Is Our Collective Memory of Paulsen Being Booed Inaccurate?
Jeremy et al., while not the same as being there, transcripts are available. So is video footage of at least parts of the 2015 GC session, and these are more reliable than edited transcripts (also, transcripts don’t report audience reactions). These allow us to closely examine the popular narrative of Paulsen being booed for his views on women’s ordination (WO) at the 2015 General Conference (GC) session in San Antonio and find a different interpretation than the one popularly reported.
I was there for the WO discussion and vote. I had gone primarily because of my interest in the discussion on FB#6 but took in the WO discussion as well. I personally thought the motion was good for the church and should be adopted, so I was disappointed by the vote. I was simultaneously puzzled and appalled by the behavior of delegates who booed Jan Paulsen. However, I think the reporting on this has been inaccurate. I’d like to add a bit of nuance here. I am not disputing the part of the reporting that notes the applause and cheering when the vote was announced; I am specifically addressing the Paulsen booing episode.
Kevin McGill’s account cites a Spectrum article by Alisa Williams. Williams wrote, “When Elder Jan Paulsen was given a reserved speaking spot, he was booed from the floor by delegates who were furious that he spoke in favor of ordaining women.” This could be misinterpreted in several ways.
First, Paulsen was not booed from the floor in the sense of “booed off the stage.” He was booed by delegates seated at the Alamodome. This occurred about halfway through his speech, which he completed without pause.
Second, I have seen no evidence that he was booed because he had a reserved speaking spot. Williams’s statement could be misinterpreted that way.
Third, there are contextual reasons to doubt that he was booed directly for speaking in favor of ordaining women. An alternative interpretation is that he was booed for what may have been perceived by some delegates as him expressing a colonialist, patronizing attitude towards Africans or even disparaging Africa and the time he’d spent there. In support of this interpretation is the fact that he had announced at the outset of his speech that he supported the motion (for regional decisions on WO), but was not booed then. Neither was he booed in the rest of the first two minutes. It was only at about 2:00 in his speech that the booing occurred. And then after that moment, he was not booed during the remainder of his four-and-a-half-minute speech, nor at the conclusion.
So what happened at about 2 minutes? That was when he specifically addressed the African delegation, prefacing his remarks to them and others to trust regional leaders by saying: “I love Africa. Africa is a part of me. I have spent too much invested a lot of my life there.” [sic]
It sounds like he was starting to say, “I have spent too much of my life there not to love Africa,” or something like that. But then he changed midstream to say he had invested a lot of his life there. By changing mid-sentence, it had the unfortunate effect of sounding like he had started to say he had spent too much time in Africa, i.e., possibly interpreted as “wasted too much time” there, and then that he quickly covered up a Freudian slip by saying he’d “invested” years there. I believe Paulsen’s verbal slip was entirely innocent, but I understand how it could be confusing to some listeners, especially those for whom English expressions might not be so familiar, and how some delegates might thus interpret it as disparaging Africa(ns). Keep in mind that the reaction was nearly instantaneous, not a response after careful reflection on what he said.
Alternatively (or additionally), the general comment may have been perceived as hearkening back to a colonialist past where white men led the church in parts of Africa before Africans assumed leadership roles. If his personal comments about his investment in Africa were perceived as trying to pressure them to accept his views as a superior white man who had led them in the past, that could have triggered the booing. Because the boos came immediately after the mid-sentence slip and not before, I lean towards the verbal slip as the trigger, but haven’t ruled out anti-colonialism as a factor.
While the overall context of the speech was, of course, the discussion of WO, there are problems with attributing the booing specifically to his stance on WO. The timing of the booing episode is too closely tied to his personal comments on Africa, which were not directly related to his points on WO, for me to think that they were a direct response to his position on the WO motion that was under consideration.
Fourth, and finally, I have seen no evidence that the booing delegates were “furious”; that may be hyperbole on Williams’s part.
The speech is available for your own analysis. I have listened to this part of the speech many times and compared the audio to the visual movements; I don’t see any sign of editing out part of the speech, so I believe there truly was a mid-sentence verbal slip and that this isn’t a video artifact of editing to remove a portion of the speech. The video recording agrees with my memory of the event, where I was confused as to what triggered the boos at that specific time. Only with analysis of the video have I arrived at the alternative interpretation described above. I encourage you to view it for yourself and see if you agree that the booing was not specifically directed at Paulsen’s position on the motion.
The booing was widely reported by unofficial Adventist media such as Spectrum and Adventist Today. I think it shocked many of us, but especially those sympathetic to WO were inclined to view it as a direct repudiation of Paulsen’s advocacy of WO. (I recall some anti-WO commenters at the time saying they thought it was because delegates thought it was inappropriate for a former GC president to express a partisan view on the matter, but–again based on timing–I doubt that). Former Review editor William Johnsson said this episode was a motivation for his writing the book, “Where Are We Headed?: Adventism after San Antonio” (pp. ix, 1, 2). He wrote, “The events of the fateful day troubled me greatly. When a former General Conference President, someone who served with distinction and who with his spouse gave many years of mission service to the people of Africa, is hissed and booed because he makes a speech in support of women’s ordination, I have to ask: Whatever is going on? Is this my church? I waited for a public apology from those in leadership. None was forthcoming, at the time or subsequently.”
While I found the behavior appalling and agree that an apology was due, I believe that proponents of WO were inclined to report the event as a rejection of WO because attributing appalling behavior to the “other” is natural. However, as I have argued above, I think that a careful analysis of the speech and the booing event suggests a visceral reaction to specific things Paulsen said that were not related to WO. That an innocent (I believe) verbal slip may have contributed to this instinctive reaction is an unfortunate aspect of the episode, and one which Paulsen may regret. (OTOH, he may find this alternative interpretation personally encouraging since it suggests the booing was due to miscommunication and not a personal repudiation).
If Kevin McGill or Spectrum agree with my interpretation, I encourage them to correct the record on this unfortunate event that has been so often misreported (I believe). If any delegates who participated in the booing or were seated among booing delegates are reading this, it would be helpful to hear their version of events and why they or their neighbors booed.
However, I suspect that the “booing against Paulsen’s WO stance” interpretation of this event is probably too deeply seared into progressive Adventist memory for the historical record to be corrected. After all, many of us watched the episode in real time and “clearly remember” Paulsen being booed for advocating women’s ordination. But do we?