“If you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all,” says Thumper rabbit in the movie Bambi. Sounds nice enough, right? Not to me. Unfortunately, we tend to promote this philosophy as the ideal. But it isn’t…it’s simply another form of oppression and tyranny. (I know what you’re thinking: “Thumper?! An oppressive tyrant?! Get a grip, Julie!”) Just stay with me, dear reader, and hear me out. Rather than speaking truthfully and ethically to each other, we suppress reality and truth in the name of inauthentic “niceness.” With no constructive outlet, we’re more likely to use subversive, underhanded dialogue and behavior in order to meet our individual and collective needs. Just look at the increasingly dangerous consequences of “political correctness”—from insidious suppression of free speech to ever greater encroachments on our civil rights—all in the name of civility and equality. As an instructor at San Jose State, I see the poison of politically correct doctrine increasingly pervading academia. And, as we all know, political correctness has served to further inflame cultural resentments, not alleviate them.
This poison of “inauthentic niceness” also pervades our LDS sisterhood. Our fearful inability to speak candidly about our personal truths (about ourselves and each other) undermines our sincerity and ability to love. To nourish a more healthy sisterhood, we must first recognize our need and ability to change, and then adopt new mindsets and communicative skills. Finally, we practice… and practice some more. Honing any new skill means failing a few times (perhaps many times) before we get it right.
In this particular post, I will discuss the unhealthy and negative unwritten “rules” or codes of conduct and speech within groups of women. These unwritten rules and expectations are just as applicable to LDS women’s social groups, and when we work together in our church callings. As stated in my previous post, I’ve taught/teach interpersonal communication at San Jose State. Consequently, I’m very familiar with the communication strategies men and women use. And, I realize my observations and candor in this post will generate criticism from other women. Regardless, I seek to build stronger ties to each other; not to foster contention or guilt. And, I include my fragile, faulty self in this discussion. However, to rid ourselves of unethical speech and behavior, we’ve got to admit to and own our individual culpability. Surely, enormous amounts of negative energy are spent upholding these unhealthy mindsets. Listed below are some of these thought, speech, and behavioral patterns; a few are taken from Phyllis Chesler’s book Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman:
- We must not show outward anger toward each other (it wouldn’t be nice).
- We must avoid direct confrontation (it isn’t nice).
- To diffuse our anger, we gossip, shun, avoid, or use other forms of indirect aggression. Any form of direct assertiveness is considered impolite.
- We must be outwardly “kind” (meaning feigned kindness) regardless of how angry we feel or how badly another woman (or group of women) mistreats us.
- If confronted with our bad behavior, we must deny it or pretend ignorance.
- If there’s no way to deny our bad behavior, then we can claim: “I’m just trying to be helpful.”
- To directly assert our wants and needs to another woman is impolite. Therefore, we must learn to read each other’s minds in order to anticipate each other’s needs. If we fail to accurately read minds, we can expect criticism.
- We must pretend that we are incapable of being mean to another woman. Only boys and men engage in bullying, not women.
- If we do admit our pettiness, meanness, or bullying toward another woman (or group of women), we must justify our bad behavior. Even better: Enlist other women to feel sorry for us and to “circle the wagons” against the woman who offends us.
- If another woman disagrees with us that automatically means she doesn’t like us.
- We cannot show our sadness for too long of a time period. Otherwise, we may be perceived by other women as ungrateful or failing “to count our blessings.”
- We must not seem too happy or too contented lest we come off as boastful or prideful.
- Groups of women must all “progress” together at the same time and at the same level. If a woman in our group “gets ahead” of us, we often feel threatened and feel the urge (often acting on it) to “cut her down to size”….our size. We must present an illusion of “equality” at all times.
- Women must nurture and/or “mother” each other at all times. We must be careful in attempting to set boundaries with each other, or we may be perceived by other women as selfish and unwilling to serve/give.
- We must choose an inauthentic “peace” or a path of least resistance in our interactions with each other. Otherwise, we may be perceived as aggressive or contentious.
- We must think and act alike, or we will not be perceived as “unified.” Difference equates to dissension and feels threatening.
After reading these unwritten “rules,” perhaps you’re thinking:
- Who me?! No way! I would never be like that! (Yes, we engage in these behaviors at some point in our lives and in varying degrees—whether we admit it or not.)
- Well, even if I do some of those things, I don’t mean to hurt anybody. (Whether intended or not, the end result is still non-productive and still painful. And more often than not, our intention is to hurt another woman or group of women.)
- Julie is just focusing on the negative aspects of women. She should focus on our positives. (We all have to own up and be accountable in order to move forward in a productive, constructive manner.)
Gee, is there hope for us? Yes! Let’s acknowledge and embrace our weak, imperfect, fragile, vulnerable little selves! It’s ok that we’re not ok all the time. The Lord doesn’t expect this, so why should we? These unrealistic expectations of ourselves and each other simply encourage emotional and spiritual disease. I love the scripture Ether 12:27 in the Book of Mormon:
And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness, I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.
I love this passage because of its intimate and personal tone with our Savior, Jesus Christ. I feel like He’s putting his divine, comforting, safe arm around us. He’s fully aware of our tendencies to mean and snotty. But this scripture is hard evidence that He doesn’t condemn us for it. Furthermore, He expects us to be weak; He “give[s] unto men (and women) weakness.” Like men, women have their own brand of weakness. So why are we so horrified with ourselves and each other when we show weakness? Why do we have such difficulty talking about our differences? I think it’s because we don’t know how. And what we don’t know, we fear. In my next post, I’ll discuss ideas in promoting ethical and productive communication climates and patterns.
Here’s to reforming Thumper,