Measured Extravagance

05 May 2004 - 9:49 p.m.

Alex Elliott's suggestions on thinking about extremism (ninth down the page) over at Scalzi's are worth a ponder, methinks: "It's a good thing for anyone to have to differentiate themselves from the extremists on their own side and show how your positions are more nuanced and rational."

Good, too, to muse upon the distinction between "extreme" and "radical," and on all-or-nothing philosophical frameworks (e.g. "if you accept ______, that's the same as endorsing _______", or "if you allow _____, what's to keep someone from insisting they have the right to ", or "if you are anti____, then you are obviously also anti______"). I've been noticing it (both online and in person) in debates about the war, about relationships, about various civil rights (or privileges, depending on one's point of view)... good, and frustrating. My own preference is to evaluate people and situations on a case-by-case basis, but policy-setters (such as boards and assemblies) don't always have that luxury, particularly since policies set precedents.

My church has been trying to develop a policy about affiliate groups for the better part of the year, and the assumptions, perceptions and ramifications that have emerged in the various discussions has been very interesting indeed - ranging from fears of being used (scenario: non-UUs joining the church merely to access the sub-group - i.e. with little interest in the larger congregation or Unitarian Universalism in general. (But is that so different from people who show up just for choir or brunch? Some insist yes, some no.)) and concerns about public relations (e.g. will the activities of ________ affect how the church as a whole is perceived?) to the ever-knotty issue of fairness (would we be asking the same questions of other UU affiliate groups? Will the guidelines to be set for the CUUPS chapter address the concerns raised by UUCF and other potential affiliates?)

I've agreed to take the pulpit on Independence Day this year. When I received the invitation, I was already thinking about developing a piece on categories and labels - specifically to examine some of the names on those "Famous Unitarian Universalists" lists, such as Thomas Jefferson, as well as who shows up on compilations of renowned GLBTs (Emily Dickinson and Hans Christian Andersen, for instance), etc. - specifically, should we be naming people as UUs who identified themselves neither as Unitarian nor Universalist during their lives? Does someone really count as a homosexual icon if the conjecture about their love life far exceeds the available evidence? More crucial, though, what drives their inclusion on these lists in the first place? Is it merely wishful thinking (i.e. "so-and-so would have called himself a Unitarian if that had been an option!") and/or an inadequate pool of role models? Is it false advertising? (Frankly, I think so, but. . .) Is it useful to include these people anyway because it stimulates interest in why someone wants to hold them up as members of the tribe? (Or is that just a lame diversion for dorks like me who can't resist mental gymnastics?) Do "famous" lists have it all wrong anyhow - do they protest too much? (I.e. "Hey! So-and-so was a UU/GLBT/University of Chicago grad! We're not as marginal or freaky as you think!")

Now I'm thinking about adding "associations and assumptions" to the mix - specifically to highlight two particular formulations that tend to push my buttons: (1) If you're a member of ______, you necessarily believe ________. (2) So-and-so is a _______, therefore _______. In my "UU 101" conversations, I generally take pains to point out many of the Unitarian Universalists one may encounter are neither Unitarian nor Universalist by strict definition - one can't just assume which god(s) a UU worships (if any) without taking the trouble to ask that particular individual.

For that matter, the term "Christian" has become fairly useless as a behavioral signifier in my book - it doesn't tell me thing one about that person's particular stances on prayer, tithing, abortion, shrimp, musicals or Monty Python. Same with the labels "Republican," "polyamorous," "feminist" - when I try to nail down the characteristics that define each group, I usually end up feeling like an idiot -- and I think that's in fact an appropriate response, because they are mighty small umbrellas for the swarms of people they mean to cover. Which is how one ends up encountering Log Cabin Republicans and polyamorous Christians and pro-life feminists. The part that distresses me is when, because such people don't stick with their stereotype, it's automatically argued (from both within and without) that they must be confused, or careless, or some other variation of morally or intellectually deficient.

This is not to say that one should never judge nor operate on assumptions - when making a decision (such as hiring or voting) where time and data are limited, there often isn't a choice. And not every choice carries the burden of defining policy or shaping someone's career. (Which is to say, yeah, I'll pick a Democrat pork-pull over a Republican one 98% of the time - but I do reserve that 2%, because yes, some Democrats are worse than the proverbial yellow dawg.) But, nonetheless, it seems to me there is often a certain nasty arrogance inherent in declaring that someone doesn't know or care what they're about when they advocate or pursue a controversial, non-majority view, be it insisting on the non-divinity of Christ or believing women don't belong in combat or creating a household with multiple partners. They are not exempt from skepticism or criticism - they may indeed be utterly wrong or utterly deranged - but even so, I sometimes find myself desperately wishing more people were willing to rethink their postulates. To give individuals more credit for being both thoughtful and unpredictable, even when we couldn't disagree more with their conclusions and choices short of cannonballing them into the Cumberland.

It's not a trivial struggle. Even mild confrontations make me queasy, and people who don't treat my perceptions with civility or courtesy - arrgh. There are times when I'm just not getting through to someone on an issue I care about deeply, and I just want to howl, "Why don't you understand? Why are you making this so difficult?" The key, I think, is remembering that they're almost certainly wondering the same about me - "why does this woman harbor blind spots the size of 747s?"

And when I can bring myself to do that, it becomes much harder to pack other people conveniently away into that giant holding tank called "Them." R.J. Anderson is a conservative Christian writer. Yes, she maintains that homosexuality is a sin - but she'll also tell you why that doesn't make her a homophobe, and why she isn't overly fussed about efforts to legalize gay marriage. I have several other friends and acquaintances who share similar views, and it's not because they're horrible, hopelessly repressed Bible-thumpers who get their jollies from being unfair to non-heterosexuals. Is it painful that we don't agree? Yes. Does that make them irredeemable monsters? Hardly. It is utterly maddening in that there's not a whole lot one can do about competing bedrock postulates other than continuing the work of centuries - of trying to figure out if and how opposing sides can live and let live.

Still, that in itself is an immense, worthy goal. Marissa Lingen recently posted a resounding critique of demonizing abortion rhetoric, her main thrust being that we aren't going to get anywhere imputing "the nastiest possible motives [one's] opponents could have, and then applying them to all opponents." At last year's General Assembly, Rabbi Harold Kushner spoke about making an effort to understand fundamentalists:

"their moral differences with us may be rooted, not in fear or small-mindedness, but in moral seriousness.… My point is not that I want you to change, but we can’t dismiss those who differ with us as ignorant rednecks. Some are. Others root their positions in a view that is as morally grounded and as biblically grounded as our own.”

On the other side of the coin, neither should we feel obligated to answer for each and every person who chooses to identify as Unitarian Universalist, much less apologize for them, whether they're the president of the UUA or someone who shows up only at potlucks. It's a problem the mainstream denominations have been dealing with for years (cf. M'ris's statement on her links page: "Yes, I am a Christian. No, I'm not that kind of Christian. I don't believe you're going to hell for doing that") , and as the Unitarian Universalist movement builds a higher profile, having to point out we aren't all _____ (pro-choice, anti-war, pro-polyamory, anti-Trinity - take your pick) comes with the territory. It's not a responsibility any of us wanted - but that's ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that we keep striving to see people as they are, not as we assume. It doesn't mean we have to like their personality or approve their views, but our often-quoted first principle exhorts us "to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person," not just the ones like us, and not just the ones that are likable. It doesn't mean we have to turn the other cheek if they strike out at us. It doesn't mean we have to accept their policies or condone their actions. It doesn't even mean that we have to spend any more time with them than absolutely necessary - so, yes, it's okay to turn down that invitation to the White House. To me, however, it does speak of striving to be fair and to view people as individuals - even the people we see as oppressors or zealots or just plain idiots. It means recognizing labels and categories as a sketchy kind of shorthand rather than definitive summaries. It means rejecting easy equations, and not insisting that "a" plus "b" must always, always add up to "c" if the person in question can articulate how they came up with "d," and not mistaking that one element of a person for the whole, complex creature. It means rejoicing in diversity even when it exasperates or flummoxes us with its paradoxes and demands.

Hm, I think that morphed into the first draft of my sermon. To be expanded and edited later next month for coherence, clarity and readaloudability to a non-online audience. Now if I can just get myself to focus on the projects due this week. . .(!)

On a related note, again via Scalzi, here's an article on Pat Tillman. As John put it, "It's worth looking at to remember that as people seem to be ready to put Tillman in one category or another, the fact is he was a three-dimensional human being of some complexity."

One year ago, a fellow church member observed: "Annuals, they have nothing else to do, so they go all out."

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