Content Warnings for General Conference Talks

Part of being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not having paid, professional clergy. Every job performed within the Church is done by volunteers. This includes the sermons, lessons, and trainings given during Sunday services. No one is getting paid for the work they do. Sometimes, that means you get to learn from highly trained public speakers in your community at no cost. Other times, it means you listen to people who are terrified of public speaking stumble painfully and publicly through the experience. Both experiences have powerful lessons to teach, for both the speaker and listeners in the congregation.

The closest the Church comes to paid clergy are the full-time leadership who speak in the Church’s twice annual general conference, but the experience of speaking and listening is still the same. Your mileage will vary drastically from speaker to speaker. I’ve had healing, life-changing experiences with general conference talks that brought new meaning and purpose into my life as a disciple of Christ. I’ve also listened to talks that were so bad, I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me so I wouldn’t have to listen anymore. On some occasions I felt secondhand embarrassment on behalf of the speaker and just wanted the talk to end for their sake. But other times, I’ve felt that way because of being openly insulted as a listener. The speaker was completely oblivious to their own biases, their insensitivity, and the limitations of their own experiences. And at a younger stage of my life, I would’ve had a hard time putting it into words exactly what was making me feel that way. The best I could’ve done for a long time is “my life experience is absolutely nothing like theirs, and they just made me feel like there’s something wrong with me because of that.”

Part of what would improve our public discourse substantially in the Church would be the use of content warnings. A content warning is a summary of topics given at the outset so people can determine ahead of time if they’re likely to be hurt or upset by the topics being discussed. Ideally, the person giving the talk would provide their own content warnings, but these warnings can also be affixed at a later time.

To be clear: by making this list of content warnings, I’m not constructing a list of forbidden topics that should never be addressed. Rather, I’m pointing out that these (and other) topics can be so emotionally charged for people, they deserve forewarning so they can remove themselves from the audience if that’s what they need to do for their own peace of mind. Some people might call this a lack of emotional resilience or “coddling.” But living with trauma is an exhausting experience. Not everyone is prepared to participate in every conversation in every moment of every day. By giving people forewarning, we give them the ability to disengage for the sake of their own mental health. It’s an act of love and consideration we should be willing to extend, especially if we don’t understand the importance, because those are typically the situations where well-intentioned people are doing the most unintended harm.

This list has been inspired by the May 2019 conference addresses, but content warnings are not limited to what will appear on this list:

Prescriptive Emotions: any talk or discourse that suggests, proposes, or enforces what someone else’s emotional response should be; especially harmful as it relates to providing unqualified or unlicensed advice related to mental health or mental illness (depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, etc.)

Universal Church Experience: the expectation for all members of the Church to engage in the same way because they all have equal and functioning access to the same support as everyone else; harmful to members outside the United States, part-member families, converts, and new members of the Church whose church experience may never be the same as someone else’s because of that lack of support.

Familial Conformity: social or ecclesiastical pressure for those who are active in the Church to impose their will, goals, and desires for active church membership and participation on other people; a blatant disrespect of personal boundaries and agency when these individuals have respectfully declined and made their desires not to participate clearly understood. Any effort to present the nuclear family as an inherently better family structure over singleness, mixed-faith marriages, and blended families of any and all genders.

“The World” is Evil: the assumption or belief that those outside the Church (including worshippers of other faiths) are inherently immoral, unethical, or ignorant about right and wrong because they don’t follow the same moral codes as Latter-day Saints do; also related to the belief that Latter-day Saints are superior in value or importance over other people because of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.

Abuse: any topic related to physical, emotional, sexual, or ecclesiastical abuse between individuals and family members.  Hearing the violence committed against others can retraumatize and trigger post-traumatic stress reactions in survivors of abuse. Any anecdotes that outline or detail the violence of someone else's situation, past or current, without their express consent is offensive and abusive.

Sexism: any statement that disrespects, devalues, or fails to acknowledge the contributions of any individual or group on the basis of sex or gender; as such, devaluing any contributions made by women outside of parenthood AND ignoring the importance of nurturing from men in the Church are both examples of sexism. Also includes devaluing or negating the gender identities of others.

The Family Proclamation: because some the content of this document targets, attacks, and devalues LGBTQ people, the proclamation itself has become a source or trauma and violence to many people in that community; therefore, a standing warning any time this document will be mentioned, regardless of context, would be appropriate.

Marital Issues: those who experience marital problems aren’t always open to taking in advice or criticism on the events surrounding their marriages and divorces; related warnings may also include divorce, infidelity, remarriage, single parenthood, and custody of children.

Limiting Worship of God to Church Observance: includes the emphasis (and overemphasis) on callings, assignments, and free labor in the Church has the source of God’s approval and favor; also includes disregarding the needs and limitations of others to encourage more uncompensated labor, and valuing certain kinds of labor in the Church over others, such as full-time missionary service and temple attendance.

Cultural Homogeneity: social policing and self-appointed enforcement of rules and standards on others at church, especially as it related to personal appearance and dress; related also to bullying, ostracizing, abuse from church and youth leadership, and the For Strength of Youth pamphlet because of how it has been weaponized inappropriately among the youth.

“Arm of Flesh”: overemphasis of/overconfidence in church leadership, general authorities, and local leadership; the failure to acknowledge their fallibility and potential for human error, especially has it related to current and past policies that have harmed the general membership of the Church.

Disability: any statement or phrasing that presents the experiences of disabled people as undesirable, unwanted, or in need of correction; examples include stories where blindness, deafness, or limitations in mobility become metaphors for a lack of spirituality or divine punishments.

Invalidating Bodily Autonomy: any statement that challenges, devalues, or seeks to impede the legal or medical decision-making of any person; especially toxic as it relates to controlling the reproductive health choices of women through their access to safe abortions, giving unsolicited opinions or medical advice for infertility, and reducing sex/sexuality solely to functions of procreation.

Death: devaluing the grief and pain surrounding death because of the resurrection, the kingdoms of glory, or any other aspect of the Plan of Salvation.

Devaluing Knowledge and Authority Outside of Religion: any attempts to disregard or ignore science, medicine, technology, and the knowledge gained of natural world through heuristic thought processes independent from religious belief.

Racism: any narrative that subjugates, oppresses, or invalidates minority groups based on race, nationality, or colorism; especially where those of white European descent benefit from and obfuscate harm imposed by colonization (including the pioneers) and slavery.

The Nature of God:
misrepresenting God through an overemphasis on punishment, rejection, and causing pain; directly related to the erasure of the feminine qualities of God and the divine feminine/Heavenly Mother.

General conference doesn't exist to do harm. It's a setting where people come together in search of God and ways to improve their lives. This doesn't mean, however, that all general conference talks are automatically free of harmful language by virtue of the setting. The speakers are human, their understanding of various kinds of trauma is incomplete, and they have much to learn from the experience of speaking.

You can choose your intentions, but you don't get to choose the impact of your words on other people. Content warnings are part of recognizing the potential impact of the words we speak, and will hopefully become the front lines of eliminating harmful messaging from our midst.

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