On Intent, Impact, and "Political Correctness"

Hey friends. Check my math on something:

This article recently made the rounds: “Large Majorities Strongly Dislike PC Culture”

Most members of the “exhausted majority,” and then some, dislike political correctness. Among the general population, a full 80 percent believe that “political correctness is a problem in our country.” 

And this attitude transcends race, age, and geography. As a 40-year-old American Indian in Oklahoma put it: 

“It seems like everyday you wake up something has changed … Do you say Jew? Or Jewish? Is it a black guy? African-American? … You are on your toes because you never know what to say. So political correctness in that sense is scary.” 

In the extended interviews and focus groups, participants made clear that they were concerned about their day-to-day ability to express themselves: They worry that a lack of familiarity with a topic, or an unthinking word choice, could lead to serious social sanctions for them.

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I have long said that what some people call “PC” really sounds to me like basic kindness. When people share how they self-identify, or how they want to be addressed, it seems like a no-brainer to honor that. It costs me nothing to do so, and it matters. That is basic Golden Rule stuff. 

But I also empathize with those who find it hard to keep up with changes in culture, and who worry about giving offense without meaning to. A new friend of mine is gender non-binary and goes by the pronoun “they.” Despite wanting to honor this person’s identity, I have slipped up many times. I’m also realizing how often I use the word “guys” to describe a generic group of people. It doesn’t bother me to hear the term, but people I care about bump on it. It costs me very little to be more inclusive with my language. I’m grateful for the grace of others to both point out when I fall short, and to understand that I’m trying and will screw up along the way. We could all be kinder to one another.

Even as I seek to do my best to honor others, people of color who are friends and colleagues have helped me see that impact matters more than intent. People can mean well—can intend to act in a positive way—but the effects of their actions are what matter most. I get that. As a woman, I can think of times when a man has tried to stick up for me in a way that goes beyond being an ally and tips over into paternalism. They meant to help, but their actions had the effect of portraying me as helpless and needing a man to rescue me. Impact over intent. 

But I also think that, in Maya Angelou’s words, when you know better, you do better. What if one genuinely doesn’t know better? What the survey about PC suggests is that many people want to do the right thing, they just don’t know what it is. I have long loved Thomas Merton’s prayer/poem that begins, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.” He writes, “the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” We are flawed, limited, imperfect human beings, often fumbling to do the right thing. I can’t dismiss the power of intent. 

I’ve long wondered, then, is there a way to deepen our cultural conversation beyond impact and intent?

I recently attended a conference for coaches, where I attended a workshop on building trust in teams. The presenter offered four aspects of team trust, gleaned from the book The Thin Book of Trust:

  1. Sincerity: do you mean what you say?

  2. Reliability: do you honor commitments?

  3. Care: do you hold others’ interests in mind?

  4. Competence: do you have the ability to do what’s asked of you?

A lightbulb went off as I considered whether these four traits might help us bust through the impasse I see over what many call “PC culture.” If someone has shown themselves to be generally sincere, reliable, and caring, I will be less inclined to take instant offense when they do something that has a harmful impact. That’s not excusing their behavior, that’s viewing it in a larger context. 

A person is sincere when they say, “I’m really trying here,” and you know that they truly are.
A person is reliable when they set a course of action and you see them follow through on it. 
Care is demonstrated in any number of ways, but an overall relationship of care can be a container to hold the many missteps and screwups we make because we’re human.

As for for the fourth quality, competence, well, some folks are willfully ignorant, and don’t care to learn about the world around them and how it’s changing. But others simply don’t know what they don’t know. The goal, then, is to help one another develop cultural competence, in ways that flow from our own sincerity, reliability, and care. (It’s also why social media can be so detrimental to dialogue about these things. How do I know how sincere, reliable, caring, and competent random person on the internet is? Instead we blast first, ask questions later.) 

What do you think?

The Parable of the Pizzas

What do you think? A man had two sons. To each he said, "Go and sell pizza." And the first said, "Yea, I shall do my father's will, but to the gays getting married I shall not sell pizza. For the six scripture verses are clear to me, both the verses next to the ones condemning shellfish and mixed fiber clothing, and the ones uttered by Paul, though peculiarly never by Jesus. Very truly I tell you, I am certain of their meaning; it hath been revealed to me that these specific sayings of the Ancient Near East are worthy of literal acceptance in the Year of Our Lord 2015." And he didst spake it unto Fox News.  

And the second son said, "Yea, I too shall sell pizza. But to the poor and homeless I will not sell pizza. Rather and verily, I will permit my patrons to pay for extra slices for the least of these my brothers and sisters. They wilt share their good works via Post-It, so that all who enter our doors will see the glory of free pizza and give thanks, and all will be fed." 

And the news of the two sons and their pizzas spread far and wide.

And it came to pass, the wrath of the Internet rained on the head of the first son, both the righteous anger and the immature trollishness, until the first son closed his doors. And behold, a GoFundMe site came into being, and a large multitude showed their support for the man, and his six scripture verses. 

pizza_custom-e8c20e171a874bed213c97937f44826dc4b4784e-s1700-c85And the deeds of the second son spread across the land with a great many shares, becoming as a holy virus to all people. So many didst tell the story that it was recorded on the hallowed scrolls of Upworthy. And the homeless did come, and went away rejoicing, their bellies full. And all who heard of it found themselves desiring to be better people and to share light unto the world.

Let anyone with ears to hear, listen! Which of these did the will of the father?

Go and do likewise.

The Art and Craft of Not Being a Racist

Thanks to my friend Amy Hemphill for sharing this video, in which Jay Smooth turns a critical (side) eye to the Academy Awards. While this year's presentation was the most "explicitly political" Oscars ceremony in years, the academy selections and nominees also managed to represent "the most exclusionary, white-ish, dudebro-ish" aspect of Hollywood. Even if you care nothing for the Oscars, you owe it to yourself to watch this short 5 minute video. Especially if you've ever said to yourself, "I can't be [racist/sexist/homophobic], I'm a good person."

To that Jay says: There is nothing that does more to perpetuate injustice than good people who assume that injustice is caused by bad people.

The message is an especially potent one for those of us in the church, given the ways we both perpetuate the status quo without intending to, AND give ourselves a pass because we consider ourselves to be nice people who mean well.

Watch, think, and learn. And tend to your craft.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7c9CIHm09M

A Sharp Intake of Breath

The steeple of First Presbyterian, Houston This happened yesterday:

An influential Houston church voted on Sunday not to defect from the nation’s largest Presbyterian body... The congregation of the First Presbyterian Church in Houston voted narrowly on Sunday to remain with the Presbyterian Church USA over a breakaway evangelical denomination. The alternative denomination — A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, or ECO — advocates a stricter interpretation of the Bible and prohibits openly gay clergy.

A supermajority (67%) was required for the congregation to leave the PCUSA. They fell just 36 votes short, with about 64.5% voting to leave. What this means is that despite a comfortable majority wanting to leave, they're staying put.

Close votes are painful in the church. I know many people, from all over the theological spectrum, who are praying for First Pres, regardless of whether we see eye to eye with them on biblical interpretation. I don't agree with First Presbyterian Church's leadership on many issues. I agree with them that the PCUSA has changed, but I don't agree that they (we) have strayed from the fundamentals. We are body of Christians who are "reformed, and always being reformed."

But the congregation does good ministry too. And I feel for them wholeheartedly.

64.5%. Man.

They will either find a way to move forward together, or they will split. And that hurts.

I'll be returning to the PCUSA's General Assembly this summer, this time as a commissioner (I've been an observer a few times). As I think about what we'll be doing in Detroit, I think about the many church votes I've witnessed and taken part in. I remember a GA vote to overturn our denomination's ordination standards prohibiting lesbian and gay clergy and officers. The vote was close. Very close. When the results flashed on the screen, there was a sharp intake of breath. There almost always is in close votes. (It's right up there with the murmur that people make when someone shares a powerful story---not quite an Amen, I call it the Presbyterian Moo.)

Now, the gasp at a close vote can mean a lot of things---relief on the part the "winning side," lament from those who lost so narrowly. But in the church, it's also an expression of pain that we are not of one mind and heart on significant issues. The gasp is a realization that change, when it happens, is so hotly contested, yet so incremental. And yes, it's a sympathetic cry of pain even from those whose point of view prevailed.

It's hard for some people outside the church to understand that. The non-religious people I know, for whom the full humanity of LGBT persons is indisputable, sometimes find it puzzling that we'd be hurting for a congregation that wants to leave our denomination in part because of their apparent unwillingness to embrace that full humanity. "How are you not condoning bigotry?" they ask me.

First, I don't find the label productive. It's a non-starter.

Second, and more important: that sharp intake of breath is part of our witness. It's not our only one: I expect that marriage equality will come to the PCUSA this summer, or perhaps two years from now, and rather than being a departure from our fundamentals, I personally see that as a faithful expression of them. And that action will be, I hope, a witness to the world.

But that sharp intake of breath matters too. In a world where we "like" Facebook statuses that we agree with, only ensuring that we see more of the same---in a world where cable news and blogs tell us exactly what we want to hear---in a world where narcissistic trolls have taken over internet comments such that meaningful back-and-forth debate is an endangered species---our unity in the Holy Spirit, in the bonds of peace, is a witness too.

John Lewis, Marriage Equality, and the Battle Already Won

A short thought for today: John Lewis was interviewed by Krista Tippett recently about the use of non-violence during the civil rights era. The whole conversation is transcendent. He talks about being beaten during one of the protests and how he was absolutely certain he was going to die.

This exchange has remained in my mind:

Rep. John Lewis: I wanted to believe, and I did believe, that things would get better. But later I discovered, I guess, that you have to have this sense of faith that what you're moving toward is already done. It's already happened.

Ms. Tippett: Say some more about that.

Rep. Lewis: It's the power to believe that you can see, that you visualize, that sense of community, that sense of family, that sense of one house.

Ms. Tippett: And live as if?

Rep. Lewis: And you live that you're already there, that you're already in that community, part of that sense of one family, one house.

~

We see this idea lurking in many places, some profound, some not.

"Be the change you wish to see."

"Fake it 'til you make it."

It's also basic Christian eschatology. I can't find the reference now, but Desmond Tutu talks about preaching against apartheid during the height of that evil system. The police rimmed the arena with guns and intimidation as he spoke. At one point he turned his attention to them and invited them to put down their guns.

Come and join us, he said, because you have already lost. We have won.

I sense this dynamic at work in the fight for marriage equality. We have reached a tipping point, and there is something relentlessly inevitable about it now. It is not a question of if, but when. This doesn't mean that marriage equality supporters are done with their work. On the contrary, "living as if" gives a sense of energy and urgency to the work. Even many people opposed to gay marriage understand that sooner or later, it will be the law of the land.

(Of course, the inevitability of something doesn't automatically make it right or good. But I believe the ability to marry the person you love regardless of gender is both a right and a good.)

I wonder where you've seen this dynamic John Lewis describes. I wonder when and how you live toward this in your own life.