Classical liberalism is the belief that the individual is, or ought to be, autonomous. “Liberal” means “free.” Liberals believe that, wherever possible, the individual ought to be free to make [his/her/their] own decisions and choose [his/her/their] own actions.
As an aside, normally I approve of the use of “they” and “their” to refer to single persons of unknown gender, but in that particular sentence, “their” runs the risk of implying something about membership in a group. Hence the awkward workaround.
Liberalism was pretty much invented in the 18th century. The power of the church was weakening, and as people moved to the cities they found themselves dealing with hordes of strangers. The customs that had worked in small villages no longer worked very well.
The idea of individual freedom could hardly have arisen in feudal society, because feudalism was based on a sense of mutual obligation among members of a small community. The same thing is true of tribal cultures worldwide. You know the people around you. You know their expectations, and they know yours. In a tribal culture, “go your own way” is a dangerous idea. It would rend the close-knit fabric of your world.
There is inevitably a tension between individual freedom and group solidarity. A society that goes to either extreme is cruel and dysfunctional. If individual freedom is elevated as the most exalted value, we have anarchy. I know there are people who consider themselves anarchists, but I’m pretty sure they don’t get it. Anarchy means you can be run down by a speeding car, because there are no police. At the other extreme, where group solidarity is the highest value, you have totalitarianism. The people in authority tell you what to do, and you have no choice but to obey.
To a lover of freedom, people who embrace group solidarity are sheep, puppets, or zombies. To people who feel that group membership is vital, a lover of freedom is a serious threat, not just to individuals but to the survival and health of the entire group. The goal of the two factions (human happiness) is the same, but they define the conditions that will lead to happiness in very different ways.
The strife that has disrupted Unitarian-Universalism over the past decade is due precisely to a conflict between these two views. I happen to be firmly in the liberal camp, but I want to take a step back and look at the situation dispassionately and analytically. I’m aware that fans of group solidarity may feel that a painstaking logical analysis is a danger. I can’t help that. Swing with me for a minute.
Unitarianism has been, for quite a long time, a liberal religion — if it’s a religion at all, but we’ll leave that debate for another time. The idea in Unitarianism has always been that you’re free to believe what you like. The community has historically embraced free-thinkers.
During my lifetime (I’m in my 70s), liberals have pushed strongly for equal rights for marginalized groups — first African-Americans and other racial groups, then gay men and Lesbians, and more recently trans-identified people. This is an important and healthy development! But while considerable progress has been made, we’re still a long way from a truly just and equal society.
Identity politics is, at root, the idea that when people who share some defining characteristic come together, they’re stronger together, politically and socially, than they would be as individuals. The move toward organized labor (which I firmly support) was an early example of identity politics in action, as was the women’s suffrage movement.
What has happened in recent years is that the people in marginalized groups have gotten frustrated that there hasn’t been more progress. They have banded together in what we might call affinity groups in order to press for faster and more sweeping social changes.
The difficulty is this: People who have gathered together as a group can feel attacked by people who place a high value on individualism. A labor union, to take an easy example, only works when every worker is required to join the union. So-called right-to-work laws (which I vehemently oppose) undercut the ability of a union to accomplish what it hopes to accomplish.
Something similar seems to be happening in Unitarian-Universalism. Our national organization, the UUA, has been taken over by a group who are not committed in any way to individual liberty. They feel it’s old-fashioned. In a nutshell, they view the traditional liberal slant of Unitarianism as a threat. They fervently believe in the value of group solidarity, because they have become frustrated at the slow pace of social change.
When you look at it through this lens, suddenly the strong reactions to Todd Eklof’s book The Gadfly Papers make a lot more sense. Within a day of the book’s release, a couple of hundred UU ministers signed an Open Letter denouncing the book. It’s clear that most of them hadn’t read the book before they attacked it.
To someone who places a high value on the thoughts and opinions of the individual, this behavior was shocking and incomprehensible. How could you possibly denounce a book you hadn’t read? For that matter, how could you even recommend that others not read a book? No matter how wrong-headed a book may be, reading it is useful. (I own a copy of Mein Kampf, for instance.)
But to a person who values “we” above “I,” attacking a book without having read it is perfectly sensible. If a member of your affinity group tells you a book is bad, your desire to remain with the group will assure you that going along with the group is the right thing to do. In fact, showing how vigorous you are in agreeing with the group’s view (the pejorative term for this behavior is “virtue signaling”) is important. You don’t want to look like a backslider!
The book was attacked as being “ablist” and “transphobic,” among other terms, even though there wasn’t a word in it that could possibly be interpreted in those terms. But to a person who has embraced the “we” point of view, what’s important is to identify with and embrace one’s affinity group, which in a broad sense would include both trans people and people with disabilities. An attack on any member of the group is perceived as an attack on the group as a whole.
Eklof took aim squarely at Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility. DiAngelo is a guiding light of this particular “we” group. So an attack on DiAngelo was interpreted as an attack on the group, and thus on the hopes and aspirations of everybody in the group, including trans and disabled people.
The Open Letter repeatedly claimed that The Gadfly Papers caused “harm” — yet the nature of the alleged harm was never explained. To anyone who values the right of the individual to make up [his/her/their] own mind, this was a grotesque cognitive failure. But to “we” people, questioning DiAngelo’s views was, in and of itself, causing “harm.” No explanation was necessary; the “harm” was writ on every page.
The result of this controversy is that Unitarian-Universalism is in big trouble. Membership is declining. Congregations are riven by strife.
Ironically, Eklof’s book proposes what could be a very viable way out of the mess. Unitarianism and Universalism ought to go their separate ways. Let the Unitarians remain in the “I” camp, celebrating individual differences, and let the “we” crowd have Universalism to do with as they will.
I’m a cynic, so I anticipate that the “we” crowd won’t like this idea. One of the features of a group solidarity culture is that groups tend to think that everybody ought to do it their way. This trend is easily seen in certain branches of Christianity and Islam. If you feel that your way is the only right way, letting other people choose their own values is tantamount to an admission of defeat. If they’re not doing it your way, that’s an implicit attack on your values. Well, we can’t have that, can we?
I’m still a liberal, but I’m also a socialist. I understand the need for people to come together and work together for the common good. In my view, each situation, each conflict as it arises, has to be considered separately. A one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t appeal to me. The difficulty I see is that those who embrace a “we” solution to social problems may feel threatened by the idea that individual cases ought to be analyzed individually. A blanket “solution” is likely to be more appealing, even when the collateral damage is severe.
I don’t see an easy path around this conflict. But I do think splitting Unitarianism off from Universalism would have some solid advantages.