The final paragraph of Michael Otterson’s recently-released blog-posty letter-to-no-one makes a closing plea for its readers to be gentle:
Inevitably, some will respond to a lengthy post like this with animosity or will attempt to parse words or misinterpret what I have said, “straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.” Nevertheless, I hope that we will see less cynicism and criticism, more respectful dialogue, more kindness and civility and more generosity of spirit as those members who are prone to use the Internet engage with each other. As Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson said recently: “May we realize just how much we need each other, and may we all love one another better,” no matter which chair we’re sitting in.
I would love to be able to just echo the Oscarson line; by all means, let’s love each other better. Let’s be more generous and kinder and more civil and elevate our discourse. However, I find a whiff of disingenuity about Otterson’s use of this quotation to round out a text that rests on some pretty rigid assumptions about who “we” and “each other” are (and aren’t). Otterson’s aim in his last few paragraphs is to convince the audience of his text be nice to him: we are not to respond with cynicism, criticism, animosity, or basically, close-reading (the sins of “parsing words” and “straining at a gnat” have in common an excess of focus). I frankly don’t think these are entirely reasonable demands to make in a public document, especially one that addresses controversial topics. If I find the language or ideas coming out of the church odious, I retain the ethical right to respond with animosity. If something (like this document) strikes me as doing rhetorical work that exceeds its own admission of meaning, I think thoughtful criticism of it is merited. Without being rude, personal, or snarky, one ought to be able nonetheless to disagree rigorously. Civility does not preclude criticism. But beyond these concerns of principle, nothing in this document suggests to me that I will be on the receiving end of the respect and understanding that Otterson requests for himself and his staff.
I’m beginning with Otterson’s ending because I think it especially highlights the cross-purposes of his letter. On the one hand, Otterson says he wants a discursive community wherein we are generous in interpretation and kind in reaction. He wants us to appreciate how hard church leadership works for us and how understanding and sympathetic they really are. And he wants people to stop being mean to his staff. But on the other hand, he also makes it very clear who’s in and who’s out when it comes to the conversation about women’s issues he assures us is happening, whose concerns will be heard and whose will not—and who merits the kind of elevated, generous discourse from the church that he demands of all its members, and who does not merit it.
It seems like I should be among the intended audience for this piece. (In fact, I initially wrote this response in the second person, as an open letter responding to an open letter, but the more I’ve re-read Otterson’s language, the clearer it’s become that he is not talking to me.) I’m a Mormon feminist who’s tired of being dismissed and undervalued by the church, who is sympathetic to but still not aligned with those un-mentionable “extremists” (clearly Ordain Women, though since he doesn’t mention OW specifically, I have to wonder which other groups he views as extreme), and perpetually frustrated because the church, locally and generally, just doesn’t care. I believe the church is true, but going to church on any given Sunday is like asking to be repeatedly punched in the face. It is phenomenally alienating and lonely. I would love to hear that the church is hearing my concerns; I would love even more to hear that the church is addressing them. (I would love the most to be given a place at the table where they’re discussed, but that’s a laughable fantasy at this point.)
But Otterson’s language admits only two kinds of Mormon feminists. There are those who are too extreme to engage, and there are those who have just had bad experiences with individual men. These non-extreme, recuperable feminists are represented by the blog comment he quotes at the outset: women who have been spurred into feminism after having been “demeaned and marginalized by one (and usually many more) of the brothers of our faith.” Otterson recognizes feminist concerns, but he sees them as isolated and, more importantly, local. Sure, there’s the occasional bad egg among bishops and stake presidents, but mostly they’re great, and more importantly, the men running the show feel really bad about how sometimes the local leaders can be sexist or insensitive. The women Otterson’s letter legitimates are those who just “[want] more than anything to be listened to and feel as if [they] have truly been heard,” and the feminists who get invited to meet with church PR are of a specific type; “the term ‘feminist’ here [does] not . . . imply political activism or campaigning, but simply as a term to describe those who want to further the interests of women in a variety of ways.”
So there are “good” feminists, and “extreme” feminists. Feminists who aren’t activists are safe; feminists who campaign for things are too extreme to engage. Feminists who just want someone to validate their feelings, whose concerns are limited to a condescending or dismissive bishop, can be heard; feminists who want to re-evaluate the structure and policies that license that bishop’s behavior are not invited to the dialogue. There is absolutely nothing in this document that convinces me any specific church policy has ever been adjusted in response to the church’s engagement with women’s concerns. Otterson asserts that they hold meetings and listen to people (the “good” feminists) and information is moved around, but does not offer any specific topics discussed, much less any changes made as a result of these meetings. All of this suggests that the feminists the church will listen to are the ones who will not argue for changes at the general church level; those who would argue for such changes are by definition extreme.
If the good feminists are quietists who will never ask for structural or policy change, then I suppose (this is not surprising) that I’m among the bad,extremist feminists. Otterson’s commitment to niceness runs aground here, as he describes such groups as divisive and apostate with their “non-negotiable demands” (a phrase I’m disturbed to see emerging in church PR documents for a second time, since it has never been something OW has said about itself). Of course it is no more out of line for Otterson to critique what he views as bad feminism than it is for me to critique his defense of the status quo. But he’s also made that”extreme” camp pretty damn big by effectively dumping everyone into it who wants to work for change beyond the local level. And once’s it’s clear where I stand in Otterson’s feminist schema, then I can’t read this document as saying much more to me than “Sit down and shut up, and if you resist at all, you’re being super mean and abusing the internet.”
By the time Otterson wraps up with that Oscarson quote, it’s clear that I’m not among the “we” in the sentence “May we realize just how much we need each other.” The institutional church wants me to need it, but it also needs me not at all. (The local church, contrastively, would rather I didn’t need it either, since as a single woman I can only ever be an unrelenting drain on its resources.) Otterson is pretending at a reciprocity that simply does not exist, and asking for civility from people his department has not been civil to (i.e., I’d like to bear my testimony that church PR willfully misrepresented OW immediately following the April action). So certainly, Brother Otterson, and everyone you represent, let’s love each other better. But you go first, because you have all the power, and I’m worn out.