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The United Way and the Boy Scouts have both acted admirably in their parting of ways; their decisions call for a sense of moral nuance that is lately all too rare.

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The current situation involving the Boy Scouts and United Way is sad, although all those involved have acted admirably. This controversy stems from awareness rather than hysterics. Now, whereas such consciousness is admirable, it can also be problematic. The more we pursue purity, the less compromise satisfies as a negotiating tool. As a community, we seem to have less common ground: There is less tolerance of others' aberrations; there are more moral absolutes that trigger standoffs.

The Boy Scouts want to be able to exclude those who are openly gay from their ranks and leadership. They took this issue all the way to the Supreme Court, where the decision went in their favor.

United Way's path in providing community service has become ever more difficult. As an umbrella organization, they both raise funds for a pool distributed among a variety of nonprofits and serve as a conduit for funds specifically targeted to any registered nonprofit. But as moral divisions have grown more pronounced among us, it is hard to serve an array of groups and avoid controversy. Attempting to clarify its sense of mission, the Capital Area United Way recently adopted a strong inclusion statement for organizations they directly fund: They must "share our view of collaborative and inclusive service to the entire community, without excluding anyone on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, ethnicity, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, or any other factor not relevant to a person's eligibility for service or ability to contribute."

Since the Supreme Court decision, only a handful of United Way branches have decided to cut their ties to the Boy Scouts. In Austin, the contradiction between the Scouts' position and the inclusion policy was deemed too obvious to ignore. The group entered into negotiations with the Boy Scouts, and the change was carefully engineered, granting an extra year of funding for transition.

Certainly, over the years there have been many gay Scouts, as well as gay local and national leaders, but they have kept quiet about it. Closeted life is oppressive and damaging for not only the individual person but also for the society. Suppression rips at all involved. To be sure, some Scout leaders are driven by homophobia, but even more fear the consequences of their acceptance of openly gay members and leaders in middle and rural America. Yet in living up to their mission of making boys into men, inclusiveness would seem crucial. The Scouts are being cowardly and hypocritical, but in some practical sense they may be right. If they openly welcomed gays -- without imposing your personal moral views here -- what would be the consequences? Now, the obvious argument would be to substitute religion or race for sexual preference in the above. Would we stand by if the Boy Scouts excluded Muslims or American Indians?

But I am so sick of people trying to force other people into what they regard as acceptable moral stands. The easy self-righteousness of, "Well, that's what I'd do if I were in their place" is nauseating. Rather than understand the complexities of running an organization or the truly awful weight of difficult decision-making, some offer glib solutions. Ignoring the complex density of any group, these people glide into others' moral universe making suggestions as though picking up takeout for dinner ("I'll have the fried chicken, and you shouldn't vote for that candidate, take a job from that group, or read this magazine"): suggesting nonprofits not take money from this group ("Certainly it will be easy," they say, "to find a new funding source that I'm morally comfortable with so you can be as well" -- have they ever tried to raise money?); urging this athlete not to speak for this group, or this person to take a pay cut because they're making too much money; and demanding this community boycott a project. As though their lives are of perfect purity, they dispense morally correct advice to all around, assuming that these decisions have no consequences, taking it for granted they are right.

Unlike the United Way, the national Boy Scout organization sets policy for all its local branches. There is one policy, and regional groups cannot adopt another. So Austin's Boy Scouts are tied to this policy.

Some time back there was an organized movement against United Way because they funded Planned Parenthood (that red herring is being raised again by opponents of the Scout decision, but in fact Planned Parenthood is not a United Way partner agency). I was opposed to that and would be opposed to a coordinated campaign against them because of the Boy Scouts. But for individual donors to be unintentionally funding organizations that violate their personal beliefs is a legitimate concern. Sometimes you feel as though common sense and basic decency have been drowned by details.

People seem more easily offended and quicker to react than ever. To some extent this is illusion. The society is as charged as ever, but the dominating conceits used to be more limited and disguised. Now the controversy is more inclusive and obvious. Affirmative action is marginalized as a social policy created to address more than 100 years of discrimination and institutionalized racism. In the same way, "politically correct" is identified as social engineering by the far left in an attempt to impose their morality.

"Affirmative action," though not officially defined that way, has been in play for generations and has mostly benefited upper-class whites, followed by those of the middle class. It wasn't that they got 20 extra points for their skin color. Instead of a few people being shuffled around on a college's admissions list, whole classes of people were excluded on the basis of race, sex, religious preference, and economic background. Decades of discrimination and denied opportunity have consequences: Family education and economic background strongly impact academic and social performance. To advance the notion that we have a level playing field is to suggest that there is equality between two teams about to embark on a 10-mile race -- one fresh and rested, the other just finishing a fast 50-mile walk with full backpacks. Some of those who rant the loudest against affirmative action have benefited most, but regard their advantages as natural.

Similarly, the rant against "political correctness" ignores that this is a response to the politically determined speech and actions of mainstream culture, so deeply ingrained they seem natural. They are not; they're the result of political consciousness, moral beliefs, and a sense of socially acceptable behavior. Pretending that affirmative action or political correctness are recent definitions imposed by politically aggressive minorities deliberately misunderstands the elaborate social construct in which we live. In one case, the decisions were made almost unconsciously over a very long period, empowering a very small group while limiting and restricting most others. The current response is noticeable because it is more deliberate and abrupt.

Which brings us back to United Way and the Boy Scouts. It would be great if this were not an issue, if we were far removed from social discriminations. Instead, we're in the maelstrom of creating a new world, with new rules that no one yet understands. This isn't easy; there is much confusion. What one person tolerates another finds beyond morally unacceptable. We all pass these kinds of value judgments, most of the time claiming we're not. Our beliefs seem to flow from the core of the universe as rain, as trees, as stars. Other people's seem artificial, twisted, warped.

Let us support the United Way and the Boy Scouts. You can still donate to the Boy Scouts through United Way by specifying the money should go to them. No boycotts, no rumors -- we need to move on. In a quest for a more moral world, we've hit Babel and forgotten how to talk and work together. We need to spend a bit more time figuring out how we can all live together rather than being self-righteously outraged at each other. The time of trying to understand is upon us.

end story

At the Toronto Film Festival, we caught an afternoon show of Gus Van Sant's Elephant, his very thinly disguised take on the Columbine tragedy. In the beginning I didn't like the film, finding it an exercise of style over narrative, ideas over characters. Endlessly long tracking shots of kids walking through the halls of their school, occasionally saying a few words to each other or interacting with teachers. Aesthetically it bugged me, but gradually I found myself sucked in. I began to really like the leisure of the shots, the look of the film, the minimal action. Students walking through the halls, going to lunch, to class. Gradually, it really began to get to me. I liked the kids, though I didn't know much about them. As the climax approached, the violence nonchalantly ordinary, it ripped my heart out. Overwhelmed, the mundane had become more charged by its lack of dramatic definition. The kids had become too real, less was so much more, and at the end I was a mess, haunted by this quiet, powerful film. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

United Way, Boy Scouts, gay rights, discrimination, affirmative action, boycott, Gus Van Sant, Elephant

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