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What You Said Makes Me Uncomfortable. Why Are You So Mean?

What does it mean when we’re deeply uncomfortable with what someone else has said? Has a great wrong been done? Christian teaching highlights another (uncomfortable) possibility.

When was the last time someone got frustrated with something you said? Maybe a roommate, co-worker, spouse, or sibling—or if not that, one of the angry hordes on social media— announcing their displeasure with what you had shared.   

That’s never a fun experience—and raises lots of questions worth exploring. But one interesting one that we neglect too often is this: how does that frustrated person explain their hurt or anger? Did they say, “Ouch—you know, those questions you raised really challenged some ways of thinking I’ve embraced about difficult questions I don’t typically like to explore. As painful as it was to hear another perspective, I’m grateful you’re willing to stretch my thinking—and not let the likely ferocious blowback, attacks on your character, and other enormous social disincentives to saying anything at all stop you from raising these insights.” 

Probably not, right?  🙂

Take your pick. Every week at Public Square Magazine, someone else is mad at us. It’s never fun —and always unpleasant on some level.  

But we’re honestly used to it … well, most days. It’s something we’ve had to accept as part of our publishing in this world today. That’s not unique to our work or even to journalism alone (check out this poignant and telling account of the mounting hostility endured right now by public transit drivers in Denver). But faith-oriented media platforms may take a special kind of fire these days.

Either share truth openly or don’t offend people.

The truth is, many of us were forced to the same conclusion during a period of missionary service:  either share truth openly or don’t offend people.

What’s your pick?  

None of that, of course, is an excuse for overwrought language or sloppy writing. Neither should this forced choice cause us to overlook areas of improvement in not only what is being said but how. As one of our friends likes to remind us, simply “sharing truth” is not enough. In text Latter-day Saints embrace as scripture, the Lord asks a profound question of any seeking to speak in a more godly way: “he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?” Then he says, “And if it be by some other way it is not of God” (emphasis my own).

Are we sharing the truth in the spirit of truth? That’s the question any flame-throwing, bomb-tossing ideologue can’t be asking when he or she spouts truth in a derisive, accusing, hostile manner—so often implicating those who disagree in malevolent motives.  

None of that is what we want to be doing. And all of it is what we work to stay far away from, including and especially on sensitive topics, which we regularly take up here, or when we scrutinize an established pattern.  As we do so, this “spirit of truth” standard is a central question we use.  Here are three other criteria we prioritize in writing difficult pieces:

  • Are we writing from an angry “heart at waror from an imploring, inviting heart at peace? (See Matthew 5:22.)
  • Is our language exclusively oriented towards resisting or opposing something, or are we also advancing a positive vision and a better way?
  • Is this really a moment to say something or be silent? (Elder Neil Anderson’s recent comments are especially helpful.) If it’s time to speak, are there any ways we are inadvertently provoking offense in a way that is unnecessary and potentially counterproductive? (See Alma 48:14.)

I share these back-end criteria today for a reason—so in our transparency, you can see what we’re really up to at Public Square Magazine. We’re serious about these aspirations. And we’re not playing games. We recognize that many of the things we believe as Christians and more so as Latter-day Saints are increasingly unpopular—which makes all the foregoing especially important: Not just to share truth, but to do so in a way that makes it most likely people can receive it. 

How easy it is for any of us to fall into the angry and fearful spirit of the age. By contrast, in moments when we feel the love of God and the influence of the Holy Spirit, the intensity of joy and peace and hope is stunning—leaving us different than before. That’s also what we often experience in the presence of living prophets and other inspired leaders, especially President Russell Nelson. These men and women provide models for how to speak and engage difficult questions in our day—a striking contrast to the fearful, angry, despairing pundits all around us.  

The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

That doesn’t mean sorrow or fear or frustration should never be a part of our communications. Since indignation, sadness and other heavy emotions are evident in God’s interactions with humankind, there surely are godly ways to express our own grief, anxieties, and deep concerns.

While anyone, then, can spout their thoughts about what is true. But to do so—or attempt to do so—in a higher, holier, more godly way is another story. As Paul himself knew personally, to “speak the truth in love” is stretching for anyone.   

And we don’t always get it exactly right. Just the other day, a colleague reached out and highlighted some ways the ending of our Under the Banner of Heaven piece was falling short (he was right, and updates were made). And several months back, another friend who teaches at the university down the street highlighted an oversight in an editorial I had published. We published his critique. The same friend recently told me that conservatives seem too prone to fear and anger (and he’s right about that too).  Speaking for our entire PSM team, I can’t tell you how grateful we are as a magazine for constructive input that helps us learn how to improve.  

In our view, that’s really the only way to make genuine progress:  do your best at something, and then stay open to input on how to do better. That’s the way of Jesus and His gospel of repentance. And despite abundant commentary pretending to virtues of condemning-and-coercive cancel culture, there really isn’t another, better way.  

How dare you. Even with sincere desires to keep learning, even with good feedback from good people, and even with our best efforts to aspire for language that is as sensitive and empathetic—all while doing our best to articulate positive visions from a heart of peace that channel “the spirit of truth”—the condemnation always comes.  

I’ll never forget the first time I wrote something publicly about an especially sensitive topic.  A group of mothers had banded together to “fight for their gay kids” in a way that pointedly, increasingly portrayed the Church of Jesus Christ as a haven of brutality and oppression. Without their realizing it (or so it seemed to me), their language seemed to be leading other parents and their vulnerable kids to a place of estrangement from the very gospel message that could have brought such peace and hope. Unintended “iatrogenic” (harmful) effects of antidepressants were one of my areas of research, and I knew that possibility was always enormously tricky to take up—especially since those involved were virtually always trying to help. How do you help raise awareness of a helper who seems to be doing harm?  

Carefully. Without questioning intent. Taking 70 pages of these mothers’ own published words, I tried to show in painstaking detail how and why I believed this group’s approach was “Ultimately Hurting Teens & Families (Despite Earnest Intentions Otherwise).” In doing so, I repeatedly underscored my awareness of their positive desires—and tried to write with as much sensitivity as possible. 

When one of the husbands of a founding member found out about the essay, he announced indignantly to the whole group, “One day Jacob is going to realize what an [expletive] he is for writing this.” He proceeded to dress down in a few Facebook paragraphs the entire 50-page analysis as reflecting nothing but bigotry and lack of compassion for marginalized people.

Pretty hard to have a rich conversation when both the tech infrastructure and the philosophical backdrop of the conversation are both so well designed to aggravate wedges already framed as impassable.

And that was it. No serious engagement with the concerns I had raised. Just a quick, biting public denunciation—something to put me in my place and help reveal my heart of darkness to other onlookers. Even more surprising was how many people took this potent condemnation as the final word that somehow had settled the matter. Why bother reading what I had to say? They now had their 3-paragraph Cliff Notes version from someone they trusted. For many, the discussion was essentially over.

As sad as it might be, that’s a pretty good representation of how a surprisingly large amount of public exchange has gone—and continues to go today—perhaps, especially about the most sensitive and important questions we’re facing as a society:  Sexuality and gender. Family and marriage. Climate and environment. Mental health and public health.  Guns, policing, and public safety. Race and ethnicity.  

And, of course, religion and faith. The year prior, I had written a similarly detailed analysis of Dr. John Dehlin’s widely-hailed research on faith and sexuality. I made the case that, despite intentions I acknowledged were positive, the uniformity of opinion among their research team led them to make some methodological and analytical decisions that generated certain kinds of data and favored especially accusing conclusions (again about the Church of Jesus Christ).  Once again, in the resulting essay—“How scientific research can become weaponized (despite intentions otherwise)”—I took pains to acknowledge better intentions— sending the essay beforehand (as I did with my parenting piece) to their research team in advance of publication.

To John’s credit, his response was to invite me to breakfast.  The conversation was direct but overall productive. I’ve had many similar experiences of honest engagement across differences over the years—including hours of enriching back-and-forth with Kendall Wilcox at Whole Foods, equally enjoyable experiences going deeper with Tom Christofferson, and intensive discussions with an ideologically diverse group of people we dubbed the “Sextet” who grappled for years with questions of sexuality and gender across our many philosophical and religious differences (Evangelical, Episcopalian, Atheist, Marxist, Conservative, Gay, Lesbian). 

For Christmas one year, I sent members of that group a little plaque:

To this day, I still disagree profoundly with so many conversation partners on all sorts of things —from God to identity. And we still adore each other too. Across nearly two decades, I’ve spent hundreds of hours not only learning to help facilitate more and better conversation—but engaging in it myself. 

And you know what I’ve found in doing so?  Delight. And profound learning. And life-long friendships. And personal transformation myself.  

Why, in heaven’s name, I often wonder, wouldn’t we grasp hold of this rich form of communication rather than the accusing, suspicion-laden shadow-boxing that inevitably skims the surface of all questions and leaves us all inescapably more entrenched in the perspective we had before (with little to no insight or expanded complexity in our thinking).  

I can’t for the life of me say that I’ve got a good answer to that question. But Jonathan Haidt’s recent American diagnosis of structural “stupidity” gets close to the mark (“stupid” in reference to something making us involved literally less intelligent). The bulk of his own analysis focuses on how social media predisposes this mutual reactivity by giving us all “dart guns” to shoot at each other. With Randy Paul and Arthur Pena, I’ve also highlighted ways in which the prevailing terms of our many ongoing public conversations may be “pre-loading us for failure.” (For instance, are you loving … or not? Bigoted … or not? Let’s try talking about that!)

Pretty hard to have a rich conversation when both the tech infrastructure and the philosophical backdrop of the conversation are both so well designed to aggravate wedges already framed as impassable. But still, why does it have to be this way? Why couldn’t we say instead, “people have disagreed about the nature of love for many centuries? Let’s talk about our different perspectives on what it means to be loving. (And oh, and by the way, each time you show generosity and respond with thoughtfulness, we’ll be sure to boost your comment on the platform so others can see it more.)” 

Would that kind of conversation make as much money for tech companies?  No.  Would it be as effective in advancing certain socio-political causes? Definitely not. 

Is it possible that the feelings of hurt, offense, and anger point not simply towards the giver of the message—but also to the receiver?

Maybe, then, we have part of our answer there for why our national food fight continues. 

But there is more.  Despite Marxist contentions otherwise, money and power are never the whole story.  

The offense of the cross.  What is it that’s being advanced right now in America most powerfully and in a way that’s making the most money? Surely not the message of Jesus Christ.  

I’ve seen this up close, spending the last five years in the tech industry myself—following five years in the mental health and addiction nonprofit world. For more than ten years, I’ve been collaborating with others in trying to advance a public health message (and now a digital health product) that is up against some difficult odds.  Why is that?  

Because when you approach someone who is hurting with mental and emotional problems, and you say, “Hey, I’ve got something you can take that will—with no other changes at all—make this pain go away,” there’s something about the message that sells itself.    

By contrast, our message—as confirmed by literally tens of thousands of studies—is that small, iterative lifestyle adjustments can lead you to a place of deeper emotional healing. That’s a true message (far truer, empirically speaking, than our dominant mental health paradigms)—and also an approach reflective of Jesus’ hopeful message centered on hope for a new day and the ongoing repentant changes that would require.  

In the eternal scheme of things, that message is a winner.  But in the American marketplace of ideas and actions today, it’s up against some stiff competition. Not only does this kind of inquiry into our own lifestyles feel—on its face—onerous and burdensome to consider, but it can also feel downright offensive—even “shaming.”   

You’re saying there’s something I’ve been doing that has worsened this? Are you blaming me as a parent for what my child’s going through? How dare you!  

 Jesus warned his apostles that their message of repentance would not be well received—and that they would be hated as he himself would be. Explaining this hatred directed at himself by the world around him, Jesus said it was “because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil.” And in his more extensive explanation to Nicodemus, he said, “this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light” before adding, “every one that doeth evil hateth the light.”

As Isaiah anciently predicted, this remarkable man from Nazareth subsequently became “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense … a trap and a snare” (language repeated by Peter as applying “to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient”).

This is the “offense of the cross” Paul described. It’s the reason why when disciples preached the Lord’s message in the early church, the people were “cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth” (“angry and furious”). It’s also why the prophet Nephi plainly lamented, “the guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center.” Even the brightest and most glorious truths become “hard things” against those embracing deceptive fairy tales and living in betrayal of God’s will. As the author of Proverbs likewise summarizes, “Correction is grievous unto him that forsaketh the way.”

Like all things, of course, this too can be overdone—for instance, blaming any blowback or anger on people’s own “heart of darkness” (and consequently not taking seriously any raised concerns). We will continue to remain grateful for constructive feedback—and I personally see a willingness to share frustration on a personal level as a sign of healthy trust in a relationship.  

It’s precisely because our culture has become so angry—including about really good things—that these scriptural teachings are important to keep in mind. Without them, it’s way too easy to let the faith-directed fury and incessant accusations of secular society get in our heads and shut us all up.

But make no mistake, these verses above apply to all of us. When we as believing writers get overly frustrated at the feedback we’re hearing from people, maybe it’s time we look at our own hearts too.    

For all of us, this uncomfortable question should probably linger in the air a bit more:  Is it possible that the feelings of hurt, offense, and anger point not simply towards the giver of the message—but also to the receiver? And especially if we have built our life on assumptions, ideas, and values that are not in alignment with God (which also applies to all of us on some level), wouldn’t we expect that a message pointing that out would sting a bit?   

If so, admitting as much would be hard as well. Far easier, instead, to just point the finger of blame at the person who has made us uncomfortable. If I’m uncomfortable, that means you’ve done something really bad.

Once again, that’s a temptation for all of us. But facing up to this—and reaching beyond it—is  not an optional activity for disciples. It’s what prophets have repeatedly been teaching too. We either speak the truth in love—and by the spirit—or we don’t.  And to the degree we fail to do so, we must all take some responsibility for the reactions.   

For times we have fallen short in any of the high aspirations of discipleship, we take responsibility and resolve to do better. When new conflict emerges, we will seek to learn more from it. And when constructive feedback comes, we commit to “sitting with our discomfort” and not dismissing it—while encouraging all our authors to reach for the ideals and aspirations identified above.

In the meanwhile, if something we publish or say ends up riling you up and making you uncomfortable, we encourage you to do the same. That way, we can keep learning and moving forward together—as believers, as Americans, and ultimately as a human family. As messy as that process may seem (requiring patience, grace, forgiveness, listening, and ongoing change), it reflects the only sustainable way out of this larger cultural mess we’re in. 

We can’t wait to get there.

About the author

Jacob Z. Hess

Jacob Hess is a contributing editor at Deseret News and publishes longer-form pieces at PublishPeace.net. He co-authored "You're Not as Crazy as I Thought, But You're Still Wrong" and “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.” He has a Ph.D. in clinical-community psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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