A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right? II: Feedback and Insight

Five days ago, I released my first blog post in a long time (a very long time if we’re talking about UU-related content), “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?”. I’ve had one other UU post be as popular as this prior, 2014’s “Remaking Unitarian Universalism: Go big, or go home”. So it’s interesting five years later to see the same viral-like spreading of my post throughout social media. Like before, people I know tell me they’ve read it without me showing it to them. It’s already in their circles.

I could tell that people were reading, based on the slight uptick in blog views in the past few days:

Screen Shot 2019-07-15 at 1.27.47 AM

Unfortunately, since UUs predominately use Facebook, most of the shares (and thus comments) of this piece, 37 shares in all, are private and I can’t learn from them or give you any sort of meaningful response to them. I’ve had some listserv messages, blog comments, Facebook messenger contacts, and the UU Discord server. But a lot of what’s been said, I can’t see. I respect their privacy if these conversations wanted to remain hidden, but also if they’re critical comments in particular, I can’t give any sort of apology or explanation here.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • I’m not crazy. People generally agree that a) alt-right language appears in conversations in UU circles, both in real life and online, and b) this is not confined to a few very loud cranks. What I see is the surface of something that happens in many congregations. Since we’re a strongly local-power faith, what the UUA leadership says and the congregational leadership do can be very different.
  • People are fed up. The alt-right language and citing of people like Jordan Peterson or alt-right pipeline people makes some people really ticked off. The current state of things is not sustainable- I’m reminded of the opening to W.B Yeats’ “The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

  • This kind of language and conduct cuts across demographics. Seminary students are reading Peterson, older congregants talk down about identity politics, people of all gender identities and sexual orientations are possibly drawn to these arguments. It’s not just about dialogue of a certain group- solutions need to be much more nationally-scaled.

Let me respond to what I think is the one critique I was sent that I think was made in good faith and is not just white fragility manifesting itself. My post was not meant to be ageist, if you felt it was, I’m sincerely sorry. Let me quote myself to show how I think I argue specifically against the ageist explanation:

I think a simple generational model isn’t sufficient. It’s not that older congregants are stuck in the past, and younger congregants have a clearer understanding of anti-racism in 2019. People can learn and evolve, and younger people can inherit older ideas of thinking about anti-racist action from their families or the mainstream narratives in schools and society at large. There’s also a large group of people who are too young to have been socialized in the 1960s, but aren’t millennials and aren’t being socialized now. The end result is a jumble. Pretty much everyone knows that, this isn’t new.

I think a good-faith reading of that indicates a lack of age prejudice. The people specifically calling it ‘ageist’ have bones to pick with me on both religion and politics, so I think it may be more a weapon to win a debate than a substantial critique.

Here are some more solutions that I came up with talking with people about the piece:

  • Establish covenants of right relations. These covenants establish standards of behavior within a congregation and open opportunities for dialogue, and calling us back to shared values. It also sets definitions and consequences of disruptive behavior. Setting these covenants up before people bring in alt-right rhetoric and its associated harmful actions is preferable to dealing with disruptive congregants ad-hoc, which can lead to the appearance of, or reality of, unfairness.
  • Establish a more robust UU social media presence. Many congregations record services, either audio or video. Every congregation that records material should publish it, edited well, each week on YouTube and link to it on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The Church of the Larger Fellowship, the UU Discord, or another group could also use the streaming service Twitch to hold virtual services and religious education. The robust chat service in Twitch rooms allows for people all over the country to join in worship, conversation, and education. It’s also an excellent fundraising platform- a leftist YouTuber named HBomberguy raised $340,000 recently for a trans charity by playing Donkey Kong 64 for over two days.
  • Decide how to deal with provocative speech that seems to have some sort of right-wing or alt-right definition or nature to it. The Gadfly papers hurricane at General Assembly this year indicates that there are good and bad ways to try to start a conversation about controversial ideas. Had it been written in a different tone, with different vocabulary, and introduced and distributed earlier with more forewarning, I bet it would have been more fully engaged with- rather than the intolerant gunk it turned out to be.Decide as a congregation, if someone comes up using alt-right language, what is the protocol? Is there a committee of communications set up? Is there a person to report to that’s not a minister? How does a congregation determine a) whether such language is alt-right in nature, b) how disruptive it really is, and c) if it could lead to unhealthy action.

These are only a few ideas. If people have further feelings, feel free to tweet at me or DM me on my Twitter (@MackayUnspoken), or join the UU Discord where I’m user “LeftistUU’. I feel that there is a need to have a dialogue that doesn’t concede to the right, and in the process jeopardize our Principles, but also recognizes that people whose language and behavior has negative impacts on communities of color may have good intentions. We have to move beyond intentions, to impact. Because unless the impact is positive, an action cannot be morally defended in a complete way.

 

 

Author: Andrew Mackay

Poet, writer, anti-authoritarian, Unitarian Universalist.

6 thoughts on “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right? II: Feedback and Insight”

  1. This doesn’t do much to quell the thought-policing. Like it or not, many of us on the left are concerned about this, and do not appreciate being called agents of the far-right for our long-standing values. It’s also really disturbing to equate right-wing = bad in a religious space so explicitly, and for that being reason alone to admonish people in Unitarian Universalism. Shameful righteousness.

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    1. Sorry your only response to this has been anonymous above. I’ve really appreciated both your articles and your framing of the issues. I’ve spent part of my summer learning about the rising far right movements in America, and one thing that came across to me clear is that the alt-right and other fascist and far right groups aren’t predominantly recruiting in old line neo-conservative circles; they’re actively targeting leftists, progressives, and liberals. As such, I think we’re only going to see more of this bleed over into our congregations in the future.

      It’s so fascinating that even accusations of thought policing like from anonymous above are directly pulled from right wing reactionaries. It’s important for Unitarian Universalists to remember that, while all people have inherent worth and dignity, all ideas do not. There is no place in our congregations for the likes of Jordan Peterson or the alt-right who directly contradict our seven principles.

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      1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I mostly ignore anonymous comments that appear to be concern trolling, because they’re always acting in bad faith and aren’t worth the time.

        I was originally opposed to the term “alt-right” because I thought it was a relabeling of Neo-Nazis to make them socially acceptable and given a platform. That’s still in part true, but their strategy is different. As you say, they target people who are usually not already right wing. This includes young men (often high school or college students) who may be apolitical or confused about their feelings and beliefs. It also targets people who favor free speech without a more detailed understanding of how the alt-right uses free speech as a weapon and does so in bad faith. And it targets people, often middle-aged or older, who have seen a lot of social change and progress in their adulthood and are confused or alienated by what has happened.

        That’s why the title of the post isn’t clickbait. There really is a direct pipeline from someone like Peterson that has a lot of appeal among moderates and liberals, and connects to Ben Shapiro and others with hard-line reactionary views. This I think has been underplayed by congregations and the UUA because a lot of the mechanics are online, and UUs tend to lag behind the times in online technology use and social media presence. If UUs made high-quality YouTube videos like channels such as Contrapoints or PhilosophyTube, they would help push against the algorithm that hooks politically-interested consumers with right-wing content.

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