Friday, January 18, 2008

If you can't put it down, pick it up

That's advice Buddhists give a fair bit. Usually, we start with "put it down" which means "don't worry, try to forget about it." But if you can't put it down, pick it up - you'll learn something. I first heard that actually from Hyon Gak Sunim who told me about a fellow novice monk (when sunim was younger) who had trouble not masturbating. "If you can't put it down, pick it up." Ha!

Anyway, being a relatively young Buddhist, I'm not always so great at putting stuff down. My temperament is such that I put a lot of things down easily - too much so, even, so that I often lack motivation - but there are a few things I have tremendous trouble putting down. If you've been reading this, you probably have a good idea what they are.

Anyway, I recently got email from someone at Newsvine, and it's part of the reason I've had something on my mind:
What do you mean they banned you? Why? Last I heard it was a suspension? Thought you were back with another byline. Seen a guy around I'd have sworn was you. Time to start a bring ignoblus back campaign!
Funny thing, this is the guy who made the argument that got me banned.

I kept arguing -increasingly focusing on the one argument- that when a member of an oppressed minority group tells you they are offended -in my case if I say, "hey, that's antisemitic"- it's important to listen. You don't have to agree, but you should do what you can to understand what that person is saying. It's not always easy, but you really should try to make an extra effort to listen. I would go on noting that if you then act to silence that person, which often happens as minorities are seen unfairly when they react legitimately to stereotypes and discrimination, that's an act of discrimination far worse than what might originally have been said. On the other hand, listening can be an act of compassion strong enough to win over others even if what you originally said was truly horrible. That's a pretty standard anti-racist line. Perhaps my formulation isn't the best, but I would expect anyone who claims to be concerned with racism or antisemitism to take that argument seriously.

So, when he wrote, in response to a seriously antisemitic article (that portrayed Ann Coulter as a victim of a "Zionist" witch hunt for antisemites in order to stifle criticism of Israel - really):
I call this phenom the real new anti-semitism the throwing around of the label at anyone who is critical of Israel. How this helps Israel in its need to make peace with its neighbours is unclear.
This is an attempt to marginalize Jews when they express concern about antisemitism, and attitudes like that are an important element of Jewish oppression. (By coincidence, I recently saw an episode from the third season of Cracker, with the same argument but about gender. "Women need rape," with the explanation that it gives them power over men.) I expressed my feelings openly and honestly. I did make one mistake, though - I was too intimidated to confront the person who wrote such a hateful article head on, and I picked this comment to challenge instead.

But what he said is exactly the sort of thing I spent a lot of time on Newsvine arguing against, and it shouldn't have been a surprise to him that I'd take offence. And then it comes to:
I will take legal action against you if you do not take this statement back.
Now we're talking about using legal means to enforce censorship on Jews who complain about antisemitism. Wow! Carried forward, the claim that I was stifling debate was used to get me banned. And the hypocrisy of claiming that I was the one stifling debate!

Yet here he is surprised that I was banned (?!?!) and trying to be friendly? What can I do?

Well, I don't know. I wrote an email back that will probably be interpreted as attacking rather than confused. Perhaps it was attacking, even. I went back and forth between feeling compassion for someone who was trying to reach out and frustration with someone who refused to listen even as they expect friendship. I only know that I can't make him think anything.

I have to just trust the situation. If he can see clearly, perhaps he can learn from me even when I make mistakes and react with anger instead of compassion. If he can't see clearly enough, he can't learn no matter how good my teaching is.

It's very tough for most of us not to expect a Buddhist teacher to give us something. Not gonna happen, and that expectation is something I've had no trouble putting down. What I have tremendous difficulty putting down, though, is the feeling that I can give someone else something other than just compassion. In some sense, it's why I'm writing here, hoping to teach. That's my ego. Even in becoming a Buddhist, on some level it's a desire for spiritual fame, a desire to be seen and admired for being wise. Then people will listen and I can help - but that attitude is a serious impediment to me being wise or to others listening. No matter how right I am.

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