Saturday, March 19, 2011

Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Are You a Closet Dissenter?

In What's the Moral Here, Scott Wells writes that all the recent top hits on his blog site have been "posts critical of the Unitarian Universalist Association, or something Unitarian Universalist," which is not really the goal of his blog.  But he notes that there is clearly a market for that kind of material.  I had been thinking of writing a similar piece myself.  My posts and guest posts about the firing of the PCD district executive have received approximately 500 hits.  But when I posted about the Turley, Oklahoma church that was covered in the UU World, I got maybe 50 total hits.
Pledge break:  if you want to do something useful instead of reading blogs, go read my previous post right now, click through and give them some money.  Twenty bucks will do.  Then come back here for some more analysis.
Maybe the moral is that there is pent-up dissent within Unitarian Universalism?  In Beatitudes for a New Day, revtony wrote, "Unitarian Universalists do not bless dissent."  In Giving up Unitarian Universalism for Lent, Scott Wells wrote, "If I hear covenant used as a coded message to clam up and step back in line, I’ll scream so loud that Cotton Mather will rise from his grave."  Today my wife (a life-long UU) was talking to another old-time UU, and she noted that over that last decade it seemed like there was less tolerance for dissent in our home church; and she had thought that it was just our church.  But it seems to be widespread.  I have had a few responses to my blogs by people who said they had been UUs for decades, but were just getting tired of it.  Engaging in a bit of armchair psychology, I think there are multiple sources or manifestations of this problem, in no particular order.

1.  Church members who have found a wonderful spiritual home that is not beating over them the head about whatever failing that other churches (or the wider world) saw in them don't want dissent.  Their new home is wonderful, and they don't want to have discord in this place that offers them comfort.

2.  Tension between those who do and don't think that Unitarian Universalism is the religious wing of the Democratic Party.  News flash:  it is possible to have different ideas about governments and still be a religious liberal.  Full disclosure:  I'm as Democratic as the next person here in the City of Pelosi, but I have friends who are UU Republicans who are marginalized, and that's just wrong.

3.  Tension between the various religious wings - old-line Humanists, Universalist Christians, Pagans, New-Agers, Social Actionists, Post-Modernisits, and the rest of our 31 flavors.  No matter which of these you are, you know in your heart of hearts that some of your fellows are just cranky, illogical, or silly.  Rather than engage in reasoned dialog about our views, we just suppress them in the interest of false comity, and seethe about it instead.

4.  A wider cultural trend that equates support with agreement.

5.  Self-censorship.  We see what happens to those who dissent - you get labelled a troublemaker, and marginalized.

6.  A funny feeling that I get about UU ministers being scared.  Revtony alludes to this in  Beatitudes for a New Day:
Beyond the congregation, my experience is that for all our talk of congregational polity, our tiny little religious association is like a small national business or law firm and if you expect to have a career as religious professional in this business, you quickly learn to play by the rules, make allies, and certainly don’t question the powers that be and prevailing (although by no means successful) way of doing things, at least until you have final fellowship. For all of our storied history as heretics, I see us as a conservative bunch that doesn’t really like dissent.
I have seen some of this in the events at the PCD - comments suggesting that ministers are afraid of their congregations and the District Executive.  I can only guess at the reasons, but I think some of it is related to worrying about their current position, and moving to the next position.  I have heard of multiple Committees of Ministry at different churches, including my own, where the minister had no interest in critique, and packed the committee with minister groupies.  In a congregation, this can play out in a minister having an interest in suppressing dissent because they are afraid that it might turn on them.  Reading between the lines of the UUMA Guidelines, it's pretty clear that ministers are not to criticize each other.  (My observation of this pattern is what led to All the Other Ministers.)
So where does this leave us?  We have no cultural capacity of dealing with dissent - no habits of presenting reasoned arguments, finding points of agreement, understanding the reasons for why we disagree (even if I disagree with you, I assume you reason - and if you don't, you should just retire from the discussion), and moving to a new point.  But this does not happen.

The result is that a lot of dissent is bottled up.  And blog posts about dissent become attractors for someone who says "gee, someone else besides me has a beef with Unitarian Universalism."  The number of blog hits that we get are probably a measure of this suppression.

So what's your dissent?


  1. This is what happens when leadership defaults on the issues facing any organization. UUA's facing a financial and growth crisis. Liberalism (not just Liberal Theology) is facing an ideological crisis. UUA leadership not explicitly facing either. Hence, the bloggers take over plus whatever else is going on behind closed doors.

  2. Without knowing more about UU than I've skimmed in your blog, I think you hit the nail on the head in one sentence: "We have no cultural capacity of dealing with dissent." Kind of ironic, considering our (U.S.) roots. I've visited (seven) or researched (three) ten local churces this year, and four of those made it apparent inside of an hour that they have a low tolerance for hearing anything they don't already have inside their corral of acceptable ideas.

  3. You don't seem to have any difficulty voicing your dissent. Who, in your opinion, is suppressing your ability to do so?

  4. I did not say that anyone is suppressing my ability to do so here - but THIS forum is not within a congregation or UUA institutional structure. My point is how dissent is treated within these institutions: UUA culture does not like dissent.

    At the ministerial level, note the statements above from Scott Wells and Revtony about suppressed dissent.

    Within congregations, there is plenty of resistance to dissent and difference. For example, my point about the difficulty of being Republican within UUsim. When one dissents, they are accused of disturbing the "beloved community" and marked as a trouble-maker.

    Another example is the anti-racism doctrine. See David Reich's book "The Anti-Racism Trainings."

    Within various online forums there are not-infrequent requests to stop arguing about issues and trust the hierarchy. Challenging questions are viewed as a threat, not an opportunity.

    Finally - I am public about my dissent. Does posting your response as Anonymous prove my point?