Adam S. Miller, the Mormon philosopher who wrote the highly praised book “Letters to a Young Mormon,” wrote a piece that was published on LDS Living yesterday. The article can be read here. The title of the article is: “Defending the Family Means Defending Women and Rooting Out Misogyny.”
I have re-read the article multiple times, and I don’t understand it. Really. I think I know what Bro. Miller is trying to say, but then I re-read the article and I think, “no, that can’t be right.” So, I am back to thinking I don’t know what he is saying. I wrote this article in the hopes somebody who knows him will pass it along to him and perhaps I can get some answers.
Before we get to the article, I should probably point out that I did not like his much-praised book. At all. To sum up my experience, I found it full of convoluted, difficult to understand statements that ended up being dull platitudes. For me, it was kind of like trying to read a pretentious 13-year-old’s diary. I would never have read a book like his when I was a young person trying to find my way through life. (Now to be fair, I only went to church a few times when I was young, and I did not get baptized until I was in my 30s, so perhaps I was not the target audience. And also to be double-fair to Bro. Miller, many people I respect loved his book).
To understand where I am coming from, let’s take a look at Bro. Miller’s talk at BYU on Jan. 11.
In that talk he said the following:
“It is a mistake to think that Mormonism is about Mormonism. Mormonism is not about Mormonism. And if we try to force Mormonism to be about itself, we paint ourselves into corners and lose track of the very thing we are trying to say. . . . In my experience, Mormonism comes into focus as true and living only when I stop looking directly at it and instead aim my attention at Christ. Instead of aiming at Mormonism, I have to aim what Mormonism is aiming at. Otherwise, I’ll miss what matters most.”
What the heck? This has to be one of the strangest statements I have ever read. Mormonism is about Christ. I mean, it is right there in the name of the Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What the heck does he mean saying that “Mormonism is not about Mormonism?” I have read that paragraph a dozen times now, and I have no idea what he is talking about. Again, to be fair to Bro. Miller, perhaps I would have understood better if I had watched his talk in context. Does he mean that Mormonism is not about Utah culture? Does he mean that Mormonism is not about American triumphalism? Does he mean that Mormonism is not about blindly following prophets? Does he mean that Mormonism is not about Joseph Smith? I simply don’t know.
So, question number one for Bro. Miller is: what the heck does that paragraph mean?
My same concerns apply to his article in LDS Living.
The biggest fault of the article is that Bro. Miller never defines what he means by the word “misogyny.” This is kind of important because his entire article is about misogyny.
“Misogyny” literally means hatred and contempt and prejudice against girls and women. We Mormons should definitely be against hating women. In fact, men are told approximately a dozen times every Sunday — in a variety of different ways — to love women. We should love our wives, our mothers, our grandmothers, the other women in our wards and stakes, and of course we should love our female children. So, saying you are against misogyny in a Mormon setting is a bit like going to Elder’s Quorum and saying we should not be drinking alcohol. Yup, Misogyny and alcohol are both bad for Mormons.
But somehow Bro. Miller is under the impression that we Mormon men are just absolutely filled to the brim with misogyny, or at least I think he is.
This misogyny is sufficiently commonplace that it surely counts as one of the world’s most deeply engrained idolatries: men, rather than worshipping God, have made an idol of themselves. In an attempt to fashion the world in their own manly image, men have disfigured it.
Now, remember that Bro. Miller is speaking to a Mormon audience. I would agree that there is plenty of misogyny in the world. There are plenty of cultures that degrade and humiliate women and do not treat them as equals. Just off the top of my head, I have lived in cultures where women are treated literally like slaves by their husbands. There are many cultures where women are sold into prostitution at a young age. There are other cultures where women suffer from genital mutilation.
So, my second question would be: is Bro. Miller talking about this type of misogyny? If he is, then I definitely agree with him. That kind of treatment of women needs to stop. Immediately.
But I have a strange feeling that Bro. Miller is mostly talking about how Mormon men treat the women in their lives. My third question would be: if Bro. Miller is talking about Mormon men, what exactly are his concerns? (For the record, I am not saying that all Mormon men treat the women in their lives perfectly, but in general I think Mormon men are more filled with love for women than anybody else I know. My fourth question would be: which groups treat women better than Mormon men?)
Bro. Miller’s article is absolutely chock-full of anodyne statements like:
We cannot continue to abide the world’s casual and routine will to exploit, harass, and silence women
Defending the family means defending women from both the subtle and violent forms of degradation, abuse, and marginalization that riddle our world.
I am sorry to be so blunt, but when I read this I can say nothing but, “err, yes, this is obvious, and your point is…?”
Of course we are all against exploiting, harassing and silencing women. Of course we do not want women to be degraded, abused and marginalized.
But (fifth question) what does Bro. Miller mean by this? Who exactly is doing the exploiting, the harassing and the silencing? In the last few months we have seen that Hollywood and a bevy of politicians are doing a lot of exploiting, harassing and silencing. Is that we he is referring to? Is he talking about Harvey Weinstein, or is he talking about your elder’s quorum president? I literally have no idea.
Bro. Miller writes:
The world attempts to force a choice: either women don’t get to be people or they don’t get to be women.
On the one hand, the world wills women to be women—but not people—by stripping them of agency and reducing them to passive objects of desire, angels on pedestals, prizes to be won, or images to be consumed. In this case, whether women are silenced and marginalized in the name of false religions or a global pornography industry, the result is the same.
Once again, I am not sure to what he is referring. Who does he mean by “the world?” This statement could be interpreting literally dozens of ways. I could potentially completely agree with this statement, or I could potentially completely disagree depending on who is doing the forcing. If he means, for example, that the entertainment industry, politicians and other bad men in power strip women of agency and reduce women to “passive objects of desire, angels on pedestals, prizes to be won, or images to be consumed,” he is 100 percent correct. In fact, this is a very good description of the horrors of our world today for women. But is that what he is referring to, or is he referring to something else? This would be my sixth question: who exactly are the bad guys in this scenario, and why is he discussing this with a Mormon audience?
Then Bro. Miller refers to women being silenced and marginalized “in the name of false religions.” I have been thinking about this statement for two days, and I cannot for the life of me figure out what religions he has in mind. Does he mean Scientology? Wiccans? Does he mean Islam and is calling that a “false religion?” (That would be terribly politically incorrect). Hopefully he does not mean the LDS Church, but maybe there is some intended reference to people who go to Church but don’t practice it the way he thinks they should? So my seventh question would be: what are the false religions he refers to?
I could go on and on because I literally could comprehend almost nothing in this article.
But I will end by saying: Bro. Miller’s writing frustrates me. Perhaps I am just too literal of a person, but I find his generalizations very annoying. He seems to think he is saying things that are really profound, but to me he either 1)saying things that are obvious and obtuse or 2)he is saying things that I cannot for the life of me understand. And, worst of all, he seems really, really intent on signaling his virtue in ways that will repel most women I know. Most women I know want to talk about real issues. Does he mean that women should have the priesthood, or does he mean that wives should talk last in sacrament meeting instead of their husbands? Does he really think that American Mormon men are all that bad, or is he talking about (some) cultures overseas where men are beating their wives daily? What are his specific criticisms and/or suggestions for his audience? I could find nothing in this article that was aimed at the people I know in my ward or stake.
But I am sincere when I say I would welcome answers to the questions I pose. I am sure Bro. Miller’s intentions were good, and his message is potentially a very good one. I think.