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An Essay On Morals And Human Nature

Or Why I Am Estranged From My Church

Brian D. Rude May, 2016

      I hope this will be of interest and relevance to people in general. I wouldn't put in in this form and in this setting if I didn't think it would. It will be about politics as much as religion, but I think it will be about something bigger than religion or politics. I'm sure it will come out rather long, as most things do that I write. I finally decided to title it "An Essay On Morals And Human Nature", because I decided that seems to be exactly what it is.

About Unitarian Universalism

      As a religion, the UU church fits me. UU stands for Unitarian Universalist. Some would claim we are not really a church. We have no dogma. We have no creed. We do have a set of principles, and we pay attention to those principles, but they are pretty general, and could easily be supported by practically any other church. We are Christian on the surface, but most of us do not believe in the central tenets of Christianity. Atheists and agnostics are very comfortable in a UU church. I have called myself an agnostic for many years.

      Like most churches and religions we are concerned with moral issues, about "doing the right thing". It is moral issues that have led to my estrangement.

      I should explain a little about Unitarian Universalism. The Unitarian church in America grew out of New England Puritanism. Puritans came to America with a lot of the usual Christian dogma, but also with at least some belief and commitment to the value of reason and the right of conscience. Somehow this led, for at least some New England Puritan churches, to a belief in Unitarianism, as opposed to trinitarianism. I don't pretend to understand much about trinitarianism, but unitarianism is a rejection of trinitarianism. God is one, not three. This belief in unitarianism put unitarian churches, or unitarian leaning churches, at some odds with most of mainline Christianity.

      To me, and I think to most UU's, the concept of unitarianism is not very important. It gives us part of our name, but since most modern unitarians don't really believe in the divinity of Jesus, or the virgin birth, or salvation by grace, or the need for salvation to keep us out of hell, much of that is not very important.

      While Unitarian ideas were developing out of New England Puritanism, another church was developing in America, the Universalist church. The universalist church simply believed in universal salvation. No one is going to hell, according to universalists. Jesus died to save all sinners. The concept of universal salvation has never been entirely absent from Christianity, as I understand it, but in most times and places it was either ignored as unimportant or actively opposed. And the ideas of unitarianism, rather than trinitarianism, likewise have never been entirely absent in the history of Christianity. As I understand it, both unitarianism and universalism have been actively opposed by mainline Christianity to one degree or another throughout Christian history.

      Can we be good without God? Some religious people give that deep thought, and some religious people simply answer that in the negative. Unitarianism in America decided in the early 1800's, that of course we can be good without god. I don't know about the Universalist position of whether or not we can be good without God. Since the Universalists joined with the Unitarians in America in 1961, apparently Universalists were reasonably comfortable with the idea that we can be good without God. UU's today mostly take it for granted that of course we can be good without God. Indeed I think most of us would say that believing in God probably doesn't help us much in being good.

      Neither unitarianism or universalism are confined to America. It is just the American part of our history that I am most familiar with.

      When I was first exposed to UUism in the late eighties I quickly realized that the universalism part of the religion is what matters to me, not the unitarian part. If you don't believe in God, at least in a personal omniscient and omnipotent god, then arguments about whether it is one person or three are pretty academic. It's about as important is worrying how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But the concept of universalism, to me, has always been the heart of UUism.

      Over the years I have given some thought to just what universalism means, or might mean, or could mean, or should mean. My thoughts are not well developed, but for decades I have felt that universalism is important to me, whatever it might mean. When pressed to try to define universalism, as a religious or philosophical idea, I quickly come to the idea of in-groups and out-groups. I approach it from an evolutionary viewpoint. The human animal evolved to be a very social animal, and a very important part of that social part of our innate nature is to form ourselves into ingroups and out-groups. A group gives respect, protection, and support to those considered to be in the ingroup. But the group gives indifference, if not hostility, contempt, and even hatred to the anyone considered to be in the outgroup. I conclude that the innate tendency to do this has had evolutionary advantage to the species. An innate drive to form groups, I surmise, enables members of the species to work together and gain the advantage of group effort over individual effort. That advantage, I surmise, is pronounced, at least in evolutionary terms.

      My idea of universalism is that a universalist will simply have no outgroups. On the one hand that's a very tall order. Everyone has outgroups. If you want to know who is in a person's outgroups, just listen to what they say for a time. Sooner or later they will express negativity to some people, ranging from mild disapproval to virulent hatred. Civilization does a wonderful job of curbing this negativity. Culture gives us ways not to let our negative feelings towards others escalate to murder and mayhem. But all the savage wars of history tell us that our propensities to let our negativity escalate to mayhem and genocide are strong.

      But on the other hand universalism also seems built into the human species to at least some extent. To be a perfect universalist, that is to have no outgroups at all, may be a very tall order, but to have some universalist tendencies, some tendencies of tolerance, some tendencies to build bridges to the outgroup, some tendencies to see the sense in other cultural values and practices, is not at all uncommon, at least in civilized societies.

      The ideal of universalism has been a strong attraction of UUism to me. From about as soon as I gave some thought to it, I knew that Universalism is important to me.

      For a bit of perspective, I consider myself a Republican, and have felt that way for several years now. But I am a conservative before I am a Republican. Indeed it is only since 2012 that I have considered myself a republican. Before that I called myself an independent, though I always realized that I have always been a republican leaning independent. But I have long been a conservative. Conservative principles, I believe, make for a healthy and productive society, a good society in other words. I only became a Republican when I decided that Democrats have drifted too far away from common sense for my taste. I became a Republican, I felt, because, for all their faults, Republicans are much more true to conservatism than Democrats.

      Somewhere in my middle age I discovered libertarianism, and have called myself a libertarian ever since. At some point I realized that I consider myself a libertarian before I am a conservative. Conservatism is important to me, but the ideas of libertarianism are more important to me. Indeed I will say that I am a conservative because conservatism promotes libertarianism. This is not to say that there is no libertarianism in liberalism. I have long said that both liberalism and conservatism have a libertarian streak and both liberalism and conservatism have an authoritarian streak. But there is a difference. To liberals libertarianism seems more a sometime thing, not a basic principle. To conservatives libertarianism is more close to a basic principle (though not as close as I would like).

      "Libertarianism" is a poorly defined term. I have found that to a lot of people it means something like libertine, or anarchist. What I mean by libertarianism seems best summed up in the phrase, I freely grant to others the same liberty that I want for myself. As I use the term, libertarianism has nothing to do with being selfish or not. A libertarian, as I use the term, might be selfish or selfless. A libertarian simply believes that when you try to control others "for their own good", you are not only being selfish, you are also being foolish.

      Unfortunately libertarianism is not given much critical thought by either the right or the left.

      But for some years now I have said that I am a universalist even before I am a libertarian. I think now I would put humanist in between universalist and libertarian. Or maybe I am a libertarian before I am a humanist. I'm not sure of that. The point of all this is that I consider the value and ideal of universalism very important to me. I can't think of any other "ism" that is more important to me than universalism. Conservatism and libertarianism promote the values of universalism. In 2012 I decided to call myself a Republican, and to be an active Republican, because I believe Republican values and ideas are far ahead of Democratic values and ideas.

      I am also an individualist, but I'm not sure just where to put individualism in the line up of Republican-conservative- libertarian-humanist-universalist. But I do believe that to me universalism is most important.

      I claim to be a universalist to the best of my ability. Others might take issue with some of my thoughts and terms and priorities, and say I am anything but a universalist, but that's the way I see it. If you want to claim that a particular person is not really a universalist, it's usually easy to identify a few facts, and a perspective of those facts, as evidence. My point here is not to argue semantics, but to try to explain my perspective, and to assert that universalism is high in my list of values, even if I can only imperfectly define all those terms.

      So for decades I have felt very comfortable in the UU church. UU's do a lot of discussing. The UU churches I have been a part of (four) have all been lay led. That means we have no professional minister. UU churches in big cities have full time ministers with advanced degrees, but my only experience has been in small groups of perhaps thirty members. Most of our services are given by regular members who simply have a topic that they think is worth sharing and discussing. Some might say we are more of a discussion group than a church, or a social group. I wouldn't argue with that, though in my mind we are a church simply because we try to be a church. In most UU churches you join officially by signing the membership book, usually in the context of a simple ceremony. Some people decide never to actually join, though they may attend for years and become very active in the life of the church.

      But I am now somewhat estranged from the church, both from my local church, but also from the larger organization. To explain why I'll first tell three stories.

Three stories

      Here's the first story. A middle aged woman goes to live in the south, in a small or medium sized city. I will call her Dorie, since I don't know anybody named Dorie, and a character needs a name. This woman has many interests, and through the local library she joins a book club. They meet once a month to discuss some book, pretty much like any other book club. She enjoys the book club. She likes the people who are involved and becomes friends with them.

      But after maybe six months or a year a problem develops. This is the south. The south has some unfortunate cultural legacies. On the surface there is no apparent racial or cultural conflict. However Dorie, once in a while, will hear her book club friends disparage black people. That bothers Dorie. The first few times it happened she said nothing, but after thinking about it, decided that the right thing to do is to say something, not to just passively accept statements and attitudes that she thinks ought to be challenged. She does this a few times. Her friends respond pretty much the way she would want them to respond. They explain that they don't mean anything bad by what they say. They uphold values of fair play and non-discrimination. They maintain they have nothing but goodwill towards any group of people.

      But after a few months Dorie wonders. She feels her new friends are genuinely good people. They care about right and wrong, and they try to always do the right thing. They are mostly church going people and show some commitment to the good parts of Christianity. For this story we'll say that Dorie is a UU, meaning she is not particularly religious. She doesn't consider herself a "believing Christian", but she definitely has positive feelings about Christian teachings such as "love your enemy" and "go the extra mile". I also share those positive feelings about what I consider the good things about Christianity. And Dorie feels that her friends also take these concepts very seriously, and try to apply them in their everyday lives.

      As time goes on Dorie's friends become aware of Dorie's feelings about the anti-black prejudice of the South. They take Dorie's feelings into account. Dorie knows that, and appreciates that. But still Dorie is not entirely happy with the situation. One phrase in particular makes Dorie cringe. Sometimes in a discussion at the book club one of her friends will say, "Well, I'm not prejudiced or anything, but . . . . . . " Dorie expects she will not be comfortable with what follows. Sometimes she will say something to try to counter what follows. Other times she will just let it pass.

      "We're not prejudiced . . . . " her friends will say, but Dorie wonders. After a time she decides. Yes, they are. Her friends, she decides, are definitely prejudiced. They won't be very blatant about it, but they definitely believe blacks are inferior in abilities, in values, in character, and probably other things. They don't want to associate with black people. They feel discrimination is justified and appropriate. They don't defend slavery explicitly, but they will explicitly defend the South's role in the Civil war.

      In this group you don't refer to the "civil War". Rather you say "the war between the states". I understand that's simply the way it is in much of the south. Dorie accepts that on one level as just the polite way to put it in this culture. Dorie sees the value in using the other guy's terms at times. But she also feels the choice of terms is taken as evidence that you accept the southern view of things, and Dorie does not like that.

      So after about a year in the book club, Dorie feels a decision must be made. Leave or stay. She can easily leave the book club. She can just stop going. If she does that, it's entirely possible that a friend or two will ask her why she stopped coming. But that's no problem. She'll just explain that it's hard to find time for the book club, with all the other things she is trying to keep up with in her life.

      But Dorie realizes she genuinely enjoys the book club. She doesn't want to leave it. And she thinks her friends genuinely are good people, even though they occasionally say things that bother her. She also realizes that there is a lot of genuine respect for her feelings and perspectives. Her friends curb what they say at times out of respect for her feelings, just as Dorie curbs what she says at times out of respect for their feelings

      An idea enters Dorie's head, and she thinks about it a lot. What if she had a black friend, a woman like herself, and invited this friend to a meeting of the book club? Would her friends accept that? At first Dorie genuinely doesn't know the answer to that. She thinks maybe it would go just fine. The black friend would be treated to the usual customary courtesy. There would be no problem. If they would accept a black friend into the book club then Dorie would feel a lot better about making the compromises she has to make to be with them. If it turns out they wouldn't accept a black friend, the obviously she would simply leave the book club.

      But there are problems. First of all Dorie has no black friend. She doesn't have many friends outside the book club, and of the few acquaintances she does have, no one seems the type that would be interested in a book club.

      But even if she could come up with a black friend, and the black friend seemed to be accepted for a time, Dorie still wonders if it would really accomplish anything. She imagines a very successful first meeting of the book club with her black friend. But then what happens? Will the black friend continue to be made to feel welcome in the future? Or would friction and resentments develop? And if the black friend comes to a few meetings and then drifts away, what does that mean? People join groups and drift away all the time for many different reasons. It doesn't mean anything. Maybe the black friend was fully accepted, as Dorie wants, or maybe every one was biting their tongues and trying to figure out a graceful way to get out of the problem. And maybe they are even giving the black friends hints that she should disappear.

      Of course Dorie has a dream in mind. In Dorie's dream, her friends rise to the challenge, welcome the new person, and then as time passes they see the light and stop being prejudiced. They never again feel the need to start out a topic of conversation with "I'm not prejudiced, but . . . . . " In Dorie's dream love wins decisively. And in this happy dream they credit Dorie for the enlightenment they have experienced.

      Unfortunately, dreams like that are not very realistic.

      It's easy to imagine a successful first meeting, Dorie decides, in which all her friends rise to the occasion and show standard courtesy to the newcomer, but it's not so easy to take it from there. Of course, she realizes, her friends, prejudiced though they may be, are totally capable of meeting black people and treating them with standard civility. It's not like they've never met or talked with a black person before. Most of her book club friends deal with black people on a frequent basis. They may work with them. They deal with them in stores and offices. They are courteous to black people every day. They don't want trouble.

      So Dorie settles into a period of uncertainty about the book club. Should she stay or go? For this story I won't give a conclusive ending. Dorie is estranged from the book club for what she considers very good reasons, but beyond that, nothing is clear cut.

      And that's the end of story number one.

      Now here's story number two. George is a young black man in the south in the 1930's. He lives in a town that has a white section and a black section. The black section of town is poorer, much less educated, and has more trouble than the white section of town. George is an imperfect human being. Not everyone in town knows George, but many do. Many townspeople, both black and white, can tell you George's faults. Many people would describe him as shiftless and prone to trouble. However his scrapes with the law have been minor, until one day events take a bad turn.

      There was a fight outside a bar. It is not clear who started it, perhaps George, perhaps the other guy. Probably events simply escalated. Both George and the other guy passed up opportunities to de-escalate the conflict. Neither had a gun, but George had a knife. At some point George used the knife, and the other guy ended up dead.

      Was a crime committed? Obviously, you say. George used a knife. The other guy was unarmed. It sure sounds like murder. So George is brought to trial. It seems like an open and shut case. But George is not found guilty of murder. He is set free. How can that be?

      George made a plea of self defense. A plea of self defense is taken seriously in this southern culture, indeed in all cultures, I presume. Credible witnesses testified that the other guy had Gorge down on the ground and was trying to bang his ahead against the concrete sidewalk. George's head injuries backed up what the witnesses said.

      Is banging someone's head against a sidewalk lethal force that justifies lethal force in return? If so, then George acted in self defense, and should not be found guilty of murder. If not, then George exceeded what he could do in self defense and should be found guilty. How would we, in our world, know how to evaluate that? In this story, George was found not guilty. The jury accepted the plea of self defense. The jury decided that if someone is beating your head against a sidewalk, you could indeed be killed, and you are justified in using whatever means you find to defend yourself. George found his knife and used it to defend himself.

      What are we to make of this story? In our world, fortunately, things like this don't happen very often.

      But for my purposes here, the really important thing in this story is the question, what are we to make of the townspeople? Remember that George was no saint. He was an imperfect human being. In fact he was a very imperfect human being. Should that affect the jury's decision of guilty or not guilty? Should George's faults affect the townspeople's judgment of whether he should be found guilty or not guilty?

      In effect the jury said what happened was a tragedy, not a crime. Two hot heads had a collision, and it ended badly.

      It is the attitude of the white townspeople that I am most concerned with. Remember that George was black, and in the 1930's south, that is crime enough for the white townspeople. They wanted George severely punished. Lynchings were a reality in the south at that time. There were some white townspeople who would have joined a lynch mob. Most of the white townspeople would not join a lynch mob, but they wouldn't necessarily consider it wrong. In general the white townspeople wanted George to be found guilty and to be severely punished, either hanged, or at least sent away for a very long time.

      Is this a realistic story? I don't know. We know there was a lot of anti-black prejudice in the south of the 1930's. Is it realistic to think George might be found not guilty in these circumstances? I don't know. That's my story, whether it's realistic or not.

      And my question, remember, is, what do we think about the white townspeople?

      This story is set up to make the answer to that question obvious. We think very badly of the white townspeople. They are prejudiced. They are virulently prejudiced. If George and the victim were white, we know the attitudes of the white towns people would be very different. There still might be differences of opinion about whether justice was done or not, or course, but there would not be the adamant condemnation of George that comes from anti-black prejudice.

      And what do I think of the white towns people? I think the same as you do. The white towns people are despicable. They are prejudiced. They are haters. They hate George simply for being black. That, to us, is a grievous fault that we will not excuse. They do not judge George on his actions. Rather they judged George on his group identity. He's black. That, to the towns people, is all they need to know.

      And that concludes story number two.

      So now here is story number three. It is very similar to story number two. Again the main character is a young guy named George. The circumstances for this George are not the same as for the black George, but they are similar. George is no saint. He is a very imperfect human being. People who know him can tell you some of his faults. This George also gets into a fight. Who started the fight is not clear, but it escalated. This George had a gun, not a knife, and he used it. The other guy ended up dead. The exact narrative of what happened did not come out immediately, but what did come out gave a pretty clear picture of what happened long before George was tried for murder. When George finally was tried for murder, he was found not guilty. Witnesses testified that the other guy was on top of George and beating his head against a sidewalk, or at least trying to beat his head against the sidewalk. Physical evidence, primarily George's head injuries, backed this up.

      In our world most of us don't have much experience deciding when the use of lethal force is justified as self defense. But the concept is not new. It goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. For most people a bit of thought and reflection is sufficient for us to accept the concept as legitimate. Of course you have a right to use lethal force if potentially lethal force is being used on you. For me, when the news first came out that the other guy was beating George's head against the sidewalk, I didn't know what to make of it. Maybe that is not lethal force. How would I know? No one has ever beat my head against a sidewalk, and I hope no one ever does. If people who know about these things say that's not lethal force, I wouldn't argue. If the experts say you just get up, maybe get some medical attention, and that's the end of it, so be it. I don't know.

      But I did hear one opinion given by a caller on a radio show that affected my thinking about it. This caller claimed to know a little about street fighting. He claimed to live in a world things like that happen. I assume he lived in some tough inner city neighborhood where crime is out of control. He claimed the sidewalk incident simply didn't happen. It couldn't have happened, he argued. He claimed George was never in the position of having his head beaten against the concrete sidewalk by the other guy. "You just don't get up again." asserted the caller. In other words the caller was claiming that it is indeed lethal force, it couldn't have happened because if it really did happen, George would be dead. I took that to mean that people have died from having their head beaten against a sidewalk.

      Was this caller right? How would I know? One caller from a tough neighborhood making a claim on the radio may not mean much. I was prepared for the jury decision in Zimmerman's trial to go either way. But when the verdict came out "not guilty", I was not at all surprised.

      You probably recognize this story. The George in this story is George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin in Florida in February of 2012.

      So we have two Georges. One is purely fictional, though I think we would all agree many stories like that have happened in the past, though perhaps not many ended with a verdict of not guilty. The other George is part of recent history. Both Georges used lethal force, claiming self defense. In both cases the jury accepted the defense and found him not guilty.

      Was justice done in either story? That's a difficult question, in my mind. Unfortunately it is not a difficult question in the minds of my friends at church. They want George found guilty and severely punished.

      So the question returns in story three that I asked in story two. What are we to make of the attitudes of the townspeople? They hate George. They are not interested in nuanced thinking about the nature and limits of self defense. They want George found guilty and sent away for a very long time.

      The principle of "innocent until proven guilty" has always been an important moral value in America. I think it's an important moral value in any civilized society. But suddenly it seems to have no importance to my friends. They believe with all their heart that obviously George was guilty of racial animosity, if not hatred. They are totally willing to act decisively on that judgment. They think they are being enlightened in doing so. I do not agree. I think they are being tribalistic.

      The "townspeople" are a little different in these two stories. In the second story, they were literally the people who lived in George's town and either knew him personally, or knew of him. In the third story the "townspeople" is the American population in general, or at least much of the population. What they have in common is their insistence on judging George in terms of his group identity. In the second story George is black so the white townspeople hated him. In the third story George is not black, but the victim was black, so the towns people hate him. In both cases they judge George on his group identity. They adamantly stick with their judgment regardless of the facts. They entertain no doubts that they are on the side of the angels.

      The towns people in this story said a lot. Some of it was said by my friends in my church. I don't have any quotes, but enough was said to give me a clear picture that my friends had a certain perspective that I do not share, and do not like. Enough was said nationally to make it obvious that this perspective was shared by much of the American population in general. Their perspective, to me, is ugly. Their perspective is that America is a racist country, that we haven't improved since the sixties.

      My friends also think that perspective is ugly, but they believe it is ugly because it is true. I think it is an ugly perspective because it is false. Racism in America was an ugly reality well into the middle of the twentieth century, but it has very largely ceased to be a reality since the end of the sixties. It is grossly unfair to assert that America has not progressed since the 1960's. It is a defamation of millions and millions of good people. "Good people", of course, are not perfect people. But they are not disparaged because they are imperfect. They are disparaged because of the ideology that America is a bad country. I consider that prejudice.

      Of course I won't argue that there is no residual racism in America. But I will argue that it has no power. This is a point made by many black conservatives in recent years, or recent decades. Rather the power is quite the other way. Say something that liberal America, or even main stream America, can interpret as having any racial content whatsoever and a storm of criticism descends on you. Say something that is considered unremarkable, but politically correct, and everyone murmurs assent. There is power in ideology all right, but the power is all on the side of liberal orthodoxy.

      I have given two reasons why I am estranged from my church. First my friends at church eagerly judged two people as guilty based on their group identity. George was judged on his group identity, not on his actions. And Darren Wilson, the policeman in Ferguson, Missouri who shot and killed Michael Brown, was likewise judged on his group identity, not his individual actions. My friends will not apply the "innocent until proven guilty" standard. Both cases were tragedies, of course, but not crimes. Tragedies happen all the time, unfortunately. They are part of life. But my friends at church adamantly insist that racist intent was the root cause, even though no evidence was found for that.

      And second, I am estranged from my church because of the more general issue that America is judged to be a racist country, and I think that judgment is grossly unfair. It is based not on observation of what is, but on self perpetuating ideology, with little connection to current reality. The judgment that America is a racist country is about as mean spirited as you can get. The racism of America in the 1950's and before is not in dispute, but things have changed drastically. But somehow the prejudice, the negative judgment of America as a racist country, has not responded at all to these changes. The prejudice has a life of its own, impervious to facts. If it were simply wrong, such as a belief that fluoride in drinking water is bad for your health, or that eating too much sugar causes diabetes, or that the founding fathers were devout conventional Christians, it would not be of much concern to me. But that it is wrong and demonizes good people, and that it is impervious to reason, that it is so all encompassing, is deeply disturbing.

      That my friends enthusiastically partake of this prejudice, and confidently think they are on the side of the angels, bothers me. Dorie's friends think they are the side of the angels when they express the rightness of their prejudice against blacks. That bothers Dorie, just as my friend's faith in their moral superiority bothers me.

      Up to this point I have basically said that I am feeling estranged from my church because of some disagreements on some specific items of morality. Maybe that sounds kind of petty. And maybe it is kind of petty.

      Or maybe it is fundamental. I'm not sure. My feeling is that events, meaning primarily the Trayvon Martin tragedy and the Michael Brown tragedy, have exposed a difference in thinking between me and my friends at church that I had not been aware of previously, though maybe I should have, and that this difference in thinking shakes my commitment to my church. I have long felt that UUism is a spiritual home to me, but now I'm not so sure. I still feel that universalism is very important to me, but I don't have much confidence now that universalism, as I think of it, is the universalism of UUs in general. Indeed now I question if I have any idea of what universalism might mean to my friends at church. Maybe that's a small point. Universalism obviously can have different meanings to different people and different groups. Maybe a universalism that falls short in my eyes is still a universalism well worth joining and supporting. There are many possible interpretations of any "ism". I would not expect the conservatism of any of my Republican friends to be identical to the conservatism that I adhere to, and I would not expect the humanism of any of my liberal friends to be identical to the humanism that I adhere to. Indeed I am well aware that the humanism that I adhere to is very poorly defined in my own mind. I know I shouldn't expect any of my friends to be perfect. All I can say with some certainty is that my friend's assumption of racism as the motive behind the two tragedies I discussed has shaken my allegiance to UUism.

      Perhaps I should end this article at this point. I think I have described and explained the situation and my perspective that leads to my problem. I imagine very few readers will have stayed with me to this point. What remains in this article may seem wandering far afield. However, as I have a lot more written in rough draft, it may be worthwhile to go ahead and try to organize it. What remains in this article is mostly speculations on human nature, about tribalism and hate. My perspective, as always, is predominantly from the perspective that we are animals. Our animal nature comes from evolution. We are indeed animals, and animals have instincts. I have said many times that in my world human instinct has always been about as real as the kitchen sink.

The nature of the human animal

      Many people seem to think of instinct, if they think of it at all, as stereotyped automatic motor responses, such as the intricate nest building actions of many types of birds. However the higher the animal the less specific are its instincts. In mammals, and especially in humans, instinct manifests itself in drives and tendencies, much more than in elaborate stereotyped motor patterns. The hunger drive, for example, has no single motor component that establishes or characterizes that drive. Yet the hunger drive can be extremely powerful. The social drives that involve bonding and grouping are extremely important in human life, and that is what I am primarily concerned with. More specifically the instinct, or complex of instincts that I will call tribalism is what I want to talk about. I see the very same tribalism that condemns George Zimmerman as the tribalism that condemns the black George of the second story. The tribalism, the prejudice, is ugly in both cases.

      So I am going to talk about tribalism, groupiness, and prejudice.

      I am an individualist. Much of my life I have known that, but usually gave it little thought. People are different in many ways. My considering myself an individualist never had a whole lot of importance. It's about as emotion charged as saying that I like music, or that I don't know much about sports. Also much of my life I have observed and tried to analyze a phenomenon I have called "groupiness." People vary greatly in their "groupiness", just as they vary in a lot of other things. I have always observed that a lot of people are "joiners", and a lot of people are chauvinists in various ways. I knew from way back that I am not high in groupiness. The phrase "let's do it together" always seemed the essence of groupiness. And I recognized that that phrase, "Let's do it together" never had much appeal to me. But much of my life I considered groupiness very much of interest, but not of much importance. If you want to do things together, fine, do so. Just don't pressure me into joining your group and doing things your way. I don't want to.

      Most of my life I have thought of what I call "groupiness" as being akin to, and perhaps arising out of simple gregariousness. Only in recent years have I begun to think of prejudice, of outgroup hostility, of hate, as essentially groupiness. Is that connected to simple gregariousness? I'm not sure.

      A few months ago I considered writing a short article for our church newsletter. I was going to title it "A defense of Individualism", and I did do a little writing on it. I may finish it yet. Or maybe this article is it. My thinking on individualism was initially prompted by some remark by a church member that disparaged individualism, something that implied, if not explicitly said, that individualists are selfish. Thinking about what I wanted to say helped bring into focus my thinking on the Trayvon Martin tragedy. The Martin tragedy, and the Ferguson tragedy, and the Baltimore tragedy, helped bring into focus my thoughts on individualism versus groupiness, or collectivism.

      I think individualism is more a lack of "isms", than an "ism" in itself. Every person has some social instincts. These instincts vary in strength as well as in their nature. And, of course, ever person has their individual interests, goals, and perspectives. If a person has instincts that strongly impel him to join groups, to have group loyalties, to defend the ingroup and criticize the outgroup, then his tendencies toward his individual concerns are diminished, while the sacrifices he's willing to make for his group increase.

      What is the opposite of individualism? I'm not sure. Maybe it is collectivism, or the word I often use, groupiness, or maybe groupism. Maybe tribalism is the best term for the opposite of individualism. Of course it's not necessarily easy to define individualism, but surely an important part of it would be the idea that of course one should not be judged on his group identity over his own actions.

      Loyalty enters into tribalism, groupiness, and prejudice. I have always thought of loyalty as generally a positive thing. However somewhere in midlife I realized that one can be loyal to the wrong things. I realized that I want to put loyalty to principles above loyalty to people.

      It seems to me that the essential feature of groupiness, as a psychological trait, is the fusion of one's personal face and one's collective face. By "face", here, I am talking about what one defends as a matter of honor. An insult is an attack on one's face, and one responds by defending oneself in some way. An insult to one's group is an attack on one's collective face, or at least what an individual perceives as his collective face. One responds by defending one's collective face.

      Defense of one's face, either individual or collective, is quite understandable, and we see examples of it everyday. But in many areas of life defense blends into offense. This can happen on the individual level. An action that one takes to defend what is his, might be interpreted by others as something beyond defense. Others may consider it more offense than defense. I think this is much more true on the group level than on the individual level.

      The groupiness drive seems to demand uniformity of world views among it's members. Groupers demand that others see the world as they do. They demand that everyone acknowledge the groups enemies as their enemies. The strength of their demand, of course depends on a lot of things. Civilization curbs the strength that a group can put in to their demands. A group that is to abrasive in their demands gets push back in many ways. In recent years the aggressiveness with which liberalism has pushed its demands has increased to a level that I consider a real problem.

      For example, liberals demand that everyone hop on board the band wagon of global warming. I call myself a climate change skeptic. Liberals call me a climate change denier. I call that intolerant. It isn't what "liberal" meant before the last decade or so. It used to be that a liberal put high value on free speech, and they seemed to understand that free speech could mean unpopular speech. Now liberals get behind speech codes, and think they are being enlightened. It seems to be the case that the groupiness drive often develops into a drive for the aggrandizement of one's group that goes beyond defense and into offence, sometimes deeply. That is the way I perceive liberalism today, at least in the last decade or so.

      I listen to Larry Elder every day on the radio. He is a black conservative. He often tells us that he is called an "Uncle Tom" for his words and opinions. He says that is just as offensive as the N-word. His crime, of course, is simply not falling in line with liberalism. Black America in general has fallen in line with liberalism, but in many ways black America is more conservative than white America.

      Our human instincts of groupiness prompt us to form groups. That is both good and bad. Groupiness very easily slip into tribalism. Tribalism, as I am using the term here, means a level of unthinking support for the ingroup and unthinking hostility to the outgroup that is inconsistent with living together peaceably. Groupiness in everyday life can be at a level that is consistent with living together peaceably. Tribalism, as I think of it here, means a level of outgroup hostility that causes serious problems.

      We are painfully aware in America that race relations are far from what they should be. And we are painfully aware that black progress is far from what it should be at this stage in history, going on fifty years past the Jim Crow era. Why? My reading of black conservatives in recent years, and listening to Larry Elder every day on the radio has advanced my thinking on these things. He has said repeatedly, as have other black conservatives, that racism is not the biggest problem holding back black progress in America today. It is not even close. America today has progressed far from the racism and bigotry of the 1960's.

      So what is holding back black progress today? Elder says the three biggest obstacles to black progress today are family breakdown, family breakdown, and family breakdown. Other black conservatives say much the same. I do not disagree in the least. And I think liberalism is a big part of the problem, not part of the solution.

      My thinking now is that liberalism, in various forms, is not only wrong on many issues, but that it has become tribalistic. It's unreasoned support for those who spout the right rhetoric, and unreasoned hostility for those who do not, is not enlightened. Of course it could be a lot worse. Liberals may not willingly tolerate my political views, but all the liberals I know tolerate me in my everyday life. In saying that liberalism has drifted to an unpleasant level of tribalism is not to say that the tribalism of liberalism is anything like the tribalism of primitive headhunting tribes. My life is not in daily danger. Liberalism has not reached that point yet. Still I feel the tribalism of liberalism needs to be challenged and opposed.

      Do collectivists generally judge people in terms of group identity versus their individual actions? I'm not sure. Do "groupers" do that. Yes, I think they do, but that is something I haven't thought much about until recently. It may be wrong to say that groupers always judge people in terms of their group identities, but I would argue that they often do. Is tribalism, or prejudice, best defined as judging on their group identities rather than their individual actions? I don't know. Philosophical pondering on something like the best definition for something like tribalism, or prejudice, or universalism, or democracy, or merit, or desert, or a zillion other terms can get pretty deep and opaque.

      It does seem clear as crystal that people judged George Zimmerman on his group identity. They were proud to do that. They thought they were enlightened. They thought they were praiseworthy in jumping to the conclusion that he obviously was motivated by racism. They thought they were praiseworthy in insisting that America is as racist today as in 1965. They seemed to delight that the Trayvon Martin tragedy gave them one more opportunity to express their deeply held conviction that America is a racist country, as racist as it was in 1965.

      Does all this mean we still have a form of prejudice that is essentially unchanged from the prejudice as we thought of it in the 1950's and 60's when I was young? Yes, I think so, and that is exactly what I have been saying for several pages now. That is a conclusion that I have been coming to for several years now. The prejudice of liberalism, is essentially the same thing as the ugly prejudice of the Jim Crow era, I'm not saying it is equal in intensity or focus. And it can certainly be argued the victims of this new prejudice are few fewer, and far less injured, than the victims of the old Jim Crow prejudice. I think I would agree with that, at least the "less injured" part, but maybe not with the "far fewer" part. Still, it seems to me, the new prejudice directed at George Zimmerman simply because he is white, is essentially the same phenomenon as the old prejudice directed at the black George in my second story. It is ugly either way. I consider it essentially the same.

      George, either George, is a very imperfect human being. George's critics will seize on any opportunity to argue that George is a bad person. Fine, George is a bad person. He's bad in a lot ways. He has his faults. Does that have anything to do with whether or not he is guilty of murder? As I see it, the judgment that George, either George, is a bad person is a rationalization. It comes after we decide he's in the outgroup.

      I conclude that prejudice, in one form or another is an important part of human nature. But that doesn't mean we are doomed to give in to that primitive part of human nature. There are many other parts of human nature, and some of those parts are very enlightened, or if not actually enlightened, at least constructive. Some parts of our human nature urge us to smite the outgroup, but other parts of our human nature urge us to reach out and work together. And then other parts of our human nature are something else entirely.

      If we agree that groupiness, meaning tribalism and prejudice, is an inherent part of human nature, then one might properly ask if I am not being a bit provincial in complaining about it only in liberalism. Perhaps. I agree that it would be foolish to claim that conservatives are immune to it. The important thing, it seems to me, is to recognize that some conflict between human nature and civilization is always going on. Our groupy human nature is always ready to look for outgroups to hate. But civilization has taught us many ways of controlling the destructive parts of our human nature. Through the lessons of civilization we are largely successful in that. Unfortunately the success of civilization over the destructive urges of our primitive nature is far from complete.

Left and Right

      I interpret political left and right in terms the willingness to accept change. The left generally welcomes change, on the idea that change is usually good. The right is less quick to embrace change, on the idea that being too open to change is incautious. Being resistant to change means we will retain some cultural traits and values that are not good and ought to be changed or dropped, but it will also mean that we will avoid other changes that are bad. It is a trade off. It would be a foolish conservative that would argue that all change is bad, but it would be a foolish liberal that would argue that all change is good. Foolish people of all kinds bump into us every day. Every potential change ought to be judged on its merits, as best we can. But a myriad of forces, circumstances, perspectives, and values are always at work in our minds as we try to make judgments as to what is the best course of action when considering any particular change.

      My feeling is that at this point in history in our American culture, the left as drifted into intolerance in many ways. Our groupy instincts tell both liberals and conservatives that the outgroup is wrong and needs to be resisted. The lessons of civilization tell both liberals and conservatives that we should try to reason with and accommodate to the differing perspectives of the outgroup. When our instincts to be hostile to the outgroup gain some ascendancy, then we fight a lot, rather than getting along. When our rational mind gains some ascendancy over our primitive groupy urges, we accommodate more and fight a lot less. In the civilized world conflicts arise over any number of issues. We fight, but usually in a tightly controlled civilized way. Fighting over disagreements doesn't usually lead to bloodshed.

      My feeling is that at this point in history in our American culture, the right is mostly hunkered down, trying to keep the peace as best we can. The left, on the other hand, is aggressive, convinced they have the light, the truth, and the way. The left is evangelic, intolerantly evangelic. They want to convert the whole world and resent it when the world resists.

      I don't think our current state of conflict between left and right is like it has been most of my life time. Most of my life I did not think of the left as the enemy. I was well aware that I would usually end up voting on the right, but that is quite different than thinking of the left as the enemy. Indeed, I don't think I consider "the left" an enemy now, but I definitely think of the left as a destructive force that needs to be dealt with and contained. Perhaps in twenty years the left will have corrected their excesses and the right will have drifted into intolerance, giving in too easily to our lower instincts. I still might be generally a conservative in that world, because I am by nature cautious, even fearful. I think we should be very careful in what change we accept. But hopefully I would resist the urge be irrational, to demonize the opposition just because they are the opposition. I don't expect to be around in twenty years, so I guess it doesn't matter.

      Dory, in my first story didn't like the prejudice she saw, though she liked her friends. I don't like the prejudice I see, but I still like my friends. But, like Dorie, I am estranged. To leave or stay in the UU church, which has been, for all its faults, a religious home for me since the late eighties, is my dilemma.

      I don't go to church regularly now as I have done for years. But I still go when the program seems interesting or relevant to me, or if someone asks me to for some reason. Like Dorie, I realize my church friends have many good qualities. And like Dorie, I realize they do consider my feelings and values, and they genuinely value my friendship and my contributions to the church community. I don't want to leave the church, but neither do want to go every Sunday. Every time I am there I open up the opportunity to be hurt by what my friends say and do. A little distance seems appropriate.

      I left Dorie's story inconclusive. I think for me the essential decision is made. I will not leave the church decisively, but neither will I stay decisively. I'll dither. I'll muddle through. Life always contains a lot of muddling through.

      I'll let my friends know about this article, but considering its length I really don't expect it to have any impact. But hopefully I have prompted a bit of thought for those who might actually read at least some of it.

    

Some related topics

Some irresponsible tape editing

      The tragedy in story three, the killing of Travon Martin, has never been shown to have anything to do with racism. It was a story of two hotheads colliding and resulting in tragedy. As the news of the Martin tragedy unfolded, there was one thing that came out early that could be taken as pointing to racism, but that turned out to be false and misleading. I wonder how many of my friends are aware of that. If they do know about it they would probably describe it as a simple error. But they would probably be blissfully oblivious to the egregiousness of the error, and that bothers me. I will describe the error, in case anyone is interested.

      Here is the key part of Zimmerman's 911 call, first in the misleading edited version, aired March 27 on the “Today” show by NBC News.

              George Zimmerman: "This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black,"

      But that is not quite the way it was. Here is that key part in the actual transcript.

              George Zimmerman: "This guy looks like he's up to no good. Or he's on drugs or something. It's raining and he's just walking around, looking about."

              911 dispatcher: "O.K., and this guy - is he white, black or Hispanic?"

              George Zimmerman: "He looks black."

      Are these two versions the same? If you have your mind made up that it is a racial crime, then I can see how they appear the same. In version one, Zimmerman's statement, "I think he was black" gives some confirmation that race is important. If he's a racist, as all my friends fervently believe, then he would mention that early and spontaneously. But he did not mention it early and spontaneously. He mentioned it only in response to a direct question by the dispatcher.

      My friends, I suppose, would tell me I'm grasping at straws. I disagree. I think it is very important. The edited version is very misleading. It leads you to immediately suspect that race is involved. But the actual transcript gives no clue of racial animosity.

      So my conclusion is that the prejudice that plagued America in the 1950's and before, is very much alive and well today. But the object of that animosity is different today. The animosity is not directed at black people. Zimmerman said nothing to indicate any feelings of racial animosity. Rather it is directed a zillion times a day at anyone who disagrees with liberal dogma, and at America in general

      My friends at church expressed what I consider strong prejudice against George Zimmerman. They had a presumption of guilt. Everyone thought the death of Trayvon Martin must be a result of racial animosity, though there was no evidence of that. Since everyone thought that, that was the end of the story. All evidence, or lack of evidence, for or against that judgment was simply not entertained. All my friends find the prejudice against the black George of my second story despicable. I find the prejudice against both Georges despicable.

The danger of police work

      My friends expressed a very similar strong prejudice towards Darren Wilson, the policeman who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson in August of 2014. Again it was a tragedy, but a thorough investigation concluded that it was not a crime. My friends seem to have no inkling that police work is sometimes dangerous work. Actually I have heard statistics that make it sound not too dangerous. One statistic I heard is that about 95% of all policemen never fire their gun in the line of duty in their entire career. I'm not sure if that's correct or not. It indicates that the vast majority of police work is pretty much routine. But even if only a very small percent of police work involves shooting, there are statistically going to be some bad outcomes. I wonder if my friends have any idea of the statistics of police shootings. It turns out there is somewhere in the neighborhood of at least 300 deaths a year by police shooting in America. Somewhere around a hundred of them involve black victims and somewhere around 200 a year involve white victims. From other sources I conclude there are closer to a thousand deaths by police shootings each year. And, of course, there is an annual death toll of policemen killed in the line of duty. Police work may be usually routine, but not always. It can become extremely dangerous in a split second.

      Every death is a tragedy. Every death ought to be thoroughly investigated. When willful misconduct by police is found it ought to be subject to punishment by law. There's no argument with any of that. But the essential fact remains that police are the ones whom we assign to deal with all the really bad people that every society has. Dangerous situations are going to arise. Mistakes are going to be made. Police work is always going to have some danger. Police basically have the same right as you and I to defend ourselves. But you and I are normally far away from dangerous situations and dangerous people. Police are expected to go everyday to those dangerous situations and dangerous people. Tragedies are going to happen.

Blaming the victim

      Many of my friends from church, and from life in general, take it as very important to not blame the victim. I understand that, and consider it important myself. But I also understand that in many cases the victim in some situation has done things, sometimes lots of very serious things, that are counter productive to their best interests. An example, rather common, unfortunately, would be the girl who takes up with, even marries one abusive boyfriend after another. Such a girl often has plenty of family and friends constantly advising her against her actions, but she keeps repeating them. Yes, we want to be careful that we do not blame victims for things that are beyond their control, but there is no virtue in condoning destructive attitudes and actions that keep one in a victim status.

      Yes, it is always wrong to blame a victim for events and circumstances totally out of their control. But in an effort not to do that, it is possible to fail to give constructive criticism that is valid and could do some good. This is recognized by society, at least sometimes, in the concept of "tough love".

      Civilized people have a general rule not to criticize others unless there is a good reason to do so. I thoroughly approve of that rule. I apply that rule myself, many times a day. To be sure, there are situations today in which many people believe it is a virtue to criticize the opposition, the more mean spirited, unfair, and destructive, the better. That's what the townspeople did in my story of the black George. It is also something I hear almost daily in politics. The authors of this mean spirited destructive criticism are proud of what they do and say. They think they are on the side of the angels. The townspeople in the black George story think they are upholding the good. The townspeople of the other George think the same thing. I think they are all equally despicable.

      In America we have a strong tradition of the legitimacy of political opposition, within the bounds of the law, of course, if not within the bounds of civility. I support and value that tradition. I support the right of jerks and bigots to vociferously demonize their political enemies. But that does not at all mean that I have to approve of what they say and do from a moral sense. The townspeople who demonize George, either George, are jerks and bigots who are exercising their rights to be jerks and bigots. So long as they limit themselves to expression of their despicable opinions and do not hinder, harm, or intimidate, we have to tolerate them, no matter which George is the object of their wrath. But that does not mean we should approve of them. We should not approve of them, and we should not pretend we approve of them (though I do it about every day in one way or another). I think many of them have no inkling that they might be criticizing more out of bad manners than by any desire to do good. However most of these people will have enough good manners to keep harsh politics out of conversations with family and friends.

      There are times when it is beneficial to criticize, but I don't believe that the rancorous political demonizing that we hear every day is ever beneficial. Gratuitous rancorous criticism, negativity that can only hurt and not help, is always wrong, in my humble opinion, no matter what the subject. But criticism can be helpful. We can't avoid all criticism. Criticism is necessary if people are to get feedback from each other.

      Making, or withholding, criticism involves trade offs, and if it is often unclear just what the best tradeoffs are. There are many times when harsh criticisms are made that are in no way helpful, and there are many times when criticisms could be helpful, but we withhold them. We virtually always judge criticisms made by others that we don't like, but very often withhold our judgments of the other guy's criticims just to avoid an argument or bad feelings. Every one has the right to be a jerk and a bigot, but good people limit themselves in exercising that right, out of practical considerations if nothing else. Sometimes it is simply the right thing to do. There are many good reasons to make criticisms, and many good reasons to withhold criticisms.

      In America today there are many, many people who think they are being enlightened by flatly refusing to ever criticize black people in any situation. I consider that as destructive, not constructive. It is condescension. It is not love, tough or otherwise.

      It's okay to criticize black people. Just do it as politely and constructively as you would do it for anyone else.

      If it is not white racism that is holding back black advancement, then is it not beneficial in any way to claim that it is. That is my view. White racism, to the extent that it still exists in America, has no power. It is the wrong explanation for the relative lack of black progress. Pushing hard on wrong explanations can only do harm. If we insist that the abused girl a few paragraphs back is doing nothing wrong in her decisions and actions, we are doing her no favor. If we totally reject the idea of "tough love", we are doing her no favor. Indeed we are harming her.

      If it is not white racism that is holding back black advancement, then we need to be very diligent in trying to figure out just what is holding them back. The opinions of black conservatives vary on that question, I suppose, at least in many details, but the general conclusion is cultural and social pathologies in inner city communities are very important.

      Liberal America is convinced that America is a racist country, and that white racism is what holds black progress back. Until a few years ago I would have passively accepted that. I would not have accepted that America is as racist today as it was in the 1960's. I think that is ludicrous. But I would have accepted the idea that residual white racism was powerful enough to retard black progress. And I would probably have accepted the idea that that was the main thing holding blacks back. My thinking on that changed when I began to read black conservatives. You don't have to read very many books by black conservatives to seriously question the power of residual white racism. And that is an important point made by different black conservatives in different ways. Residual white racism certain exists. We know that. But it has no power. The power arrayed against any expression of white racism by both liberal America and mainstream America is on display everyday. It is an important part of political correctness. Our presidential election politics have given us many recent examples.

      Lack of black progress is a serious matter that should concern all thinking and caring people. But we should be very careful not to latch on an easy, but superficial and inadequate explanation. My reading has convinced me that much of mainstream America, and all of liberal America, has done exactly that. I won't try to make a case for that perspective here. That is a big job. But I will simply say that I consider that I have arrived at my perspective on these things through substantial reading and thought.

      My friends at church, and the church collectively, are willing to judge George on the basis of his group identity. That bothers me a lot. My friends at church, and the church in general are willing to say, and I have heard them say it, that America is as racist today as it was in the 1960's. That bothers me a lot, too. I'll say it loud and clear. That perspective harms black people. My friends are totally unwilling to concede that anything but white racism contributes in any way to the lack of black progress. Who do you think that hurts?

      White condescension hurts black people. This is said in many ways by black conservatives.

      The phrase "liberal intolerance" has been in my head for many years, but only recently did I consider the idea that "liberal intolerance" and "political correctness" were synonymous. I'm not sure about that, but I've haven't thought of any example of something considered politically incorrect that I would not describe as liberal intolerance.

      Again, we may say that the prejudice and tribalism I see in UUism is mild compared to the prejudice and tribalism of America in the 1950's and earlier. Perhaps, but it is still ugly. People are imperfect. Dorie knows that, and I know that. If you expect all your friends to be perfect you won't have any friends. Whether Dorie stays with the book club or leaves it is not very important in the great scheme of things. Whether I stay with my church is also not very important in the great scheme of things. But it has occupied my mind and bothered me for quite a few months now.

Talking politics

      I will describe another situation which estranges me from my church. This happened after I had stopped going to church regularly. I had not told anyone that I was estranged from the church, but apparently my frequent absence on Sunday mornings was noticed by a few. One day after church a friend and I got to talking about politics, or, more specifically, about the idea that we ought to be able to talk politics in church, and friends in general ought to have ways of talking politics. I suggested what I thought was a general framework for my friend and I to exchange views on politics. At least I tried to suggest. I probably was not very organized in my thinking and may not have verbalized my ideas very well. What I suggested was an ongoing email conversation, but a conversation with a certain structure. What I had in mind to suggest, though I may not have gotten very far, was that we start out with each writing up a page or two with our individual answers to a few questions concerning our political differences, and our questions for each other. The goal was to find common ground when we could, and then to try to clearly identify and explore our disagreements. I had in mind a small set of beginning questions. I didn't have them well formulated in my mind at the moment, but felt I had a pretty good idea of what they would be. A few days later I formulated several beginning questions to my satisfaction, and sent an email to my friend stating them. R stands for a question a Republican should consider, and the corresponding D stands for questions that I think a Democrat should consider

      1R What do I, as a Republican, need to hear a Democrat say?:

      2R What do I, as a Republican, think a Democrat ought to tell his own party?:

      3R What do I, as a Republican, need to bring up with my fellow Republicans?:

      1D What do I, as a Democrat, need to hear a Republican say?:

      2D What do I, as a Democrat, think a Republican should tell his own party?:

      3D What do I, as a Democrat, need to bring up with my fellow Democrats?:

      My friend seemed very agreeable. I had some optimism that this would be a productive exercise.

      Unfortunately before we ended this conversation, my friend said something that proved to be a big problem, a problem still unresolved. He mentioned, as we were leaving, I think, that the Republicans and Democrats have switched sides on race in recent years. I totally disagree with that, and I find it offensive, but at the time, I let it pass. We'll have to work that out later, I thought. I did not foresee a problem in doing so.

      A day, or maybe a few days later, I emailed my friend the questions as I just stated them. I also gave one response to each question, as follows. I assumed I could come up with many more responses, and more questions, as time went by. And I very much looked forward to my friend's initial response to these questions. I envisioned a productive conversation ensuing.

      Here are my answers to those initial questions:

      1R What do I, as a Republican, need to hear a Democrat say?: Answer: I need to hear a Democrat say that criticism of Obama is not evidence of racism. I will not take it as evidence of racism, even if politically incorrect language sometimes slips in.

      2R What do I, as a Republican, think a Democrat ought to tell his own party?: Answer: I would hope that a my Democrat friend could say, we (Democrats) often come across as intolerant of other's perspectives and values. We should try to understand why.

      3R What do I, as a Republican, need to bring up with my fellow Republicans?: Answer: I need to find out the rationale of the Wisconsin truth-in-sentencing law. The hold over offenders that parole ought to give would seem sensible. So what's the rationale, and what is the experience that led up to this change in Wisconsin law?

      I felt this would be a nonprovocative way to start. However, I received no response. After a week I sent another email to my friend, but again no response was forthcoming.

      Okay, maybe this beginning is an approach that doesn't work with my friend. But hopefully we have started a conversation. I'll just be patient and see what happens. My mind began to look for ways to resolve the big problem introduced by my friend, his suggestion that in recent years Republicans and Democrats have switched positions on race. That is highly offensive to me, as a Republican. My friend apparently doesn't want to engage by email, so Ill just bring up the topic when we are talking informally after church some Sunday.

      That conversation did not occur for a number of weeks. I envisioned that sooner or later it would have to take place, and when it did, the problem could be laid to rest pretty easily. I simply had to explain why the idea - that Republicans and democrats have switched positions on race in recent decades - was so offensive to Republicans. I would explain that until recent decades the Democratic party was virulently racist, and to say that Republicans and Democrats had switched positions on race would imply that Republicans today were virulently racist. That, to my mind is obviously not the case. Therefore I fully expected my friend to see my problem with his statement, and to offer some modification or explanation of his statement. I could easily think of several ways he could do this.

      He could say that of course Republicans today are not Bull Connor racists. They are not Orval Faubus racists. They are not George Wallace racists. But, my friend could say, Republicans today are not in favor of affirmative action, at least not nearly as much as Democrats are. He could say Republicans don't want to talk much about discrimination. He could say that Republicans are insensitive to issues of race and discrimination. In all of these things I would not fully agree, but they are certainly things that could be talked about. There are other things like that that he could point out. The important thing, the very important thing to me, was that he say loud and clear that of course Republicans are nothing like the virulent racists that many Democrats were in the 60's and before. It's just common decency, I thought, to do that much.

      But our conversation did not arrive at anything like that. There was one success in that conversation. I was able to point out that Democrats tend to interpret any criticism of Obama as racially motivated. My friend is an intelligent person. I assumed he would have no trouble understanding that, and would understand how unfair that is. I thought we made some headway on that. Indeed toward the end of the conversation, I told him, "Okay, Friend, tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to criticize Obama. Remember it's okay for the opposition to criticize any president. It's been okay since Revolutionary times. Of course you criticize the president of the other party. That's as American as apple pie. It was clear from the start that Obama was a liberal, and conservatives have been criticizing liberals for a long time. Are you ready?"

      Then I mentioned the "red line in the sand" statement that Obama had made earlier about Syria. I explained that using that term reflected badly on Obama's understanding of world events. My friend accepted all this. At least he didn't say much. I took that as a breakthrough, or at least good progress. I hoped we had laid a foundation, or at least had begun, what would could be a serious and fruitful conversation.

      However somehow nothing more developed. I sent him yet another email, though he had not responded to my previous emails. I said maybe I was too blunt, but still I am looking for resolution of the central problem. I need to hear him say that of course he never meant to imply that the Republican party was anything like the virulent racism of the Democrats in the sixties and before.

      I think in this email, and in previous conversations, I pointed out that I give credit to the Democratic party for a huge change in their racial attitudes. In any conversation it only makes sense to give credit where you can. I give credit to the Democrats for tremendous progress from the virulent racism of their past.

      When it appeared that he was not responding to my last email, I thought of one last step to hopefully prompt some progress. I made a paper copy of that last email. I carried that paper copy with me to church every time I went (which was not every Sunday at this stage). I decided to personally hand it over to him when the opportunity would finally arise. If there were a problem of not getting my emails, this would take care of that. Eventually the opportunity arose to hand over that paper copy to him, and I did so. Nothing has happened since then.

      So I am estranged from my UU church. UU's are proud of their tolerance and open mindedness. We think we can discuss anything civilly among ourselves. But what does it mean? My repeated attempts to get a constructive and civil conversation going on politics have come to naught.

      How does this fit in with Dory and her estrangement from her book club? That's pretty easy, though I did not put it in the original story. After Dorie becomes aware of the prejudice of her friends, she attempts to talk to them about it, at least now and then as the opportunity arises. They really are decent people, Dorie thinks. We can talk about things. I'll just look for opportunities to discuss things. But after a period of time Dorie concludes that no progress is being made. Attempted discussions get nowhere. Dorie decides she must either accept her friends as they are, or leave the book club. And I have concluded I must either accept my church friends as they are, or just leave the church.

      I don't think I will decisively leave the church. I'll accept my friends as they are. They are prejudiced, and that's just the way it is. But I will limit my contact with these friends, just as Dorie will limit her contact with her friends. When I was a kid in the fifties I had a few friends who were prejudiced (though actually nobody comes to mind, but we didn't have much occasion to talk about things like that). In college in the sixties I had several friends who were overtly prejudiced. Today I have friends who are overtly prejudiced against Republicans and conservatives, (and perhaps libertarians and individualists, but I'm not sure about that). Prejudice is simply a part of human nature. That's the way it is. So, for the moment at least, I'll just muddle through. I don't know anything else to do.

A final note

      I will describe a mundane little happening that stands out in my thinking about these things, though I don't claim that it really has much importance. Our church has a post office box, and for several years now I have been the one to get our mail out of the post office box. I normally do this every Saturday morning. One morning, some where in the middle of all these happenings, I pulled out of our box the newest issue of the "UU World", a quarterly publication of our national UU organization. I immediately disliked the cover picture. It was a gritty scene, I think from the movie Selma, or possibly an actual photo from the Selma troubles of 1965. You can say it was just a historical picture, but I saw an important message in it. Call it a "metamessage", or call it "situational language", or whatever. My interpretation was immediate and disheartening. The message I got was that the national UU organization, or at least the editors of the publication, considered that America is totally stuck back in the racial relations of the 1960's. Of course I totally disagree with that. The magazine said to me that the Trayvon Martin tragedy was a direct result of American racism. At least that's how I interpreted the cover picture.

      That picture told me that the national organization of the UU church had the attitudes that my personal friends at church had, attitudes that I consider prejudice. I never opened that magazine. I took it to the church and put it in the library, as I have done with every other issue of this publication. I knew that in a few days the copy of that publication for my wife and me would come to our home mail box, as it always does. I used to look forward to the day when the current issue arrived. I would look it through cover to cover. I could expect to find some interesting articles in there, and some interesting perspectives. I was quite aware that any particular issue might contain some articles and perspectives that I didn't like. That had happened in the past, sometimes prompting me to write letters to the editor. And there might be an article or two that I thought was shallow, or even silly. But always before the big picture was very plain. In the big picture UU concerns and perspective were something I thoroughly approved of. But with one glance at that cover my perspective suddenly changed dramatically. The big picture now was that UU's in general, and my friends in particular, held to a view of America that I consider dead wrong, mean spirited, prejudiced, unfair, and destructive.

      I presume that issue of the UU World remains in our church library, now. My personal copy at home may remain somewhere at home. The church library is not highly organized, and our home library even less so. I may come across that issue sometime, either at church or at home. My reason tells me that if I'll just overlook the offensive cover, and probably the offensive article inside, I might find other articles inside of interest and value. I have always found some irritating articles in issues of the UU World. That's nothing new. They were irritating because I thought they were shallow and silly rhetoric. That has changed now, much for the worse. Now I see prejudice and tribalism as deeply embedded in UUism, at least in America. Indeed, now I see tribalism and prejudice as deeply embedded in liberalism.

      But it's worse than that. Now I see tribalism and prejudice as deeply embedded in human nature.