Telling Our Stories: The Failure of The Gadfly Papers

I have written a follow-up article to this one to address some concerns which have come up. I invite you to also read Telling Our Stories: The Aftermath for more on my thoughts on Eklof’s book.

Author’s Note: I struggled with whether to write something at all on The Gadfly Papers. There are a lot of good arguments for not reading it altogether. There’s also a good case for not buying it but, rather, trusting those of us telling you that it’s very problematic. In the end, only you can decide what you will do. I hope to show in this article why Eklof’s book is problematic. If, in the end, you still feel the need to read it, please don’t purchase it but, rather, read it through the scanned pages that are showing up on social media. It is recommended you don’t search for it on Amazon or Google as this will only increase its search rankings and bring it to an even wider audience.

Author’s Note 6/29/2019: People are continuing to use the above author’s note as supposed evidence that I’m in favor of a ban of Eklof’s book, even after I addressed it in my follow-up article. This is being amplified by people getting together in certain social media groups and deciding what it is I believe without asking me. To summarize what I wrote there: it takes a huge leap in logic to get from “There are arguments for something but decide for yourself what to do” to “OMG BOOK BAN!!!” This is the last time I plan on addressing this point anywhere as I can only say I’m not in favor of a book ban so many times. What I am against is Eklof profiting off a book that has hurt so many. What I called on him to do in my follow-up is to post the book on his web site so interested people could read it for free as a good faith effort. I still hope he will do this.

Logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Rev. Dr. Todd F. Eklof’s book The Gadfly Papers: Three Inconvenient Essays by One Pesky Minister is supposedly about what’s wrong at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), especially with our social justice programs. Its opening essay, “The Coddling of the Unitarian Universalist Mind,” depends on the telling of stories to demonstrate how safetyism, identity politics, and political correctness are corroding the foundations of this liberal religion. As such, the minimum standard we can expect of these stories is that they be fair and present all sides of the issue.

In reading “Coddling,” though, it quickly became apparent to me that this wasn’t going to be the case. One of Eklof’s first stories in the essay is one that, at first glance, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Unitarian Universalism. While defining the term “safetyism,” “a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical or moral concerns,” (Eklof 2) Eklof tells the story of the 2017 Berkeley demonstrations against Milo Yiannopoulos. Eklof’s telling of the story follows the same narrow reporting of events that have been used to demonize the students: Milo, an admittedly controversial figure, only wanted to come speak to the students and exercise his free speech. However, a bunch of liberals and leftists got together and prevented him from doing so just because they hated what he had to say, and now free speech is under attack.

This telling of the Berkeley narrative is convenient to those who would paint the response to Milo as being symptomatic of something seriously wrong with the left. However, this doesn’t come close to telling the full story of what happened.

Milo’s controversial beliefs were certainly concerning for students at the University of California at Berkeley when its college Republicans group invited him to speak on campus, but even more alarming was his conduct at previous rallies on other campuses. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milo publicly outed transgender students on campus, and publicity from the university made it clear he was going to do this again in Berkeley, this time with undocumented students. (Bray 105)

Milo was literally threatening to target a vulnerable group of students and give information about them to those most likely to be incited to violence against them. Their safety was literally at risk, and the university made it clear to the students that they had no plans to do anything about it. (Bray 105) One can argue until they’re blue in the face whether violent tactics are justified or not, but Milo and his supporters are not some innocent group who only wanted to speak on controversial topics. There is a reason the alt-right, white nationalists, and literal Nazis showed up to Berkeley in the aftermath: Milo was feeding into a culture that did not value these students’ lives as much as they did an abstract concept like free speech.

And what of free speech? Unless one believes in absolute free speech, there are always reasons free speech should be curtailed. Yelling fire in a crowded room, libel, slander, fraud, and inciting to violence are just a few of the types of speech not protected by the first amendment. So, if your definition of freedom of speech includes the right for Milo to stand in front of the college Republicans and announce to them who their enemies should be, we are already strongly disagreeing about the terms of your essay.

In short, the Berkeley case is not as cut and dry as free speech vs. suppression of thought.

I’m delving into the intricacies of the Berkeley case not because they’re directly relevant to the social justice programs of the Unitarian Universalist movement, or because this story is particularly crucial for Eklof’s arguments, but because it really illustrates a major problem in Eklof’s essays: his telling of stories lacks nuance, fact checking, and just presenting all sides fairly. As with his telling of the events of Berkeley, Eklof presents the side of the story that most clearly supports his conclusions on what is wrong at the UUA. While he calls on readers to give the most chartible possible interpretation of what white cis-hetero people say and do in his accounts, (Eklof 29–30), he does not give the same deference to people of color, transgender people, disabled people, and other marginalized groups in his essays.

Nowhere is this more apparent for me personally than his telling of the aftermath of the publication in UU World of the article, “After L, G, and B” by Kimberly French. Eklof is right that the article was well-intentioned, but he makes his first mistake in assuming that the cause of the outrage surrounding the article was simply that it was written by a nontrans writer. (Eklof 22) He then goes on to reference angry Facebook comments as proof and vindication of his point of view.

Having been a part of the response to this article as a member of the steering committee of Transgender Religious Professional Unitarian Universalists Together (TRUUsT), I can only call this response simplistic at best, intellectually dishonest at worst. I’m friends with Eklof on Facebook, but at no time during the writing of his essay did he contact me to clarify any details of what happened. To my knowledge, none of my colleagues on the steering committee were contacted either.

Though Eklof acknowledges that one of French’s goals in writing the article was to stress “the importance of getting the language right when addressing and supporting persons who are transgender,” (Eklof 20) he at no time addresses or even acknowledges the existence of CB Beal’s wonderful essay response on the topic “Centering the Marginalized: Symphony and Triptych,” in which they, step by step, examine most of the problems with the language of the article itself, showing that, while French may have been well-intentioned, she lacked the knowledge necessary to write an article on the topic, and her failure to have her article proof-read by a trans person (or anyone else for that matter) prior to publication only compounded the problem.

Indeed, what came up over and over again in our discussions was not our anger that the writer was cisgender per se, but that the very first major article UU World ever published about transgender people was not only written by a cisgender person, but that it failed to utilize most of the data from the then-recent and well-publicized TRUUsT report on the experiences of trans UUs in our faith. It’s not that cisgender people can’t speak as allies for trans folks, but it would have been nice had UU World been willing to center our voices on the very first outing.

Eklof would have found this out had he asked us.

Eklof even glibly references that some transgender people asked for the article not to be published. (Eklof 27) What he fails to tell is why this ask was made, instead implying that there was some sort of censorship going on, and baiting his desired conclusion from the reader by stating, “Again, I shall leave it to my reader to determine if a magazine editor acts improperly by publishing an article after being asked not to.” (Eklof 27) He could have actually quoted the words of former TRUUsT steering committee member Alex Kapitan, the trans person who asked the article not be published and wrote per own detailed account of what happened. He could have even reached out to Kapitan.

Eklof didn’t do that, though. Instead, he published a vague account that fit his narrative and didn’t do the hard work of fact checking his account of things. He constructed his own narrative and let the pieces fall where they would.

Had he read Kapitan’s account, Eklof would have known that the publication of TRUUsT’s “Call to Action” in the same issue was not coincidence or evidence that trans issues could now only be discussed by trans people, but a compromise with UU World editor Chris Walton. (Kapitan)

What seems to be the case in Eklof’s telling of events over and over again is that marginalized people were unreasonable and, therefore, he is right. He even references an isolated and angry Facebook comment about the article which called for Walton to immediately tender his resignation. (Eklof 22) The problem with using isolated comments like this, especially from people who were not, in any way, involved in the publishing of the article or the formal dialogue that followed, is that it is really only representative of that one person, who is entitled to their opinion but does not speak for everyone. As a minister who has to somehow hold the disparate opinions of hundreds of parishioners, Eklof should know this and realize that one person always speaks for one person. Had he talked to us, he would have known that Walton’s resignation was never on the table.

Indeed, what made the UU World article controversy wonderful was how fast Walton, French, and UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray were to reach out to the TRUUsT steering committee and enter into dialogue to make things right. There was a genuine spirit of listening and, while that can’t erase the fact that mistakes were made, it made it possible to move forward together, and without a single person needing to step down. In fact, because everyone stayed at the table, I feel like TRUUsT’s relationship with the UUA is now stronger than it’s ever been, and we continue to work with Frederick-Gray and the UUA on what our future relationship will look like.

I have no personal knowledge on other accusations in the essay, but I will point out that every one of them follows the same pattern as the account of the UU World article: a narrative is constructed based on hearsay. Only people who support Eklof’s account of events are contacted for their side of the story. Fact-checking appears to be little or non-existent. Even accounts of things Eklof was personally involved with, such as serving on the GA Worship Arts Team, is heavily slanted towards his point of view. And, funny enough, every story starts with the premise that a minority is imposing their will on good white cis-hetero UUs.

I will not attempt to personally report on events such as the 2017 Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) fall conference or the 2017 UUA Hiring Controversy; it’s not my place to do so as I was not a participant in these events and I do not have enough personal knowledge to be able to construct what actually happened. From what I do know, though, I suspect an account from someone personally involved would be a lot more nuanced that Eklof has made it out to be.

And, I can tell you, that, if I were trying to write an article or book about what happened, you can be damn well sure I’d be contacting people like Christina Rivera and the LREDA Board of Trustees to find out their stories. Not doing so would just make me a sloppy writer and intellectually dishonest.

And that’s really the problem with the crux of Eklof’s book: it all hinges on the accuracy of the stories he tells. Sure, there’s theory in it, and some may think that we need to go through with a fine-toothed comb and examine every bit of criticism Eklof levels at the UUA. The thing is, there are plenty of think pieces out there about the concepts he describes, both pro and con; I don’t need to rehash them to make my point. Instead, if he has failed to make a case that he is even accurately reporting events that form the basis of his arguments, he has nothing left to base his arguments on, and the concepts he talks about really become irrelevant. We can argue in theoreticals all day, but, at the end of it, if we have no evidence of the accusations Eklof is making against the UUA, we are arguing in circles.

Ironically enough, Eklof himself provides evidence that opposing views are not being suppressed by the UUA by quoting, at length, a man who, at the 2017 General Assembly, was opposed to changing the name of the Standing on the Side of Love campaign to Side With Love. Eklof seems to express surprise that, despite the eloquence of the speaker’s argument, the majority of delegates voted to change the name of the campaign. (Eklof 31–32)

Sorry, Todd, but, just because the man didn’t get his way doesn’t mean that his free speech was suppressed. It just means the majority of delegates at General Assembly disagreed with him. I was there. He was allowed to speak his mind. The fact that you don’t like the outcome is not evidence of some fault within our democratic system.

Mistaking conflict for abuse is something Eklof practically accuses many in the UUA of doing, but it is clear he is making this same mistake himself. It’s so easy when we see something that makes us uncomfortable to recoil with a feeling that our world is being drastically altered. It’s easy to blame those who are saying things that make us feel uncomfortable. What hurts, though, is when someone takes their discomfort and turns it into a weapon of words to spread falsities and half-truths. I don’t know Eklof well, but, had he messaged me and asked to talk about things that were making him uncomfortable about the TRUUsT response, I would have been happy to do so. I’m willing to bet there are a lot of other people who would have done the same.

He didn’t do that, though. All evidence points to the possibility that he only talked about these issues with people who were predisposed to agree with him. If he did talk to anyone who disagreed with him, he doesn’t appear to have taken them seriously enough to include their thoughts in his essay.

I wasn’t at GA this year, but my understanding is that much of the hurt around Eklof’s book centered not on the fact that someone was disagreeing with how we’re doing social justice. Rather, the hurt came from Eklof’s failure to do so in a covenental fashion that allowed for him to hear from all viewpoints, and the fact that this led him to scapegoating of people and organizations in what felt like an ambush. The problem is that people who have no knowledge of the events in the book will believe his account because he’s a minister and he claims his book is based on “plenty of credible scholarship.” (Eklof back cover) I hope that this article has shown that this credible scholarship is on extremely shaky ground.

This is more of a case than anything I could have said for letting marginalized people tell our own stories. We know them more than any number of social media posts or think pieces can possibly convey. It’s hurtful that people continue to assume they know the details of our narratives without consulting us at all. It’s sad that, in 2019, it still needs to be said that the best account of what a person believes and feels is that person. So it’s sad that none of these people were consulted in the writing of Eklof’s essays. That, more than anything, is what makes it feel like a bad-faith effort.

The work of justice is hard, long, and sometimes feels like it will never end. At some point, it will make everyone of us feel uncomfortable. The key is to sit with this discomfort, love it, nurture it, and talk with people about it, not try to rationalize it away by figuring out why you are correct while everyone else it wrong.

And I still hope that Eklof will contact me and other people involved in the incidents he describes and enter into serious dialogue with us about what really happened.

Works Cited:

Bray, Mark. Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook (Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2017)

Eklof, Todd F. The Gadfly Papers: Three Inconvenient Essays by One Pesky Minister (Spokane: Independently Published, 2019)

Kapitan, Alex. “What It Takes to De-Center Privilege: The Failure of this Week’s UU World Article.” Roots Grow the Tree: A Dialogue, 6 March 2019,