This post is adapted from a recent service I led at my Unitarian Universalist congregation. I gave the presentation with accompanying powerpoint slides, and have linked to relevant images in this post where appropriate.
The reading I gave before my sermon was from the Book of Genesis 3: 1-7
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.
He said to the woman,
“Did God really say,
‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent,
“We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,
but God did say,
‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden,
and you must not touch it,
or you will die.’”
“You will not certainly die,”
the serpent said to the woman.
“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened,
and you will be like God,
knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye,
and also desirable for gaining wisdom,
she took some and ate it.
She also gave some to her husband,
who was with her,
and he ate it.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened
February 24, 2013 was Oscar Night. I settled in to watch the Academy Awards with some Chinese takeout and Twitter open on my iPhone. Seth MacFarlane was hosting the show, and I was soon appalled by his inane and sexist humor. No woman was spared, from those who disrobed in movies, to underage actresses he saw as targets for lecherous older movie stars – beat after beat came at the expense of women. Women who were victims of domestic violence or eating disorders, women who were sex workers, women he deemed too beautiful to have anything worthwhile to say, all became subjects of ridicule. I watched the feminists I knew on Twitter go through several stages – denial, then anger, and finally scathing satire.
I tweeted a few snarky comments of my own, and my enjoyment of the evening came more from blowing off steam about this chauvinist retro mess than the paltry excuse for comedy Hollywood was serving up. My mother and my brother didn’t get it. Why couldn’t I just brush it off or ignore how demeaning the humor was? This sermon is an attempt to explain.
Last summer I lead a service about the Unitarian Universalist idea that revelation is not sealed. As UUs we believe that there is no one holy book or source of information that contains all the answers to life’s questions. And in our search for truth and meaning, we have to admit that there is so much that we do not know. This is a huge responsibility. And this is part of what I mean when I say that there’s no going back. There are some things that we can come to know, that we can never not know again. Last summer, I drew a comparison to Eve and The Apple, and still today, I tend to side with Eve. I’d rather know than not know. In fact, later on in the Bible, in Isah 5:20 it is written,
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil
…And yet we were not supossed to know the difference in the first place.
In January, I spoke about the “Toolbox of Justice.” Social justice is like a toolbox, feminism, anti-racism and other struggles for human rights are not just political movements but ways to understand the world. We can use the ideas found in these movements both to create change and to recognize injustice in our daily lives. Once we understand that a word or an action is harmful to others, our conscience reminds us not to do it again. While some may remain ignorant about why a certain phrase is offensive, or how systemic injustice hurts people – once you know, there’s no going back – there is no excuse for passivity.
There is evidence for this idea embedded within our bodies.
The basal ganglia is a structure located in the base of our forebrain. Among other things, it is responsible for automaticity – the ability to do things deliberately but without much conscious thought. When people refer to something as “like riding a bike,” they are talking about something that can be controlled by this area of the brain. There are many things we can teach ourselves to do without much thought, walking, typing, knitting, even driving – if you have ever found yourself lost in thought and arriving safely at your destination but a bit startled that you don’t remember every turn on a familiar route, thank your basal ganglia. With even complex tasks, once we learn how to do them, we can never forget.
More abstractly, people have compared understanding the basic tenets of feminism to the 1999 Wachowski Brothers movie “The Matrix” starring Keanu Reaves.
And sometimes it feels that way. It did on Oscar night. I couldn’t ignore Seth Meyers sexist bonanza anymore than I could ignore a fire alarm or not turn around when someone calls my name. I can’t unfeminist myself, and I don’t think I would want to, most of the time.
But what does my experience have to do with anyone else? Just because I can’t go back does that mean that no one else can? I think there’s evidence that this is so.
Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature posits that humanity has gotten less violent over time. Despite the horrors of the twentieth century, which was also the most well documented era in human history, wars in past centuries killed even greater percentages of the population than both World Wars did respectively. Slavery, torture and capital punishment have also declined over time as we have seen an increase in human rights worldwide. Pinker cites the enlightenment, widespread education and social movements like feminism as the cause of this decline in violence and cruelty. There is no reason to think that even though horrific acts still do occur that they are increasing or will increase in the future. Our society is becoming less violent, and signs point to it becoming more peaceful still, with studies of younger generations showing that young people today are less racist and more tolerant than ever before.
In fact, our popular entertainment relies on the fact that harmful and bigoted ideas of the past, are entirely alien to audiences today. This may be a bit too optimistic at times, but that doesn’t stop it from being a commonly used trope.
The movie Pleasantville explored the idea of how two teenagers living in the 1990′s would survive in a 1950′s tv sitcom. The provincial mores of the time were played both for comedy and shock value. However, the filmmakers were aware of the larger implications of this idea.
A more serious endeavor, AMC’s Mad Men plays the sexism, racism and homophobia of a 1960′s advertising agency straight, for dramatic effect. To identify with the female, gay or people of color characters on the show is often a lonely and desperate experience. But there would be little value in the great lengths taken to make the show realistic if our world had not undergone so many changes.
Alternately, the Star Trek television series and movies portray a future without poverty, or bigotry. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of utopia was flawed at times, but he sensed that social progress would only continue to march on into the future.
In real life, there are countless examples of how a small change in progress for human rights lead to bigger and bigger things. The integration of the United States military in 1948 was the first large scale attempt at racial desegregation in the US. Although it was met with resistance by some, it was a large victory for the African American Civil Rights Movement. And it set the stage for efforts to desegregate schools and other institutions. The experiences of white soldiers, serving alongside black soldiers contributed to changing ideas about race in America.
Harvey Milk, the first openly gay city supervisor of San Francisco California, famously encouraged his gay and lesbian friends and supporters to come out of the closet. He said, “Once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters who are becoming scared.” He knew what social scientists would later prove statistically – that the number one indicator of a person’s support for the rights of Gender and Sexual Minorities was whether or not they knew an out GLBTQ person. Once someone knows that their family member, their friend, their co-worker or neighbor will face harm and discrimination, it’s enough to change their mind. There’s no going back.
UU Minister David McClean has spoken about this quotation by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther Kind Jr.:
“The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice”
Reverend McClean said that he believes that this is not just a profound and inspiring statement but something that is literally true – a natural law of the universe. I’m still considering this. Sometimes it feels like ignorance and hatred bog us down as if we were trying to run through deep mud. Sometimes we get distracted and confused that we lose sight of our goals and fight with each other in circles instead of for one another, shoulder to shoulder. But when panning out and looking at ourselves from decades or even centuries past, we can see a pattern. Time and social progress both move in one direction – forward.
I don’t know who will be hosting the next Academy Awards Ceremony. But unless they have a time machine, I’m hopeful that it can only get better.