“We, the congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” – the 4th Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)
I’m a self-identified science nerd, white, 60-something. I earned my bachelor’s degree from a science school, have a PhD in a social science, and wrote a full-blown doctoral dissertation with a hefty lit review. In my nerdy way, I was perhaps most passionately engaged when I’d collected my survey data and was able to spend several months joyfully subjecting it to statistical analysis. It felt like extended Christmas: each new result dropped like a festooned gift into my lap.
The rigor of the scientific method has always been important to me, as has unfettered access to information. The 4th Principle is close to my heart. Recent events in the UUA and at UUCC have triggered an evolution in my own personal relationship with this Principle; this evolution has taken some turns that surprised me, and I hope that sharing my experiences will help others in theirs.
A few years ago, I got involved in a discussion with two trusted UU friends over whether racism caused the election of Donald Trump. The first friend, a white man whose powers of analysis I respected, argued that it didn’t, and offered, in support, a study described in the mainstream media. I found his comments, and the study itself, persuasive, although I disagreed on a few points of the analysis. Soon after, I spoke with the other UU friend, this one African American, who passionately disagreed with my first friend. Because I trusted this person’s intellectual powers as well, I opened my mind to her arguments (despite some of them initially seeming slightly weird to me). Then I went back to the published study and spent some time in deep thought about what it purported, and what might be missing from the analysis. And indeed, while my first friend’s analysis was good as far as it went, my second friend’s perspective added a broader dimension, demonstrating that, in important ways, racism was, in fact, implicated as a primary cause of Trump’s election.
This point bears emphasis. I needed the perspective of a person of color to more objectively understand and evaluate the evidence.
My reading project this summer was Ibram X. Kendi’s big book on the history of racism, Stamped from the Beginning. The work is replete with examples of science gone horribly wrong to “prove” black inferiority – claims of genetic differences (including 19th Century assertions that black people are subhuman), eugenics, assimilationist theories that enslavement produced inferiority, claims of racial differences in IQ, etc. Scientists of each period believed in the truth of these unfortunate falsehoods, and they used the methodologies available at the time. I don’t doubt that most of these scientists thought they were being objective. The false conclusions have found their way into popular culture where some of them persist, undermining interpersonal relationships, preventing good citizenship, and creating conditions that perpetuate systemic oppression.
In the wake of all I’ve experienced recently, my 4th Principle focus has shifted. Still invested in the search for truth, and committed to critical thinking, I now focus on listening for, and taking account of, those voices that typically go unheard – the voices of those marginalized. I’ve discovered that I need these other voices and perspectives to make sure my lens is not distorted and unduly narrow. I listen for them by reading works strongly and broadly recommended for the purpose; by listening to those persons within marginalized groups who have the energy and degree of comfort to help me understand their perspectives; and by listening to trusted allies.
The 4th Principle does not say that we affirm an “individualistic” search for truth and meaning, only that the search must be “free” and “responsible.” Nor could it be individualistic. As an American, I swim in the invisible ocean of the dominant culture, and my perspective is influenced by it, so even when it seems I’m thinking for myself, I’m really not.
I need the voices of the marginalized to join those that have been insistently whispering in my subconscious over my lifetime. Only then can my free search for truth and meaning also be a responsible one, guided by a perspective big and inclusive enough to achieve some measure of true objectivity.
 The 4th Principle is one of seven fundamental principles that bind our people as Unitarian Universalists.
 A basic assertion of the study—that economic dislocation had caused a large shift in voters to Trump—has since been refuted by additional research. The Brookings Institution, publishing in July 2019, describes now-available data as affirming that “anti-immigrant sentiment, racism, and sexism” were much more related to Trump’s election than economics. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2019/08/14/trump-and-racism-what-do-the-data-say/ Looking back on the original conversation, the notion that racism wasn’t a principal cause seems almost quaint.
Trump won because of racial issues and because of the failing of the Democrats to come together with one voice and a national platform. Liberals and illiberals split the party along their own principles and what was most important to them. And no liberal candidate was able to mobilize and excite minority and young voters the way Obama did. Moreover, many African-American voters were disappointed and felt that Obama did not do enough so the 2016 election saw a huge drop in marginalized people going to the voting booth. We face the exact same issues in the upcoming election.
Laurie Coltri (Author)
Hi, April, and thank you for the comment. What you say seems intuitively correct to me, though I haven’t seen empirical research that addresses the causes you hypothesize, other than racism. (Perhaps it’s out there, and I just haven’t seen it.) Addendum: I guess that one of the points for me, as a Seasoned Soul, is that not all of what I find “intuitive” is necessarily correct.
Laurie, thank you so much for your post. It reminds us that it is a SEARCH for truth. To be RESPONSIBLE we must be OPEN and continually reevaluate our perceptions of truth. The benefit is that our perceptions do not harden into a fundamentalism which will cause us to feel threatened by a sense of dislocation when we are presented with new information.
I hesitate to give 19th century scientists a pass for two reasons. First because race “science” gave capitalists permission to exploit and extract and second because Benjamin Franklin was able to refute 18th century beliefs of racial inferiority through personal interaction with intelligent people of another “race”. Sadly the myth of race has become the reality of race that we cannot dismiss.
Laurie Coltri (Author)
Hi Jonni, and thank you for the comment! Yes, I always hope to be open to being proven wrong, though I think that a sense of vertigo and dislocation is inevitable when certain kinds of long-held beliefs are threatened. Such as the belief “I am a good person and always do good things.”
Regarding Benjamin Franklin — Just poking around the web at various biographical accounts, and reviewing what Kendi has written, it appears that Franklin, who had himself held enslaved people, was “somewhat teachable,” ultimately joining an abolitionist society in later life. However, he, like many other white folk of the time, did not rise above the racist beliefs that the surrounding White Supremacy culture inculcated in him. At the end of his life, he argued for emancipation as a moral imperative in spite of what he said was the inferiority of slaves of African ancestry (Kendi, at p. 121). This is not to excuse 19th century scientists, but rather to try to see Franklin with the eye of greater objectivity than I used to have.
Laurie, thank you for your Benjamin Franklin research. I bow to your intellectual rigor. I try to be aware of the shortcuts our minds take in the interest of speed, and then I knowingly took a shortcut in my haste to put out the proposition that we not excuse 19th century scientists. You hold yourself to a much higher standard than you do 19th century scientists. You are right that objectivity is the goal. However, I have felt that others give those in the past a pass so they can, perhaps unconsciously, give themselves a pass. Reason and self-awareness can call us to be better than the standard of our times.
Thank you for the perfect image, “I swim in the invisible ocean of the dominant culture.” It seems Greta Thunberg’s power comes from being outside that ocean, never having been inculcated into acceptance and conformity.
I should have defined Greta Thundberg’s power as objectivity. To have objectivity we must first pull ourselves out of the invisible ocean, and to do that we must first define the contents of the ocean. That is what you, Laurie, have modeled for us. Was that process not available to 19th century scientists? Did they not have the benefit of the reason, humanism, science and progress of the Enlightenment? How much evidence did they gather to support their hypotheses? Did anyone at the time refute their theories? Did they reevaluate in light of new evidence or the consequences of the application of their theories? What can we know about their intentions? Were they indulging the all too human weakness, the need to feel superior? It feels so good to feel superior. It can be addictive. Until we know the answer to these questions we cannot give them a pass. I am comfortable with that uncertainty. You, Laurie, do not give yourself a pass. I hope the rest of us will not either.
The following words of 17th century Enlightenment philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, were available to 19th century scientists as they are to us now: “Those who are governed by reason desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of humankind.”
I’m grateful to Steven Pinker for bringing those words to me in his book “Enlightenment Now”.
I hope many agree with you that even thoughtful engaged congregation members may shift outlooks by digging deeper and learning from voices outside their normal discourse about race. Effort and empathy are needed by us all.
Thanks for this perspective, Laurie. You are a clear thinker, writer and speaker. My ears and mind are always open for your thoughts.
I agree that a free and responsible search for truth and meaning requires that we expose ourselves to as wide a range of voices as possible, including (maybe especially) those that we are predisposed to dislike or disagree with.
Laurie Coltri (Author)
Thanks for the comment, John. With regard to opinions, it is indeed harder to listen deeply if someone expresses one you don’t agree with or if (as in today’s difficult political discussions) you actively dislike it.
For me, the issue is broader: the experiences and context of a whole group of folks who’ve been oppressed in the dominant culture have been missing from my calculus of how reality actually works – I haven’t paid attention. It makes my point of view and my perception of important stuff inaccurate.
Here’s one personal example. I used to regard violent hate crimes against African-Americans as individualized expressions of animus. It was all individual/interpersonal to me, and I regarded explanations about intentional/systemic disempowerment as conspiracy theory (i.e., poppycock). But after I started getting up to speed with the relevant history, it became glaringly obvious that these crimes were also terroristic in nature, done in part to consolidate white power and supremacy. Evidently, there is no need for a cabal of villainous leaders sending terrorists off on missions – this kind of terrorism seems to be a self-organizing system.
Books like The New Jim Crow, Kendi’s book Stamped From the Beginning, and a biography of Thurgood Marshall called Devil in the Grove,* plus events sponsored by UUCC and conversations with my church community, helped me gain this understanding.
I’ve focused on the 4th Principle in my post, but many commenters on this thread make important comments about empathy and compassion. How one uses what one has learned to gain empathy and and to act with compassion, love, and caring — in other words, how one uses the results of one’s 4th Principle search to support the 1st and 2nd Principles** — is a crucial follow-on challenge.
* Devil in the Grove, written by a white journalist, is a searing narrative of this terrorism, which includes brutality by police, in 1940s Florida. Trigger warning – it can be hard to get through.
I have just saved this as a pdf on my phone to use as a reminder in the future. Thank you for your eloquence and your research diligence! We each assume our filter is fair, and only through questioning our assumptions and listening to the perspectives of others do we realize our filters even exist – let alone that those filters are blinding us.
Laurie Coltri (Author)
Steph – what a lovely comment! Thank you!
Take a look at George Clack’s terrific NEW blogpost in Voices of UUCC about the 1st Principle — he includes the following passage, which I’m sure will resonate with you (and others):
“I kept turning over in my head Rev. Paige Getty’s one-sentence credo: ‘My perspective is not THE perspective.’ Yes, agreed, but how do you get beyond the self and actually practice that?”
George’s post is here: https://uucolumbia.net/notes-on-the-first-principle/
I’ve learned as I age into oblivion that my best thoughts; best reasoned arguments, best (cause I’m trying to be a ‘good person’ on our planet) ideas, should all….everyone of them…be audibly concluded with ‘…of course what I’m saying is probably inaccurate or at the very best, simply expressing biases I’ve grown comfortable believing. I think we all do this…our evolutionary brains almost demand it. But as a result, after much reading, listening & pondering… perhaps we can actually move the needle to a higher level of actionable fairness to all. It has to be possible! And what seems to be happening…all that UUCC has and will continue going through…is a brutally honest, though difficult exercise (at least for some) to determine how much of our collective best is still available, and are we really prepared to express it. It appears a formidable team of humans across the country are now assembling for just this purpose. I’m preparing to be blown away!