Saturday, May 15, 2004
In praise of strategic thinking.
Steve Caldwell (in the course of our "Make Way for Polyamory?" conversation) objected to my advocacy of strategic thinking. So let me try to be clear about what I'm saying, both in general terms and also specifically about "polyamory," which I continue to view as a marginal issue for organized, institutional Unitarian Universalism.
First, "strategic thinking" means knowing what your goals are, identifying effective ways of achieving them, and then effectively achieving them. Being strategic is not the same thing as being reactionary, nor is it the same thing as loving the status quo. Please understand what I'm getting at: The opposite of strategic thinking is not visionary prophetic thinking; it's wandering every which way or trying to do everything at once. Without strategy, you're just lucky — if that. More often, you're just confused, and you're certainly ineffective.
When I say that I want UUs to be more strategic, this is what I mean: I want us to stop being frivolously and ineffectively at cross-purposes with ourselves. We can't do everything, so let's set priorities and goals, and then be deliberate about achieving them. For example, rather than pass, oh, five or six entirely symbolic and utterly fruitless "actions of immediate witness" every year — demanding things like zero population growth, a one-state solution in Israel-Palestine, and a U.S. Department of Peace, guaranteed to be ignored by just about everybody and implemented by nobody — wouldn't it be something if our General Assembly set some goals that our churches actually wanted to reach and gave them some tangible steps to take along the way? I want us to stop saying righteous-sounding but impotent things while blaming the culture around us for being too stupid to recognize our moral superiority. I want us, really and truly, to be persuasive and convincing because I want liberalism to matter in the culture at large.
I think being genuinely persuasive require strategic thinking. I think it requires us to know what we're advocating and why. I think it obligates us to know where we do draw lines — for we certainly do — and to be intellectually honest and candid about our reasons. We simply must start thinking strategically.
The most important thing that anyone said at last year's General Assembly in Boston was this comment about new goals for the UUA's public witness work, from UUA director of advocacy and public witness Meg Riley:
“Historically we’ve mostly reacted to news events,” she said. “Now we’re trying in a more disciplined way to actually go out and influence the public debate.” Three criteria, she said, will determine whether an issue moves to the top of the Association’s public witness agenda: “Grounding: Does this issue have authentic and deep UU roots? Fit: Is there a match between our resources, aspirations, and ability to make a difference? Opportunity: Do we have an opportunity to be heard on this issue?”
When I say we should be thinking strategically, I am urging Unitarian Universalist leaders to keep our goals and our values in mind at every decision-making level. I am saying that we ought to be asking questions about grounding, fit, and opportunity.
Now, on to polyamory. I want to point out that Steve ignored the main point of my critique of polyamory advocacy, which had nothing to do with suggesting that people might not be ethical in a polyamorous relationship. The issue is how polyamory is related to marriage, especially to gay marriage. I have argued that suggesting that polyamory represents any sort of "next step" in Unitarian Universalist marriage ethics plays directly into one of the more viscerally compelling (if logically implausible) arguments against same-sex marriage. When conservatives charge that polyamory is next on the slippery slope, how is it helpful to have liberals urging us to start slipping? Steve, that really is my question to you. Is there a slippery slope or isn't there? Look: a strictly "strategic" argument against polyamory essentially concedes that the conservatives are right — polygamy is next on our agenda — but hopes nobody will notice if we don't bring it up just yet. I'm saying that this would be a foolish way to go.
Which leaves three options. The first option is to ignore polyamory. (But it won't go away. It has an advocacy group that wants press coverage and congregational and denominational recognition.)
The second is to acknowledge that Unitarian Universalists have no principled reason to participate in civil marriage at all. By this logic, we're only really committed to individual sexual freedom and object to any legal, religious, or societal constraints on it that aren't established by the participants themselves. This would mean that our churches should stop celebrating marriage ceremonies and our ministers should stop signing marriage licenses — permanently. If marriage is oppressive, wrong, and disciminatory by its very nature, then let's get off that bandwagon altogether. (The chances that our society will buy this line of thinking are nil. The chances that UUs will buy this line of thinking are perhaps somewhat higher.)
The third option is to recognize that the liberal church does have a stake in some social institutions, including marriage. We may not have done much thinking about it lately, but in practice Unitarian Universalists recognize that marriage is a good thing not just for the couple but for the community, that improving and strengthening marriage is a liberal goal, and that our advocacy of gay marriage is rooted not in sexual libertarianism but in a deeper recognition of the value of marriage itself. That's why Unitarian Universalist leaders should oppose calls for the legal or religious recognition of polygamy on principled grounds, and not merely strategic grounds. It is inconsistent with our goals for marriage.
I should add that the UU conversation about polyamory seems to be conflating two somewhat different sets of concerns. (This is because "polyamory" seems to refer to a confused jumble of left-libertarian ideas about sexual expression and social institutions. Is polyamory just the "liberal" version of polygamy, a multiple-partnered marriage? Or is it marriage-less? Or is it supposed to be a sexual orientation? News flash: everybody is attracted to lots of people.)
One set of concerns involves sexual ethics, the range of sexual behaviors and relational values a "good UU" can openly practice without being shunned or criticized. Liberals have come to accept the idea of "single" people having a series of sexual partners. To the extent that UUs accept bisexuality, it also falls under this category of broad-mindedness about personal sexual ethics. Similarly, although many UUs might find a threesome personally distasteful, they may not mind knowing that a member of their church thinks that's a good time. (Actually, they might not mind in principle, but might find it an odd sort of thing to learn about somebody in particular.)
The equation changes, however, when sexual broad-mindedness intersects with a promise of marital fidelity. We value marriage differently than we value "relationships." Marriage is more than simply a special case of sexual ethics.
The social value of marriage is not the same as the sexual ethics of heterosexuality. And, as gay marriage becomes legal in Massachusetts, the social value of marriage won't automatically encompass all the sexual ethics of homosexuality, either. (There are a whole host of sexual and relational issues that we have to think about that aren't limited to or perhaps even relevant to marriage.) Part of the confusion about what exactly Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness wants stems from their own lack of clarity about what they are advocating.
I want to point out that civil unions in Vermont and legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts could not have come about without extraordinary strategic thinking. (Evan Wolfson in particular deserves praise and, more importantly, emulation.) I hope UUs will pay close attention to what Neil Miller describes in his UU World cover story about gay marriage, because we UUs played a role but did not drive or even lead the way on this major social change. We caught a wave, folks, that we did not create. Efforts to welcome and celebrate the contributions of openly gay and lesbian people in our churches made a big difference, don't get me wrong, but the people who made gay marriage possible were a thousand times more deliberate than any Unitarian Universalist campaign. They planned and they strategized and they picked their battles, and we joined their cause. But to think that polyamory will find social acceptance if UUs embrace it is to get the UU relationship to the gay marriage campaign backward.
Finally, social support for long-term, stable, recognized same-sex partnerships represents a success for two values in our culture: It certainly represents an emerging dignity accorded to gay people, but it also represents mainstream America's growing acceptance of some gay relationships as roughly (or entirely) analogous to monogamous heterosexual marriages. It is the likeness of gay marriage to traditional marriage that has helped many straight people accept this fairly significant social change. Polyamory is not similarly like marriage, because marriage has come to mean monogamy. That's why polyamory is not a next step for liberals.
Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 15 May 2004 at 1:24 PM