Tenets of a new movement

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In the mid-2010s in the English-speaking world there arose a left-wing social and political movement that has become enormously influential, one you are likely familiar with in one form or another. The movement has gone by many names: woke(ness), social-justice warriors (SJW), Progressive Activist, The Elect, Successor Ideology, Tumblr liberalism. What is notable about these names is that all of them have been applied to the movement primarily by people outside it. The only one coined from within the movement is “woke”, and recently many members of the movement have become suspicious even of that.

The movement, in other words, has shown a remarkable reluctance to name itself. What is clear to me is that the movement is a movement, with its own new and radically revisionary paradigm of inquiry, and therefore needs a name to identify it, even though its members seem reluctant to give it one. Perhaps this could be because they believe it is not a movement, it is just common sense. If so, I think a simple reflection on what was considered common sense ten years ago, within the same societies, is sufficient to show that belief false.

But this post is not about the name or lack thereof. Rather, the purpose of this post is to talk and think about the movement’s ideas, whatever it might be called. There are significant aspects of this movement that I agree with, and at least one that I have greatly benefitted from. I sympathize with its aims considered at the broadest level. Moreover I believe that there is truth in everything; I looked for the truth in the rise of Trump, and it is at least as important to do that here.

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Doing what you love when the money won’t follow

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I have frequently been critical of the advice given by baby boomers to “do what you love and the money will follow”. After the hard experience of my generation and the ones following it, I think the word has gotten out how terrible that advice is, with books coming out with titles like Do What You Love and Other Lies. We are now at the point that Freddie deBoer can describe the critique of that advice as “endless”, and critique the critique:

There’s also the endless genre of “don’t do what you love” essays, which critique the omnipresent cultural assumption that you should do what you love. And yeah, that can be exploitative, as employers will often use that love as a means to be selfish with your pay and benefits. But what’s the alternative? Don’t try to get paid doing something you like? Do what you hate? I read Maya Tokomitsu’s book on this question, and like so much of what the socialist left publishes these days it was far more compelling as a critique of what exists than as an argument for a better alternative.

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Eliminating and interpreting as Buddhists

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I want to turn now to what I think are the really interesting questions raised by Justin Whitaker’s latest post on the Sigālovāda Sutta. These are questions of hermeneutics, of method in interpretation. As noted, the previous post was exegetical: I think everything I say there could have been endorsed by a historically oriented religion scholar with no stake in Buddhist tradition. But Justin and I are not that: we are Buddhist theologians, who consider ourselves Buddhists and seek to apply the tradition to our lives. So I now want to take the previous post’s ideas into that wider theological context.

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Does the Sigālovāda Sutta prohibit attending the theatre?

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I return now to my correspondence with Justin Whitaker about the Sigālovāda Sutta, the Pali text so often viewed as a guide to the household life. Justin helpfully begins his latest post with a list of the previous correspondence we have exchanged on the topic so far, so I won’t repeat the list here. (The opening list unfortunately doesn’t include hyperlinks to the earlier posts, but those links can be found at the bottom of the latest post.)

From my previous post on the more general philosophical issues, I think we can now return to the sutta itself. Justin is correct that I read the Sigālovāda Sutta as “an overly strict and dour text that sucks the joy out of householder life”. He claims that this is a misreading. Is it? Let us take a look at the feature of the Sigālovāda that most leads me to such a reading: what I characterize as its prohibition on attending theatrical shows. I will examine that prohibition in detail this time, and next time talk about we do with it as Buddhist theologians – a topic that I find more interesting. (Since Justin and I have been pursuing this debate at a slow pace, I will post the next one on my usual schedule in two weeks, and I recommend he wait for it before posting a reply.)

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Of mental health and medical models

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The concept of mental health – and even more so its converse of mental illness – has become ubiquitous in the modern West, and it deserves serious examination by philosophers. Many, probably most, cultures would not recognize the claim that a mind that sees demons or refuses to speak or commits suicide is in a condition analogous to a body with a fever or a broken limb.

The idea of mental health and illness is the central idea in the psychological approach that we typically refer to as the medical model. The term “medical model”, in its most basic sense, means that one approaches a given field of human endeavour in the manner associated with medicine: that field may then be considered a part of medicine, or simply analogous to it. I believe the term was coined by R.D. Laing, the prominent critic of psychiatry, and so it often takes on a negative cast, for the application of specific aspects of modern medicine in areas where it is inappropriate to do so.

It does not have to, though. Unless we reject modern medicine in its entirety (which would be a stupid idea), we are going to accept some aspects of the medical model for at least the practice of medicine itself. Modern medicine has accomplished a great deal, even in its application to phenomena of the mind: antipsychotics and antidepressants are not cure-alls by any means, but for a great many people, their mental lives are much improved as a result of these medicines.

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Of perpetually vulnerable subjects

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The scattershot application of “neoliberalism” is at its worst when the term gets applied to mindfulness meditation. We saw before how Ron Purser described mindfulness meditation as “neoliberal”. What is that supposed to mean? Modern meditation is frequently described as “neoliberal” in the Handbook of Mindfulness, which Purser coedited, and especially the closing essay by Glenn Wallis (which responds to a thoughtful defence of mindfulness by Rick Repetti in the same volume). Wallis’s piece is a good illustration of how a concept with some legitimate and meaningful uses can get bandied around so casually that it becomes completely specious. Here is Wallis:

You don’t have to look too closely to see that Mindfulness’s most recent progenitors are, of course, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. As I mentioned earlier, Mindfulness has the same DNA and was raised on the same values that undergirds today’s neoliberal, consumer capitalist social structure (acceptance, resilience, self-help, etc.). So, of course Jon Kabat-Zinn [the creator of secularized and medicalized mindfulness meditation] cozies up to corporate CEOs and American military generals. (Wallis 499)

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The scattershot application of “neoliberalism”

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In my previous post I agreed with Wendy Brown and other critics of “neoliberalism” that something was genuinely new, and disturbing, about the attempt to treat education as producing “human capital”, a narrow economic value. I do think, however, that such critics greatly overplay their hand. That is, they extend the critique of “neoliberalism” to phenomena that are not even liberal, let alone neo – to longstanding, deeply human concerns that predate capitalism and its ideology.

In Brown’s case, the problem comes across most clearly in a footnote attacking David Brooks. Some years ago in the New York Times, Brooks had written a moving defence of traditional humanistic education:

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How neo is neoliberalism?

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The terms neoliberal and neoliberalism have become ubiquitous in left-wing discourse of the past few years, ranging from discussions of government policy to critiques of mindfulness meditation. They merit a closer look.

Credit for the terms usually goes back to Michel Foucault, in his lectures collected as The Birth of Biopolitics. What is extraordinary about these lectures is that they took place in early 1979 – before Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would take office and implement the sweeping right-wing libertarian-capitalist economic reforms to which the term “neoliberal” is now most often applied. So while 21st-century writing about neoliberalism aims to describe an ideology that shapes the actions of government and social institutions, Foucault was merely writing about an ideology found in the writings of mid-20th-century German and American economists (most notably Friedrich Hayek). For this reason, Foucault now comes to look prescient – but his writing on the subject takes on a very different cast from 21st-century writers, since he is only describing a theory, and they aim to describe a practice.

There are many things to be said about the concept of neoliberalism. First off, it is an unfortunately confusing term, in the North American context at least. It probably makes sense in Australia, where the Liberal Party is the right-wing party. And the ideas and practices described as “neoliberal” do occur on both sides of the political spectrum. But the opposition to neoliberalism comes largely from people on the political left, people whom the vast majority of ordinary Americans and Canadians would still describe as – liberal.

Still, the term is in widespread use on the left now, and however confusing the term is, the bigger question is the phenomenon the term claims to describe: a phenomenon which is supposedly a new (neo) transformation of the market-oriented political ideas that have in the past gone under the name “liberal”. So we may ask of neoliberalism: is it liberal – at least in the broad sense in which Reaganite right-wingers are liberal? And is it neo – what about it is new?

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Whither blogging?

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At the beginning of Love of All Wisdom’s tenth-anniversary post, I wrote: “In the span of the history of philosophy, ten years is the blink of an eye. In the span of the blogosphere, however, ten years is an eternity.” Immediately after the post went up, a thought occurred to me, which would probably have made that point even more effectively. Namely: does anyone even say “blogosphere” anymore?

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The goods of lay life

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I return today to my correspondence with Justin Whitaker on the Sigālovāda Sutta, taking off from his response to my previous post. The question at issue between us, I think, is what constitutes a good Buddhist life for a layperson or householder, a non-monk. We can get more specific by asking: should the layperson’s life be one that aspires to emulate the monk’s? I don’t think that it should, and I continue to suspect that Justin doesn’t either.

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