When teaching, I love class discussions. Conversations make it easy to see which students are engaged and learning, while being one of the most practical aspects of the English curriculum. No matter what they do as they grow up, all of my students will need to conduct successful conversations with other people. It isn’t surprising that the state curriculum considers “speaking and listening” a vital learning skill.
I’ve been thinking about conversations lately, both with friends and family, as well as conversations online with strangers reacting to something I’ve written. With friends and family, it is easy to speak and listen, even when we disagree. Talking helps me consider perspectives I wasn’t aware of, and sometimes I realize I’m wrong. This is hard for me. I relate very much to a quote by Hillary Clinton: “Probably my worst quality is that I get very passionate about what I think is right.” I’m proud of being passionate, and I’m proud of standing up for my beliefs, but I’m not proud of the times I allow my passion to justify unkindness, even when the unkindness is unintentional.
For instance, when I organized Wear Pants to Church Day in 2012, some people reacted negatively, and often unkindly, and it was hard for me to see their unkindness as anything less than simple bigotry. I didn’t understand why people told me I needed to leave the church for being different, or why they were threatened by something that wasn’t against the rules. Now, in reading comments from people against the Ordain Women movement, I don’t understand why they feel so angry at the organizers. I understand why they may disagree with them doctrinally, but the level of anger and hatred confuses me.
Recently, I read a blogpost by JoAnna Neeley, a Mormon who changed her mind about Mormon feminism after initially reacting with anger. Regarding Pants Day, she states, “I felt attacked at my very core, my very being, for my most sacred and precious beliefs about who I was … I couldn’t believe people would make such a demonstration at church. I couldn’t believe they would tell me I was wrong, that my leaders were wrong, that my church was wrong, especially since they were supposed to be part of it!”
While reading her post, I better understood how my actions and writing may have hurt people. Like Neeley, I’ve felt attacked at my very core for things I believe are sacred and precious: equality and advocacy. When I’ve felt that way, it’s been very difficult to remain kind. Many times I’ve failed. Even though I don’t agree with the people who write comments condemning me as a Mormon feminist, or claiming I have no “authority” to comment on Mormonism, I understand their anger. I can respect the desire to protect the parts of us that feel sacred. Maybe we are all a bit like Clinton: We feel very passionate about what we think is right, and sometimes it brings out our worst qualities.
Neeley changed her mind about Mormon feminists after discovering her sister was one of “them.” She also spent a lot of time reading. “I read about their tears. I read about their hurt. I read about their sincere soul searching and aching hearts and spirits. … And I realized, suddenly, why I was so angry and defensive when I first heard these ideas. I felt they were a personal attack on me because I didn’t take the time to understand what was really being said.”
I’ve spent some time reading, too: reading the comments, even the angry ones, left on my various blogposts and articles. I’m reading articles and blogs by people who genuinely believe differently than I do, and trying to understand instead of feeling personally attacked. In my reading, I keep remembering a favorite line by Zora Neale Hurston: “Gods always behave like the people who make them.” My God (and my conscience) tells me to advocate and write about feminism and Mormonism and LGBT issues because those are things I care about. But I know there are other Gods, created by people who are different than I am, who feel hurt and attacked and angry because our Gods keep telling us contradicting things. In the eyes of your God, you are right, and it doesn’t matter that I may hear an alternate message.
I want to say sorry to the people I’ve hurt in acting in the name of my God. Apologizing isn’t a concession to your rightness, or an admission of malice, but I can recognize why people feel hurt or betrayed when those they feel they should trust (fellow Mormons, fellow women, neighbors, family members) don’t hear the same voice of God, and I apologize for unintentionally being part of that hurt.
I won’t stop fighting for what I think is right, and I know this will hurt and anger people. When the Gods we create tell us to take away rights and mistreat people based on their gender, sexual identity or race, I will continue to listen to the voice that tells me we should do better for our brothers and sisters. But I am learning that I can stand up for my beliefs and remain kind, and I promise to do better. And maybe I’ll start by identifying with a different Clinton quote: “I think that you can disagree with people and debate over their positions with issues without engaging in the politics of personal destruction.” Like my students, like Clinton, like Neeley, I am learning to speak and to listen.
Stephanie Lauritzen blogs at MormonChildBride.blogspot.com.