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.