Learning from the Gadfly Papers controversy

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.

20 thoughts on “Learning from the Gadfly Papers controversy”

  1. Actually, Daniel, from reading your column it looks like you and Rev. Eklof are in agreement about anti-racist strategy: Deeds not Creeds or working for social change rather than coming to a common ideological analysis. The essays are actually more centered on UU process and its current nature being contrary to our tradition. You can get a free PDF from someone in the Gadfly Facebook discussion.

  2. Have you seen Rev. Dennis McCarty’s in-depth commentaries (in over a dozen installments)? They’re on his Facebook page, “Thoughts from a Gentle Atheist”. Very interesting and worth reading.

  3. Steve, thanks for the links to Chris Rothbauer’s posts. KJR, thank you for telling me how to get a PDF of the book. Betty-Jeanne, Dennis McCarty strikes me as someone who would have good things to say.

    However, at this point in Unitarian Universalist history, I’m inclined to look for anti-racist strategy outside of Unitarian Universalism. From a pragmatic standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to me to look to representatives of a 95% white organization for advice on how to become less white — I don’t intend this as a critical or cutting remark about Unitarian Universalism, I really intend this as a pragmatic means to prioritize my limited time and energy. Sometimes instead of reading the book that everyone’s talking about, it’s better to read the books that are truly relevant.

    My two cents worth.
    Your mileage may vary!

  4. Rev. Dr. Thandeka has created a response to The Gadfly Papers as well as a response to the comparisons people were making to her work and Rev. Eklof’s https://revthandeka.org/cerberus She proposes a better way to heal the UU crisis with her Love Beyond Belief Program:

    Below are a few more book reviews and links that have been shared in The Gadfly Book Facebook Group, to add to the ones Stephen and Betty-Jeanne provided:

    Rev. Cynthia Cain http://ajerseygirlinkentucky.blogspot.com/2019/06/why-you-should-read-gadfly-papers.html

    Alicia Bayer https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2874042537?

    Mel Pine https://trulyopenmindsandhearts.blog/2019/07/12/from-a-pesky-former-uu/

    Jozef Bicerano https://trulyopenmindsandhearts.blog/2019/08/16/22-years-of-marginalization/

    Thandeka: https://revthandeka.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Why_Anti-Racism_Will_Fail.pdf

    There are likely more links I missed, the group is here:

    Also worth checking out the post Betty-Jeanne has ongoing lifting up amazing UU voices in the book group.

  5. Twinkle, thank you for all these links; I’m glad to host them here, and hope they will be of use. I have to admit that it makes me tired to look at them, which may be an effect of my ongoing health issue, or it may be that I have less energy for these waves of controversy that periodically sweep over Unitarian Universalism. But I really appreciate that you have curated all these resources.

  6. John, thanks for the link to the article about Robin DiAngelo. I found DiAngelo’s work to be useful (I find her original [2011] academic paper on white fragility especially useful), but as the Slate essay implies, it’s going to take more than one workshop, more than one book, to address racism. Specifically, white people like me need more than a workshop on white privilege, a workshop on white fragility, and membership in a white allies group; a couple of workshops and membership in one group are not enough for a fundamental reorientation of our racial worldview, and a fundamental change in our racial behavior.

    And I think this gets at what bothers me about the Gadfly Papers controversy: how did a mediocre book get so much traction among Unitarian Universalists? I’m inclined to think that a lot of us white people are looking for something to distract us from doing the hard work of reorienting our worldview and changing our behavior. It’s really easy to critique Unitarian Universalism’s efforts to address racism, as the Gadfly Papers does, since it’s so obvious that we have fallen far short of our stated goal of ending racism. It’s also fairly easy for white Unitarian Universalists to spend an enormous amount of energy bemoaning our failure to end racism, as the white critics of the Gadfly Papers do. Both of these courses of action use up lots of white folks’ energy, without accomplishing much aside from making white folks feel better about themselves.

    This brings up one important value of Robin DiAngelo’s work: her original paper on white fragility made it clear that one of the things that retards the ongoing progress of white people in addressing racism is that when we are called on to engage in anti-racist behavior, we tend to shut down pretty quickly. We will go to great lengths to distract ourselves so we don’t have to do any really hard anti-racism work. This key teachings of her original paper, which I felt was somewhat obscured in the book, can be summed up as: Hey, fellow white folks, life is hard, anti-racism works is painful, deal with it. I still believe this is an extremely useful tool for us white people to have in our toolkits.

  7. Dan, I think I can answer your question–\”And I think this gets at what bothers me about the Gadfly Papers controversy: how did a mediocre book get so much traction among Unitarian Universalists?\”–but only with another question: Why did those who disagreed with this mediocre book work so hard to publicize it?

  8. I *did* read The Gadfly Papers. One hardly knows where to start. My–not-at-all exhaustive–review of the book’s inaccuracies, logical fallacies, and passages that are hard to interpret as other than deliberate deception ran to 31 (count ’em) pages.

    Psychologist Edwin Friedman, who applied family systems and interactive dynamics within churches, predicted this. When you begin to operate on a higher level–as in this “95% white organization” trying to actually do something about its own “colorblind racism”–people are going to start to act out. That’s precisely what’s happening with Ekloff.

    It’s an unfortunate situation. I think the UUA was–and is–naive to believe we can *educate* people away from what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (whom Eklof mischaracterizes shamelessly) calls “color blind racism.” Mind you, I don’t know a better way. But as we’re seeing, some folks will put in the effort–and endure the discomfort. But other folks will respond in precisely the manner we’re seeing. :-(

    If anyone wants to read my entire review in one place, simply message my “Thoughts from a Gentle Atheist” page on Facebook and I’ll send you a PDF. I don’t pretend it’s without flaw, my annoyance started to show early. Nor is it a complete analysis. But it is a representative sampling, and the most in-depth look I’m aware of.

    The book requires critical reading. Just saying “I like it because I agree with it” (or “I hate it because I disagree with it”) misses what’s actually going on in it. All said and done, I can only characterize it as monumentally inept or deliberately deceitful–possibly both. And irresponsible, both in the manner of its roll-out (gotta give Ekloff credit, he’s media-savvy) and its content.

  9. Thanks, Dennis. I found your family systems perspective is helpful. If we think of a family with a shameful family secret — the elephant in the room that everyone knows is there but no one likes to talk about openly — then we would expect various kinds of rationalizing behavior to emerge in that family system. Similarly, if congregation functions like a family system, then in a congregation where there is a shameful secret such as racism, we would expect to find various kinds of rationalizing behavior that help to avoid talking openly and directly about that shameful secret. Although I am less convinced that we can validly apply family systems theory to Unitarian Universalism as a whole (i.e., all congregations, individuals, and organizations), family systems theory should work very well when applied to the subset of Unitarian Universalism that includes staff and lay leaders of the UUA and affiliated groups such as the UUMA as well as individuals such as “GA junkies,” bloggers and other providers of social media content, etc.; in my limited experience, individuals within this subset of Unitarian Universalism do tend to have enough personal connections to function as a family system.

    Having said that, it may be that the controversy and relentless social media criticism of Eklof serve to cast him in the role of the identified patient. From a family systems perspective, casting an individual in the role of identified patient would tend to buttress the dysfunction within the family system. A family systems therapist might suggest, instead, that we Unitarian Universalists might wish to try moving towards self-differentiation. Dennis, from having met you years ago I’ll bet you know more about self-differentiation than I do, but other readers of this blog might find the short essay on GoodTherapy.org helpful; it reads in part:

    “There are two aspects to self-differentiation: intrapsychic differentiation and interpersonal differentiation. Intrapsychic differentiation is when we can tell apart our thoughts from our emotions. In other words, it’s self-awareness. On the other hand, interpersonal differentiation is when we can distinguish our experience from the experience of people we are connected to. Both aspects of self-differentiation are important, as they empower us to be aware of our current state and the influence of different interactions and environments on our state so we can take action.”

    Self-differentiated behavior seems more likely to move all of us within the UUA family system to address the actual dysfunction, racism. Thus, I would suggest we move our attention away from Todd Eklof, the identified patient, and instead focus on empowering ourselves to become aware of different interactions and environments so we can begin to take positive, healthful action.

    And once again, thank you for bringing a family system theory perspective to this.

  10. “From a pragmatic standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to me to look to representatives of a 95% white organization for advice on how to become less white”

    That is much of my problem with modern anti-racism: ever since it began in the Ivy League, it’s been promoted by and for rich people who are disproportionately white. I can’t help but notice the word which is more taboo than race has not been mentioned: class.

    But I totally understand the desire not to fight more about this, so I’ll leave my comment at that, and add that while I may no longer be able to count myself as a Unitarian Universalist, I will always have fond memories of my time as a UU and hope that the organization survives this conflict.

  11. Will, count yourself a Unitarian Universalist if you want to. For what it’s worth, I’ve run into tons of people out there who aren’t involved with organized Unitarian Universalism, for very varied reasons — including people who couldn’t deal with the politics of the nearby Unitarian Universalist congregations, rural people with no nearby Unitarian Universalist congregation (and not everyone finds the Church of the Larger Fellowship meets their needs), and both working class and non-white people who couldn’t put up with the biases against them. I’d be willing to guess that half the people who think of themselves as Unitarian Universalists have nothing to do with Unitarian Universalist institutions. If that’s true, then about half of all Unitarian Universalists operate much the same way that Wiccans do: in loose networks (which are these days mostly located online). I even have a private term for such people: non-institutional Unitarian Universalists.

    I think about this a lot, because I may become a non-institutional Unitarian Universalist. When my partner and I look at where we can live once we retire, many of the places we can afford aren’t anywhere near a Unitarian Universalist congregation (or they’re near a Unitarian Universalist congregation that I wouldn’t go near). And even though I served on the board of the Church of the Larger Fellowship twenty years ago, I’m not sure I’d join it today, not with all the online connections I have now.

  12. A non-institutional Unitarian Universalist. I like that. Thank you.

    There is an argument for a minister to retire where there isn’t a congregation. It’s not to start a congregation—it’s just to provide a presence where there may not be one.

  13. Will, really good point about retired UU ministers providing a presence where there may not be one. I sometimes dream about retiring to northern Nevada….

  14. I’ve just re-read The Gadfly Papers, as I have an appointment with my local UU minister later this week, in which I will persist in my request to present a lay sermon on the subject. I honestly couldn’t find a single thing in it to disagree with. I wish Dennis McCarty had shared his analysis of the alleged inaccuracies and logical fallacies in the book. As it is, what we have from McCarty is just another tiresome, intellectually shoddy potshot.

    If he will share a public link to his analysis, I will happily withdraw that comment in favor of a thoughtful analysis of whatever he says. And you know, that’s the Unitarian way: to discuss these things. What is disheartening about the reaction to The Gadfly Papers is that the hundreds of UU ministers who signed the Open Letter refused to explain their position. Other than attacking Eklof’s use of reason and logic (the sort of attack we would expect, perhaps, from conservative religious people, not from Unitarians!), they had nothing at all to say about the content of the book.

    Condemning a book — any book, really, but especially a book that takes issue with some of the trends in one’s own religious denomination — is not Unitarianism as I understand it. It’s a deplorable failure of moral vision.

  15. Given the dissatisfaction I read in some of those above, it looks like the UUA has a governance problem and all the other problems stem from it. Compared to other denominations it is particularly susceptible to any influence from the larger society that cares to take the trouble to influence it. To take over a congregation, all you have to do is get together enough people to join up but never contribute or attend and take it from long term participants almost overnight. To influence the UUA itself, all you have to do is make the financial contribution and use your puppet congregation to send delegates to GA. Lacking a firm doctrine, and committed to egalitarian democracy, we totally lack an immune system. UUism evolves, as different groups take an interest and leave a mark, but it’s just a container. Those other groups are the actual contents, with doctrines and systems of leadership. The UUA seems to be moving to kind of empowering clergy more, and that represents an awareness of the problem: too much power going to those who have invested little. Other solutions? (1) Political power should not depend on being able to send people to a convention. That selects for the idle rich or those backed by some interest group. The UUA should build a convention center at one place that never changes and provide free room and board to delegates. Maybe hold the Assembly over just a Saturday and Sunday, preferably on a major holiday with a three day weekend. (2) How about some statements of conscience on operational matters rather than just feel good moral guidance: urge congregations to empower those who demonstrate commitment through participation more than those who just walked through the door and started raising a fuss. Are these brilliant suggestions? Probably not, but something like them, some kind of thinking outside the box is going to be needed. Currently we are primarily selecting based on acceptance of or blindness to the flaws.

  16. Robert South, I’ve had similar impressions, which I have arrived at independently from yours. You have articulated very well what I’ve been feeling all along. I see the vulnerability you are talking about both with congregations and with National.

    And it is National now, definitely and exclusively national. It used to be “Continental”. In other words, the UUA used to include both Canadian and US congregations. For all of our talk about diversity and inclusion, the Canadian congregations left in 2002. We lost the greatest contribution to our diversity, and the UUA didn’t even bat an eye.

    I’m from Washington State, and went to University almost right on the border with British Columbia. As far as I can tell, we have very much the same popular culture and historical influences…just different politics!

    There’s been very little discussion of why the Canadian congregations left, and why the UUA did so little to try to maintain those relationships. Have we learned anything since then? In the absence of this discussion, or even awareness, it certainly looks like our understanding of diversity is very non-diverse indeed.

  17. I feel that continuing to discuss “The Gadfly Papers” at best helps people avoid dealing directly with racism. Therefore I’m going to close the comments on this post.

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