This is going to be a long post, and nothing to do with writing fiction, although it may perhaps furnish a real-life example of dysfunctional group-think for authors who want to know more about how that sort of thing works. I’m going to offer a critique of a brand new, shiny uproar, complete with sequins and sugar sprinkles, that blossomed last week at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly.
Right now I’m pretty disgusted with the ratio of heat to light — there’s way too much heat, not nearly enough light. It seems to me that a bunch of UU ministers have gone way overboard in defense of their own view of how things are and ought to be. Their efforts seem, frankly, not to be in the spirit of Unitarian Universalism at all. (See below for more on this.) I’m sure they all think they’re doing the right thing, but their thought processes seem, to me at least, rather dodgy.
That happens when emotions run high. I get that. But I hope we can all calm down, take a deep breath, and discuss the issues calmly.
I’m not a UU minister, just a member of the local UU church. There may be, in what follows, nuances I’m missing or details that I misstate. If so, I would welcome corrections. Nonetheless, as a member in good standing, I’m certainly entitled to have — and to voice — my own views.
This controversy first erupted two years ago. Peter Morales, who at the time was president of the UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association) made some remarks that were interpreted as insensitive to issues of racial inclusion and racial equality within Unitarian Universalism and the UUA organization. He attempted to defend those remarks, but the controversy grew. He then resigned.
By now I don’t remember the details. They were reported in the UU World magazine, but sadly, I haven’t kept my back issues.
The controversy, at the time, was mainly to do with hiring practices; like many organizations in the United States, the UUA has (or had) quite a lot of white men in top positions. Ironically, Morales is Latino, but that fact doesn’t seem to have weighed heavily in the ensuing debate. What followed was a great deal of scrutiny of an alleged “white supremacy culture” (WSC) within the UUA.
This term, white supremacy culture, is deeply problematical and heavily loaded with emotional baggage. In my view, as I explained to our interim minister at the time, it’s a very poor choice of terminology. It’s tossed into the discussion mainly, I think, for its shock value, and not because it’s logically defensible. The fact that it has become entrenched in the rhetoric of what we might call Reform UUism is, I think, a big problem. I reject the term as a description of anything within Unitarian Universalism, and will continue to reject it unless and until the term is clearly defined in a way that makes sense to me. That question — what exactly do people mean when they say “white supremacy culture” — is the pivot on which a whole merry-go-round spins.
For more on this topic, see my follow-up posts “White Light,” “The Perils of Advocacy,” “Harm-Ony,” “The Ineradicable Stain of Whiteness,” “Do I Hear the Fat Lady Singing?,” “The Sleep of Reason,” and “Hoping for Clarification.” You might want to start with “The Sleep of Reason”; it’s a conceptual summing up. Or just stroll around the grounds until you feel at home….
On with the Show
Fast-forward to last week. At the 2019 UU General Assembly in Spokane, Washington, the UU minister in Spokane, Todd Eklof, released and distributed a short book. In the three essays in his book, which is called The Gadfly Papers, he takes a close look at the tactics being used by some folks within the UUA and UU congregations, tactics undertaken in a concerted attempt to root out racism, heterosexism, able-ism, and so forth.
Such efforts are, I’m sure, well warranted. Having read Eklof’s book (it’s only $3 for Kindle on Amazon), it seems clear to me that he is not pretending that racism and other forms of discrimination don’t exist within Unitarian Universalism. He takes issue, however, with the rhetoric that is used in discussing the issue, and with the tactics of those who are hoping to bring about sweeping change.
I would encourage everyone to read the book. You may agree or disagree with Eklof’s conclusions or his methods; that’s fine. Perhaps he’s right; perhaps he’s wrong. We can and certainly ought to have a productive and respectful discussion of the points he raises.
But that’s not what’s going on this week. On the contrary: An ad-hoc group of UU ministers has signed an open letter denouncing Eklof’s book. We’ll get to that letter below. Apparently, the book was banned at the General Assembly. Whether this was done because he had failed to follow some sort of procedure or because some people found his views upsetting and were therefore looking for a procedural excuse to remove it from the convention, I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t there, and I’m not familiar with UUA procedures. But it’s a fair guess that if he had used exactly the same unauthorized procedures to distribute a book that everybody liked and agreed with, the procedural irregularities would have aroused no more than a mild “tsk-tsk-tsk.” No, it’s the content of the book that has people up in arms.
From what I’ve read since, some of the people who are upset by the book are urging UUs not to read it.
At least one of my UU friends tells me she doesn’t intend to read it. She seems to feel she can safely trust higher authorities (specifically, the UU ministers) on this topic. It’s only a short book, but she has a busy life, I get that. I’d be less concerned if she weren’t planning a whole series of church services to be given this summer on topics to do with racial and other forms of discrimination and/or inclusion within the church. Wouldn’t reading the book be practically a requirement for someone who is planning services on these topics? But I digress.
Telling people they shouldn’t read a book — any book — is shocking. It’s contrary to the spirit of Unitarian Universalism, or so I would have thought. Yet there’s a faction within the UU community who are of the opinion that some ideas (including, specifically, those in Eklof’s book) are so hurtful that they shouldn’t be discussed or evaluated. Ironically — except it’s not irony, it’s very much on point — this tendency toward censorship is precisely what Eklof is objecting to! That’s what the book is about.
He is asking for an open dialog, with careful definitions of terms and an examination of concrete evidence for such things as alleged racism. As a result, he’s being told to shut up.
Is this the church I belong to? Has it come to this?
The Open Letter
With that preamble, let’s have a look at the open letter from the UU ministers. (The indented paragraphs below are the entirety of the letter. Not one word has been changed or omitted.) It has been signed by more than 300 ministers. My goodness, how could so many educated, caring people possibly be wrong? Let’s find out.
An open letter from white Unitarian Universalist ministers regarding The Gadfly Papers
June 22, 2019
With sadness and anger, we, the undersigned, join our voices with the chorus of Unitarian Universalists speaking up to name the harm caused by yesterday’s release of The Gadfly Papers: Three Inconvenient Essays by One Pesky Minister, written and self-published by our colleague the Rev. Todd F. Eklof and distributed at the 2019 General Assembly in Spokane, Washington.
Right at the outset, we have a sweeping accusation: that the distribution of an essay on a topic of concern to Unitarian Universalists is causing harm. It should perhaps be noted in passing that while they say they’re going “to name the harm,” they never get around to naming it. Also, the size of this “chorus” is not explained. Are they talking about 5% of UU members, or is it 85%?
It is a bedrock principle of Unitarian Universalism, or ought to be, that concerned people on all sides of an issue should be free to share their views so that those views can be freely discussed. In fact, this is ideal is clearly implied in one of the cherished Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism. It’s Principle 4. Principle 4 is, “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
Perhaps the views being shared by some individual UU are wrong; but silencing the speaker rather than engaging in a dialog cannot be the right way to proceed. What seems sadly clear, however, is that to more than 300 Unitarian Universalist ministers, an open dialog is to be deplored. Their position, as articulated above, is explicitly that the book should not have been released.
They are explicitly violating the 4th Principle. And they’re ministers.
As white ministers, we write today to make clear that this treatise does not represent us or our values, nor does it represent our vision for the ministry or for Unitarian Universalism. We deeply regret the harm this publication has already caused, and we know that this is another (intentionally provocative) incident that comes on the heels of months, years, generations of harm toward our colleagues of color. (We also acknowledge the harm in the treatise directed toward LGBTQ+ people, religious educators, people with disabilities, and others–many of whom are also people of color at the intersections of multiple identities.)
Translation: Some non-white, non-cis, non-able-bodied people will have their feelings hurt by Eklof’s essay, and therefore it should not have been published or distributed. This is precisely the tactic that Eklof is objecting to. The correct response — the only possible response, if he’s causing harm and you wish to remain in alignment with the 4th Principle — is to engage in a dialog with him on a point-by-point basis. But as we read on, we’ll find that the ministers explicitly decline to do that.
What values or vision does the book represent, that so markedly diverge from those the ministers hold dear? The letter doesn’t tell us.
In addition, it should be noted that by using the phrase “intentionally provocative,” they’re implying that Eklof’s motives are somehow suspect. In a strictly logical sense, sure, he was being intentionally provocative. He titled his book The Gadfly Papers, and he tossed it onto the table at a General Assembly rather than circulating it privately to his colleagues. (He may have circulated it privately before publishing it; I don’t know.) Nonetheless, in using the phrase, the ministers are aiming to call Eklof’s motives into question. By implication, then, the phrase is an argument ad hominem. They’re referring to his actions rather than to the substance of what he said. Arguments ad hominem are not a valid debate tactic.
Rev. Eklof names the “sadness, fear, and anger I sometimes feel about what’s going on in my religion” (p. 126) as one of his primary motivations for writing. We, too, have sadness, fear, and anger: sadness at the pervasiveness of harm being done to our members, religious professionals, and colleagues of color; our fear that the explosive resistance to facing white supremacy culture within our faith will cause even more harm; and our anger that the brilliance, compassion, power, and moral imagination of our people have yet again been channeled into responding to harm, rather than nurturing a truly liberatory Unitarian Universalism.
“Explosive resistance”? Really? Here again, we’re seeing an argument ad hominem. If you dare to disagree with us, the ministers are saying, you’re engaged in explosive resistance.
More to the point, as Eklof explains in detail in his book, the term “white supremacy culture” is really quite slippery. Tossing it into this open letter without troubling to define it is precisely the kind of unthinking, inflammatory rhetoric that he is trying to move past. Until you read the book, you will be poorly equipped to understand just what a problematical term “white supremacy culture” is. So read it.
Also, what that last sentence is saying, translated into plain English, is, “We shouldn’t be having to waste time debating with you, Rev. Eklof. Shut up and let us get on with our good works.” They are alleging that he is causing harm, but as I mentioned above, they haven’t named the harm. The assumption seems to be, “Oh, we all know what the harm is.”
What, we wonder, would be possible if the creative energy of our leaders were freed up from reacting to instances of resistance and harm, and instead were channeled into imagining, building, and experimenting with practices that embodied the kind of liberation and wholeness that is the core yearning of our faith?
(Boldface type, which was added for emphasis, has been removed from the previous paragraph.) It seems to me that Eklof is precisely suggesting a way to move toward this wholeness. He quite specifically advocates respect for divergent views. He suggests more than once, and with concrete examples, that such respect is in short supply in Unitarian Universalism as it is presently practiced.
But the real problem with this paragraph and the one before it is that the ministers have somehow, against all logic and reason, convinced themselves that responding to the points Eklof raises would be a distraction from the good work they’re trying to do. Let’s read this sentence again: “…our anger that the brilliance, compassion, power, and moral imagination of our people have yet again been channeled into responding to harm.” No, no, no. Responding to the points Eklof raises damn well IS the work they need to do. If Eklof is wrong, the way to move forward is to demolish his arguments point by point, so that the truth and power of your own views will shine forth for all to see.
Claiming that engaging in a dialog with him would be a distraction from your good work is just whining. What the ministers are saying boils down to, “We shouldn’t have to spend time writing an open letter to you, Rev. Eklof. You should just agree that we’re right and keep your mouth shut.”
We recognize that a zealous commitment to “logic” and “reason” over all other forms of knowing is one of the foundational stones of White Supremacy Culture. Instead of accepting the frame of Rev. Eklof’s arguments and debunking them, we instead affirm the following:
Translation: “Do not expect us to use logic or reason. We’re not even going to try to refute him point by point.” Well, honestly now — how can you have a respectful discussion of important issues with people who explicitly deny the value of logic and reason, and who explicitly refuse to engage in a responsible dialog?
Let’s leave aside the question of how a zealous commitment to logic and reason might differ from an ordinary commitment to logic and reason. The phrase “other forms of knowing” does make sense, because direct experience is a form of knowing, and it is anterior to logic and reason. That is, direct experience occurs before we begin to apply logic and reason to what has been experienced. Nonetheless, we must do so. We must apply logic and reason to our direct experience in order to interpret that experience. This process does not elevate logic and reason over direct experience; what it does is broaden our understanding of what we have experienced.
Those who are unwilling to broaden their understanding will remain ignorant.
Turning to the phrase, “Instead of accepting the frame,” to me it’s appalling — no weaker word will do — that these people are attacking a book without articulating at any point their reasons for objecting to the book. They don’t want to talk about what’s in the book; in fact, they refuse to discuss it. They just want you to agree with them that it’s horrible.
The only specific description in their letter of the content of the book is that it uses logic and reason. It seems a fair guess that the ministers object to the use of logic and reason (the quotation marks are theirs, and are no more than a disparaging rhetorical flourish — another ad hominem attack) because Eklof has used logic in a clear and painstaking manner in order to dismantle the overheated rhetoric that is much in vogue at the UUA when racism is discussed. If this isn’t clear to you, you need to read the book.
I do understand perfectly well that logic and reason have often been used, and are still used, in support of racism. But that’s not a reason for avoiding the use of logic and reason! On the contrary: The way you combat the use of logic and reason by racists is by being better at it than they are. Your unexamined emotions are, frankly, a damned poor substitute.
And now we come to the ministers’ bullet points. The boldface type is in the original letter:
White Supremacy Culture (WSC) is alive and well within Unitarian Universalism. The impacts of WSC are pervasive and harmful, and while all of us are spiritually harmed within such a dehumanizing system, the primary impacts fall upon people of color and Indigenous people (POCI). This treatise, itself, is a manifestation of WSC, and is causing harm to our siblings of color, as well as to the integrity of our ministry.
Here again, the term “white supremacy culture” (WSC) is left undefined. We’re told it’s pervasive, but we’re given no examples or evidence; we’re expected to accept the assertion blindly, on trust.
One of Eklof’s central points is that if the term is used in any of the ways in which ordinary people would naturally use it, there simply isn’t any WSC in Unitarian Universalism. If you feel convinced that it is present, then it’s incumbent on you to begin by defining exactly what you mean by the term.
If we’re going to object to “explosive” rhetoric, surely the term “white supremacy” qualifies.
Eklof is quite clear about the need for concrete evidence of racism within an organization. You don’t get to assert that it’s there, that it’s pervasive, without showing a shred of evidence. Here’s a simple example, whose logic may be clear enough even to those who are relatively new to the process of thinking logically:
It may be true that some organization is heavily dominated by heterosexual white males. But that does not make the organization racist, sexist, or heterosexist. The Beatles were an organization consisting entirely of four heterosexual white males. Should we therefore conclude that the Beatles were a white supremacist band? This is the sort of muddled thinking that Eklof takes pains to deconstruct.
We believe our siblings of color as the experts in their own life experiences. They have done the emotional labor of testifying, again and again, to the consistent marginalization, aggression, and traumatization that they experience in UUism, and are pleading with us to face and dismantle the systems and structures that enable such harm to continue. We are grateful for this painful truth-telling, which comes at great personal and professional risk, and affirm that we witness and believe their experiences, and commit to addressing harm. All politics are identity politics, and when the default is white supremacist patriarchy, we must trust the experience of those who are targeted.
I’d love to know more about “the consistent … aggression and traumatization that they experience in UUism.” If these words truly describe the situation, then why on Earth would they have stayed in Unitarian Universalism? Why didn’t they flee? More likely, what we have here is explosive rhetoric. But perhaps I’m wrong. Let’s see the evidence.
But let’s set aside the question of aggression and traumatization — as we must, in the absence of concrete evidence. On a more general note, there’s an important difference between acknowledging people’s feelings and uncritically accepting their explanations for why their feelings were aroused. This paragraph conflates the two.
It might be, for example, that a woman of color is passed over for a job opening in favor of a white male and feels hurt, marginalized, and traumatized because she is convinced that she was discriminated against. And yet, it might (or might not) be the case that the white male was simply better qualified for the job! The woman’s feelings need to be acknowledged and listened to — but that doesn’t mean she is necessarily a victim of racial discrimination. The facts of the case need to be examined. Failure to understand this difference is a shocking lapse of judgment, one that we should not expect ministers, of all people, to make.
And what “systems and structures” are supposed to be dismantled? I know nothing about how the UUA is organized. If the decision-making processes need to be restructured, that would be a fine topic for discussion. In fact, Eklof does touch on that question in his essay. Apparently, however, his views on the subject are anathema.
The assertion that “all politics are identity politics” is blatantly false, and anybody who has been awake during the past ten years ought to know it. The impending climate crisis is NOT about your personal or cultural identity. It’s just not. And the solutions, if we’re able to find any, will be explicitly political. The framework of environmental law will have to be changed, and that will require concerted political action. Why is it even necessary for me to point this out?
The phrase “identity politics” is troubling for other reasons as well. For more on this, you may want to read my follow-up piece, “Who Are You, Really?”
When unjust power structures–and those who benefit from them–are exposed and critiqued, backlash is predictable. We often conflate critiques of our behavior with condemnations of our personhood. Here, however, we affirm that Unitarian Universalist ministers must act in solidarity with those harmed by the power structures, while also unequivocally declaring that although all people have inherent worth and dignity, all behaviors and ideas do not. Ideas and language can indeed be forms of violence, and can cause real harm. It is disingenuous at best, and malicious at worst, to argue that those who have been targeted by systemic violence have an obligation to bear witness to “ideas and words” that demean and diminish their personhood and discount their lived experience. The predictable “freedom of speech” arguments are commonly weaponized to perpetuate oppression and inflict further harm.
It may be true that Eklof has benefited within the UU organization from being a white male. I wouldn’t know. (And we would need to see evidence of that before accusing him of benefiting, wouldn’t we?) The letter takes this unproven assertion as fact, and then tries to deduce another assertion from it, again with neither evidence nor logic: that his book was written in a spirit of backlash against a threat to his position, prerogatives, or status. This allegation is only implied; he’s not mentioned here by name; but the context makes it clear. The allegation is not only unsupported by evidence, it’s grotesque.
I find myself wondering how exactly ideas and language “can indeed be forms of violence, and can cause real harm.” I think I’d like some examples of that. It is a central thesis of Eklof’s essays that this notion — that voicing certain ideas is harmful — is a way of shutting people up. It’s a way of stifling dialog. It’s fascist.
I have certainly been guilty of calling people idiots — mostly on Facebook. Is that indeed a form of violence? Am I causing real harm? If so, I hope somebody will explain it to me.
I don’t know who has suggested that anybody has an obligation “to bear witness” to anything; that phrase has a rhetorical flair, but what does it mean? And “weaponized”? Really? The implication of this word, it seems to me, is that advocating freedom of speech is “commonly” (their word) used in a conscious way in order “to perpetuate oppression.” To paraphrase, what the ministers are saying is that you’re only advocating freedom of speech because you want to hurt us. If you didn’t want to hurt us, you would agree with us that some ideas are so harmful that they should not be expressed.
This is pathetic. It’s an exercise in victimhood. “Waaahh! Your nasty ideas hurt me! Shut up, shut up, shut up!” It’s certainly not a path to meaningful dialog.
Neither the perspectives espoused in this publication, nor the harmful process by which it was distributed, represent our understanding of competent, compassionate, courageous UU ministry. As we continue the painful but necessary process of confronting WSC in Unitarian Universalism, white ministers are being asked to take a hard look at ourselves — individually, congregationally, denominationally — and to practice new and more liberatory ways of embodying our faith. A deep commitment to racial justice and dismantling white supremacy is a core competency of our calling as ministers, and those who cannot or will not commit to developing the musculature of resiliency, humility, and lifelong learning required may indeed find that UUism is no longer the appropriate home for their ministries. We plead with our white colleagues who are struggling to acknowledge the realities of WSC in our faith to remain at the table and lean into this work with us, with an open heart to transformation and repair.
This paragraph begins by stating flat-out that Eklof’s ideas are not competent, compassionate, or courageous. Evidence? A point by point analysis and refutation? No, that would be too much work. We’re just going to insult our fellow UU minister and move on, secure in the armor of our righteousness.
And what’s that aside about “the harmful process by which it was distributed”? I have no clue. How could the process of distribution be harmful or lack competence? Well, if the copies were tossed around on the floor, I suppose, so that people were tripping over them and falling down. But I doubt that’s what the ministers meant. I don’t know what they meant.
It’s certainly possible that Eklof has an understanding of UU ministry that is just as competent, compassionate, and courageous as the understanding of the ministers who signed this letter. Different, surely, but not lacking in competency, compassion, or courage. But that’s not what these 300 ministers want you to think. They want you to conclude, without a shred of evidence, that Eklof lacks competence, compassion, and courage.
And then we get to “may indeed find that UUism is no longer the appropriate home for their ministries.” Translation: If you don’t agree with us, get out! We don’t want you here!
I’m also worried about those “new and more liberatory ways of embodying our faith.” What does that mean in practice? “Liberatory” means “freedom-enhancing.” If one of your colleagues writes a book on topics of mutual concern and you immediately jump down his throat and tell him he shouldn’t have released the book, how are you embodying a liberatory faith? How are you encouraging or even proposing to allow him his freedom as an equal within the UU community? Isn’t the freedom to have and express one’s own ideas supposed to be the bedrock of Unitarian Universalism? I sure thought so. Possibly I was wrong.
Just to be clear about my own view of this controversy….
I’m not advocating for the views in Rev. Eklof’s book. I happen to think he makes a lot of good points — but I may be wrong, and he may be wrong. Most likely, he’s right about some things and wrong about others. The way to settle such questions is through a free and respectful dialog. Denouncing his book in inflammatory terms, however, while refusing to engage with its substance cannot possibly be right.
I’m sure there is some unconscious racism within the UUA, and within UU congregations. I’ve probably been guilty of it myself on occasion. This is not surprising; in fact, it would be remarkable if there weren’t pockets of racism here and there. Conscious, intentional racism in the UU community? I’d say it’s very doubtful. Unconscious racism? Certainly.
I agree that it’s vital that the UUA take a close look at this issue, as well as at related issues such as sexism, heterosexism, cis-genderism, and so on! That, it seems to me, is what these ministers think they’re doing.
However, it’s also clear to me that book-banning and telling people to shut up or get out is not healthy for any organization, and especially not for an organization that prides itself on being inclusive and welcoming. Nor is it healthy or respectful to belittle people for their commitment to logic and reason. If that is the direction that Unitarian Universalism is going, the whole denomination can go straight to hell, and probably will.