Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Dubious Boast

I’ve heard many a UU minister, educator and lay leader say it. I’ve heard my own minister say it. I had an ex-girlfriend who said it. And not only does it sound like they’re somehow bragging, not only has it become tiresome to hear, but I’ve seriously wondered about what value there is to it:

"I don’t watch television."

There are, of course, some mitigated variants to this boast: "I only watch PBS" comes to mind, as does "I only watch the news" and "I only watch public affairs television." I confess that I understand the motivation behind such a boast, as much of the medium has been reduced to drivel. But the anthropologist in me sees how dubious it is for members of a faith seeking to both enlarge their circle and change the world for the better to shun a primary source of knowledge and insight. And so, this post is devoted to why UUs, especially UU leaders, ought to stop bragging about their avoidance of TV, and how and why they should revise their viewing habits.

First, let’s start with a perception problem that Unitarian Universalists have been suffering for decades: We come across as elitist snobs. It’s one things to have two or three times the active vocabulary of the average American, to recite famous quotes or passages from memory, or to learn and use another language (which, tragically, too few Americans bother to do these days). But a good command of language also means an ability to get your point across clearly. Expanding one’s vocabulary doesn’t mean discarding simpler words and more commonly used phrases – it means adding to them and building upon them. Likewise, the medium of television provides us with a cultural vocabulary that is broadly used and understood. And if we want to both draw people in from that wider culture, and help them find ways to change and influence it, then we need to draw on the same symbols, tropes and memes that permeate and influence their lives.

That leads me to my second point: Avoiding things doesn’t necessarily change them. The genres of science fiction and Westerns, for example, did not improve because people stayed away. They improved because more people became engaged in insisting upon and even recommending changes for the better. From my vantage point, Unitarian Universalists are very good at coming up with grand visions of a better world, and then ranting about how reality falls short – but we ourselves often fall short of finding and implementing practical steps between the two, including and especially in our own congregations and movement. I believe that the manner in which so many UUs have disengaged themselves from popular culture is a big reason for this. Whether it’s to personally purify themselves, or as a form of protest, I don’t see it working. If you want to change the world, you have to get involved in it, if nothing else but to learn how things work so you’re able to tweak them in the right direction.

Lastly, and the biggest reason I find this boast so dubious: Our core values demand that we engage instead of avoid. Our twin traditions were founded on the fearless pursuit of the truth. It’s led us to evolve into a broad and progressive movement devoted to love and justice. How does avoiding a major element for the culture we seek to change honor that essential element of our heritage? I think of my own conundrum addressing the issues surrounding pornography – as a civil libertarian, I oppose censorship of any material simply because it has sexually explicit content, yet my aesthetic and political sensibilities find it hard to defend the vast majority of images and practices connected to the porn industry. But I must also ask myself how I might offer any insightful critique, or otherwise help to make positive changes, unless I do the responsible truthseeking needed to understand and engage.

So please don’t tell me whether you watch television, or what you limit yourself to watching. That tells me very little. Speak to me instead of how you watch television, and what you do with what you see.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Checking One's Privilege: A Response to Tal Fortgang

The written rant of a conservative Princeton undergrad is being bandied about the Internet, and so I thought I would respond ...

Like Tal Fortgang, I am white, cisgender male, heterosexual, and raised in a home many in America would call "middle-class". Like him, I also had family members who fled persecution in Europe; my great-grandfather fled Czarist Russia, and was only able to do so by posing as a German student who had lost his identity papers. Like him, I was constantly told that working hard and playing "by the rules" would bring anyone where they wanted to be.

Unlike him, I realize that message ain't necessarily so. Even if an employer doesn't use any slurs, they're more likely to hire me than a woman, or anyone with more melanin in their skin, or an accent in their voice. I'm more likely to get better service in a restaurant or a store, to have a credit application approved, or accepted as a tenant by most landlords.

A raw example of privilege happened to me several years ago here in Boston. Several of us stopped at a subway station when we heard a woman crying for help, and saw her on the ground and a man over her beating her. One man ran down to try to chase the assailant away, while I notified a transit worker of what was happening. Within two minutes, transit police had rushed in. They arrested the assailant, and the African-American gentleman who had rushed up to stop him, but they merely took me aside to get my statement. Even after I told the cops: "Hey, that guy was trying to help," they still had him put his hands against the wall so they could frisk him.

To be fair, Fortgang is correct in his caution about making assumptions regarding people's background. Where he gets it wrong is assuming that others are not making those very same assumptions, even subconsciously, and setting others back as a result. My father demonstrated some awareness of this, when he told me why he decided not to attend Princeton - a classmate of his, whom he admitted had done measurably better academically, had been denied admittance, and the only difference between them was that his classmate had an obviously Jewish name.

Unearned privilege exists, regardless of whether folks like Fortgang want to believe it. Yes, you may have worked hard to get where you are, but we must also be mindful that many individuals have worked just as hard and yet still been denied the chance to get there as well, simply because of their race or gender or some other "other-ness" about them. Denying that fact won't make it go away, nor will trying to put a spin on it diminish the damage it causes. By the same token, guilt and blanket assumptions will do no good, either. We need to confront the fact, and find constructive ways to dismantle this reality, even if it means that those of us with such privilege make use of it to educate others and make what changes are necessary.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

When a Word Becomes Useless

For me, language is a spiritual thing. There is something grand about how we bestow meaning to certain sounds and symbols, to the point that they seem to take on a life of their own. And when a word is misused or abused to the point of losing its meaning, that seems to me practically sacrilegious.

To that end, I've decided to abandon the use of a particular verb and its derivative forms. What makes it unusual is how common they are to English speakers. Yet I fear they've become too common, dare I say "dead common." The verb in question is can, or perhaps more specifically, its negating counterpart cannot and the contraction can't.

Some of you may have grown up experiencing an exchange such as this:
"Mom, can I go out and play?"
"Well, you may go out and play … "
Both my parents did something like that to convey that "can" and "could" referred to ability, while "may" and "might" referred to permission. Anyone is able to have a cookie, but we're not always allowed to.

Unfortunately, not only has this distinction been lost on many, it has grown worse. "Can" and "cannot" have also been conflated with "want to" and "don’t want to". I've heard people who were perfectly capable of sending an email, or saying a few words to the right person, and with no impediment in terms of supervisory permission, still insist that they "can't" do so. The only reasons I'm able to see for their "can't" are that they are not willing to do so, due to being either unmotivated, uncomfortable, or some combination thereof.

It is at once confusing, exasperating and infuriating, especially for someone like me who takes language – and clarity in language use – as seriously as I do. Imagine the sentence: "We can't issue such a clarifying memo." Now imagine it's possible meanings to include:
  • We're not able to do that.
  • We need explicit permission before we can do that.
  • We have been explicitly prohibited from doing that.
  • We're not in the mood to do that.
  • We have bad feelings about doing that.
That leaves those on the receiving end of that "can't” statement to deduce which meaning it is, based on contextual facts:
  • The person or group saying "can't" has computers and printers and email access, and people who know how to use them, and even a proposed draft for the memo, so they are certainly able to print and distribute it.
  • The person has sufficient authority in the organization, and the organization has made no explicit rule prohibiting such a statement, so it has nothing to do with permission.
  • Therefore, we can only conclude that the person is unwilling to do so, despite indicating a willingness to do so beforehand, which … well, you get the idea.
There seems also a power dynamic to the continual misuse of "can't" with regard to their respective work within an organization. Those at the bottom seem split between saying they're unable and forbidden, in keeping with the lack of authority given to them. Those in the middle appear to utilize it more to voice their own fears and frustrations, having been given limited authority and even less clarity regarding the scope of their roles. And for those at the top, "You/they can't" often means the subject of the sentence are prohibited, while "I can't" is more about the person in charge being unwilling.

What to do about such conundrums? Well, transforming organizations and social interactions is not within my purview, but one thing within my power is to at least attempt to abandon my own usage of "can" and "cannot/can't" (and their simple past-tense forms "could/couldn’t") in favor of more precise references to ability, permission and willingness. At least my own speech and correspondence will be less vague.

As for others, the best recourse that comes to mind is, whenever they use these words, to insist on clarification: "Are you saying you're unable, unwilling, or forbidden? If unable, how so? If forbidden, by whom? And if unwilling, to what degree and for what reason?"

As an officer of my congregation, and as the spokesperson for a constituent group within Unitarian Universalism, I am often in the position of having to advocate and negotiate on behalf of others. That, in my mind, requires clarity in my expression. I hope those with whom I attempt to communicate in these contexts realize, see and do likewise.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What Do We Want, Anyway?

My last post has garnered a number of comments, including from some current and former UUA employees. The latest I have not allowed to show, because while it begins with a reasonable question, it then deviates into rather obnoxious and ignorant territory. I don't like deleting comments before they're posted, but when you start posing outlandish scenarios about what kinky and polyamorous Unitarian Universalists, that's a hard limit for me.

So, for clarity's sake, and in case any UUA staff and leaders are listening, I've decided to sum up an "agenda" of sorts. I'm not declaring this the official manifesto of kinky and poly UUs or our organizations. These are simply responses to what I've continued to observe over the years. Besides, even if the folks at the top of our movement don't pay attention, it would be good for more UUs in general to know this ...

Acknowledge we exist. As my previous post illustrated, this is the biggest and most essential problem within the UUA. Our leaders seem unable or unwilling to even call us what we call ourselves, often resorting to convoluted euphemisms to talk about us. When kink and poly are mentioned in educational materials like OWL, there's no recognition that there's any overlap between our faith community and the kink and poly communities. Harvard University and other schools have recognized kink groups, and discussed BDSM and polyamory in classrooms and panel discussions. Media from ABC News Nightline to the New York Times has given more and in some cases better information than our educational material. It's time the UUA and its congregations caught up.

Recognize the real problem. Too often I've heard well-meaning UUs tell me: "I really don't care what you do in your bedroom." Well, brace yourself for a bit of harsh medicine. That's the sexual minority equivalent of saying "I don't see people in terms of color." First off, this isn't about the nitty-gritty of "what we do in private" so much as it is about who we are and how we're treated in public. It's about what goes on in our workplaces, our doctor's office, and our legal system. It is about our privacy being violated, our rights and dignity ignored, our safety compromised, and our attempts to educate met with nervous laughter at best and outright scorn at worst -- even in UU circles.

Give us safe space. In saying this, I feel the need to distinguish between "safe spaces" and what I'd call "ghetto space." A safe space is defined by the marginalized group, for their benefit and on their terms. A "ghetto space," on the other hand, is defined by those with power and privilege, and more for maintaining that privilege. Safe space is about empowering a group of people for when they go out into the world, ghetto space, as well-intentioned as it may be, ultimately serves to "keep them in their place." We can make our congregations safer spaces for kinksters, polyfolk, and many other groups who already worship and witness among us. We can give them space to be their true selves, to breathe easier, to speak more freely, to share their gifts, to cry and scream when they've been hurt, and to lift them up as all of us would wish to be.

Deal with your own discomfort. Some years ago, a friend of mine interviewed me as part of her seminary's cross-cultural awareness work. One of the first things she did was admit her uneasiness about the issue. More and more, I've realized what a gift that was. Her doing so helped to focus and continue the conversation for both of us. On the other hand, I've lost count of how many times I can tell when someone is uncomfortable, although they refuse to own up to it. At least my friend, by owning up to it, started the process of dealing with it. Denying your discomfort, however politely, just leaves it to sit and fester. Worse, it shifts it over to the focus of your discomfort, adding yet another burden. Whether it's race, gender-based attraction, gender identity, or any other difference, hiding discomfort about it is like trying to cover up cat poop -- you not only fail, you're likely to compound the problem.

Be allies, not bystanders. Another thing I've lost count on is the number of people who tell me they "support" me or the work of Leather & Grace -- but only in private. As a football-player friend of mine from college would say: "Cheerleading doesn't get the ball down the field." So if you've learned something from our communities, pass it on and give us credit. If you hear misinformation or outright attacks, speak up. If a kink or poly person comes to your congregation, and is made to feel unwelcome, address it. And if you're afraid people will wonder if you're "one of those" ... well, first see the paragraph above about discomfort, and also remember that there's nothing wrong with setting the record straight about who you are. Whether you're offering to punt, pass, catch or just run defense, there's room on the team for you -- but we've got more than enough cheerleaders.

There you have it. Any questions? Fire away.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The "K" and "P" Words

Warning: This post could make other UUs uncomfortable. Strong medicine has a tendency to do that …

This post is about invisible people. I don't mean some science-fiction scenario where human beings become transparent. I don't mean people who deliberately hide. I'm talking about how a community of people renders some particular group or category within it as unseen and unseeable, thus continuing to marginalize them – or, in this case, us

Before writing this post, I had to do some digging, combing through email archives, articles and web pages. To be exact, the larger community I'm talking about doesn’t render us completely invisible. We pop up here and there in a couple little corners. But that's about it. And in the places where it really matters, we remain virtually nonexistent.

The community I'm speaking of is Unitarian Universalism. And the groups that they continue to marginalize are called kinksters or kinky, and polyamorous or poly. There are kinky and poly UUs across the continent, even a group for UU kinksters and an older group for poly UUs.

But if you looked at the "official" web media and literature of the Unitarian Universalist Association, you'd hardly know. The UUPA is listed as a Related Organization, but Leather & Grace can't even get its foot in the door because there doesn't seem to be a consistent understanding of what it takes to become a Related Organization. We've asked the UUA multicultural office how the UU polys got that status without even applying for it, and we've never gotten any clear answer. And when we've explained in detail the difficulties around one of the requirements spelled out to us, and asked that this be clarified once and for all … nothing in response.

Perhaps you can tell that I'm rather miffed by all this. But it's nothing compared to the core issue around this post. I find it hard to recall a single instance of anyone in UUA leadership, and even more painfully the UUA’s multicultural staff, say or write the "K" or "P" words. I've heard lots of euphemisms and dancing around these terms, but somehow none of these people who keep telling me I can trust them can even bring themselves to call us what we call ourselves.

I never thought I'd be comparing the leaders of my faith with fundamentalist Christians in regard to sexuality, but they're doing a very similar dance to different tunes. The fundies still can't say gay or lesbian without putting them in scare quotes; the most evolved they've become is referring to "same-sex attraction." Similarly, UUA leaders will talk in terms of us as "alternative," and in one email we were referred to as "new understandings" of sexual orientation that "may emerge in the future."

I won't go into graphic detail about the reactions that produced. Suffice it to say, we are people, not "understandings," and we live and work and pray and hurt right here and now. And, to be perfectly blunt, we deserve better than to be reduced to a bloodless hypothetical.

The rest of the world is now talking about polyamory and kink. Planned Parenthood has even helped produce an educational video on BDSM. But the UUA can't even call us what we call ourselves. We've been talking and talking, waiting and hoping. But if the best we can get is being told behind closed doors that, sorry, our once forward-looking faith can't catch up with Harvard University and The New York Times, but that we should still trust our faith leaders to be with us when they think we "may emerge in the future" … well, that’s just not good enough.

Moral progress doesn't happen by waiting for others to do what's right. It happens by doing what's right. Calling a group of people what they call themselves, and not some seemingly comfortable euphemism, is the least moral thing our faith leaders can do. And it's high time they did.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Just One Question About the New UUA Logo ...

Okay, I've been staying away from blogging due to a major writing project. I do have some other posts on the back burner as a result. But then something caught my attention that, well, is just demanding a response.

About ten years ago, William Sinkford commissioned an update of our flaming chalice logo. Not that huge a change, really. There's still a chalice, a flame, two overlapping circles. Some rays are added, but if you compare it with the older version, you can still see a continuum.

Well, apparently some person or persons decided that the UUA had to hire yet another design firm to come up with yet another logo. This one, from what I can tell, attempts to incorporate "UU" into the flaming chalice.

As Lieutenant Colombo would say ... Sorry to bother you folks, but there's just one question that's really bothering me about this:

Why??

Seriously, folks. Feedback from your own studies indicates that we're not being consistent in our message, that we're not that articulate in explaining Unitarian Universalism to younger people in particular and people in general. And this is your response??

I've heard an array of complaints about how sluggish and unresponsive the UUA's bureaucracy is, from congregational leaders whose requests for assistance are met with requests to file even more paperwork, to individuals facing discrimination and even harassment who feel like they have absolutely nowhere to turn. I've heard of, and personally experienced, serious communications problems, including failures to respond to queries or requests, and refusal to answer questions. And this is your response??

Oysh.

Call me what you will -- curmudgeon, gadfly, malcontent -- but I've always believed that, when you have serious discrepancies between your vision for the world and how you do business, you're better off investing what time and energy and money and other resources you have to actually fixing those problems. Especially when a concrete proposal has been put forward.

But, that's just me ...

Saturday, January 4, 2014

UU Social Activism: A Proposal For Your Consideration …

The Internet has revolutionized our world, including how many people work to change it. The process by which social-justice groups make decisions has become radically decentralized. The tools available to activists have gone from printed paper to electronic documents, from finding physical meeting space to setting up an online forum. The scope of e-communication has allowed us to truly "think globally and act locally." And the speed at which discussion and action takes place has accelerated to the speed at which one can type and click a mouse.

Now compare that to what we Unitarian Universalists have set up. A five-person Commission on Social Witness screens who-knows-how-many proposals down to ten or less. These are then brought to the congregations, and they have a couple of months to pick five from that list. Assuming that twenty-five percent or more of UUA congregations submit their choices, these are tallied and the results presented to that year’s General Assembly to pick one for congregations to study and act upon over the course of three years – assuming, of course, that every congregation has someone with the knowledge and passion to take the lead on that. Then reports, a draft statement of conscience, a poll of congregations on the draft statement, a revision based on comments, a two-thirds vote at the next General Assembly, and finally after four or more years, the UUA makes an official statement on the issue.

Meanwhile … How many other issues have gone by the wayside because they didn’t "make the cut" to become an official Congregational Study/Action Issue past the CSW, the first congregational poll, or the General Assembly? How many CSAIs died with a whimper because there weren’t "enough" congregations with people willing and able to take part in the process for that issue? And how many issues were given a boost because the President of the UUA used their “point of privilege” to call on people to take a stand?

Seriously, I have to wonder … Imagine if this process had been in place in the early 1970’s, given how many congregations resisted even talking about homosexuality, and given that the UUA’s President at the time responded to the proposal for an Office of Gay Concerns by asking: "What’s next, bestiality?" Would we have taken such a leadership role on GLBT issues, especially marriage equality, if this process had been in place back then?

I admit that, whatever the arguments in favor of this process, I’ve yet to hear them. But aside from the fact that it promotes competition over cooperation, perpetuates a scarcity mentality, and ultimately relies more on top-down rather than bottom-up decision-making and influence, this process is years if not decades behind how the vast majority of social-justice activists do things today. And if we are to be "the religion for our time," if we are to catch up with and even take the lead with this new approach, then we need a new "open source" method of witnessing to important issues that is more effective, inclusive and responsive.

Borrowing from both biblical and technical terminology, let me propose a "UU Cloud of Witnesses," or UU-CloWt for short. The hub for this could be a wiki site, providing a platform for people to present and organize on various issues. Each issue would have a portal under which people could find various pages, from an introductory summary of facts, to links for more information and resources, a forum for people to exchange ideas and opinions, a calendar for events (both real-time and online), and a proposed resolution with a form for individuals and congregations to record their endorsement. Such a UU-CloWt wiki site would provide a way for individuals and groups to connect and cooperate from the grassroots up – and, more importantly, to link up with activists outside UU circles and affect change both quickly and effectively.

And what of the current system? Well, what of it? If people still want to pursue that process, they are welcome to do so. But there’s also the chance that both congregations and individual activists decide otherwise, perhaps even declining to participate in the CSAI polling system, and gauging interest by activity on this open-source platform. And if that shift were to happen, I guess the UUA’s leadership and bureaucracy will have to do some serious thinking.