As we all know, we live in a very divided world. Divided on ideologies, beliefs, political affiliations. I use the word divided because I see a lot of people either saying or in some way communicating an us vs. them message – whether it be about vaccines, abortions, voting rights, or so many other things—the message is you are wrong and I am right. Even within Unitarian Universalism, there is division.
During a conversation with Unitarian Universalist ministers this week, we talked about Covid and vaccine mandates, wondering about the Unitarian Universalist Association Covid guidelines. One guideline says: As a community that values inclusion and collective care, we don’t want to create in-person situations that inadvertently exclude those at higher risk, or create situations that force those at higher risk to publicly identify themselves. Another guideline says: We support requiring vaccinations for staff, lay leaders, and anyone spending time with children. There is passion among UU's regarding each of these very different guidelines. This is a perfect example of Loose vs. Tight group norms. Loose being more inclusive, flexible, open. Tight being more black and white, right and wrong—for instance, requiring vaccination for staff, lay leaders, and anyone spending time with children. So, how do these 2 guidelines co-exist.
As you heard earlier: Michele Gelfand, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, wrote: "my research has shown that some groups have much stronger norms than others; they’re tight. Others have much weaker norms; they’re loose…[tighter cultures have generally experienced] a lot of threat—whether it is a high level of natural disasters, famine, and resource scarcity…It makes sense, [because] cultures that have (a real or perceived) threat need rules to coordinate [and] to survive… But cultures that don’t have a lot of threat can afford to be more permissive and loose." And we need to keep in mind that "threat[s] need not be objective to cause groups to tighten…[her] research has found that within minutes of exposing study participants to false information about terrorist incidents, overpopulation, pathogen outbreaks, and natural disasters, their minds tightened… [because] Tight cultures have more order… Loose cultures are comparatively more disorganized...But loose cultures…[are more] open to new ideas (more creative), to new people (they’re less ethnocentric), and they’re more open to change. Tight cultures...have much less openness—they’re less creative, more ethnocentric, and have much more cultural 'inertia.' They wanted stronger rules and punishments." In a time of Covid, and even now as we carefully move back toward in-person activities and worship, when people experience a high level of threat, it is normal and natural for a tightening of norms for safety reason, but as Gelfand reminds us we need to be careful, it is easy to be swayed toward a desire for too much tightening, and then where do our Unitarian Universalist ideals of inclusivity, flexibility, creativity and openness go?
It's not just UU congregations, we are in a larger country-wide, perhaps even world-wide, struggle to figure out what the new balance is. And I see groups using rationalization or conspiracy theories to support tightening or loosing norms. As I mentioned, I attended the Parliament of World Religions over the weekend. In one of the workshops, I was surprised to hear one participant rail against the authoritarian regime of Canada and its vaccine mandates. And I am sure you have been closely attending to the rejection of vaccine mandates for the people of Florida by Governor DeSantis, who is citing freedom of choice as his rationale.
I fear, as probably do many of you, that certain rationalizations and conspiracy theories are creating an us versus them culture. However, I will say that the creation of rationalizations and conspiracy theories are as normal and natural defaults of our very human desire to explain situations we find ourselves in, particularly situations that are out of our control or beyond our understanding. Russel Johnson, professor at the Chicago Divinity School wrote: "Karl Popper, who helped popularize the term 'conspiracy theories' [says] people gravitate toward conspiracy theories… [First] we want to be able to explain the world around us…This natural yearning for answers can send us astray, especially since cognitive biases make us see agency and intentionality when it is not there…Second, studies show that people rely more on conspiratorial thinking when they feel powerless…Third, when people take themselves to be in an 'us versus them' conflict, conspiracy theories help “us” reaffirm our group’s goodness by placing blame on the opposing group for bad outcomes, even when those outcomes do not intuitively seem to be caused by “them.”…it is most common among people who are on the losing end. 'Stop the Steal' chants are… typical of conspiracy thinking." I am spending this time talking about conspiracy theories and rationalizations, which are the cousins of conspiracy theories, because it is easy for humans, including Unitarian Universalists, to demonize or otherize people who employ conspiracy theories or rationalizations, thus we tend to lack empathy and understanding for those espouse them, not treating them with dignity and worth.
Let me get back to that meeting with Unitarian Universalist clergy earlier this week, we got into a discussion about how to handle certain issues around Covid, in particular the UUA guidelines of mandating staff vaccinations while also fostering a community that values inclusion and collective care. I and all the clergy present 100% support getting a Covid vaccine, but we were less clear how to balance these the two UUA guidelines. I am able to inform you that our staff have all been vaccinated, but what if one of our staff refused to get vaccinated? Would I bring it to the Board? Would we ultimately fire them? How does that square with the values of inclusion and collective care? Who's the collective? Who is us; who is them? Or maybe we would let the congregation know that the person is not vaccinated, so members and friends of UU Miami could make their own choices about interaction with that person? Would we need to talk about second-hand exposure? Or would we double down on masking and social distancing? Probably I would get more clarity from the Board or the UUA regarding vaccine mandates. Would that include going back to totally online programming? Or would I and/or the Board do nothing and risk a member or friend of the congregation finding out that we did nothing. These are some of the ideas that are going through the minds of UU ministers across the country as we struggled with this conundrum, a conundrum that is very real, very important, very emotional, and very divisive. What would you want this congregation to do? What if the person next to you wanted the congregation to do something different? Your Board, your leadership, has had to set, and thus tighten the norms for this congregation, while still being very much aware of the needs for inclusivity, openness, and safety. I am grateful for the thoughtful and reasoned leadership of UU Miami as they have dealt with Covid norms, and I'm continually amazed by their reasoned flexibility, their combined wisdom, and the love they share with this congregation as the pandemic continue to impact all of us.
Obviously, I don't want us to get into an us vs. them argument about how we should handle Covid norms, but there is that risk of sliding into that mentality when some people want more safety or tightening of norms and others want more inclusivity or loosening of norms. And I think we need to be very compassionate and understanding of each other and of ourselves as we each personally make decisions about how to handle safety, intimacy—meaning touch, handshaking or hugging or touching elbows—distancing, how we eat with one another, how comfortable we feel attending church in person, and all the other complicated issues surrounding pandemic protocols. We are not in an easy time for norming right now. We have to be willing to be in a process of norming, with new information from the CDC, the UUA, from experts as well as members and friends of this faith community.
Being in process doesn't feel very grounded or stable. We are constantly looking for the "'Goldilocks… of tight-loose'… either too tight or too loose—have problems….Extremely tight groups are very oppressive but extremely loose groups have little or no way to coordinate human behavior…" And since we in this faith community are trying to attend to cultural norms other than white supremacy culture, we need to be aware of the impact of those who have lived in tighter worlds. "Women and minorities [and other marginalized groups] live in tighter worlds—they have less latitude and are punished more severely for violations than their majority counterparts…"
Being aware of that impact should also be an important aspect of how we set norms as a faith community, for a number of reasons including our commitment to be more antiracist and anti-oppressive and realizing that each person is different with different needs, experiences, and feelings. As norms are set and as they change, there will be times we need to stop, make space for reflection and emotional expression. We haven't held that space, that time for reflection, yet. But I do want to know how you all are dealing with the norms in this community. How do they impact you? How safe do you feel? How isolated or disengaged so you feel? What do you want or need from your faith community right now? Covid time will not be over for some time, and we are all experiencing some impact from it. After this last year and a half, I know I am more vulnerable, more easily exhausted, overwhelmed, distressed, depressed and anxious. I know some of my norms need both tightening and loosing, but it is not always easy to say how much of which I need at any given time. And I'm guessing that might be how you're feeling, too. Give me a call or an email, and let's chat about that.
My concern for us is that this tightening and loosening process impacts how we feel about ourselves, each other, our friends and family, and this faith community. It impacts how we interact with and affect each other. Changing norms are happening all around us and people are coping with them in very different ways, which is also impacting all of us. We can choose to set aside time to withdraw, resist, and find a way forward together. This faith community is a space where we will, together, make every effort we can, to embrace and balance both safety and inclusivity, with love and compassion, with awareness and a willingness to just be with one another in whatever way we can. We do not have the answers to what will come next, but we do have one another to journey with as we try to face it. May we be a refuge of compassion for one another.