Thursday, 10 December 2020

Is Progress Possible? Mindfulness vs Tribalism

Another title for this blog post and video discussion might be: "driving progress wisely." Or "a mindful approach to progress." 

In the video, Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment (2018) speaks with Emma Varvaloucas, Executive Director of The Progress Network* about tribalism and politics in today's exceptionally divisive and social media driven world.

A factor that they discuss, and Wright has covered in the past, is the way that we often fall into counter-productive extremism, even when we think we're on "the right side" of history on matters. An example Wright gives is of recent protests when some police were filmed driving their cars into protesters. This is not at all typical behavior, but many on the left commented as if it was. 

On the other side of the political divide, he noted, other people saw the isolated cases of rioting and looting and responded as if this was the typical behavior of Black Lives Matter protesters and allies. It wasn't.

So on both sides (and this is not to suggest that the two sides are equal) we can see cases of taking the extremes as if they were the norm. 

This might have the power to enrage and rally allies, but it also twists truth. 

Many on either extreme don't see this. And if they do, they might argue that twisting the truth is necessary and beneficial.

And yet this itself comes around to harm the cause, as people on the other side can often discuss and see the "lies" being put out. So we can end up scoring an "own goal" in which our over-inflated rhetoric or excessive reaction to wrongs actually causes more harm.

The Solution

A little mindfulness and compassion. Even as we work within our tribe or group, and fight for a world that helps people we identify and empathize with, we need to try to think about the lives and reasons of those on the "other side." 

For us as Progressives, that means thinking about and appealing to the ardent further-left activists we know as well as good-hearted centrists and conservatives. In the Buddhist world it means empathizing with those at the cutting edge of new ways of understanding and practicing the Dharma as well as those who place highest value on the oldest teachings and institutions.

And that takes real work. Often we can find our greatest frustration is with those who are closest to us on the political spectrum but who are just either a) twisting things a bit too far, or b) failing to connect with us and see a problem we're pointing at. 

Back when I studied the Pali language, I remember noting that the Buddha used a few words that essentially mean "stupid" and "idiot" to describe people around him surprisingly often. It wasn't just the Brahmins or members of other religious groups that he was talking about. It was often his own near and dear monks and nuns (well, mostly just monks that I can remember). 

The point is, the Buddha offered criticism to anyone who acted or spoke against the truth, be they a close disciple or a distant teacher. And he offered kind words to those who spoke and acted in manners aligned with truth, be they members of his community or not. 

One way I have seen this helpfully manifested in discussions has been in the use of the phrase "both/and." It typically is valuable when a poster or commenter writes that "X is bad, an alternative of X is good." For instance, "our government is bad, anarchy is good." We might say, "what about both a system that preserves helpful things about our government like environmental protections or worker's rights and greater avenues of freedom and self-expression as well as local governance?"

Again, this is by no means easy. And convincing people of things on the internet, people you likely don't know and might never meet is often a lost cause. Nonetheless we are here. Let us make the best of our time in this space.

* Emma also interviewed me way back in my previous life as a famous Buddhist blogger and hers as an editor for Tricycle Magazine. 

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