The 7 Essays of Ms. Elissa Lowe “What the Gadfly Papers Gets Wrong”
By Frank Casper
Section 1: It’s not OK to Be Wrong
I think perhaps the first thing I want say of Ms. Lowes lengthy piece about Gadfly is that just on the surface, before any close reading, it appears to be a worthy effort at critique. So just for openers, let’s assume it is as thorough and substantive as it appears to be. If so, then within our faith tradition, centered as it is on our principles, that is a good thing. Our principles, particularly the 4th, lead us to expect this kind of engagement, with ourselves, with one another, but particularly when it comes to leadership. That is why they’re called leaders. So, it has to be asked, why didn’t the leadership of our faith live the 4rth principle and engage in this way with Dr. Eklof’s book? What they chose instead is an almost immediate series of condemnatory letters impugning Dr. Eklofs character and motives. In fact, the now infamous open letter from 500 ministers explicitly refused to engage in this way with the book. They say so, right in the text. “Instead of accepting the frame of Rev. Eklof’s arguments and debunking them, we instead affirm the following…” And it should be noted that they persisted in this resolute refusal to engage, even saying in their public letter of censure that this was non-negotiable, right up to the point where they unfellowshipped Dr. Eklof for refusing to engage with them. Let’s be clear about something. Dr. Eklof’s book is not the problem. It never was. The problem has been and still is, especially now in the wake of their decision to de-fellowship Dr. Eklof, the irresponsible behavior of leadership. So, this critique, good or bad, and I’m sure, as with all such matters, this is debatable, is late, does not come from leadership as we have a right to expect, and is frankly now quite beside the point.
Having said that, on grounds that it purports to be the kind of engagement with the ideas in Gadly that we should be able to expect, it needs a response. So, some opening remarks about the piece itself. Reflecting the structure of the essay this will come in sections.
It is first of all vital to recognize the importance of the title of this first section, “It’s Not OK To Be Wrong,” because it is a declaration of a moral principle that guides the whole essay. Ms. Lowe spends 60 some pages trying to establish that Dr. Eklof is wrong, and that being wrong is not ok. She begins this section with a quote from Dr. Eklof expressing the exact moral opposite, “I must say what I believe is true and do what I believe is right, even if I’m wrong…” She goes on immediately to characterize this sentence as suggesting that for Dr. Eklof, being wrong is perfectly fine so long as one is convinced they’re right. But that is the very opposite of what it means to have a conscience and nowhere does Dr. Eklof say or even imply any such a thing. Having a conscience at all means that you’re not perfectly ok with being wrong. And Dr. Eklof goes on from there to tell us that the reason he is a Unitarian is because our faith enshrines the right of conscience as among its cornerstones. Ms. Lowe doesn’t include that part. And one wonders why, particularly when at the end of her first paragraph she tells us that “ In my writing, I want what “I believe is right” to be, you know, right, or at least plausible, based on an honest, thorough and transparent attempt to be right.” But this deliberate misrepresentation in her opening paragraphs of Dr. Eklof’s moral position makes this exceedingly doubtful and does not at all bode well for what’s to come in the next 60 pages.
So, that is just for openers. But another question occurs to me. When in our faith did being wrong become so immoral? What I mean is, if it’s not ok to be wrong, then how is it we can tell ourselves as UU’s that we are religious pluralists, and we do, because we affirm and even celebrate 6 sources of religious wisdom. And I think it is safe to say that all of them regard one another as in some foundational way wrong. But we do not approach them that way. We do not say of those in our congregations who might in some way adhere to these traditions that they are wrong. Or at least, if we’re true to our principles, we’re not supposed to. We’ve been taught to approach them not with judgments about right or wrong, but as resources for ourselves to think the matter through and make up our own minds. That is what the right of conscience means, and that is the spirit in which Dr. Eklof wrote his book. But something has apparently changed in the new UUism. Being found wrong is now considered actionable, grounds for exclusion from the community of faith. Perhaps we should see this in terms of the tribal times in which we live. In a time of purity spirals on both the left and the right, why should Unitarians be any different?
And speaking of tribal times, it is very important to point out up front that Ms. Lowe never addresses what has been the primary complaint from Dr. Eklof’s detractors, the issue of harm. In view of the fact that this was certainly the charge in every single one of those initial condemnatory letters, and what certainly lead to his public censuring, one would expect that any critique of his book would seek to establish the harm that has constantly been claimed. But here, it never comes up.
Second section: Free Speech
The second section of Ms. Lowes critique of Gadfly focuses on a single but lengthy quote from page 3 of Gadfly. (1) It contains a Facebook post that Dr. Eklof uses to advance his view that what is termed by Lukianoff and Haidt as “safetyism” “reflects a value system that stands in opposition to free speech.” (pg 2 GF) Safetyism is a culture in which people feel they should be safe from offensive ideas in the same way as they should be safe from car accidents or sexual assault, ideas that are regarded as somehow emotionally harmful. After saying there is so much wrong in the paragraph she hardly knows where to start, her first remark is to suggest that Eklof inappropriately compares the Facebook post with a violent incident at UC Berkley, referred to on page 2, where students prevented Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking. The former, she says, in no way suggests the violence of the latter. But Eklof didn’t indicate that at all. He was merely saying that some are willing to employ violence in order to enforce their safety from disagreeable ideas. He says it, at the bottom of page two, before he moves on to the Facebook post. “Safetyism, whether violent or not reflects a value system that stands in opposition to free speech…” I think on the part of Lowe this is a function of the moral imperative she has set for herself, to establish that Eklof is wrong, and that being wrong is not ok.
Her second criticism, and she’s numbering them, is to assail Eklof for being uncharitable in his interpretation of the Facebook post. After all, she says, people vent on social media and sometimes say things they don’t really mean. It is, frankly, something of a trivial point, but one could ask, how does she know the poster did not mean what they said? Actually, she doesn’t. She doesn’t because she can’t. I think this is another example of her following the prime directive. Eklof is wrong, and it is not ok to be wrong.
But for someone who criticizes Eklof for making entirely too much of a Facebook post, her fourth, fifth, and sixth criticisms are based on it. Her fourth and fifth criticisms concern Eklof’s response to something said in the Facebook post, that the white supremacist hierarchy uses the value of free speech to spread hate and oppression, and that “hate and oppression are never ok.” Eklof regards this view as an attempt to conflate the concepts of free speech with the “villainy of the white supremacist hierarchy,” an idea he is clearly opposed to. But what criticism does Ms. Lowe level? She says that Eklof needs to re-think his position, and the Facebook writer is clearly right, and that free speech is little more than an idea that serves white supremacy. “I doubt”, she writes, “most modern historians would deny that the First Amendment was conceived by men who passionately believed in “white supremacist hierarchy,” and that First Amendment law has been defined, refined, interpreted and defended by nearly all-white male elites (legislators, lawyers and judges).” In short, she agrees that free speech is nothing more than a tool of white supremacy, and on that basis she calls Dr. Eklof wrong.
In her sixth criticism, she says that Eklof wildly overreacts to the post, then uses that to set up a strawman that she then proceeds to knock down with what I’ll call some academic diversion. She says of Eklof’s response to the Facebook post that “it’s as if he feels that even acknowledging a down- side to free speech is a path to the dark side. It seems Eklof believes there should be robust free speech about anything and everything… except free speech itself. That’s off-limits.” The phrases “it’s as if he feels” and “It seems Eklof” are flags, because Eklof never says or even suggests any such a thing. Lowe is at this point simply putting words in Eklof’s mouth in order to quote from a series of academics for the purpose of returning to her view that free speech is a tool of white supremacy, and that saying so is itself an example of and a perfectly legitimate expression of free speech. In other words, she believes that those who hold the view that free speech is a tool of white supremacy are the true supporters of free speech, because they are the only people willing to put its virtues into question. The Eklof’s of the world, according to Lowe, need to re-think their uncritical faith in the virtues of free speech because they do not see or are unwilling to consider its vices. That is why Eklof is wrong about free speech, and it’s not ok to be wrong.
Part II of Free Speech, “Emails Are not Linguisticide”
After criticizing Dr. Eklof for his failure to see that free speech is little more than a tool of the white supremacist hierarchy, and completely ignoring his lengthy section on “The Religion of Humanity,” Ms. Lowe moves to a section subtitled “Linguisticide” in which she takes Dr. Eklof to task for an exaggeration. It concerns a series of email exchanges over the publication of an article in UU World, “After L, G, and B,” by Kimberly French. It was the story of a cisendered mother’s challenges trying to master the preferred pronouns of her daughter’s friend, who is transgendered. At least, this was the way many people read it.
But that is not how some transgendered and etc UU’s read it. The main complaint was that the editor, Christopher Walton, after many pre-publication requests by transgendered people not to, allowed the publication of an article that centered the cisgendered experience. An article by a transgendered person, they said, would have been more appropriate. It was this effort, expressed in a series of back and forth emails, to prevent the publication of the article, that Eklof compared to practically the entire history of efforts to suppress speech, an effort he ecapsulated in his term “linguisticide,” “the systemic replacement of an indigenous language with the language of an outside, dominant group, resulting in the permanent language shift and death of the indigenous language.”
Here I think Ms. Lowe certainly has a point. This seems like a good deal of hyperbole on the part of Eklof. For Ms. Lowe goes on to make the perfectly valid point that despite the effort to prevent publication of the article, it was still published. So, in the end, it was not suppressed.
But what she fails to say is that the emails Eklof is concerned about were a firestorm of recriminations, ending, after calls for his ouster, in the abject apology from the editor of UU World for basically doing his job, and an apology from the author Kimberly French, for an article that when all is said and done, presented a tender, sympathetic, and certainly revealing experience to those of us who have not had to wrestle with this problem on anything like a daily basis. Certainly, that is the way it struck me. It helped me and I’m sure many other UU’s to understand, to some degree, the daily struggles that her daughter’s friend must encounter, and raised my awareness of the persistent pitfalls when sincerely trying to get it right. But that did not count for much with the critics from the transgender community. If anything, it was regarded as part of the problem. So, just because in the end that particular article was published, we can all be pretty sure that it won’t ever happen again. And in view of that, perhaps Eklof’s comparison does not really appear to be so far off the mark after all.
Ms. Lowe tries to cover this by calling in some heavy academic support that presents these emails as a form of free speech called “preemptive protest.” The author she quotes from, a First Amendment scholar named Greg Magarian, writes, “To be sure, preemptive protest argues bluntly and harshly that certain speech isn’t worth hearing and doesn’t deserve a platform. But challenging the value or legitimacy of an opponent’s ideas, or even the opponent’s character or integrity, is a valid, familiar, and often highly persuasive mode of argument.” This may be true. But to echo Eklof, I’ll leave it to the reader to judge whether the article Ms. French wrote doesn’t deserve a platform, or that the character and integrity of Kimberly French and Christopher Walton should be impugned, she for writing an article expressing her views and he for publishing it. I guess Ms. Lowe believes so. She believes that Kimberly French was wrong to write her article and that Christopher Walton was wrong to publish it, and that Dr. Eklof is wrong to compare the effort to suppress it to other efforts at suppressing free speech. They’re all just wrong, and in the new UUism, it is not ok to be wrong.
Free Speech, Part III, The “Principle of Charity” is Uncharitable
Moving on from it being wrong for Ms. French to write her article and for Walton to publish it, Ms. Lowe feels it’s “important to call out what Rev. Eklof gets wrong in his attempt to invoke the “principle of charity.” This is a principle often honored among philosophers and “requires interpreting a speaker’s statements in the most rational way possible and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation” (Wiki). Ms. Lowe begins this section with another lengthy quote from Eklof, (2) which she indicates is from page 47 but is actually from page 22, before the section on “Linguisticide,” which was the focus of part II of this section on Free Speech. Dr. Eklof tells us that the principle has long been practiced by UU’s as a cornerstone of the covenantal relationships in many congregations. Indeed, one can see the influence of this principle in the UUMA Ethical Guidelines that govern the way ministers are to behave with respect to one another.
Eklof invokes this principle, and it’s clear echo in UU covenants, in order to hold a mirror up to those who reacted so harshly to Ms. French’s article. For some reason he expected people to be a bit more charitable, particularly those who demanded Mr. Walton’s resignation. Could this be because the expectation is so deeply embedded in the UU covenants all the respondents claim allegiance to? No. Not for Ms. Lowe. According to her, Eklof’s intent here had nothing to do with the principle or our UU covenants. Rather, his intent was “to move the goalposts from “free speech” to tone policing.” He sought, rather, to de-legitimize the critics of Ms. French and Mr. Walton by attacking the tone rather than the content of their messages. This is explicitly declared in the first of her 5 responses to her long quote from Eklof on page 12 of her piece.
“Whether Eklof likes it or not, UUWorld is a national publication that has a circulation of nearly 120,000 people. The implication that its authors and editors should be immune from the criticism—even harsh criticism—that other mass media authors and editors often receive is preposterous.”
Of course, Eklof nowhere even suggests that articles in the UU World are immune from criticism. If he had, it would surely be as preposterous as Ms. Lowe says, and for that reason you can be sure that she would have quoted it directly. What he does say is that he found the criticism in question exceedingly harsh and inaccurate, and certainly the demand for Mr. Walton’s resignation wholly inappropriate. But he does not even suggest what Ms. Lowe is accusing him of here.
However, just for the sake of argument, let’s assume for a moment that Ms. Lowe is right about this, that invoking our UU covenants as an example to live up to, or “into,” as some like to say, is really just tone policing. If so, then one could reasonably wonder about the real intent of our covenants. Are they really meant to promote mutual respect, particularly among our clergy, as Eklof said of them? Or are they really just tools we can use for de-legitimizing criticism within and among UU’s? Ms. Lowe states flatly in her 5th bullet point in this section, that for Eklof, it is the latter. She writes:
“Eklof invokes the “principle of charity” to criticize the critics but refuses to offer it to them. For Eklof, the “principle” is a one-way street: he treats it as a weapon, not a reciprocal obligation…Eklof’s unidirectional application of the “principle of charity” effectively silences the people he’s criticizing.”
Or maybe in Ms. Lowes view they are tools for undermining and silencing others merely because Dr. Eklof invokes them? In any case, if it is true that Eklof fails to offer charity to those he criticizes, does that justify the same failure on the part of Ms. Lowe? After all, if she’s going to take Eklof to task for failing to live into our covenants, then perhaps in doing so she should avoid committing the same offense. I mean, her piece is riddled with expressions of condescending consternation, like these from the previous sections.
“I… just… can’t… even.
No joke: my jaw dropped when I read this bit in Gadfly, and I still can’t quite wrap my brain around the fact that an allegedly serious book contains an accusation this untethered from reality.”
“I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to get so much wrong in just a single paragraph, but Rev. Eklof managed to do it. Let me count the ways:”
Maybe Eklof is not as charitable as he wishes others would be, but there is not a thing in his book that crosses that line in the egregious way Ms. Lowe so often does. And perhaps we should dispense with this particular complaint of hers, since it is at best debatable anyway, but she uses it as platform for further accusations. Consistent with her uncharitable approach and staying with the article by Ms. French she writes:
Eklof cherry-picks quotes from social media posts to support his case and ignores more substantive and gracious critiques that don’t so he can portray ALL critics as dogmatic, hypersensitive, grievance junkies who lashed out at the article’s author and editor because they’re “…incapable of relating to those outside their tribal identity.”
She proceeds to find a number of more gracious critiques and quotes from them at length. But that there were more “charitable” critiques is hardly the point. It wasn’t the charitable critiques that were responsible for the treatment both Ms. French and Mr. Walton received. It was, as Eklof said, a series of emails that Lowe herself describes as dogmatic, hypersensitive grievances. That is why Dr. Eklof does not refer to the more gentle approaches. It has nothing to do with the notion that they undermined his point. It is that they are not relevant to what actually happened. So, claiming that Eklof deliberately ignored them is simply a canard.
Ms. Lowe closes this section with what we’ve come to expect given her prime directive:
“Rev. Eklof is wrong to silence and denigrate the complaints about the “After L, G, and B” article by trans/genderqueer UUs—angry though some of them undoubtedly were—because they reflect a desire to be included in the larger “we” represented by Unitarian Universalism, which is itself striving to be included and heard in the larger national and global conversations about human rights and dignity.”
But who did Dr. Eklof silence? No one. For the obvious reason that his book came out long after the article in question was published, long after the tumult leading up to its publication, and after the blizzard of complaints in the wake of its publication. And according to Lowe, none of this should have been criticized. To do so is to denigrate those who raised their voices. If that is so, then Ms. French and Mr. Walton were also denigrated. But we don’t hear much about that from Ms. Lowe. In fact, she takes pains in this section to tell her readers that the principle of charity in our covenants does not apply to trans/genderqueer UUs because their status as victims of discrimination exonerates them. “Marginalized people,” she writes, “are constantly having to center other people’s comfort over their own. For them, the “principle” is an additional burden.” So, she accuses Eklof of using the principle free from reciprocity, then turns right around and justifies it for others. While I’m sure some agree with her reasons, it nonetheless again raises the question, what do our covenants really mean? But not for Ms. Lowe. No. Ms. French and Mr. Walton were wrong, and Dr. Eklof is wrong, and in the new UUism, it is not ok to be wrong.
Part IV Free Speech, The Violence at UC Berkeley
This closing section on free speech concerns itself with the way Dr. Eklof approaches the violence that happened at UC Berkley in order to stop Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking there February 1, 2017. Perhaps the single most important thing to say about this section is that, despite stating flatly she is not pro-violence, Ms. Lowe then proceeds to write an apologia for it in this case. That is how she distinguishes her views from that of Eklof, “charitably” describing his views as “smug, censorious, moral posturing.”
For Ms. Lowe, Dr. Eklof’s views are “smug, censorious, moral posturing” primarily because he fails to really appreciate just how malevolent Milo really is. Worse still, she suggests, Dr. Eklof turns Milo into a martyr for free speech rights. All of this is derived primarily from a quote on page 2 of Gadfly, a quote that, as Ms. Lowe says, is partially lifted from Lukianoff and Haidt in their discussion of the culture of safteyism.
“Since disagreeable ideas are, thus, considered harmful and injurious in a culture of safetyism, many of its adherents feel justified in using violence to protect themselves and others against dangerous beliefs. As a UC Berkeley Op-ed claimed after a violent protest there, physically violent actions, if used to shut down speech that is deemed hateful, are ‘not acts of violence,’ but, rather, ‘acts of self-defense.’”
Ms. Lowe then proceeds to strongly suggest that Lukianoff and Haidt, and consequently Eklof, have taken the quote out of context and perverted its meaning. “I suspected,” she writes, “some serious context was being elided there, and I was right. And that context is NOT consistent with the “culture of safetyism” that Lukianoff and Haidt (and Eklof) piously diagnose, so I’m not surprised that it was censored. It didn’t fit the story they wanted to tell.”
What story did Lukianoff and Haidt, and Eklof following them, want to tell? It’s clear from the quote. It is that for some within the “culture of saftyism” acts of violence are a legitimate and sometimes required method of shutting down hate speech. But for Ms. Lowe, that is a deliberate perversion of the matter. By way of supporting her point, she quotes from and supplies a link to the OP-Ed in question, authored by Niel Lawrence. As Mr. Lawrence tells us, he has been the target of death threats for using his right of free speech to pen frank, condemnatory, and profanity laced editorials against Milo, revealing Milo’s reliance on doxing, that is, identifying information about (a particular individual) on the Internet, typically with malicious intent, and his persistent insinuation of support for violence from his alt-right minions. Indeed, according to Mr. Lawrence, the more militant protestors on that day in Feb of 2017 were there to prevent another doxing that Milo was set to execute during his speech.
“To the less radical bystanders who chanted “no more violence…” he writes, “and who turned out the next morning to help clean up — would you have been there to defend the undocumented students he would have outed? To defend me from the next round of doxxing and lukewarm death threats that is my reward for exercising my own First Amendment rights? Will you chant No More Violence at the Proud Boys and the skinheads? Will you get between a counter-protester and the target of their rage?”
This is the Milo that Ms. Lowe accuses Dr. Eklof of soft-pedaling, and most of the rest of this section is devoted to further documenting the litany of Milo’s offenses. At the conclusion she writes:
“Let’s not mince words here: Milo Yiannopolous was much more than a “right wing provocateur.” He was an alt-right recruiter and enthusiastic cheerleader of cyberterrorism and harassment that had serious impacts on the lives and well-being of its targets, not to mention our increasingly fragile political institutions. Yet Eklof is apparently cool with this—you will search Gadfly in vain for even a word of reproach. It’s sad, but perhaps predictable that Eklof would choose to minimize the destructive actions of a man who explicitly, maliciously and gleefully sought to terrorize others—mostly women—into silence, because he already knows who the real enemies of free speech are.”
First, it is important to remember what the word “provocateur” means: agitator, demagogue (also demagog), exciter, firebrand, fomenter, incendiary, inciter, instigator, kindler, rabble-rouser. Calling Milo a right-wing provocateur is hardly soft-pedalling. It describes pretty well what the man is. And what makes it “apparent” to Ms. Lowe that Dr. Eklof is “cool with this” is something she thinks he should have said but didn’t, some specific word of reproach for Milo. But Dr. Eklof’s book was not an analysis of right-wing attacks on free speech. His book was about the kind of undermining of free speech that has taken hold of the faith he loves. So, this is just Ms. Lowe looking to insinuate something that is in no way supported by anything Dr. Eklof wrote. Besides, in the end, all Ms. Lowe is really saying is that she supports the views of Mr. Niel Lawrence, and I quote.
“To those who hate Yiannopoulos and the alt-right but have a hard time condoning black bloc tactics and property damage, I understand that these tactics are extreme. But when you consider everything that activists already tried — when mass call-ins, faculty and student objections, letter-writing campaigns, numerous op-eds (including mine), union grievances and peaceful demonstrations don’t work, when the nonviolent tactics have been exhausted — what is left?”
Dr. Eklof clearly does not support these tactics, says so explicitly, and Ms. Lowe thinks he’s wrong about that, and as we now know, in the new UUism, it is not ok to wrong. Plus, for Ms. Lowe, that Eklof fails to support these tactics establishes for her that Dr. Eklof is guilty of making Milo out to be a martyr for free speech. This is nothing but a diversion, an attempt to make Eklof out to be some kind of ally of Milo when nothing in his book supports that smear.
Section on Political Correctness, Part 1
Here it is critically important to recognize that Ms. Lowe does not use a single original sentence from this entire section of Gadfly on the subject of political correctness. She completely ignores everything Dr. Eklof himself said on PCness, and instead tries to show that the sources he refers to about the matter do not support his views. She claims that he cherry picks from his sources in order to exaggerate what they say about PCness, so that Dr. Eklof can portray the phenomenon as far more important than it actually is. And it should also be noted that while she provides quotes from those sources to support her accusation, she does not use all the quotes from the sources that Dr. Eklof uses. The one quote from Eklof’s sources that she does provide is one sentence long. That’s it. One sentence. But of course, it’s Dr. Eklof doing the cherry picking, while Ms. Lowe goes off on a lengthy riff about why Dr. Eklof is so wrong about Political Correctness, all based on a single sentence from a secondary source.
What she ignores, and it must be deliberate, is the many concrete examples Dr. Eklof provides of PCness at the UUA. These examples constitute most of this section of his book, but Ms. Lowe fails to mention even one of them. Instead, she does what characterizes much of her whole piece, that is, to talk a great deal about what others have said in order to show how wrong Dr. Eklof is about everything, because, as we have seen, it is not ok to be wrong. This consumes a great deal of her 60 some page effort and often borders on ratholes, but it does make her piece look substantive and challenging when it is often just distracting, and perhaps that’s the point. Which brings me to her other accusation for this section.
In addition to trying to show that Dr. Eklof’s sources do not support him, she also wants to continue to smear him with the innuendo that he is some kind alt-right UU minister, this time simply by suggesting he’s somehow just like Trump. The key passage here reads:
“Under the circumstances, I’m astounded that Eklof stooped to using PC to attack the UUA, as it’s currently a Trump-branded tactic that reeked of conservative bad faith even before the Orange One appropriated it for his own purposes. The kindest thing I can say about it is that it’s tone deaf.”
The somewhat circuitous route Ms. Lowe takes to this turd of an innuendo runs through a book she recruits in support of her dishonesty, “The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education,” by John K. Wilson, published in 1996. According to Wilson, PCness, or at least the version most everyone is familiar with (3), is at best exaggerations and at worst the fabrications of conservatives who deliberately invented it in order to make themselves out as victims of it. The strategy was to create a way for conservatives to be able to paint themselves as victims of left-wing attacks by labeling any and all criticism of their views as just another example of a PC culture seeking to shut down conservative thought, that is, to shut down free speech. It’s a way for conservatives to cover their attack on free speech by blaming it on liberals.
I haven’t read this book, but given my own views and past research, it sounds like an exceedingly interesting and very intriguing analysis. It is certainly true that conservatives use PCness as a way to make themselves out as victims and so dismiss legitimate criticism from any liberal source. In fact, they’re quite good at it. And it is true that the only example of it that Ms. Lowe provides conforms to this strategy, Trump’s dismissing all accusations of sexual abuse as PCness run amok. But Dr. Eklof does not use PCness this way. He does not use it to blunt criticisms of himself. How could he? Obviously, his book wasn’t published till “after” he wrote it. No. Dr. Eklof criticizes PCness from within a liberal framework. Not a conservative one. The examples that Dr. Eklof provides and that Ms. Lowe deliberately ignores are meant to show that the UUA uses PCness in a manner consistent with the definition below (3), to shut down views they disagree with. And in the immediate wake of publishing, and to this day, everything leadership has done in response has been consistent with this meaning of PCness. So it seems that in this regard, if conservatives use PCness to blunt criticism from liberal sources, so does the UUA. That, I think, is why Ms. Lowe does not discuss the examples Dr. Eklof supplies. That is why she avoids using any original material from this section of Gadfly. Because Ms. Lowe is here on an obfuscation and smear campaign parading around like a legitimate critique.
Political Correctness, Post Script.
In this follow-up to her section on Political Correctness Ms. Lowe still avoids using any original sentences from Dr. Eklof. But here she finds what is clearly a genuine factual error, and she makes the most of it while admitting it’s a rabbit hole. Dr. Eklof misattributes a quote from one of his sources. It is the kind error an editor would likely have found prior to publication, saw to it that it was corrected, and never have found the kind of sinister motive in it that Ms. Lowe insists upon. But let’s be clear about one other thing. The quote in question is from one of the sources Dr. Eklof uses, Philip Devine, who in turn is quoting someone else from yet another book. That someone else is who Dr. Eklof gets wrong. He somehow gets a John W. Murray, who was a former U.S. Representative and U.S. District Judge, mixed up with John W. Murphy, who is the author of the book from which Devine takes the quote.
But while for Lowe this is something of an inexcusable scholarly failure, the misattribution is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, because Dr. Eklof is guilty of a far more serious infraction. So pay attention, because here is the rabbit hole. Even though Dr. Eklof accurately renders the quote as written by Devine, his source, who is criticizing postmodernism (4), an idea closely associated with PCness, Eklof nonetheless deliberately misrepresents it as a criticism because Murphy, the original author of the quote, is actually defending postmodernism. Devine says this. He says that Murphy is defending an idea that he, Devine, is criticizing. But since Dr. Eklof did not make it clear that Murphy was defending an idea that his source, Device was criticizing, he is guilty of a deliberate misrepresentation.
Now, that paragraph might have crossed your eyes some. But Ms. Lowe did say it was a rabbit hole, and she was certainly right about that. I’ll leave to the reader to judge whether Dr. Eklof’s failure to follow his source and say that Murphy was defending something both he and his source were criticizing is some kind of sinister twisting of the matter, but to me this section of Ms. Lowe’s piece oozes of the joy at finding a factual error that supports her prime purpose, to show that Dr. Eklof is wrong, and in the new UUism, it is not ok to be wrong.
Section on Identity Politics
Pages 28 to 36 of Ms. Lowe’s piece are supposed to be about what Dr. Eklof gets wrong about the idea of Identity Politics. But in 9 pages, count them, 9, there is only one sentence from Dr. Eklof’s book, and that refers to one of his sources, Mark Lilla’s 2018 book, “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.” Practically the whole rest of her section on Identity Politics is what appears to be a lengthy critique of that source. Maybe it is just me, but I would expect that if you’re going to critique Dr. Eklof’s book, you’d use his book. But Ms. Lowe does not. Instead, she goes off for 9 pages on what appears to be a lengthy critique of a Lilla’s book. Because that is true, I am not going to bother reviewing her critique of Lilla, because this isn’t supposed to be about how Lilla gets it wrong, which is what she says, but about how Eklof gets it wrong, which is the whole point of her piece.
However, before she launches into Lilla, she makes the most of one word from Eklof to continue to smear him as an alt-righter. Dr. Eklof starts his section on Identity Politics under the heading “Identitarianism.” He goes on to tell the reader just what he means by this term,
“Identity politics, or identity liberalism, that is, “the promotion of the interests of certain marginalized groups without regard for broader issues than their own, or for the greater of the larger political party or society to which such groups belong.”
This definition is consistent with Lilla and the definition of Identity Politics also found on Wikipedia. But Ms. Lowe refers to none of it. What she immediately does instead is to show that according to the SPLC, “the term “identitarianism” has become the term of choice for certain violent white nationalists in the US”. She goes on to quote at length from the Wikipedia page about the Identitarian Movement and its virulent xenophobia and racialism. She then considers whether Eklof might have used the term as a “dog whistle” attempt to equate violent white nationalists with left/liberal students protesting (certain) conservative speakers.” This is no doubt a reference to Milo and the violence at Berkley in that section of her piece. Anyway, she concludes this sinister innuendo by backing off of it, saying she prefers to believe that this is not what Eklof was doing. But again, Dr. Eklof states clearly what he means when he uses the term “Identitarianism.” There was no need whatever to wonder whether he was “dog whistling,” unless of course you are trying to smear him, which I think is exactly what Ms. Lowe is doing.
Section on “Concept Creep”
In this section Ms. Lowe continues her preference for talking about Dr. Eklof’s sources over Dr. Eklof’s book. What little she does provide from the book is again, Dr. Eklof using said sources. Indeed, the very first thing she quotes is a paragraph from the main source Dr. Eklof relies on. Since the sources are wrong, Dr. Eklof is wrong. In this section she wants to argue with the authors of Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, for the way they approach the notion of “concept creep,” which originated with one of their sources, Australian psychologist Nick Haslam, in a 2016 paper titled “Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology.” It is her view that Lukianoff and Haidt take Haslam in a direction he never meant to go.
Her opening example is a quote taken from Lukianoff and Haidt in which they are discussing how Haslam sees the collapse of some concepts, such as trauma, bullying or abuse, into a subjective standard that is more or less free from any commonly understood meaning or criteria of measurement. If an incident or act feels like bullying or abuse to the recipient, then this “subjective assessment was increasingly taken as sufficient evidence.” The way Lukianoff and Haidt expressed this was that the victim should “trust their feelings”. But for Lowe, this phrase is illegitimately introduced for deceptive reasons.
“Haslam says nothing about “trust your feelings,” but by shoehorning their second “great untruth” into their interpretation of Haslam’s paper, Lukianoff and Haidt set the stage for their discussion of “safetyism.” In their view, safetyism warps students’ minds so they perceive mere emotional discomfort—such as having their beliefs challenged by a speaker—as harmful.”
But is expressing what Haslam is saying as “trust your feelings” really an illegitimate “great untruth”? I think a fair reading of Haslam’s paper does not support such an accusation. Much of what he argues in each of the 6 cases he discusses is that concept creep, while inevitable and often well motivated, “runs the risk of pathologizing everyday experience and encouraging a sense of virtuous but impotent victimhood.”
“Emotional abuse may be claimed if one party feels abused rather than by a set of objective abusive behaviors, bullying if employees perceive that their work has been criticized too harshly, prejudice if its target perceives it despite the sincere protestations of the perpetrator, and trauma if its victim experiences classic post-traumatic symptoms even if the triggering event would not qualify as traumatic on classical criteria.” (p 28).
In the absence of what Haslam calls “classical criteria” of evaluating abuse and other forms of objectionable behaviors, what is left but the subjective standard of how the alleged victim feels? What is there for the victim to trust and rely on other than how they feel? What is there for anyone else to rely on to measure such things for purposes of public policy and prosecution? Nothing. And that is Haslam’s concern. That Lowe does not find the phrase used by Lukianoff and Haidt in Haslam’s paper does not by any stretch make its use deceptive or illegitimate.
But Lowe has to say that Lukianoff and Haidt, and Eklof following them, are misappropriating Haslam because she doesn’t want the subjective standard he establishes, something she does not really argue with, to be recruited in support of their discussion of safetyism, understood as the development of a culture that values emotional safety from words and ideas that might be regarded as harmful to those listening, a growing problem in American Universities and in the wider culture, and within UUism, which is Eklof’s concern.
She advances three basic arguments for why Haslam is unavailable for the support of safetyism. First, she says safetyism deals in value judgments that Haslam avoids. That is, for Eklof et al, concept creep is always a negative, whereas for Haslam it is a psychological phenomenon that is inevitable and not necessarily a bad thing. She quotes from Haslam:
“I am at pains not to present concept creep as unambiguously desirable or undesirable, or to write it off as arbitrary or unwarranted. Conceptual revision is to be expected in view of changing scientific and social realities, and it may be appropriately responsive to those changes.” (Haslam, p.2)
But looking at that sentence in the context of the paragraph from which it is taken is instructive.
“I then discuss the wider consequences of concept creep. As Hacking argued, changes in humankind concepts alter social reality, looping back into how people understand themselves and one another and bringing new kinds of people into existence through what he called “dynamic nominalism” (Hacking, 1986). I am at pains not to present concept creep as unambiguously desirable or undesirable, or to write it off as arbitrary or unwarranted. Conceptual revision is to be expected in view of changing scientific and social realities, and it may be appropriately responsive to those changes. Although many critics have held psychological concepts responsible for damaging cultural trends – such as supposed cultures of fear, therapy, and victimhood – the conceptual shifts I present have some positive implications. Nevertheless, they also have potentially damaging ramifications for society and for psychology that cannot be ignored.” (p6)
Clearly, this is not exactly the value neutrality on the part of Haslam that Lowe seeks to portray. Indeed, right up front in his abstract on page 2 Haslam warns:
“A variety of explanations for this pattern of ‘concept creep’ are considered and its implications are explored. I contend that the expansion primarily reflects an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm, reflecting a liberal moral agenda. Its implications are ambivalent, however. Although conceptual change is inevitable and often well motivated, concept creep runs the risk of pathologizing everyday experience and encouraging a sense of virtuous but impotent victimhood.”
That Haslam would connect the phenomenon of concept creep to a liberal moral agenda is hardly an example of value neutrality. Lowe says she read Haslam’s paper, and maybe she did. But she also frequently accuses Dr. Eklof of cherry picking quotes in order to make it appear as though the source supports his views when it actually does not. I think it pretty clear that Ms. Lowe is doing precisely that here.
Her second argument is that Haslam sees upsides to concept creep where Eklof et al see only the downsides. Lowe is suggesting here that since Eklof et al fail to include any mention of the upsides of concept creep then they are, again, misappropriating Haslam. But it is also true, as any fair reading of Haslam shows, and my quotes illustrate, the upsides Haslam sees to concept creep do not in any way obviate the dangers he sees. Similarly, then, there is no reason to suggest that Eklof et al are either misinterpreting or misappropriating him for their discussion of safetyism.
Her final argument is that Haslam never discusses safetyism as such.
“More importantly, Haslam says nothing about “safety”—he offers 6 “case studies” and safety isn’t one of them. In fact, the words “safety” or “safe” don’t appear in the paper at all. It’s Lukianoff’s and Haidt’s (and Eklof’s) contention that it’s undergone concept creep. And perhaps it has, but the deceptive method they use to demonstrate it undermines their case.”
This is similar to Lowe’s observation that “trust your feelings” is not to be found in Haslam. It is similar to the charge that since the phrase or word cannot be found in a source, then it is illegitimate to interpret that source in that way. To me this is, on its face, nonsense. Besides, when you consider that in three of the cases Haslam discusses, abuse, bullying, and trauma, concept creep runs more and more toward the subjective standard of emotional evaluation, one could logically come to see where emotional safety can emerge as pretty important. To be sure, just the quote provided above from Haslam’s abstract, that “concept creep runs the risk of pathologizing everyday experience and encouraging a sense of virtuous but impotent victimhood,” legitimately establishes that a premium on emotional safety could well be the result of concept creep. In view of this trend, why on earth would Ms. Lowe suggest as she did above that Eklof et all are being deceptive when they site this phenomenon as a factor in their discussion of safetyism? If you consider this question in the context of the whole purpose that Ms. Lowe declares at the very top of her piece and relentless prosecutes throughout, the answer presents itself. She has to find Dr. Eklof wrong.
She takes the exact same approach when she takes up how Eklof and his sources treat the incident at Oberlin College when in 2014 guidelines were issued to faculty as to how to support students who had been victims of sexual assault. Lowe quotes from Coddling.
““…in 2014, Oberlin College posted guidelines for faculty, urging them to use trigger warnings to ‘show students you care about their safety.’ The rest of the memo makes it clear that what the college was really telling its faculty was: show students you care about their feelings. You can see the conflation of safety and feelings in another part of the memo, which urged faculty to use each student’s preferred gender pronoun (for example, ‘zhe’ or ‘they’ for students who don’t want to be referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’), not because it was respectful or appropriately sensitive but because a professor who uses an incorrect pronoun ‘prevents or impairs their safety in a classroom.’” (Lukianoff and Haidt, p.24)
Problem is, she says, the memo, which she calls “Exhibit A” in their indictment of overprotective administrators bending over backwards to make sure students—all students—feel safe ‘n snug in the classroom,” does not support that reading. Let’s focus a minute on her rendition of what Coddling says, because since turnabout is fair play, “bending over backwards” and “feel safe ‘n snug in the classroom” are phrases that are nowhere to be found in either Coddling or Gadfly. That is a another sterling example of Lowe doing what she accuses Eklof et al of doing. Nonetheless, it is as this point that Ms. Lowe gets a bit ugly in her indictment of Coddling. By choosing the passages they used, and because those passages occur further down in the document, she accuses Coddling first of deceiving the reader as to the purpose of the Oberlin document, which is, she says to address the problem of “the presence of both the victims and perpetrators of sexual assault in the classroom.” Worse still, on the same grounds, she accuses Coddling of ignoring or trivializing sexual assault. “Sexual assault on college campuses,” she says, “is a common occurrence and the Oberlin administrators were right in attempting to offer guidance to their faculty. That Lukianoff and Haidt ignore this context in order to push a narrative about overly fragile students is… actually pretty vile, in my opinion.”
If we give Ms. Lowe what she does not at any point lend to Eklof et al, the benefit of the doubt, perhaps we could find here a legitimate criticism. Coddling, without undermining or obfuscating the point they are making, could have said more about the very real problem the document addressed. But that is not the same as suggesting their failure to do that was some kind of deliberate avoidance or trivialization of the issue. And it is also true that while the document is about dealing with sexual assault in the classroom, it’s recommendations to faculty do in fact come down to making the classroom a safer place for the array of gender identities likely to be found among the student body, and this does in fact mean that faculty must develop skills for appropriately responding to students feelings. When the document discusses actual recommendations to the faculty, this is what it is all about.
But at this point let me follow Ms. Lowe and suggest you read the document and decide for yourself. Nonetheless, she has one additional accusation to make in the closing paragraphs of this section, that Lukianoff and Haidt are also deceptive about the memo’s discussion on the issue of the proper pronouns for the non-cisgendered because they leave out what she regards as crucial context from the Oberlin memo. I’m not going to bother with a lengthy analysis of this additional charge because I think enough here is enough. I only mention it because in fact, the context she claims Lukianoff and Haidt deceptively leave out arguably supports their point. But to me this is just another example of Ms. Lowe’s single-minded purpose stated at the top of her essay, that Rev. Dr. Eklof is wrong about everything in Gadfly. And if establishing that means finding his sources wrong, or finding the way Dr. Eklof uses his sources wrong or deceptive, or finding a source referred to by his sources as wrong or suspect, that is what she will do. And as we know, in the new UUism that Ms. Lowe represents, it is not ok to be wrong.
Section on Microagressions
After a lengthy quote from Gadfly in which Dr. Eklof discusses the origins and subsequent concept creep of the term “microaggessions,” (5) Ms. Lowe launches her response predictably. “There’s a lot of wrong packed into Eklof’s explanation, so I might as well give it to you straight.” Well, so far, the only thing she’s given straight is the prime directive with which she started, that Dr. Eklof is wrong, and it is not ok to be wrong. On that she has been relentless.
Largely ignoring the substance of it, Ms. Lowe has two issues with the passage she quotes. One, that Dr. Eklof was wrong about the year the term “microaggression” was first used. He said it was first coined in 1974 by Chester M. Pierce, a Harvard Professor of psychiatry, “in reference to the degrading ways African Americans are portrayed in the mass media and copied in white-black real life encounters.’. Ms. Lowe points out that yes, it was first coined by Dr. Pierce, but in 1970, not 1974. Again, that’s the kind of error an editor would have found and is, frankly, utterly irrelevant to the point Dr. Eklof is making, which concerns how the term in question has undergone a good deal of concept creep. But it is here that Ms. Lowe takes her next swag at just how wrong she finds Eklof to be. His shorthand path of the term “microagressions” takes it from what Pierce originally meant, a disturbing social reality that Pierce hoped psychiatry could be used to help African Americans impacted by negative images of themselves,” then expanding to “any marginalized group that is negatively portrayed in the mainstream media,” and finally, in his view, to a tool of novices easily “used by anyone to spontaneously psychoanalyze the unconscious minds and motives of others.”
It is the last stage that Lowe takes issue with. She quotes from Pierce that it was his hope “that the day is not far remote when every black child will recognize and defend promptly and adequately against every offensive micro-aggression. In this way, the toll that is registered after accumulation of such insults should be markedly reduced.” So, to her, this is the same thing as what Dr. Eklof referred to, a tool for armchair psychiatrists to analyze and impugn every word someone might say.
“Contra Eklof’s insistence that Dr. Pierce never meant for “novices” to use the term “micro-aggression,” Pierce’s clear intent was for black children—the ultimate novices—to do so. As for using the term “with abandon,” it’s also quite clear that Dr. Pierce wanted children to feel empowered to make these decisions for themselves, without worrying about whether they’d be judged for presuming that “…it gives them the spontaneous power to immediately know the subconscious intentions of others.”
But black children were not the “novices” Dr. Eklof had in mind. Neither were the “street therapists” that Dr. Pierce said would be responsible for passing the “knowledge of offensive mechanisms” to generations of black children who could employ that knowledge, to paraphrase Dr. Pierce, in order to “feel themselves respectable, dignified, worthwhile human beings, despite the murderous social pressures which conspire to make them feel otherwise.” What Ms. Lowe completely ignores is that Dr. Eklofs discussion of microaggressions is about how the whole idea migrated from what Dr. Pierce said would be a resource for “helping masses of blacks understand and dilute, if not counteract, the ceaseless brainwashing that goes on via mass communications with the conscious as well as unconscious design to keep blacks ineffective, passive, hopeless, and helpless,” to being “misappropriated by the suppressive cultural phenomenon known as “political correctness” or “callout culture.” (p29 Gadfly) The “novices” are those who use the term “microagression” as a mechanism for shaming and silencing people “by making them chronically anxious about saying anything for fear it might be misconstrued as inappropriate.” (p30 Gadfly)
Ms. Lowe completely ignores all of this, never mentioning a word about the argument this section puts forth, preferring instead to argue with something Dr. Eklof did not even mean. The rest of this section goes on in her now well established diversionary way to argue again with Lukianoff and Haidt, accusing them of being “slippery” and using “rhetorical sleight-of-hand repeatedly in Coddling in order to misdirect their readers” when discussing microaggressions. I have to leave that to the reader to judge, assuming the reader has or will read Coddling, but apparently Ms. Lowe has to share as low a view of Eklof’s main source in order to secure the even lower regard in which she holds Dr. Eklof. I would treat this more seriously if I didn’t already know her declared motive, the one thing she has been consistent about, other than the constant charge she levels at Eklof of cherry picking quotes while persistently doing it herself. In fact, if you read the Gadfly papers and Ms. Lowe’s piece you might have noticed that she does not address Gadfly, at least the first part of it, as a whole or even in the sequence the book itself follows, but in pieces and out of sequence. It better serves her prime directive, to establish that Rev. Dr. Eklof is wrong about everything he wrote in Gadfly, and in the new UUism, it is not ok to be wrong.
Section of Safe Spaces/Safetyism
In this section Ms. Lowe continues her argument with Lukianoff and Haidt, and Eklof by extension. She opens with a quote from a review of Coddling, and it is very instructive to compare her quote with the original review. Ms. Lowe says:
“As author Scott Lemieux points out in his review of Coddling, one of the biggest problems with the book is the authors’ “… tendency to draw the very broad conclusions laid out at the book’s outset from a series of cherry-picked anecdotes.”
Here is the line from the actual review.
“The biggest problem with this section of the book is its tendency to draw the very broad conclusions laid out at the book’s outset from a series of cherry-picked anecdotes”
I don’t know about you, but I think that just on general principles there is a huge difference between a section of the book and, as Ms. Lowe cherry picks to make it seem, the whole book. Given what we’ve already seen about Ms. Lowe’s approach in her piece, this alone would at this point be a legitimate reason to rolls one’s eyes and just quit reading. But we can still give her what she does not give either Dr. Eklof or Lukianoff and Haidt, the benefit of the doubt, and see this tedious task through to the end. True, as Ms. Lowe points out, that one of the main criticisms of Mr. Lemieux is that Coddling on the whole claims too much based on too little, but this criticism is aimed primarily at Lukianoff and Haidt discussion of free speech on campus. Besides, that is just one review of Coddling, and Ms. Lowe likely chose it because she can make it available to support what she has been accusing both Gadfly and Coddling of all along, that the books are constructed of cherry picked passages from other sources, some unworthy, in order to develop illegitimate arguments and mislead their readers . But not even the review she chose says anything like that, and neither do an array of positive reviews from other sources, like the NY Times, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post.
If Ms. Lowe had wanted a review that reputedly eviscerates Coddling she might have relied on Moira Weigel’s in The Guardian, “The Coddling of the American Mind review – how elite US liberals have turned rightwards.” You can tell just from the title that it would have helped with her other repeated charge, that Dr. Eklof is some kind of alt-righter, because the whole piece suggests exactly the same thing about Lukianoff and Haidt. But had she used Weigel’s review to help further paint Eklof a right winger ala Trump, she would have had to deal with the review in The Atlantic, which directly critiques Weigel’s at length.
Nonetheless, Ms. Lowe persists in arguing with Coddling as a proxy for undermining Gadfly by focusing on how Coddling uses one of its sources, a report in the New York Times by Judith Shulevitz. But the first thing she has to say about that source is that the author is “openly contemptuous of the students she’s covering.” She doesn’t support that allegation with anything at all. She just makes it up. She then immediately says, “Nonetheless, she does include some details in her article that don’t… quite… fit the story the authors [Lukianoff and Haidt] want to tell, so—as you’ll see—they end up on the cutting room floor. Again.” In short, she maligns the author of the article used by Lukianoff and Haidt in order to malign them for excluding what she regards as important parts of it. Then, she proceeds to do exactly that herself, excluding much of what the article has to say on the topic under discussion, safetyism. The reason is, if you read the article, it does not really support the charge she’s persistently making against Coddling because there is so much more in the article that supports the argument Coddling develops, notably, a number of additional examples that Ms. Lowe simply ignores, preferring instead to focus on the one that she can use to further her narrative. Frankly, the details of Ms. Lowes accusation are unnecessary here because this is by now a familiar pattern of hers, to accuse others of what she is herself doing.
Before leaving this section, it is important to address her final point, which is a defense of safe spaces against “Lukianoff’s and Haidt’s largely invented “trend” of safetyism.”
“For the vast majority of the UUs Eklof complains about in Gadfly, “emotional safety” isn’t a “culture” or “belief system”—it’s a basic human need. Marginalized people have to confront “dangerous ideas” all the time: it’s part of daily life in a world that’s optimized for the wants and needs of dominant groups.”
She follows this with a quote from an article sighting the history and necessity for such groups.
“The history of “safe spaces” goes back to gay, civil rights, and feminist efforts of the mid–20th century to create places protected from quite real forces of violence and intimidation. They also served as incubators of new ideas away from the censure of the very authorities threatened by these movements.”
But the problem with this laudable defense is, neither Coddling nor Gadfly argue against the needs of the marginalized to establish such groups. Coddling concerns itself with how this has over time migrated to a safetyism that equates emotional discomfort with physical danger. And this is not just an issue for college campuses. It is a broad-based inflation that has invaded the way parents raise their children, something Coddling vigorously argues against as it is an effort “to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy. (p.29). And it is in this area that most reviews of Coddling praise its scholarship on this issue.
Gadfly, on the other hand, is concerned with the extent to which the establishment of such groups undermines one of the cornerstone ideas of our faith, our common humanity. This is an idea that Dr. Eklof regards as indispensable not only to the liberal religious heritage generally but to Unitarian Univeralism particularly. He includes a whole section on the subject, and he devotes much of Gadfly to its defense.
“It is my belief all that has been mentioned in this section has emerged because the UUA, like other liberal institutions, has become engrossed in the ethics of identity, having largely abandoned our humanistic tradition, the recognition of our common humanity, in the process.” (p 48)
“Each of us is also part of one human family, whether or not we recognize it about ourselves, or whether or not others recognize it about us. This doesn’t mean some of us, whole groups of us, have not and are not suffering more than others, especially many who are not “white and male,” in what remains a systematically white supremacist country.”
What it does mean is that we are more when we are together than when we are apart. We are stronger and more powerful and more whole when we are able to support one another, and love one another, and see one another for all that we are.” (p 49)
“But multiculturalism and diversity are meant to bring us together as members of one pluralistic society, recognizing we are alike in our common humanity, allowing us to embrace our differences even while fully embracing each other.” (p 53)
“Yet, it is in the name of multiculturalism the UUA now regularly divides its members into caucuses based purely upon narrow identity-based categories – ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc, etc. Or by providing “healing rooms” at our assemblies into which nonwhites can escape from injurious microaggressions committed by whites who are forbidden to enter. Or by vilifying those who dare to speak, even supportively, on behalf of those outside their own assigned group.” (p 54)
None of this is ever mentioned or in any way referred to by Ms. Lowe, nor by any of the other so-called critiques of Gadfly. That is because she and others completely ignore the whole rationale behind the Gadfly papers, the defense of Liberal Religion as inherited from our Enlightenment legacy, in favor of a slipshod series of serial accusations and innuendos that persistently does what Ms. Lowe accuses Dr. Eklof of, “constantly erasing nuance.” (p 50) And to top this section off, she closes with a dishonorable and despicable attack on the UUSC, Dr. Eklof’s congregation.
Which brings me to the last section of a longwinded diatribe parading around like legitimate critique, “Reason and Logic.”
Section on Reason and Logic
This section is apparently about the last essay in Gadfly entitled, “Let’s Be Reasonable.” It is the longest essay, 48 pages, and arguably the most intellectually rigorous of the three. Its purpose is stated right up front in the subtitle, “A Rational Frame Regarding Charges of Racism and White Supremacy Within the Unitarian Universalist Association.” The whole chapter is a logical analysis of the UUA’s own audit of its hiring practices, an audit launched “to better determine the precise causes of the racial disparities among UUA employees, especially those in leadership positions.” (p 81 Gadfly)
But Ms. Lowe discusses none of this. None. Somehow and for some reason, she skips to page 112 and focuses her remarks on two paragraphs. That’s it. Two paragraphs out of a 48 page tightly argued essay about an important issue. But the issue itself is never addressed. In those paragraphs, Dr. Eklof comments about a tweet made by a Prof. Preston Mitchum, a tweet that was quoted in an article that appeared in The Washington Times, which he uses to illustrate a certain kind of logical statement. Ms. Lowe manages to get 4 pages of innuendo and condescension out of this. First because Dr. Eklof used the Washington Times, which has over time “earned considerable notoriety for advancing conspiracy theories, pushing anti-Muslim content, and—of course—promoting Donald Trump.” And second, for turning Prof. Mitchum into a “caricature,” which is another of her accusations throughout her piece.
Frankly, this section is completely bonkers and utterly unworthy of any sustained or serious reply. I’ll leave it to the reader if they want to waste their time.
(1) “In September 2018, for example, when it was learned members of the Westboro Baptist Church (the Topeka, Kansas based church notorious for using inflammatory hate speech) was planning a trip to Spokane, Washington to protest a local university, one understandably upset Facebook member responded by writing, ‘Sometimes there are no two good sides. That is a fallacy created by white supremacist hierarchy to use the value of free speech to spread hate and oppression. Hate and oppression is never okay.’ Although historians may explain the origins of free speech differently, the point here is that by conflating the concept of ‘free speech’ with the villainy of ‘white supremacist hierarchy,’ the writer justifies disregarding the former to prevent the latter, namely, the evils of ‘hate and oppression.’ In denying, further, that ‘Sometimes there are no two good sides,’ and, by implication, this is one of those times, the writer further justifies extremist thinking and behavior. In this case, the writer’s belief is not only presumed to be right but righteous, and, therefore, must be defended, even if doing so means denying the freedoms of those who disagree with the writer’s morally absolute ‘side.’” (Eklof, The Gadfly Papers)
(2) ‘There is a principle in philosophy and rhetoric called the principle of charity,’ Coddling further reminds us, ‘which says that one should interpret other people’s statements in their best, most reasonable form, not in the worst or most offensive way possible.’ Although this principle has long been practiced among Unitarian Universalists, part of the covenantal relationships we agree to in many of our congregations, at least one individual was angry enough to insist the magazine’s editor tender his immediate resignation over the matter. The main issue with it, for those troubled by it, is that it was written by a nontrans woman. As one post stated, ‘the cis-white gaze is strong in UU world.’ Another said, ‘As the mother of a trans person, I must say I was appalled. You are right; we can do better. Let’s make sure that when we make space for people’s voices, that they are speaking for themselves.’ (This comment, ironically, seems to violate the writer’s own mandate.).” (Eklof, The Gadfly Papers)
(3) “The avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”
(4) Postmodernism, also spelled post-modernism, in Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.
(5) “The term “micro-aggression” was coined in 1974 by Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry Chester M. Pierce, in reference to the degrading ways African Americans are portrayed in the mass media ‘and copied in white-black real life encounters.’ In naming this troubling and disturbing social reality, Pierce hoped psychiatry could be used to help African Americans impacted by negative images of themselves to, indeed, change the negative cultural narrative that often gets stuck in their own heads. Today “microaggression” has gone through concept creep and been misappropriated by the suppressive cultural phenomenon known as political correctness. Although it is not a stretch to apply the term to any marginalized group that is negatively portrayed in the mainstream media, it’s a colossal leap to think the concept can easily be used by anyone to spontaneously psychoanalyze the unconscious minds and motives of others. Pierce coined the term in a professional journal to inform psychiatrists of the phenomenon. It was not meant to be used with abandon by novices who presume it gives them the spontaneous power to immediately know the subconscious intentions of others. ‘…it is not a good idea to start by assuming the worst about people and reading their actions as uncharitably as possible,’ Lukianoff and Haidt tell us, ‘This is a [cognitive] distortion known as mind reading.’.” (Eklof, The Gadfly Papers)
Gadfly_Critique (Ms. Lowes Complete Essay)
Thank you, Frank, for putting in the time and energy into this analysis. I don’t think I could have summoned up the patience, myself. It’s a service to all who hope for a return by UUism’s national leaders to Enlightenment values.
The “It’s not OK to be wrong” is completely wrong on one very important issue not touched on here – that “wrong” and “right” imply an objective truth. In matters of fact, we can say “it’s wrong to say that 2+2=6”. We can say that “XY chromosomes are found in male persons”. But we cannot say that “it is wrong to not be anti-racist”. Because this is an opinion. We can say “I agree that anti-racism is the most important thing in the known universe”. But if someone does not agree, they cannot be said to wrong or right. It… Read more »
Back in March of 2020, Jim Aiken had a response to the Lowe essay, as well as to the essay on The Gadfly Papers by the Rev. Dennis McCarty. They are linked to off of Aiken’s blog. https://midiguru.wordpress.com/2020/03/03/the-last-word-i-promise/
Thanks Frank for the excellent review! For me the problem is summarized in your 1st paragraph. 1. Why didn’t the leadership of our faith live the 4th principle and engage in a debate about Dr. Eklof’s book? 2. The problem in not Dr. Eklof’s book. 3. The problem is the irresponsible behavior of leadership.
It’s sad the leadership of UU and many of its members no longer believe in the Enlightenment (Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress). For some reason many so-called Progressives hate progress.
“The main complaint was that the editor, Christopher Walton, after many pre-publication requests by transgendered people not to, allowed the publication of an article that centered the cisgendered experience.” I don’t think that’s entirely correct. From Alex Kapitan: “I’m speechless about the title (for so many reasons). I’m stunned at the casual dropping of the f-slur. I’m angry at the conflation of trans and intersex identities and experiences, the over-emphasis on surgeries and hormones and genitalia, the way in which people of color and disabled people (many of whom are also trans) are also ignorantly diminished. I’m frustrated by the… Read more »