“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.
 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.