Voting is Being Part of Something Bigger

Why We Vote and Why We Don't, part 3

When non-voters are asked why they don’t vote, they usually say something like their vote doesn’t matter: the system is corrupt, or rigged, or won’t make a difference. If the standard for my vote mattering is: the candidate I vote for will win if I vote for them and won’t if I don’t, then these nonvoters are surely right: my vote doesn’t matter.

There was an NPR piece a couple months ago interviewing nonvoters about why they didn’t vote. Buried three-fourths into the 7-minute segment, we hear one interviewee, an African American identified as Raymond Taylor, saying that his vote doesn’t matter because in his district or state the race isn’t close. Then the reporter says:
"He told me the one and only time he voted was in 2008 for Barack Obama. He said he wanted to be part of history. But this idea that his vote doesn't matter because of the political leanings of the state he lives in is something we see across the country.” (NPR, 2018 Sep 10)
And I thought: Wait a minute! You buried the lede! (Raymond Taylor's story isn't even included at all in the print version on the NPR website.) There’s your story: He wanted to be a part of history.

People don’t vote to make a difference; they vote to be part of something meaningful. A single vote didn't make any more difference in 2008 than it has any election since -- but when it meant joining a larger context of meaning, that’s the one and only time Raymond Taylor voted.

We vote to be a part of something. The time Raymond Taylor voted, he did it to be a part of history. For those of us who vote regularly, it need not be historic, but we do it because we see ourselves as part of something bigger than ourselves. We are a part of the body politic, and this means something to us. I add meaning to my life by placing it in the context of something larger called “the people.” Voting is an act of social-spiritual connection.

This makes sense of why it is that nonvoters tend to be poorer, younger, and people of color. These are people who would naturally have a harder time feeling a part of the larger systems that constitute the body politic. As I listened to the NPR story, what I heard nonvoters expressing was that they don't feel connected to their fellow citizens in one big decision-making body. Without that connection, voting is only about, "Will it make a difference?" And it won't.

But when you do feel that connection, voting is not about, "Will it make a difference?" It's about participating in action that affirms, enacts, and embodies connection. Voting is an expression and affirmation of belongingness, of being a part of something bigger than ourselves.

When we don't feel belonging, we're a lot less likely to vote. Kantian fantasies will not persuade nonvoters to vote. They see right through that. If we want more people to vote, we have to think about what would help them feel they belong and are connected in meaningful community with their fellow citizens. Disenfranchised literally means not having the vote – but it’s no coincidence that the synonyms of “disenfranchised” also include powerless, passive, disconnected. When people are disenfranchised, they are disconnected from the apparatus of democracy, and when they feel disconnected, they disenfranchise themselves.

When people feel powerless – feel like the system, the people around them, don’t care about them – then they don’t feel they belong, and when they don’t feel belonging, of course they don’t vote.

That’s no easy thing to fix. We could change the laws and make it easier for people to vote. It's very important that we do that. But there were will still be the problem of people not wanting to vote -- and that's the problem of how to foster belongingness.

The task of creating belonging and a sense of community is our task – not for Tuesday but for the rest of our lives. LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright of Black Voters Matter describe how they do it. You’ll notice that the example I started with was a face-to-face conversation. Community building is a face-to-face enterprise. People who don’t see your eyes don’t see their belonging.

Brown and Albright have six other points of advice.
  1. Don’t parachute in. Connect with local leaders, develop local partnerships, work through the structures that are there. To build community, you find the community that’s there and build on it.
  2. “Let the local people lead. Ask people what they care about and what their community needs.” Listening. As David Oxberg says in this month’s issue of On the Journey, “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.” Listening creates belongingness.
  3. Focus on the primaries. “You can’t just show up in September or October. You have to get your hands dirty in local primaries, which happen much earlier in the year. It’s not sexy work, and the rest of the country isn’t paying attention. But the primary is often what matters most.”
  4. Don’t pack your bags after the race is over. If it’s really about belongingness, then it obviously got to be about not abandoning – not treating people as instrumentalities for your electoral purposes.
  5. Embrace difficult conversations. “We never try to convince people they’re wrong or shame them. That doesn’t work. We listen and validate their feelings. We even admit that sometimes we don’t feel like voting. “
  6. Know the culture. If it’s our tendency – and it is our tendency – to minimize cultural differences, then it’s going to be hard to being open to truly adapting to real cultural differences. So improving our own intercultural sensitivity and competency is part of the picture. (New York Times, 2018 Oct 27)
It’s a lot to bite off, but building belongingness – not just as it relates to voting – is our Unitarian Universalist mission. It’s what we’re here for.

As a first step to thinking about the belongingness that would lead others to vote, let me invite you to reflect on why you vote. You can drop the pretense that your one vote makes a difference. You vote because you belong. Take a moment to reflect on that when you’re in the booth on Tuesday.

A vote is a prayer. I vote, as I pray, as a way of expressing to myself the values I want to live by, of reminding myself of the gratitudes that ground me and the hopes that direct me. Prayers and votes don’t affect God or the world, except insofar as they affect me. They change me. And my life, in myriad ways, then changes the world.

So I invite you cast your ballot bread crumb upon the waters.
You, alone, cause no one’s victory or defeat,
but you join with something larger that does.
You participate in the infinity of history,
Lifted out of yourself into the shared soul of
115 million voters,
7.6 billion humans on the planet,
all life that ever was or ever will be.
World without end amen.

This is part 3 of 3 of "Why We Vote and Why We Don't"
See also
Part 1: The Consequentialist Rationale for Voting
Part 2: The Kantian Rationale for Voting


The Kantian Rationale for Voting

Why We Vote and Why We Don't, part 2

As discussed in part 1, from a consequentialist point of view, the rationale for voting is very weak. We turn now to the other major school of ethical theory: deontology, most notably the ethical thought of Immanuel Kant.

It boils down to: Ask yourself, what if everybody did that? If you wouldn’t like the result of everyone doing that sort of action, then you shouldn’t do it. You wouldn’t want to live in a world in which everyone lied, cheated, or stole, so you shouldn’t lie, cheat, or steal. The way Kant put it was:
“So act that the maxim of your action can be willed a universal law for all.”
A Kantian rationale for voting might look attractive: we ask, what if everyone did that? What if everyone were to stay home and not vote? The results would be disastrous. Therefore, we have a duty to vote.

But consider the parallel argument: "What if no one was a farmer? We’d all starve!"

Just because we need some people to do a thing doesn’t mean that we need everyone to do that thing.

Here’s an idea that might have occurred to you. However you reason about your situation, there are several thousand or several million others who are in basically your position and will reason the same way. So if you decide to vote, then all those other people, basically like you, will make the same decision. So, you’re not just deciding for you. Let’s explore that.

A striking example of this line of reasoning is described in Milton Mayer's 1955 book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45. The book includes the story of one German who is rueful about insufficiently resisting the Nazis in 1935. The man declares flatly:
"The world was lost one day in 1935, here in Germany, and it was I who lost it."
The man tells how, in 1935, Germany adopted the National Defense Law. The man was employed in a defense plant at the time, and the new law required him to take an oath of fidelity. The man opposed it in conscience, was given 24 hours to think it over, and, in those 24 hours, changed his mind. He took the oath of fidelity to the Nazis -- and, in so doing, he recounts years later, "I lost the world."

There was certainly coercive pressure. Had he not taken the oath he'd have lost his job. He would also, he knew, have been blackballed from subsequent employment. He could have left the country and found work elsewhere, but he rationalized that he might be able to help some people from "within" -- whereas leaving the country would make him powerless to help any friends in trouble. How did the oath of one defense-plant employee "lose the world"? The man explains:
"There I was, in 1935, a perfect example of the kind of person who, with all his advantages of birth, in education, and position, rules (or might easily rule) in any country. If I had refused to take the oath in 1935, it would have meant that thousands and thousands like me, all over Germany, were refusing to take it. Their refusal would have heartened millions. Thus the regime would have been overthrown, or indeed, would never have come to power in the first place. The fact that I was not prepared to resist, in 1935, meant that all the thousands, hundreds of thousands, like me in Germany were also unprepared,... If my faith had been strong enough in 1935, I could have prevented the whole evil."
I appreciate the man’s remorse. There’s something admirable about his willingness to take on the whole responsibility for Nazism. But it’s just not true.

The day I decided to become vegetarian was not a day -- or even a decade -- that hundreds of thousands of demographically, economically, and educationally similar people also decided to become vegetarian. It's one thing to test the ethics of an action by asking yourself "what if everyone did that?" -- but it's quite a jump from there to expecting that somehow any sizable number of people actually will do whatever you decide to do.

If I enter my voting booth and have a spontaneous impulse to change my mind from the major party candidate I had been planning to vote for and instead vote for a minor party candidate who has been polling at about 2 percent, that candidate will still finish with about 2 percent of the vote. In fact, I did that once – back in the ‘80s – and the result was: nothing. The spontaneous impulse I had was also had by, to all appearances, no one else.

Moral decisions made in individual isolation are, unsurprisingly, individual and isolated. On the other hand, moral decisions that lead to organizing and building a movement, and pouring a lot of energy into persuading others – that’s something very different. But it's a Kantian fantasy to think that thousands of other people will reach a given conclusion if and only if you do. It's true that thousands of other people will reason the way that you do. But this doesn't mean your reasoning caused theirs -- or that if you change yours, then they will change theirs. To hold that one should vote because millions or at least thousands will reach the same decision simply by you deciding it by yourself is to indulge in Kantian fantasy.

Neither Kantian ethics nor consequentialism provide us with a reason to take the trouble to vote. If ethical argument were all it takes, then increasing voter participation would be easy, and ethical arguments look so tempting because they offer an easy way. But it’s the hard way that will work.

NEXT: The Hard Way

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Why We Vote and Why We Don't"
See next: Part 3: Voting is Being Part of Something Bigger
See also
Part 1: The Consequentialist Rationale for Voting


The Consequentialist Rationale for Voting

Why We Vote and Why We Don't, part 1

In 2008 I was living in Gainesville, Florida. On Tue Nov 4 that year, I went to my local precinct and voted. When I came home, I wrote this poem that expresses the growing sense I have had of the sacred act of prayer that we call voting.
November Tuesday

It felt like church: sacred, moving.
Gathering at the temple/precinct with my neighbors
I say hello to the greeter, am known, identified.
I receive my order of service, the ovals to fill in.
My neighbors and I come here because we, the people, have work to do.
This is our liturgy, “the work of the people.”

Many of us have studied the scripture
The lectionary prescribes:
Press articles, candidate records and statements.
We are ready for worship.

I go into the confessional booth and pray.
Before I pick up the felt-tip marker,
I bring my palms together,
take a moment,
feel the touch of god.

I am aware of my expansive vastness,
My tiny smallness,
And the sacrament before me,
this paper wafer transubstantiated body politic of christ,
this marker-ink wine, the black blood of the people, chosen, choosing.

I know the math.
The chance I’ll die in a traffic accident driving to the polls
is hundreds of times greater
than the chance any candidate I vote for will win by one vote.
Determining an outcome cannot be the reason to take this communion.
A vote is a prayer, and changes things the same way:
by changing the one who makes it.

I cast my ballot bread crumb upon the waters,
Causing no one’s victory or defeat,
Joining with something larger,
Participating in the infinity of history,
Lifted out of myself into the shared soul of
113 million voters,
7.6 billion humans on the planet,
all life that ever was or ever will be.
World without end amen.
How do we get more people to vote? Do you really want to know? There is a way, but it isn’t easy. LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright are co-founders of the Black Voters Matter Fund. They’ve seen success in turning nonvoters into voters. They write:
"This summer, we chatted with a nursing assistant at a restaurant in Americus, Ga., who had just decided to sit out the midterms. We asked her a few questions and learned that some of her family members didn’t have good access to health care. One even had to drive some 100 miles to get to the nearest hospital; eight rural hospitals have closed in Georgia since 2008, more than in any other state except Texas and Tennessee. We asked her, 'Do you know what’s happening with Medicaid?' She didn’t. So we explained that if Georgia followed the more than 30 states that have expanded Medicaid, rural hospitals could stay open and it could create thousands of new health care jobs. Her face lit up. She walked across the street to our bus and filled out a voter registration form. And she persuaded her friend to do the same." (New York Times, 2018 Oct 27)
They have a model and an approach that is one version of what we’re going to have to do to increase voting rates. It’s not an approach that we could start on today and make any difference in Tuesday’s turn-out.

For Tuesday, there’s still time to sign up for phone banks, and groups that are organizing rides to the polls. And if you’re going to be doing those things, bless you, bless you.

There’s also the task of removing barriers to voting. "Hundreds of thousands of nonvoters want to vote, but can't." (NPR) Restrictive voter ID laws, registration difficulties, or ineligibility due to a criminal record are true and real problems. We could work for removing those specific legal barriers. Let felons and ex-felons vote. Allow on-site, day of voting registration. Expand early voting opportunities -- ultimately we could have election MONTH instead of election DAY, with polls open 24 hours a day for 30 days. Once the dust settles from Tuesday’s elections, we face the task of implementing those changes.

But there’s still a deeper issue. A lot of nonvoters just don’t want to vote – and that’s where the long slow work in various forms comes in. LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright’s organization is one good example, and there are others. It’s the work of building belonging and community.

First, let’s look some of the usual arguments about why people should vote, and why those arguments fail. The truth is, they’re lousy arguments. The great ethical theories fail to provide a compelling argument in favor of voting.

Take, first, consequentialism. Consequentialism says: estimate what the consequences of your action would be. An act is good if it produces good results – or could reasonably be expected to probably produce good results.

The consequentialist has a hard time justifying voting. The opportunity costs alone would seem to make it not worth it. The time it takes to go to and the polling place, wait in line – which might be a long line – and finally fill out and cast your ballot – not to mention the time spent familiarizing yourself with the issues and the candidates – all of this takes time that you could have spent earning money -- or volunteering at a soup kitchen – or playing video games. The chances that any candidate you vote for will win by exactly one vote are vanishingly small. More good would come from spending that time doing anything that produced any good at all.

Sometimes people say they vote for the sake of the winner’s mandate – either to improve the mandate of the one they vote for, or diminish the mandate of the candidate they don’t like. But the odds of one vote having any effect at all on the mandate are as vanishingly small as the chances of one vote determining the outcome. Plus: studies by political scientists find that a winning candidate’s ability to get things done is not affected by how large or small margin of victory is. The mandate argument doesn’t wash.

From a consequentialist point of view, the rationale for voting is very weak.

Next: Kantian Ethics

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Why We Vote and Why We Don't"
See next: Part 2: The Kantian Rationale for Voting
Part 3: Voting is Being Part of Something Bigger
Images from Shutterstock, free version by permission


Anger's Sacred Place

Holy Anger, part 3

It was hard for me to learn that anger can be expressed without being indulged, and that it can be an important, healthy thing. Hard as it was for me, how much harder must it have been for Yency – the Honduran young man that LoraKim and I adopted 14 years ago when he was 17. Yency grew up with an abusive father. All he ever saw of anger was his father’s rage in which people were going to get hit – often his mom, often him, as when he would step in to protect his mom.

In 2011, Yency, then age 24, was sworn in as US citizen. I was at the ceremony. I was so proud. The next day I drove him down to the voter registrar. This was Florida, so they hide it. But after some searching, we found the address tucked down a recess between buildings.

A couple weeks later, a letter arrived for Yency. He shared it with me. It was a letter from the voter registrar saying his registration hadn’t gone through, and would he provide further documentation. I know that every time you impose one extra step in the process, then a certain percentage of people won’t do that step. Imposing additional steps and requirements and inconveniences on target populations succeeds in reducing the voting representation of those populations. Anger started leaning on my doorbell. "Come on in, Anger," I said to my inner anger. (My Inner Anger is -- as probably many people's is -- voiced by Lewis Black, who was the voice of the Anger character in Pixar's "Inside Out.")

To Yency, I said, “Oh, I’m having some anger about this.” I guess I’d never said that in his hearing before. He stared at me and looked a little scared. He’d only had experience with one form of adult male anger, and it wasn’t pleasant.

But as I went on to express to him, in measured tones, what it was about this that made me angry, and the steps we could take, I could see him being to relax.

Finally, he said, “I’ve never seen that” – meaning, essentially, that he’d never seen anger that was neither repressed nor indulged.

Hard as it was for me to learn to have anger without either indulging or repressing it, how much harder must it be for Yency.

Yency was already 17 when he came to us, so I wonder sometimes whether we did much for him beyond the material help of room and board, and some caring encouragement. But I’ll always remember that moment as among the most hopeful. By some grace, a better way of relating to anger showed itself in me that day. And by some grace, he saw it. To imagine that somehow through me another human being kinda, partly saw a way to relate to anger as part of a full human life, that anger doesn’t have to be wrong and repressed and exiled, that there is a way for anger to take its sacred place in the fullness of our humanity – well, it almost makes me feel my work on this planet is complete. Almost.

Fourth, remember: understanding is a good thing. One very typical thing for the voice of anger to say is, “I just don’t understand how . . .” And that’s a clue that we, in fact, don’t understand – and a reminder to see if we can understand. Anger, for all the gift that it is, makes understanding harder.

Anger distorts our view of other people. That fight-or-flight response gears up our body, and in the process it shuts down the cognitive processes of empathy. This makes sense. When a snarling wolf pack had one of our ancestors surrounded, that wasn't the time to try to see things from the wolves' point of view. The only chance for escaping that mess was to shut down empathy and fight for one's life.

But in human relations, when the threat isn’t direct and immediate, it’s helpful to try to understand the other side, to see things from their point of view. Anger makes that harder.

Moreover, if understanding does manage to break through, then it's hard to maintain the anger. If you’re walking down the sidewalk and someone bumps into you, you might get a flash of anger, and spin around, as any New Yorker would, and angrily exclaim, “Hey, I’m walkin’ here.” Suppose you then see the white cane in the hand of the person who bumped into you. Understanding floods in, and the anger washes out.

So that next day, Yency and I were back down at the voter registrar. The man there was very nice. We found out what had happened. Yency's full name is "Yencis Elijardi Canaca Contreras." He got the "Canaca" from one parent and the "Contreras" from the other. Back in Honduras, his surname is regarded as "Canaca Contreras." He's been dropping the "Canaca" ever since he got to the US. Still, the "Canaca" was on his driver's license, and he didn't write it on the voter registration form he filled out. So they just needed to confirm and clarify. In less than five minutes, a voter registration card was printed out for him on the spot. I understood, and my anger cleared up.

Anger is a gift. Watch out for indulging it. Watch out for repressing it. And remember: understanding, when it's possible, is often preferable.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Holy Anger"
See also: Part 1: Male Anger Won the Day
Part 2: Anger is a Gift
Images from Shutterstock, free version by permission


Anger is a Gift

Holy Anger, part 2

So – my brothers who are accustomed to using anger to assert and reinforce your power, and my sisters who are newly claiming the power of anger – some things that might be worth keeping in mind.

First, anger is a gift. Anger arises when we feel an injustice. Whether the injustice is that your spouse keeps leaving dirty dishes around under the apparent assumption that you’ll take care of them, or a social systemic injustice against a whole class of people, we get mad. And that anger is the energy to confront and correct the injustice.

Rosa Parks used her anger to bring change. Forget the story you might have heard that she decided not to give up her seat on the bus because she happened to be tired that day. Rosa Parks was angry about the way blacks and women were treated and she used that anger to fuel a life of anti-racist, anti-sexist activism. Her action of staying in her seat was planned, and came out of conversations with organizing groups, as a strategy for getting arrested and having a case to take to court to challenge segregation laws – and for catalyzing what would become the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Before that, the anger of the suffragists fueled the drive that got women the right to vote. It took 72 years from the 1848 Seneca Falls convention to the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment. That’s a lot of energy to sustain a drive – keep it going almost three generations – and anger helped fuel that.

Holy anger is the righteous anger to confront power and push it in the direction of justice. It is the anger of the prophet Amos, when he reproves the powers of Israel:
“because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain,...you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate....Hate evil and love good and establish justice in the gate....I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them;...But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Anger is a gift. It arises when we feel an injustice, and gives us the energy to confront and correct the injustice.

Second, watch out for indulging anger. It is not productive but destructive when anger is used as an excuse for abuse, verbal or physical. You might hear: “I was just so angry I couldn’t help myself, and I hit her.” The answer to be very clear on is: No. Anger does not excuse violence. Had there been a police officer standing right there you wouldn’t have hit, even if your anger level was the same, so whatever you need to do to summon an inner officer of the law, that’s what you need to do. I’ll help you in what ways I can, or a counselor can help, but it’s ultimately your responsibility to choose what to do with anger.” Verbal or physical abuse is one form of indulging anger. We indulge anger when we let it be destructive rather than channeling that energy of righteous indignation into action for justice.

Sometimes we can get to a point where some part of us actually enjoys the sensation of anger – and we indulge it just because we like feeling righteous, but we don’t do anything about it.

If we’re getting angry about wrongdoing, but aren’t taking action -- if we just talk and think about how angry we are, how bad people on the other side are – if we only repost slogans on social media, getting angrier and angrier – that’s also a form of indulging anger. It stresses us out, makes it harder to sleep. If it becomes a habit, the energy of anger becomes an obstacle to rather than the energy for positive work for justice. Anger that is doing nothing but making you snarky, mean, and sleep-deprived does not need to be indulged. Watch out for indulging anger.

Third, watch out for repressing anger. My motto is: neither indulge nor repress. This was not an easy motto for me to get to. I grew up – white, educated, middle-class in the 60s and 70s. We didn’t know much about expressing anger except by indulging it – so we repressed it. The only way to not repress it was to indulge it, and the only way not to indulge it was to repress it.

Anger needs to be recognized. Know what anger feels like, and check in with yourself a lot. Is anger there? If so, then you can make a decision about what you want to do with it. You might decide, “I’m going to just set this aside for now because I have these other things to do.” That’s not repressing – it’s not denying that you have anger. If someone were to ask you, “How did you feel about what I just told you?” You can answer, “I have some anger about that. But I don’t see any positive action to take, or I’ll plan to come back to the issue later, so for now I’m just setting that anger aside.” That’s very different from repressing the anger and saying, “I’m not angry.”

If anger is ringing your doorbell, you can say, “Hello, there, Anger. Come on in,” or you can say, “I’m busy right now.” But what isn’t a good idea is pretending you don’t hear the door bell.

Strive to always recognize anger – and sometimes express it. Expressing can turn into indulging if we’re expressing the same anger over and over and not going anywhere with it. But expressing is often a vital element in working out what it means and what to do about it.

Whether you express it in a calm way – “I’m having some anger about that” – or express it in a large and loud way, waving your arms and yelling, “My God, this is messed up!” – is a reflection of how your culture expresses anger. Whatever your culturally preferred mode of expression may be, expressing it can be a helpful stage toward either the anger dissipating or toward focusing the energy on some actions to take.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Holy Anger"
See next: Part 3: Anger's Sacred Place
See also: Part 1: Male Anger Won the Day
Images from Shutterstock, free version by permission


Male Anger Won the Day

Holy Anger, part 1

Wrote Rebecca Traister:
“What happened inside the room was an exceptionally clear distillation of who has historically been allowed to be angry on their own behalf, and who has not.”
The room to which Traister was referring was the chamber of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday September 27, the day when testimony was heard by that Committee and by much of the nation – first, from a woman, then from a man. The woman was, she said, terrified, but her tone was calm and her language precise. The man, by sharp contrast, was clearly angry, and his language much more figurative.

Whether it crossed over from Holy Anger to Unholy Rage, I will, for now, not comment, but all sides agreed he was angry and showing it.

Male anger won the day. I watched that anger’s success unfold in real-time on the betting market. I listened to the woman’s testimony on the radio that morning, and to the man’s testimony that afternoon. As he spoke, I found myself, checking in at a website called PredictIt.org – which allows people to place bets on all manner of events – and the odds of an event happening are determined by how many bets are placed that it will happen – so the odds are continually adjusted as new bets come in. One of the questions people were betting on was whether that man would occupy the position for which he was then seeking Senate approval.

Those odds were sitting at 40 percent as the man began his opening statement. By the time his opening statement was done, the betting market showed his odds had significantly improved to 50-50, and they continued to improve through the questioning period. Male anger won the day, as it had won the day in the same room in 1991.

Women’s anger, on the other hand, is often discounted. There may be an exception that anger on behalf of her children is granted some weight. But anger on her own behalf is likely to fall on deaf ears.

Hence, Traister’s observation that,
“What happened inside the room, was an exceptionally clear distillation of who has historically been allowed to be angry on their own behalf, and who has not.”
While the featured woman inside the room did not display anger, many women surrounding that room and across the country were, as Traister put it, “incandescent with rage and sorrow and horror.”

She goes on to say,
“On social media, I saw hundreds of messages from women who reported the same experience, of finding themselves awash in tears, simply in response to this woman’s voice, raised in polite dissent. The power of the moment, the anxiety that it would be futile, the grief that we even had to put her — and ourselves — through this spectacle, was intense.”
Physiologically, what was happening in both that woman and that man was probably very similar: something called the fight-or-flight reaction. The fight-or-flight reaction gears us up face a threat – to either fight it -- or run away or hide. Adrenaline kicks up. Cortisol, heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate all increase. That arousal will help you fight, or fly.

But which will be? Do you run or hide – or do you fight? If we fight, the arousal becomes the feeling of anger. If we flee or hide, the arousal becomes the feeling of fear. The arousal itself is autonomic, and we then very quickly interpret that arousal as anger or fear -- and that makes a big difference. Anger makes you more risk-seeking. Fear makes you more risk-avoidant. Feeling anger, people overestimate their ability to overcome an obstacle, defeat an opponent, or handle whatever’s coming at them. Feeling fear, people underestimate their ability to successfully confront a situation.

Imagine an attacker or opponent with the same height, weight, age, and physical condition as you. The lens of fear makes that opponent look bigger than you. The lens of anger makes that same opponent look smaller than you.

Fear is: you hear your body telling you “don’t be idiot; run, hide, be conciliatory and submissive.” Anger is: you hear your body telling you, “don’t let this twerp push you around.” Your body, in fact, is saying the same thing in both cases. It’s saying, “We’re aroused!” – and you hear it as either anger or fear.

Often that moment of interpretation happens unconsciously – and we find ourselves scared or angry without any conscious experience of having chosen the feeling. But if there’s time to do so, we can sometimes be talked – or talk ourselves -- out of fear into anger – or out of anger into fear.

The strategies we have developed through experience become a habit – and habit is powerful in directing whether we go more to fear and anxiety or to anger. For men, expressions of ire serve as a signal of strength and power. Anger works for men, so men might form the habit of asserting their power angrily, or they might, on occasion, choose anger as a strategy when it isn’t their habit.

Women have been taught that anger won’t work for them. That may be changing. The #MeToo movement has seen a rise both in women’s willingness to be angry and in their willingness to express that anger.

Last March, a survey by Elle magazine found that 83 percent of women who identified with the Democratic Party get angry at the news at least once a day.
“Many of the women shouting now are women who have not previously yelled publicly before, many of them white middle-class women newly awakened to political fury and protest.” (Traister)
* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Holy Anger"
See next: Part 2: Anger is a Gift
Part 3: Anger's Sacred Place


A Skill, Not an Attitude

Learning to Love Diversity, part 3

A few weeks ago I was introduced to a woman. She was wearing the style of head covering that I associate with Muslim women. When I was told her name, it sounded to my ear like a middle Eastern name. I bowed and said I was please to meet her, and I asked if she shook hands. I asked because I know that many versions of Islam include a practice of not touching members of the opposite sex. I would say that in that interaction, I had one foot in stage 4 and one foot in stage 5. I was like a person who has just picked up a clarinet, without being able to play any other musical instrument, and has had a couple clarinet lessons. Such a person has moved beyond having a respectful interest about clarinets to actually trying to practice it, but after two lessons the best she can do is a halting, uneven rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

My relationship to middle Eastern Islamic culture is analogous. Next time I’m introduced to a Muslim woman, I’ll probably do the same thing because that’s the best I can do given my current level of skill with Middle Eastern Islamic culture. With a greater level of skill, I’d be able to exchange respectful greetings in Arabic, I’d be able to gesture in ways that signaled the respect and regard that I wanted to signal – I’d be able to detect the cues that signal whether the people I was meeting probably were or weren’t in a more liberalized Islam that allows intersex hand-shaking in social settings. I’d be as comfortable and competent with their assumptions and expectations of their culture as I am with the assumptions and expectations of the pulpit.

But I don’t have those skills. I have the right attitude (I think -- though I recognize that everyone thinks their own attitude is the right one) but intercultural competence isn’t a matter of attitude. It’s a matter of skills – which take time to practice and learn.

LoraKim, my spouse, speaks Spanish and spends a lot of time in Central and South America where she hangs out almost exclusively with people who live there. She got an intercultural competence that I don’t have.

In some versions of the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity there is a 6th stage, "integration." Integration is a matter of increasing skill and fluency at adapting to other cultures. The difference between stage 5 and 6 is like the difference between having learned a foreign language, but still thinking in English, so when you speak, you are translating in your head from English into the other language – versus simply thinking in the other language.

Much of the discrimination I mentioned (in Part 1) is based in unconscious reactions. Changes in conscious attitude can mitigate some of the discrimination, but attitude changes don’t get at the roots that are unconscious. Learning the skills of adapting to African American culture, and Hispanic culture in its main forms helps us be comfortable with those cultures – helps us know we can work productively and communicate effectively – and that’s what allows the unconscious to begin to let go of its biases against those other culture.

At what stage do you think you are? Most people identify themselves at a stage higher than they actually are. People at stage 2, "defense," will tend to self-report as being at stage 3, "minimization." People at "minimization" will tend to self-report as being at stage 4, "acceptance." I think this reveals, at least, that we do want to be more interculturally sensitive. There is an online survey you can take to clarify what stage you are probably at. Most Unitarian Universalists are in the middle – at the stage 3, minimization stage. We love to say people are basically the same.

The Golden Rule itself – "do onto others as you would have them do unto you" – is a minimization because, in reality, what you would have done unto you might not be what someone of a different culture would want or need. After the Golden Rule comes the Platinum Rule: do unto others as they would be done unto. Doing that requires learning a lot about their culture so you can see what will work for the other person.

You might want to ask – or you might have one little voice inside that wants to ask – why should I have to adapt to them. Why don’t they adapt to me? In the book Centering: Navigating Race, Authenticity, and Power in Ministry – a book that was one of the two Common Reads for all Unitarians last year -- the Rev. Adam Robersmith expresses this voice:
“We always talk about meeting people where they are. How about meeting them where we are? When is there ministry to ask people to meet me where I am as a person of color? To ask you to see me for what I am and meet me there?”
Anyone from the nondominant culture has HAD to put a lot of energy into adapting to the dominant culture. So I understand that they can get worn out and long for the ease of other people adapting to them instead of them always having to adapt.

For those of us who are of the dominant culture, the answer is: do what you can. If you can adapt to others, then do. Give them, to the best of your ability, the gift of ease.

And be aware of the brain’s natural self-centered bias: when you think you’re doing all the adapting, you might, in fact, be doing barely more than half of it -- just doing half the adapting is liable to give us the impression we’re doing 90 percent of it.

As for me, I think I’m usually pretty good about being open and curious about differences, but under stress I fall back into assumptions that there is such a thing as universal reasoning and that I can recognize universal needs. I spend most of my time in a cultural bubble of NPR, the New York Times, and my fellow Unitarian Universalists. On the plus side, this culture I'm in does tend to be a culture that's interested in learning, including learning about how different other cultures are and how to get along with them better.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Learning to Love Diversity"
See also: Part 1: Reaction to Cultural Difference: First Stages
Part 2: We Aren't All the Same