Healing and Reconciliation in Unitarian Universalism: An Ethnographic Approach

This is another offshoot of the “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?” series, but I’ve decided to put the main series on hiatus for a while, if nothing else because the title is a mouthful.

So, how do we learn to address white fragility, white supremacy, and otherwise offensive and disruptive behavior within congregations? The congregational structure of Unitarian Universalism tends to wall off larger discussions- something upsetting happens in a congregation, it doesn’t travel far. It may end up elsewhere in the form of rumors, but those are not constructive. If a church has to deal with problematic behavior within its own community, an honest, instructive account of what happened is unlikely to appear. This limits the ability of communities to learn from one another, to develop best practices, and to effectively counter instances of white fragility and racially insensitive behavior.

There are many problems with simply publicizing events and providing a timeline of a disciplinary process, or the interactions between disruptive people and marginalized groups. It singles people out. It can re-traumatize and open up not-yet-healed wounds. It stands against principles of privacy and that things said in the confidence of a congregation is kept confidential.

So, is there a way through? I have something to propose.

The Ethnographic Approach

Ethnography is a research method used in multiple academic areas, primarily anthropology and sociology, alongside disciplines that emerged during the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, like ethnic studies.

Here’s a definition of ethnography that’s pretty good:

Ethnography, emerging from anthropology, and adopted by sociologists, is a qualitative methodology that lends itself to the study of the beliefs, social interactions, and behaviours of small societies, involving participation and observation over a period of time, and the interpretation of the data collected. (source)

Besides a general definition, ethnography as it is performed in developed nations has some best practices:

  • Information about places, persons, and unique features are anonymized to avoid negative impact and conduct research in an ethical way.
  • Notes, observations, and interviews are kept stored in standardized ways that limit access and make sure that anonymity is preserved.

An example of a highly-regarded modern ethnographic study is Evicted by Matthew Desmond, a MacArthur grant fellow, about how poor Milwaukee individuals and their families struggled to make rent, dealt with eviction and its consequences, and remained trapped in a cycle of poverty.

While there was great insight, and vivid observations within Evicted, names and places were changed to avoid retaliation from the people followed, in order to have them speak freely.

So, could ethnography be a way for congregations to learn from one another on how to deal with disruptive behavior, and become authentically anti-racist? Good ethnography is a skill to be learned, but it does hold the promise of helping describe how congregations addressed problems- whether formal or informal conflict-resolution measures were used, whether the problem was addressed at lower stages or had to be escalated, and the lasting impact upon the congregation.

Here’s an example of how a Unitarian Universalist ethnography could start:

During a recent winter, Green Hills UU Fellowship, a congregation in the suburbs of mid-sized Midwestern city, had a middle-aged couple (Jane and Joseph) who would use language found to be offensive during the “joys and sorrows” portion of Sunday service. They described conflicts they had with their neighbors, who were families of color, and invoked harmful stereotypes, while raising their voices in a way some felt alarming.

After an informal group of congregants attempted to resolve the issue with Jane and Joseph directly, it was decided that a meeting be held to discuss the Fellowship’s Covenant, and how Jane and Joseph’s actions did not constitute right relations . . .

Would this be helpful to other congregations? I’m not sure, I’ve only recently started going to my current congregation, and have lived in four different areas in five years. But by taking an ethnographic approach, stories of disruptive behavior could be shared with:

  • Congregations who do not have a covenant of right relations and/or a Disruptive Behavior Policy (DBP), but would like some guidance on the characteristics of effective policies.
  • Congregations who have found their current policies lacking in some manner, and hope to draft new ones that are more effective.
  • Congregations currently experiencing a disruptive behavior situation, and wonder how other congregations have addressed it.

Ethnographic accounts could be drafted by lay leaders, perhaps trained at General Assembly or through virtual chat by those with experience. They could be housed at the UUA in a central location where they could be accessed by congregational request.

Would that help? I’m not sure. But I don’t want each congregation to start from scratch in their attempts to be authentically anti-racist and to counter white fragility, congregants using alt-right language, or other actions that target marginalized peoples.

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.

 

 

A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right? IV: Anatomy of a Pipeline

This is a follow up to the three previous Pipeline posts- the original, II: Feedback and Insight, and III: Fragmentation and Space.

Up to this point, I’ve been talking about the “alt-right pipeline”, which emerged relatively recently and gained mainstream salience around 2015 with the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. However, that is pipeline, not the pipeline. There is no one pipeline, many have existed throughout the decades. They share common features and can be identified by those features, and several have targeted certain portions of the Unitarian Universalist population.

I’m going to use this post to explore the aspects of a pipeline, how its innocuous surface makes it easy for well-meaning, progressive people to fall down. To do this, I’m going to use an earlier pipeline- the New Atheism pipeline, which transitioned into an anti-Islam and anti-feminist movement over time. Figures in the New Atheist movement like Richard Dawkins were common reading among UUs- the first copy of The God Delusion I saw in print was at my old congregation’s book sale table. Some of the introductory figures weren’t ever reactionary, some became reactionary over time, and some were always reactionary but had some surface level of scientific credential or other traits masking their underlying nature.

The New Atheist pipeline is older than the alt-right pipeline, but they fit together imperfectly, like a kitchen pot with the wrong lid. There are some figures who have figured into both. The New Atheism pipeline is older, but its infrastructure never went away- people everyday are growing up, discovering the works of major 21st century atheists, and being led down the path to intolerance. Compared to the alt-right, which has had many of its key figures and communities banned from major websites and otherwise marginalized, the most salient New Atheists still retain the platform they once had. They continue to publish, appear at conferences, do guest spots on one another’s podcasts.

This is not an exhaustive timeline of New Atheism. For an overview of its key figures and their general argumentative framework about god and belief, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good overview, as does RationalWiki. We’re speaking of a thread that begins around 2004 (Sam Harris’ The End of Faith) and reached perhaps its greatest salience a couple years later (Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation (2006); Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006); Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great (2007)). The “movement” goes through multiple phases, eventually ending up at GamerGate- the systematic harassment  of female cultural critics like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoë Quinn, starting in 2014 and largely becoming indistinguishable from the nascent alt-right a year later. Some figures remain distinct from the alt-right, some have a foot in each camp, some went straight from being part of one pipeline to another

Edit: A commenter mentioned that New Atheist-minsogynst controversies predate GamerGate by several years, particularly “Elevatorgate” (beginning in July 2011) which involved unwanted sexual advances, convention culture, and the male, cisgender, white demographic dominance within the skeptic community. This also involved Richard Dawkins both dismiss these concerns and in the process say some horrible things about Muslim women. It shows how Dawkins, an entry point in the pipeline, also quickly can pivot to highly regressive opinions, and frequently uses incidents like Rebecca Watson’s story of unwanted sexual advances to instead launch into a rant about Islam.

Here is the general sequence of a pipeline, using commonalities between the New Atheist and alt-right pipelines:

  • Intellectual figures begin a pivot from areas of their expertise to politics and philosophy. Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor with clinical and teaching experience dating back to the 1990s, suddenly goes from talking about psychology to “free speech” and the right to misgender trans people. He then begins to critique postmodernism, Marxism, and cultural studies, which he has no real background in. Richard Dawkins goes from influential evolutionary scientist with works like The Selfish Gene to talking about religion and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.
  • Figures with media and/or academic credibility begin to share the stage with more extreme, polemical individuals, legitimizing them and their ideology. Peterson goes on the Rubin Report. Dave Rubin also interviews far-right British xenophobe Tommy Robinson and “race realist” Stefan Molyneux. Sam Harris has race scientist Charles Murray on his podcast to talk about race and IQ.
  • An online community gradually moves from the entry point to more extreme content through aggressive targeting by profit-seeking grifters. YouTube videos on a wide variety of subjects (including left-wing and liberal politics!) are preceded by long ads for Dennis Prager’s “PragerU” propaganda outfit, and Ben Shapiro’s show. Shapiro does an ad read for a toothbrush company in the middle of an anti-abortion speech, because his politics and money-making ventures merge into one.
  • The original point of the movement is lost, and is replaced with right-wing bigotry. New Atheist personalities like thunderf00t stop making videos about Young Earth creationists and start mostly complaining about feminists. Sam Harris talks about Muslim migrants “replacing” white French citizens, which was an influence on the Christchurch shooter’s ideology, gradually replacing religious arguments with “cultural” or racial arguments.GamerGate was ostensibly about “ethics in video game journalism” but from day one was rooted in an attempt to weaponize the internet against women. GamerGate eventually ‘hollowed out’, with only the most unhinged, radicalized people left to carry on the campaign- a split between “true believers” that fell down the pipeline, and the grifters. Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad, started in GamerGate, but moved on to Brexit and anti-“SJW” rants when the media attention, and sources of money, shifted.

 

These may seem like jarring shifts, but taking place over multiple years, the transition can be too gradual to see effectively. Each stage of the pipeline is connected to the next- they share conference appearances, podcast guest spots, promote each other’s books. Thus, an atheist in 2004 could start with The End of Faith, and end up 12 years later hearing Harris give Charles Murray two hours to talk about race science. The God Delusion, sold at the UU congregation I spent five years in, is connected through common platforms to “red pill” anti-feminists and Islamaphobes. Sometimes the transition is a handoff between different people, other times a single person shifts over time. Those that became a fan of an author’s early writings, and retained some attachment to their work, could end up with a much more extreme set of values just by keeping up with the work of Dawkins, or Harris.

New Atheism was launched as a campaign against fundamentalism and irrational conservatism. Its intended audience included many UU humanists and atheists. But key people who helped create the movement eventually flipped all the way around, to become Western chauvinists, Islamaphobes, anti-feminists. Or, sometimes, they were always these things but they had a more innocuous entry point that disguised their underlying ideology. 

 

 

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.

 

 

The legacy of George Carlin and “political correctness”

Content Warning: Some of the links in this post contain potentially offensive content. Please be advised that this is an attempt to be instructive and not to harm anyone or further hurtful language and stereotypes.

This is not a direct sequel to my last post, “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?“, but I want to discuss another aspect of the core of that post. “Political correctness’ is another term that has multiple, contradictory meanings to different groups, but has definitely been pulled toward the right in recent years, and is often debated using at least some reactionary assumptions about what it entails. To illustrate how political correctness has a multiplicity of meanings, and is a term that should be contested by progressives, I’m going to talk about one of the great “political incorrect” figures of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

George Carlin died in 2008, when I was a junior in high school. I had discovered him shortly before, and watched his HBO specials in chronological order, covering from the mid-1970s to shortly before his death. I was into “edgy” content and visited sites like 4chan during that time- though at the time of things like their protests against Scientology, rather than the current white nationalist version of the site today. Carlin is part of the reason that when I grew disillusioned with the presidency of Barack Obama, I drifted left rather than right. I found Unitarian Universalism in late 2009, and that has been transformative. My 2008 self is hard to recognize these days, but Carlin is a key figure in it.

Carlin Bookstore
Carlin signing his book, Brain Droppings. From Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

A lot of tributes to Carlin were published last year for the 10th anniversary of his death. Along with the release of some previously unpublished material, much was made of his place as a “politically incorrect” comedian. The “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” routine is historically important; it was also genuinely about free speech, as the Supreme Court determined that the government had certain powers to control what was said on public airwaves. The basis of his reputation, to people who only knew him for that, was about the 1st Amendment- not “free speech” arguments done in bad faith by the right today about being unable to spread hate on private social media websites.

Here’s an oft-circulated quote by Carlin on political correctness, which I’m going to work off of. It’s been appropriated, mostly by the right and alt-right, but that’s based on a simplistic reading- if not an outright misreading:

Political correctness is America’s newest form of intolerance, and it is especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance. It presents itself as fairness, yet attempts to restrict and control people’s language with strict codes and rigid rules. I’m not sure that’s the way to fight discrimination. I’m not sure silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech. (source)

The core of Carlin’s work, from the beginning to the end, and in essentially every one of his televised specials, was the misuse or perversion of language. He opened a special with the awful contradictions in people calling themselves “pro-life” while supporting death squads in Central America, the death penalty, and generally being against financial support for all people, especially children. He talked about the transformation of terminology for traumatic experiences in warfare- from “shell shock” to “battle fatigue” to ultimately “post-traumatic stress disorder”. His point wasn’t that PTSD is made up or that people don’t suffer from it, but that something key was being lost in the technical language. Carlin wanted to get the truth, ugly as it was, over papering over systematic racism and inequality with changes in word use.

Note the end of that quote- “I’m not sure silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech.” This is an acknowledgement that these problems are deep, institutional ones. No amount of language change will protect black men from the police, or end urban and rural poverty. The right wants “free speech” to punch down and use language to hurt people, all while endorsing a personal responsibility narrative and labeling people who are suffering “snowflakes” or “bums” for their poverty, their anguish, their sense of violation.

Carlin punched up. The Reagan administration being a criminal gang. Wall Street bankers laundering drug money made from an epidemic that was destroying inner city communities of color. Organized religion abusing children and conning people out of their money with fire and damnation language. Compared to the recent special by Nick Di Paolo- an hour of white grievances, complaints about social justice warriors, and promotional material that made light of a murdered activist, Carlin is not cut from the same cloth. Those influenced by him have gone a variety of directions with his style and manner- Louis C.K opened a special with a routine that involved saying several slurs multiple times for comedic effect. After his history of gross sexual acts was made public, he returned to the circuit with a Di Paolo-esque right-wing sensibility based on cheap shock value and intolerance. Others have evolved, and emerged with a more thoughtful comedy that tries to move beyond the surface level shock value. The growth of Sarah Silverman from her early days of stereotype jokes to her most recent, introspective special on NetflixA Speck of Dust, shows an alternative way to take Carlin.

Observational comedy can be done at a very superficial level. Attempts to ape Seinfeld routines often stop at pointing out something strange and pausing for a laugh. Carlin was not observational, he was analytical. He went beneath the strangeness of modern society, and talked about what lay beneath. He wasn’t didactic and he didn’t explain the joke and ruin it. It’s just he had something more substantial to say than many of his contemporaries, and those that have taken “political incorrectness” as their standard in 2019. Was he politically incorrect? Absolutely. Did that mean he rejected things like social justice, healthcare and education, protection for the vulnerable, and anti-racism? Absolutely not.

Was Carlin perfect? No, there is plenty to find in his massive corpus that hasn’t aged well, or wasn’t good even within its own time. But he showed that being politically incorrect doesn’t just mean sliding down the alt-right pipeline. It’s not playing to majority anger at people of color and LGBTQIA individuals. It’s not lazy stereotypes and slurs for pure shock value. He believed in free speech in a more genuine way than the alt-right does today- who when they hold power immediately move to punish and criminalize people and speech they don’t agree with.

My end point links back to “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?”. Decades of a deregulated media dominated by right-wing finance capital has imbued language with a decidedly right-wing flavor. If you meet someone upset about “political correctness” today, it is likely has regressive roots. But speech is important- what you say and how you say it can change relationships and society at large. However, we cannot adopt the reactionary mindset and debate on their terms. They cannot be compromised with in good faith, because they are and never have been acting in good faith. Language must be reclaimed, and dialogue should be based on coming together and agreeing on common principles and definitions. Otherwise progressives are left defending unfair caricatures, not real moral stances. There is nothing to be gained in that.

A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?

In the past few months, I’ve become more active in online Unitarian Universalist circles. Mostly this has been a new Discord chat server that’s mostly attracted young adults, “UU curious” people looking for more information, and a few seminarians or UUA-affiliated individuals. The server sends out a notification every time a thread is posted in /r/UUReddit, the main UU community on Reddit. I wouldn’t otherwise check the community that often, but I’ve ended up reading a fair amount of threads made there and noticed some trends.

Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of tension about the direction congregations and the UUA are taking in regards to anti-racism. A small group of people have very clear, complex grievances and take up a lot of the oxygen. However, I do think their perspectives run deeper than one might want to think, though as usual it’s hard to get a sense of what salience it holds for the entirety of active UUs, those that are partially attached to the faith, and those that are curious or new to the church.

There’s an argument to be made that the conflict is simply generational. Issues like white fragility (does it exist, to what extent, is X person or group exhibiting signs of it), support of Black Lives Matter (whether it is integral or a distraction from core UU activity, whatever that may be), and controversies that pop up most noticeably in the UUA leadership and at General Assembly, but are replicated to some extent in local congregations that we don’t tend to hear about.

There are multiple ways to frame this, I choose a ‘Civil Rights Movement’ contrasted with ‘new social movements’ framework. A significant portion of congregants were socialized in the 1960s struggles for racial equality, and maintain a lot of assumptions and expectations that that era had. Since then, well, the landscape has shifted dramatically. Black, Latinx, and ethnic studies, which mostly date from around the Voting Rights Act or the decade after, have engaged in conversation and intensive analysis on racism, both historical and the progress, stagnation, and regression that have defined the last half-century of society. There is a strong thread linking the Birmingham campaign and Black Lives Matter, but they exist in their own time and cannot be transported back and forth. It’s far too complex for that.

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. But this is all an introduction to my main point.

I’m seeing some long-term UUs adopting language created and used by right-wing or alt-right individuals and groups, and it’s profoundly unhealthy. In the past few months, I’ve seen unironic use of the words “social justice warrior (SJW)”, “postmodernism”, “political correctness”, “identity politics”, and “Critical Race Theory”, among others, used in pejorative ways. While “SJW” is by its nature pejorative (unless you’re someone who’s decided to scoop it out of the mud and wear it proudly, as I often feel like doing), the others are serious academic and intellectual movements that are deeply important to many people, often from marginalized communities. The issue is when this language is taking its content and perspective from illiberal sources. While postmodernism has an august history of being intentionally misinterpreted and belittled by people, it is now most often invoked by Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who has released a best-selling self-help book and has massive popularity in certain circles. His usage of postmodernism as an insidious conspiracy, tied to Marxist thinking and destructive to “Western society”, has gained currency in certain circles and is spreading through the internet. He’s a frequent guest on Joe Rogan’s podcast, with his episodes gaining over five million YouTube views each, not counting those that listen to it in other forms.

Peterson’s views on postmodernism are nonsense from a philosophical standpoint. But being wrong has never stopped an idea from being dangerous. Peterson is part of a clearly-defined “pipeline to the alt-right“, whereby individuals, who may range from apolitical to conservative to quite liberal, are steadily fed a narrative that blames social problems on “SJWs”, postmodernism, ethnic studies, and social movements. This can take people to incredibly dark places, as an in-depth feature last month in the New York Times titled “The Making of a YouTube Radical” showcased. This process takes months or even years, and starts from very mainstream, innocuous material. Peterson’s self-help 12 Rules for Life has sold over three million copies (at least, the figure is from January), and been translated into fifty different languages.

I’m concerned that UUs can fall into this line of thinking. There is an entire ecosystem created to guide people away from progressive values, if they have grievances about efforts towards combating white supremacy and creating a thoroughly anti-racist church. YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have algorithms that shift innocuous searches about “political correctness” or “safe spaces” into hard-right content, by people who have trained to sound persuasive. Figures like Peterson and Dave Rubin even describe themselves as “classical liberals”, though their underlying ideology is reactionary and can turn dangerous.

So, is there a genuine UU-to-right-wing pipeline? Among at least a smattering of people, yes. Given the older tilt of the membership, a lot of discussion occurs in private and semi-private Facebook contexts, so it’s hard to measure. But there are people with long-standing UU roots who are picking up language and ideas from the pipeline, and they spend a great amount of energy spreading their beliefs. Young people, especially young men, are especially targeted by people like Peterson. Young UUs are exposed to a lot other than religious education. What effect is that having?

What can be done? Well, a simplistic attempt to compromise with aggrieved congregants is not a good way forward. Unitarian Universalism exists within a white supremacist society, and I believe Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility has helped start a discussion about how progressive members of the faith may have issues with talking and acting in an anti-racist way, in a way that differs from other movements. Moving backward, to an essentially mythical pre-identity politics, pre-BLM church, is not possible, let alone advisable.

  • Understand that good people can get swept up in harmful behaviors. The alt-right pipeline, like white fragility, occur in people who have good intentions and may not feel like they are drifting morally or politically.
  • Recognize that social media is incredibly powerful, and its reach extends far beyond UU spaces. Many UU congregations aren’t on Twitter, or don’t update it. Some don’t even have active Facebook pages, or they are pretty insular, not being designed for outreach and education. YouTube usage by UU congregations is scattershot- some places upload events and sermons, some record but don’t upload, some don’t record or upload. Pretty much everyone knows that UU cultural salience is very low- the spaces where it doesn’t have a presence, something else will be there for people to consume. And it may be profoundly illiberal and inconsistent with UU Principles or theology.
  • Decode. When someone you know talks about “identity politics”, where are their definitions and ideas coming from? Part of the right’s success has been to take academic or liberal language and inject it with a second meaning, which can be poisonous. People can keep the same lexicon, but be drifting to a very different place. It’s important to figure out where people are at. As a social scientist, I always start by defining my terms. It’s reasonable at a congregational meeting, General Assembly, or an online discussion to pause and ask “what does this mean to you? to me? to us?”

Unitarian Universalism is a big tent, riven with contradictions and tension. It’s the price we pay for not stopping people at the door and demanding they follow a script. But it also means divisions can fester, and people can be taken in dark directions. As a millennial, I’ve seen plenty of people get taken down the alt-right pipeline, even fellow activists. There is a need for vigilance. Don’t leave people behind.

Laozi said “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. There’s a good chance it’s been used at a service you went to, at least once. But these journeys are not always to self-improvement and enlightenment. There is another side. The only constant is change, but change is value-neutral- it can be light or dark, progressive or regressive.

 

Trump and the Luxury of Failure

As expected, even a small sliver of Donald Trump’s tax returns proved to be interesting and infuriating. The rise and fall and rise (and fall, and rise) of Trump serves as a primer on success and failure in America.

The business fortunes of Trump have oscillated from runaway success to total disaster multiple times. However, the situation gravitates towards money- his fortunes are rooted in the money and connections he inherited. Thus, even when his net worth was well below zero, he could act in a way that most broke Americans could never. Failure as a celebrity real estate mogul seems to resemble deferred success. And as his tax returns show, massive loss can be turned into gain. Never mind that most American carry around debt for years, if not their whole lives.

But the ability to fail is in itself a privilege. Many Americans fail once financially, and never return to a place where it could happen again. Hardship is not a short, confined phase in a larger journey, but rather becomes built into the structure of life.

Yet seeing the continuous wave of protests against police violence in cities, it becomes clear that whole population can never fail, for the system has not and will not let them succeed. There is no money for food, childcare, the same benefits that well-off children and their families have. The school system is dysfunctional and higher education is both remote and expensive. Deindustrialization, trade pacts, and outsourcing have stripped communities of decent work with benefits. Reading Matthew Desmond’s Evicted a few weeks back, his case studies lacked the money to both pay rent and do anything else. Kids attended a dozen different schools, grew up more often in the streets than in the home. Hardship was passed down generation to generation.

In America, only the wealthy can succeed and fail like Donald Trump has.