Opening to Pluralism

Happy New Year! What are the chances of that? I mean, what are your prospects for 2024 being happier – or, if last year was great for you, as happy - as 2023? I am mindful that there will be health challenges for some of us in the year ahead. And health challenges come, eventually, for all of us including, eventually, inevitably, the one we will not surmount. Connected to our physical health, there is the matter of our social and spiritual health. Put simply: We need each other. We need community. We need our peeps. A happy new year means a connected new year, a caring new year. A joyous new year means a loving new year. And a more liberated new year means steps taken not just toward your individual liberation but toward collective liberation.

Natural selection made us into hyper-social beings. Not merely social, like other apes are, like wolves and elephants and dolphins are, but able to connect our brains and see through each other's eyes at a level beyond any other species. I've mentioned before, no single human knows everything necessary to build a cathedral, or an aircraft - yet we can build them because we can connect our brains in shared enterprises. That's an amazing and beautiful thing. We were built to do that, and to want to do that, and to need to do that.

Natural selection also made us highly competitive at the group level. One key reason that bonding with each other has been so important to our species' survival is simply that it allows us to care for each other and carry out cooperative ventures that benefit all of us. But another key reason is that by bonding together we can fight better against that tribe on the other side of the hill.

Throughout our history as a species, the cozy warm feeling of US has been inextricably intertwined with hostility to THEM. Early human and proto-human groups didn't merely band together, they banded together AGAINST other groups. If they hadn't, they wouldn't have survived to pass on their genes to us. We are a deeply cooperative AND a deeply competitive species - cooperative within our group, so that we can better compete with other groups.

The trick is to expand our circle, to train ourselves, in this complex multicultural, multi-ethnic world we live in, to comprehend more and more difference as nevertheless part of US rather than indicative of THEM. Fortunately, this expand-the-circle impulse is also embedded in the human history we inherit.

If there were only two groups - us and them - that would be fairly straightforward and stable. But from the dawn of humanity, there have been multiple groups. So then our earliest ancestors started seeing if they could work out ways to be more cooperative with group B, so that together they could outcompete group C. So along with a very strong tendency to bond with our in-group and compete with out-groups, we are built also with a somewhat more cautious readiness to welcome the stranger; to appreciate, not merely be suspicious of, difference; to want to expand our circle.

This openness to pluralism is, among humans, a variable trait. Some of us are more open to difference and others more interested in protecting the given US. Unitarian Universalists tend toward the appreciation of diversity side of the spectrum. We tend to score high on openness to difference. Some of our fellow humans are instead wired to feel a need to establish and defend some collective order of oneness and sameness. Difference scares them.

The work of Australian political scientist Karen Stenner helps us understand this. Stenner argues that underlying racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and xenophobia is something more fundamental: difference-ism. The various forms of harmful prejudice are all variations of a basic anxiety about difference, an anxiety that produces, in Stenner's words, "a fundamental and overwhelming desire to establish and defend some collective order of oneness and sameness."

Another term for this is: authoritarian personality – because these folks see authoritarian structures as the best way to keep us safe from those different people who are, in a recently exhumed turn-of-phrase, “poisoning the blood of our country." In one of Stenner's studies, people scoring high for authoritarian personality
"were told that NASA had verified the existence of alien life -- beings 'very different from us in ways we are not yet even able to imagine.' After being told that, the measured racial intolerance of authoritarian subjects decreased by half.”
In other words, they are afraid of whatever is most different. If there are space aliens out there, then suddenly all humans are "us" because the authoritarian personality's animosity focuses on whatever is the most different. Stenner writes: "black people look more like 'us' than 'them' when there are green people afoot."
"Under these conditions, the authoritarians didn't only become kinder to black people, Stenner noted; they also became more merciful to criminals that is, less inclined to want a crackdown on perceived moral deviance." (Friedersdorf, Atlantic Monthly)
Stenner's book, The Authoritarian Dynamic, concludes that not everyone can learn to respect and value difference. She writes:
"All the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference...are the surest way to aggravate those who are innately intolerant, and to guarantee the expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors."
Journalist Conor Friedersdorf estimates that, "perhaps 15 percent of humans are psychologically ill-suited to dealing with difference." He doesn't indicate where that 15 percent figure comes from; it seems to be his impressionistic guess. As a rough, ball-park estimate, maybe that's about right. Whatever the number might be, we're never going to “fix” every individual - never going to train our way to universal understanding and embrace of diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. And that's OK, because pluralistic inclusion has to also have a place those who don't like difference. We just need systems that neutralize the authoritarian personalities from inflicting their phobias on others.

It's a point increasingly recognized. Lily Zheng, a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion strategy consultant, for instance, said:
"We should design organizations that are equitable and inclusive whether or not every single person inside those organization is inclined the same way.”
That's something to keep in mind as this congregation considers how we might move toward greater inclusion and pluralism. If, as Friedersdorf conjectured, "perhaps 15 percent of humans are psychologically ill-suited to dealing with difference" - the percentage of Unitarian Universalists who are is lower than that, but it isn't zero.

A happy new year means a connected new year, a caring new year. But there is variability among us not only in how much difference we are comfortable including in that circle of care, but also variability in how much difference we ever could learn to be comfortable including. Still, pluralism is our overarching value, as a Unitarian Universalist congregation. It is our Unitarian Universalist covenant, as the proposed language for revising the UUA bylaws expresses, that:
"We celebrate that we are all sacred beings, diverse in culture, experience, and theology. We covenant to learn from one another in our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect."
Our watchword shall be: everybody belongs. And everybody belongs here. We know that there are other churches, other faith communities, out there, and that some people will prefer those, but we are determined that we would welcome any of them, whatever their culture or beliefs, and that our welcoming pluralism be so conspicuous that is widely known that we would welcome them, and that any who do walk through these doors will quickly perceive that they belong and are appreciated – even those who aren't quite able to appreciate difference as much our congregation as a whole does.

So our task in this new year - as in every new year - is twofold: (1) to cultivate our capacity to embrace and appreciate ever greater difference - And, (2) given that this capacity itself is and will be variable among us, to seek ways to better ensure that our congregation as a whole is equitable and inclusive anyway.

And a more liberated new year means steps taken not just toward your individual liberation but toward collective liberation. Freedom is relational. It really is true that none of us is free until all of us are free, for freedom, to whatever extent it is achieved, is a collective achievement. The master is as enslaved as the slave, even if not subject to the physical abuses, and that does matter.

We are all in this together, and what we do to another we do to ourselves. Because freedom is relational; because every interaction we have with every other person can function to restrict ourselves and them or it can help liberate us and them; because we all have some kind of power, and we can use it against itself to diminish itself, or we can use it to nourish and expand shared power, what we call power-with rather than power-over; because power-over is always at the same time powerlessness-under; because freedom is for most of us the half-won, half-discovered blessing, and we need each other to proclaim the further emancipation - we have work to do.

Because faith without works is dead; because it will not do to simply say, "go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill," go, be emancipated; because we need each other to reach the promised land; because the kingdom of god is within us, yes, but equally it is between us and among us, we have work to do.

Because otherwise identical resumes today yield a 50 percent greater chance of being invited for an interview if the applicant's name is stereotypically white than if the name is stereotypically black; because black renters learn about 11 percent fewer rental units and black homebuyers are shown about one-fifth fewer homes; because blacks and whites use illegal drugs at the same rate, but African Americans are arrested on drug charges at a three times higher rate; because 14 percent of nonhispanic white children are growing up in poverty while 40 percent of African American children are - we have work to do.

Unitarian Universalists have been struggling with how to do the work of dismantling racism for as long as I can remember. We have been noticing that our congregations usually look a lot whiter than their surrounding communities and have been trying to figure out what to do about that for as long as I can remember. I've been occasionally participating in Unitarian Universalist efforts at anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multi-culturalism efforts, workshops, programs and readings for thirty years, and, sadly, haven't seen much progress.

I was given a new hope for the possibility of congregational anti-racism work about 10 years ago by the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity - DMIS. It's an approach that doesn't call anyone a racist. It's not really about unconscious prejudices so much. It deftly bypasses any temptation to detour into squabbles about such things as whether members of oppressed minorities can be racist themselves or whether "racism” only applies to certain members of the privileged majority. It gives us a way to talk about important issues of cultural difference without bringing up the word “racism” at all. I think we do need to confront actual racism, recognize it and call it what it is, but we can work our way to that point more effectively with a stronger foundation - which it seems to me the DMIS (Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity) provides.

It's a developmental model – that is, it says that people develop through stages - like Piaget's stages of cognitive development of children, Kohlberg's stages of moral development, or James Fowler's stages of faith development. The model was created by Milton Bennet and Mitch Hammer - who had been going to anti-racism trainings and noticing just what I had been noticing: that about a third of the white people were annoyed rather than enlightened. They began to wonder why. Why do some people react this way and other people react a different way? Perhaps they're at different stages in their development! Perhaps every stage is an important, helpful, and adaptive response to certain conditions - it has values which we can recognize.

It's true that whatever is identified as a later stage of development will unavoidably seem to be judged "better," but Unitarian Universalists with our third principle ought to be able to handle this. Our third principle says we affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. Notice the two aspects at work here: Acceptance of one another - exactly where they are and who they are -- while at the same time encouragement to growth, encouragement to grow into something other than what they are now. Is this a contradiction? Can we truly be accepting people just the way they are if we're also encouraging them to change, to grow? If you've ever been a parent or ever had a moderately loving and effective parent - then you know this is no contradiction. We love our children for just what they are - while also encouraging their growth and development because a growing, changing being IS what they are, and that process of development benefits from guidance.

Many of us carry that same approach into our relationships with peers, with friends. We accept them for what they are, while also, when the time is right, call them on their stuff, offer them guidance, encourage their growth, as they do for us. So I'm hopeful about the prospects for UUs to work together to guide ourselves to greater levels of intercultural sensitivity – while also understanding, welcoming, and appreciating those who may happen to be at an earlier stage.

Development of intercultural sensitivity happens in stages. There are five stages, which I will briefly describe. There is more detail in this month's Pluralism issue of "Connecting" - and still more detail available on the internet - just search DMIS.

Stage 1: Denial.

There is a lack of awareness of diversity. It's not possible for adult members of minorities to be entirely unaware of diversity, but some members of a majority can exist within a bubble such that they rarely encounter a cultural difference.

Stage 2: Sometimes called Polarization, sometimes called Defense.

This comes in two versions, and both versions involve an "us" vs. "them” mindset. The first version is straight defense. We bunker in, defensively protecting "us" and demonizing "them" - those who are different.

The second version is reversal. This is where one romanticizes and privileges a culture other than one's own. In reversed polarization, one privileges “them” while demonizing "us." But it's still polarization of good culture and bad culture.

Stage 3: Minimization.

This is kind of a return in the direction of denial except that people at this stage do recognize cultural differences, but they downplay their importance. Cultural differences are all seen as superficial because deep down we're all the same. Minimization over-emphasizes commonality.

Stage 4: Acceptance.

We might also call it openness and curiosity. At this stage there is an understanding the cultural differences are real and profoundly meaningful. This much was also understood at the Polarization stage, but whereas polarization involved demonizing one side or the other of that difference, the acceptance stage involves curiosity and openness about differences. Difference is recognized as important, but difference is explored without judgment or evaluation.

Stage 5: Adaptation, also known as intercultural competence.

Intercultural competence is the ability to shift cultural perspective and adapt behavior to fit with the other person's culture, recognizing both the similarities and differences of their culture with yours. It's not assimilation. Assimilation is a permanent change from your original culture to a new culture. Adaptation, intercultural competence, involves the ability to make temporary shifts into a different culture in order to be more effective in a particular situation.

At what stage do you think you are? Most Unitarian Universalists are in the middle: at the minimization stage. We love to say people are basically the same - minimizing the powerful difference that culture makes. And there are commonalities. Yet let us not diminish real difference.

The path of liberation leads ultimately beyond minimization to acceptance and adaptation -- and many of us, if not all, can joyously take that path. May it be so. Amen.

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