For a long time I have struggled to figure out how to frame the comments I make within and about the church so that they seem supportive but might also lead to what I would deem as positive changes in our church culture. For a while now, I have operated on the model that couching my comments in terms of personal experience works best using the logic that while it is easy to argue with a person’s philosophical stance, it is hard to argue with how they feel about an issue or perceive an event they experience. For example, when I wished to explain to someone why I felt that the church could use more revelation on gender, I would explain to him/her how I felt great pain when I realized that I would not receive the priesthood, when I watched the young men receive much more attention than the young women, or when I could not learn about what the General Authorities told my Stake President about the state of the stake, since only the priesthood was invited to hear the news.
In general, I still believe that speaking about specific experiences rather than in terms of “truths” or philosophies leads to more effective communication between people and better testimonies, especially when we bear them to non-members (or, as a friend of mine deems them “friends of other faiths.”) I would direct you to my blog for a fuller discussion of my rationales. However, I have also found that speaking from experience can isolate and dis-empower me as a speaker when the occasion requires me to draw upon experiences when I felt hurt.
Although it is likely that many people share one’s experiences and views, to argue a point by citing how one experienced pain in a situation makes me bring up how I formerly felt powerless. This moves risks recasting me in a powerless position once again. It is very difficult to make an argument that draws pity to one’s self without sketching one’s self as in need of help and thus not a proper leader. In the particular case of when I have tried to mention to people how certain stances that the church has on gender make me feel excluded from leadership opportunities, I find this move especially problematic because it makes me feel more dependent on others than ever.
Speaking from experience can also make me feel extremely isolated, because when I speak from experience I choose not to speak about the systems that make me feel disempowered or the other people who might share my feelings. Speaking from experience demands that I put my life and consciousness on the line, and sometimes it causes me to feel battered down when I cannot draw on others for support or speak about systemic structures that contribute to my pain. To constantly use my (less positive) experiences as an example for why we should reform a policy emotionally wears me down. Admittedly, it is much easier to speak from personal experience when I am drawing on past successes.
Perhaps most significantly, I find that speaking from experiences sometimes introduces a situation in which only those who have had the experience feel authorized to speak. When the listener has not shared the experience, I suspect s/he is often overwhelmed by the speaker’s emotions and does not know how to proceed. For example, far too often, I find that men will not speak up in support of needed reforms on how we view gender, because gender has been improperly conceived as a category that only bears upon women and that only women can speak about. I feel that this situation is deeply unfortunate, because until gender becomes an issue that people of all sexes feel able to ask critical questions about, I cannot foresee our leaders seeking more revelation about such basic concepts as a heavenly mother and places for women within church leadership.
So, yes, there is a place for speaking for experience, but I wish sometimes that others would speak for and in support of me a bit more. I do not wish to be defined by and limited to my experiences when I interact with the world and shape my life within the gospel. I want other means of speaking and producing evidence in my repertoire.