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.



No domestic worker rights which a rich man was bound to respect

An interesting story was in the Guardian about successful litigation by a foreign domestic worker in Hong Kong against her employer, a family who were abusive to the point that she has permanent injuries. The rise in migrant nurses, domestics, and construction workers is accompanied by widespread abuse and slave-like conditions. The wealthy nations continue to get wealthier, and their elite require a wide range of help.

The plight of migrant workers all over the world reminds me of Chief Justice Taney’s famous line from the Dred Scott decision, that blacks had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The American system of chattel slavery is not a perfect comparison by any means, but the entitlement that the wealthy have in Hong Kong, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates, among others, is incredible. If migrant workers are held with contempt and their humanity not made a societal concern, then the abuse should not be a surprise. We can only be surprised by human rights abuses in a world where they should not be expected. We do not live in such a world currently.

In dust and blood- Syria’s civil war shuffles past its third anniversary

Aftermath of a barrel bomb attack, Aleppo, Syria. Credit: Firas Badawi//Reuters
Aftermath of a barrel bomb attack, Aleppo, Syria.
Credit: Firas Badawi//Reuters

Last week the UN human rights head released a report indicating widespread use of torture by the Assad regime and many parts of the armed opposition- in particular religious hardliners.

An activist group estimated the total death toll in the Syrian civil war to be 150,000 a month ago. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, given that outside journalists are often targets.

After an initial nonviolent period, the Assad regime began using lethal force on protestors in April 2011. Thus it could be said that the Syria we see today was birthed three years ago.

Iran’s third spring

The inauguration of Hassan Rouhani as President of the Islamic Republic of Iran is close at hand. Whether this event will bring large-scale change or not is not known. The country is dealing with the most serious international sanctions in its history. With the economic future of Iran up in the air, perhaps the reformist platform that Rouhani ran on will resonate with the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, and his Assembly of Experts.

Depending on how you count it, this is the third major reformist event in the past 20 years in Iran. The first was the election of Mohammed Khatami as president in 1997; it is named the 2nd of Khordad Movement, after the date of Khatami’s first inauguration. 2009 had a bitterly disputed presidential election, in which many local and international groups thought the vote had been manipulated to give conservative incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a landslide victory over reformist (and close ally of Khatami) Mir-Hossein Mousavi. During the two years after the election, many prominent political parties were banned and leaders imprisoned or put under house arrest. After eight years of the very conservative Khamenei (in concert and sometimes against Ahmadinejad, known for his radical statements), many of the key reforms have been mostly or completely rolled back.

So what now? The Guardian looks at what small changes have been made in the interim between the election and the run up to the inauguration. Rouhani has not formed a government, and thus quite a bit of the article by nature is speculation. But some political prisoners have been freed or acquitted, and media and cultural restrictions seem to have relaxed a tad. But token changes will not change Iran’s international standing. As professor Ali Ansari remarks:

The conservatives seem to think that Rouhani’s election will change international perceptions overnight,” Ansari said. “But if they think that a smiling Rouhani will get sanctions lifted and everything will be hunky dory without giving something substantial to the west, they may be surprised.”

So here we stand, on the cusp of this third spring. To some extent, the first two have canceled themselves out, and Rouhani is building his own foundation. What power and influence he wields will not immediately be clear- since the President is not the supreme authority in the country, observers may have to fall back on the discipline of Kremlinology to detect trends in the government. Not only is there a Supreme Leader above the president, and an Assembly of Experts above the parliament, much of the government is split into the apparatus created by the Revolution of 1979, and the traditional bureaucracy. Put simply, the org chart of Iran is unusual. Reform will be resisted to different degrees, and whether Rouhani can develop a base of power is to be seen.

A couple months back, I went to a speech and Q&A by Hooshang Amirahadi, an ex-pat academic who ran essentially a protest campaign for president. While parts of what he had to say were stock and rather dull, he did point out why he had hope for Iran in the future. The main issues that exist between Iran and the West are not unique- human rights, nuclear technology, and terrorism are global problems more than Iranian problems. The United States, for instance, has developed formal diplomatic ties and even strategic alliances with nations with awful human rights records (Saudi Arabia being a prominent) example, and gives billions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid to three nations that are not signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The US has also put aside serious terrorism concerns in Pakistan, and had not cut off ties despite links to attacks in India and a working relationship with groups in Afghanistan.

So Iran is not alone, and normalized relations are perhaps not as distant as it has seemed in the past several years. Rouhani can give both Iran and the world powers it negotiates with this kind of optimism, but the threat of the aging hard-line forces could dash such hopes. The Guardian piece does mention a symbolic overture to the United Kingdom by a reformist politician- congratulating Prince William and Kate Middleton on their new son. This was harshly condemned by forces that think of the UK as a tyrannical regime and a sworn enemy to the Islamic Republic. Iran will being going through a bipolar phase, where progress can only be made if the two camps learn to work with one another.

Amirahmadi by trade was a developmental economist and planner. Over the thousands of years that Persia has been home to advanced civilizations, it has had the benefit of plentiful resources and access to key trade routes. But looking at it in 2013, it is clear that Iran is not the economic world power it could be. The alienation from the West (and thus, most wealthy economies) is wasting resources and time that could be better spent. Whether Iran continues to struggle- culturally, economically, diplomatically- or moves beyond its problems is the question. This third spring will provide the answer soon enough.

The spectre of slavery

There are 27 million enslaved people in the world today. To put that in perspective, that is more than at any other time in history. It is perhaps the greatest failing of modern societies- every country has abolished slavery, and yet it is an epidemic of unprecedented scale. In the twentieth century, we eradicated smallpox, stopped famine in dozens of countries, and made strong progress against malaria and cholera. It would seem that with technology and international cooperation, we are on the path to ensuring basic standards of living for all people. The Millennium Development Goals – an ambitious set of priorities created by the United Nations, is being met (PDF, look at p. 2 for a good chart) in many instances, or at least there is some progress.

Yet we have failed to stop humans from owning other humans. It is endemic to all continents- from indentured domestic workers in southeast Asia and the Middle East to sexual trafficking in San Francisco. Our own country has never wrestled away the demon that is slavery. Though the war between one half of American and the other eventually declared slavery an abomination, the white plantation society continued working with sharecroppers rather than slaves. California ignored the Thirteenth Amendment and continued to make ‘vagrant’ indigenous people into slaves- well into the 1870s.

Continue reading “The spectre of slavery”