What is Gadflyism?

The video companion to this essay can be found here: https://youtu.be/FK64P4cTjBw

One of the most frequent questions I get is “What’s all this Gadfly stuff about?” As more and more of our churches have gotten dragged into Gadfly-related conflicts, I think more UUs are hearing the term for the first time. So I wanted to create a resource explaining what the deal is.

Gadflyism is an alt-right movement within Unitarian Universalism. The name comes from the book “The Gadfly Papers,” which was written by now-disfellowshipped minister Rev. Todd Eklof, and released by surprise at the 2019 General Assembly in Spokane, WA.

You should know that a fair number of people who subscribe to Gadfly ideas don’t necessarily call themselves Gadflies. But for better or worse, that’s the term most commonly used when talking about people who subscribe to this particular ideology. When a church is going through a conflict these days, it’s not uncommon to hear someone ask, “Oh, is it the Gadflies?”

The book “The Gadfly Papers” didn’t invent a new ideology, or put forward any new ideas. It just echoed some pretty racist and hateful sentiments that have been brewing in Unitarian Universalism for a long time — so it resonated with a small minority of our people (mostly white men). And unfortunately, they seem to have been galvanized by the book. Much as the alt-right was emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, the Unitarian Universalists who were unhappy about our emphasis on anti-racism have been emboldened by “The Gadfly Papers.”

So what is Gadflyism, the ideology?

Characteristics of Gadflyism. 1. An opposition to social justice. 2. Reframing the issue as “free speech.” 3. Centering themselves as martyrs or heroes.

Charateristics of Gadflyism

1. THEY OPPOSE SOCIAL JUSTICE.

The Gadflies are opposed to the anti-racism and anti-oppression work that our denomination is doing, and the modern scholarship that informs that work. Generally, they don’t believe “white supremacy culture” is real. They favor anti-racism initiatives in which white allies get to be the “good guys,” and refuse to do any internal work on their own racism — or even admit that it’s possible for them to have racist ideas.

They also resist following the leadership of people of color, and have harassed and undermined prominent leaders of color within our denomination.

As a tactic, the Gadflies don’t usually voice direct opposition to anti-racism, because they know it would not be received well. For instance, they’ll claim that of course they support anti-racism, they just want to do it differently. But however they go about it, the result is always the same: no work gets done, and the Gadflies don’t ever have to change, grow, or relinquish power.

2. THEY REFRAME THE ISSUE AS BEING ABOUT FREE SPEECH.

The Gadflies never admit to that first part, about opposing social justice. Rather, in every argument they redefine the issue as being about freedom, free speech, or democracy. The democracy thing is weird because a democratic majority of UUs are in favor of social justice, so it’s kind of a double-speak thing. It’s a way of staying in control of the narrative, and shifting the focus away from their hateful beliefs.

3. THEY CENTER THEMSELVES AS MARTYRS OR HEROS.

According to the Gadflies, the real problem in our denomination isn’t racism — which, again, they don’t think is a problem. According to them, the real problem is them being called racist. Or being called out for anything. Or being asked not to hurt people. They’ve been pretty successful at framing themselves as either victims of an inquisition, or as valiant heretics fighting for free speech.

According to the Gadflies, they’re the ones who are really being oppressed by all this political correctness. They use words like “witch hunt” and “cancel culture” and orthodoxy, and talk about “reclaiming” Unitarian Universalism.

There are a couple important things to note here. First, there’s a pretty clear comparison to be drawn between the Gadflies “reclaiming” our religion, and the alt-right “reclaiming” America. In both cases, the natural question is: from whom? And the answer is usually people of color.

Second, all three of the characteristics of Gadflyism that I outlined above make white men the most important people in the room. Their concerns are the ones that get focused on; their emotional needs get prioritized; and their egos wind up being served. Everything the Gadflies do winds up de-centering people of color and other marginalized people in our denomination.

So to sum up the three characteristics of Gadflyism, and how they work together: The Gadflies are trying to stop the justice work of our denomination, because they want to be able to say and do things that are racist, or transphobic, or ableist, without any consequences. They consistently re-frame the issue as being about their rights and freedoms, and they say they’re being oppressed.

If all of that sounds familiar, it should. It’s a smaller version of a cultural conflict that’s happening all over the country, in many facets of society, but especially in politics. We’re really not alone in contending with this. The Gadflies are, effectively, the alt-right wing of Unitarian Universalism. Within the denomination, the conflict really picked up with the 2017 UUA Hiring Controversy.

I know a lot of people don’t like it when we frame conflicts as having sides. But I think there are two sides here.

On the one side are the majority of UUs who are in favor of justice, compassion, progress, and liberation. Most of us are very in favor of pursuing anti-racism work, and are keeping up with modern thinking.

On the other side are the Gadflies. For whatever reason, they’re not ready to come along with where the rest of us are headed. Which would be okay… except that now, that tiny percentage of UUs is fighting with everyone else.

Why is Gadflyism a Problem?

1. IT HURTS PEOPLE.

First and foremost, the views of the Gadflies are pretty damaging and hurtful, especially for our transgender siblings and our siblings of color. Some common ideas put forward by Gadflies include: the idea that being transgender is just a fad, or a result of mental illness; the idea that racism isn’t as bad as people of color think it is, or that is doesn’t even happen at all, like it’s all in their head or they’re just “playing the victim”; and the idea that white people and white men in particular are somehow being punished. None of that is okay. It’s also not accurate.

I think the maddening thing for a lot of our churches, is that the same people who are saying super racist things, are also the people who deny that racism is real. So it can be really hard to talk to them about it. The Gadflies are pretty skilled at making dog-whistle racist arguments, and then deflecting by challenging others to explain how, exactly, their statements are racist. This is a losing battle, and is an example of sealioning. (I encourage people not to take these kinds of homework assignments from Gadflies.)

2. THE GADFLIES ARE ORGANIZED.

Another reason why Gadflyism is a problem for our faith, and the main reason why I wanted to make this resource, is that the Gadflies are much better organized than I think a lot of UUs are aware. Most of us probably know a couple people at church who might argue about the term “white supremacy culture,” or might disrespect the minister (especially if that person is a woman or a person of color), or might always be complaining about something called “Critical Race Theory.” And you might even be friends with that person — they might be the loveable curmudgeon who’s a little rough around the edges, but he’s been coming to this church for 40 years, and we all know he’s harmless.

What you’re probably not aware of is that many of the Gadflies belong to organizations like the Fifth Principle Project and the Unitarian Universalist Multiracial Action Council (which is a super misleading name). Groups like those are actively recruiting at hundreds of churches. And this spring, they were working to ensure that those “one or two people” at every church wind up being their church’s voting delegates at General Assembly. Many Gadflies also belong to Facebook groups, some of them private, where they collaborate on plans to disrupt their church’s social justice work.

So while it might not seem like that big a deal to just let that one guy at your church teach a class, or have a book club, or get to be a delegate, you need to be aware that it might be part of a larger campaign. It’s not actually harmless.

While the Gadflies represent a small fraction of Unitarian Universalists, they are demanding a lot of space and attention. And because so many of them are retired, white, professional men, they are very good at using bylaws and procedures against everyone else. (I mean, they wrote the rules.) And they have a lot of experience at working within an institutional framework to get what they want. And they will be polite, but persistent, in undermining the mission of the church.

Which brings us to one final reason why Gadflyism is a problem, which is that now, it’s tearing apart our churches.

3. IT IS DESTROYING CHURCHES.

For the past two years, I’ve seen so many churches try to just ignore Gadflyism, and not give it any energy. And I’ve heard it said that the rest of us shouldn’t legitimize them by giving them a name, or talking about them as a real movement. But they are a real movement. I think they’re wrong, but they do exist. So my goal isn’t to legitimize what they’re doing, it’s to encourage everyone else to be able to talk about this openly, in an informed way.

One of the Gadflies greatest weapons so far has been invisibility. If we can’t name it, we can’t fight it.

While so many of us were ignoring this movement, they’ve been publishing newsletters, collecting signatures, and hosting conferences. Like many bad actors, the Gadflies tend to take over spaces that are poorly moderated and have little oversight, and will continually test the boundaries to see how far they can push things — whether it’s in a Facebook group, or the chat box during Zoom worship, or as a Board member.

In fact, many of the most prominent Gadflies, who are heavily involved in organizing, have already been kicked out of their previous churches for bad behavior. But others are still happily terrorizing church and denominational staff with impunity.

I don’t say this lightly: if you think that giving them some leeway, or hearing them out, or meeting them halfway will satisfy them, it will not. It will only embolden them.

At least once a week I hear from a Unitarian Universalist someone in the country, that Gadflies have taken over their Board, or they’re convincing wealthy congregants to withhold their pledges, or they’ve harassed the DRE into quitting, or they’re trying to force out the minister. And they don’t do it using the name “Gadfly.” They take advantage of the invisibility that we have allowed them in not naming it.

Rather, they’re just “a concerned congregant”… who happens to be in a Facebook group with like 200 other “concerned congregants” across the country, who have all read “The Gadfly Papers” and united around it, and are all coincidentally starting fights at their churches.

Conclusion

I do believe that our faith movement can keep up with modernity, and that we do have a joyful, liberating Gospel to share with a suffering world. I don’t think the Gadflies will ultimately win the day, or that their movement has a future. The direction the denomination is going in — democratically! — is one of equity and compassion. I believe that.

What I am concerned about is the suffering and heartache the Gadflies have caused, and will continue to cause, if we don’t draw a line and say, “No. This is not okay. That’s Gadflyism, and we don’t do that at this church.”

If you can’t name it, you can’t fight it. I hope this essay helps us do both.

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Rev. Sarah Skochko

I'm a Unitarian Universalist writer, minister, and hospital chaplain living in Philadelphia, PA.