Saturday, August 27, 2011

thoughts from around the internet this week

I'm a lawyer.  (Have I mentioned that?  Oh yeah, like 50 times.  Got it.)

As a lawyer, I'm a big fan of definitions.

Words have specific meanings.  Statutes have specific meanings.  Legal phrases -- clear and convincing, reasonable person, articulable suspicion -- have specific meanings.

We can argue about whether these words, statutes, and phrases apply to certain situations.  We can even argue about how far their meanings can be stretched. 

But we can't really say that something means something that it doesn't.

The English language is both soft and hard.  You can wallow in the squishy stuff to your heart's content, but eventually there will be a corner.  And once you've turned the corner of definition, that's it.

Over at The Exponent this week, a bunch of craaaaazy Mormon feminists (male and female) took on the subject of patriarchy.

Patriarchy has a meaning. The word "preside" has a meaning. "Dominion" has a meaning.

You can't say these words mean something they don't mean.  You can't ignore half a definition in favor of the half you like.

A few posters took to the comment board to argue that in their mind, the word "preside" means only to "take the lead," without any connotation of power attached, and therefore patriarchy is A-OK.  You can "preside" and be equal with someone at the same time, no problem!  Silly feminists, don't you understand that?


It's great if you want to think of it that way, but that is not what the word preside means.  And if you only want to mean "take the lead," you should probably just say that. Don't put up a straw man argument where you redefine the word "preside." The sticky reality is that claiming two people are equal but one "presides" does not make any sense. It just doesn't.  You can either be equal, or you can have one person presiding.  You can't have both.

My boss may be really nice to me, but that doesn't make me his equal. He's my boss. He can fire me or assign me to projects I don't really want to do. He could punish me or give me a raise. Because he "presides" over me. And that's fine for at work, but don't get annoyed when a Wacky Feminist like me thinks that's a bad way to run a relationship.

Somewhere else over on the Internet, I stepped in it when I said I was sick of stay-at-home-mothers claiming they are so looked down upon, disrespected, and degraded by others.  (And it's true. I am.)

But I wasn't clear about what I meant (despite my love of words and their definitions) and the next thing I knew I was being taken to town. 

So I have to back up and look at what I said and really try to get it right.

What I should have said was this:

I am sick of people mistaking rudeness or a lack of tact for "degradation" or "disrespect." Yes, I am sure people are rude to stay-at-home-mothers. That is not nice.

But that is all it is -- behavior on par with idle gossip and being cut off in traffic.

I am annoyed when people say, "I don't know how you stand being a lawyer, I would find it so boring!"  But only a little, because I understand that to a lot of people, IT WOULD BE BORING.  Hell, I sometimes find it boring.  No one is saying I am a boring person. (I hope.)

So why is it so different when someone says, "I don't know how you stand staying at home with kids all day, I would find it so boring"?  Sure, it's more rude, because stay-at-home-mothers command less societal prestige, but at its core, the statement is merely tactless in its delivery. Some people WOULD find that boring, why is that so awful?

(Here's a secret, boys and girls -- I suspect a lot of stay-at-home-mothers also find it boring. Guess what? They aren't doing it because they expected to be intellectually stimulated every five minutes.)

A snotty comment at a party is not "degrading."  No one stripped you of rank or honor, brought you into low honor or disrespute, dragged you down into moral or intellectual character.  Think I'm being hyperbolic?  I'm not--THAT'S THE DEFINITION OF "DEGRADING."  Buck up, people.

If a person is comfortable with his or her choices of profession, political opinion, religious affiliation, or lifestyle, an off-hand comment or even deliberately rude statement should not be considered "degrading."  It should be considered tactless.  Thoughtless.  Immature.

We do not get on our soapboxes over immaturity, I would hope.  We blow off immaturity.

(And if you're not comfortable with your choices ... well, maybe you should make different choices.)

When stay-at-home-mothers insist that they are "disrespected" on a daily, personal, institutional level, they aren't helping the so-called culture wars. They're adding fuel to the fire, because what they are really saying is that anything other than fawning adoration is disrespect. (If I can "degrade" you on accident, what level of behavior do I need to display to avoid degrading you?)

Here's another secret -- most people in our society DO respect stay-at-home-mothers.*  But for some reason, we love perpetuating this myth that we don't. Why?

Because society enjoys a good catfight, of the intellectual or Jello pudding variety.

* Does this mean "respect" translates into actual policies that don't hurt stay-at-home-mothers or working mothers?  (Divorce laws, administration of retirement benefits, the tax code, limited maternity leave, etc.?)  Jeez, of course it doesn't.

But respect for firefighters and school teachers hasn't earned them any extra money either.  We live in a strange world, and that's a topic for a different day.


  1. Amen. It bugs the heck out of me when we redefine words in the church rather than just changing our doctrines. Preside does not in any way contain the idea of equality. If the truth on the ground is that people have egalitarian marriages, we should let the word "preside" and its ilk disappear into the oblivion of history rather than redefine these words to mean something they do not mean.

  2. people who are rude are usually disrespectful, but they are also usually in the minority. i think making thoughtless, callous statements is disrespectful to anyone. the best policy is think before you speak and on the receiving end, consider the source and dont let it affect you bcuz its not worth it!

    great thot provoking post =)

  3. Here, here. Wonderful post. Preside and equality do not go together. And yup, being a stay-at-home mom is boring sometimes.

  4. I provide the following definition of preside: 1605–15; < Latin praesidēre to preside over, literally, sit in front of.

    I'm now going to preside over about 150 people at the movie.... :)

  5. Sure you're an equal person to your boss--you just don't have equal decision making power in the office.

    Now, does the fact that men have all the official power in the church rub me the wrong way sometimes? On an ideological level, sure. (On a practical level--let 'em have it. I don't need yet another responsibility. Gag.)

    But in the home, the husband presiding means that he chooses who says the prayer at dinner. If he thinks of it. Big whoopdee hoola. We're all so repressed. (Plus on a practical level, it makes sense to have one person in charge of making meaningless decisions or we'd have everyone talking over each other.)

    I see how the ideologies of the LDS church are annoying to feminists, but the practical implementation thereof is so non-repressive (and actually works in our favor. When's the last time YOU had to put on a suit at three in the morning and drive half an hour to go give a blessing?) that I have a hard time caring about it.

  6. A-frickin-MEN! As my husband says, the Drama Drug is quite addictive. I think it goes for both sides. Whether I work or I don't, as long as my kids are growing up to be responsible members of society, and are confident that their mom and dad love them, then I'm doing a damn good job, and I don't give a damn what anyone else says.

  7. I think the thing with being a SAHP is that unlike many other jobs, being an SAHP doesn't automatically garner you praise, compliments, and social prestige. And why should it? There are no qualifications to being a SAHP, so the fact that one is one isn't necessarily impressive. When you say you're a lawyer, people know that you're smart and work hard. When I say that I teach English at the college, people know (or think, anyway) that I'm smart and well-educated. When someone says that they're a SAHP, it's like, "Huh. Okay." But it doesn't communicate anything about the SAHP's competence or intelligence. It just says that they chose to stay home with kids instead of working.

    It is possible to get status and prestige through one's job as a SAHP if one demonstrates one's competence, industry, and intelligence through how they execute the job. No one's impressed with a person who's simply a SAHP, but we all marvel at a spotless home with creative, active children and three healthy meals a day. Immediate status elevation for the woman who runs that home.

  8. I mentioned this convo to hubs, and he had an opinion, too. It'll probably make all the feminists rabidly furious, but I hope he can be allowed to have his human experience too:

    He says the church is like an organization that created a slave race (at least as far as church-related work goes) and then, in order to make them feel better, told them that they had all the power too. Except that the power doesn't get them wealth or status or prestige. It just gets them more work. He'd trade roles with the women in a heartbeat, and he thinks most other men would too.

  9. Heidi - of course your husband can weigh in on the argument. But just like everyone has a unique perspective, I don't think it's right to say that since at your house, presiding means picking someone to say a prayer, you should add a sarcastic, "We're all so repressed." My point is that "preside" literally does NOT mean something that benign and arguing that it does is silly. Furthermore, not everyone lives under circumstances where the maximum "presiding" exercised by a husband is something so minor. Perhaps their perspectives should also be considered, and not dismissed generally.

  10. What is the more extensive definition of "preside" that you think is going on in other people's houses?

    You say that we should not interpret the term as being "so benign," so what is the more malignant aspect of what you think the term "preside" means?

  11. Also, I still think that two people can have differing degrees of institutional authority while both have equal degrees of intrinsic worth and get equal amounts of consideration, respect, and concern. In other words, to be equal.

  12. Ha, why do I get the sense that this question is not entirely sincere?

    Look in the dictionary under "preside." Or go to the exponent where the topic has been thoroughly discussed for days. Don't tell me with a straight face that you think the word literally means just to pick who says grace.

    If you really cannot conceive of a situation more inequitable than that, I suggest you write to church headquarters and let them know that no more lessons on unrighteous dominion in preisthood or general conference are necessary. All men hear the words "you are to preside over your wife, and she shall hearken unto you," and think, "oh, that just means I pick who says grace." It's totally clear.

    If you want to discuss this further, please email me directly and we can chat, or take on the comment boards at the exponent. It's a good place for debate.

  13. I don't know why you think my question wasn't sincere. I really did want to know what other incarnations "presiding" was taking in other homes, since in every household with which I have intimate knowledge, the husband's "authority" pretty much extends to choosing who says the prayer. I was not being disingenuous.

    I'm sure there's "unrighteous dominion," but based on the context of those warnings, I believe that what the presidency is discussing is temper flares, fathers who don't listen to their children, or spouses who are insensitive to other's needs. These are not extensions of the church's doctrine of priesthood, but rather evidences of personal dysfunction. To me, the fact that these ills pervade society indicates that they are not traceable to Mormon theology. The fact that the church warns about a social ill doesn't mean that its theology bears the responsibility for it. It simply means that the church leadership is aware of it.

    I appreciate your invitation to explore the Exponent, but my experience is that institutions like fmh and Exponent are not accepting of discussion that does not conform with their perspectives. I was once told about this very issue that my perspective was unacceptable and then told what "The only acceptable response [was]" by the speaker. While I realize that the speaker did not necessarily speak for the entire group, the fact that none of the many other commenters defended my right to my opinion made me realize that the group and its members did not want to consider perspectives other than the prevailing majority opinion. I've since avoided such groups.

    I can tell you don't want to talk about this publicly anymore, so I'll sign off. I look forward to your next thought-provoking post!

  14. I'm probably a little...hmmm...I don't know when it comes to the use of certain words. I've learned that some words used today carried a different definition or connotation at a different time in history.

    As for the word preside, maybe I'm a little off here but I've only ever seen it used when describing someone who has been designated of higher status presiding over something...a meeting, conclave, assembly...whatever. Just a bit difficult to imagine two people of equal status where one is presiding over - key word being over - another.

    Two shots to the wind about that.

    As for stay at home moms: Much respect. And yes, I've told a SAHM that I don't know how the heck she stays at home all day with the kids. Not because she's at home...but good grief, I'd go beserk being around kids all day lol!!! Seriously, if I could be a stay at home mom and focus on my kids and writing, I would. As it is, single moms who stay at home are considered scum of the earth and a scourge upon society so I'll stick to working until my writing can become more than a passion.

  15. Robert D. Hales pointed out in the October 2010 General Conference that "agency" as we use it in the church is not used that way anywhere else. I think "preside" is the same thing. It's very hard to explain in non-abstract terms how presiding (actually) works in the context of an LDS patriarchal home in which both parents are equal partners.

    It's a lot like presiding in a calling in church. I was an auxilary president for 2 years. They don't call presidents until the president has asked for (hopefully inspired) specific people for her presidency, the bishopric calls them, and all the presidency has accepted their callings. The president DOES NOT function well without his or her presidency. The president is not the boss-- she depends on the insight and inspiration of her counselors as much as her own. Yes, there are things that only the president can do (usually regarding confidential matters of welfare, etc), but the overall stewardship of the organization is shared by the whole presidency. Yes, I was the president of an organization, but I was by no means the "boss." Everyone who advised me in my calling (bishopric, stake leadership, church leadership)stressed this importance.

    The same thing comes up in talks to the priesthood. It is meant to work the same way in marriage. My husband has been accused of being "whipped" by his wife. I have been accused of being pandering and subservient. These accusers are outside parties who don't understand the intimate and simple dynamics of an egalitarian patriarchal home. We choose to serve each other. There isn't a power struggle--it's my choice to honor my husband and it's his choice to honor me. I don't feel threatened by his authority in our home; I feel that it is there to support and sustain my authority and vice versa.

    Those who argue that the social structure in the church is wrong have either experienced incorrect interpretations of said structure or they are looking at it through a worldly lens and paradigm--the way patriarchy works within the church, the way it is REALLY meant to work, is different in its basest nature from all other examples of patriarchy. Those who righteously preside in the church do so in a way that is different from all other forms of presidency.

    We are using fallible, overly malleable language to try to describe perfect principles carried out imperfectly by imperfect people. I can see why there would be so much confusion.

  16. As a Stay-at-home-Mom, I don't really care what people think about my job. I tell my kids all the time, "Just because someone says it doesn't make it true."

    I say kindness is the order of the day. If we could just be kind to each other. Wouldn't the world be a better place?

    Love your blog by the way:)

  17. Sorry I'm late the party!

    Amen. If two people are equal, one doesn't need to preside. The very nature of preside means one person is above another. There's an inherent contradiction and it's there, no matter how we try to explain it. (I once made this comment--gently--in a sunday school class and was told afterward, "Wow, you and [lady] remind me tons of each other!" Note that lady and I have basically nothing in common except that we both think. BAHAHAHAHA.)

    Annnnnnd, the only distinction I'll make about SAHM-hood compared to other "boring" professions is that, especially when you have super young children, there aren't a lot of professions a) more isolating and b) more immobilizing and c) with less recognition. In my experience, if you're a people-person, it's easy to take offense when your primary interactions with other adults are offhand put-downs that give you the bummers. It's easier to shrug off a job insult when you can laugh all the way to the bank with your paycheck or hang your diploma up or whatever.

    (P.S. I have multiple jobs/roles at the moment, all of which people have told me would bore them, and all of which I enjoy, and hey, I'm the one that lives this life of mine, so booyah.)

  18. Thank you, thank you , thank you. Words mean things and people seem to think that they can redefine them and expect everyone else to think it should be that way. It's why I cringe anytime I hear someone talking about the "confines of marriage."

    If the word "preside" doesn't carry inherent authoritative meaning, then why would it be used? Why not skip it and go with the equal partners one instead?

  19. Sammy - that's a very interesting way of looking at it, I like it. I would still prefer the church start using a different word, though, and here's why - "agency" may mean different things depending on the church/legal/layman context, but none of those things really contradict each other, and none really have a negative connotation. Whereas even if we've redefined preside, we've redefined it in a way that (1) goes against the original meaning, where one person was literally above another and has the power to make all major decisions, and (2) confuses people, since most people (outside the church) hear the word "preside" and think it means something negative. Just for the sake of clarity, if it really does just mean "take the lead" now, maybe it would just be simpler to find a new word altogether and avoid the mess.

    Gurrbonzo - FASHIONABLY late to the party, and that's the key :) Good call on the SAHM analysis, especially the isolating factor. I still think many SAHMs overreact to perceived slights, but to be clear, I don't think this gives others a free reign to insult at will. We should all try to be kind and considerate, especially when someone is potentially in the position of taking a comment more seriously than it was meant.

    Lovely Lauren - exactly. If it's been "redefined," awesome. Pick a new word that actually means this new definition. But if we're sticking with "preside," then don't expect me to take the "it's been redefined!" argument seriously, because then why are we using a word that means something else?