Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Way Forward as the Way Backward: The Effects of a Leadership Vacuum as Societies Change Their Moral Minds

I'd like to add a brief autobiographical gloss to what I wrote earlier today. What may not be apparent in my analysis of how societies change their moral minds is a strong concern underlying that analysis: this is a concern about what happens when leaders block rather than facilitate necessary shifts in the moral mind of a group they’re charged to lead, and/or promote empty language about change as a cover for their passivity, qua leaders, in promoting necessary moral change in their society.

As I’ve noted previously, when leaders who profess moral vision and commitment abdicate their responsibility to spearhead necessary moral change in the groups they lead, those groups are likely to find themselves moving rapidly backwards rather than forwards, in terms of moral development. On many blogs and news sites that are discussing the Obama administration’s curiously passive (and even retrogressive) approach to the human rights of gay citizens in the past several days, I’ve noted this concern surfacing again and again.

If the administration continues to do nothing, people are saying, we’re likely to find ourselves moving backwards even in areas where we’re taken forward steps recently. We’re likely to find ourselves further back than we were before this ostensibly gay-affirming administration came into office.

I share that concern. This is why I am particularly disturbed by the attempt of the DOMA brief to undercut the claims of the gay rights movement to moral legitimacy. I consider that attempt not only misguided and downright nasty. I think it’s dangerous for our entire society.

And here’s why . . . . In our work life, Steve and I have lived through a number of experiences in which one or both of us were hired by an organization that wanted to make a progressive statement about gay rights, but had not yet counted the cost of that statement, and was therefore unprepared to deal with backlash when the organization did step forth and do what was right. Because of our training as theologians, which has often placed us in church-owned institutions, each of these experiences has occurred in a church-related context.

Invariably, each time we’ve walked into a situation like this, we’ve seen the organization regress rather than progress, once it encountered backlash due to its moral commitment, and once it had slammed the door on those gay folks it had courted as poster children to signal the enhanced moral awareness of the organization. Each of these organizations has become not merely more viciously homophobic after expelling the gay employees it had courted in an effort to appear morally enlightened. In each case, the organization has also ended up becoming more downright corrupt in general, in its overall treatment of all employees, in its leaders’ blatant disregard for the moral principles of the church sponsoring the institution, and in the leaders’ abdication of any commitment to fair, transparent, professional standards of leadership.

In one case, in fact, the organization simply dismantled after its leaders refused to deal with a church-grounded homophobic purge that targeted Steve. In another case, the organization has reverted to pre-1960 governance procedures and has embraced the far-right fringe of American Catholicism, after having announced (when it hired us) that it wanted to move in a Vatican II direction.

When a group begins the slow, painful process of moving towards a new moral consensus demanded by new moral perceptions among a critical mass within the group, and then steps back on its new moral commitments, it tends not just to move backwards, but to do so with a vengeance. It places itself in a worse, a more regressive, position than it found itself in before it ventured forth to do the morally right thing. It fulfills the biblical parable about what happens when people sweep out a house but leave it empty: seven spirits worse than the one they intended to sweep out return and occupy the house.

One particular work experience has been paradigmatic in showing me this. One of the principles of the Jesuit tradition of spirituality that has shaped my adult spiritual life is a caution against making important decisions of discernment when one is experiencing turmoil.

Jesuit discernment calls on one to avoid making important decisions in a time of turmoil because our vision is likely to be limited in such a moment, and good discernment requires that we seek to see as clearly as possible. This principle calls on those who set forth on a spiritual path to learn to hold together a number of different viewpoints in tension with each other. Spiritual growth is about learning always to see more rather than less. It’s about challenging ourselves to doubt and discard our peremptory judgments, since such judgments tend to be based on too little evidence and limited vision, and to wait a while until we see more clearly—and more broadly.

Because I value that approach to the spiritual life, and have found it promotes spiritual growth (resulting in greater peace and more ability to love, hallmarks of the presence of God’s Spirit in our decisions, according to the Jesuit tradition), I have sometimes walked into work situations in which I sensed that something was not quite right, but because whatever troubled me was not immediately apparent to me, I decided to work with the situation, listen, discern, and let my vision be made wider and deeper, as I trusted God’s call for me in that particular vocational moment.

One of these situations involved working with a supervisor who professed, on the front end, a strong commitment to gay rights, from the time I began working with her. She is one of several women under whose supervision I worked in my academic career. And she is one of several female supervisors who also happened to be African American. I mention this because her background plays a significant role in the story I want to tell—as will be apparent shortly.

In the years in which I worked with this ostensibly gay-affirming supervisor, I came to recognize (at least in part) what was not quite right, what I couldn’t quite identify as I began to work under this person’s supervision. Part of what was not quite right was that the profession of a commitment to respect for gay persons and gay rights was only rhetorical. It was a smokescreen.

In fact, this supervisor had (and continues to have) a history of hiring gay employees only to terminate them, one after another, without affording them any due process as she targets them, and with conspicuous malice towards them precisely as gay persons, when she decides to fire them. Several of us who have experienced this supervisor’s twisted managerial approach to her gay employees have concluded that her malice is rooted in some autobiographical experiences of her own that make her want to deal with the fact that people she loves are gay, but which also prevent her from permitting those family members to be close to her.

And so the tortured push-pull, slap-hug way in which she deals with gay employees reporting to her, ultimately shoving them decisively away from her in the end in each and every case. As she has done with those gay family members in her own life . . . .

Part of what was not right, as well, in this person’s approach to leadership is, as it turns out, that she is completely unbalanced mentally and emotionally, but most of all morally. And that lack of balance is rooted in her complete lack of any moral center. She is willing and able to remake herself on a daily basis, as needed, in order to remain on top.

And remaining on top is her sole goal, as a leader and personnel manager. While spouting language about moral commitments and caring communities that derives from the church that owns the institutions in which she works, she belies that language in everything she does as a leader and personnel manager. The religious-moral rhetoric is a cover for her moral emptiness, and because her church does not regard the claims of gay people as legitimate moral claims, she is able to get away with what she does to gay people (and to other employees) again and again.

I did not, of course, see all of this when I began working under this person’s supervision. Though I knew from the outset as I worked with her that something was not right, I could not place my finger on it. And I wanted to suspend judgment, to listen, to discern, to remain open to the possibility that my own vision of this workplace was constricted and inaccurate.

And this is where the question of this supervisor’s background comes into the picture, and why I have to mention it: because this supervisor was both a woman and African American, I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, over and over again, as she made decisions and engaged in behavior that shocked me. I told myself that I did not live within her cultural universe, and therefore might be perceiving her decisions and behavior in an inaccurate and prejudiced way.

I wanted this person to succeed—I wanted her to succeed because she is an African-American woman, and I stand in solidarity with women and people of color as they struggle for rights. I am committed to promoting the rights of these groups who experience marginalization as I do, because of inborn characteristics that ought not to be the basis of discrimination, but that are used to marginalize.

I put up with behavior from this supervisor that I ought never to have tolerated, because she is a black woman. I found, in the end, that what I was trying to see and excuse as cultural particularity in her behavior is simply dysfunction, and dysfunction of the most dangerous sort—dysfunction rooted in moral vacuity.

I hope I will not make that mistake again. I am reminded of that mistake over and over these days, however, as I struggle to understand and respond to the Obama administration’s approach to gay rights and gay persons. Just as I did in my work with the supervisor described above, I find myself in recent days bending over backwards to try to imagine the push-pull, slap-hug behavior of the current administration toward gay citizens as a manifestation of some higher reason, some pattern I don’t quite understand yet: the hurtful but not intentional oblivion to my needs that comes from being focused on other issues, which are perhaps more important than mine; the cultural limitation that comes from not living life in a gay skin, and therefore not being able to see what one sees through gay eyes, etc.

Until recently, I have tried to understand and to excuse, and I have wanted to do so because my understanding of the spiritual life requires me to do that, before I make judgments. I would hope others do that for me, and I am obliged to do it for them, to treat others as I would hope to be treated myself.

Now, however, I’ve moved to another stage. I’ve decided that we may be dealing with dysfunction rather than higher reason, and that, at the center of that dysfunction there may be lack of moral commitment. I’m not yet ready to decide where that lack of moral commitment lies.

I prefer—perhaps because I cast my vote for him and found him inspiring as a candidate—to continue thinking, for now, that the president himself remains committed to human rights for gay citizens, on moral grounds. I prefer to think that he is perhaps being very badly advised by some of his key advisors. I suspect that I know who some, at least, of those advisors are, but I do not know enough to be certain of any judgment I might want to form in that regard.

I also suspect that the president has imbibed from various religious communities—including some African-American ones—a perception that gay rights are not really as pressing as some other issues that demand his attention now, on moral grounds. I suspect his religious outlook and religious associations afford him the illusion of skill at sorting and classifying the various moral issues that now face him as president, and that he imagines that gay rights are at the bottom of the list, because the religious culture on which he depends makes that deceptive judgment about gay people and our rights.

In my fifteen years working in church-sponsored historically black colleges and universities, I heard over and over a litany of rationales that many churched African Americans use to deny moral validity to the movement for gay rights and the moral claims of gay human beings. I could recite that litany in my sleep.

Though I would like to believe that the president's remarks about the need to combat homophobia in the African-American community mean that he is aware of the speciousness of these rationales, I also do not doubt that his outlook has been shaped in some respects by that litany. And he knows that it remains significant to some of his strongest supporters, to many African Americans.

I also think that as these games are being played out, the clock is quickly ticking, and there will soon be no time left to address gay rights issues—because we will have started on the backwards path. At which point, I fear, things will become much worse for gay and lesbian persons in the United States, because of the lack of leadership we are now seeing from our president despite his claims to be a fierce advocate for LGBT people.

Worse, in fact, than they have been for a long time . . . .