Tuesday, July 12, 2005

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.


At July 13, 2005 at 11:07:00 AM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

When I wrote the leading post in this thread, I was reluctant to call the racism accusations coming out of GA specious. On the basis of the following eyewitness acount (with thanks to ChaliceChick), however, I will.

For whatever it's worth, here is what initiated that event.

I was ushering in the balcony and was greeting and handing out programs at the far right entrance. You will remember that many people came in after the program began, since many had gone to get dinner before it started. It was therefore not unusual that three young black persons walked in about 15 minutes after the program had begun. What was unusual is the manner in which they were dressed and their body language.

I have been a school teacher and school counselor for 25 years, so I know that, in the kid's vernacular, they were dressed in "gangsta'" fashion (low slung, oversized clothing, bandanas on head, wraparound sunglasses, even though it was evening, etc.). I must admit that my first thought (since they were not wearing their name cards) was that perhaps this might be local youth that might have seen some of our protests during the week and came to check us out. I had not seen them at any of the other programs.

Instead of looking for a seat, they stood in the walkway separating the lower balcony from the upper balcony and watched the program for about 10 minutes, then they began walking toward the center of the balcony. I smiled and them and offered them a program. Only one of the young men stopped and reached for one, after which he took two steps to follow his friends and made a big show of throwing the program on the floor. Then they proceed toward the next entrance, where this same young man asked that usher (Brenda) for a program, and proceeded to do the same thing.

At this point, my husband Jim (also an usher upstairs) went over to them and asked them if there was a problem. I later found out that the youth replied, "What's it to you, Man?"

The induction of the candidates was beginning, so Jim suggested that if they were not interested in watching the program, perhaps they should go out into the lobby so they would not disturb others. Although the three youth proceeded down the stairs to the lobby, another young man, (Brian Kuzma) came down from the upper balcony and proceeded to scold Jim for being a "Racist" and anti-youth. Jim suggested they go discussed this in the lobby since it was disturbing the audience. They went down to the lobby, and at this point, the young man who had been disrupive came in again at my entrance (without his friends). Again, he asked me for a program. Again, I smiled and said I hoped he would keep it this time. He mumbled something, took the program, pitched it to the floor, and proceeded toward the other usher.

At this point a woman who happened to be standing in the walkway came to me and said, "Those guys are obviously trouble-makers and need to leave."

I told her that Jim had already called the head usher on his radio and the situation would be handled. As we then turned to the center entrance, however, the young man had gotten another program from Brenda, and was now tearing it up and throwing the pieces down.

Mr. Rickter, I have worked with youth for 25 years, and I know when I am being "baited"-- so I knew that he was itching to be confronted, something I was not about to do. But the woman who saw all this walked up to the young man and asked him what his problem was. He replied, "Get out of my face, bitch." Another man overheard this, and so we all followed the youth to the lobby where Brian proceeded to argue with everyone that we were acting "just like the Fort Worth police." The woman and man kept trying to explain to him that it was the behavior of the young man (and not his race) that being called into question.

At this point, other young people that had been out in the lobby the whole time began screaming and crying that everyone was being unfair! Then, some of the youth sponsors, as well as people from the Planning Committee came on the scene, so I went back to my post where the ushers were being told to block people from going into the lobby until things were calm.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Overall, I 'd had such a wonderful experience at GA the previous days that the whole incident was like a splash of cold water. I was especially sad to learn that the young man who incited this was "one of us." I couldn't understand why he would choose to be unruly and disrespectful and disrupt the closing ceremony. I am told it was because he was harrassed during the week, but I cannot understand why he would feel that it gave him license to take it out on the whole group.

Believe me, having grown up as a person of color in Texas, I would be the last one to be an apologist for racist behavior. But this was not the case in this particular incident. The youth will need to understand that they, also, need to examine what I perceive as reverse racism, on their part. It was an unfortuante incident all the way around. As you say, I hope we can all learn from it.

Esther Ford, Member
Live Oak U-U Church
Cedar Park, Texas

I will go further and say that the whole kerfuffle over these specious accusations is evidence of just how insidious and dangerous the "boy crying wolf" problem is that I mentioned in the first post. Inherent white liberal racism is far less a problem for us than inherent white liberal gullibility and cluelessness. Also inherent predisposition to find fault with somebody else, whether we are black (in the case of the young troublemakers) or white (in the case of the myriad of sanctimonious after-the-fact scolds and cluckers who weren't actually there).

At July 13, 2005 at 11:49:00 AM EDT, Blogger Oversoul said...

“…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?”

I think this article gives an answer:


I don’t agree with everything he says, but he does make some good points.


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