The Politics of Naughty

Recently I read an article about how some museums and galleries are removing from their walls the work of R. Crumb. Crumb got started in the Sixties, and by today’s standards — or by any standard — some of his work is frankly disturbing. Among his other sins, apparently some of his cartoons depicted incest with children.

This is a ticklish subject. On the one hand, no museum or gallery should be required to exhibit work that the administrators of that institution find objectionable. But on the other hand, it’s absolutely vital that artists be free to transgress the norms of their society!

I fully support the right to transgress. I don’t want to live in a world where the only allowed forms of art are those that nice people feel are acceptable. Artists must always be free to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Sometimes it’s necessary to use shocking images or ideas to do that.

It’s also the case that each artist must be free to express their own truth in their own terms, using whatever techniques they feel are most useful. An artist who self-censors in order to gain social approval (or financial backing, which is a form of social approval) is not an artist at all.

But while supporting the right to transgress, I also have to support the right to ostracize. In some online gaming groups (or so I’ve heard — I don’t belong to any of these groups), teenage boys sometimes find it amusing to post messages demeaning women or homosexuals. This is a transgression, and we don’t need to tolerate it. The administrators of such groups must be free to expel the offenders.

Now let’s talk about Todd Eklof and The Gadfly Papers. This book has stirred up quite a kettle of trouble in Unitarian Universalism. I’ve been a member of my local UU congregation for the past five years, so I’ve followed this controversy with some interest. I happen to think Reverend Eklof makes some very good points in his book. Others disagree. (Full disclosure: I edited his second book, The Gadfly Affair, in which he lays out the events surrounding the publication of the first book and what followed.)

There was a concerted effort on the part of hundreds of Eklof’s fellow UU ministers to discredit the book. This is a form of ostracism, and I have to support their right to do exactly that. That said, the shabby and sordid nature of their attack is clearly displayed by three facts. First, many of those who attacked the book within days of its publication had not even read it. Second, while attacking it, they explicitly refused to say why they were attacking it. They did not feel it was necessary engage in a debate over the ideas in the book. Since Unitarian Universalism is (or was at one time) a religion that treasured open-mindedness, this refusal is, at the very least, a flat repudiation of UU values. Third, at the time when the ministers attacked their fellow minister’s book, the UU ministers’ association (the UUMA) had in place a policy (since rescinded, or so I’ve read) requiring the members to exhibit collegiality by, among other things, not attacking their fellow ministers.

There is also a UU principle that assures ministers of “freedom of the pulpit.” But I don’t want to go too far down that rabbit hole, so let’s move on.

Subsequently, the UUMA booted Eklof out. The reasons they gave for doing so were hypocritical, flatly disingenuous, and really laughable; if you want to know the details, read The Gadfly Affair. There was also an underhanded attempt to get his congregation to fire him; happily, the congregation supported him, so he continues, at least at this writing, to have a pulpit and a job.

I’m disgusted by the antics of the national UU organization. However, intellectual honesty compels me to acknowledge that the ideas that govern any religious organization are entirely arbitrary. Religions are not required to be logically consistent or intellectually honest; indeed, that would be impossible for any religion, since no religion has, or could conceivably have, any underpinning of facts on which to build a coherent doctrine.

That being the case, any religious organization, no matter how welcoming or inclusive it claims to be, can freely ostracize anybody that the people in charge feel ought to be ostracized. They are absolutely within their rights to do so. The only question any of us can legitimately ask is, “Do I want to be a member of this religion?”

That ought to be a simple question, but sometimes it’s not. If you’re currently a member, would like to remain a member, and don’t like what the people in charge are doing, you are of course free to agitate for changes within the organization. But that’s not likely to be easy. It’s not easy if you’re a Catholic, nor, these days, is it easy if you’re a Unitarian. One would like to imagine that the Unitarian hierarchy would be more open to rational debate than the Catholic hierarchy — but if one were to imagine that, one would be wrong.

It has been suggested that the higher-ups in UUism have re-introduced the idea of original sin. Among other things, if you’re white and a cisgendered heterosexual male, you’re presumed guilty. Your only proper course of conduct is to admit you’re a sinner and beg forgiveness. I’m not exaggerating, folks; I’m just describing the situation in unvarnished terms.

Todd Eklof was agitating for change within Unitarian Universalism. The fact that he was attacked for doing so proves only that some UU ministers are as blinkered and dogmatic as some Catholic bishops. But hey, we humans are all very imperfect, and there’s no reason to expect that we wouldn’t be. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, welcome to the monkey house.

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2 Responses to The Politics of Naughty

  1. Jay says:

    Jim, you raised the interesting observation that religions can “ostracize” at their own discretion. At one time, Unitarian Universalism distinguished itself as the “big tent in the sky” with a policy of “come, come whoever you are.” Yes, there were imperfections in execution, but the intent was to be different from other mainstream denominations.

    The behaviors of the national leadership leave no doubt that “ostracize at will” is the new policy.

    Yet, just when you thought there was no lower place to go . . .

    In January of this year, the Executive VP of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) sent a “cease and desist” letter to the UU Seven Principle Fellowship demanding that they stop from making any use of the terms “UU” or “Seven Principles” and that the domain name of this group,, should not be used. The Seven Principles Fellowship broke away from a congregation that followed UU leadership into the ill-liberal abyss.

    It saddens UUs what a mess our national leadership, really just a handful of people, has made of the once large tent that kept the light on all the time and really did welcome whoever came.

    • midiguru says:

      Thanks for the comments, Jay. There’s still an idea floating around that UU congregations are “welcoming and inclusive,” but that seems to refer mainly to LGBTQ+ people, people of color, those who suffer from what we used to call disabilities, and those who are not entirely comfortable with the faith traditions in which they were raised. It is clearly no longer the case that those who embrace non-orthodox opinions are welcome or to be included. The UUA has unilaterally bestowed upon itself the right to define what is orthodox, though of course they wouldn’t use that term.

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