Cancel Culture: A Good Problem to Have?

Rev. Barnaby reflected on how the contradictions between preserving free speech and advancing justice are to be expected wherever oppression and false historical narratives are being challenged. We are sharing our offering this month with Razom for Ukraine.

See details of the service: OOS Feb 5, 2023

See a recording here:

Good Intentions Sermon: Begin with Randy Travis Good Intentions. Tremendous amount of folk wisdom about good intentions in all cultures, with many songs, stories, and saying talking about their limits.

But what I’m going to talk about today maps directly to the second source of inspiration for our Living Tradition: words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.

Definition of intention seems simple enough: something you want and plan to do, but it quickly gets messy, especially when you put the subjective adjective “good” in front of it. Then the meaning gets tied up with morality and motive, which we know from mysteries and introspection, can be hard to pin down.

Intentions in a deadly incident can be the difference between a charge of first degree murder with a life sentence or death penalty, and self-defense with no penalty or many forms of crime in between.

But today’s our chance to look at something much more subtle and much more universal today – all the little things we do that hurt people’s feelings or, in their view, make them feel threatened. These harms may occur without our realizing it. That leaves us needing to talk about how we cope with having that harmful behavior pointed out to us. Especially in the realm of how racism works in our country today in an era where white people want to equate racism with intentional, conscious hostility and say that most of that is behind us. Heck we even elected a Black President and a Black female vice president. But the harm is still being done and white folks are so resistant to hearing what those harmed have to say about it that we have  words to name it as a pervasive special illness: white fragility. We’ve talked about it before but we need to keep at it if we are going to seriously consider the need for the anti-racism mission statement we will be voting on the first weekend in March, and to make it more than just words if we adopt it.

I want to ease into this by talking about what’s hard about all this in another context. Recount pronoun discussion with my sister.  Complained about they/them and other rarer variants. It’s too much. It’s exhausting. I’m not interested in doing it.

My sister is a politically progressive woman. Seeing Trump in jail is on her bucket list. And I was aware that she has a very understandable excuse for her short fuse – a battle with one of the more deadly forms of cancer. I had absolutely no inclination to push back in this situation. It would have been cruel and pointless. But what struck me is how immediately I felt connection with feeling tired about doing what I know to be the right thing – learning people’s pronouns and honoring them.

This is one of the problems with good intentions that so often leaves to bad results. It’s hard to carry them out. Presuming good intentions of others, as called for in our Communications Covenant, for example, is not something most of us are wired to do in general. We are actually wired to be wary. It takes a long history of trust for us to presume good intentions in many situations.

But let’s talk about how we get difficulty squared – when there are differences in power and privilege. This where white privilege language comes into play. Example from Robin D’Angelo’s book that put this term on the map. Example she offers: During a coaching session on how racism impacts workplaces, a white woman expressed frustration with the idea that she is acting in a racist way when she doesn’t respond well to her one colored colleague’s request that she stop talking over her. The woman, whom D’Angelo called Karen, explains that she is an extrovert. She tends to interrupt everyone when she feels she has something important to say. She denies that racism has anything to do with the situation. It’s just who she is as an individual. D’Angelo tries to explain that her colleague comes to such interchanges saddled with a long cultural history of whites interrupting blacks that comes with active racism. Being talked over by Karen can’t feel like a unique experience for her attributable to Karen’s individual nature. Regardless of Karen’s intent, such behavior is going to land on her colleague as racist behavior. Rather than learning from this feedback, Karen says, “Forget it. I can’t say anything right so I’m goin to stop talking.”

You see what’s happened here? Because Karen is unable to center the conversation on her impact, she forces the group to attend to her needs to feel comfortable as the price of her continued participation. This self-protective behavior at the slightest whiff that one is complicit in reinforcing the impact of centuries of racism is part of what makes dismantling racism so exhausting for both blacks and whites, or men and women if we are talking about sexism, or colonizers and indigenous people if we are talking about Europe’s history of invasion and control of the resources of other continents, or any other form of oppression.

Let’s remind ourselves of another example closer to home. Our communications covenant is a beautiful document, but it unintentionally reinforces systems and experiences grounded historically in white supremacy when it asks that everyone presume good intentions, regardless of their background.

Unless. Unless. Unless, we now read an intention to dismantle racism into it. We may emphasize that by specifically adopting new covenants that require this extra level of awareness. A new covenant grounded in the 8th principle language would be an example. Maybe we would read the two together as requiring equity rather than equality in presuming good intentions. Maybe white UU’s have to work harder at understanding rather than presuming the good intentions of those who come to us from marginalized backgrounds – maybe the “wise, truthful, and kind speech” we seek to promote is only possible when those with power they were handed by history rather than their own efforts surrender some of their privilege. Their privilege, for example, to claim they are to be seen primarily as anti-racist individuals – this is not about making anyone feel guilty but holding people responsible for understanding the impact of their heritage. Maybe it requires giving up the drama of “I can’t say anything right so I’m going to stop talking” and turning to “I’m going to mess up at some point but I’m going to apologize and keep learning.”

This is how we, in 8th principle language, stick with a journey toward wholeness. A journey we won’t finish in our lifetime. But a journey that will take us further down a road where the Universe does bend toward justice. A journey where we start to get a better picture of what Beloved Community welcomes into its vital, life-affirming space. (insert meeting announcement here – to share recent experiences of the key words so I can bring back help for the Board meeting tomorrow night)

Sometimes we are going to be too tired or sick or distracted to do what, on our better days, we know is healthier. Maybe we will feel ashamed or guilty of something, even though we know that’s not helpful. When we fall short, our goal is to help each other remember to see falling short as normal

Breaking our promises about how we intend to be with each other is merely the prelude to work toward getting back into covenant.

It’s exhausting to constantly see yourself falling short. It’s also often exhausting restoring trust and hope. But take heart. We are getting much better at recognizing that our good intentions can’t and shouldn’t protect us from the need to look at harm from the perspective of others. At looking at our mistakes as Miles Davis did wrong notes in a jazz piece, according to Herbie Hancock – something that happened which is only defined as good or bad by the next notes you play.

It should be liberating and energizing that we are learning a lot more about apologizing and returning to the right relations embodied in our covenants. Apologizing is a more complicated act than most of us were raised to realize, but it is an act of love and justice-making when done well. Love of others and oneself despite our imperfections.

When we do something that is harmful because of racism, apologizing is not the step before returning to the work of dismantling racism. It can be a contribution to creating a culture that dismantles racism.

Robin D’Angleo offers a roadmap in one case learned from years of mistakes. After being told that she a joke she made while leading a training session for her company had upset a Black web-designer in the group named Angela – someone she had not met before (the joke had been about how a co-trainer friend’s Afro hair style scared some employees) a) D’Angelo didn’t make excuses, which helped her see what the problem might have been and her own feelings of shame and embarrassment b) But before approaching Angela to apologize, she turned to white woman whose experience with racism she trusted, recounted the incident and her feelings, and asked whether she might be missing something. c) She then asked Angela, if she was open to an apology, including accepting harm had been done by saying she hoped to repair their relationship. Angela agreed to meet. She told Robin she had indeed been upset with a stranger in a professional meeting joking about Black women’s hair, which is often a sensitive subject in racialized settings, whether whites are present or not. d) Robin then asked if there was anything else that upset Angela and it turned out there was – a survey that Angela passed out at the beginning of the meeting and that Robin had felt was not helpful turned out to be something Angela had worked on; D’Angelo had glibly dismissed it at the beginning, which was upsetting to someone who felt she had spent her whole life having to demonstrate her intelligence to white people. e) Robin immediately apologized for the tone she had taken. f) And then she asked is there anything else Angela wanted from her for their relationship to move forward in a healthy way. It turned out there was – “if I have feedback like this for you in the future, do you want it to be private or immediate and public.” Robin said she wanted the latter because, as an educator, it was important to show other people how to receive criticism openly and non-defensively.

Well, that’s a Major League apology, isn’t it? And it’s an achievement that’s often going to be beyond us. It may not be appropriate to go that far in some situations. But the point remains, as my grandmother used to say, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”

The last chapter of White Fragility is called “Where do we go from here?” It has a lot of great recommendations about how to deal with being tired and worn down without losing sight of the goal of dismantling racism, or the many ways we have of moving forward.

But I want to leave you with just one that isn’t there: my response to something I’m much more annoyed with than my sister is with pronouns. It’s the constant effort of those who are trying to demonize what they call “wokeism.” They attack “wokeism” in the name of defending individual liberty and, sometimes explicitly, white supremacy.

But remember this: Jesus was woke, if we pay any attention at all to what he preached about justice in the Bible. Gandhi was woke. So was his most famous prophetic predecessor in India.

It is said that soon after his enlightenment, the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the extraordinary radiance and peacefulness of his presence. The man stopped and asked, “My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a God?”
No,” said the Buddha.
Well, then, are you some sort of magician or wizard?”
Again the Buddha answered, “No.”
Are you a man?”
Well my friend, what are you then?”
I am awake.”
( Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom)

We have been awakened to many things about how racism and other forms of oppression work – how they persist, how they wear us down, how they exhaust us, how they prey on our weaknesses to enlist us in paving the road to hell with our good intentions.

The damage is done most often when we rush past paying attention to what is actually happening to those among us who are most vulnerable. Distraction is a natural part of living, but it is also a form of privilege. The less vulnerable you are, the safer it generally is to be distracted. Maybe we fear that paying attention may expose the shortcomings of our good intentions and what defenses of the status quo they justify.

Because we are human, we can go overboard with wokeness. For example, some of us may get invested in teaching children adult concepts about oppression they can’t process yet. (Battles over teaching fuller picture about sexuality and gender to young kids leave room for reasonable compromises without requiring people to say false things). But what we go overboard on in the effort to stay awake is nothing compared to the damage we do and allow when we are too fearful to say “Yes, we are woke. And we aren’t going back to sleep. We will be wrong on some of the details, and we will welcome your sincere efforts to build on areas where we can agree. Call us woke all you want. We are journeying toward inclusive, life-sustaining wholeness. Sometimes we slow to rest. Sometimes we crawl. But we won’t stop.”

Rev. Cherry said regarding living in this time of tension:

If we have any hope of transforming the world and changing ourselves, we must be bold enough to step into our discomfort,
brave enough to be clumsy there, loving enough to forgive ourselves and others.

And he then prayed:

May we, as a people of faith, be granted the strength to be
so bold,
so brave,
and so loving.

Let me close by summing up his point: Spirit of Life-Giving Love, I pray that that if we are arrested for being woke, there is enough evidence to convict us.