So this week, the Salt Lake Tribune sponsored a live “Trib Talk;” the topic was “what Mormon women want.” You can watch it here. Afterwards, there was criticism that there wasn’t a traditional or a conservative or a happy-with-the-status-quo (or whatever term you’d prefer) position represented. (There was also criticism that, at least initially, it was planned as an all-white panel, but that’s a topic for a different post.) I have heard that more-traditional women were invited, but either refused or later backed out. There is also this dialogue you can watch, featuring Melissa Inouye, who identifies as an egalitarian feminist, and Caroline Allen, who identifies as a maternal feminist.
I have a few thoughts about all of this:
1. I think real-time discussions are really important. I know from personal experience that it is easier to be snarky or dismissive or nasty when writing to and about people you have never met than it is when you are sharing a panel or a real-time video with them. There is, I think, a disturbing lack of civility in some Mormon discourse and I suspect that if instead of dueling blog posts there was face-to-face interaction (where possible), or at least a shared video feed, people would do a better job of modeling civility in their discourse.
2. I want to phrase this carefully and make it clear that I’m talking about “us” and not “them” here, so bear with me. I may be moderate-to-liberal on women’s issues in a Mormon context, but I’m pretty conservative on, say, Book of Mormon historicity. On that topic, I’d hesitate to, for example, appear on a panel defending the conservative position because I believe it as a matter of faith and not because I’ve very carefully weighed the rational evidence and been convinced of it in the same way that I have become convinced to, say, keep honey away from a baby. So one of two things would happen on this hypothetical panel: either I’d use the logical arguments for historicity (which aren’t really the reason I believe in historicity in the first place and, eh, aren’t that interesting to me in any case). Or, I’d pretty much be bearing my testimony, which isn’t admissible evidence in an academic setting. It’s probably pretty likely, even, that I’d end up filling my time attacking petty points or even engaging in ad hominem attacks. Either way, I’d do a pretty crummy job representing.
Let me suggest that something similar might happen with other issues and this may be why it is hard to get more traditionally-minded speakers to participate: they can either share logical reasons (that don’t really undergird their own belief) or they can share their testimony (which isn’t appropriate to the venue and might end up sounding like a sanctimonious attack on the others). Additionally, I’m aware of many people who, when it comes to Mormon women’s issues, take this attitude: “I honestly don’t care whether women are ordained, but I do care about following the Brethren, so I don’t think that lobbying or dissenting or really doing anything to try to get them to change the church is appropriate.” The people in this camp, while traditional on this issue, aren’t going to have much to say on a panel.
This was long-winded, but I hope you take my point: a panel might seem like neutral ground, but it isn’t. It doesn’t matter if the host and/or moderator is scrupulously neutral. Traditionalists are still at a disadvantage. This is why, I think, so many times the traditional position is either left unrepresented or is represented very poorly.
3. A church that spends a lot of time talking about the “one true and living” thing can spawn a culture that has a hard time with the idea that more than one option has merit. This is one of the many, many reasons why I constantly harp on the multi-vocality of scripture: it is not a threatening thing to quickly sweep under the rug but rather an important lesson in itself. We have four (five, if you count the temple) accounts of the creation–and they don’t all agree! Two stitched-together accounts of Noah’s ark–that don’t agree! Two historical records–Sam/Kings and Chronicles–with very different perspectives! Four (four!) gospels!
To take one germane example of a different opinion in the gospels, in Mark’s Gospel, respect is shown to women because they are permitted to move into roles normally restricted to men. In Luke’s Gospel, respect is shown to women as honor is placed on the roles they traditionally inhabit. See the difference? Notice that both of these viewpoints are in the canon.
When we see repeated patterns in the scriptures we are supposed to learn from them. Maybe one of those things we are supposed to learn is that even the really good, inspired people who write scripture don’t always agree with each other–and that’s OK. It is the natural result of operating within what Joseph Smith called “a crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language.” No opinion, option, or stance can be perfect or perfectly articulated in a fallen world.
When we think that only one opinion can win, we are much more likely to go nuclear and nasty. But if we inhabit a worldview where there can be traditionalists and maternal feminists and egalitarian feminists and it isn’t a zero-sum game, then we don’t have to knock anyone else down. There can be a Book of Melissa and a Book of Caroline; they might have different messages, but they’ll get the same fake-gilt edges and the same naugahyde cover and they can both sit there side-by-side forever and ever. We don’t have to kick either viewpoint to the curb. We don’t have to annihilate the other side.
4. One more thing: it is so, so, so refreshing to see all-female discussions on these matters. We are so very used to men telling women what it means to be a woman that we don’t usually recognize how absurd that is.