Seeing other side - Common Threats can make common ground

I am generally pretty good at  making a list of reasons for why I think something is true or why I (or my friends/co-workers) should take a particular course of action (which is why I like science and economics), but I am often quite poor at getting people to believe it's the right thing to do when it comes to moral and political issues. I used to scratch my head when my litany of responses would pierce their heart as well as wooden arrow shot at a stone wall. I have come to believe this is because I along with other people tend to stick our feet in and "defend what we believe in." - we protect our moral axioms. We all have a very strong aversion to "doing the wrong thing." This is even more apparently when we discuss this with another person in public (ahem, social media).

This is quite easy to illustrate. Most of us share the common principle that stealing is bad. We can formulate many reasons why it would be advantageous (the only negative being lack of social standing or criminal prosecution). However there are many situations we encounter on a daily basis where the probability of being "found out" is almost non-existent (for instance if a cashier fails to ring up an item as she bagged it in a store). Clearly it might be more logical (in this case financially advantageous) to keep quiet. Though we all likely share the value that this is a bad thing and the right thing to do is to point it out. No amount of reasoning will change our conscience. Morals are in large part immune to logic.

In order to do this, we need an emotional twist: enter Les Miserables. Now imagine this customer is living paycheck-to-paycheck, her husband left her and took everything of value, and she has three children. While we might still agree it is "wrong" to not speak up, though I think we might all be more understanding if she were to take this opportunity to claim a financial windfall (though the action is the same). The important part is that our indignation begins to melt away.

In short, like most people, I am not very interested in regularly challenging my morals (though that is slowly changing). If we do, someone must really pluck the strings of our heart.

This mean in order to be effective and relate to others, I have to turn inward and navigate the uncharted waters of "feelings(1)." It takes so much time to really identify what makes me uncomfortable about an issue. I feel like I am at the bottom of the ocean with a flashlight looking for a lost piece of jewelry.

The specific challenge for today (2), involves a small change at the local UU church I attend. I am on the worship committe (which determines the layout of the service) and they want to modify the welcome to explicitly include LGBTQ people.

My initial response was no, why are you doing this!? Why are we favoring a special group when other disadvantaged groups suffer equally large indignities (the mentally ill, the homeless, poor urban minorities, recent immigrants)? Why does sexual preference have any place in the pulpit? This is a social issue, not one related to the spirit (or our seven principles). It seems more like a warning (or litmus test) for anyone who wants to be a member than an invitation to people who will likely already know what they are getting themselves into. Also, why use the politically-charged acronym when the much more accurate and neutral phrase, "sexual preference and gender identity" would suffice? This seems like another case of the UU adopting the political cause de jour (almost always of Democrats), which is something that has always irritated me about our congregation and nationally. To be clear, I think all of these are very valid reasons. HOWEVER....

It took a while to realize what was really bothering me because I didn't see any immediate problem with being welcoming because I have plenty of gay friends and even lived with gay people in the past. I knew I didn't have any personal angst directed homosexuality.Though when I just paused and said each word, I realized I did have a response to the words lesbian and transvestite. It make my neck tense, my fist clench and I didn't like it. When I paused and said each word, I was able to see the mental clash of ideologies. My past experiences with cantankerous lesbians immediately popped up and I realized this had shaped my opinion of  the acronym. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on those moments. I remember a few instances very clearly. I felt like those women in particular had said unnecessarily cruel things and created problems with friends where there had not been any. Their hated of all things male was palpable. Most of the time my experiences with lesbians have felt like power struggles and it was if my moral core was being drug against sandpaper.

What this helped me to realize was that this was my problem. This experience provided an opportunity to see the other side (rather than engaging in self indulgent confirmation bias [Google makes it really easy to get a fat stack of arguments in a hurry]). I read a few blogs to get a little insight. It turns out abuse is quite common in the lesbian community (not saying this is a prerequisite). Add in the all to common narrative of an absent (or just mean/neglectful) father and it's easy to see why this tough-girl persona persists. It doesn't make how I was treated "right", but as in the case of the lady at the grocery store above, it does make it a little easier for me to understand - essentially my initial response of indignation goes away and I can engage my friends in honest discourse.

The point of all of  this is that I realized I have an initial aversion to the words (and the acronym too) and I imagine others might too. In order to convey this I need to relate this point to some of the emotional responses they brought up. The main one was that this group has been ostracized from churches and have been told they are going to hell. I can relate to feeling left out and so can many others who no longer see evangelical churches as a source of positive change.

My underlying goal is to help them remember we are (whether they like it or not) in a very conservative area. As much as they want to reach out, they also need to be cognizant of others who have grown up here. This doesn't mean we need to break with our values. It just means that the gulf between "what we do and say" and "traditional churches" is not so great that someone who is tired with the later (and looking for a new place to call home) also does not feel unwelcome. They need to balance reaching out to one group with the competing values, history and experiences (which will be a life lived in the South) of the other.

The other point they made is that LGBTQ people are social pariahs. I think this also applies to people who are truly trying to find their own path. Most churches (the Quakers being a notable exception) do not tolerate variance in belief. When these differences emerge, debate is not a real option (3). This forces people out of the church and out of the community they were a part of. This is a really lonely place. However, to someone who still holds on to many of their Christian views, the UU is quickly becoming an  uninviting place. There are many who are outright (and disproportionately) hostile to certain segments Christianity (the minister included). It is not hard to imagine that a newcomer (with no friends here) might feel he is not welcome. Add in the unfamiliarity of LGBTQ pride and it might be too big a social gulf. I want to make sure someone who is in that likely situation can feel at home too. I think its important to remember that neither side is wrong, we just have different histories.

The UU is supposed to be a place for people who want to find their own path - I want to make sure it stays that way.


Today's TED talk (2) was: Common Threats and Common Ground. It reminded me again that in order to seek change we must seek to see the other side. Another way to do this is to unite around a common threat. I think it is a very valuable less.


(1) On the Myers-Briggs chart I am a very strong T (loosening up a little with age) and it shows.
(2) Lately I have been watching one TED talk per day. There was no particular focus, just clicked until I found something that looked interesting. I want to start selecting videos that help me address a particular challenge I am facing or something that has been weighing on my soul.  It will also force me to identify areas where I would like to improve which means I will be more likely to apply what I learn. I also think I am going to start looking beyond TED. It is a good resource (importantly, with a known level of quality), but given the nearly ceaseless variety of information online, I think it makes more sense to use this time to find videos which tactically address the specific problems I face each day.
(3)The pastor is typically the charismatic leader and the congregation is a representation of his values (this is also a risk at UU churches with permanent members). The ministers attract the types of people who agree with them and those who don't simply leave. It's very self-reinforcing. Definitely not a formula for a dynamic and reflective congregation.