(Delivered at UUSF on March 18, 2018. Listen to the audio here.)
Last weekend, I was in Oakland volunteering at a debate tournament. I've been involved in the debate community since high school, when I was a debater. The reason that I have stayed involved is because debate helps youth explore academic ideas, including ones that are personally relevant to them and their own identities. They research policy, and they incorporate personal narratives. These kids are figuring out what they believe and speaking out about it.
My own experience in debate was different. I learned about important issues and how to advocate on behalf of those issues, but it wasn't primarily about my beliefs. Instead, I would argue whatever I thought would help my team win. Sometimes, that would mean winning on sneaky technicalities rather than more substantive arguments, or sometimes it would mean adapting my arguments to a judge who had very different views than mine. Like the kids in Oakland, I did the research, but I didn't have the personal narratives.
That wasn't just me. A lot of my peers in debate would adopt the same outlook -- opportunistically thinking about what arguments were likely to win rather than what arguments were true or meaningful. It was moral ambiguity taken to the extreme.
That kind of opportunistic thinking about values is common even outside of debate. Before I started debating, my beliefs were mostly an average of the beliefs of people in my family and my community. Those were the beliefs that were convenient. I didn't think about why or explore for myself. And even when I learned more, the appreciation for ambiguity that I got from my community and from debate was an excuse for a lack of critical thinking about what my own beliefs were.
Defaulting to the beliefs around you is a problem because making the world a better place is hard. There's a lot of momentum keeping things the way they are, and changing that takes strong convictions, not just strong arguments. We need more people who know their beliefs about how the world is and how it should be. Even if those beliefs are uncomfortable. Even if you can't live up to those beliefs yet and you might get called a hypocrite.
Those kinds of beliefs are what guide people to choose a job at a nonprofit rather than a private sector job that would pay more. Those kinds of belief are what keeps someone telling their personal story even when it makes them vulnerable and hurt because that story needs to be told. And one of the reasons I became UU is because we are a community that helps cultivate those kinds of audacious, important beliefs.
We don't take our beliefs for granted. When there are beliefs that we mostly share, such as the seven principles, we think, write, and talk about them. And even for beliefs that are more unique, we support each other in our searches.
We might argue about which cause is the most important or how we should spend our time or where we should donate our money. But I'm not worried about that. There are enough problems out there. It's okay if one person takes action on the prison system and another focuses on education.
My concern is about everyone reflecting and then giving their beliefs the fullest expression that they deserve. For some people, that means giving a personal narrative in a debate where voices like theirs don't get heard. For me right now, it means coming to Church and giving a talk about believing in belief itself.