Well, the move to a new server is clearly not proceeding as smoothly as I’d hoped. A lot of things are broken on the site right now. I am working on fixing them as fast as I can, and I beg your patience in the meantime.
Many years ago when I began grad school, I recall overhearing fellow grad students (in comparative literature, I think) discussing Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the now classic Beat Generation story of travel through the USA. One of the students mentioned the main character’s deeply questionable behaviour – especially, as I recall, his tendency to form sexual relationships with local women and then nonchalantly abandon them – and the other agreed, responding “Yeah, On the Road is really offensive.”
I didn’t say anything – I wasn’t part of that conversation – but something about that offhand remark has bothered me ever since. “Offensive“? Is that the best word you have for a criticism, I thought? In the politically correct Nineties, had moral criticism been erased and replaced with mere “offensiveness”? Then something must have gone terribly wrong. For to my mind, offensiveness had always been something good. We political radicals – as I and the other students identified – were supposed to be offensive against the values of the conservative mainstream… weren’t we? Even now, when I’m far less political, I still love deliberately offensive humour – the bad taste of Sarah Silverman’s stand-up comedy or of South Park. To be inoffensive, by contrast, seems a lot like being nice, in the wrong way. If all that was wrong with On the Road was that it was “really offensive,” it seemed to me, then nothing is wrong with it.
What does it mean, indeed, to be “offensive”? The word has achieved a particular currency in the era of identity politics – a cultural product is “offensive” to particular groups of people. But what is that? What makes it “offensive”? Is offensiveness purely a creation of a postmodern era of heightened sensitivity? Typically, I think, something is called “offensive” because it is presumed to be insulting; more specifically, because someone feels insulted. I suspect there isn’t much of an objective dimension to offensiveness; something is only offensive if someone is offended.
And here Śāntideva’s magnificent words in chapter six of the Bodhicary?vat?ra come back to me. Continue reading
Great article by Ethan Watters in the New York Times last Friday, called The Americanization of Mental Illness, which deals with questions at the heart of cross-cultural philosophy. (Watters also has a book on the subject coming out, and a blog.) The article notes how “mental illness” remains a category far more culture-bound than psychological studies are typically willing to admit. The DSM, American psychologists’ scripture, has a seven-page appendix (pp. 897-903 in the DSM-IV-TR edition) for “culture-bound disorders,” such as amok (a condition in Malaysia where men get violently aggressive and then have amnesia) or pibloktoq (an Inuit condition involving a short burst of extreme excitement followed by seizures and coma). It’s telling that few of the disorders in this section are culture-bound to the United States; and those which are, are quite telling: “ghost sickness” is “frequently observed among members of many American Indian tribes”; locura, nervios and susto are found among Latinos; sangue dormido is found among Cape Verde Islanders and their immigrants to the US; “rootwork” and “spell” are “seen among African Americans and European Americans from the southern United States.” That is, the only “culture-bound disorders” to be found among white Americans are found among those weird Southern hillbillies who live beside black people. Normal white Americans, the kind who live in Cambridge, MA or in Manhattan, don’t get “culture-bound disorders.” Their disorders are just part of the universal human condition.
Brit Hume of Fox News has been lighting up the Buddhist blogosphere lately, with this criticism of adulterous golfer Tiger Woods:
“The extent to which he can recover, seems to me, depends on his faith. He’s said to be a Buddhist. I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So, my message to Tiger would be, ‘Tiger, turn your faith, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.”
Shortly afterwards, in an appearance on The O’Reilly Factor, Hume attempted to defend his comments with the claim that his point was about Christianity rather than about Buddhism: Continue reading
My philosophical awakening occurred in Thailand in 1997; but it has been over the past decade, “the ohs,” that I’ve really had the chance to develop my thoughts. As that decade closes, I would like to note how my thoughts were shaped by their time.
I spent almost the entire decade living in the United States, except for two three-month stints in Toronto in 2001 and India in 2005. It was not the ideal decade in which to do this, for the US of this decade was the US of George W. Bush: a man who opposed almost everything I had ever stood for, whether substantively (torture, wars of choice, gutting environmental regulations), procedurally (incompetent patronage appointments for natural disasters, governing unilaterally without respect for other branches of government) or symbolically (insisting on suits and ties in the White House). I had grown up despising Ronald Reagan, but Reagan now looked like a saint compared to W – Reagan at least was competent. And in the face of all this, Americans returned him to office in 2004.
For my many American friends – the vast majority of them left-wingers like me – this decade was a time of powerlessness and rage. But they at least could vote, could contribute to political campaigns, could do something about it. Continue reading
One of the most important virtues to consider, to my mind, is what Bertrand Russell called “zest.” Zest, in Russell’s terms, is the healthy enjoyment of worldly pleasures. He explains it as follows:
Suppose one man likes strawberries and another does not; in what respect is the latter superior? There is no abstract and impersonal proof either that strawberries are good or that they are not good. To the man who likes them they are good, to the man who dislikes them they are not. But the man who likes them has a pleasure which the other does not have; to that extent his life is more enjoyable and he is better adapted to the world in which both must live. What is true in this trivial instance is equally true in more important matters. The man who enjoys watching football is to that extent superior to the man who does not. The man who enjoys reading is still more superior to the man who does not, since opportunities for reading are more frequent than opportunities for watching football. (Russell did not live to see ESPN.) The more things a man is interested in, the more opportunities of happiness he has and the less he is at the mercy of fate, since if he loses one thing he can fall back upon another. Life is too short to be interested in everything, but it is good to be interested in as many things as are necessary to fill our days. (Russell, The Conquest of Happiness, pp. 125-6)
Zest in this sense, I think, is and should be a controversial virtue. There are many lists of virtues in which it does not appear. Continue reading
I’d like to push a bit further on the theme of the previous post, because I think it points to some important objections people have to Buddhism – and related philosophies.
A long time ago, I was talking to my friend Nic Thorne, a classicist, about Buddhism and virtue. I was explaining the characteristically Buddhist virtue of k??nti or patient endurance – taking unpleasant events with peace and equanimity. He said: “stoicism.”
The word just floored me. At that point I’d never studied the Stoics, and never imagined that there could be a connection between Buddhism and stoicism – whether with a small or big S. I associated the term “stoicism” with icons of old-fashioned masculinity, which seemed at the time almost comical: the British stiff upper lip, John Wayne. Men who refused to display emotion. I assumed such a posture was repression, leading to passive aggression – or perhaps to self-destruction. (Slash‘s autobiography is an interesting case study of a man who, unwilling to talk about or express his worries, instead turns to heroin for a release.)
But through my appreciation for Buddhism, I came to a new appreciation of that traditional masculinity as well. There’s something to the idea that one should control one’s emotions – though, again, this is very different from repressing them. It’s good to be the kind of person who doesn’t get angry – even though it’s terrible to be the kind of person who gets angry inside and represses it outside.
I do think, though, that the association of small-s stoicism with masculinity is misguided. Harvey Mansfield tried to defend it in his book on manliness, and in a talk he gave on the subject at Harvard; but I couldn’t discern a single reason in his talk why this manliness should be a virtue limited to biological males. I asked him why it wouldn’t be a virtue for women too, and he said “well, that’s the gender-neutral society I’m attacking,” but nothing in his reply seemed at all persuasive in claiming there was anything wrong with such a society. I appreciated his attempt to revive the virtues associated with masculinity, but his attempt to maintain a gender link did those virtues no favours.
If anything, it seems to me that the opposite of Mansfield’s position is true. Men should be the ones trying to express their repressed emotions, since they’re so conditioned to repress them – that’s how we avoid ending up in Slash’s position. It’s women, conditioned to be emotional, who most need a healthy dose of Buddhist patient endurance.
What first drew me to Śāntideva was his critique of anger. I had students read him for a tutorial course on comparative ethics, and one student was shocked by his almost total criticism of anger as an emotion. “What about righteous anger?” she asked. I replied: “according to this text, I don’t think there’s any such thing as righteous anger.” The more I thought about this teaching afterward, the more profound it seemed: the number of times in my life I’d been glad I got angry, I could count on the fingers of one hand.
I would still tend to agree with Śāntideva against that criticism; I don’t see the righteousness of any cause as justifying anger. But there’s another common modern criticism of Śāntideva’s position that I think has more force. Namely: is it even possible to get rid of anger, as Śāntideva recommends we do? Don’t you just wind up repressing it, so that it comes back as a passive aggression that’s ultimately more destructive than the original anger?