Are You Politically Correct?

wheelchair

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I begin with a trigger warning. If you are a person who is triggered by the concept of trigger warnings, be forewarned: In general I support trigger warnings—in academia, and in sermons. Also, a further trigger warning: if you think political correctness is running amok in the United States, know it is my firm conviction that it is not. I contend most allegations of political correctness are attempts to ignore, deny or demean the real pain and suffering that real people feel due to exclusion and oppression.

I want to tell you my experience of what happened during and after the opening worship at Ministry Days in Columbus, OH last June. Ministry Days is an annual gathering of Unitarian Universalist and associated clergy that takes place ever year during the two days prior to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly. The Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association or UUMA organizes Ministry Days. I am currently serving in the fourth and final year of a term on the UUMA Board of Trustees. During this term I have been responsible for leading the work of the UUMA’s Committee for Antiracism, Anti-oppression, and Multiculturalism.[1]

The story begins last winter when the incoming president of the UUMA asked my committee to lead the opening worship at Ministry Days. We designed our worship service around an adaptation of the New Testament story of Peter getting out of the boat and walking on water. In the story Peter walks on water briefly, but then becomes frightened and sinks. Many people interpret that story to mean that Peter’s faith wasn’t strong enough. Our point was to say, “wait a minute – he walked on water! Isn’t that amazing?” We selected hymns with a walking theme: “One More Step” and “Guide My Feet.” In our homilies we used the Peter story as a metaphor for our work on antiracism and muliculturalism within the UUMA and in the institutions we serve as clergy. We acknowledged that this is the hard and necessary work of institutional change, that we have to do it if we want to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world, that we have to take risks, that we have to get out of the comfort of our boats and attempt to walk on water. And we will only get so far before we sink. Then we tread water until someone helps us reach dry land; and when we’re ready, we try again. Our work continues.

All the worship elements fit together wonderfully … unless you happen to be one of our clergy colleagues who doesn’t walk with ease or doesn’t walk at all. It turns out our constant references to walking were painful to some of our colleagues with physical disabilities. After hearing us speak, sing and pray about walking, stepping, marching, feet and legs again and again, and after hearing it without any acknowledgement that not everybody walks, some of our colleagues started to feel excluded, isolated, and invisible. Some expressed their pain to us directly. Some expressed it on their written evaluations of Ministry Days. Some wrote about it on Facebook. People were upset.

As soon as it came to my attention, which was as soon as the service ended, I recognized what had happened. We had failed to account for the way this metaphor might be received by colleagues with disabilities. We had failed to account for the ways colleagues living with any kind of disability might be wary of, annoyed at, or hurt by the use of any kind of body-based metaphors without, in the very least, a recognition that these metaphors are not universally meaningful. As a result, some of our colleagues experienced a form of ableism. According to the UUA’s Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry,[2] ableism is the term “used to describe the discrimination against, and the exclusion of, individuals with mental health and physical disabilities from full participation in available community options, such as employment, housing, and recreation.”[3] Nobody accused us of discrimination, but our language made some people feel excluded, made them feel like second class UUMA members. And when you arrive at Ministry Days after a long, possibly difficult year in ministry, when you’re finally together with beloved colleagues expecting to settle into worship and be fed and nurtured, but instead you encounter language that causes you pain? Ouch!

I was mortified, embarrassed, sad. Among my colleagues I have a reputation for being a person who doesn’t make these kinds of mistakes, a person who anticipates how certain words and metaphors will be received, a person who strives mightily not to exclude, not to cause harm. Furthermore, this was the Committee for Antiracism, Anti-Oppression and Multiculturalism. We’re the people who are supposed to model inclusive, multicultural worship.

But we weren’t defensive. We listened. We took responsibility. The next day, at the end of the UUMA business meeting, I offered an apology.[4] And when my remarks were later published on the UUMA website, I added that, given what had happened, and given other experiences of ableism our colleagues with disabilities and their allies had discussed with us, the UUMA board had decided to conduct an accessibility audit. Over the coming year we would examine all the ways we gather and work together as colleagues, discern how our institutional culture may exclude colleagues with disabilities, and then recommend best practices for avoiding those exclusions in the future, including best practicehttp://www.uuma.org/news/295634/Response-to-Concerns-Raised-About-Ministry-Days.htms around our use of language. 

It was hard to offer a public apology. But I felt good about it. It felt like we were responding from a place of integrity and humility. People who said they felt excluded the day before thanked me for the apology. One even said it ought to be used in the seminaries as an example of a real apology. Healing was happening.

Or so I thought. A firestorm erupted online in response to my apology. It quickly became clear that some colleagues felt the people who complained about ableism were being too sensitive. “It’s just a metaphor.” “It wasn’t a condemnation of them.” “How are they going to survive in ministry if they can’t handle a simple metaphor?” Some argued that I and our committee and the UUMA board had been manipulated into apologizing and committing to conducting an audit—that we were reacting to pain and anger, but not to real substance. Thus, they felt no apology was necessary. No, this was a case of political correctness running amok in Unitarian Universalism. They predicted our audit would lead us to request that UU clergy no longer use body-based metaphors. No more seeing. No more hearing. No more “running this race.” No more “standing on the side of love”­­—the slippery slope to censorship!

I don’t know the origins of the term “Political Correctness” or PC. I remember when the term arrived suddenly at Oberlin College in the late 1980s when I was a student there. Oberlin was and continues to be a very liberal school. Its students have been known for their advocacy for progressive causes for nearly two centuries. I remember liberals using PC to refer in a serious way to holding a set of progressive views. You were PC if you were antiracist, supportive of gay and lesbian equality, supportive of South African divestment, supportive of environmentalism and the greening of the campus. PC also had related to language. We didn’t say Black, we said African American. We interrogated language that equated dark with evil, and light with good. We didn’t say “man” to refer to all humanity. We didn’t say mentally retarded, we said people with developmental disabilities. We learned to use “person-first” language—not that disabled person, but that person with a disability. We tried to speak in a way that was affirming of people different from ourselves, that more accurately reflected their experience, that honored their integrity.  And although some alleged we were becoming “language police,” I remember owning my own political correctness. I wanted to get it right. I didn’t want to hurt people with my words. And truth be told, I didn’t want to sound ignorant of the great diversity of identity and experience all around me.

I also remember that PC was not only a serious label; it was also tongue-in-cheek, way of saying, “yes, we know what we believe in, we know what causes we support, we want to be more inclusive and compassionate in our language, but let’s not take ourselves so seriously that we stop listening to views that differ from our own. Let’s not approach our causes so earnestly that we alienate the people we hope to influence.”

By the time I arrived in Boston in the 1990s, PC was no longer a positive term. It had become a criticism of liberalism on college campuses and elsewhere. Alan Bloom had published The Closing of the American Mind; Dinesh D’Souza had published Illiberal Education—both strong, conservative critiques of liberal political correctness and multicultural education in the United States. Today PC is a purely pejorative term. It’s a put down. People use it as a way of saying, “you’re being excessively liberal in your views.” “You’re being silly, naïve, ridiculous.” “You’re being too sensitive.”

Perhaps the latest version of pushback against a perceived, PC mania is the attempt to abandon trigger warnings on college campuses. A trigger warning alerts an audience that a potentially difficult topic is going to be discussed. It helps people who have a history of trauma in relation to that topic prepare themselves mentally and emotionally to take part in the discussion. It is a compassionate gesture, but compassion isn’t prevailing in the debate over trigger warnings. A University of Chicago letter to incoming freshmen in August stated “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”[5]

As a Unitarian Universalist I am conflicted. Our faith tradition highly values freedom of thought, speech, expression, conscience and religion. We value spiritual freedom. We value the rights and integrity of the individual. We welcome the free interchange of ideas. We welcome debate and discussion, especially around controversial issues. And the idea of creating intellectual or spiritual safe space in which to retreat from ideas at odds with our own would seem to run contrary to our fourth principle, “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” and our fifth principle, “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.” So, trigger warnings, political correctness, safe spaces—all those things that stifle the free interplay of ideas—potentially mute our capacity to learn and grow in the presence of controversial ideas, and thus they seem to be at odds with Unitarian Universalism’s core principles.

But I am conflicted. If I use walking as a metaphor to describe the spiritual life over and over again in my worship services, and a person who cannot walk tells me they feel excluded or invisible, is it sufficient for me to respond, “Sorry, that’s the free interchange of ideas. You’re trampling on my freedom to express myself spiritually. It’s your job—not mine—to translate my metaphor into your life circumstances?” No. It isn’t sufficient. It’s actually quite callous. Isn’t it the case that the person who says, “Wait a minute, you’re excluding me,” or “You’re speaking as if your metaphor works for everyone but it doesn’t,” or “Your comments feel racist or homophobic or sexist and we need to talk about that,” or “Before you preach about rape and sexual abuse, please provide a trigger warning because some of us are living with post-traumatic stress and we need to prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally to hear your message”—isn’t it the case that the person who says any of these things is actually the one inviting the free interplay of ideas? And in not engaging with them, in shutting them down by throwing the principle of freedom at them, by calling them too sensitive, by calling them manipulative—or, worse, bullies—and by charging them with political correctness, aren’t I the one retreating from ideas and perspectives at odds with my own? 

I said at the beginning of my remarks that most allegations of political correctness are attempts to ignore, deny or demean the real pain and suffering that real people feel due to exclusion and oppression. Knowing that, when someone raises a concern with me about how they’ve been ignored, denied or demeaned, or when they offer me a new set of metaphors and different words that are more inclusive of them, or when they pull me aside simply to share that something I said or did caused them pain, I take them seriously. I listen. As my dear colleague, Rev. Mitra Rahnema said at Ministry Days, “I’m not going to argue the existence of oppression”–meaning that if someone is raising it as a concern, we need to talk about it, not shut it out. I take them seriously and I listen because they are inviting a real conversation, one from which I have something to learn. Those kinds of conversations lead to a wider welcome, greater inclusion, more peace, and ultimately more justice. Those kinds of conversations lead more surely to the beloved community than taking refuge in the freedom to say whatever I want without opposition. Call me politically correct. Call me too sensitive. Tell me I’ve been manipulated and bullied. I don’t think so. When we listen and respond with love, humility and, when necessary, apology, we are on our way to beloved community.

Amen and blessed be.

Addendum: “Answering the Call of Love”

For many years, Unitarian Universalists with disabilities and their allies have raised concerns about the song, “Standing on the Side of Love,” by the Rev. Jason Shelton, Associate Minister for Music at the First Unitarian Church of Nashville, TN. Standing on the side of love is one of those metaphors that makes some people with physical disabilities—specifically people who have trouble standing or who can’t stand—feel excluded. They understand it’s a metaphor, not to be taken literally. But so many metaphors are body-based, and when they are used over and over again without any acknowledgement that they are derived from physical experiences that are not universal, it makes sense that after a while, some people will start to feel excluded.  Surely we can find other words, other metaphors that are more inclusive. And in the very least we ought to acknowledge when they are not.

Rev. Jason Shelton has always been aware of the concerns raised about “Standing on the Side of Love.” He has understood the concerns. He has listened to them. And I suspect he has lost sleep over them. He hasn’t always known what to do about the concerns, in part because the title and the lyrics are published. It’s#1014 in Singing the Journey, “Standing on the Side of Love.” Jason was involved in the conversations our colleagues were having at Ministry Days and afterwards. And I think it’s fair to say that he and I are of like minds on this topic. It matters that we listen. It matters that we engage, even if it’s uncomfortable; and if we can do things differently and even make sacrifices for the sake of inclusion, justice and beloved community, then we ought to do them. Jason preached a powerful sermon on this topic in Nashville on August 14th.[6] In that sermon he said that as much as he is attached to standing on the side of love, love matters more than his lyrics, and he is willing to change the words. He said it came to him in the middle of the night: “Answering the Call of Love.” This word change, he said, is a way of actually embodying the meaning of the song. “What love calls us to do,” he said, “is to be in deeper relationship with one another, to see one another more clearly, to respond to those needs and to let go of our attachments—and God knows I’m attached to those words. But love is more important.” And then the congregation sang, “Answering the Call to Love.” I invite us to sing it now with these new words.

[1] To learn more about the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s Committee for Antiracism, Anti-oppression and Multiculturalism, see: https://uuma.site-ym.com/?page=comaraom.

[2] Visit the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry (AIM) program website at http://www.uua.org/accessibility/aim.

[3] Visit the AIM glossary at http://www.uua.org/accessibility/aim/aim-glossary.

[4] Read the full text to the apology at the UUMA website: http://www.uuma.org/news/295634/Response-to-Concerns-Raised-About-Ministry-Days.htm.

[5] Vivanco, Leonor and Rhodes, Dawn, “U. of C. tells incoming freshmen it does not support ‘trigger warnings’ or ‘safe spaces,’” Chicago Tribune, August 25, 2016. See: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-university-of-chicago-safe-spaces-letter-met-20160825-story.html?utm_source=Week+of+8.29.16&utm_campaign=Week+of+8.29.16&utm_medium=email.

[6] Shelton, Jason, “In Body or In Spirit,” a sermon delivered to the First Unitarian Church of Nashville, TN on August 14, 2016. Visit: http://www.thefuun.org/sermons-audio-archives/ and scroll down to the archives for August.