinal trivia buff, who would therefore be overrepresented in the B’nacle. After all, one does need a topic for every post, and doctrinal trivia buffs always have topics to work with.

    But another view is that blogging allows people who don’t want to do doctrinal, historical, or theological jousting and who have other things they want to talk about (people, feelings, stuff like that) to participate in the conversation. I think it is great to see many different approaches represented in Mormon blogs and to see so much female participation in the Bloggernacle.

  19. 19.

    Most of you have been saying “of course not all men are like this,” or “the majority of Mormon men don’t exhibit this behavior,” or such things, but still use the words “masculine” and “feminine” to describe a phenomenon you’ve already stated doesn’t apply in most cases to the words your using. A thought occurred to me as I was reading this that helped me understand the reason for that, and hopefully I’m not too wrong =).

    There’s a book called “The Color Code,” by Dr. Taylor Hartman, that divides personality types into 4 different “colors” – red, blue, white, and yellow – based on their motivation for doing things. Loosely put, reds are motivated by power and selfishness, the need to be in control; blues are motivated by compassion and the need to love and be loved; whites seek peace and avoid confrontation whenever possible; and yellows seek fun and don’t worry about very much. Personality types, Dr. Hartman says, are not based on gender, though people sometimes like to think of it that way. The “typical male” is red, and the “typical woman” is blue. But the fact is, there are plenty of males and females of all personality types.

    So anyway, what struck me as I read this is that you are describing the differences between the manifestations of strong red behavior in males and females in Mormon culture, and I found that fascinating. So of course not all males act like what you are describe, just male reds. And not all females fight over child raising techniques, just female reds. Reds tend to be argumentative or confrontational so they can establish the fact that they are right, and it’s fascinating how culture shapes the way that behavior exhibits itself, and that it’s different for men and women.

    Thanks for an interesting discussion!

  20. 20.

    I think the tendency for men to engage in “blood sport” discussions is the reason why the Mormon blogs are so gender segregated. Few women post on doctrinal issues that aren’t related to, say “presiding”, or the question of whether God wants women to stay home and take care of the kids.

  21. 21.

    Few women post on doctrinal issues

    True, and all the more reason why ZsDs roolz. You can find posts here on the meaning of grace, the efficacy of ordinances, etc.

    Another thought occurred to me, and it is that I’m not sure that what goes on in priesthood meeting is abstract discussion. My experience has been that the combatants typically attempt to bolster half-baked arguments with trump cards, either in the form of scripture citations or GA quotes, which are intended to cause an opponent to submit to authority.

  22. 22.

    Actually, after I reread my comment it makes no sense in the context of this post. I guess I was just looking for an excuse to harp on the gender segregation in the bloggernacle.

    Mark IV wrote:

    My experience has been that the combatants typically attempt to bolster half-baked arguments with trump cards, either in the form of scripture citations or GA quotes, which are intended to cause an opponent to submit to authority.

    Hmmm. Off the top of my head, I can think of one or two women who do this, too.

    Z’s Daughters does rule! And Eve makes a mean lasagna :)

  23. 23.

    This is why I don’t like the Sundays that High Priest group and Elders Quorum meet together.

    Ha! I love these meetings. Our ward’s tradition is that typically the EQ will teach these. And in our EQ, we have a stable of instructors who *hate* scorched-earth theological discussions, preferring to focus on application and personal growth (it’s kind of squishy, yes). There’s nothing so great as diffusing a HP argument with a “gee, that’s great, but what does that have to do with improving ourselves as husbands and fathers?”

    Maybe I just proved the point. But I live for killing off fatuous theological navel-gazing by refocusing on applications to individual spirituality.

  24. 24.

    #19, Matt – I don’t know if it’s so much about saying “men are red and women are blue” but about how men and women are red. An average man exhibits those red, driver tendencies differently than an average woman. If the woman mimics male behavior, she stands out and vice versa with the man.

  25. 25.

    Sometimes the participants in discussions in priesthood meeting remind me of bull moose

    and

    Male culture is full of stylized combat along those lines.

    It is something you get in groups of men (lawyers do it all the time) and there are ways to suppress it in any group.

    For what it is worth, my ward has a real dearth of that sort of activity in either EQ or HP or Gospel Doctrine.

    I’ll have to ask Win about Relief Society, but odds are that if it were common there, she wouldn’t be attending. I can’t imagine our Relief Society President putting up with it. I can’t imagine very many people who could stand up to her either, none in our ward that would be inclined to try.

  26. 26.

    Queuno: I live for killing off fatuous theological navel-gazing by refocusing on applications to individual spirituality.

    Here’s the problem — how can you tell when theological searching is fatuous and when it is useful? In Mormonism faith is a hope for things which are not seen which are true. When one has a false hope in incorrect theological ideas do you think that will lead them to greater individual spirituality too? To give an example: I know some rabid evangelical anti-Mormons who believe (based on faulty theological assumptions) that tearing down Mormonism is the best thing they can do to follow God and to grow their own spirituality. See the problem? (And they are mild cases compared to the “spirituality building” suicide bombers in the Muslim world who base their actions on faulty theological assumptions).

    Joseph Smith said:

    the things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God.

    It pains me to see all theological discussion sneered at by so many modern Mormons.

    Stephen: It is something you get in groups of men (lawyers do it all the time) and there are ways to suppress it in any group.

    Why are you assuming that suppressing such ritual jousting (aka debating of any kind as far as is desirable?

  27. 27.

    Oops, that last sentence should have read:

    Why are you assuming that suppressing such ritual jousting (aka debating of any kind as far as I can tell) is desirable?

  28. 28.

    It pains me to see all theological discussion sneered at by so many modern Mormons.

    Geoff, I’m not sure that is what is going on here. The sneers are directed at the 85% of discussions that masquerade as serious theological conversations but are really just exercises in showing off. “Gratify our pride” comes to mind. If you’re in the other 15%, there is certainly no need to be pained.

  29. 29.

    I would love it if our Relief Society engaged in some good old fashioned ritual jousting. As it is, it’s too much like being on an episode of “Oprah”. (but not the good episodes where she gives away free cars and stuff). As far as I’m concerned we need more “Jerry Springer” and less “Oprah” in R.S. And jousting.

  30. 30.

    great post Eve

    I’m trying to remember who said it first, something along the lines of “the time is past when it was the husband who was the theologian and the wife who was the christian”

    it’s what came to mind as I read your thoughts…

  31. 31.

    Mark IV,

    Where does that 85% and 15% figure come from?

  32. 32.

    The sneers are directed at the 85% of discussions that masquerade as serious theological conversations but are really just exercises in showing off. “Gratify our pride” comes to mind. If you’re in the other 15%, there is certainly no need to be pained.

    By my calculations, 95% of criticisms of theological conversations masquerade as indictments of frivolity, but are really just evidence of lack of understanding, ignorance, fear/intimidation, and occasionally stupidity.

  33. 33.

    Geoff, the 85/15 split came right off the top of my head. I think a lot of them fall into the “almost all” category from sec. 121. Maybe it’s not 85/15, maybe it’s more like 70/30. But regardless of the precise ratio, we can certainly agree that a lot of what goes on in priesthood meeting is just ego stroking, can’t we.

    TT. guilty on all counts, without a doubt. But how, percisely, do you want to define a theological conversation? Or, more precisely, why are what you are choosing to call theological discussions (the kind that occur often in church, which is the topic of this post) any different that any other kind of conversation? Some guys talk about their golf games, some guys talk about their cars, and some guys talk about the location of the ten lost tribes. Why is that last topic any liklier to be free of machismo thatn the other two?

  34. 34.

    Mark,
    I was mostly making a joke about arbitrary statistics that tend to justify our preconceptions, not a direct accusation against you!
    I completely agree that there can be a kind of masculinity involved in certain kinds of theological conversation. I am not sure that I would just dismiss the content as “showing off,” however, with no intrinsic worth. Honestly, I put myself in the 5% category of people with real live critiques of much of what passes as serious theological discussion in Mormonism. However, I don’t think that the idea of theological discussion itself hopelessly tainted.

  35. 35.

    Mark IV: we can certainly agree that a lot of what goes on in priesthood meeting is just ego stroking, can’t we.

    I can go on what I see and in my HP group and I see almost no “ego stroking” going on when we are discussing the gospel. So no, I guess we can’t agree on that. It may happen in some places, but I haven’t seen a lot of it in my experience. I mostly see people doing their best to both understand the gospel of Jesus Christ correctly and live it.

  36. 36.

    Thanks to all participants for such thoughtful, interesting comments and for the many kind words.

    Mark IV said,

    “my (fake) yawning cavern of intellectual cleavage on display”

    What have I begun? By the logic of my own analogy, we’re headed straight for a discussion of the ethics of Mormon men and intellectual boob jobs (which would be…fake degrees? Real degrees procured for false motives? Deep doctrines, these, and not for the uninitiated!)

    On a slightly more serious note, I certainly agree that such behavior is far from unique to us. Political campaigns are an endless source of rich examples, and business, law, and university life also abound.

    You, Kiskilili, ECS, Kaimi, CSEric, A Spectator, and Matt all touch on the vexed question of female competitiveness and the peculiarly feminine forms women’s aggression often takes. (I would agree that such forms can be deadly). It seems to me that our views of feminine rage depend on our theories of aggression more generally: do we subscribe to theories of intense cathartic expression, or do we eradicate anger by refusing our boys toy guns and violent video games and by extended training in conflict resolution? (I confess that a most un-P.C. shudder passes through me at my own final suggestion.) Masculinity seems to fare especially poorly in the latter theories, and femininity in the former. Because real women don’t get angry any more than real men cry, anger festers, all the more deadly beneath a sweet exterior. (William Blake, “A Poison Tree” etc.) Cattiness is born.

    Kaimi makes an excellent point I’d never before considered (if I might hazard the heresy of paraphrase): women’s greater propensity to speak from their own lives and experiences–a way of speaking I tend to prefer to entirely abstract discussion–does have the drawback of making any conflict that arises deeply personal.

    What we do with women’s destructive patterns of anger is a difficult question (as is what we do with men’s destructive patterns), but I think we’d be very well served, as Mormon women, by the simple admission that anger is a universal human experience and problem. Imbibing large draughts of self-congratulatory Victorian discourse does not render us exempt.

    Geoff asked, perhaps rhetorically,

    Why are you assuming that suppressing such ritual jousting (aka debating of any kind as far as I can tell) is desirable?

    I can’t speak for Stephen, but I propose suppressing–well, redirecting–intellectual jousting is desirable for these reasons: that preferring triumph to insight, it artificially restricts and polarizes the discussion, that it excludes those without a taste for blood sport and those who quickly tire of it, and that it vitiates the very gospel it purports to examine. How many online discussions have we all witnessed in which all reasonable voices have long since left the field to a few dogged, bloodied combatants?

    In short, it’s a thoroughly inefficient and often distasteful method of truth-seeking.

    I’m in no way whatsoever opposed to theology or to theological discussion, but I think we Mormons often do it poorly, in part because it is such a site of a masculinized ritual jousting.

    ECS, you are one of the few people in this world for whom I would be absolutely delighted to make lasagna, anytime you want it. ;)

  37. 37.

    Geoff, if that isn’t the case in your ward, that’s great! My point is that I think the behavior Eve describes falls into the category of unrighteous dominion that “almost all” of us are prone to, and that we have precious little reason to believe that our gospel discussions are any less vain that any other discussions.

    Let me try to bring this back on track. Eve said:

    I have to wonder. . . if a certain kind of masculinity isn’t at least as incompatible with genuine intellectual inquiry

    It seems self-evident to me that she is correct, but we should also notice that she isn’t indicting all gospel conversations.

  38. 38.

    Eve: I propose suppressing–well, redirecting–intellectual jousting is desirable for these reasons: that preferring triumph to insight, it artificially restricts and polarizes the discussion, that it excludes those without a taste for blood sport and those who quickly tire of it, and that it vitiates the very gospel it purports to examine.

    You seem to be working under the assumption that all intellectual jousting has the following characteristics

    1) The participants value “victory” (whatever that means in this case) more than they value insight
    2) It always restricts and polarizes the discussion
    3) It excludes people who don’t like debating
    4) It is un-Christlike

    I can buy your assumption (3) –, but I don’t buy the the other assumptions here at all. Why do you think that your assumption (1), (2), and (4) are essential aspects of theological debates?

    Is your point as simple as “I don’t like it when people act like jerks”? If so, why indict debating in general simply because sometimes people are jerks when they debate?

  39. 39.

    Mark IV: My point is that I think the behavior Eve describes falls into the category of unrighteous dominion that “almost all” of us are prone to

    I am against bullying too if that is your point. I almost never see people bullying each other theologically at church but I also rarely see disagreements of any kind in church (seems to be taboo in our culture).

    In the blogs, I have seen lots of newbies storm off in a huff when they are asked to back their assertions up. Perhaps that is a sign of someone who is used to making authoritative comments and never being openly challenged. So maybe that is evidence that local doctrinal bullies do exist and they don’t like blogs because looking distinguished in real life (or whatever) doesn’t buy them a free pass to spout their opinions as facts…

  40. 40.

    Um, who are the _others_ for whom you would make lasagna, Eve? Inquiring minds want to know.

    I would happily offer my own lasagna into the mix. But since I’m a man, I have to admit that my lasagna is relatively more likely to be half-baked, and if you’ve ever tried half-baked lasagna, you know what a mess that is. I have tried bolstering my half-baked lasagna with trump cards (laid out carefully over the flat noodles, just before baking), but that just made things worse. :P

    Actually, I do wonder how much of the ritual combat is innately tied to gender. I’m naturally suspicious of a lot of gender essentialist arguments. but I have to admit, systems of ritual combat among males seems to exist in a _lot_ of different social animals. Bull moose knocking antlers, stylized combat among chimpanzees, and so forth. I wonder if that’s not coincidence.

    Putting on my Jared Diamond hat for a moment, I wonder if there are evolutionary advantages to having this tendency. One idea, for instance, could go along these lines: It is beneficial to the species to have the most healthy males in any particular herd pass along their genes. One way to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy males is via combat. So inter-herd combat may be a good way to determine the pecking order of alpha male, beta male, and so forth. However, a system of to-the-death combat may create negative consequences for the herd. After all, even beta and delta males are useful in defending the herd against attack. And so a combat system that killed the beta males could have negative overall effects.

    If those are both true, then the optimal scenario is combat that is sufficiently fierce as to differentiate between alpha and beta males, but not so fierce as to actually kill the beta males and deprive the herd of their services. To the extent that that kind of behavior (ritualized combat among males) can be instilled in the herd — either via genetic tendency, cultural instruction, or both — it could give an evolutionary advantage.

  41. 41.

    err, I meant intra-herd combat . . .

  42. 42.

    Actually, after I reread my comment it makes no sense in the context of this post. I guess I was just looking for an excuse to harp on the gender segregation in the bloggernacle.

    I think this is right. The bloggernacle is terribly segregated along gender lines. I hate this, and try to take what steps I can to combat it. But ultimately, I’m starting to wonder if bloggernacle blogging is inherently gendered. The political and theological arguments at T&S, BCC, NCT, and so on, really do look like the male activity of stylized combat. The different blogging done at FMH is in many ways uniquely female — like the sewing circles and other women-created communities, discussed by feminist sociologists, places that are structured along female lines.

    So maybe, asking why there aren’t more women in the more political/theological/argumentative part of the bloggernacle is a little like asking why there aren’t more men giving birth, or breastfeeding their babies.

    The divide isn’t absolute, of course. But after kicking against the pricks (and not just the ones at BCC) for over four years now, I’m starting to wonder if a gender-integrated bloggernacle is really possible at all.

  43. 43.

    Geoff, you ask Eve the question:

    Why do you think that your assumption (1), (2), and (4) are essential aspects of theological debates?

    Eve can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think she’s talking about a *particular brand* of theological debate (one that displays the characteristics she has listed). I don’t think Eve is condemning all theological debate (goodness knows, we engage in our share of theological debate on this blog). :)

  44. 44.

    Why are you assuming that suppressing such ritual jousting (aka debating of any kind as far as is desirable?

    Good point. Just because something can be done doesn’t mean that it should be done.

    Jousting is different from debating or discussion. I like discussion, when I’m supposed to teach the HP group I facilitate discussions rather than lecture them. I did the same for the Elder’s Quorum, modeling different methods there so that others could copy what I was doing and try different styles.

    Other than the PhD student who caught on what I was doing and got sidetracked for a couple weeks by the technique, I’d say it was a success with both groups.

    extended training in conflict resolution

    Hey, I’m all for that! (cf my on-line hobby at http://adrr.com/ — now, for an editor).

    I can’t speak for Stephen, but I propose suppressing–well, redirecting–intellectual jousting is desirable for these reasons: that preferring triumph to insight, it artificially restricts and polarizes the discussion, that it excludes those without a taste for blood sport and those who quickly tire of it, and that it vitiates the very gospel it purports to examine. How many online discussions have we all witnessed in which all reasonable voices have long since left the field to a few dogged, bloodied combatants?

    Ritual chest butting fits that sort of thing. it is recognizable by the one-up-manship/dominance elements that it displays and it gets in the way of talking about the gospel.

    I don’t mind talking about things, in fact I like to encourage it. I just don’t feel the need to have a bull moose butting me when I could be talking with someone or listening to something interesting.

  45. 45.

    Alright, so apparently the main point here is that debating is hunky dory but people don’t like bullies or jerks.

    I also don’t like bullies or jerks.

  46. 46.

    lasagna hmm, you probably all want something other than “missionary special” lasagna picked up at SAMS or Costco, perhaps with a layer of homemade pesto or some such.

    Reminds me of when the Cougareat had moussaka every Friday.

  47. 47.

    Am I the only person who thinks this thread has become some kind of truism?
    Geoff, we all don’t like bullies or jerks.
    But, I think this is about arguing just for the sake of arguing
    (or debating, or discussing, pick your favorite verb)
    and that seems a little like what you’re doing here.
    Of course, I may be wrong. But, the way the conversation has turned strikes me as ironic considering the subject of the post. Speaking of, what a great post Eve! I love your writing, every word is important and every phrase well-said. (Do you spend a lot of time editing?)

    And Geoff, in the spirit of masculine jousting that ends up with hanging out, I hope you saw the post for the AZ snacker. There’s nothing like bloggernacle jousting followed up by a picnic at the park.

  48. 48.

    Jessawhy: I think this is about arguing just for the sake of arguing (or debating, or discussing, pick your favorite verb) and that seems a little like what you’re doing here.

    I’m sorry it strikes you that way. I’m afraid your impression about my intentions is incorrect. The post seems to be attacking “masculine” debating as something awful but when I tried to pin down what that term actually means the folks in the thread who were nodding together in agreement that masculine debating (or whatever) was a terrible thing basically demurred and said basically “we don’t mind debating at all, we just don’t like jerks or bullies”.

    Since that seems to be the real point here all I could do was agree with that sentiment. I don’t know what me seeking to understand what is really meant by the post should be seen as arguing for the sake of arguing though.

    Thanks for the heads up on the upcoming AZ snacker though!

  49. 49.

    There is a species of head butting and one oneupmanship that doesn’t seem to have much to do with debate or masculine debate. Dominance ordering behavior, generally getting in the way of conversation or debate.

    I’m not fond of it. I don’t mind debate or argument for the sake of entertainment. I didn’t see anything wrong with Geoff’s post at all, I thought he pretty much cut through to the chase that dominance ordering behavior is generally bullying or rude when it occurs in the context of trying to establish dominance outside of the organizational structure.

    I think it is interesting to observe a behavior, realize that it is dominance ordering behavior, then recognize that in the context of a hierarchyial church, such behavior is a form of rebellion and is also pretty rude — and that it is rude because it is an exercise (or an attempted exercise) of dominance and dominion over others. Kind of like a revisit of D&C 121 … and there are even some who don’t even have some authority as they suppose, who still jump in the fray and attempt to exercise dominion and compulsion, and verily they annoy the rest of us even more ;)

  50. 50.

    Geoff,
    After I posted that comment last night, I felt bad about it. I’m sorry if I offended you. I can see your point (in fact, it occurred to me as well) about “nodding together in agreement ” without exactly defining the behavior we are condemning.
    As far as women and blood feuds vs men and stylized combat, I’m not sure I agree. I don’t see a lot of arguing in Relief Society. In fact, I wish I saw more. Some women appeal to authority to back up their opinions, which often makes me squirm, especially if the authority is her husband.
    But, hey, I’ve been in junior primary for the last few months, so what do I know?

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