Losing Face

Back in 2010, some Unitarian Universalist congregations were already deeply involved in work on immigration, but most of our congregations weren't yet aware of the escalating anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies in several states. That changed in April of 2010 when Arizona passed SB1070, which was the most punitive law against undocumented immigrants at the time. Suddenly, everyone was paying attention to Arizona, and calls went up to boycott. The UUA had previously scheduled our 2012 General Assembly to be in Phoenix, so a heated debate ensued as to whether we should honor the boycott or go to Phoenix anyway but working with local immigration activists to protest.

No where was that question more hotly debated than among UUs of color and anti-racist white allies. For some of us, laws such as SB1070 posed a direct threat to self and/or loved ones. For others of us, this was a crucial moment in which our actions would demonstrate whether we UUs really lived the values we espouse. (Much like the Black Lives Matter movement is right now.) We all agreed on the importance of the moment but not the correct course of action. A decision was to be made in June, at General Assembly 2010 in Minneapolis, and during the weeks leading up to it, arguments flared in emails, on list-serves, and on social media.

I had my opinions but generally avoided the heat, until one day during such a debate, I was rebuked. By an elder UU of color. A minister and a long-time leader in our association. Someone whom I greatly admire and whose opinion of me mattered deeply to me. In the semi-public domain of Facebook, he sharply dismissed the points I was trying to make, and dismissed me as someone who “likes to argue.” His words were actually really mild so far as internet arguments go, but hurt deeply coming from him. Someone I admired had questioned my motivations, my character. Moreover, given his stature within a community that I treasure, I feared others would turn against me too. Hot, angry tears streamed down my face as I weighed different possible responses. What would be the most effective way to make him and everyone else witnessing the exchange realize just how wrong he was?

Luckily, I put off my retort to talk first to a friend. She asked me, “Is this relationship important to you? Are you willing to lose it in the process of defending yourself, even if you feel you're in the right?” It had never occurred to me to not defend myself, to drop the argument altogether. The idea that people might be swayed by his words against me still gnawed. But with her encouragement, I set aside both pride and the bullet point arguments I'd compiled, and told him a broader, single-sentence truth - that he has always had and will always have my deepest respect. With my friend's help, I did this even though I still felt wronged, still felt shaken, and actually had little hope of reconciling any time soon.

The response was magical. His words back to me were warm and gentle. And when we met in Minneapolis, he greeted me with a big bear hug. All ill will melted away.

As I relate this story to you now, it seems kinda silly. An online disagreement. Happens every day. But relationships do end on such arguments.

To be dissed in public constitutes a loss of face. The Chinese actually have two different phrases that can be translated in English to losing face – diu lian and diu mianzi. Diu means to lose, and lian means your literal, physical face. Whereas mianzi refers to how one appears to others. For example, when we say in English that someone is “putting on a brave face”, we are referring to mianzi. And just as lian and mianzi have related but different meanings, so too losing them respectively means related but different things. To suggest that I was causing trouble because I “like to argue” threatened my lian; it implied something about my moral character. Because it came from a respected elder in the community, it also threatened my mianzi, or social standing. Upon thinking about it later, I realized that even though I had not used harsh words, by openly questioning this elder's position, I too had inadvertently threatened his mianzi, which is probably what prompted his response. By re-iterating my respect for him, I gave back what I'd taken away – ge mianzi, giving face – and thus he was better able to do that too.

If we all hold on to the mistake, we can't see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can't see what we're capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one's own self. I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now mind you: when a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white or too poor or too fat or too thin or too sexual or too asexual, that's rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don't have that we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.

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