Thursday, January 13, 2011

Lashon hara, Gun Club, Fourth Precept

There's a term I learned when studying Judaism twenty years ago, lashon hara. It stuck with me that "unkind words" represented a key concept in ethical foundations for a student of the Torah. It's one of the first concepts that I connected with in Jewish ethics, perhaps as a corrective to a tendency for sarcasm, insult, self-recrimination, backbiting and negativity in my own habits of speech in which I'd been raised and which I'd inculcated unknowingly. The past few days, my nation's been caught up in its own reversion to a habit of unkind words, maybe meant as chastising or corrective, but often sounding to me as vindictive and cruel.

For my Contemporary History class yesterday, studying the aftermath of WWI and the 1920s and 1930s, I defined "socialist, communist, and fascist." I reminded my students of their true meanings. Coming home, I had to fill in the context at the dinner table for "blood libel" as that denotation has been wrenched apart from its connotation last night. I've been on the blogs and about the net and I've seen the papers even if I promptly turned off the inevitable CNN 24-hour blitz that impinged on our home a few days ago.

On a couple of places, as the news unfolded and grew and accusations and blame resounded, I posted this in reference to my own encounter with students not perhaps that different than the one accused of shooting the people in Arizona last weekend. People had been debating about how we can protect ourselves from a deranged killer. People blamed the young man, and those who they reasoned set him off unreasonably.

As a college instructor, I can verify that we do have a culture, influenced by progressives (Foucault? Laing?), that allows students with mental problems freer rein. Even when myself or classmates have reported that we feel threatened, we were told by supervisors that we cannot do anything unless physical violence occurs. A "hostile environment" caused by said student who's imbalanced is outweighed by that student's civil rights; nor can counseling be demanded. I'm not diminishing the tragedy or shifting blame, but explaining context behind such tragedies.

I feel weary, but as one who educates as well as prattles, I figure I'd get my thoughts out. (I append as an aside that we also have a society where conservatives have shut down many mental institutions and continue via their cronies in the "healthcare providers" industry to limit access to psychiatry and treatments as affordable for most Americans, while tax cuts endure as sacred, businesses slash worker's coverage, and insurance companies remain formidable.) I know what it's like to have a student mouthing off and disrupting a course. I know what it's like to have to hear out a student who lacks stability despite his or her book smarts. And, I've come home frustrated with not knowing what to do, or feeling I lack the protection I need for me and the majority of the class to continue comfortably at the expense of the rights of a single student whose presence unsettles even the most patient and tolerant of us.

I teach Public Speaking, I teach literature, I teach modern history, and I teach Technology, Society & Culture this term. Four courses to a total of ninety students, most of whom read little and who are techies and gamers instead. So, these slightly jostled and jumbled reflections are germane, if for my own needs perhaps, to get out of my head the static and noise. Too-familiar with resentment and score-setting, I need wisdom.

My own politics may be now as shifty as my denominational or philosophical views, in that I find myself in teacher mode, seeing all sides, hearing all voices, until I wonder sometimes where my own allegiances remain. After twenty-six and counting years in a classroom, you tend to become either open-minded or closed. I hope I've kept the former quality, even if my few liberal friends berate me for my flexibility in entertaining what I may not advocate deep down, and my fewer conservative friends may despise me for wooly-headedness. Parts of the right remind me of populism, but their elected descendents pretend to spurn the government while seduced by lobbyists; parts of the left recall the Progressives of a century ago, but they are too beholden to the same business interests without which no supposedly reforming candidate can win or keep office today. In class, I can argue for any position, and in the ballot box I may be as hard to pin down.

I keep anonymity for all mentioned among my own varied fellow travelers herein. But a true comrade of mine, veteran of many real and cyber-battles to defend first Irish republican activists and then those who challenged the leaders who took over the movement in the wake of their cynical revisionism, alerted me to an article that aligned with my own reactions. She told me about  "A Dysfunctional Moment in American Politics" by Wendy Kaminer, courtesy of the contrarian site Spiked.

Some commentators there lean considerably closer than I do for Second Amendment rights for those not constituting "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State," who stress instead only the remainder of the statement "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Capitalization aside, and commas inserted or deleted depending on the version, but an insistent faction of our population promotes the latter clause on t-shirt and bumper sticker without convincing us, or me at least, of the validity of the former as a prerequisite. Nobody can argue that the deluded Arizona shooter constituted part of any "well regulated Militia."

So, how do we square conservatives who assert this right via their anti-statist reactions against a liberal defense (at least in terms of the media and the dominant voices in this debate this week, and perhaps of the silent majority of the citizenry) that attacks those from a reactionary right as deadly wrong, responsible for the massacre of innocents goaded on by inflammatory websites and target-practice videos? I sense payback, bitterness at the victories eked out by those now in charge who will have to leap some ideological and political bounds to justify their own anti-government, anti-gun control views against the casualty list caused by a crazed dropout with no discernable sense given a favorite reading list of Hitler and Ayn Rand alongside Marx and Orwell, Huxley and utter babble scoured and mashed and fried from the most marginal and insensible of websites and conspiracy theories and monetarists and fools. All poured into half a brain to aim a gunsight.

Yet, I find myself annoyed with those who rush to judge conservatives as if blaming them all for the actions of a schizophrenic. This tends to be the gut reaction of many whose comments I've read on sites I frequent. Coming from a background, an upbringing, and a lengthening career where I mingle with far more traditional students than my colleagues at more selective colleges, I find myself daily engaged with working-class, immigrant, first-generation students, many vets, who pay my wage. They lack clout; I lack tenure. This is the workaday cadre whom progressives boast about empowering and whom conservatives claim among their recruits. I wonder if those with power or affluence talk with--rather than talk down to--those with whom they differ. Or do they hear or see them as soundbites on radio or television or the net or YouTube? I try to listen.

Many commentators, professional and amateur, appeared to mix glee with bitterness at a chance to excoriate the far-right. While I do not reside there any more than I do the radical left, I found myself taken aback by this opportunism. Amidst righteous indignation, I also found score-setting, caricaturing, and vitriol, as if hatred spewed more hate. Those defending humane values and gentler dissent themselves were outshouted.

So, I welcomed a fresh approach. "Spiked," as with "Standpoint" whose columns by Nick Cohen (of the "Observer") I enjoy (if not always agreeing with, but then, who do I always agree with anyway?) my colleague introduced me to, offers this view that gets as ticked off by the smarmy left as it does the slimy right. I also think the distance instilled in some British-based sites eases what in the U.S. turns more and more a corporate-directed merging of the pundits and shock jocks into what passed once as "news," as my wife's informed me regarding the easing of FCC rules about "commentary" vs. supposedly objective TV journalism. British reporters for ideologically identifiable papers may certainly parade their own biases, but their critical perspective on American entertainment disguised ineffectively as detached coverage does sharpen my gaze.

I shared my comrade's link, and highlighted in my comment box on FB this from Kaminer: "Any actual, causal connection between the attack and the degeneration of political discourse will probably never be clear." I waited for dissent or support.

First, an author who has published two high-profile, well-received memoirs (reviewed by me) of growing up tough among the down and out asserted his determination on FB to place Kaminer's comments within the true threats he saw tilted far more to the lunatic right rather than the remnants of some countercultural left.

He, after I posted Kaminer's article, responded to her claims: "I can't remember the last time the left held target shooting practice with targets set on the right. I don't like the left use of the word "Fascist" for anyone on the right. It's as wrong as the teabaggers calling Obama a communist or fascist or whatever mix of labels for "un-American" that they want to use. But what goes way beyond that type of vitriol (which is bad and stupid) is the very specific call to arms that we have gotten from the right. Seriously, when is the last time we heard that from the left? The Weather Underground? The Black Panthers? Those movements were completely destroyed. By contrast, the right wing revolutionary movements will not be destroyed by our government. They are encouraged."

As for me, I have earned contempt for pointing out to liberals that "teabagger" itself is an anti-gay slur, but this nitpicking has not won me admirers. I am with him on the abuse of "fascist" by the left, and I'd add "nazi," "socialist," and "communist," as I noted above. His last sentence may be up for argument. Who in "our government" encourages the reactionary, armed and discontented, may depend on who and where. A lot.

A wise friend of mine, on FB in this case but as a true friend in person as well even if we gently bicker a bit, responded to my advocacy of Kaminer's nuanced position: "This kind of violence has been intentionally fomented. The fear that drives it has been obviously used for political gain - and now that the worst has happened there's a desire to split hairs over the exact reasoning of the unreasonable in order to pin it down to something that nobody has to feel guilty about."

Echoing this, I cited the words of this same friend anonymously at True Liberal Nexus . Its blogger, Tamerlane, and I often agree, if sometimes we disagree or diverge. In response to his "Blood on Your Hands" entry, which points the accusing finger at the Gun Club (not the swamp-punk band of the same name whom I love), I typed in: "I may split hairs as a professional hazard, being a teacher, but my friend’s point aligns with yours, TL. But I wonder about causality, even for insanity." I continued in classroom mode:

"My discussion question: how is this shooting different or similar to, say, the attempts on Gerald Ford by Sara Jane Moore & Squeaky Fromme? Did not the climate then also become infected by talk of revolution from the margins to take out our leaders?"

Tamerlane replied: "Moore & Fromme were immersed in fringe radicalism. I can’t speak to the “climate of revolution” in 1975 — there may have been some residual from the Vietnam War protests, but this feels different to me today than what I recall from my childhood.

One major difference is that Moore &  Fromme were bad shots, had malfunctioning pistols with only 4 -6 bullets. That, and nobody had used gunsight imagery urging people to “target” Ford."

He quotes the guilty who goaded on with their fiery slogans the fury that now claims innocent lives. Gunsights, cross-hairs, surveyor's marks, blood libels. I get it. But, I'm tired. Heartland veterans vs. Bay Area progressives, Irish radicals vs. "Don't Tread on Me" resurgents, surfers and hunters, I count them all among FB friends in my small-c catholicity, so I can't please either side. You may understand why I move on now, for recess.

Psychologist Seth Segall, retired from teaching at the Yale School of Medicine, and author of "Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings" (SUNY Press , 2003). posted this at his blog "The Existential Buddhist" on January 10th, 2011. I was alerted to this by the poet-critic Ben Howard, whose "One Time, One Meeting: the Practice of Zen" blog I read regularly and link to from my own.

Dr. Segall titled this essay "The Fourth Precept" . A few years ago I might have dismissed this with a skim as too out of touch with reality. Now I think it's more in touch with my own reverberations than the increasingly unreal society I find myself distanced, or alienated, from. (I cite nearly all of his article below for my own recollections and for future reference; I've already pondered it quite a bit.)

The current public discussion over the role vitriolic political rhetoric plays in creating an atmosphere that increases the likelihood of violent actions is as good a time as any to revisit the Fourth Buddhist Precept.

The Fourth Precept reads:

Musāvāda veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

I undertake the vow to abstain from false speech.

“False speech” is a faithful translation of “musāvāda,” but most Buddhists interpret this precept more broadly to include all forms of wrongful or harmful speech. The Pali Canon identifies four types of wrongful speech: 1) lies, 2) backbiting and slander, 3) abusive and hurtful speech, and 4) frivolous talk. This would include speech that is harsh, untruthful, poorly timed, motivated by greed or hatred, or otherwise connected with harm. Gossip, misleading arguments, verbal bullying, incitements to violence, rage outbursts, malicious ridicule, and poorly worded or ill-timed truths that cause pain without benefit all fall into the category of wrongful speech.

Thich Nhat Hanh has interpreted the fourth precept to include all forms of unmindful speech and unheedful listening:

“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.”

and elsewhere:

“Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things of which you are not sure. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.”

It’s hard to improve on either the aspiration or the advice!

Mindfulness of speech allows us to carefully guard what we’re about to say. If we’re aware that we’re about to say something we might regret, it’s helpful to pause just long enough to ask ourselves four questions:

1.Why am I saying this?

2.Is it completely true?

3.Is it the right time to say it?

4.Is it liable to result in benefit or harm?

If the motivation is self-serving or hateful, if it’s not completely true, if it’s poorly worded or ill-timed, or if it is likely to cause more harm than good, then don’t say it. It’s simple.
(Seth Segall then discusses various forms of lies, some less harmful than others)

Inflamed political rhetoric fails a number of important karmic tests. It is 1) not fully truthful, 2) spoken out of aversion, 3) slanderous and/or demeaning in intent, and 4) crafted to ignite passion rather than reason. What good could possibly come from it?

As the Dhammapada notes:

“If you speak… with a corrupted heart, then suffering follows you — as the wheel of the cart, the track of the ox that pulls it.” [1]

Words, like actions, have consequences, and set the stage for our future happiness or misery. This is the implacable law of cause-and-effect. We can refrain from causing harm to ourselves and others only through mindfulness, discerning wisdom, and a compassionate heart.
This week the reckless use of language has not only clouded and impeded a true national dialogue on the important issues of our time, but it also has contributed to tragic deaths and injuries caused by a deluded mind with a semi-automatic weapon.

He ends with a request for peace for all beings, and who can disagree? When I was younger, as I wrote about at record-setting length nearly two years ago as Pax Christi Passover, I wanted to join the Navy, I wanted to shoot, I wanted to fight, I wanted to revolt. My reading, my films, my music all changed, but this mentality stuck with me until I found a gentler appeal from the Franciscan ethos, the Catholic Workers, the principled anarchists I met in college and after. My religious allegiances shifted, ebbed, flowed, halted, twisted, eddied. My blog documents my journey inside and outside. I don't tell all here, nor may I ever, but these sentiments, in the bold rather than spineless manner of their articulation, do inform my present situation.

Starting the new year and my commute to work and back, I've opted for classical music instead of rock. I felt I needed downtime on the freeway. I kept it up this week. Not sure how long, and it's no New Year's promise, but I need a change from the constant barrage of diatribes, accusations, and recriminations. May this article posted here add to the need for peace rather than detract from it. May we all long for calm resolution.

Illustration: Eric Gill, 1915, Tate Gallery. Note again the Dhammapada quoted above: “If you speak… with a corrupted heart, then suffering follows you — as the wheel of the cart, the track of the ox that pulls it.” [1] "Dumb Driven Cattle"


Eabha Rose said...

Best wishes to you dear Fionnchu!! I hope we get to talk soon!!!
Have a great weekend ;)

Eabha Rose

tamerlane said...

My post, "Blood on Your Hands" was both emotional and coldly rational. For a comparable expression, cf. Skynyrd's "Saturday Night Special."

Why did I say what I did?
Because I was enraged, infuriated, devastated, horrified, focused; ruthlessly counter-attacking a clear and direct threat.

Is it completely true?

post hoc, ergo promtper hoc? No. In the larger context, damn straight.

Is it the right time to say it?

Damn straight, again! Before more blood is shed.

Is it liable to result in benefit or harm?

Only benefit. The reckless words of the TP were on a collision course with harm.

The very same talk coming out of the mouths of TPers came out of Southrons in 1860. How much blood was spilled because that reckless talk was not quelled?

The TP called for blood, and blood came. Nuf ced.