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.

 

Police ignore own mental health policies in killing of Alfred Olango

The police have released cell phone and surveillance footage of the Alfred Olango shooting by El Cajon, CA police. It’s obviously disturbing, but CNN is hosting it here.

The video also has a very good picture of what Olango was holding- it looks pretty much like what I described in my last post.

From CNN video.
From CNN video.

Police say their job is very hard and dangerous. It’s not the most dangerous occupation, and these shootings continue to show the very low expectations society and the justice system have for police officers.

If I was telling you that we were going to help someone who’s having some mental health trouble, when we arrived you would be prepared for certain behavior. You might expect that this person may be agitated, not want to be approached, and would not respond well to escalation. You would know that this would not be a typical conversation.

In the death of Alfred Olango, the police were called on a 5150. That’s the same thing as me briefing you in the above scenario. It’s a mental health call. Quoting Christopher Rice-Wilson:

“The PERT Team [Psychiatric Emergency Response Teams] should have been the ones responding to this. The police were aware of his mental illness: this was a 5150 call and they should have dispatched officers trained to deal with this and de-escalate the situation. El Cajon police didn’t do this; they didn’t follow their own policy.” (SD Reader, 9/28, “Police killing of Alfred Olango protested”)

This is the issue with the argument that bodycams would have saved Alfred Olango’s life. El Cajon PD has policies about mental health. They didn’t follow them, barged right into a delicate situation, and an unarmed black man is now dead. If bodycams become policy, just like the PERT Team, why do people expect that they will be used as needed? Going back to low expectations, the police rarely are rebuked for not following their own protocol. Who’s going to force them?

Protestors in El Cajon have been met with force, including bean bag rounds (video of someone hit by one here). From my own vantage point, with privilege, I can’t fully appreciate how it is to be a person of color in America, let alone a protestor of color. But as someone with a mental illness, and with friends who have very serious conditions, the Alfred Olango shooting is proof that rights on paper and in reality can be radically different.

Analysis of police press release about Alfred Olango raises serious questions (updated)

The police in El Cajon have released, and then updated, a press release about the shooting of Alfred Olango.

Police have video of the incident taken from a bystander, which they say backs up their account, but refuse to release the full video. This is the still that we have to go on.

We know that Olango did not have a gun or a Taser. The press release states the exact objects Olango had were a Smok TVF4 MINI attached to a Pioneer4You battery box.

The first item sounds like the one pictured on the left, as it is described as “all silver.”

2015-09-24-10_53_355429

Pioneer boxes look something like this:

133_g_1469644390387

The device in total is 7″ by 2.25″ by 1″. For a comparison, a Glock 17 is about 8″ by 5.5″ by 1.2″. If the Smok was all silver as shown above, it wouldn’t resemble a gun from any distance, let alone the few feet as shown in the picture. Given that vape devices are commonplace, police should be expected to distinguish between smoking equipment, firearms, and Tasers. That’s an expectation that was not met here.

Other notes:

Shooting was at 2:11, with weather in El Cajon being very hot and bright. So no “it was dark to hard to determine” defense like in the Fridoon Nehad case, where a non-weapon was misidentified also. As the still shows, police saw the device from multiple angles.

Releasing the still seems to be a way of forming a narrative without backing it up in full. You would assume that this single frame, taken out of context, makes the police account look most likely. However, you don’t have to defend police conduct as it actually looked in real-time, nor any police methods used prior to the shooting.

The police deflect why there was not a Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) personnel at this scene at the bottom of the updated press release.

The El Cajon Police Department does have an agreement with Community Research Foundation / PERT which allows certified licensed clinicians to partner with police officers in the field in order to provide direct support for mental health calls.  On 9/27/16, during the hours of this incident, there was a PERT clinician with a police officer.  At the specific time of this incident, that team was on a different radio call that was also PERT related.  They were not immediately available.

(update: the Associated Press reports it took over an hour for police to respond and one minute to kill Olango. If it took that long, the “not immediately available” excuse doesn’t hold up. This was not a rush, in-the-moment job.

Additionally, someone allegedly so dangerous that police had to quickly kill when on the scene managed to not hurt anyone in the hour before. The person Olango was most likely to hurt was himself, given his state and the presence of traffic.)

This was a 5150 call, in which authorities come to take someone to involuntary psychiatric hold. Given that the call was about mental illness (not a call about crime or a possible criminal), having no special preparation is concerning. Though 5150s can be a good thing in the long run for patient health (I know many people who have had at least one called), this incident makes me less likely to call one in.

As someone who provided information about mental illness to those who came into contact with people with mental health problems, or were otherwise difficult to help, I’m not surprised. The department likely trumpets this local relationship in promotional materials,  yet when people’s lives are on the line, they are somehow unavailable. This is a similar issue we’ve seen so far with  bodycams- often there, but unavailable or otherwise unaccessible.

The release says this

At this time, the officer with the electronic control device discharged his weapon.  Simultaneously, the officer with the firearm discharged his weapon several times, striking the subject.

Why, if the suspect is considered such that one officer has their Taser (rather than pistol) ready, would the two stages not be sequential. Non-lethal methods would not have worked in the death of Alfred Olango, because lethal means were used at the same time. Would Olango have survived if only the Taser been used? Much more likely.

In conclusion, large protests in El Cajon have been held in the aftermath of Olango’s death. Given the official story as presented thus far, I find considerable issue with police conduct before the shooting, the misidentification of the object held by Olango, the use of lethal force before less-lethal means were tried, and the release of a single still image without context, so to prejudice the public.

The story of San Diego Black Lives Matter, and the lesson of radical inclusion

A good article by Thom Senzee about conflict within the San Diego Black Lives Matter movement.  The original group had older leaders who wanted to focus on the “black” aspect solely, to the exclusion of other identities like LGBT+. Given that LGBT+ people are especially vulnerable to hate crimes, any good group needs to deal with the intersectionality of black and other identities or labels. It also reminds us that the black community has its own issues with intolerance, particularly given the large population of evangelical Christians.

Homophobia and transphobia inside any Black Lives Matter local chapter is beyond ironic, according to Cat Mendonca (31) of San Diego. She points out that the movement itself was founded by three people who identify as queer women of color.

“There’s a lack of understanding that the Black Lives Matter movement, which they say they believe in and claim to serve, is and always was a queer-inclusive, queer-affirming movement,” says Mendonca, referring to a small but forceful group of leaders of the old BLM-SD chapter. “It was really disappointing and distracting.”

Social media messages obtained by San Diego LGBT Weekly purportedly shared among leaders of the old, now-dissolved local Black Lives Matter San Diego chapter reveal that the group may indeed have been tainted by homophobia and transphobic sentiments from at least one leader.

“The movement is supposed to be a safe space for all people regardless of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender,” says Mendonca.

 

Dallas and symptoms of injustice

The details of what happened in Dallas are sketchy right now. It seems that people have jumped to conclusions and then retracted them just as fast. That there is ever-more brutality between police and civilians should not be surprising in America. Continuing injustice will always cause an escalation in violence. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians comes because there has been no solution at the root. No healing. Everything is in retaliation to actions of the present, and the cycle repeats.

Last November white men opened fire on a Black Lives Matter protest in Minnesota. The vast majority of casualties in the past few years have been people of color (in initial killings) and in the subsequent protests. There will be a fight going forward, and I think the two major arguments- “not all protestors” and “BLM wants to kill police” that will show up are both flawed. National injustice creates a social movement, and these marches and events are symptoms of injustice. Protestors, both in San Diego and everywhere, chant “no justice, no peace.” That can be interpreted (and often is), but it’s more of a statement about the present. As long as injustice exists- and is rarely punished- there will be a space for further violence.

So it’s not that I reject or endorse violence against police officers. I personally use nonviolence in my activism. But we should not be shocked that something like the Dallas shooting happens, just as we should not be shocked at the Minnesota shooting. The system is rotten, and the aggregate will be rotten as well.

I wish safety going forward, as future protests will grow even tenser. Take care.

 

 

 

Privilege in activism: avoiding white monopolization

Criminal is an eclectic, short-form true crime podcast, part of the Radiotopia network of eclectic, short-form podcasts. It’s genuinely a great listen, usually dealing with stories that are local, often in a historical context. The most recent episode, “The Finger”, deals with a white Oregon man who tested the limits of free speech protection by giving every cop he sees the bird.

This episode highlights something that I think is important, if we wish to have healthy social justice activism. The question of how white people fit into Black Lives Matter as a structure is not new- the White Panther Party is proof of that. What “The Finger” represents is a deep double-standard where authorities criminalize speech for marginalized groups, but are indifferent when coming from traditionally dominant ones.

If I decided to flip off every police officer I saw, there would be some consequences. My car would get pulled over more. Small infractions like jaywalking or speeding could get me fined. A cop might even yell at me and be confrontational. And though I can’t say this for sure, I’m relatively confident that I would not suffer bodily harm for my choices. This applies to acts of protest in general. The same action has a fundamentally different meaning depending on who does it. For me, the consequences are real, but limited. For a black person, someone LGBT-identified or undocumented, people have been killed for much less than The Finger.

Recently I read a 2010 paper titled “The achievement gap and the discipline gap: two sides of the same coin?” (PDF). A section talks about how white and black students are disciplined for different acts, despite similar levels of misbehavior.

reasons for referring White students tended to be for causes that were more objectively observable (smoking, vandalism, leaving without permission, obscene language), whereas office referrals for Black students were more likely to occur in response to behaviors (loitering, disrespect, threat, excessive noise) that appear to be more subjective in nature.

The arrest of Sandra Bland was similar to this– based on subjective judgement about “attitude” and “disrespect.” Her minor traffic offense was inflated- despite white drivers doing a similar maneuver all the time. Similar actions, but vastly different consequences.

So that gets back to privilege and protest. I have space that others do not- I can get away with more provocative and militant tactics. The police are more likely to issue warnings before physical confrontation. Authority figures divulge more information around me because they don’t automatically assume I oppose them. This means people with privilege can be the most provocative, visible members of the movement. In the process, it diverts attention away from communities that are under attack by the state.

That’s unfortunate and counterproductive, because one of the most powerful aspects of Black Lives Matter is how dangerous it is to publicly confront the police as a black person in the United States. I can flip The Finger and curse out a police officer, but it doesn’t carry the same meaning.

One line of thought is weaponizing privilege. That is, people with privilege should exploit it to fight for social justice. My critique of white supremacy, the theory assumes, has special meaning because it is a critique of one’s own identity. But at the same time, it feels like things are going in the wrong direction. Privilege used for noble purposes is still fundamentally unjust, and its use cements it within society.

A counter, which after a year and a half around BLM, is that white, male allies are taking leadership positions within the movement when they weaponize privilege. I think that does happen, and I have witnessed it.

Ultimately, I feel my actions should exist within the democratic framework of a movement. That is, not unilaterally using my advantages, but rather offering it as an option should others feel it can be used in some way. White people have a tendency to make decisions personally, and then seek retroactive approval. That’s dangerous and undermines social justice movements. Marginalized groups should have their autonomy acknowledged and respected.

So I choose not to give cops The Finger, because most people cannot. It is important to respect how dangerous activism can be for certain groups of people, and not casually antagonize just because I can get away with it.

The lone woman: standing outside the UU liberal consensus

SEVERAL years ago, I attended the “morning forum” at my local UU congregation. It was a current events discussion group that started a half-hour before the first service.

It was the end of the year, and by then a standard topic was a year-end review for President Obama. There were about twenty people in the room. Most of them were Kennedy-era liberals, with some of the older participants having grown up worshipping FDR.

The facilitator had developed a detailed handout, covering each aspect of the presidency. At the end of the session, each person gave a letter grade to the President- they were tallied on an easel.

Almost everyone gave Obama either an A or B on every segment- mostly A’s. Only one woman, along with myself, gave the President a failing grade in anything. We agreed that it was absurd to view the ever-lengthening Afghanistan conflict, or his deportation-heavy immigration policy as anything other than serious, systemic issues. Income inequality was getting worse, and the ‘recovery’ in effect at the time didn’t benefit people outside the top tax bracket.

Afterwards, it felt pretty awkward. Clearly I had intruded on people’s long-held worldviews. And as outspoken as I can be, I never dissent just to be shocking. The woman who joined my mini-protest came over. She was older than me, but a bit younger than the Kennedy-era liberals. Apparently she was often the lone critical voice in the forum, and she thanked me for keeping her company. It was clear that she was uncomfortable with the situation. But a forum is supposed to be a free discussion, and her contributions were both eloquent and well-grounded.

Two things Unitarian Universalism stands for are freedom of expression and against ignorance. But I felt a narrow political consensus gripping the forum that Sunday morning. This part of the congregation was so used to defending the president from conservative attack that they were uncomfortable with a progressive critique. Yet if the critique wasn’t there, the forum would have been fine living in a world where the President could do no wrong.

I never felt this way in a religious context. Atheist, agnostic, polytheistic, Eastern, ancient, contemporary. Congregants were always open to new religious concepts, and had often moved significantly from their previous beliefs. But there wasn’t much dynamism in politics. In many places, UUs come from well-off liberal families, and have held the same basic ideology since they were children. Like I said, the older members of the forum came from Roosevelt families, and still spoke of him in godlike terms.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion. But it wears its politics on its sleeve. I’ve written that UU politics and UU ideals do not link up. The ideals call for liberation. The politics call for institutions of injustice to behave themselves.

IN 2014, a couple of years after the forum, I gave a guest sermon at the same congregation (“And in Society at Large”, the text of which you can read here). My politics here were different, and my point of critique was systemic rather than focused on one man. But the same tension emerged. After the second service, a woman stood up during announcements. She applauded me for my sermon, but then tied it into her work she was doing- opening up the local Democratic Party office ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. At no point did I mention party politics as the solution- nor do they fit in a call for economic democracy. I felt being co-opted right in front of my eyes, in front of a group of people. I personally felt humiliated that my weeks of preparation had been twisted so quickly.

Afterwards, most people gave me pretty brief, nondescript feedback- good sermon, thought-provoking, the normal. A woman came up later, around my age, and thanked me for bringing up so many things- like cooperatives, corporate greed, and the need for workers to control their lives. She also noticed the lack of tact shown by the person advertising the Democratic Party (in a house of worship, additionally).

The woman at the forum, and the woman after the sermon were different. But they had a similarity: they were the only one. The liberal bubble was large, but there were UUs who wanted better political discourse within the church. How many people stopped attending services because of the narrow politics? How many people shut up when their fellow UUs praised an administration that had been at odds with communities of color on many occasions?

If diversity is an issue, and at every congregation I’ve been to oh god it is, politics is a real, tangible issue. I often see a politics that works and makes sense, assuming you’re white and financially stable. The Black Lives Matter resolution passed at General Assembly in Portland was fraught with conflict, essentially because the act called for prison abolition. Abolition is a step too far for mainstream liberals, but for people of color living in an age of mass incarceration, it is a cause for survival. It is great to have radical ministers and congregants offering a different way forward, but I’ve seen what happens if a church doesn’t have those people.

Or if they only have one. Always standing alone.