On Crying Wolf
Steve Caldwell was discussing at Liberal Faith Development the concern over recent incidents at the GA that were perceived as racist. Steve was suggesting that many UUs harbor discriminatory unwittingly racist or “ageist” attitudes and fall into denial when it is pointed out to them. Over there, I was responding that we shouldn’t overlook the possibility that other factors than discrimination may have been involved in these incidents as well. Unfortunately, some of the participants took some of the comments in the discussion personally, so Steve has decided to take a break, and the conversation is dwindling down there. Although the racism issue is still being discussed elsewhere, I thought I’d try to repeat my points about the “other sides of the coin” here.
My question was this: Why do we seem to be preoccupied to the point of self-flagellation over issues of discrimination and oppression, but show far less concern for other denominational problems that to some eyes seem even more glaring, and present a real impediment to our ability to be taken seriously by the broader society?
One of these other problems is, I think, a reckless and uncritical encouragement of an attitude that 25 Beacon has loftily called "the prophetic witness". Not all social ills are equally dire; not all involve an equally unambiguous religious, spiritual, or ethical dimension; not all are equally prone to be remedied, especially through prophetic action. Learning when and how to give the prophetic witness judiciously and effectively, rather than recklessly and indiscriminately, is something that we UUs need to be just as concerned with as we are with the existence of discrimination and oppression. Abusing this witness through undisciplined condemnation or advocacy does nothing to further the societal changes that we hope for, but instead only marginalizes the voices who abuse it and, along with them, the causes they support.
Unfortunately, I do not think "institutional" UUism is nearly as concerned with teaching the appropriate (and inappropriate) uses of the prophetic witness as it is in promoting a more indiscriminate enthusiasm for what James Luther Adams has called "the prophethood of every believer". In practical application, this undisciplined enthusiasm often leads to a "boy who cried wolf" problem in which the ostensibly prophetic message is ignored or spurned because the messenger's previous recklessness in advocacy or condemnation has already damaged his or her own credibility. As in the case of the boy who cried wolf, this can occur even when the message of the moment happens to be valid. I think it's a real problem for both the UU movement as a whole and ourselves as autonomous, conscientious individuals.
I also think it’s a problem that is not evenly distributed across all UUism, but is especially concentrated in a few spots within the UUA. These spots include the Washington Office, YRUU, certain policy-making bureaus of 25 Beacon, and certain individual congregations' social action committees. In particular, I think a significant part of the recent troubles that YRUU has experienced stems from overemphasizing the prophetic witness and underemphasizing or ignoring other issues of faith and character development that are probably more important in the adolescent years, combined with grossly inadequate training in the effective and appropriate use of the witness.
Returning to the recent incidents involving youth at the GA: when they are seen through the lens of UUs’ "conventional wisdom" about the pervasiveness of racism, one familiar image emerges, and that is the paradigm for which “official” statements have been issued, and which is being actively debated elsewhere. When, however, they are seen through the lens of youthful immaturity combined with poorly conceived institutional promotion of reckless, undisciplined witnessing, an entirely different and less familiar, but no less valid and compelling, image falls into focus.
Steve accuses those who minimize or dismiss the pervasiveness of racism and “ageism” among UUs of being in denial. However, to my mind it is no less a case of denial to dismiss the one image than it is to dismiss the other.