Every year the Unitarian Universalists hold a General Assembly, a grand conclave in which delegates from the congregations gather and do stuff. I’ve never been to a GA, so I have no idea what they do, but part of it involves voting on candidates for the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
At first blush, this will sound like an innocuous democratic process, but it’s not. First, there are rarely any candidates other than those put forward by the nominating committee, and the nominating committee is run by the current Board. It’s a circular process. Second, delegates are not always well informed, either about the candidates or about other issues on which they will be voting. Third, the items on which votes will be held are not generally discussed in the congregations that the delegates represent, so the delegates are often voting based on their own ideas, or half-formed impulses, rather than representing the views of their congregations.
This is all by way of background. I’m going somewhere. Hang with me.
This year, Jay Kiskel is running for the Board, but not as a nominee chosen by the nominating committee. He’s doing it on his own. As a result, there will be actual choices to be made among the candidates. The tricky bit is, how are delegates to be informed as to the various positions of the candidates for whom they will be voting?
Jay Kiskel and Frank Casper are the heads of an advocacy group called the Fifth Principle Project. The Fifth Principle of Unitarian Universalism is, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” Jay and Frank’s book, Used to Be UU, is, among other things, a discussion of the anti-democratic drift of the UUA. (Full disclosure: I edited the book.)
In order to advance Jay’s candidacy, the reasons for which are explained in the book, the Fifth Principle Project applied for a “booth” at the 2021 GA. What a “booth” would be at a virtual General Assembly I have no idea, but it’s not cheap. They ponied up $1,200 for the booth.
This is where it gets hairy. The UUA appears now to be poised not to let them have a booth. The reasons given for this reluctance, as set forth in an email I’ll quote below, are transparently specious. What’s really going on is that the people who run the UUA are terrified of any sort of dissent. They have some well developed and elaborate ideas about how to steer Unitarian Universalism in a certain direction, and if you don’t agree with them they’re going to try to shut you up. Also, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to guess that they’re not happy to see Jay running for the Board.
Let’s take a close look at the email Frank Casper received from LaTonya Richardson, who identifies herself as the Director of the General Assembly & Conference Services.
Thanks for your application to reserve an exhibit booth at our virtual GA this year. The application has been placed on hold because our office is in receipt of three emails expressing concern about the presence of a Fifth Principle Project booth at GA. Here’s a summary…
“Mr. Casper and Mr. Kiskel are bragging on their Fifth Principle Project website that they are going to have an exhibitor booth at the 2021 General Assembly. (see https://fifthprincipleproject.org/2021/03/10/updates-from-the-fifth-principle-project/) Given that the publication of their book is probably going to be a major part of that space, this makes me very uncomfortable. The idea that someone can get an exhibitor booth to promote said book seems very out of covenant to me. If their booth is approved, it would make me very uncomfortable and many other people as well.”
“I hope, as you are considering Fifth Principle Project’s application for an exhibitor booth, you will consider these concerns. I do not believe it is within the spirit of General Assembly or our Unitarian Universalism in general to allow people to be legitimized with exhibition hall space. Thank you in advance. Mr. Casper has a history of toxic behavior towards UUs in online spaces.”
“As a UU leader, I am concerned about the Fifth Principle Project. I’ve been observing and intervening on problematic activity on UU social media since ‘The Gadfly Papers’ was published. The online behavior Fifth Principle Project founder Frank Casper and other 5PP group members has been disconcerting, particularly how they relate to marginalized groups. I’m concerned to the point that I worry about how these folks might respond if they find out I am reaching out to you. I and others imagine this organization might be a disruptive presence at GA.”
Frank, similar concerns were raised during GA 2020 when GA attendees discovered that UUMAC (represented by Mr. Campbell and Mr. Lindrup) had reserved an exhibit booth and time slot on our GA Learning Stage. I said then, and it still holds true, that the UUA GA will not be complicit when our intended audience, registered attendees of General Assembly, perceive rhetoric to be deliberately antagonistic and harmful. We strive to make GA an accessible and inclusive virtual community, so providing anyone a platform to potentially disrupt the purpose of our gathering and cause harm is counter-productive.
We know from GA 2020 that members who support UUMUAC and the Fifth Principle project used both the GA app, chat rooms in the GA Participation Portal, and email to express their outrage and incite controversy. It was disruptive enough that the GA Care Team, comprised of Chaplains, Right Relationship volunteers, Chat Moderators, and others dealt with complaints and concerns about it. I’m curious what is different from last June? Also, what agreements might we put in place now to ensure that whatever content you all choose to share is done respectfully? What recourse do we have should either content and communications from this exhibit booth be perceived as declaring an assault on the UUA or GA stakeholders? How responsive are you all willing to be to concerns that your content and/or communications are causing harm?
I forwarded your booth request and the complaints we have received to the UUA Administration and will await feedback. They will follow-up with me in the coming weeks. Thank you for your patience. If you’d like a refund of the amount paid with your application, we can oblige.
This is a fascinating text. A number of points need to be made about it.
First, Richardson states that Frank and Jay’s application for a booth has been put on hold because of three emails. Three emails — imagine that! Second, the authors of the emails are anonymous. Either they’re not willing to stand up and be counted, or for some reason Richardson just plain doesn’t want anybody to know who they are.
Third, the word “bragging,” in the first message, is simply a snide attack. The announcement of the booth contained nothing that could remotely be described by an honest adult as bragging. Fourth, the first correspondent makes an unsupported guess about what will be done at the booth, without having consulted Frank or Jay to find out what their plans are. What we’re seeing here is preemptive discomfort.
The first correspondent’s stated concern is that if the booth is approved, it would make him or her, and an unnamed group of other people, “very uncomfortable.” This is raging safetyism. This correspondent explicitly holds that his or her personal discomfort is a valid reason for denying others the opportunity to present their ideas. Is this sort of childish whining what Unitarian Universalism has descended to?
The second correspondent asserts, bizarrely, that it is contrary to the spirit of UUism to “legitimize” people by allowing them booth space. As I said, I’ve never been to a GA, but I’ll bet groups like BLUU and DRUUM have booths. And of course that does legitimize them. So the problem here is that the author of this message wants to legitimize one group of advocates (of whom he or she most likely approves) but not to legitimize another group with whom he or she disagrees.
This is no more and no less than an attempt to silence people with whom the correspondent disagrees. It’s entirely contrary to the spirit of Unitarian Universalism, which historically has always placed a high value on the free exchange of ideas.
I haven’t followed what Frank Casper has said on social media, so I can’t comment on that directly. I’ll say only that in the absence of specifics, this accusation comes across more as slander (or as hurt feelings) than as a legitimate complaint. I haven’t met Frank, but I’ve been in Zoom meetings with him, and my impression of his personality is that at times he can be a bit abrasive. That being the case, what we have here is someone objecting to a UU organization having a booth at the GA because one of the people at the booth may be a bit abrasive. A complaint of that sort ought to be too petty to take seriously, or so one would think. Is attendance at the General Assembly to be limited strictly to people who are pleasant?
The third correspondent is explicitly worried that Jay and Frank are going to engage in some sort of vendetta against him or her for opposing their application for a booth. This is just plain weird. On the other hand, given the vociferous vendetta that hundreds of UU ministers have waged against Todd Eklof, this person may worry that he or she will be treated the way his or her friends have treated Reverend Eklof. So maybe it’s not as far-fetched a fear as I would imagine. Delusional, yes; paranoid, yes; but not far-fetched.
The concern about the booth being “a disruptive presence” is more of the same. Advocacy of ideas that these people disagree with is seen by them as disruptive. Rational discussion and even disagreement are evidently beyond their capacity.
Richardson then takes the position that the UUA doesn’t want to be complicit “when our intended audience, registered attendees of General Assembly, perceive rhetoric to be deliberately antagonistic and harmful.” This is postmodern safetyism in action: If attendees perceive a presentation to be harmful, then it’s automatically harmful, and has to be squashed. The idea that people’s perceptions might be biased or simply incorrect, that their emotional response might be misplaced, is not even open to discussion. And note the use of the pejorative term “rhetoric.” This embeds the idea that whatever Jay and Frank will be saying in their booth, it’s not honest, it’s “rhetoric.”
Richardson goes on to suggest (the suggestion is implicit but unmistakable) that she and the UUA want to exert prior restraint on what Jay and Frank might say at their booth. Based on her discomfort with an unrelated situation in a prior year, she wants assurances that the presentation by the Fifth Principle Project will be “respectful.” She is worried about an “assault.”
I’m tempted to say, “What the actual fuck is wrong with these people?” But we know what’s wrong with them. They’re part of the Woke Squad in the Holy Church of Anti-Racism. It’s a vital element of the creed of the Holy C.A.R. that members should never be confronted by ideas that would make them uncomfortable — especially if those ideas are presented by white men. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. These are members of a supposedly spiritual organization, an organization that has long been known as the most liberal denomination in the Protestant religious community, and yet they view respectful dissent as “assault.”
And then, although the UUA has not yet officially made a decision, Richardson offers to give Frank back his $1,200. Does anybody think the decision is not a foregone conclusion?
I’m not in the inner circles of Unitarian Universalism, and I’m definitely not a person of faith. I’m just a writer. But I do believe that responsible adults do not respond to dissent in the cowardly and flagrantly dishonest way that LaTonya Richardson has done here. If this is spirituality, you can take your spirituality and shove it where the sun don’t shine.