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.

 

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.

 

Press Kit: Help spread the labor struggle of #Greenpeace canvassers

Here is a collection of all the major media we have available to media. Please spread this as far and as wide as you can, because the GP strike is going well, but it needs media attention to sustain its push- we’re talking three weeks into the strike.

Please direct any questions or requests for interview to Bryan Kim (619-382-7888). 

A labor strike based in San Diego and Sacramento is now three weeks old. Greenpeace Frontline staff, the people who raise money outside of supermarkets and at farmer’s markets, are striking because the quota system they are all held to means no job security- have two bad weeks in a row and you’re fired, no matter how much you raised before then. 

Please check out recent San Diego news stories on the strike:

http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2015/aug/27/ticker-pay-decent-greenpeace/

http://sandiegofreepress.org/2015/08/san-diego-takes-the-lead-in-greenpeace-strike/

Also on the strike Facebook (facebook.com/GreenpeaceOnStrike) gained the endorsement yesterday of Paul Watson, original Greenpeace member, founder of Sea Shepherd, and star of Whale Wars on Animal Planet.

Here is a letter signed by 66 ex-Greenpeace staff, including city and regional coordinators:

Solidarity Forever – An Open Letter in Support of Greenpeace on Strike Additionally the Change.org petition (here) shows international supporters for the strikers. 

Check out video from an 8/19 rally in Balboa Park, including Kiku Adair, a striker:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MD2Wj0q01V8

And Sarah Saez, program director of United Taxi Workers, based in City Heights:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eV1LA_tOKOk

The strike is working, but more people need to be circulating the information. It’s the only way to keep things running and potentially expand the scope of the strike.

General Assembly: Why wasn’t there a second banner?

This will be the first of several posts written in the aftermath of Unitarian Universalist General Assembly 2015, held in Portland, OR from June 24-28.

A workshop I wandered into on Friday was “Class Diversity: Exploring Our Past, Building Our Theologies”, which was an interesting take on why class-diverse Unitarian congregations are rare exceptions- the socioeconomic strata of membership being very similar to what it was in the 19th century.

This was on the day that the Supreme Court announced same-sex marriage was a right under the 14th Amendment. Right outside the room this workshop was being held in, a massive rainbow banner had been constructed and signed by hundreds upon hundreds of people.

[Credit: Wong/Getty Images]
[Credit: Wong/Getty Images]
A woman came up during question-answer and gave an emotional statement that I think really dug at the heart of how Unitarian Universalism can have clear biases with regards to class. I don’t know how many people ever thought of the day as an exercise in classism, but her remark made it clear to me that there was a double-standard in play at Assembly.

Her question is this post’s title. While the court ruling about marriage equality is landmark and an important victory in the 21st century civil rights movement, it was not the only important ruling that week. The day before, the court upheld a key portion of the Affordable Care Act, which threw a lifeline to millions of poor Americans:

The latest filings show that about 10.2 million people had signed up and paid their insurance premiums through the exchanges as of March, and 6.4 million were receiving subsidies to help afford coverage in the 34 states that had not set up their own marketplaces.

Those consumers stood to lose their subsidies, worth about $1.7 billion a month, if the justices had agreed with the challenge.

These two rulings affected several million people directly. Being unable to marry who you love and being unable to pay for live-saving medical care are both serious social problems which were addressed to some degree this week. But there wasn’t a banner out in the convention center hall celebrating that 6.4 million people could keep their health insurance.

Detroit's racial segregation. Blue is black, pink is white. [http://www.radicalcartography.net/]
Detroit’s racial segregation. Blue is black, pink is white.
[http://www.radicalcartography.net/]
And I think if a banner was appropriate to celebrate a civil rights victory, a third banner should have sat there as well. The same day as the ACA ruling (Thursday afternoon), and the day before the marriage equality ruling, the Supreme Court enacted a significant change in how the law deals with discrimination cases. It allowed for a new type of argument in cases of housing discrimination. Previously you had to prove intent in a very strong standard- basically a smoking gun saying “I’m denying housing to this community based on race”. Obviously it was hard for those affected to successfully sue; now something called disparate-impact theory can be used- if evidence shows that a law statistically promotes housing segregation, that can be enough. If this is to spread to other places- disparate-impact is used for hiring in some circumstances, but not many other places with potential for discrimination, it will be just as important as the marriage equality and ACA cases.

So why only one banner? The housing case is also a discrimination issue, and both are part of the modern civil rights movement. The ACA ruling in terms of dollars is a big win for the working class. I don’t know why there was only one banner, though I’ll offer this potential theory:

What makes marriage equality different from healthcare subsidies and housing discrimination is that marriage equality is a civil rights issue that affects everyone regardless of race or class. In a faith that skews white and upper-middle class, the presence of one banner (and one banner for that particular case) is evidence of implicit bias. I agree with the woman who spoke up, she added a concrete sense of what classism is that the workshop really needed to be worthwhile.

The next post will tackle how the Black Lives Matter movement caused tension and strife, both across racial lines but also generational ones. Certainly if Black Lives Matter, a step towards ending racial discrimination in housing (with its ties to the ghetto and redlining) should be celebrated. How does Unitarian Universalism grapple with its own diversity questions, the balance between support and paternalism, and being a leading force for change versus being earnest and strong followers?