PR, Niceness, and Exclusion

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.


  1. Great analysis, Melyngoch. Spot on. He’s drawn a narrow little circle first to include only the “good” feminists and, as you said, left out anyone who has any serious concerns about the general structure of the Church.

    This is a bit cynical, but perhaps he’s working backward from the type of response that he sees the Church as able to provide, and then limited his audience to feminists who would be helped by such a response. The Church is at least able to have leaders meet with women and say “your concerns are heard.” It’s also able to have leaders say “you are incredible” or “you have the most honored place.” Beyond that, we’re just not going to get much, so he defines such people out of the group worth responding to up front.

  2. Have I mentioned lately that ZD is my favourite?

    My bishop mentioned women and the priesthood as a “do you sustain the prophet and apostles?” related topic in our leading-towards-living-ordinance-reommendation-interview interview. I highly doubt he knows my point of view on the topic. I’m an obviously-righteous member of our YSA ward (having no dating history to speak of, I’m not really considered high-risk, and my GD lessons are densely scriptural), and it seems to me that Bro Otterson would be as surprised as my bishop might be to hear that I think the church structure is not great for women.

    Preparing for the temple does not feel expansive and powerful, as I had hoped and expected, so perhaps I am overly sensitive to these kinds of attitudes, but the letter is not heartening.

  3. Superb analysis. “…pretending at a reciprocity that simply doesn’t exist.” Yes, that’s it in a nutshell. And anyone who points out the fact that the Emperor, in fact, is wearing no clothes, is a heretic.

  4. Oh, Bravo! My sentiments exactly! This letter was no call to discourse, but instead just another avenue for chiding OW and its supporters, to marginalized them and attempt to make sure all dialog is done on their terms.

    The attempt to scapegoat local leaders for all the problems is, to me, the most offensive part of the document. The central structure, policies, and pronouncements of the top leadership are *never* at fault. This is perhaps the most central of my disaffection with the Church. I think I can handle well-intended mistakes. The inability to ever admit mistakes, even theoretically, to sweep more obvious mistakes under the rug without addressing it as a mistake, and to be unwilling to apologize for pain caused, is intolerable.

  5. Excellent! Is there any precedent for the senior spokesperson of the church to write a personal open letter to various progressive blogs or activist groups that contains his own personal opinions about various issues concerning the church at large in order to offer the insights of an insider, but is not actually an official statement from the PR department, from what I can tell (can’t find it on any church websites), but also kind of seems like it is because he has attached his position as managing director (I think that’s what I remember anyway (don’t feel like looking it up)) of public affairs to the end of his letter, kind of making it feel like it was from the church, but it really wasn’t? Or am I mistaken? Anyway, is there any kind of precedent for this kind of communication from one in his position? Just wondering. My apologies for the run on sentence.

  6. Excellent points! Several statements in the letter made me uncomfortable as I was trying to figure out what side of Otterson’s line I was standing on. By the time I got to the end of the letter, where he implies that anyone who even reads it closely is already off the mark, I knew I probably didn’t fit within his paradigm of what makes an acceptable feminist. Since I don’t know him personally, I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt and conclude he is just failing to understand women’s issues despite his efforts, but the poisoned barbs in the letter are making that hard for me. Otterson is a PR professional, so I find it difficult to believe that he doesn’t weigh the rhetorical impact of his words.

  7. My concern is this. If women link themselves with OW, they are too strident and extreme to be listened to.

    But if they are concerned with structural inequity, but don’t post a profile on OW, where exactly can they be heard by the leadership of the church, unless they are prominent (Neylan McBaine) or prominent bloggers (Julie Smith)?

  8. I think this is my favorite OP of all the things that have been written about Otterson’s open letter. Thank you for putting it so well.

  9. This is fantastic, and right on the money. And the fact that the letter’s chosen rhetoric was so unequivocally divisive, making things feminist vs. feminist, was deeply hurtful.

  10. It’s clear that the PR department has a mandate to help members feel heard. Sadly, though, they have no authority whatsoever to address members’ legitimate concerns, in terms of making any changes to how things are done. Their job is to try to explain church policies in the least offensive way possible. They don’t get to deal in substance, though. That’s beyond what they can do. So this letter is, I guess, an attempt to connect with as many women as possible in the church, without actually hearing them or registering what they’re actually asking for.

    That leaves me nothing to do but keep praying for change. Since I do believe our prayers are heard at the very top, I feel comfortable knowing that I’m going over the heads of those who are ignoring or denying our pleas. Change will happen.

  11. The beauty of using a PR department to disseminate “doctrine” is that you can always fall back on a non-canonical excuse if/when said “doctrine” is shot full of holes. Is it really too much to ask to have the prophet stand up and take 30 seconds out of his more important concerns (I should not be putting words in his mouth) and simply say “Heads up everyone; I’ve prayed about this, and the Lord said NO” (or “YES”, or “WAIT A BIT AND SEE”, etc.). Instead we continue to get a tap dance. Why?

  12. One other real oddity here is that fMh was one of the four blogs Otterson’s letter was sent to. I would guess that he or his employees have at least a general sense of what gets discussed at fMh. That it’s not just people talking about local leaders botching things, but actually a lot of the discussion revolves around structural problems in the Church? And yet he sent the letter there even though he rules out talking to such feminists. Talk about a mixed message!

  13. Yes all the different views/ blogs combine to give a picture, which hopefully bro O is reading.

    One of the things I am finding confusing, is that I read blogs like this,FMH, T&S, W&T, and BCC, during the week, about life in the church, but when I go on Sunday this is all taboo.

    Even the changes on to the statement on the priesthood, are not accepted by some older, more conservative members. I taught a HP lesson on the priesthood and used that rather than the sanitised lesson, and a number of the Apostle aged members kept saying this is not in the book and we don’ t don’t to want to hear it.Some ofthe younger ones were interested, and hadn’t heard about it.

    Do we have 2 different churches, that don’t talk the same language?

  14. YES!

    “But you go first, because you have all the power, and I’m worn out.”

    This statement spoke to my soul and I want to use it as my go to response to all the, be sweet, be patient, don’t get angry, etc. etc.

    Also, I can’t help but feeling that he didn’t name Ordain Women specifically, because that would be way too much back pedaling to have to do for the poor PR guy in 80 years when women *are* finally ordained. Plausible deniability.

    Great rebuttal, Melyngoch.

  15. The money quote:

    “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’m continually baffled by the idea that the careful words of a PR department are not allowed to be taken seriously. Not to mention the prophetic words of the 15. Can we take your words seriously? Can evoking the name of Jesus be taken any other way?

  16. “Do we have 2 different churches, that don’t talk the same language?”

    Absolutely we do. And I keep feeling like the great progress in the Gospel Topics section of the internet are not widely distributed in the Ensign or GC for a reason.

  17. Thank you for articulating my discomfort with Otterson’s letter much better than I’ve been able to.

  18. So bro O has now had a response to his blog, does the conversation continue?

    Do we assume that he is now consulting with those he referenced as his authority to, come back with, a clarification of what he heard?

    If he is to be the go between in this conversation he will need to get rid of his PR hat (spinning to support one side), and find a more understanding hat.

    Personally I would like the conversation to be progressed by, (now that some of his arguments have been addressed) passing the discussion to somone who has authority, and compassion. How about the next stage of the conversation be with Elder Uchtdorf

  19. Melyngoch, I loved this response as well, especially your last sentence. I think the alienation of women like you impoverishes the Church, and I am sad that Michael Otterson’s response didn’t seem to help in that sense.


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