By Rev Mark Gallagher
Sent October 8, 2019, to the Board of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association.
I wish to address the tumult among us around White Supremacy Culture and identity-based activism generally, especially the recent letters of condemnation of our colleague Todd Eklof for his book The Gadfly Papers. Public communication around all this has been one-sided, so to the casual observer it may appear to be a simple case of right-thinking anti-oppression colleagues taking a firm hand with a few don’t-get-it, privilege-defending (mostly white male) colleagues. Conscience calls me to offer a different frame for this series of events.
In recent years, the ideologies of Critical Race Theory and White Supremacy Culture have been proclaimed by UU identity activists and adapted to oppressions besides race. I gather that one of the tenets of CRT and WSC is rejection of the necessity for members of oppressed groups to explain or persuade on a rational basis, as rationality is itself a characteristic of the oppressive culture being denounced.
Accordingly, it has become common for identity activists to present their ideas and interpretations of events as indisputable “truth-telling.” Any disagreement, challenge, or even doubt is dismissed as white fragility or white privilege (or some other kind of fragility or privilege) and condemned as “harm.” In White Supremacy Culture ideology (itself presented as non-negotiable) the testimony of members of oppressed classes is the final word.
I believe the integrity of our collegiality, our association, and our faith is being severely undermined by ideological dogmatism and fanaticism.
- Ideology: A bundle of ideas used by a social group to make the world more intelligible to themselves and guide their understanding and action (e.g. democracy, capitalism, materialism, nonviolence…). We all employ ideologies at times. That is not a bad thing.
- Dogmatism: Ideological pronouncements about which no disagreement, challenge, or question is tolerated.
- Fanaticism: Unreasonable application of an ideology and unduly harsh responses to perceived offenses against it.
Dogmatism and fanaticism are incompatible with our UU tradition. Even ideas we think are universally accepted among us must still be open to discussion and challenge. Our ideas could be wrong. We could change our minds. Even the idea that UU is committed to being non-dogmatic is open to challenge. Fanaticism is contrary to our tradition of respectful engagement even in cases of strongly felt disagreement. (Note: ideas presented dogmatically and applied fanatically may still have some merit; that is a separate question.)
There have been numerous instances of dogmatism and fanaticism in recent years. Since one of my concerns is about lofting accusations without providing particulars, I provide a few particulars below.
UU World article: After L, G, & B (Spring 2019)
The spring 2019 issue of the UU World magazine included an article entitled “After L, G, & B,” a first-person reflection by a cisgender woman about her experience in relation to trans and gender-fluid issues (including some self-deprecating reflection on flawed ally-ship), together with some journalistic background on those issues. Immediately following that article was one entitled “A Call to Action,” by the steering committee of TRUUsT (Trans Religious Professional UU’s Together) with a list of suggestions for how UU’s might be supportive of trans individuals and trans rights.
The magazine came out on March 5. On March 6, a message came out online by TRUUsT expressing outrage about “After L, G, & B.” There was objection to “a repeated focus on surgery, hormones, and pronouns” which “perpetuates stereotypes.” (There were indeed several mentions of these things. I know very well that they are significant aspects of trans experience and do not see how mentioning them perpetuates stereotypes. Perhaps this is a blind spot.) The article ruefully mentioned encountering ‘f- -g-t jokes’* back in high school – this was denounced as “the use of harmful slurs.” Apparently, according to the new ideology, to speak of an offensive act is to commit that offensive act. Not only must hurtful events of the past not be repeated, they must not even be mentioned. I find this unwise and alarming.
[* Although I reject the principle that offensive terms may never be directly mentioned, as a gesture of goodwill in this sensitive communication, I comply with the proposed taboo.]
But the main offense was that the author was cisgender, together with the fact that the editor did not heed the warning of a particular trans leader about that beforehand. The TRUUsT letter charges that “by [centering a white, heterosexual, cisgender woman’s experience] it reduces trans people to objects.” Later it speaks of “this sort of blatant erasure of trans voices.” How the inclusion of an article by a supportive cisgender author alongside one by a trans group reduces trans people to objects and blatantly erases their voices is a complete mystery to me. I interpret this to mean that only trans people may ever speak on the subject.
On the same day as the TRUUsT letter, messages of apology came forth on-line from the UUA president, the editor of the UU World, and the author of After L, G, & B.
The next issue of the UU World (summer 2019) included a set of six reflections by trans or gender-nonconforming people (obviously in atonement for the offense of the prior article) together with a reprint of the apologies from the editor and author, under the headline: “Our Story Hurt People.” An obvious public spanking. Fanaticism in action (and, perhaps, acquiescing to fanaticism).
One further point: The TRUUsT letter complains of “the conflation of intersex and trans experience.” This is particularly perplexing in light of the fact that at the end of the TRUUsT post is a footnote: “TRUUsT uses the word ‘trans’ expansively… while recognizing the limitations of this approach and the fact that not all non-binary people use the word ‘trans’ to describe themselves.” The footnote then includes “intersex” in a list of such people. In other words, TRUUsT decries the conflation of intersex and trans, yet in the very same communication acknowledges that when they say “trans” they include intersex. This sort of confusion is part of why a great deal more humility and gentleness is called for.
UUMA 25-year UUMA Talk (Spokane, June 2019)
Our UUMA 25-year class speaker good-naturedly suggested that maybe we’ve been being a bit harsh with one another. She held up love as the heart of our faith, backed with reference to some early pilgrim covenants. During the UUMA business meeting which followed, the president read a note from some colleagues who had walked out of the talk in protest, stating that it had done “injury and damage” to LGBTQ people and ancestors, and was ableist.
Attempting to guess what they were referring to, all I could reckon was that the speaker had gotten tongue-tied when saying “LGBTQ” and was light-hearted about it. I saw in the live-stream comments speculation that the speaker’s reference to drool was perhaps ablelist. (Because some disabled people drool? Even though most drool is not associated with disability and the drool in question was the speaker’s own?) The part about ancestors, I can only interpret as relating to speaking of the pilgrims as our ancestors. Plainly, the pilgrims are blood ancestors to very few of us, even those who are “white.” However, it strikes me as a non-controversial fact that the pilgrims are our religious ancestors, being the founders of the churches from which our Unitarian tradition sprang. From this complaint, I tentatively infer that the pilgrims (and all of our history?) are supposed to be purged from our tradition because of being part of White Supremacy Culture.
To see this speech as injurious and damaging strikes me as fanatical. Likewise the response of walking out and sending a scolding note. It looks to me like standing on tip-toe in search of an offense and then staging a public rebuke.
Letters Condemning Todd Ekloff for The Gadfly Papers (Summer 2019)
At the 2019 GA, our colleague Todd Eklof distributed copies of his book, The Gadfly Papers, in which he makes the case that UU culture has come to be characterized by Safetyism, Political Correctness, and Identitarianism. He suggests that the Unitarian and Universalist aspects of our heritage have never really grown together and it may be time for some sort of dismerging. And he engages in extensive analysis of White Supremacy Culture theory as applied in the UUA, particularly its logic. A central theme of the book is that in UU today, open and robust engagement of ideas is not tolerated. Instead, an orthodoxy is proclaimed and dissent is shamed and silenced.
 Within a day, a statement came out from the UUMA POCI Chapter (People of Color and Indigenous) decrying Gadfly for racism, ableism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia as well as “vitriol and destructive rhetoric,” but not citing a single instance of any of this.
The POCI message accuses Todd of “racialized bullying” of Christina Rivera, though he did nothing but critique the logic of her public expressions and did not even refer to her by name (only as “the individual who was not hired”). [p. 83-84]
The POCI message calls for the enforcement of UUMA Guidelines in relation to what it considers grave offenses. In fairness, I wonder if baseless public accusations against a colleague might be considered a violation of our Guidelines.
 Within two days of the distribution of Gadfly, An Open Letter from White Ministers condemning Todd and his book had been signed by over 300 individuals. In time, the number of signatories grew to over 500.
The introduction to the letter says that Gadfly includes “vitriolic rhetoric about several marginalized groups.” That’s a serious accusation and, if untrue, is itself vitriolic. I could not find a single instance of vitriolic rhetoric about a marginalized group in the book.
Gadfly contains a good deal of philosophical reflection on formal logic and its application to various claims of White Supremacy Culture ideology. Open Letter states:
We recognize that a zealous commitment to “logic”and ‘reason’ over all other forms of knowing is one of the foundational stones of White Supremacy Culture. Instead of accepting the frame of Rev. Eklof’s arguments and debunking them, we instead affirm the following: …
I can see how one might find the extent of Todd’s emphasis on formal logic excessive. But this sounds like a blunt rejection of logic and reason as basic requirements in public truth-seeking. Open Letter then overtly dismisses the need to refute (“debunk”) his arguments or even cite any particulars in condemning it. This general point is echoed in the UUMA Letter of Censure below; I’ll address it there.
Open Letter suggests that “a deep commitment to racial justice and dismantling white supremacy is a core competency of our calling as ministers,” which I take to be an implicit call for expulsion from the UUMA of any who challenge currently popular ideologies, or are seen as insufficiently committed to them.
Given the timing, I have to suppose that many signed Open Letter without even reading a substantial portion of the book. This impression is reinforced by the fact that the letter itself preemptively condemns any expectation that one ought to read such material before condemning it.* So it appears that many signed a letter of condemnation based mainly on the fact that others were doing so. (The concept of ‘virtue signaling’ may have some relevance here.)
[* Open Letter states: “It is disingenuous at best, and malicious at worst, to argue that those who have been targeted by systemic violence have an obligation to bear witness to ‘ideas and words’ that demean and diminish their personhood and discount their lived experience.” Nowhere did Todd argue that people have an obligation to expose themselves to words that demean, diminish, and discount them. So I take this as a dismissal of the need to read the book before condemning it.]
About 10% of the signers are ministerial candidates or aspirants, and many more are new in ministry. I believe that in this process we are teaching our junior colleagues to join in condemning one another casually and unreflectively, the very definition of fanaticism.
Open Letter refers to the “harmful process by which [The Gadfly Papers] was distributed.” What was that harmful process? I understand the books were given away at GA, as literature often is. If something unethical went on, I would need that explained to me. In the absence of any explanation this seems like another unfounded accusation against Todd.
Never has my confidence in our collegiality been so shaken as in this disgraceful episode. What is becoming of us?
 Several weeks later, the UUMA Board issued a Public Letter of Censure.
…we are writing this letter of censure regarding the content and the manner of distribution (at the 2019 General Assembly) of your book, The Gadfly Papers. … The content of your book has caused great psychological, spiritual, and emotional damage for many individuals and communities within our faith.”
Here we see that the content of the book is the main offense. Yet, we again see condemnation for the manner of distribution with not a word about what was wrong with it. (I really wonder how this idea got started.)
…we cannot ignore the fact that logic has often been employed in white supremacy culture to stifle dissent, minimize expressions of harm, and to require those who suffer to prove the harm by that culture’s standards.
I am flabbergasted by this statement. And chilled. Logic has been used to cause harm, therefore logic is morally tainted? Medicine has also been used to harm. Likewise, truth, law, education, and impassioned personal testimony.
Let’s do a little reality testing: Are logic and reason especially associated with white supremacy — in the popular imagination or in historic fact? I’m pretty sure that to people of color brute force, intimidation, and humiliation have been far more salient characteristics of the white racial supremacy system. And as far as justifying white supremacy to “whites,” there has been far more reliance on appeals to “common knowledge,” disdain, and peer pressure.
This statement sounds to me like a rejection of logical reasoning as a baseline requirement in public discourse. I suppose we all offer illogical arguments from time to time, and hate having it pointed out. But who among us really intends to accept violations of logic on the part of others? Emotion, intuition, and subjective impressions all play a role in reasoning and persuasion, but they are not a substitute for it.
…dismissing testimonies of real people to the profound and pervasive pain of white supremacy culture and its many forms of oppression by simply categorizing them as safetyism or political correctness is both morally wrong and antithetical to our values…
Here we have the nearest thing to a specific charge: dismissing people’s testimony of pain as safetyism or political correctness. Todd does criticize safetyism and political correctness (mainly in academia) as phenomena, but I could not find any dismissiveness toward people’s personal testimony. I suppose Todd does implicitly caution against uncritically embracing every individual’s interpretation of their personal experience as proof of a cultural pattern, but that hardly constitutes “dismissal.” It is possible I missed an instance of dismissiveness, and perhaps that is due to an identity-based blind spot on my part. I would be willing to reconsider in the light of some quotes and page numbers. Given the seriousness of public censure, I think specific examples are in order.
The Letter of Censure accuses Todd of violation of particular points in our Ethical Standards, but again, without a word of substantiation:
- “Honesty and diligence in our work” (How so?)
- “Respect and compassion for all people” (Perhaps this refers to the unsubstantiated charge of dismissiveness?)
- “The work of confronting attitudes and practices of unjust discrimination on the basis of race, color, class, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, age, physical or mental ability, or ethnicity in ourselves and our ministry settings” (This is astonishing in light of Todd’s copious record of involvement with this work. It’s patently outrageous.)
We recognize that our current ethical standards leave room for ambiguity about what kinds of speech and behavior are racist and oppressive. Our commitment to the ongoing work to revise our Guidelines, clarifying expectations of anti-racist, anti-oppressive conduct in the practice of ministry, seems more crucial each day. We are also working to revise the accountability processes to ground them in values of justice, integrity, and healing rather than in their current legalistic frame.
After examination of the proposed changes to the UUMA Ethics and Accountability Guidelines (to be voted on in June 2020) here is my good-faith translation of that statement:
We would like to take more concrete action against Todd but feel constrained by the ambiguity of our Guidelines. We are seeking to solidify the requirement of commitment to the currently popular anti-oppressive ideology, as well as strengthen our accountability/enforcement processes to allow for stronger concrete actions in the future – like suspension or termination of UUMA membership.
This would be official ideological dogmatism. Whether it would be accompanied by fanaticism in application would remain to be seen, but given the events of recent years, I fear the worst in that regard.
The proposed changes to our Guidelines are not something to rubber stamp. They constitute a radical change. They are partly an effort to curtail abuse of junior colleagues by senior colleagues under our “old boy” traditions (perhaps needed, though I have little direct knowledge) but have also become an effort to enforce ideological conformity.
We are frequently admonished these days by UUMA leadership to stay engaged. In my mind, engagement includes questioning, challenging, and, sometimes, flat out disagreeing, all of which I am doing here. If not, then “stay engaged” sounds like a euphemism for “admit that we are right and you are wrong.”
Colleagues, I am not playing “gotcha,” nitpicking phrases here and there. Look at the original documents and reach your own conclusions about what is going on. We have entered upon a period of genuine conflict which demands open hearts and careful thought. Please do not blithely align yourself with confident and seemingly righteous voices. Notice when you are urged not to read or think for yourself; not to question or dissent. Exercise your conscience and your full powers of reasoning.
Rev. Mark Gallagher
Retired from UU Church of Vancouver (Washington)
Copyright 2019 © Mark Gallagher