A few years ago, it was all the rage to blame spree killings and mass murder on “the mentally ill”, as if the fact that someone shot up a church or a Denny’s qualified as a diagnosis. In the last few months, that line has seen less use, as the facts come out that people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. We know that the people who most often do these things are white men from what now count as middle class homes, many of whom are simply angry at the loss of privilege and status that their fathers had. They want to strike out at someone in protest, and those targets are often politically chosen, not for the number of dead or the assumed presence or absence of firearms in the possession of others, but because the shooter is striking at some group he blames for the fact that his life is harder than he thinks it should be.
The new argument that has started to take over is, not unfairly, that we have a cultural problem, and that banning guns isn’t going to change anything. People are mad, and they believe violence is a viable way to express their anger. Drivers shoot each other on the highway, but children fight viciously on school grounds, too. The problem is one that is part of how people think, and some people own guns because they want to feel powerful; others own guns because they are afraid.
The thing that is missing from this argument requires one to think a little harder. It requires one to plan ahead 20 years, rather than thinking only about the next few. The idea that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” isn’t a solution to our cultural disease. That is a symptom and even a cause. The idea that a person has the right to inflict his will on others in public, that violence and death are valid solutions to interpersonal disputes is the thing that people are claiming to be the illness, even as they claim that the cure is more of the same. This is the short term thinking of an addict, who knows that the habit is killing them but can’t face withdrawal. “We can’t change society,” they say, “so we have to protect ourselves from it.” If you can’t beat them, join them. Only, “them” in this case is a class of person no one wants to admit they are siding with.
The thing this whole line of thinking ignores, though, is that policy change can herald cultural change. We can make something not only illegal, but unpopular and even repulsive. We can turn the wheel of justice, and it turns the wheel of education and public opinion. Where racism was once enshrined in the governments of certain states, politicians will angrily defend themselves against any public accusation of it now. We can do the same for violence, if we are willing to put away the weapons.
I bring up racism not just because it is an example of measurable, if incomplete, success in doing just this sort of thing. I bring it up because this same argument, that we have a cultural problem that laws cannot fix, was lobbed at the civil rights leaders of half a century ago. So, I will close this with a quote from the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr in a speech given at Cornell College and many other institutions of higher learning in 1962 and ’63. If you swap the word “lynching” for the word “shooting” in this excerpt, you can apply it directly to the debate we are having today:
There is another myth that has circulated a great deal. I call it, for lack of a better phrase, the myth of educational determinism. I am sure you have heard this: “Legislation can’t solve this problem, only education can solve it.” Judicial decrees can’t solve it, executive orders from the President can’t solve it. Only with education and changing attitudes through education will we be able to come to a solution to this problem. Now there is a partial truth here, for education does have a great role to play in this period of transition. But it is not either education or legislation; it is both education and legislation. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless…
This isn’t a matter of ego, I promise. I am absolutely humbled by the trust and responsibility of over 4,000 people reading my words and sharing my designs. I am working hard to be worthy of it, and to keep improving to be the kind of resource that helps people find liberal religious community. I am blessed to have reached as many people as I have, and it feels very strange to be asking you all for this kind of feedback. That being said, Faithify has a requirement that I explain how my work and my ability to keep doing this, rather than getting a job in a call center or a car dealership, is good for Unitarian Universalism.
The actual phrasing is “How does this project claim Unitarian Universalism” and “How is it claimed by Unitarian Universalism”, and I would love it if you all would help me answer that.
Please leave a comment here with your answer, or if your answer is posted somewhere else (which is wonderful!), please share a link. The idea to make a public ask came after seeing the first blog post about this fundraiser was shared on Facebook by a fan and Patreon supporter. Her words about why she supports I Am UU mean more than anything I could write about myself. It would be so amazing to see other people posting their support for their friends to read, but that is certainly at your discretion. If you do, please post it publicly and share the link with me so that I can read it. I will make sure that you don’t mind being quoted before I share your words.
I am also collecting questions for an FAQ post. Right now, questions include “Where is the money going?” “What happens if goals aren’t met?” and “Will there be rewards as on Kickstarter?” I welcome any other questions that might help people connect and feel good about donating. I want you all to know that I already feel responsible to the community that has built up around my work, and this will only increase that. You all matter to me, personally, and I care about helping you find new ways to express and even experience Unitarian Universalism.
Thank you, in advance,
In the last few years, what started as an attempt to clean up my Facebook feed for the benefit of my non Unitarian Universalist friends has become a personal ministry that reaches thousands of people a week. My desire to live up to the support I was getting has lead me to learn the basics of graphic design and to deepen my own faith and connection to liberal religion. Now, each week, the things I write, design, and research are shared by dozens of individuals and congregations to be seen by their communities and shape the way people think about Unitarian Universalism.
It is a job that I never dreamed I could have, and I am honored to have the kind of community that has built up around this work.
That being said, when you start something like this as a personal project, you do it for free. When you follow it and let it grow organically based on personal effort, you end up with a full-time job that doesn’t pay anything at all. I put a lot of work into original content, and part of what makes this project so valuable is that the content is freely available to the people who need it the most: excited individuals and small congregations that need to make an impact in their communities. I am proud of having done so much to help share Unitarian Universalism with the world, and more so to know that there have been a few people who learned about us through my work and chose to start visiting their local congregation or the CLF (to which I owe so much!). I am proud, but I am also human, and I have needs that cannot be met with spiritual growth.
So, I am working on building a crowd-funding campaign to fund my life, so much of which I have given over to this work. I am hoping that Unitarian Universalism will express the value of my work in dollars, which I can turn into food, shelter, and opportunities for further education and development. I am inviting people to let me know what they think of the goals I have worked out, and will follow the progress here on my blog.
I appreciate you taking the time to read this, and I look forward to reading your thoughts.
This story on Buzzfeed was going around Facebook today, and I felt that I needed to expand on the point it makes.
In short, it is about a social experiment that may or may not have actually occurred in a classroom. Kids were asked to sit in their seats and try to toss wadded paper into a bin. The kids in the back of the class objected, stating that it was unfair, but the exercise went ahead. Many of the kids in the front made their shot, though it is clumsily pointed out that not all of them did. It is noted that “only a few students in the back of the room made it.” It succeeds in painting a relatable picture of what privilege is, but it fails to point out somethings that people who have privilege often miss.
I think, as a story, it would make sense to point out that there might be someone in the front of the class with a visual impairment or a physical ailment or disability who still missed, but had a much better chance for being in the front of the class than the back. Others may not have taken the exercise seriously enough to make a solid effort. Privilege does not ensure success, just as some people with less privilege, through hard work and/or luck, might succeed.
It fails to point out that the people in the back probably noticed right away that this was unfair, because it was obvious from where they were. Many of them might not have even been able to see the bin from their seat, having to either count on a description, someone pointing at it, or being allowed to look at it from another angle before returning to their seat to make the attempt. Maybe one of them was brave enough to try standing in their seat. All of these are forms of affirmative action. They give a person without privilege a better chance at success, but they don’t change the factors that limited them in the first place, or not all of them. We can give a person a place in an institution that they could not fully earn, but they would have no role models, no allies, and the resources would not be in place to ensure that they could cope. We can give them some relief, but they still have to work harder.
The story fails to make the point that maybe even those in the middle of the second row who were still closer to the bin than those on the edges of the front row. Because privilege isn’t a straight line. It is a graph with a hundred axes. I score well on several important ones, like being a white, straight man in the United States. You may score less well, because of gender or sexuality, or better because you live in a country with universal healthcare and better market regulations. Your religion may be closer to the cultural assumption of mainline protestantism; Catholics have it better than Hindus through much of the United States. You may be a transgendered person who is lucky enough to rarely have that fact noticed, and therefore can live under the assumption of cisgendered privilege most of the time, or a person of Hispanic decent who looks white enough that people don’t discriminate against you for your race. Privilege is a tricky concept with a lot of variables.
I like the way this experiment sets up the discussion, but I think that it lacks follow-through in helping to go beyond the idea that “some people start closer to the basket”. That is essential in making it a discussion that reaches those people who need to understand it the most: the people in the front row who still see a challenge in getting that ball in the bin and don’t have to think about how much harder it is for the kid behind them because that is happening outside the focus of their objective. And we all need to be reminded, sometimes, that all positions in the front row are not equally advantageous, and it doesn’t illuminate every challenge that a person might face. If a person is struggling, we can acknowledge and hear that without diminishing the understanding that they might still have privileges we do not; it simply reminds us that, occasionally, perspective is also a privilege.