2018-01-06

Feelings Metaphors Body

Embodiment, part 2

The great philosopher and psychologist William James published an influential paper in 1884 called “What Is an Emotion?”
“In this paper James put forth the theory that standard emotions such as sadness or rage or fear are not antecedent to the physiological responses we associate with them, but rather the product of these bodily changes. This was a radical notion at the time, a reversal of the usual way of seeing things.”
James also didn’t trust common sense.
“Common sense tells us that when we lose our fortune, we are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. Yet this order of sequence is incorrect, James asserted. The more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry; angry because we strike; afraid because we tremble. Coming between the stimulus (bear) and the feeling (fear) is the body: quickened heartbeat, shallow breathing, trembling lips, weakened limbs. And that collection of responses is what lets you know that you’re afraid.”
He’s not saying the body reacts on its own, without the involvement of the brain. It’s the brain that processes stimuli and releases neurotransmitters, hormones such as adrenaline. James is just saying all that happens milliseconds before there’s a conscious experience of the emotion.

So:
  • The commonsense view was that emotion comes first and triggers physiological expression.
  • For William James, physiological activity precedes emotional experience.
  • Other psychologists followed who said, it happens at the same time: subjective experience of emotion and physiological changes are simultaneous. Still others said its our physiology and our conscious thought about what’s happening – both physiologically and externally – that combine to form an emotional experience.
  • Neurologist Antonio Damasio describes a feeling as “in essence an idea: an idea of the body when it is perturbed by the emoting process."
The point of mentioning these theories is not that there’s going to be a quiz and you better pay attention so you can get an A in Sunday worship. The point of mentioning these theories is to raise the question: well, how does it seem to you? What are the details of what you experience, and you’re your body does, and what your thoughts do, and which happens when?

How DO you know what you feel? Instead of saying, “I just know it – it’s immediately evident” – try investigating how that works.

And the point of raising these questions is that, however you turn it over, and whatever you notice or think you notice, whatever conclusion you draw, you were paying attention to your experience in a new way. And just noticing it is the path to not being ruled by reactivity.

So, actually, there IS a quiz, and it’s the quiz you’re invited to take over and over throughout the day, and it’s really just one question: What’s happening here? – where “here” includes your body as it is in relation to what’s going on around it.

* * *
Years ago at another congregation, a parishioner said to me after the service one Sunday that I was reducing us to mere meat. It’s true that the notion of ourselves as souls trapped in a body does trigger my logic – such logic as I mentioned earlier: if a soul isn’t physical, then it doesn’t occupy space, and if it doesn’t occupy space then it can’t be “IN” anything. And it’s true that logic is reductive – it leaves out all the poetry of experience. What I really want to do is celebrate ourselves AS bodies – not as souls trapped in a body – and that’s not reductive at all.

All the wonder and mystery that might seem discarded by the phrase “mere meat” returns when we notice how wondrous and mysterious this meat is. We will think of thinking differently when we notice how embodied it always has been. Western thought for a long time conceived of reason as disembodied because the mind that did the reasoning was disembodied. We thought of reason as a transcendent and universal force – and parts of that legacy still show up sometimes in our tacit assumptions.

We are coming to understand that we reason in metaphors, and the metaphors come down to being physical, spatial. We speak of control OVER, of being ON TOP of a situation. Relationships are described in terms of electricity or chemistry. Basic feelings of happy and sad are spatial – we feel UP, meaning happy, and DOWN, meaning sad. Cognition is grounded in bodily experience. Even mathematics – argue cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Rafael Nunez in their book, Where Mathematics Comes From – is grounded in the body and is embodied in metaphor. Turning over almost any phrase, unpacking its metaphors and tracing them back to the physical, is also a way to embody.

2018-01-05

Centering 1: Darrick Jackson, "Othering and Belonging"

This is the first in a series of reflections on the essays collected in Mitra Rahnema, editor, Centering: Navigating Race, Authenticity, and Power in Ministry (Skinner House, 2017). In this post, I reflect on Darrick Jackson, "Othering and Belonging."


The Stress of Being Black

Shortly before I began reading Centering, I heard a story on NPR's Morning Edition that brought home in a particularly poignant way one of the myriad effects of US racial prejudice. The Center for Disease Control has reported on the infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births in 2015. For white nonhispanic Americans, the rate was 4.8%. For Hispanics, it was 5.2%. For black nonhispanic Americans, it was 11.7% -- more than twice the rate for whites. OK, that's appalling. But why is it happening? Is it poverty? Is it genetics? NPR's Rhitu Chaterjee and Rebecca Davis reported:
"Scientists and doctors have spent decades trying to understand what makes African-American women so vulnerable to losing their babies. Now, there is growing consensus that racial discrimination experienced by black mothers during their lifetime makes them less likely to carry their babies to full term." ("How Racism May Cause Black Mothers To Suffer The Death Of Their Infants," Morning Edition, 2017 Dec 20)
The essence of the matter is stress on the mother. Stress causes early labor, thus premature births, thus higher infant mortality. This gives us a very concrete manifestation of the stress of being black in America.
"Even educated, middle-class African-American women were at a higher risk of having smaller, premature babies with a lower chance of survival....Black and white teenage mothers growing up in poor neighborhoods both have a higher risk of having smaller, premature babies. 'They both have something like a 13 percent chance of having a low birth weight baby.'...But in higher-income neighborhoods where women are likely to be slightly older and more educated, 'among white women, the risk of low birth weight drops dramatically to about half of that, whereas for African-American women, it only drops a little bit.' In fact, today, a college-educated black woman is more likely to give birth prematurely than a white woman with a high school degree....Some people suggested that the root cause may be genetics. But if genes are at play, then women from Africa would also have the same risks...[But] babies of immigrant women from West Africa...were more like white babies — they were bigger and more likely to be full term. So, it clearly isn't genetics....[Moreover,] the grandchildren of African immigrant women were born smaller than their mothers had been at birth. In other words, the grandchildren were more likely to be premature, like African-American babies....Meanwhile, the grandchildren of white European immigrant women were bigger than their mothers when they were born....'So, there was something about growing up black in the United States and then bearing a child that was associated with lower birth weight.'...What is different about growing up black in America is discrimination....'It's hard to find any aspect of life that's not impacted by racial discrimination, whether you're talking about applying for a job, or purchasing a new car, finding housing, getting education....' Higher education and income did not necessarily mean people experienced less discrimination....In 2004, David and Collins published a study...in which they reported the connection between a mother's experience of racism and preterm birth. They asked women about their housing, income, health habits and discrimination. 'It turned out that as a predictor of a very low birth weight outcome, these racial discrimination questions were more powerful than asking a woman whether or not she smoked cigarettes.'...Other studies have shown the same results. ("How Racism May Cause Black Mothers To Suffer The Death Of Their Infants," Morning Edition, 2017 Dec 20)
In what does this extra race-based stress consist? For some details, I looked at J.B.W. Tucker's "The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics and Data Post"." A few lowlights:
  • The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that Blacks are less than 13% of the populations, yet, as best we can tell since many police departments do not report, blacks are 31% of all fatal police shooting victims, and 39% of those killed by police when not attacking. Yes, it's worth remembering that 61% of the "killed by police when not attacking" category are not blacks. Still, the number that are is disproportionate.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that young black males, ages 15-19, are 21 times more likely to be to be shot and killed by the police than young white males. Between 2005 and 2008, 80% of NYPD stop-and-frisks were of blacks and Latinos. Only 10% of stops were of whites. 85% of those frisked were black; only 8% were white. Only 2.6% of all stops (1.6 million stops over 3.5 years) resulted in the discovery of contraband or a weapon. Whites were more likely to be found with contraband or a weapon.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that blacks (remember, 13% of the U.S. population) are 14% of regular drug users, but are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 56% of those in state prisons for drug offenses.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that one in every 15 black men are currently incarcerated, while for white men the statistic is 1 in 106. Prison sentences of black men were nearly 20% longer than those of white men for similar crimes in recent years.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that whites are 78% more likely to be accepted to the same university as equally qualified people of color -- and that a black college student has the same chances of getting a job as a white high school dropout. For every dollar a white man makes, white women make 78¢, black men make 72¢, black women make 64¢.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from Voter ID laws, which do not prevent voter fraud, but do disenfranchise millions of young people, minorities, and elderly, who disproportionately lack the necessary government IDs.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from news reporting that regards black lives as less significant. African American children comprise 33.2% of missing children cases, but only 19.5% of cases reported in the media.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from knowing that financial institutions expect to be able to exploit you and take advantage of you. In 2009, bailed-out banks such as Wells Fargo and others were found to have pushed minority borrowers who qualified for prime loans into subprime loans, which can add more than $100,000 in interest payments to a mortgage over the life of the loan. Among high-income borrowers in 2006, African Americans were three times as likely as whites to pay higher prices for mortgages: 32.1% compared to 10.5%. Black car buyers are charged $700 more on average than white car buyers of the same car.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from consciously or unconsciously racist real estate agents. When looking for a home, black clients looking to buy are shown 17.7% fewer houses for sale, and black renters learn about 11 percent fewer rental units.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from facing hiring discrimination. In one study thousands of identical resumes were mailed to prospective employers -- identical except only for the name. A black sounding name – say, Daunte Williams instead of David Williams – was 50% less likely to be called back. Fifty percent.
  • The stress of being black in America comes from a medical establishment and a political establishment that doesn't care about you as much as it does for white folks. Doctors did not inform black patients as often as white ones about the option of an important heart catheterization procedure. White legislators – in both political parties -- did not respond as frequently to constituents with black sounding names.
"The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics and Data Post" has a lot more data . If you don't know it, take a look.

Darrick's Dilemma

It's a good idea to have this reality clearly in mind as one begins reading Centering. Were it not for this reality, then Rev. Derrick Jackson's essay, "Othering and Belonging," which opens the book might seem to be merely Rev. Jackson's statement that his preferences in worship style differ from most other UUs.

Rev. Jackson was raised in the AME Church. When he says, "I often ache for the music that makes my heart soar," he means the kind of music he was used to growing up. Whether Jackson also thinks that this music is objectively better, more heart-soaring, regardless of one's upbringing, isn't entirely clear. That is, is typical UU worship music different from AME worship music because UUs find a different style of music makes their hearts soar, or because UUs prefer not to have their hearts soar in worship? I don't know what Jackson would say, but sometimes he seems to imply the latter:
"Music can evoke a deep spiritual strength in me that helps me transcend the issues and concerns in my life. In worship, it can help me connect with the theme for the service in a visceral way. But most UU hymns feel like vehicles for the words, not for an experience of the holy." (4-5)
The point seems to be more than just that Jackson personally doesn't experience the holy in UU hymns, but that UUs have opted for hymns in which human beings generally will not experience the holy.

The same goes for sermons. UUs "look for sermons that make them think and find sermons that stir the heart lacking" (5). Again: is it that other UUs find their hearts stirred by a different kind of sermon from the kind that stirs Jackson's heart? Or do UUs prefer sermons that don't stir their hearts? Jackson's implication seems to be the latter. When he says "I want to touch the heart, to nurture the soul," he implies that "the intellectual sermon" typical of UUs doesn't do those things.

I suspect Jackson is mostly right about that, but that that's not the whole story. Suppose we grant that  typical UU sermons touch UU worshipers' hearts less than AME sermons touch AME worshipers' hearts. Even so, those UU sermons do touch the hearts and nurture the souls of many listeners more than they do Jackson's -- and a more AME-styled sermon would touch their hearts less than it would  Jackson's.

It's possible, I think, to be both intellectual and heart-stirring. A. Powell Davies' sermons made worshipers think and also quickened their pulses, fortified their spirits, and expanded their souls. Granted, even Davies wasn't universally appealing -- even in his time, and even among worshipers theologically aligned with Davies, some worshipers found the thinking getting in the way of the feeling and would have preferred more feeling. For the great bulk of preachers less gifted than Rev. Davies, the either/or of mind OR emotion/body/spirit is transcended less far and less often. The practical reality is that one side or the other will be emphasized. Sunday after Sunday, the average UU minister leans more to the intellectual than the average AME minister, and the average UU worshiper is less heart-stirred and more mind-stimulated than the average AME worshiper. Is that a bad thing? Or are both groups pretty much getting what they want and what feeds them?

Here's why it's a problem. At the first level, people want both their theological preferences and their worship-style preferences satisfied. If worship-style preferences were the only dividing line among US congregations then having different congregations with different worship styles would be all we needed. But Americans also fall into different theological groupings. People who, like Jackson, have a theology that is liberal but a worship-style preference that is body-experiential and emotive currently have no very satisfactory home. I do believe that Unitarian Universalism must make itself into a more satisfactory home for people like Jackson -- or Unitarian Universalism will (and will deserve to) whither and die.

At the second and deeper level, my phrase "worship-style preference" must now be exposed as misleading. There are worship needs at stake that are not mere preferences. And Jackson's experience cannot be reduced (as, so far, I have been doing -- in order to now expose its reductiveness) to the experience of finding UU worship different from the worship to which he happened to have grown up accustomed. What's at issue isn't just a fond nostalgia for childhood church experiences.

Race is fundamental to all our experience (though whites find this easier to ignore -- that's part of our privilege), and Jackson's experience as a black American is fundamental to his. This is why I began this post with an extended account of the stresses of being black in America. The music and preaching of AME worship is not accidental. Such worship emerged and was sustained because it responded to the needs (not "preferences") of a community under tremendous stress.

Nor is the music and preaching of historically-typical UU worship accidental. It is a response to the needs of people whose bodies are not at risk, who have sufficient physical security to indulge the luxury of philosophical exploration. They -- let me say, we -- may, indeed, find our hearts stirred and souls cultivated (interestingly distinct from "nurtured," isn't it?) by these explorations because we can take for granted a certain basic belongingness. Our experience of alienation and partiality (i.e., not feeling whole) is based more in ideas than in direct threats to our bodies, so our path of healing depends more on engaging with ideas. It's not that the ideas we explore in worship don't touch our hearts and lift our spirits -- for our predominantly white, middle-class congregations, they often do. But (a) they don't do much to touch Darrick Jackson's heart or lift his spirit, and (b) folks like Jackson won't find their hearts much touched or spirits much lifted in worship unless that worship addresses the fundamental stresses to which their lives are subjected.

How Can This Change?

If belongingness is the, or at least a, fundamental psychospiritual need of corporate worship, the belongingness that UU worship has tended to provide for its predominantly white, well-educated congregations is reassurance of a place within the structures of white privilege. Our community-building provides networking for mostly whites. Our pastoral sermons have often assured congregants "you're OK" within a system of unjust privilege.  Our social action has flowed at least partly from an attempt to conscientiously deploy our privileges to "do good" -- and thereby make ourselves feel that we deserve to have these privileges, and are "at home" with them. In short, the belongingness our worship and our congregations have offered is belongingness within white power. (Yes, we have occasionally been able to extend that belongingness to a few people of color -- but this is because the structures of white power themselves admit a few exceptional people of color.)

The challenge is to proffer a different kind of belongingness. At first, we would offer it mostly to white people because those are currently most of the people in our congregations. The new ground of belongingness that I have in mind depends on identifying with -- not just sympathizing or even empathizing with -- the sufferings and stresses of all people. Their suffering is apprehended as my suffering; their stress is understood as my stress.
"All the pains, the joys, the sufferings, the cries of everyone in the universe are as such my own pain, my joy, my suffering, my cry....A straightforward look at our present world as it is will manifest the state of suffering of countless living beings, those suffering in the midst of dehumanizing poverty, where malnourished babies die every minute, and where many continue to die victims of violence both individual and structural. All this is my very own suffering, and my body is racked with pain from all sides. And I cannot remain complacent and unconcerned; I am literally inspired by an inner dynamism to be involved in the alleviation of this pain and suffering, in whatever capacity I am able." (Ruben Habito)
Darrick Jackson observes that UUs tend to find "sermons that stir the heart lacking." Even if we are allowed the qualification that we love sermons that stir our hearts, it's true that we haven't much cared for the kind of worship that is healing for people who live under much greater social stresses than middle-class whites. If we are to become a people who appreciate, who yearn for, who need the kind of worship that theologically liberal American blacks like Rev. Jackson appreciate, yearn for, and need, then we need a theology that takes on the stresses blacks face as our very own. Care, of course, must be taken not to do this appropriatively, and not to claim any of the moral high ground that comes from being a voice of the oppressed. We can't speak or act or judge as, for, or on behalf of the oppressed. We can simply take in the pain and grasp it as our own.

We can revise one of our hymns -- Sarah Dan Jones' "Meditation on Breathing," which goes:
When I breathe in, I breathe in peace.
When I breathe out, I breathe out love
We can replace this with something more like tonglen practice, in which we take in the suffering of ourselves and others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath send back compassion to ourselves and all who suffer. A single word change yields:
When I breathe in, I breathe in pain.
When I breath out, I breathe out love.
After about 10 minutes of chanting that, even white UUs with PhDs might be ready and eager for the most joyful, emotive, embodied, lively, shouting and dancing worship that Darrick Jackson could imagine.

And if not, well, it would still be a start.

2018-01-04

Mind and Body: Different?

Embodiment, part 1

Mind and body, body and mind. Our common sense understanding tells us these are two different things. But I don’t trust common sense. I’ve been told that this is a sour grapes attitude on my part – that I don’t trust common sense because I don’t have any. And that may be true. Still, the common sense consensus about body and mind being two different things falls apart pretty quickly – like, as soon as someone asks, “Which category is brain in?”

Some people say – or seem to imply – that mind is not the brain. Brain is body – it’s physical, made of matter – but mind is something else. This has been the prevailing assumption for most of Western history. The problem is, if mind is nonphysical, nonmaterial, then it doesn’t occupy space, and if it doesn’t occupy space, where is it? If my mind is nowhere and everywhere, why is it picking up only the sights and sounds coming to THESE eyes and THESE ears? How can a nonphysical, nonmateral whatsis CAUSE my physical body to move? Any force that acts on matter is a physical force. That’s what a physical force IS: whatever can cause motion of a physical object. Electro-magnetism, gravity: those are invisible, but they’re physical forces. So if your mind were nonphysical, nonmaterial, it would be nonspatial, and not particularly connected to your sensory experiences, and it would also be unable to trigger your body to any actions.

The increasing awareness of the insolubility – or at least awkwardness – of these problems has shifted culture so that more of us now regard – or talk as if we regard -- the brain as the same thing as the mind, and body is something different. A quick check on the internet turns up “Brain and Body Tai Chi” and “Body and Brain Yoga” and “Dr. Amen’s Supplements for Brain and Body Power.” Brain is material and physical, but neurons are so different from muscle cells, bones, blood, or organs, that they’re in a category by themselves.

Well, that’s more promising. But if the brain’s job is to process information into a motor response – take in sensory information from outside the skin and sometimes pains or other sensations coming from inside the skin and turn that into a response – that processing doesn’t all happen in the brain. Even just the Central Nervous System includes the spinal chord, which includes both sensory and motor nerves. Then you’ve got the peripheral nervous system – all over your body there are nerves, both sensory and motor, that are part of your overall processing of the world into actions you take in it. Your body is processing – your hands and feet and stomach are, in a manner of speaking – thinking.

Thomas Edison was missing something important about being human – being mammal, being vertebrate – when he said, “the chief function of the body is to carry the brain around.” Your body is thinking, but are you listening?

Sometimes we can get all in our heads. I am myself more susceptible to that than most. James Joyce’s character, James Duffy, “lived at a little distance from his body” ("A Painful Case"). That’s me – or it was me, and I’ll always have that proclivity, though I’m aware of my tendency and these days intentionally direct myself back to my body.

Indeed, last month’s theme, “mindfulness” is intricately linked with this “embodiment.” Gotama – known as the Buddha – taught:
"Monks, I will teach you the unconditioned and the path leading to the unconditioned. Listen to this. And what, monks, is the unconditioned? An ending of greed, an ending of hatred, an ending of delusion: this is the unconditioned. And what, monks, is the path leading to the unconditioned? Mindfulness directed to the body: this is called the path leading to the unconditioned.”
When Gotama says “the unconditioned” he’s not talking about some absolute state untouched and untouchable by any conditioning. I don’t think there’s any such thing, and I don’t think he thought so either. When he says “the unconditioned” he means – as he actually says in this passage: unconditioned BY greed, hatred, and delusion.

And the way to not be conditioned by greed, hatred, and delusion is pretty simple: mindfulness directed to the body. If you can catch yourself being reactive – angry, hateful, greedy, clinging – notice where the feeling manifests in your body. Pay attention to what’s going on in your body when you’re having that reactive feeling. Shoulders? Throat? Stomach? Just paying attention – simple awareness of how reactivity embodies in you – is helpful. It won't not instantly cure you of all greed, hatred, and delusion, but it is the path to a life where reactivity is not in control.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Embodiment"

2017-12-31

Thirty-four Questions

Today was the Second Annual Question Box Sunday -- a service on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year's where all present are invited to write a question on an index card. Ushers collected the cards during one of the hymns. I shuffled the stack without looking at any of them. My first time seeing each question was when I read it aloud just before responding. I gave some kind of response to all thirty-four.
  1. I think there is not a 'typical' UU congregation, but is there a trait that most 'typifies' CUUC?
  2. I am entering a time of deep uncertainty and transition. What would you suggest I do to cope with the complexities of this time?
  3. Why?
  4. Where is the one right angle in the building?
  5. Why does the roof drip on only one side?
  6. How can I be certain of my perception of the world when all my sources of awareness are "fake"?
  7. Is it ever too late to reach a point of compassion? (Can one be too deeply damaged to get there?)
  8. Do you spell shmuck with S-H or S-C-H??
  9. What do we do when fear becomes bothersome? (Please talk about fear)
  10. How would you explain that happiness is a choice to those that think they have no power over the direction of their lives?
  11. What was your personal favorite or notable sermon you wrote this past year? Why?
  12. How can we build community beyond this community?
  13. What is the biggest challenge you have had to overcome in your life, and how did you do it?
  14. How can we keep up hope when our country is filled with so much trouble?
  15. What would you most like to see from members of the congregation: more of, less of, any of? or none of!
  16. (1) Corporations and government use algorithms to extend their influence. Should UU do the same? (2) Conservative religions focus on family mitzvahs and rigorous practices like bar mitzvah. Should UU develop more fixed customs?
  17. Can you please explain our 1st Source: "Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life"?
  18. Why dost thou persicutist me?
  19. How can we spread love and compassion in our world.
  20. If you've read the book Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Q: If 42 is the answer to life, the universe, and everything, what is the question we should ask about life? ELSE: Q: What has been the best advice you've been given and how has it helped you?
  21. How do you, Reverend Garmon, deal with negativity and fear?
  22. How do we handle life transitions and maintain balance (eg not losing focus on important others)?
  23. How did humans evolve from primates?
  24. So many issues and problems you can always do more. How do you know how much is enough. And how do you know what is most important?
  25. What advice do you have for a person who has occasional moments of loss of meaning and purpose despite a full life?
  26. God's grace? Something I have never understood.
  27. So why do so many bad things happen to "good" people and so many good things happen to those who "deserve" it the least?
  28. Is the "bid & bump board" that is a part of our fall fund raiser, a profound illustration of our economic inequity? Should it be continued? Should it be changed somehow?
  29. How can I best share with my loved ones, friends and colleagues the wisdom I have gained here if they will not consider engaging with our congregation or our denomination?
  30. What in our UU tradition grounds our commitment to economic justice?
  31. How does one forgive someone who deliberately and maliciously harmed you?
  32. Where did you get that cool bowl that you what with the little stick to begin Sunday service? It sounds great!
  33. Could you please expand a little on "It matters how you live"?
  34. What was your perception of "Westchester" before AND after you joined us??

2017-12-23

A Statement of Conscience

Income Inequality, part 3
“The unease we feel about the loss of social values and the way we are drawn into the pursuit of material gain is often experienced as if it were a purely private ambivalence which cuts us off from others....As voters, we have lost sight of any collective belief that society could be different. Instead of a better society, the only thing almost everyone strives for is to better their own position – as individuals – within the existing society.” (Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level 4)
What we saw manifesting in the elections of 2016 November was years of decline in voter interest in thinking about the common good for all our sakes, and years of corresponding increase in interest in sticking it to “those other people.” What we saw in the elections of 2017 November and December (in Virginia, New Jersey, Alabama) was the stuck side sticking back. Was there any real concern for the common good for all our sakes?

I’m inclined to see voters were sticking back on behalf of a greater good for more people, but that’s not quite the same thing as the common good. The tide that turned in the more recent elections – and remember, we have no idea if it will last, or how far it extends into states that didn’t have elections – wasn’t a tide that seemed very interested in attending to the pains and frustrations of Trump voters. I see it as motivated by greater and more widely-shared goods, but not really by a sense of the common good. It feels like in this climate there can be no such thing.

We’ve become a place where people like me find the most inspiring and energizing banner to march under bears one word: resistance. And I am down with that. The current regime is authoritarian, kleptocratic, utterly-truth-disregarding and reality-uninterested – hence, willfully ignorant -- impulsively vindictive, and ideologically incoherent except for the coherence of its embrace of white supremacy and patriarchal privilege. Resistance to that regime really is, I believe, our most pressing priority. But how did we get here?

Thirty-seven years ago I was a brand-new father. My first child had just been born. If you’d asked me about resistance as a political ideal, I’d have thought in terms of resistance to special interests on behalf of a common good for all. Today it’s hard to picture common good, so it isn’t in the picture.

A complex web of interrelated factors has brought us to this pass, and growing income inequality is a key node within that web. It fosters the sense of divide. If we’re going to get back to a sense of common good – where political differences are differences of strategy for promoting general welfare rather than the drawing of enemy lines to delineate who must be defeated – then it will be necessary to reduce income inequality.

It’s necessary. Would it be sufficient? Given what would have to happen in order for that inequality to return to 1979 levels, and all the side effects of such a mass effort for equality, then probably, yes, the panoply of conditions that it would take to bring the top quintile/bottom quintile ratio to below five, probably would, all together, also be sufficient for regenerating a robust sense of common good. (And this time, my dream would be, the prevailing sense of “common” would not harbor tacit white supremacist assumptions and exclusions.)

Our denomination collectively decided in 2014 to take up income inequality as study/action issue. After three years of study/action, Unitarian Universalists last summer produced a Statement of Conscience, "Escalating Economic Inequity." The full statement is about 2200 words – please take a copy and give it a look: HERE.

Let’s think about this. Just as the delegates at general assembly adopted a statement, let’s have a CUUC statement of conscience about this. We could, as a congregation, adopt the statement as is. Or we could amend it.

There are parts of this statement that we will need to debate. I love this statement – it’s bold and inspiring. But I love being a part of a community where other brains different from mine can add to mine. As I imagine the diversity in this room right now – the wonderful diversity – I imagine some things some of us wouldn’t immediately exactly jump to sign on to. There’s an allusion to “capitalism” as a key factor in economic inequality.“Automation” is implicated as one of the forces driving income inequality, but maybe some us see automation as creating as many jobs as it displaces. Let’s plunge in and study up on that. Let’s really do this “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” thing, and do it together, and let our disagreements come out and make us stronger. Similarly, there’s a call for advocacy for revising bankruptcy laws. We would want to examine what sort of revisions might actually be helpful, and consider harms of such revision. The statement says that a moral economic system would include “a guaranteed minimum income for everyone,” and also “an open immigration system.” Those are ideas this congregation might have some fruitful debate about.

And then there are the comparative silences. The statement’s first sentence is: “Challenging extreme inequity locally and globally is a moral imperative.” But then very little is said about the global part. Perhaps we’d want our statement to acknowledge that the wealth gap between nations, not just the wealth gap within our nation, is a significant problem. Or else not name challenging global inequity as a moral imperative.

So stay tuned. Your social justice coordinating committee is looking to plan events for discussion. Perhaps we can present some formal debates on certain of the provisions. Let’s really engage this issue! Let's see where we go together – our vision widened and our strength multiplied.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Income Inequality"
See also
Part 1: Modern Life Made Tougher
Part 2: Feeling We're In This Together

2017-11-24

Feeling We're In This Together

Income Inequality, part 2

There are a lot of different ways to measure inequality: the top X percent versus the bottom Y percent. But any X or Y we might choose reveals about the same trends, and about the same differences between nations. One measure is called "the 20:20 ratio" -- it's the ratio of the income of the top 20 percent to the income of the bottom 20 percent. It's a very common metric, and the UN uses it, so let’s look at that one.

Update: Not much change. Data from the OECD (HERE) indicate the 20:20 ratio for the US staying about the same for the most recent years for which data is available.
2013: 8.6
2014: 8.7
2015: 8.3

When the ratio of the top quintile to the bottom quintile is less than 5, then we find a society generally maintaining some shared assumptions about wealth and about each other.

Roughly, when that ratio is about 5 or less, the attitude of the populace will look resemble something like this:
“If there are somewhat wealthier folks among us, that’s OK. I can accept that some people are luckier, or more skillful at work that society prizes, or they’re more driven to work hard, and they end up wealthier. That’s fine – and as it should be. The relatively wealthy serve as a reminder to me of what good schooling and hard work and a little luck might make available to my children. If the town doctor has a big house on a hill, that’s OK – he’s smart and had a lot of training, and he’s using that to help us when we get sick, so more power to him. Maybe my kid can get a scholarship and be a doctor.”
That kind of thinking was still pretty much the largely-unspoken norm on the day 37 years ago when I first held my newborn daughter in my arms.

But that attitude loses purchase, begins to slip away, if the rich-poor gap grows too large. That outlook that prevailed through my life and my parents life up until 1980, has now come to seem quaint -- an echo of a bygone time. Few, it seems, think like that anymore.

The two key features of that outlook were: (1) that the higher levels of wealth were attainable by those who weren't already rich; and (2) those who had wealth deserved it. These two features are connected, for when upper-class wealth seems attainable – when the perception of most people is that anyone with the right combination of talent, drive, and luck can become upper-class – then those who do make it to society’s top wealth echelons are presumed to deserve it. But when the gap becomes as enormous as it has in the US, the folks at the bottom and middle can no longer see the wealth of the ones at the top as either attainable or deserved.

By the time my little girl was graduating from college in 2000, the world she was commencing into had become profoundly different from the one she was born into. The country had become a place where we could no longer feel we were all in this together.

Now, I know that the idea that there once was, up until about 37 years ago, a halcyon time of general social solidarity overlooks the deep racism that has divided our country throughout its history, and that given the reality of the deep and hostile racial divide, gauzy nostalgic impressions of togetherness are delusional. Very true. Even so, whites could see rich whites as attainable, and black could see wealthier blacks as attainable. But for the last 15 years or so, even that has fallen apart.

A relatively equal society – where the ratio of top quintile to bottom quintile is less than 5 (as it is in places like Japan, Scandinavia) -- can sustain a shared understanding among its members. But if, as in the U.S., that ratio is 8 or 9, there’s a disconnect. We lose the shared understanding of the legitimacy of things. The wealthy are beyond attainability, beyond any credible story of deservingness. We lose the sense that we’re in this together. The wealthy become “them.” And "they" don’t care about "us" -- so we don’t care about them. Anomie and division set in; anger and alienation become the social mood.

Sensing the resentment of most of society, the wealthy, in turn, retreat behind gated communities, which further increases the disconnect. We begin to believe the game is rigged; we don’t have a chance. When we believe that, we become more likely to behave in ways that make that a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rich and poor alike feel the division, the disconnect. The result is that phenomenon I mentioned: everything that’s tough about modern life is exacerbated. Higher levels of depression, higher levels of consuming things that aren’t good for us: from drugs to alcohol to junk food to mindless TV shows to mindless consumer products.

When you compare nation to nation, there’s no correlation between wealth and life expectancy or mortality. No correlation. Rich countries have about the same life expectancies and mortality rates as relatively poor countries, until you get into the really poor end of the spectrum. As long as a nation has per-person income above about $9,000 a year, further increases do nothing to increase life expectancy. That’s the nation-to-nation comparison.

But when we do a zip-code-to-zip-code comparison, we get a different picture. The poorer zip codes have higher mortality than the richer zip codes. If you took several of the poorest zip codes, created a new island in the Pacific, put them all there, maintained their per-person incomes as they were, made a new island nation of them, they’d have decreased mortality. They’d be fine. But because they live near the wealthier areas, they perceive that difference. They see all around them the inescapable fact that they live in a society that is set up to work for others, but not for them. They are reminded daily that they are not in a society of mutual care. And that wears them down much more than relative material deprivation.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Income Inequality"
See also
Part 1: Modern Life Made Tougher
Part 3: A Statement of Conscience

2017-11-23

Modern Life Made Tougher

Income Inequality, part 1
"The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice. It is the curch that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed." (Mark Morrison-Reed, Singing the Living Tradition #580)
"To unveil the bonds that bind each to all." That's the “central task of the religious community,” says Rev. Morrison-Reed. Unveil the bonds. The bonds are already there, but are veiled, hidden. We don’t see them. But in religious community – that is, community explicitly oriented toward ultimate concern – together we remove the veil for one another. We learn from and with each other to perceive the bonds. We learn to pay attention – to take in the moment just as it is.

Our choir sang words that translate as “listen to the wind blowing through the night, breathing peace to all.” Listen. Attention itself cultivates peace. Becoming mindful of those ever-present yet often undetected bonds “inspires us to act for justice.” Because we’re together, and see how thoroughly we are conjoined, we know we are not alone in struggling for justice. “Alone,” as Morrison-Reed says, “our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done.” But once we see those bonds unveiled, and live out of the awareness of them, the vision widens and the strength multiplies.

So, what shall we do with that wider vision and multiplied strength? I’m here particularly to talk today about income inequality, and what we as a people of faith, energized by a deep awareness of our bondedness, can do about that.

On November 2, 1980, my daughter was born. She was born into a world that certainly had poverty, but did not see the sort of wealth disparities we have now. Two days after she was born, Ronald Reagan won the election for president. And over the course of her life so far – she turned 37 this month – there’s been a massive transfer of wealth to the wealthy

In 1979, the poorer half earned 20% of the nation’s pre-tax income. By 2014, just 13%. If the US had the same income distribution it had in 1979, each family in the bottom 80% of the income distribution would have $11,000 more per year in income.

From 1947 to 1979, we all grew. In those 32 years:
  • For the bottom 20%, income rose 116%.
  • For the second quintile, income rose 100%.
  • For the middle quintile, income rose 111%
  • For the fourth quintile, income rose 114%.
  • For the top 20%, income rose 99%.
The gain of the top 20% was about the same as – though actually slightly less than – the other quintiles.

But from 1979 to 2007, it was a completely different story. In those 28 years:
  • For the bottom 20%, income rose 15%.
  • For the second quintile, income rose 22%.
  • For the middle quintile, income rose 23%.
  • For the fourth quintile, income rose 33%.
  • For the top 20%, income rose 95%.
In 1980, the richest one percent of people got eight percent of the income. Eight times the average income would seem to be plenty. Who could want more than that? Surely that’s more than enough. But in 2011, the richest one percent brought home 20 percent of all income.

"During the 1950s and 60s, CEOs of major American companies took home about 25 to 30 times the wages of the typical worker. In 1980, the big-company CEO took home roughly 40 times. By 1990 it was 100 times. By 2007, CEO pay packages had ballooned to about 350 times what the typical worker earned.” The ratio is down a little since then – but in 2016 CEOs were still making 271 times what the typical worker made. Don’t let this lull you with a sense of improvement: it’s fluctuating a bit within the range of the egregiously horrible.

Modern life is tough. Living the way we do is hard on people: anxiety, depression, unsure friendship, consumerism, lack of community. Not all of that would go away if suddenly tomorrow all income and wealth distribution were at 1979 proportions again. Yet everything that’s tough about modern life is made worse by such huge disparities.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Income Inequality"
See also
Part 2: Feeling We're In This Together
Part 3: A Statement of Conscience