our culture of shaming

Goodness but I do need to start posting regularly again. I had every intention of doing so earlier in the year but life, as can happen, took over. There are a great many things to write about but let’s simply begin here, with a video I came across earlier in the evening on the culture of shaming (via Twitter). Quite powerful I think, and I’ll let it speak for itself, at least for now:

George Saunders on kindness

As spotted on The Dish today, George Saunders delivered the commencement address at Syracuse University on May 11 of this year (the entirety can be read here). It’s an ode to kindness, and begins with a recitation of various unpleasant experiences he has had and doesn’t particularly regret, followed by the one thing he does:

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded… sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Here is his conclusion, which is about as good a commencement speech ending as I expect I will ever see:

So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.

Congratulations, Class of 2013.

I wish you great happiness, all the luck in the world, and a beautiful summer.

the most radical word

My candidate is interdependence.

The Beatles, in tune with the later 1960s as a whole, sang that all we need is love, but what “love” are we talking about? Clearly not that espoused by, say, the Westboro Baptist Church, or other fundamentalist groups. The trouble is that it’s been a highly amorphous word for a long, long time. We could say we mean something like “selfless, unconditional, universal compassion,” but most of the time in our culture the word is tied to the realm of romantic relationship, which itself tends to manifest in a definitely un-radical, however desirable, direction (cf. D.H. Lawrence calling the cult of the Couple “égoïsme à deux”). In any case, it’s simply not going to wash calling the subject of one of the silliest major holidays of the year – ie Valentine’s Day – the “most radical word!” We must try again.

Others might opt for justice, but I think we’re moving even further away here. For one thing, the concept is still so steeped in a retributive mindset, and the notion of punishment seems precisely one of the most literally reactionary impulses we have. Even were we able to move more fully in the direction of a restorative approach, I believe by that stage the word “justice” itself would probably have dropped off. In fact, this is already occurring within the field, which has been evolving into the more expansive notion of “restorative practices” – see here, here, and here for further information on one of the most enlightened developments going on today. (And take a look at this wonderful interview with the founder of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg, which fully complements these approaches.)

Still others might say freedom is the most radical word. I have a little more sympathy with this choice, because it is said of the fully realized state that it’s one of complete freedom: no sense of compulsion, no anxiety, no personal concerns, no agonizing over decisions, no regret or fear. But again, in our culture the dominant meanings of “freedom” are nowhere near so radical, tending to be confined to the political realm. And here we see the same lack of clarity and degree of contestation too: both “left” and “right” employ the word often and centrally, but in some exceptionally divergent ways.

Shifting gears, I can imagine that some of those who are religiously identified might claim God for the most radical word. Or perhaps a buddhist might nominate the dharma, meaning roughly “the way it all is/the nature of reality itself.” A taoist might prefer the tao, meaning the same thing although emphasizing the notion and practice of “nature’s way” specifically. But it doesn’t take more than a moment of gazing at our world to realize that the word “God” in its various translations has also helped bring about an awful lot of disharmony and violence. The God of Pat Robertson or of his counterparts in the Jewish and Muslim worlds bears almost no resemblance to the God of Rumi or Hafiz, say, or Thomas Merton, or Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

shapeimage_2Photo credit: “Reb Zalman greeting the Dalai Lama at the Naropa Institute” (Foto di Vita, 1997) – from The Yesod Foundation’s Reb Zalman Legacy Project

Interdependence has a number of things in its favor as a nominee for “most radical word.” For one, it is both a “wisdom” word (pointing to the nature of reality) and a “practice” word (directly indicating how we might actually see and live our lives). It’s also an inherently non-sectarian word, one which anyone can use. Most especially – as would befit a truly radical word – as we delve more and more deeply into it, it affects our relationship with everything. With:

our bodies and understanding of health
our minds, each other, animals, and the natural world
business and the economy
all the institutions we create
the building of community
the communal/political process
situations of conflict and harm
other cultures
climate change and other urgent global challenges

Own your love! Or, how did “choice” become an unprogressive word?

[Note: this was originally the seventh and last post of a much longer essay. The entirety will soon appear on a separate page of longer pieces. I have kept this part on the main page as I feel it is self-contained.]

In the comments section to the piece which inspired this entire polemic six long posts ago … the most frequent line of thought contained some variation on the following: “Did you choose to be straight? What an idiotic, hateful, ignorant thing to say, that people “choose” their sexuality. Only a homophobic moron could ever even think such a thing. How completely reactionary and stupid.” Complete with various forms of sarcasm, mockery, and so on.

So, how would I answer such a person who asks me how anyone could possibly choose their “sexuality?” I would say something like this:

The question itself is very much flawed. And it is set up to beg one possible answer.

Let’s focus on the notion of “attraction” first of all, then come back to “sexuality,” which is actually a much bigger idea.

Did I wake up one morning and “choose” to love tea, or spinach, or world dance music? I think simple “choice” is a philosophically problematic concept. From the standpoint of complete interdependence (the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has some helpful exercises in his books for working with this view empirically), we can’t actually contain in our consciousness anything even close to all the different factors involved in making such a decision – all the innumerable past perceptions and experiences which leave cognitive and emotive traces of all kinds, many of which are even unconscious. This isn’t like making an ordinary day-to-day decision – “do I have time to fit this appointment in tomorrow?”; “shall I apply for this position?”; “am I treating this person the right way?” – in which the relevant factors can usually be much reduced, contained.

So on one level I wouldn’t say that I literally “chose” to find (some) men attractive, or (some) women attractive. I think there are areas of life where it is not unreasonable to say something like that. For example, I don’t especially enjoy the prospect of working out, but I think it’s very possible that if I form the intention to stay open to it and am able to establish a discipline of practicing it, I at least theoretically might become one of those people addicted to the gym. Is there something fundamentally different about physical attraction, physical taste? Possibly. It is of course hard to justify saying that a person wakes up one morning and “decides” that they are going to be attracted to something. And yet … there is a flip side. I do experience all my tastes and attractions as part of a complex and ever-developing creative process.

There was definitely a time when I didn’t like spinach. The process of coming to like it involved a number of attempts throughout childhood and my teen years. I can’t remember the day it occurred to me that spinach was actually delicious, but it was certainly preceded by lots of judgments going the other way. Likewise it took probably three or four attempts before I began to truly appreciate scotch. When I first smoked a cigarette I thought it was absolutely vile. Alas, over time I became a smoker and grew to love the habit (until I hated it again and gave up for good – yay).

However, if I never can remember a moment growing up when I “chose” to find (some) boys or (some) girls attractive, neither can I remember a time when it chose me, as it were. In other words, I experience all attractions evolutionarily. None of them has come to me fully formed, ready-made, solid and unchanging. “Attraction” is not some one-pointed, unitary thing. Ask a thousand people what specifically attracts them about women or men or both and you will receive a thousand different answers. (See the end of Post 5 for a half-dozen or so other ways we might conceptualize “orientation,” if we insist on doing so.)

But all this has to do with cultivating tastes/attractions not already present. What about those that are? And here, I am in complete agreement: I don’t think powerful likes or loves or attractions ever go away, or very rarely. So let’s be clear about this. I don’t believe you can beat out of someone an already experienced deep attraction. But herein lies the first logical flaw in the rhetoric we daily hear. One can most certainly condemn “ex-gay organizations” – and should – on these grounds without needing to jump to any metaphysical construct whatsoever. If I’ve already developed a taste for tea, you’re not going to easily beat it out of me. With enough aversion torture therapy, yes, it’ll probably go away, at least for some time. But I don’t need to be a “tea-er” for this to be the case. I only simply need to love tea – whether in addition to coffee, or whatever. It doesn’t matter what pathways my consciousness took to affirm, “yeah, I like that, tea is awesome.” It’s the liking that deserves respect.

The crucial and really only relevant thing that needs to be said is: these feelings are good, period. They are fine. They are life-affirming, life-nourishing, centrally important to the person concerned. And it’s absolutely beyond your right to try and coerce such feelings out of anyone. (Again, short of prolonged torture aversion therapy perhaps, you’re not going to succeed anyway.)

But here’s the practical, political point in this: I hate to break it to the most idealistic, but many of the folks you’re trying to convince really don’t even care about the notion of etiology (“causation,” origins). From their point of view it is perfectly acceptable to say: well, okay, then there’s this special 2% or so who are blessed by God, for their affliction renders them more sensitive than the rest of us, but still it is wrong to use one’s genitals outside of male-female marriage, as ordained by the Lord, so their choice is to marry and be relatively disappointed, or joyfully embrace celibacy and serve humankind more fully.” Now, we might think anything we like about such a point of view, but we need to recognize that our cherished argument of innateness and immutability will not turn such a lock.

So again, just to be quite clear: 1) We do not require the notion of “innate and immutable” to counter the arguments of those who seek to (try to) erase same-sex love from others, any more than we need such a notion to argue a person’s right to prefer dogs to cats, late night to early morning, tea to coffee.

2) Not only do we not need such a notion, I have been arguing throughout these posts that it is not a supportable one. As such, it actually dilutes our case, and the opposition knows it, and doesn’t ultimately find it relevant anyway (see two paragraphs above).

Throughout all human history people have made less than stellar marriages – for that matter, often arranged marriages, where one had no choice of partner whatsoever. I have to say that one of the sadder “jokes” I hear (often by late-night comedians) hinges on the supposed literal, physical impossibility of people to have any kind of sex whatsoever with the “wrong” sex. You know, like, there are no gay-identified people who have and raise children, and guys have never, ever messed around with each other after a certain number of drinks. Please. (I’m not even going to dignify that with a reasoned response!) From the standpoint of people for whom sex is dubious at the best of times (cf. St. Paul: “it is better to marry than to burn”), all that matters is that sperm and egg find a way to meet. Your plea for the right to a happy sex life will not reach people who don’t view the pursuit of a happy sex life as a basic human right in the first place.

So now we can move onto the notion of “sexuality,” which, as I hope I’ve shown in the previous six posts, is something else again. “Sexuality” is a construct inescapably shaped by culture. Same-sex love and expression, for example, take a huge number of cultural forms (see Post 3). For the most part we think within the paradigmatic constructs we have come into contact with, because it takes time and much contemplative space to form overarching critiques, move into larger perspectives.

So I would say that at the level of “attraction,” the notion of choice is problematic, although – and this is a crucial point – attractions and tastes definitely can expand if we wish to cultivate them. However, I argue that we do in fact choose our “sexualities” – with the crucially important proviso that we choose them from among the options we have been taught. If we grow up in a culture in which more-or-less no stigma attaches to a man having sex with men provided he maintains a dominant “male” role (see Post 3 again), his “sexuality” options will differ from ours, because the ways in which the realms of sexuality are carved up differ. Likewise, the ancient Greeks too, to take just one other example, would have found our notions of “straight” and “gay” incomprehensible.

Personally, I’ve most definitely chosen my own “sexuality,” though my choice has been to reject the options on offer as not reflective of or truthful to my experience.

Today we live in a world where for men especially the pressures to fall into either a simple “straight” or “gay” box are almost insuperable. We have made it extremely difficult, practically speaking, for anyone to express same-sex feeling in any way, to any degree, without identifying themselves as Gay with a capital G – whether or not they actually feel separate in this way or culturally at home there (many do, a great many others don’t). That’s not a lot of choices, to put it mildly, and so it is completely understandable that many aware of strong same-sex feelings will embrace the specific identity of gayness with such a sense of relief, such joy.

But again: being aware of strong attraction for the same sex is not the same thing as “being gay.” It only seems that way because we are taught that men especially must be either G or S, and that this simply must be the fundamental category of “sexuality.” But there is nothing “natural” about this idea, and as I’ve suggested in post 5, there are many other equally valid ways to create sexual categories than by simply mapping them onto gender.

Awhile back I reported on the vote in New Zealand equalizing marriage. The day after my post I came across part of a speech in favor of the proposition, which disappointed me. Its argument was (you guessed it): people who “can’t help whom they love” shouldn’t be discriminated against. Well, if that’s literally the argument, then I’m literally not included in it. And no one is who doesn’t identify specifically as gay. No bisexual or pansexual or human sexual or what have you is included in it, quite literally. Let me put it another way: “can’t help it” simply isn’t the point. The point is and can only be: it’s good and right.

I believe we are currently stuck in the middle of a profound paradigm shift, which is why there is such enormous turmoil over a question concerning supposedly a tiny minority. A certain very ancient paradigm has been crumbling before our eyes and we don’t know what to do about it. On the one side there is fear, and retreat to the fortress of fully reified Gender. On the other side there is still fear, maybe a little less of it: here, Gender is still being propped up, but via brain organization theory (Post 5) and an extraordinarily reduced, deterministic, static view of sexuality.

But there is an alternative. That alternative is the view that the human race has actually been rapidly moving towards a genuine transcendence of gender, that is, gender as limitation. I’m not talking about procreative role and childbearing, but literally everything else. This process is already so far along and has been occurring at such a breathtaking rate that it has left a good deal of confusion and anxiety in its wake – as witness the growth in fundamentalist movements around the world, which are always exercised about gender and sex most of all.

As part of this, we have the capacity to begin to recognize that sexuality is both one and innumerable, but not two, not either/or. It’s “one” because there’s a tremendous amount we share in being human together, and it’s “innumerable” because we are each in fact unique. One aspect of this view is that, as even Freud noted, it’s hard to see how human beings would not have a basic bisexual potential – like our evolutionary forebears the fully bisexual bonobos. After all, again, women and men are not simply one-pointed dots of attractiveness, not even close to “opposites”: we are hugely, hugely more alike than different – physically, and in every other way.

In that case, what we’re going through at this point in time is a phase towards a larger and more liberated understanding of human potential and relationship. And yes, this is a scary prospect for us in certain respects. So a good deal of reaction has set in – from both sides. It’s not coincidental that the women’s and gay movements blossomed more-or-less simultaneously in the ’60s. Ultimately I believe neither of them will be seen as minority movements, but rather as the human race as a whole moving into a larger View.

We need to be able to advocate with full confidence in the truth. Not treat same-sex attraction and love as if they are a “condition” people are afflicted with. We’re mortgaging security with the shaky currency of etiology, when only the full truth will do now. We simply have to make the case that human beings are entitled to love whomever they like, consensually share their own bodies with whomever they like. Etiology is both endlessly disputable and also irrelevant. It doesn’t matter why you think I prefer tea to the more “normal” American beverage of coffee. The choice is morally neutral if not positive (tea seems to be healthier), enriching to some, harmful to none, and therefore it is mine to make.

Finally, I’d like to address an even more extreme form of the question. Often one hears this: “Why would anyone choose gayness if they could help it, given everything one must go through along the way?” This always puzzles me even more, because it is such an oddly negative way of thinking about things.

The answer can only be: why does anyone choose any path that is difficult? Because, of course, it’s viewed as valuable enough. Why for example do people become heroes, sacrificing their own well-being and even lives for the truth? Because they were simply born heroes?

Everyone knows that loving others, and for most people physical and sexual closeness with others too, are amongst the very best things around. So people will naturally be willing to go through quite a lot in their name. But there are also limits, which this argument forgets. When there’s no hope and the situation is too dangerous, most people throughout history don’t in fact try. It’s an individual trade-off. The notion of being able to “help it” or not is irrelevant. The only question is whether or not we should have to. And the winning of that argument is the only route to some real security.

My own feelings for men and for women are many and various, and a huge amount of what I feel for people – emotionally and physically – cannot be reduced to a checkbox, a label. I used to be a baseball fan as a child and only occasionally watched football. Now I watch neither but enjoy soccer when I have the time. Likewise, I rarely drank tea growing up, almost entirely coffee. Later I drank both (coffee with cream and no sugar, black tea in teabags with milk and sugar) and now it’s almost entirely tea (loose-leaf greens, oolongs, and blacks, no milk, no sugar). My tastes in food, music, film, and everything else have grown over the course of my life, and my sexuality has too. Gender “object choice” is different in certain ways, for sure, but mainly in how profoundly charged the subject of gender itself is. Despite this being so, for me sexuality has most definitely evolved and subtly expanded along with everything else. Because I want it to.

There are all kinds of same-sex feelings that people have without wishing to give themselves a separate “identity.” Let’s stay open to it all. The crime is in forcing people to shut down. And this is what we essentially do today. The anti-gay do it in one way. But the current rigidity of our discourse – and the “political correctness” of it – does it too.

I do not believe our “innate and immutable” argument can ultimately save anyone, even were it more coherent than it is. The only safe and stable argument to make and win, long-term, is that love is love. Same-sex love and attraction take various cultural forms, but they are human, universal, and precious. Period. That, I believe, is the progressive way forward. We must own our love.

the Karmapa on gender (2)

Continuing on from the preceding post, two more exhilarating moments from The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out:

As for myself, I am a Khampa, but I do not like to take an aggressive stance or oppose others at all. People who watch out for my interests sometimes advise me to be less earnest and to go on the offensive more. They caution me against being so open and trusting. They warn me that people can have all sorts of different motivations and ulterior motives, and may be out to deceive me or use my name for their own ends. Even though I have heard this advice clearly, I cannot change. Actually, I don’t want to.


In this era of global communication and weapons of mass destruction, rather than impose our will on others by force, we urgently need to find ways to accommodate divergent wills. It has been a long and gradual process, but I believe the world is slowly coming to realize that what we need now is not the ability to make assertions, but the ability to listen. Especially with the unthinkably destructive power of the weapons we have at our disposal, it seems clear that we need to sit down to dialogue, and not stand up to fight.

The times call on us to look at others with the attentive and loving eyes of a mother, rather than with the hostile eyes of a warrior in battle. If we are going to divide up qualities as masculine or feminine, I think we have to say that the qualities we need today are qualities more often described as feminine. We need communication and sensitive listening to others’ needs – qualities that are likelier to be identified as feminine than masculine in most societies.

It is time we truly recognize that the era of the hunter is past. This should be a more “feminine” era…

the Karmapa on gender

The previous post here talked a bit about the Karmapa’s new book The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out. The chapter I find the most remarkable of all has to be the one on gender – “Gender Identities: It’s All in the Mind.” This is so because Tibetan culture, as is true of traditional cultures in general all over the world, has maintained a strongly gendered view of psychology and society.

Nothing in this chapter hasn’t been said by various western teachers of buddhism, and stray remarks can be found – increasingly so in recent decades – coming from other Tibetans, but this chapter surely represents the most direct and sustained presentation of the emptiness of gender from within the Tibetan world. As such I feel it to be a genuinely epochal moment.

A couple of examples:

Gender identities permeate so much of our experience that it is easy to forget that they are just ideas – ideas created to categorize human beings. Nevertheless, the categories of masculine and feminine are often treated as if they were eternal truths. But they are not. They have no objective reality. Because gender is a concept, it is a product of our mind – and has no absolute existence that is separate from the mind that conceives of it.


(©bodhiimages — Tim Buckley)

Societies take the distinction between masculine and feminine qualities very seriously indeed. Whole industries reinforce gender ideals, such as, for example, boys should be brave and girls should be sensitive. Society promotes the idea that people with Y chromosomes should exhibit only “masculine qualities,” and people with X chromosomes should exhibit “feminine qualities.” This holds us back, limiting men and women to socially constructed boxes, and causing a great deal of suffering for everyone [my emphasis].

In my own personal case, I do not always feel clear about this distinction between masculine and feminine qualities. People have told me that I have more feminine qualities than masculine. I do not know quite what that means. I have a sense of what these qualities feel like, but I have no labels of “feminine” or “masculine” to go with the feelings. I simply experience them.

For me personally, knowing how to define and categorize such things is not important. What matters to me is being able to connect with others heart to heart, with real feeling. What I value is the ability to speak from my heart, and to be tender and caring. I hope I have some of these qualities. Certainly these are the qualities I aspire to have. It does not strike me as at all relevant whether they are categorized as feminine or masculine.