Monday, October 6, 2008

Identity, Politics, & Buddhism.

I read this blog One City. It's the blog of the Interdependence Project in New York, which was founded by Ethan Nichtern, who was J's meditation teacher when he was living in New York most recently.

If you're interested in Buddhist meditation and politics, you might find the blog interesting. Sometimes I love it. Other times it irritates me. Usually I like the enthusiasm of it, the energy they give to looking for ways to live better. Other times, I think they're a bunch of spoiled, insular and clueless New Yorkers. New Yorkers are better than anyone at being jaded and totally naive at the same time.

Last week there was a post that really needled me. I went back and forth in the comments section for a few days, trying to make a point which I was never successful at making. I offered to write a guest post on the subject but got no response, so I'm going to post it here:
The reason I'm so persistently trying to make a point here is that I believe cassmaster's story is a parable showing one of the spots where Buddhist practice and activism intersect. I think a huge liability for every political movement that is based on identity (the women's movement, the gay rights movement and all its spawn, and take your pick of racial and ethnic civil rights movements) is exactly what begins as their great asset: the individual's self-identification as a member of an oppressed minority.

It is that identification that brings people with common grievances together to fight. Strength in numbers. But then we become so strongly attached to our identities as oppressed minorities that we begin to read every situation in which we encounter frustration as the same story, in which we are the victims, the oppressed, and the other person or institution is the oppressor.

The tale of the spa gift certificate is a perfect example of how this works. In cassmaster’s telling of the story, there’s absolutely no support for an assumption that the boss’s gift was sexist (maybe condescending, maybe sweet, but who really knows?), yet the post is titled “the perpetual undercurrents of sexism in the workplace,” and the whole story is an attempt to gain support for, to solidify, that interpretation of the scenario.

So what starts out as empowering and ennobling -- our recognition that we are not alone, that there are others who are similarly oppressed -- eventually eviscerates any power we gained because we can’t see ourselves as anything other than victims. We respond as victims, we ask to be identified and classified as victims (hate crimes legislation, anyone?), we become permanent victims.

As long as we hold tight to this view of ourselves and our place in the world, we’re caught in a Catch-22. But I think, as Buddhist meditators, we have a special perspective to bring to the problem because we have found a method of unraveling it. Our path is all about loosening the bonds of identity, letting go of the storyline we feel secure in, in order to allow a more open perspective on our suffering, a more “real” view of how the world works. Can we bring this special perspective to our politics? What would happen if we did?


Eva said...

I wholeheartedly agree with you. When I first read cassmaster's post, I didn't notice that you could look at from an entirely different angle -- I assumed the boss was being sexist, end of story -- but my reaction was to ask a raise, not cry about oppression. As a liberal I tend to support identity politics without question, but as a Buddhist, they bother me. It's all ego based, and it's exactly the mindset you're talking about here that alienates so many people who might otherwise support the cause.

I think you'd be welcome to write a guest blog, maybe on a similar topic, and maybe as a rebuttal, but not something that would be viewed as an attack... not that I think you're in attack mode here.

Aidan said...

I agree with your larger point about identity politics (I'm not Buddhist so can't really comment on that aspect). One thing I've noticed (and I had this tendency myself when I first came out) is that a lot of gay people come to view history through a lens of homosexuals being oppressed. Which is not to deny that there have at times (and continue to be) grave injustices against gays (and blacks, and jews, and females, etc) but I don't find it to be especially empowering to have one's primary notion of oneself as the perpetual victim.

I mean really. I'm gay, I'm living my version of the American dream just fine, and quite frankly, I think that there are much, much, bigger injustices out there in the world than the fact that I can't get married in my home state.