Thursday, May 17, 2007

By Me Is So Big the Mouth, So My Foot Always Goes In

Sometimes you gotta get burned to learn.

I made the mistake of offering condolences to Hugo Schwyzer upon learning that someone had called him a simpering, sanctimonious little prick, or somesuch similar. The following then transpired:

* I learned who had said it, and in response to what.

* Hugo's thread was promptly enlivened by a throng of MRA trolls back-patting him, defending Falwell, and insulting everyone else, including me, the moron who'd sort of agreed with Hugo in the first place.

* Deservedly, I felt like an asshole.

And now, a little story:

About ten years ago, my mom was working on a talk for her church, and for whatever reason she solicited my advice on the thing, specifically asking for honest criticism. (The cool thing about my mom is that if she does that, she's game to hear what you have to say. She's not kidding around. You can tell her, I like this, not so hot on that.)

Even so, I hesitated after she'd finished reading it to me, because I had good news and bad news. The good news was, as Mormon talks go, hers was a good one. The bad news was, she'd wound it up with a sentence beginning, "I challenge you, my brothers and sisters . . . ."

Maybe Ms. Jared can back me up on this: "I challenge you" is common parlance in the Mormon church. I don't remember what the challenge in my mother's talk was--it could have been to read the Book of Mormon in its entirety (admittedly a real challenge because, damn, is that book boring; I never finished it, myself), or to do your geneology work (it's important to know who your dead relatives are, so you can baptize them by proxy in case they were heathens), or one of any number of things Mormons are "challenged" to do by their peers every single day of their busy lives until they are finally relieved from duty by sweet, merciful death.

It's exhausting being a Mormon.

Anyway, "I challenge you, my brothers and sisters," is very common Mormon-speak, and I had always, always hated it. I really started hating it when some substitute Sunday school teacher used it long ago in my Sunday school class, a class of seven year old children. He had challenged us to bear our testimonies in Sacrament meeting that Sunday. This is where you get up and thank God for everything and then tell everyone that you know that the Mormon church is True, just like the Spandau Ballet song.

People, I write, but I don't talk. Didn't then, don't much now. And I sure as hell was not equipped at the tender age of seven to get up in front of the entire church and tell everybody how fervently I believed the church was true. The prospect was terrifying.

As it happened, my family ditched out on Sacrament meeting that Sunday, so I was off the hook, theoretically. Practically, however, I could not relax. I got more and more upset, thinking how Brother WhoeverTheHell had challenged me to do something I could no more do than I could fly, and how I'd told him I would do it, and now I wasn't even in Sacrament meeting, which meant I had broken a promise and lied to my Sunday school teacher, and while Mormons aren't the sort to threaten eternal damnation with any real frequency, surely lying to a Sunday school teacher was a wicked, awful thing to do.

When I eventually confessed in tears to my mother that I had promised my Sunday school teacher I'd bear my testimony "as challenged," she snorted and told me he had some nerve scaring little kids like that; now come set the table. Where is your father? He knows we're going to eat in five minutes.

And that was the end of it. But I never forgot it, and I never stopped grinding my teeth whenever I heard some fellow Mormon challenging people.

Because, as I explained to my mom when she asked me what I thought of her talk ("Very good! Love almost all of it! Hate the challenging!"), the problem with "I challenge you" is that it presumes the speaker is in any such position to be challenging people (or as I think of it, tasking them with silly self-improvement assignments so they can never know peace or serenity) to begin with. You see what I mean? Who's Sister SoAndSo to be challenging me? Sister SoAndSo beats her kids with a ruler! Who's Brother SomeGuy to be challenging Brother JelloSalad? Brother SomeGuy keeps a liquor cabinet down the basement. And it's not empty!

My mom saw what I was saying, and she revised the concluding sentence to ix-nay the allenging-chay. But she also said it was interesting to her that I felt that way about it, because she had never even imagined that interpretation of the phrase before.

This makes sense, because my mom LOVES challenges. She'd tell you she doesn't, but she does. I know it sounds all hokey-cliche to say she sees problems as opportunities, and I'm not saying she feels that way about all problems always and ever, but in general, my mom likes challenges. So she had never considered that there might be anything offensive about "I challenge you."

To me, though, there definitely is something deeply offensive about that, and ditto its stronger, more bullying cousin, "Shame on you." Who's anybody to be running around putting shame on people? Especially to be putting it specifically on friends? I can object to that even before we ever get around to the power dynamics, to noting that it's a white Christian male trying to shame all Falwell's favorite targets on a feminist blog.

It was a bad, bad move, one destined to end in being called a sanctimonious prick. And I made a bad, bad move by reacting to only one side of the story.

All comment buttons should read "Think before you post." I have to do better about remembering that.


Donna said...

I also don't interpret challenge in the same way you do, as more of a command, or at least bullying. I guess because whenever someone said, "I challenge you to do X", I took it to mean that they really believed the task was a challenge, as in difficult, which means you can refuse, if it was easy you'd have less of an out. So if you ever see me write that on my blog, "I challenge you to..." I'm saying, "I know this may be difficult but it would mean alot to me and I hope it means alot to you too." It may be wheedling, whiny, guilt tripping, which is problematic in a different way, but I'm also saying if it's too difficult or not your priority I understand that too.

ilyka said...

I took it to mean that they really believed the task was a challenge, as in difficult, which means you can refuse, if it was easy you'd have less of an out.

Ha! I never thought of that, but that makes more sense than my own whothehelldoyouthinkyouare knee-jerking reaction.

Now I'm kind of embarrassed to realize I probably have challenge-phobia. It's too haaaaarrd! Make it something eeeeeasy! I knew I was a whiner, but this is bad.

ms. jared said...

ha! i used to have panic attacks when it was testimony time #1 coz i have a huge fear of public speaking and #2 coz my faith wasn't as true as spandau ballet's. i NEVER rose to the challenge.

the one thing that kept me going back to church for so long was my young women's group leader, joleen, who never ever ever rose to the challenge of bearing her testimony either. she was mormon by birth and yet she told me that she was never 100% sure the church was THE one true church and that all the others were wrong.

i was so stunned by the fact that a YOUTH GROUP LEADER was honest about her questionable faith that i stuck with it for 2 more years.

it was only after she died and i read some of her papers that i realized she'd always considered herself a feminist even though just about every single thing she ever did in life had the patriarchal seal of approval. she was a wonderful role model and teacher anyway. and danged if i don't miss the hell out of her.

(i just love when you post about LDS stuff. it's comforting to know i'm not the only one who survived a daring escape.)

Hugo Schwyzer said...

Ilyka, FYI, I posted this at my blog: I’m sorry that in the thread about Jerry Falwell at Feministe, I made the mistake of calling down “shame” on those who celebrated Falwell’s death. I ought to know better than to use that word in particular. There’s far too much shame in the world, far too much of it imposed by men who look like me (and believe in my God and make love as I make love) on those who aren’t men (and don’t look like me, worship another God or none at all, and make love differently.) My anger and my haste made me forget that. I’m not only sorry for having offended, I’m sorry I used words that would inevitably be offensive. It was stupid and wrong. No excuses.

ilyka said...

I never did it either. I thought that people who hadn't read the BoM shouldn't do it, because if they hadn't read the BoM and, oh what is it, prayed for the knowledge of its truth to be revealed to them, then that was an insincere testimony that didn't count and maybe even made God mad.

Oh, I'm full of it. I just never wanted to get up in front of a crowd. I think from 0-16 I got away with only ever giving one Sacrament meeting talk. That's pretty good, huh? Though it helped that we moved a lot.

ilyka said...

Damn it, Hugo, I was very determined this time to stay mad at you. DETERMINED.

But you always ruin it, with your apologizing and humility and stuff. Oh sure, it sets an excellent example for me and for others, but is that any reason?


ms. jared said...

OMG. the BoM was sooooo boring. the only thing that made it the least bit interesting was that red pencil and all the "important" parts i underlined with it. i totally wasn't paying attention though and can hardly remember any of it. i think i just LOOKED at the words but never actually READ them. i was in high school and working fulltime at mcdonald's too though, so who could blame me? hee.

ilyka said...

working fulltime at mcdonald's

Hahaha--seriously, what is it with the Mormons working at McDonald's? Maybe I should have tried bearing my testimony to the Hamburglar.

Hugo Schwyzer said...

Ilyka, my careful apologies are crafted in order to defuse anger, in keeping with my role as a pseudo-feminist who is really just all about self-aggrandizement.

That would be a joke.

KMTBERRY said...

Don't feel bad, Ilyka! I have posted some godawful retarded posts, only to repent later and wish I had kept my big mouth shut. I think it happens to everyone who......likes commenting.