A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right? V: Covenants and Consequences

This is another in a series, please visit parts one, two, three, and four if you have not, it informs this post.

So, how do we do right by each other? How do we come together in love and have dialogue that’s both honest and affirming? How do we be authentically anti-racist and avoid tokenism and othering?

I mentioned before the trend within Unitarian Universalist communities of Covenants of Right Relations. This extends now into virtual spaces, as the UU Discord server is currently voting on our own Covenant. Online spaces have conditions, like anonymity and the potential presence of trolls and bad-faith actors, that call for a set of precepts that guide our interactions with one another. Every person who’s spent any amount of time online has encountered one, if not many, dysfunctional communities that do not have a membership that treats each other with empathy and compassion. Covenants are a way to construct form in the formless, to have something, like the Earth, that we all return to.

The flip-side of the Covenant, one of the reasons they are formed in the first place and have grown in popularity, is the Disruptive Behavior Policy (DBP). Covenants are a pre-emptive effort to set expectations and define, often through omission, what is unacceptable. There are clear issues of implicit bias and fairness that come when dealing with a disruptive person(s) without guidelines- a democratic congregation is not structured to dispense ad-hoc decisions while staying true to Principle Five, among other Principles and general standards of organizational ethics.

I’m going to outline two potential problem areas in the Covenant-DBP dual systems that might need to be considered if a congregation is developing a Covenant from scratch, adapting a different congregation’s, or updating their own.

Area One: Disruptive Behavior Policies that are too broad and lack a tangible foundation.

Looking at the three problem behaviors outlined on the UUA website.

Dangerous: is the individual the source of a threat or perceived threat to persons or property?

Disruptive: what is the level of interference with church activities?

Offensive: is the behavior likely to drive existing members and visitors away?

These are relatively comprehensive, in that they’re general enough to capture most things a reasonable person (or congregation) would find disruptive. This comprehensiveness is at the expense of guidelines for action. Going back to the UU Pipeline to the Right thesis, we see a very specific type of potentially disruptive behavior. An issue is whether in practice congregational membership and leadership will link the general standards with specific behavior, given the very guided and intentional anti-racist work that has been done at a national and local scale in the past few years.

A parallel can be drawn between this ideal-specific dialectic and Hannah Arendt’s theories on statelessness and human rights. Here’s a quote from a book scanned for a class at Columbia (PDF download warning) on the subject:

Screen Shot 2019-07-19 at 6.49.50 PM

Human rights, as developed in the inter-war period during mass deportations and stateless people, applied to humans in a general sense, but in practice applied to no one without citizenship rights. It protected everyone except the most vulnerable. General principles sounded good, but did not actually counter forces of oppression and marginalization.

This ties into the second area of concern.

Area Two: A reluctance to invoke DBP due to the calls for right relations, and a general fear of singling someone out and confrontation more generally.

An empirical question I have for anyone who reads this: if you have a DBP, how often has it been used or referenced in a dispute about someone’s conduct? Now, a DBP never being invoked could be an example of congregational success- the Covenant bringing people back into right relations and productive dialogue. That’s the hope. And I think Covenants are very useful instruments of creating congregational harmony and creating healthy communities.

But the question is: how often is disruptive behavior solved formally, versus informal “solutions”?

Informal solutions include:

  • An individual or group that feels mistreated by a disruptive person(s) stops attending services and events, or comes less often, or avoids the person whenever possible.
  • The disruptive person is de facto shunned, without being called into right relations or put through the escalating steps outlined in a DBP. The hope is that they leave on their own, through what is in practice informal, arbitrary coercion.
  • An ad-hoc group of congregational members have a conversation in which the person(s) most affected by the behavior (who may be socially marginalized and at the receiving end of white fragility or othering behavior) are not consulted. An attempt to warn the person is made in which the affected party is excluded and denied the chance to use the formal policies that exist.

There are, of course, more constructive informal solutions that exist, and it would be a logistical and emotional nightmare to constantly be going through formal channels and referring back to the Covenant and/or the DBP. That being said, what, fundamentally are the consequences of disruptive behavior? And how are those consequences affected by policies that may trend towards the general and avoid concrete behaviors that run counter to UU principles and our community (going back to Area One)?

If this seems like a theoretical approach to the issue, it is. As stated in Part III, there is a fragmentation of UU space, and the odds that you would hear about a disruptive behavior situation at another congregation may be quite low. All communities are not fond of airing the emotional and social tension that may run within. There may be rumors, but how often is the whole process documented and available publicly? It runs into issues of privacy, which then shrouds the impact and efficacy of the policies. It’s probably not reconcilable.

As a sociologist, the preferred path is to anonymize people, places, and organizations. An ethnographer might write about “Green Hills Church” having an disruptive behavior issue, with all people being at the very least referred to by pseudonyms, or even partially fictionalized. This would allow for real-world examples of disruptive behavior and the process of addressing it to be disseminated to other congregations, especially for those without an DBP (or an incomplete one). For controversy in this approach to talking about sensitive issues, read Syed Ali’s “Watching the Ethnographers” in Contexts, it’s pretty short.

So how much do Covenants and Disruptive Behavior Policies actually promote an anti-racist, anti-transphobic, anti-oppressive faith? Can they counter the Pipeline to the Right? It’s a balance of the policies as debated (democratically, hopefully) and codified, and usage in keeping the relations we have with one another vibrant and healthy. Leftists often debate the relation between theory and praxis. The obvious (and in this case, actually correct) response is that the two are inextricably linked. Our theory of how we should relate to one another and affirm each other’s inherent worth and dignity means nothing without the praxis of using policies to promote a faith that liberates and raises up.

 

 

Author: Andrew Mackay

Poet, writer, anti-authoritarian, Unitarian Universalist.

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