In my journey over the past two years to stand up and speak up for gender justice in the Mormon Church, I have become a public figure, of sorts. Not Lady Gaga paparazzi level public figure, of course… but Salt Lake Tribune makes a cartoon about you/ any random Joe Mormon feels the right to write about your life and pontificate on your outfits/ your in-laws find out about your major life decisions in the New York Times / lots of people recognize you on the streets of Salt Lake City…. type of public figure. The outpouring of love and support from strangers has been amazing, but this kind of attention can be absolutely bizarre. Why does everyone from here to Kingdom come think they get to have a say in what you say/ how you dress/ what kind of laptop you buy?
As with any socially taboo subject, there is quite a polarization of those interested. For the most part, either people love and adore you, and say they want their daughters to be like you (be careful what you wish for!), or they hate and revile you and tweet unintentionally hilarious things at you. Like this simple Tweet with only the word, ‘vomit.’ (Keep it classy @reaganwhereru, keep it classy.)
An of course, there are lovely messages like this one:
I have gotten hate mail about my hair (and glasses, and dresses, and smile and ‘evil countenance’.) Perhaps my all-time favorite hater comment: ‘The OW have like the worst mouthpieces. They make dumb arguments and there isn’t a looker in the herd.’ Ok…. it’s a tie between that one and: ‘the politically correct are welcome to find another church. The lesser kingdoms of eternity await them.’
I have often been referred to as Satin (apparently Satan is difficult to spell.) There was also quite the back-and-forth on Twitter the other day about whether I have gained weight, and as a fat person have no legitimate opinions. #Obviously. Seriously, I am 5’8” and weigh 135 pounds, but the internet has declared me fat…. because I have opinions about gender inequality. One hater even came to my rescue saying, ‘guys, she’s an idiot, but it’s not fair to make fun of how someone looks.’ You know it’s bad when avowed haters have to come to your aid on Twitter.
There are even people (several actually) who are willing to PAY ME MONEY in order to insult me. I closed the comments on a GoFundMe campaign I did, so some particularly tenacious internet trolls DONATED MONEY so that they could leave troll-y names along with the donations. They cared enough about comparing me to Satan, that they were willing to put their money where their hand (anonymously typing) is.
Of course there are people with nuanced views with legitimate critiques or words of caution, but their voices are few and pretty quiet, comparatively speaking. The haters are loud. And they have feminist-vampire pictures as avatars. They comb the internet for ugly pictures of you and compare you to Book of Mormon anti-Christs on the regular. Any sane human on planet earth who wants to retain any modicum of their aforementioned sanity must develop coping mechanisms to drown out the voices that are Hell-bent on dragging them down.
In an article about Mennonite LGTBQIA activists one woman said something that struck me: ‘I don’t think I’m brave enough to mention this, but in one draft of my speech, I would say: In 10 years, we will thank the conference for disciplining us, because it has forced us to be clear about who we are.’
Reprisals, and discipline can be faith promoting. They force you to have faith in yourself. Solidify your courage in your convictions and make you cross the Rubicon, turning away from self-doubt. It makes you clarify who you are.
Once you are clear about who you are, there are plenty of people who aren’t going to like you. Some are just haters. (Where do they find the time to troll random Facebook feeds of people they internet-hate?? I envy them copious amounts of freetime!) Some just want to pick you apart to hide their own cowardice. If they can dismiss you personally for not doing X, Y or Z right, they don’t have to confront their own fears and join a movement. They can stay safe in their critical corner and not have to move, organize or be. They can occupy their time with internet critiquing in lieu of do-ing. And, judging on the sheer volume I’ve received, there is a kazillion lifetimes that can be occupied by internet critiquing.
I think nowadays, our ability to succeed to create something unique, valuable and brave in this modern world often hinges upon our ability to endure the discomfort of being disliked. Even being really, really, really disliked. Hated. By lots & lots of people. You just have to be willing to put yourself out there, and in a world where a false sense of scarcity (insecurity) often outweighs giving eachother the benefit-of-the-doubt, you have to brace for it. You have to brace for a culture that will do its very best to shame you into submission. Monica Lewinsky talks about this in her brilliant TED talk. Lewinsky says: ‘We are in a dangerous cycle: the more we click on this kind of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it. And the more numb we get, the more we click… Public humiliation as a blood sport has to stop. We need to return to a long-held values of compassion and empathy.’
There are also many critiques coming from fellow travelers in the movement. In my case, Mormon women who want their voices to be heard. This would take up an entire post to adequately convey, but much of this criticism comes from what I believe is a false sense of scarcity. This false scarcity that we have in our minds makes us think: ‘if Kate Kelly gets XYZ, there won’t be any left for me.’ If Kate Kelly gets media attention, there won’t be any left. She’ll take it all up. If Kate Kelly gets support (or money, or accolades etc.) it will take that away from someone… more deserving. This mindset likely comes from being raised in a patriarchal structure which forces women to be in competition for praise, worthiness, attention, scarce resources… and even husbands! This internalized patriarchy turns us away from a paradigm of abundance and cooperation and acknowledging there is enough.
I want to emphasize that there is enough attention. There is enough support. There is an abundance awaiting us. Someone else’s success does not rob you of anything. Outside of patriarchy, we can get what we need without putting someone else down.
Recently I re-watched one of the bravest single acts I’ve ever seen. I was eleven years old in 1992 when Sinéad O’Connor appeared on SNL as the musical guest. The studio had no knowledge that she was going to use her performance as a protest against sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. At the end of the song, instead of the photo she had used in the rehearsal, she defiantly presented a photo of Pope John Paul II to the camera while singing the word ‘evil.’ The studio turned off the ‘applause’ sign & there was no clapping or sound at all at the end of her set. It was dead silent. She ended by tearing the photo into pieces, and said ‘Fight the real enemy,’ while throwing the pieces towards the camera. Now THAT is art people. THAT is courage.
Wikipedia’s description of what happened next: Two weeks after the Saturday Night Live appearance, she was set to perform ‘I Believe in You’ at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary tribute concert in Madison Square Garden. She was greeted by a thundering mixture of cheers and jeers. During the booing, Kris Kristofferson [came back on stage] and told her not to let the bastards get you down, to which she replied, ‘I’m not down.’ The noise eventually became so loud that O’Connor saw no point in starting the scheduled song. She called for the keyboard player to stop and the microphone to be turned up, and then screamed over the audience with an improvised, shouted rendition of ‘War.’ This time, she sang the song, stopping just after the part in which the lyrics talk about child abuse, emphasizing the point of her previous action. She then looked straight to the audience for a second and left the stage. — In the video you can see that she left the stage and immediately started heaving and wept.
Sometimes you have to drown out the bullies & just sing at the top of your lungs.
The danger is that when you drown out or ignore haters, you also can lose sight of the importance of legitimate feedback, mistakes made & lessons to learn. Your survival mode can push you into an unproductive space where you discount all kinds of criticism as ‘haters gonna hate’ & that can stunt growth. The temptation is to surround yourself with only people who agree with you & cheerlead you on. Of course, it makes sense to have personal boundaries and spaces where you can just be safe & yourself & complain. That’s why I have my personal Facebook wall. I’ll ban you quicker than you can say Mark Zuckerburg on my personal Facebook wall when you say something distasteful… again, boundaries.
Lots of people thought it was overboard for me to say in the Guardian that ‘the least talented, least articulate, least nuanced thinkers, least likely to take a stand against abuse, and the least courageous people thrive in the Church today.‘ Perhaps I could have made it more clear that what I meant was not that all orthodox Mormons are idiots & Mormonism is an idiocracy, but that they Church squelches dissent intentionally to keep bright people from speaking up. But, as an activist, you can’t spend all day hemming & hawing nitpicking about specific word choice. You just have to… act.
I think I have a naturally thick skin & pretty God-given healthy self-esteem, but the question I get most often from people is: ‘how can you stand it? How can you keep going in the face of such a tidal wave of vitriol and condemnation?’ Given my natural temperament, and innate ability to revel in contrarianism, I usually don’t find it too hard to keep going. I usually find genuine haters to be hilarious (#Satin)… so, so unintentionally hilarious. I have an ongoing feature on Facebook called ‘Random Hater of the Day’ (RHOTD). But, on bad days even the most confident woman in the world can vacillate between defiant Amazonian goddess and scared, insecure teenager.
So, though my modus operandi is to go Taylor Swift on haters & simply try to shake it off, I feel like that can too easily create two rigid camps. The dividing line between them is a false dichotomy: there are haters, and there are unequivocal supporters. Sometimes in the name of self-preservation, those who don’t fall into either camp — those with nuanced views or opinions — become casualties.
So, is there a way to be unapologetic, but know when to apologize? What is the best way, dear readers (and by that I mean mostly ‘Mom’) to balance the need to plug your ears and say la-la-la-la-la to drown out haters, yet at the same time keep yourself open to advice, constructive criticism, and feedback if needed?