Vigilantism Is A Symptom, Not a Cure

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…

make a man love me MLK quote

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How Has I Am UU Touched You?

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,

Thomas

Privilege and Paper Balls.

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.

Obligations and calling: decision point

I have had a strange life, so far. In most respects, I have been very lucky. I admit that, and I honor the people who have helped me get to where I am. Part of how I honor them is to keep trying to be my best, and to give my best to the world. The I Am UU ministry is part of me trying hard to give back to the world in a way that promotes the best in humanity.

Another way is that I try to return what favors I can. I give back to those who have given to me with glee and fervor, because I want to encourage the doing of good and reward those who do it.

I was adopted. I was days old when my parents claimed me, and I have only ever known one family, and it has always been a part of my life. It was not a perfect family. It isn’t one that I am now particularly proud of. I am sure that a lot of liberals raised in Texas have those feelings some times. Family still matters, as a part of who I am and how I got here, and family is an obligation that I cannot ignore.

To that end, I took on the care of my mother several years ago. She has cancer that she doesn’t wish to treat, and she has dementia at a very young age. At 67, she has the body and mind that her doctors compare to patients in their 80s. Being her caretaker has been hard, and at times rewarding. More over, her income being part of the household has allowed me to create the I Am UU project, staying at home to handle her appointments and help her with daily tasks as well as those of my kids.

My ability to care for her is now stretched to the breaking point. I will not be able to keep it up another full year, and we may not make it to the end of this one.

This is hard to admit, because I know that we cannot afford to put her in a facility that will be anywhere near as nice as the home we’ve worked to provide. I want her to have a quality of life, but it has come the point where I cannot provide that here, either.

That part is internal. It is something I will have to deal with. It is hard, but I need to admit that the time will come, soon, that I cannot do what she needs here at home, and I will have to trust skilled professionals to help her in her daily life. I want what every American wants for their family: one more Christmas (or relevant winter-time holiday). I don’t know if that is realistic.

Another serious hurdle is the financial burden that we will face when her income is removed from our household. We moved into the house and the neighborhood that we did because we needed room for my Mom. We love it here, now, and more over, moving would be a huge expense all at once. In order to pay the rent, I need an income to replace what we are loosing. More than just making up that income, finding a regular job will mean paying for daycare, as well as a few other expenses we have been able to avoid thanks to me being home, like not absolutely needing a second car so far.

I am facing a serious dilemma: I cannot continue to grow the I Am UU project that I have come to love, and will likely have to scale it back quite a bit if I have to find a regular job.  I will not be able to continue to give what I have come to think of as the best of me. I fight my demons now by knowing that what I am doing matters to a lot of people, and matters a great deal to some.

So, this is me, begging. Help me save my family AND the one accomplishment outside my family that I am truly proud of. Help me do the right thing for my mother without doing the wrong thing for myself. Help me find a way to support my ministry, or to find a paying gig with similar benefit to the world. I put this out there to the universe, because I need all the help I can get.

Faitify, an all UU crowd funding site, has launched, and I am hopeful that it will change the way that Unitarian Universalist think about funding, because the 1st report on GA from UU World clearly shows that we need to. Sadly, Faitify is set up for goal-oriented projects needing one large push to get started or to move to the next level.

I would love to have the relative security of people pledging small monthly gifts via Patreon, but will gladly accept gifts through Square Cash (sign up now and they’ll give you a dollar!). As the only designer on the I Am UU team so far, I also get some money from the purchases on Cafe Press, though it is a very small percentage (on purpose; I want people to have these things to wear). I want to keep this ministry going. I want to honor the trust that these thousands of people have given me by choosing to read, comment on, and share this content. I want to keep reaching people, because I know that I have helped people find Unitarian Universalism through this work, both as new visitors and as UUs who needed a push to deepen their connection. I need something like that to be proud of in my life.

I am not a feminist, but you can call me that if you want to.

That’s right: I rarely refer to myself as a feminist. I don’t like the term. I don’t think it applies to me. This frustrates my significant other at times, and so I thought I might share my thoughts, because others might find them equally maddening, and that is good for page hits. Let me explain further with a comparison:

I am not gay, transgendered, or otherwise “Queer”. I don’t cal myself a part of the LGBT community, though I fully support their right to be heard and included and their civil rights. I do not have their experiences, and I cannot rightly claim to be one of them. I mess up all the time when talking about the issues of homosexuals, including the fact that many of them now dislike the term “homosexual”. I certainly mess up when speaking about and with transgendered persons and it is nearly impossible to speak about the gender-nonbinary without an introductory lesson in each person’s preferred lexicon.

I am, likewise, uncomfortable calling myself a feminist. I support equality and representation and empowerment, but I do not have the personal experience with discrimination to draw from. I do not have a connection with “feminism” that runs any deeper than my connection with the LGBTQ community: I love these people, and I support them, but it feels wrong to claim to be a part of their struggle. I am an ally for equality and justice, but that is the only label I am comfortable with. It is not that I am against feminism, or even just the word; it just doesn’t speak to who I am or what I am for.

I am an ally for all those people who need to be heard and who need to be treated better. I am strongly against gender bias, and actually against the concept of binary gender even as I am very happy and comfortable as a man. I want my penis to matter less in other people’s valuation of me than what I give back to the world. I want that for everyone no matter what their biology, how they dress, or how they identify. If you think that makes me a feminist, then so be it. I don’t call myself by that term except when it must be defended against people who use it as a slur.

To the School Board (any of them)

This post is an open letter to all school boards and administrators, but it was written in repsonceto this post about Strasburg, Colorado by author John Green over on his Tumblr.

I have read that there are some members of your community who have registered complaints that certain books currently being used to educate your teenaged students are “profane, pornographic, violent, criminal, crass, crude, vile, and will result in the irreparable erosion of my students’ moral character.” I am familiar with most of these books, and with the broader world. I counter their claims by saying that the world is profane, pornographic, violent, criminal, crass, crude, and vile, and that we need young adults who are prepared for that. We need them to learn empathy and problem solving. We need them to be aware of the struggles of others and to be able to imagine the thoughts of people who have lead very different lives. That is what fiction can do for us.

We can only protect children for so long. That time is better spent preparing them to be adults. We can give them books full of bad words and bad decisions, and offer a safe place to talk about how those choices effect the outcomes. We can show them young people involved in adult situations, and if those situations are written well, as in “Go Ask Alice” and “The Fault in Our Stars”, our children can learn to make better choices while at the same time learning empathy for those to whom life has been less kind.

There are bad books written for young adults. There are good books which were not written for young adults. Don’t let the content be the primary thing on which you judge them. Look at the language, the style, the overall theme, and determine if there is something in them that your students can learn from. We don’t learn unless we are exposed to new ideas. We aren’t even able to judge our values if they are never questioned. If you want your students to be able to defend the values you hope to instill, then you have to train them in that defense, and this can only be done by challenging those values in safe, structured environments, like the classroom of a dedicated teacher.

Please consider the value that comes from bringing the big, crude, profane world to your children on your own terms before they are let loose into it. We don’t teach kindergartners about witches and wolves anymore. We shelter our kids far too long. As a member of Generation X, I can tell you that the tendency to sterilize fair tales and choose impotent novels has set up a lot of young adults for failure. They don’t know how to make the tough choices. No one taught them how to have emotionally healthy relationships or to defend their ideas and values in a world where you have to stand for something.

Children need fiction. They need stories that challenge them and ask them to look at the world very differently. They need to learn from the mistakes of others, or they will have to go out and make those mistakes themselves.

Thank you for your time.
Thomas Earthman

30 Days of Gratitude: Nov. 19

Tonight, I got to hang out with an old friend that I hadn’t been able to spend time with in years. It wasn’t all that long, but we did get to talk about comic books, Gremlins, The West Wing, and next-gen video game consoles. Mind you, I held up my end of the conversation all through text while he was streaming a LEGO video game, but it was a lot of fun. I am really grateful for geeky friends who can pick up where we left off after years apart because we love the same things, even a decade later.