With the controversy boiling over last year about white supremacy in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) remaining unaddressed for far too long, we also must confront another thorny issue: freedom of speech.
We children were taught to love our country especially for its freedom of religion and speech — the freedom to be different. After all, our parents or grandparents left their homes, often in the face of persecution, to come to a new home that accepted minorities who practiced a religion other than the majority Protestantism.
In my family, just three or four years before I was born, Nazi firing squads and gas chambers had taken the lives of my father’s sister and brother, their spouses and their children. If someone occasionally called us a name, well…
Sticks and stones…
This was the land of free expression, after all.
Another phrase more elegantly sums up what I was taught about how thongs [sic] should be in the United States:
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
There was one flaw then in that freedom of expression. Many of our lansmen — our fellow Jewish Americans — were being denounced as Communists. Just an accusation was enough to ruin someone life. My parents and neighbors in the 1950’s hated and feared McCarthyism. Aside from war, there wasn’t much we hated and feared as much. It was another form of persecution.
Democratic ideals and common sense ended McCarthyism, at least as it then existed. Liberals and moderates of both parties despised it.
When I entered college in 1964, my cohort was beginning its rebellion against the slow pace of civil rights and, for a minority of us, against the Vietnam war. It would be a few more years before the Vietnam protest movement went mainstream, so I had a lot of angry fists shook in my face, and I was called names. My mother worried that I was setting myself up to be a victim of a revived McCarthyism.
But I persisted. I didn’t break any laws. I didn’t commit civil disobedience. I marched in protests and spoke out, because after all this is a nation where freedom of expression prevails.
That’s why the frog in me didn’t notice the water heating up over the last 60 years until it bubbled around me last April.
I wrote a blog post objecting to the way big decisions are made by the Unitarian Universalist Association. The case in point was a controversy over the pace at which the UUA was hiring and promoting persons of color, but I didn’t express an opinion on that. Nevertheless, a lay leader of the Black Lives movement in UUism made an 18-minute video condemning me for my “fuck-shot behavior” and racism, her white ministerial ally wrote that my “abhorrent BS” was a “thinly veiled cry that the colored folks are getting uppity and need to be put back in their place, ” and that was just the beginning.
My inner frog still didn’t understand, though, how much the water had heated — how much our norms had changed. I reacted not by asking that my critics be silenced but by writing in reply. Surely, in this land of free speech and opinion anyone could read what I and my critics had to say and support my freedom of expression.
That’s when the water boiled over. The UUA removed from its Worship Web a litany I had written in 1999, which had been used as a worship resource since then. Only after I discovered it was missing did I get a reason:
Your submissions were removed because your recent public comments made it difficult for these pieces to be interpreted in the way they had been before. As our Association struggles with the nature of whiteness’ supremacy, we have to reexamine past assumptions, such as the assumption that a piece of writing can be interpreted independent of its source.
Thus spoke that most liberal of liberal religions. Words I wrote in 1999, with no reference to race, needed to be expunged so that the UUA in 2017 could have a “hard and honest conversations about racial inequity in Unitarian Universalism.” My opinions in 2017 invalidated my words of 1999.
In the 1950’s and ’60’s, it was the left that stood for freedom of expression, even if that expression might to psychological harm, like burning a draft card. Today, it’s the left that wants to stamp out micro-aggressions, like asking someone with an accent where he or she (another micro-aggression against neutral-gender folks) is originally from.
It’s the right now standing for freedom of conscience over the possible psychological harm to one group, like a baker’s option to refuse to bake and decorate a cake specifically for a gay wedding. The roles have reversed.
What really happened was that Mel Pine freely expressed his opinions about a sensitive and controversial issue among his fellow UUs, others responded in anger to him because they found his opinions offensive, and the UUA, a private religious organization, removed a piece of his writings from its website because it no longer saw a benefit to having it there, which is what it is legally allowed to do! Pine was not sent to prison, arrested by police, or even given a ticket by the police for his expressions. His blogs are still up and he is still allowed to post his ideas on Facebook too. NO ONE had his rights violated in that case. Pine doth protest too much. So do right-wing assholes like Milo Yiannopoulos of Breitbart.com infamy. He hasn’t been punished by a government either.
When people actually get fined or imprisoned for their words by the government they live under, then we should worry about freedom of speech (and the press) being denied.
I have the right to throw off my property people who come on it making racist remarks, don’t I?