“You Just Don’t Understand”

As someone who’s been raising questions about LDS teachings and practices pretty much since my Primary days,  I find that one of the most infuriating responses to people’s concerns is something along the lines of, “you just don’t understand,” whether the gospel generally or the specific principle being discussed. Because if you did understand, it seems to be assumed, you would cheerfully accept it, no more questions needed thank you very much. In years of feminist discussions, I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been told that women who are discontent “just don’t understand” the true, eternal nature of patriarchy; or the meaning of divine gender roles; or the many opportunities the church gives to women. When people try to clear up complicated issues by producing a slew of GA quotes that purportedly explain everything, I find myself at a real loss as to how to best respond.

Because this is the thing. My experience with the LDS church spans decades, and I have more than a passing acquaintance with its teachings. In addition, after years and years of way too much blogging and truly endless arguments about these issues, I’m reasonably familiar with the usual defenses of the status quo. Defenders Of The Faith: I beg of you, please stop saying “but men and women are different,” or “God is in charge of the church and doing things his way,” or “you just have to realize that the temple is all symbolic” in a tone that suggests you think these radical ideas have not occurred even once to the person raising the feminist critique. Because, surprise! I’ve actually heard assertions like these before. I’ve heard them a whole lot, in fact. I’ve heard them over the pulpit as well as in informal conversations for almost my whole life. Believe it or not, I’ve actually already read most of the talks that get quoted at me that are supposed to solve everything. Sometimes I feel that I’m being talked to as if I’d just come across an anti-Mormon pamphlet claiming that Mormon women are oppressed and had naively swallowed it whole, and I just need an enlightened Latter-day Saint who truly understands the gospel to clear up my misconceptions. But the reality is that I didn’t need to read even a single anti-Mormon pamphlet to notice the glaring reality that women don’t have equal opportunities in the church; I was actually asking questions about the disparity long before I knew what an anti-Mormon pamphlet even was (or, to challenge another assumption I sometimes encounter, before I went to college and was exposed to evil liberal professors who tried to brainwash me into becoming a feminist).

So let’s not beat around the bush: It’s not that I don’t understand. It’s that I don’t agree. Those who support patriarchy often seem to assume that it’s so reasonable that anyone who really understands what’s going on with it will be forced to concede its virtue. But I simply don’t think that’s the case. Perhaps it’s just human nature to assume that if people genuinely grasped an issue, of course they’d come around to your point of view. (And yes, I do know that this goes both ways.) But it’s a deeply problematic assumption, one that shuts down any real dialogue and undermines interpersonal respect.

Disagree with me, then, all you want. By all means, share your experience and how it’s led you to different conclusions than the ones I hold. But please, please, respect me enough to stop condescendingly informing me that I “just don’t understand.”

8 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Oh, there’s a bullet fit to bite!

    “You just don’t understand!”
    “Yes, exactly! I don’t understand how this arrangement can be compatible with God’s plan, and in order for me to begin to understand, someone will have to explain to me according to my understanding.”

    The one that bugs me is the idea that we are meant to defer without understanding. God’s ways are higher than man’s ways, so sit down and be sure not to steady the ark.

    That almost sounds coherent, but you can’t forfeit your own responsibility to understand what you’re doing. If you make the choice to “walk by faith”, you need to be able to say what you really have faith in, and verify that it remains consistent with your actions.

  2. I could have written this. I totally agree with you, thank you so much for sharing. People are always referring “talks” to me and they do talk in a condescending way. I feel like I have my eyes wide open and these other people have been brainwashed.

  3. I really like this, Lynnette. It’s such a frustrating response when people trot out platitudes as though they somehow explained gigantic, painful issues like sexism. I think you’re probably spot on with this: “Perhaps it’s just human nature to assume that if people genuinely grasped an issue, of course they’d come around to your point of view.” I know I’ve definitely come at this from the other side, where I’m *sure* that people will see the inequality in the Church for what it is if they would only *look*. I wonder if at least part of the problem is that we have a hard time really internalizing that our point of view *is* a point of view. We consider the things we observe to be self-interpreting, and in doing so, miss the fact that how we frame them has a strong influence on the conclusions we reach. And then we’re sure that if someone else is only presented with the same things to observe that we observed, then they’ll come around to seeing things our way.

    Anyway, I guess this is a long winded way of saying I agree with you, and I find this type of response immensely frustrating too.

  4. This post reminds me of a conversation I had with a bishop, about various feminist concerns. He seemed to think he could resolve my concerns just by explaining them away. I’m sympathetic — I like him personally, and I’ve been guilty in the past myself of the “if I just explain it, you’ll understand, and then we’ll both be right” mode of reasoning. I’m not averse to it if there’s an actual information asymmetry: if there’s something I need to know, but don’t, by all means, explain away. But everything he said could have been taken straight from a list of “most common arguments in favor of gender essentialism and complementary gender roles in the LDS church.” He seemed to think I’d never heard his ideas before, when really they were all arguments I was tired of already.

  5. There’s a great example of this type of response over at the Exponent today, where a helpful commenter explains to April that “Women are not half the speakers [in Conference] because women are not half the leaders.” and then proceeds to enumerate all the male speakers who need to speak. The Q12, the First Presidency, the Seventies, the Presiding Bishopric, etc. As though April had never heard of this before, and seeing it all laid out would totally clear everything up. (“The first presidency members usually speak in at least one general session, often two, together with the priesthood session – and one in the women’s session.” THIS IS TOTALLY NEW INFORMATION!)


  6. I remember believing this myself: that if I just did more reading and studying and praying I would know and understand everything about the church that didn’t seem to make sense. I tried really, really hard, stretching and twisting myself and history and texts in a vain search for resolution. But I failed, and it’s made me think that it wasn’t ever going to be possible. Not for me, anyway. Now my problem is that when I try to read a Sunday school lesson (or some LDS scripture), I simply cannot read them with the proper viewpoint: I know what I’m supposed to see in these texts and what I’m supposed to get out of them, and being unable to authentically read it in that simple, prescribed way makes me feel annoyed and alienated. So reading more reinforces my disbelief. It makes me feel like I need to stop before I lose all affection for the church.

  7. I got tired of being told that when I’d learned more, then I’d understand, The fact is the more I learned, the less I believed. People can teach me all day that red is green, but that doesn’t make it so.

  8. Ransom, the “God’s ways are not man’s ways” thing makes me batty. On the one hand, sure, it would be presumptuous to say that we completely understand God. On the other, this gets taken to some strange places, such as the assertion that words we use (say, “patriarchy” and “equality”) mean something completely different when God uses them. My question is always: if “good” means something for God that is entirely unrelated to what we humans mean by the term, how is it in any way meaningful to say that God is “good” and therefore worthy of worship?

    Sorry, I’m going off on a tangent! But that kind of thing drives me crazy. Back to your comment, I do think there are times when we have to walk by faith, but I agree that this shouldn’t by a way to evade responsibility for your choices.

    Alexandra, thanks for the solidarity. I very much agree about it being frustrating when people do that. I’m kind of wary, though, of making assertions about just who is “brainwashed” and who has their “eyes wide open”; I tend to think our perspectives are all limited in ways it’s hard for us to see.

    Ziff: “I wonder if at least part of the problem is that we have a hard time really internalizing that our point of view *is* a point of view. We consider the things we observe to be self-interpreting, and in doing so, miss the fact that how we frame them has a strong influence on the conclusions we reach.”

    Yes. This. I’m totally guilty of it too—I mean, my perspective makes so much sense to me, it’s hard to really truly believe that other people don’t just suffer from an absence of facts. 😉

    Mike R, I think that experience is way too common for people who raise feminist concerns. The dynamic in which someone carefully goes over the, as you say, “most common arguments in favor of gender essentialism,” as if you had never heard any of them before is not my favorite (to put it mildly). I think it’s usually well-intentioned, arising from the assumption that if people have feminist issues they must be unfamiliar with patriarchal apologetics and a dose of those apologetics will fix them—but it can get very tedious to sit through. (Tangentially, I’m not sure I’m even on board with the idea that we should seek to resolve people’s concerns. I think the attempts backfire more often than not.)

    Ziff, yes! Perfect example.

    Reader Rachel, I think you’re hitting on something important—my guess is that most people raising the concerns have already attempted to make the apologetics work, sometimes at length. In Rosalynde’s excellent T&S post a little while ago about responding to faith crises, I thought one of the most helpful points she made was that drawing on the model people are trained to use to respond the concerns of investigators tends to fall flat when the concerns come from church members who are raising questions—because the latter have already tried to make the standard answers work.

    Sonia, I’ve heard stories like yours a lot—I very much agree that learning more is not a magic bullet that will lead to “understanding” (which I think is usually code for “agreeing.”)


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