I have been following, at a distance, the controversy about the publication and distribution of The Gadfly Papers, a book of essays critical of the UUA’s antiracism approach, written and self-published by Todd Eklof, the minister at the Spokane, Wash., Unitarian Universalist church. Eklof distributed the books at General Assembly (GA), the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA); GA was held in Spokane this year.
As someone who didn’t go to GA, and as someone who doesn’t trust social media for reliable information, it wasn’t easy to figure out what went on. So far, UUWorld.org, usually an excellent source of information about GA, has not reported on what happened; instead, in their media round-up column, they pointed to an article from the local newspaper.
That local newspaper, the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash., published an article on June 25 titled “Unitarian Universalist minister in Spokane stirs controversy for calling church too politically correct.” The article gives a basic outline of the story. Unfortunately, while they interviewed Eklof, they didn’t interview anyone opposing him, relying instead on public statements issued on social media platforms. (The simple, non-conspiracy-theory, explanation is that the reporter was under deadline pressure, interviewed the local guy, and relied on public statements to fill out the opposing side.)
If you want to see some of those public statements, UUWorld.org provides links to statements from Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUM), and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Assoc. (UUMA) People of Color and Indigenous Chapter, and an “Open letter from white Unitarian Universalist ministers,” as well as a letter from the Board presidents of the Liberal Religious Educators Association. Elswewhere, I found a statement from the Allies for Racial Equity, and most recently a UUMA letter formally censuring Eklof.
What about the book itself? Well, I refuse to buy a copy: Eklof self-published the book on Amazon, and I won’t buy books from Amazon because they reduce the already meager incomes of working authors. I haven’t talked to anyone who has actually read the entire book. And most of the online reviews of the book that I have found simply state that it represents a white supremacist point of view, but don’t offer critiques of the actual arguments of the book.
However, Scott Wells did read the entire book, and posted a two-part review of the book on his blog: part one and part two. Scott reports: “It might surprise non-readers that he [Eklof] has ideas for dismantling racism, and to continue to work on not being racist. … You might think them hogwash (or wonderful) but they’re there. ” However, says Scott,”some terms Eklof uses, such as political correctness and safetyism, are used by other authors to dismiss or belittle critics,” meaning that Eklof’s sugestions for anti-racism probably aren’t going to be heard. The book also offers at least one solution that I can only characterize as bizarre: in one essay, Eklof proposes splitting the UUA back into separate Unitarian and Universalist denominations, which Scott sums up as “Swiftian fancy, or simply romantic misreading” of Unitarian and Universalist history. Scott does not seem to care much for the book; if I were to pick one statement from his review to sum up the book, it would be this: “This is a work of controversy.”
After Scott’s dismissive review, I concluded I won’t spend my limited free time reading this “work of controversy.” And if I haven’t read the book, I don’t feel qualified to comment on it. But I do feel qualified to comment on the controversy surrounding the book, from my perspective as a religious educator.
Progressive religious educators like me spend a lot of time thinking about how to move people to a place of greater understanding; how to get people to change their perspective; and how to get people to act in more humane ways. While a confrontational approach utilizing a “work of controversy” might work in a few educational situations, if the goal is to move people towards greater understanding and more humane action, then there are many situations where a confrontational approach will not be effective. One such situation is when you, as the educator, are talking about racism and anti-racism and the U.S. today, and your auditors include people who have been rubbed raw by racism; in that situation, a confrontational approach is less likely to lead to greater understanding or more humane action, and more likely merely to piss people off. Thus, speaking as an educator, passing out a “work of controversy” on the subject of racism seems to me to be a waste of everyone’s time.
So where do we go from here? As a religious educator, I’d say it’s fairly obvious we in the U.S. all need to deepen our understanding of how racism has affected us, and continues to affect us. And I believe we would all like to figure out a more humane way to act with one another. The Gadfly Papers has proved yet again that controversy is not a particularly useful anti-racism strategy here in the U.S. — but that doesn’t mean we should give up.
Still speaking from an educator’s perspective, I would suggest that race is such a difficult topic here in the U.S. that we are going to need a wide range of strategies to address it; no one strategy is going to work for everyone and in every situation. But how do we judge what is a good strategy? I would propose a pragmatic criterion: if an educational strategy reduces systemic racism in a measurable way, then it is a good educational strategy. For example, for a religious educator working within a majority-white local congregation, if an anti-racist educational strategy leads to an increased proportion of non-white people in the congregation without a decline in absolute numbers of white people (beyond the usual losses to death or moving away), that strategy has succeeded quite well indeed.
Speaking from my own experiences in several local congregations, I believe that educational strategies based on behaviorist models (where we modify external behaviors) are generally more successful than therapeutic models (where we attempt to influence the way people feel). Similarly, educational strategies based on progressivist models (where we work together to confront or reduce racism in the wider world) generally work better than models based on logic or rhetoric (where we try to get people to think differently about racism). While I am not good at creating educational strategies at the denominational level, I suspect the same will hold true there; in which case, books about racism, or blog posts about racism, or social media chatter about racism, are not going to be particularly effective, except where they show us how to change behaviors and increase external action.