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Coyote Musings
Coyote handsome
his coat the same brown
as the dust from which he rises


What is the sound of one hand slapping Schroedinger's cat?


The Quantum Duck goes "quark, quark."

September 2010
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Missing Left Sock Beast [userpic]
Holidailies, Day 6: The UU First Principle and Pick-A-Dictator

A post in which I am afraid I will not be making new friends and will manage to alienate people, not to mention the imminent Godwinization* of this post.

First of all, let's look at the UU First Principle:

Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person

And now, for some definitions (and I want you all to know that I'm resisting a few words, like "and," although the troublemaker in me wants to define them, too. All definitions from the OED, though I'm not copying them wholesale):

4)To make a statement and stand to it; to maintain or assert strongly, to declare or state positively, to aver.

2.a. To further the growth, development, progress, or establishment of (a thing); to advance or actively support (a process, cause, result, etc.); to encourage: d. To publicize or advertise (a product, organization, venture, etc.) so as to increase sales or public awareness. II.To put forth, move forward; 3. To publish, promulgate; to assert, advance.

2. Permanently indwelling.: 3. Existing in something as a permanent attribute or quality; belonging to the intrinsic nature of that which is spoken of4. Vested in or attached to a person, office, etc., </b>as a right or privilege</b>.

2. The relative value of a thing in respect of its qualities or of the estimation in which it is held.: 3. The character or standing of a person in respect of moral and intellectual qualities; esp. high personal merit or attainments.

1. The quality of being worthy or honourable; worthiness, worth, nobleness, excellence.

So those of us who are UUs or who find value in the principles and sources thereof Assert and further the growth or publicize the permanently indwelling 1) relative value or character of a person in respect of moral and intellectual qualities, and 2) the quality of being worthy and honorable that is found in every person.

There are enough complicated concepts there to keep a thealogian or an ethicist going for quite a while in just that statement alone. But I'm actually not going to pursue any of that. I'm not even going to talk about trying to live up to this principle.

No, I'm going to talk about, well, Hitler Fred Phelps (There. Now I've Godwinized the thread).

Because whenever I start explaining the Seven Principles to people, someone inevitably asks how to apply the First Principle to Hitler. Or Pol Pot. Or Stalin, or Osama bin Laden, or Kim Jong-Il, or (on a much less global and more personal level) Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush, or Peter LaBarbera or James Dobson or Jeffrey Dahmer, or Fred Phelps, or, or, or. Pick your poison, as it were. How is it possible to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of those people?

I'm not sure I have an answer. I really admire the question, though, so let's look at it just a bit.

No, instead, I'm going to digress for a moment, and ask all y'all to go over and watch Jay Smooth explain how to tell people they sound racist. Go on. I'll wait.

You'll notice that, essentially, his argument boils down to approaching what a person said or did as different from what they are. Now, the kinds of people we're talking about who come up in a First Principal discussion? These people did, have done, or are doing horrible things. Essentially unforgiveable things. Things that I am in no way condoning or promoting. But I think ol' Jay up there has a point that can provide a partial answer to how do we affirm and promote [Fred Phelps'] inherent worth and dignity.

We separate all the horrific things that he did, from what he is (a person). No, it's not easy. No, I'm not actually advocating forgiveness. No, I don't ever want there to be another [Fred Phelps] in the world. He's still a person. A person who neither affirms nor promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but a person nonetheless. Not one of "them," because there is no "them." One of "us."

But that's uncomfortable (hell, it was uncomfortable for me to type!). It's easier to break the world into "us" and "them." To focus on the difference or Otherness of another person, to deny "them" their basic personhood. And here's the really uncomfortable thing: by dividing the world into "us" and "them," and by not considering "them" to be part of "every person"? That, right there, on a very small scale, is what we see represented on the larger scale by those people I listed up there whose actions make their inherent worth and dignity open to question.

So what do we do about it? Is it possible to live in a way that affirms and promotes the inherent dignity of every person?

I really don't know if it's possible. I try. I like to tell people who ask me about the UU Principles that I'm still working on the first one, and that I think the other six kind of flow from it in the way that I see "Do unto others as you would have done unto you" flowing from "Love your neighbor as yourself". None of these injunctions are easy.

But then, life's a process. We try and live up to our ideals, and when we fail (in small ways) I think it's okay to acknowledge we made a mistake, forgive ourselves, and try again. We either will or won't find out how we did overall when we reach our final destination.

*Inquiry: is a thread Godwinized if you're not comparing the Nazis or Hitler to anything/one but themselves?

** Also,
A person who believes they are too good to be damned; a believer in the Unitarian heresy [those Christians who reject the Holy Trinity];

A person who believes that God is too good to damn them; a believer in Universal Salvation;

Unitarian Universalist:
A person who may or may not believe in God or Gods or Bob or the FSM, but who gathers together on Sundays to have coffee and disagree with the Minister's sermon. [Yeah, my elevator speech sucks])

Also, also: I may make a later post about this. I think I see a class issue with "inherent worth and dignity," because it seems to me that the statement comes from a position of privilege.


I agree with your points. I also recognize the evil in myself. What would it take to turn me into a racist? A sexual predator? A killer? Sometimes I think, maybe not that much.

I shudder at some of the things I hear about people doing, and if those things had been done to me or to anyone I loved, I expect I'd be first in line to pull the trigger on the criminal. So ... not that much to make me one of Them.

Of course, we're both approaching this from a point of view that doesn't accept innate evil. If you believe a person can be born evil or born damned, or make a pact with Satan, or what-have-you, then it might be impossible to parse out "person" from "actions."

then it might be impossible to parse out "person" from "actions."

Yes - that was something I struggled with as I was writing, actually. How much of what we are is what we do? How little? Where if anywhere does the line exist between "who I am" and "what I do"?

Great post. I was raised UU and sure do remember the (nearly endless) coffee hours.

How do you promote the inherent dignity and worth of a Hitler or a Pol Pot or Osama bin Laden? Well, first you prevent them from doing harm to others and leading followers to do yet more harm. Once they’re safely locked down, you give them opportunities for contemplation— in a safe, austere prison cell where their basic needs are met and they spend most of their time having to deal with themselves. (What you don’t do is torture them— which just gives them a reason to blame external circumstances— or execute them and give them a chance to burnish their martyr complexes.)

When it’s someone who isn’t doing harm at a level where they need to be locked up as a matter of public safety— someone who is deploying hurtful words rather than physical harm— the best thing to do is ignore them and facilitate other people ignoring them. That kind thrives on attention, even negative attention. The Patriot Guard Riders are an excellent example of how the antidote to hateful speech is more speech, not restricting free speech.

Well, first you prevent them from doing harm to others and leading followers to do yet more harm.

This, definitely.

What you don’t do is torture them— which just gives them a reason to blame external circumstances— or execute them and give them a chance to burnish their martyr complexes.

This, also definitely.

I had forgotten about the Patriot Guard Riders. Thank you for reminding me.

I believe in a God/Supreme Being/Head Honcho/Whatever who is infinitely merciful and infinitely just. Because of this, while I do believe in the existence of Hell, I also believe that it is empty.

I don't talk about these beliefs of mine very often because, well, it's comforting to take away the personhood of someone like a Hitler or Pol Pot. And I can understand that impulse, but I think it's much more useful for me to struggle with the idea of a God who can forgive even the very worst of us. And it *is* a struggle.

Not to say that it's a free-for-all out there in the world because, well, no. Inherent worth and dignity of everyone. That right there means that it's not a free-for-all.

God/Supreme Being/Head Honcho/Whatever

A very dear friend of mine calls the Christian God the Homedood. This is one of the reasons I adore her.

Thank you for sharing this with me.

You're definitely in good company. Folk have been struggling with the command to "Love your enemy" for thousands of years now, and I'm not sure that we've gotten much closer in that time.

One thing that has struck me (perhaps from Mere Christianity, which contains a lot of very illuminating essays on the classical virtues and might not be totally abhorrent to a UU-esque person) is that loving our neighbor as ourself is not pablum. I love me madly, and that's precisely why I mustn't tolerate the damage I do to myself and my environment. Treating those who seek to harm me to the same standard is a sea change. If I want Fred Phelps to atone for his hateful actions because I _love_ him and don't want to see a fellow sojourner drowning in a sea of his own bile, well at least that pretties up my heart even if he still doesn't feel the impact of my sentiments. And every once in a while a concrete action forms in my head, like asking CNN to open the soapbox to other religious and philosophical leaders so that Fred Phelps has at least the opportunity to hear something other than himself for a change. And that's not natural or easy, but in the times that I think to do it I do feel like I am in more in harmony with the Tao or what-have-you.

I really, really need to read both C.S. Lewis and J.S. Spong, thank you for reminding me.

I like the rest of your comment, and I don't see anything there that I particularly disagree with - although I have always thought how hard it must be to love one's neighbor if one doesn't love one's self!

Wow, isn't that the truth. Perhaps the Zeroeth Principle should be that folks must affirm and promote their own inherent worth and dignity. I think that might be more difficult and consequential than one might immediately suspect.

When I was in a pagan group, it was once pointed out that some versions of the Satanic, um, creed, I guess, say, "An it Harm None..." and the same person went on to observe that one's self is a part of the None that should be harmed. If you're hurting yourself (let alone someone else), then maybe you should reconsider what you're doing.

Likewise, I think what we're talking about is already in the First Principle, because it says "every person," and unless "I" happen to be a dog with thumbs or a really elaborate Turing Test, I count as a person. :)

This is also a key concept in the Buddhism I'm studying, and one of the answers is that you try to feel and act compassionate toward a person doing harmful things, because everyone wants to be happy and free from harm, so the person must be doing those things for that reason.

It strikes me that the UU way of wording it more directly addresses the possibility of assuming the person does know right from wrong, addressing their inherent worth and dignity directly and pointing out to them that their actions are wrong. That gives the person the opportunity to change.

When I say "pointing out to them," I'm including stuff like doing the pointing out through the means of the criminal justice system. The courts, if they are running the way they should, go quite a long way toward upholding a person's worth and dignity while still acknowledging they might have committed a crime.

I hope you do make the post about "inherent worth and dignity," because I don't see the class issue and I wonder what I am missing.

It doesn't count as Godwinization if you mention Hitler/Nazis on purpose.

I meant to mention this in the post, but one of the best pieces of advice on writing fiction I ever got is that "the villain is the hero of their own story."

I don't think you're missing anything. I also don't think there's going to be a post, because I came to the conclusion as I was driving home that the problem I was perceiving as coming from a place of privilege was actually a problem with the last Fellowship I attended and isn't in the Principle at all.

There sure are infinite "blinded-by-privilege" ways of trying to grok/act on "inherent worth and dignity"... :-/

Jeffrey Dahmer? I covered his trial, and know things that never made it into the news. He was terribly mentally ill in more than one way, incompatible illnesses, and it left him compelled to do things that horrified him. I don't excuse what he did, but I do feel very sorry for him. As a UU, my take is that he deserves the same worth and dignity of anyone who is so ill that they can't control what they do. It's worth pointing out that he was not racist and did his best to make sure his victims did not suffer. He tried to be as good as he could, given his circumstances.