The Evolution of Post-modern Thought: Helen Pluckrose

Balanced Perspectives

In June of 2020, Helen Pluckrose gave a talk on the evolution of Postmodernist thought, highlighting three distinct periods of this evolution, ending with the current period which she and James Lindsay, the co-author of Cynical Theories call Reified Post-modernism.

This talk offers a useful overview of the origins of words, phrases, beliefs about reality, activist strategies and behavioral practices of a very specific ideological framework called Critical Social Justice which draws much of ideas from three different historical phases of Post-modernist thought. Two of the most fundamental ideas in this framework is that there is no objective reality and that there are no universal human experiences.

To view the talk, CLICK HERE.

*Transcribed by Steven J. Lawrence

Social Justice sounds like such a good idea. Who doesn’t want social justice? Nobody says, “do you know what society really needs? Less justice. Whatever our politics are, our ethics, our philosophies, our religions—or lack of all of the above—we generally all want to make the world a better place.

And yet we differ on how to achieve social justice and what it will look like.

These differences can be productive. The conversations they engender between people with very different views helped us make our societies fairer and more accommodating of all kinds of people. Over the last 500 years and rapidly gaining in steam over the last 200 and particularly the last 50, we’ve set up secular liberal societies. Now I’m going to use the word liberal in this talk, but because I know we’ve got a lot of Americans here, I’m going to need to stress that I am using this in the general sense of freedom and openness and the opposite of illiberal. So, we’re not talking about left-wing as it’s sometimes used in America or right-wing as it’s sometimes used in Australia but an all-encompassing focus on individual liberty and the positive impact of the free exchange of ideas.

So, over the last 500 years—but really recently—this has with the civil rights movements, we’ve really sort of moved into a properly liberal age: freedom of religion and freedom from religion, equal opportunities for people regardless of gender, race or sexuality. Science and reason have become the dominant—or if not dominant, at least the most respected way— of establishing what is true, and this has been used to make remarkable advances in medicine and technology. The notion of the marketplace of ideas in which everybody could participate, everything could be said, and in principle, ideas are evaluated on their merits and hammered out. This has resulted in the most scientifically, medically, and technologically advanced societies humanity has ever known. It’s resulted in the most free and equal societies that have ever existed. Social justice has taken a leap forward.

And yet there is a movement that presumptuously labels itself Social Justice as though it alone holds the key to this, as though everybody else is actually seeking something different. This movement is not conservative, although it shares some values around segregation and purity with the far-right. It’s not liberal, although it speaks a liberal language of diversity, plurality, and inclusion. And it’s not Marxist, although it pays some lip service to anti-capitalism.

Social Justice is a highly counterintuitive movement which speaks its own language and has its own conceptions of the world. Accordingly, it is frequently misunderstood, mis-categorized, and attempts to counter it frequently fail. Conceptions of social justice that are rooted in Critical Theory don’t look much like the common understanding of social justice. People see the symptoms of the Social Justice movement quite clearly. They might refer to them as identity politics or political correctness, callout culture, or cancel culture.

It’s been hard to miss the demands to decolonize everything from curricula to hairstyles, and the tearing down of statues, defacing of paintings. Pronouns have become a matter of paramount political importance. They’ve also become much harder to navigate and use correctly in both their political sense and a grammatical one. It’s common now to hear that all men are sexist, and all white people are racist. If one protests at this, one is told it’s simply impossible not to be, due to the system of socialization that we’ve all been through. It seems that every day we hear news of a comedian being cancelled for a problematic joke, or a celebrity offering a groveling apology for the unintended misuse of a word, or that someone in the public eye has been found to have said something twenty years ago, which is now considered racist, sexist or homophobic. Artists of all kinds are frequently held up for criticism either because their work has not included a diverse range of people—in which case there’s a failure of representation—or because it has, in which case its cultural appropriation. Anyone who addresses political or cultural issues at all is likely to attract swarms of Social Justice activists to problematize, call out, distort, and misrepresent their arguments.

This is enabled largely by social media where activists can congregate and highlight the tweets or essays they have a problem with. Dog-piles are common, and it seems not to matter whether one is a prominent person or a private individual sharing their own experience on their own Twitter account. Even when speaking on your own account, you are likely to be accused of dictating to, or speaking over, marginalized people or you could just—we could just—go straight to white supremacist, misogynist, transphobic, fascist. It is becoming increasingly daunting, particularly for those with businesses or jobs they’d like to keep, to speak publicly at all. The approach of the Social Justice activists is uncharitable, unreasonable, frequently uninformed, unjust and unforgiving.

But what has caused this intense focus on identity, knowledge, language and the power structures?

That’s what I’m here to talk about.

I’m going to look at where these ideas really coalesced and how they’ve developed over the last 50 years into what we see now. The problem underlying social justice activism has a long history and in various different ways, but we really saw it come together in the late 1960s—66, 68, by 1970 certainly. This was a time of great social change. Society was recovering from the world wars, Nazism, fascism, genocide and Communism, and they were still mourning their dead. Empire had fallen, the Jim Crow had ended, technology was advancing rapidly, and a vibrant youth culture was forming. Ideologically, liberal activism in the forms of the civil rights movements, Feminism, and gay pride were in full flow, at the same time, as an angry and radical New Left was mobilizing. All in all, the feeling at this time was one, not only of change, but of a radical break from what had gone before. Old certainties were being challenged. Certainties about the advance of moral progress had been shaken by the wars. A new recognition of the ways in which the rights of women, racial minorities, LGBT people had been denied was really being felt. Religion was declining, pop music and mass-produced art were challenging notions of what counts as culture.

There is a sense that things were moving too fast and becoming artificial and mass-produced. This caused many intellectuals to write about the loss of authenticity. This new era which was unfolding was understood to be as the era of Post-modernity. The modern period is understood as one in which reality was simple, graspable, orderly and cohesive: a satisfying story of steady progress and increased knowledge in the advance of human rights which could be told straightforwardly. None of that seemed right anymore, so the idea that an era of Post-modernity was beginning became a repeated refrain among leftist intelligentsia. Arguably the most profound influence on the academics was the loss of Marxism. This framework had long formed the basis for leftist intellectual thought on how to make a better society. Now, for many, it had become untenable. Following the atrocities of the communist regime, the main grand narrative for the left was in trouble. Many felt that Marxism, like everything else, was a simplistic narrative, which had failed. This revolt resulted in despair that anything could be trusted anymore. The bitter hopelessness and despair of meaning permeates the writings of the first Post-modernists.

This shift caused a great upheaval on the academic Left. Traditionally, the Leftist stance has been comprised of two elements. One was the Marxist or Socialists which focused on material conditions economics and class. It wanted to read revolutionize society to redistribute wealth. The other is in liberalism which has focused on enabling the individual to access universal rights and opportunities. Liberalism seeks to reform society rather than revolutionize. Both Marxists and liberals are Modernists. That is, they both believe in an objective reality and the importance of evidence and reason, although they’ve come to different conclusions about where to go from there. They both believe that a society in which everyone is able to thrive and put their skills to good use and be very naturally secure, regardless of their class race gender or sexuality, is a just society. A society where some people are prohibited from this is an unjust society.

Despite these shared aims, Marxist and liberals have argued incessantly. Marxists have accused liberals of being half-measure sellouts who might as well be conservatives. Liberals have accused Marxists of being delusional utopians who want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. These arguments have been acrimonious, but they’ve also been productive in forming a functional Left. This was all to change with the arrival of Post-modernism. In the late 1960s, there arose from—all at once from—different discipline, the intellectuals who’d come to be known as the Post-modernists. Some are best understood as commentators on the condition of Post-modernity. That is, they were observing the change and describing it. The American Marxist Fredric Jameson deplored the shallowness of Post-modernity, the lack of heart to anything, the constant recycling and repetition of art. He diagnosed the nostalgia for anything real and said the individual had been lost. Jean Baudrillard leaned heavily towards nihilistic despair, and his book Simulacra and Simulation argued that society had entirely lost the real and was now just endlessly churning out copies of copies. In the Modern period, he claimed, everything began to be standardized and organized, so uniqueness and authenticity were gone.

But in the Post-modern period of mass production and technological simulation, there is no original, he said. Everything is now hyper real. He called metaphorically for acts of bloody terrorism and claimed that death was the only thing that was real. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari argued that people’s drives were constrained by a capitalist consumerist society where the only thing that flowed was money. They saw humans as coded in different times to different demands: first family, then despotic rulers, then capitalism. Like Baudrillard, they argued that modernity had standardized and systemized everything and that it needed to be dismantled. For them, it was not death that was the epitome of reality but human desires, and they should be freed. Deleuze ultimately committed suicide.

This then was largely some hopeless despairing, yearning for anything authentic. It had no realistically attainable goals. These observations were almost impurely descriptive. However, there were some French theorists whose ideas had purpose, and they developed theories. They are best understood as the Post-structuralists and the Constructionists, and they went further in developing a theoretical practice.

In his groundbreaking book, The Post-modern Condition, Jean Francois Lyotard defined Post-modernism as a skepticism towards meta-narratives. By this, he meant that all the large overarching stories we told ourselves about how society worked, and the meaning of life were becoming less credible. Another description of meta-narratives is that they’re historically and culturally situated narratives which nevertheless are presented as universal. Lyotard included Christianity and Marxism in his understanding of them meta-narratives, but he also included science. As is typical of Post-modernists, his work focused intensely on the power of language. He saw this in terms of different kinds of games, which legitimated knowledge. He claimed that the language of science was inseparable from the language of power and governments. Rather than these big metal narratives, he argued, we need lots of mini narratives. Rather than authority of knowledge legitimized by scientific methods, we need a plurality of legitimation. That is, we need multiple knowledges with none prized over any other. This is moral and factual relativism.

For Jacques Derrida, the focus was even more intensely on language. He was radically skeptical of the possibility of ever conveying meaning by language. For him, words only referred to other words, so meaning is indefinitely deferred. House is understandable in relation to huts and mansion. Derrida also believed that words are used comparatively to give one term superiority to another. That is, men are defined as not being women and also as superior to women. He advocated ironically reversing these binaries to make them visible and challenge power hierarchies. This can be benign enough and quite poignant. I myself have been known to replace “the world and his wife” with “the world and her husband”. But, it can also go to quite a dark place if your conception of society is one in which women and racial and sexual minorities are constantly subjected to discrimination and abuse and then you want to reverse that binary. You are likely to end up with sexism against men, racism against white people, and for this to be morally justifiable as a kind of redressing the balance. This takes a step away from objectivity and towards subjectivity. It also undermines the reasonable person standard upon which much law and judicial decision is based.

Above all there was Michel Foucault. Of all the theorists, his ideas have most ingrained themselves in our culture. His key ideas echo both Lyotard’s skepticism of meta-narratives and Derrida’s suspicion of the reliability of language to convey stable meaning. The concepts of his, which have best survived and have had been adapted over the last 50 years, are episteme, powerknowledge discourses and biopower. In common usage, knowledge is defined as an accurate understanding of an objective reality. If we consider ourselves to know something rather than believe it, suspect it, hope it, or think it probable, we mean that we’ve been given sufficient reason to accept that it is true—that it matches reality. While cultural perceptions may vary, and ideas may change over time, something that is objectively true is true for everyone. It could be discovered that something was thought to be true, and actually it was false, but this doesn’t mean it was once true and then became false. It means that a mistake was made, and we are able to know this because of new evidence which shows it.

An example of this could be that the sun was thought to orbit the Earth, but it was later discovered that the earth orbits the sun. This was always the case and it doesn’t depend on humans believing it. This is a Modernist understanding of knowledge, and it was not how Michel Foucault understood it. His understanding of knowledge was as a cultural construct. That is, we decide what is true and what is known through categories and narratives created and enforced culturally. He referred to this as an episteme, a culturally devised system that provided the parameters for what could be considered true or false. Those in power set the episteme. Therefore, what is understood by society as knowledge is really just an exercise of power. It is powerknowledge. That’s one word, not two. With a similar relationship, the powerknowledge is both constructed and perpetuated by ways of talking about things—by discourses. Something becomes legitimized as knowledge by the way it is spoken about, and it then becomes the way to speak about things. Chief among these legitimizing discourses is science. Western societies largely accept the findings of science as the most substantiated sources of knowledge. This, to Foucault, was evidence that it was powerknowledge. He called this particular type of powerknowledge, biopower. This is now a dominant idea in Queer theory, disability studies and fat studies.

These ideas continue to plague us today, so it is worth taking the time to really try to get your head around them.

Imagine that there is no objective truth, humans are blank slates who get filled up with a story, the powerful groups in society get to decide what that story is. All the slates once written upon, tell the same story, but from a different perspective, depending on where they are in relation to power. So, if the story includes the claim that men are dominant, and women are submissive, both men and women will speak into this discourse, but from a dominant or a submissive position. The same goes for the claim that heterosexuality is natural and homosexuality unnatural, that white people are suited for some professional jobs, black people for manual jobs. The imperative, then, of Post-modern approaches, is to study the discourses of society to find the Foucauldian powerknowledge, invert the Derridean binaries and empower the Lyotardian mini narratives.

This is now a plan.

This is the broad picture, and it’s not easy to grasp immediately, so I will set up the essential ideas as a kind of list.

Essential Ideas

· There is no way of obtaining objective truth.

· Everything is culturally constructed.

· Society is dominated by systems of power and privilege that people just accept as common sense.

· These vary from culture to culture and subculture to subculture.

· None of them is right or superior to any other.

· The categories that we use to understand things like fact and fiction, reason and emotion, science and art, and male and female are false.

· They operate in the service of power, [and] need to be examined, broken down and complicated.· Language is immensely powerful, and it is used to construct oppressive social realities.

· Therefore, it must be regarded with suspicion and scrutinized to find the discourses of power.

· The intention of the speaker is no more authoritative than the interpretation of the hearer.

· The idea of the autonomous individual is a myth.

· The individual is also a construct of culture programmed by his or her place in relation to power.

· The idea of a universal human nature is also a myth. It is constructed by what powerful forces deemed to be the right way to be. Therefore, it is white western masculine and heterosexual.

These are some core ideas of post-modernism which have survived in the academic world. Post-modernism is largely claimed to have died out. But, most of you will recognize these ideas in the social justice scholarship and the activism that we see today. That’s because they didn’t die out; they evolved. Not everyone believes that post-modernism has survived into the present day or that Social Justice is fundamentally a Post-modern movement. But it has, and it is.

The first wave of post-modernism did die away by the middle of the 80s. It was too intense and also aimless—nihilistic really. We can think of this as the High Deconstructive Phase of Post-modernism. It was ironic and pessimistically playful and fairly hopeless. It took everything to pieces, but once they were in bits all over the floor, there wasn’t much more that could be done. There was no confidence in the possibility of reconstructing because that would just produce new oppressive power structures. However, by the late 1980s a new generation of leftist academics had emerged, and they were inclined to be neither so aimless nor pessimistic. By this time the civil rights movements had begun to show diminishing returns. Within 20 years, huge leap forwards in equality had been made. Ironically this was the same time the original Post-modernists were saying it was time to give up on the myth of progress. But women had gained control over their reproduction, equal pay laws had been passed, similar legislation decriminalized discrimination on the grounds of race, male homosexuality had been decriminalized with legal equality largely obtained. What remained was suppressed attitudes to be addressed. Of course, Post-modernism was perfect for this—or almost so.

Just as the first wave of Post-modernists had emerged all at once from different disciplines, so did the next wave in the late 1980s. Post-colonialism actually emerged a little before that as an offshoot of Post-modernism. It was headed by the Foucault d and Edward Said who argued that the West had constructed the East as its inferior in order to construct itself in noble terms. He said it was time for previously colonized peoples to reconstruct the East for themselves. Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha followed in his footsteps, although they were more Derridean, having adopted his despair of the ability of language to convey meaning. They are largely incomprehensible.

However, the aim to reconstruct had begun. In 1989 over in Critical Legal Studies and Critical Race Theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw began developing her concept of Intersectionality. She described this as contemporary politics linked to Post-modern theory. The cultural constructivism of Post-modernism, Crenshaw felt was useful, in regarding gender and race as cultural constructs. But there had to be some objective reality if anyone was to achieve anything. The existence of oppressive cultural constructs around gender and race were decided to be what was objectively real. Furthermore, liberalism she claimed, was inadequate, despite the massive evidence that it was in fact very successful. Liberalism was too universal to be politically productive, and it was time for a more intense focus on identity politics.

In that same year, Mary Pavan was attempting to reconcile deconstructive approaches with feminism. Like Crenshaw, she argued that the methods were useful, but there did need to be a recognition of an objective reality. How can we advocate for women, for equality for women, unless women are a category of people that objectively exists? She advocated a toolbox approach in which Post-modern techniques would be used when helpful and not, when not.

Meanwhile, in expansion of gay and lesbian studies, Judith Butler was claiming that actually women don’t need to be a category of people that objectively exists. In fact, claiming categories to objectively exist is the problem. Queer Theory was born. It drew extensively on the work of Foucault and can be argued to be the purest form of Post-modernism currently in existence. However, Queer Theory avoided the fate of deconstructing itself into oblivion by making the deconstruction of categories a form of activism. Queer theory reifies queerness and a whole range of queer identities but deconstructs anything normative. In this way, it’s felt, people who don’t fit within masculine men attracted to women or feminine women attracted to men—don’t feel the pressure to do so. We can just deconstruct those categories altogether.

Just like that, post-modernism had become energized and politically actionable. We called this phase applied post-modernism.No longer was it aimlessly pulling reality apart and denying objective truth to exist, it was now objectively true that social reality was culturally constructed by specific systems of power. Post-modernism now had goals it acknowledged and justified its departure from the original post-modernists explicitly, often claiming that they were privileged white men who had little need to affect change in the world. This new form of Post-modernism was much more user-friendly. Consequently, it could break the bounds of the academy in the way the original Post-modernism could not. The dying radical Left adopted it for this reason. While much of Post-colonial Theory and Queer Theory remained largely incomprehensible to the layman, Critical Race Theory and Intersectional Feminism were written in clear language from the start. This is probably due to its foundation in legal theory rather than philosophy. Thus, activism for gender and racial equality was able to draw on its ideas. Critical race theory is rooted in some very strong scholarship by liberal humanist and Marxist scholars, which pointed out that white identity had been formed at the expense of Black identity. It is essential to note that Critical Race Theory is originally an American phenomenon, and the evidence that America was a racially divided society with Blacks as second-class citizens until very recently is indisputable.

However, with its recent descent into Post-modern discourse analysis, and conceptions of society as entirely underlain by systems of white supremacy operating in mysterious ways, Critical Race Theory has become quite unhinged. It threatens to undo much of the progress that has been made on racial equality. Using methods which assume racism to be present in any interaction between a white person and a person of racial minority, results in always finding it and further entrenching the belief in an ever-present white supremacy. Things that have been listed as racist microaggressions include complementing a black person on their eloquence, saying that you do not see people in terms of race, or that you believe the best person for a job should get it. It’s is clear what a minefield this is.

Of course, the people most affected by being trained to read everything in this way are racial minorities. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt described this entire method as a form of reverse Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT teaches people not to catastrophize and not to read negative meanings into everything. This decreases anxiety and improves one’s functioning in the world. Applied Post-modernism trains people to do precisely the opposite. It cannot help but increase anxiety and decrease ability to function. Lukianoff and Haidt provide much evidence that that is what’s happening. A similar pattern has emerged within feminism where again everything is seen in terms of a system of Patriarchy which hides beneath a benign surface. The job of the feminists is to detect it. Going through life in order to direct it detects ways in which men are belittling you is unlikely to lead to female empowerment. Teaching young women that society is hostile to them is probably not going to increase women’s engagement with the public sphere. One way in which the Post-modern understanding of hidden power structures works in society, is to see everything in terms of a scale. I’m sure some of you have seen some of those pictures of pyramids where at the bottom you’ve got asking a woman for coffee or complimenting her and at the top is rape and murder because this is understood as one big system of patriarchal rape culture—the manifestations of it of last and becoming increasingly torturous. This is largely to do with what’s been happening in scholarship over the last thirty years since the initiation and diversification of various types of theory.

When a system of scholarship is closed to external critique—as these theories generally have been—and when evidence and reason are not required in the first place, a body of work can quickly become quite deranged. What has happened over the last thirty years is that concepts have been built upon concepts leading to a towering mountain of theory, none of which has ever born much relation to reality.

One scholar writes a paper arguing for the existence of white privilege, Peggy McIntosh. She makes some good points, but she claims that simply being white confers great benefits on an individual without any consideration of class or wealth issues. This idea catches on in Critical Race Theory build on it until it’s well-established.

Then another scholar Barbara Applebaum takes it a step further. She argues that white privilege allows people to—white people—to sort of get away with racism because they can absolve themselves of their privilege by acknowledging it. So now we need another concept to put on top of that, which is white complicity,in which white people can never absolve themselves of their responsibility for racism, they are just implicit in it by dint of existing.

So, this idea is accepted and built upon, and then another scholar Robin D’Angelo takes this a step further still. White privilege and white complicity are still central concepts to her work, but there’s still a problem because some white people disagree with them. We now need white fragility to close that gap. White fragility is when white people respond to being told they’re privileged and complicit in racism by doing one of three things: disagreeing, being quiet, or going away. That is, the only way not to be fragile is stay right where you are and agree.

This is not scholarship. This is a Kafka Trap.

There is simply no valid way to disagree with this conception of society, to moderate it, to qualify it, to agree with some of it, to point out problems. You just have to agree. It is also notable that Robin D’Angelo’s language is so simple and clear that she could be read and understood by a ten-year-old. She also speaks in terms of absolute certainty. This has also happened over time in the other theories. Even in Queer theory and Postcolonial theory, the kind of writing which was famously incomprehensible decades ago has become much clearer and much more sure of itself. As the body of scholarship has grown, and scholars have been able to point anyone who disagrees with them, at a mounting body of work, the fields’ confidence in their own rightness has grown. Whereas the first Post-modernists spoke in terms of radical doubt, and the Applied Post-modernists retained some tentativeness and raised issues as questions to avoid making challengeable assertions, the current scholars are absolutely convinced of the objective truth of their worldview.

This new phase of absolute certainty, clarity, and refusal to accept disagreement as anything other than a wish to deny privilege began around 10 years ago and has been rapidly escalating since 2015. Those original ideas of the first Post-modernists are now sacred creeds, which cannot be doubted. Listen to these core tenets developed by a group of scholar activists, including Robin D’Angelo. It was read at the national race and pedagogy conference at the University of Puget Sound in 2015.

Core Tenets

· Racism exists today in both traditional and modern forms.

· Racism is an institutionalized, multi-layered multi-level system that distributes unequal power and resources between white people and people of color as socially identified and disproportionately benefits whites.

· All members of society are socialized to participate in the system of racism albeit in various social locations. [Remember our slates with different versions of the story].

· All white people benefit from racism regardless of their intentions.

· No one chose to be socialized into racism, so no one is bad, but no one is neutral.

· To not act against racism is to support racism.

· Racism must be continually identified, analyzed and challenged. No one is ever done.

· The question is not, did racism take place but how did racism manifest in that situation.

· The racial status quo is uncomfortable for most whites. Therefore, anything that maintains white comfort is suspect.

· The racially oppressed have a more intimate insight via experiential knowledge into the system of race than their racial oppressors [but they’re not bad]. However, white professors will be seen as having more legitimacy. Thus, positionality must be intentionally engaged. [Then must always mention your race, gender, and sexuality and how it impacts what you’re saying.]

· Resistance is a predictable reaction to anti-racist education and must be explicitly and strategically addressed.

This is a creed. These are statements of absolute certainty and of objective knowledge. Therefore, we call this stage Reified Post-modernism.In one way, this latest development is highly alarming. It reads like a call to arms, it’s easily comprehensible to any idealistic young person who wants to fix the world, and its presence is strongest in the universities where they’re to be found.

In another way, this newfound clarity, confidence, and certainty is precisely what we need to have an effective push back. We can get at these ideas now. One doesn’t have to have a Ph.D. in the jargon to understand the claims and counter them.

For so long, this kind of scholarship has been enabled to build because the vast majority of people did not know what it was talking about. Even liberals did not know what it was talking about. Liberal academics in other fields did not know what it was talking about. The people pushing back at it have overwhelmingly been conservatives. Liberals mostly assumed that because it was in the service of social justice it must be a good thing and—a liberal thing—and if conservatives didn’t like it, it was probably both.

It’s now becoming increasingly clear that it’s not a good thing or a liberal thing. Liberals can now push back at it completely in keeping with their liberal principles. In my talk this afternoon I’m going to suggest that we can do that by looking at the core tenets of social justice by acknowledging how much of it is good, and how it’s then going wrong, how we can do it better.

Thank you.

Black Lives Matter Everyday

Balanced Perspectives

I am re-sharing a post I wrote in January for a third time because it’s relevant to the current moment when conversations are happening around what some call structural and systemic racism and others call system-wide disadvantages.

Drawing attention to identifiable disadvantages faced by Black people and other people of color is not an attempt to signal my virtue or to protect myself from the mob by telling them I’m an ally with their cause. Rather, it’s an attempt to share my own understandings around the disparities faced by Black Lives and other lives of color in relation to my decades of experience as an educator in urban environments where the majority of students are students of color and where many schools I taught in have had a majority of teachers of color.

The disparities are real, and if the way I present them can be helpful in getting more people on board with understanding these disparities, then I want to do that.

Though the original post I’m sharing below doesn’t explicitly mention police brutality against Black people or other people of color, it does establish the argument that there are indeed extra hurdles that need to be jumped through by those who are not born into networks of advantage where certain discourses are spoken, taught, written, and practiced and where access to networks of support and networks of power are immediately available. A large percentage of white people are born into worlds where Standard American Discourse (the language that gives you access to successful educational achievement and networks of power) is the norm, and worlds where their own culture is treated as the default and is mirrored back to them in their schooling and in the culture at large.

The perspective I am presenting here is one that is in alignment with the practice of Critical Pedagogy -the educational wing of the Critical Theory approach to analyzing systems. It is an approach to structural analysis that, in many instances, offers interesting helpful observations about imbalances even if the interpretations of those imbalances and proposals for correcting those balances are not always accurate or effective.

Where I part ways with Critical Theory -and especially Critical Race Theory- is that I do not see these disparities through a conspiratorial lens or as the result of colluding forces vying for power; rather, I see them as lazy artifacts of a system that by default was set up to serve the majority -something that has gone on since the beginning of civilization itself.

That we should change and adapt these systems to better serve those left to the margins without compromising high standards is not a question for me.

It’s also not a question for me whether or not some groups have higher instances where individuals have surrendered to a life of “survival choices” partly due to their lack of access to education and other institutions and to networks and discourse communities that could have given them an equal advantage to that of their white counterparts.

The fact that these survival choices can often include the commission of crimes is also not a question for me…. white, black, hispanic, male, female, trans, etc. Anyone who is drawn to break laws on any level is bound to have more interactions with the police, and people born into networks of disadvantage who then go on to commit crimes when face with less opportunities to thrive are bound to have more of those interactions. Given some of the disparities in our country’s systems, this at least partly explains the statistically disproportionate killing of black people by police. in addition to other factors, including racism. And the more interactions with the police, the more that can go wrong.

We all have to make sense of all this from where we are, using our own experiences and our own moral and observational faculties. As an educator, I can best speak from the education angle, and I can say with confidence that in general, people of color in this country do not have the same level of advantages in our eductional institutions, our curriula and in the distribution of our resources.

This gap of equality of opportunity is what am exploring below in the context of standardized testing and other contributing factors.


“Why Culture in the Design of Standardized Tests Should Be Considered”

*Originally posted, January 11, 2020

I was going to respond to a thread about IQ tests and how cultural bias in the tests designers (like so many tests) can impact the results depending on the cultural background of the test-taker.

It wasn’t a good time for me to go down a rabbit hole, so I thought I’d write about it here.

I’d like to demonstrate for a moment how some standardized tests are experienced by some black students, Latino students, and other students who don’t come from home and neighborhood environments that speak the same discourse (or have the same cultural references) that the tests are designed with.

[NOTE: Contrary to the beliefs in certain strands of social justice ideology (e.g. Critical Theory), I don’t believe the inequality of opportunity represented in the test designs is intentional or nefarious or the result of a dominant group’s conspiracy to stay in power. I think it’s best to set aside that sort of suspicious thinking and get down to the business of understanding the different linguistic and cultural hurtles some groups may encounter in certain schooling contexts and why it’s important to make adjustments with these variables taken into consideration].

To demonstrate what this might be like, I have constructed a sentence in Spanish that is grammatically correct and that makes perfect sense on its own linguistic and cultural terms.

I then wrote out its exact English syntactical translation to demonstrate the difficulty of reading and answering questions that are written in a discourse and with cultural references that are different from our own.

Here is the literal syntax translation I came up with:

“Upon me placing depressed at cause of that some persons have the birds in the head when contemplate the legitimation of the examinations of IQ.”

It’s a simple sentence, so chances are good that you’d figure it out, even if you did not speak the same level or pattern of discourse as those who created this sentence. But imagine if the weird syntax, sequencing and culturally specific references were sprinkled throughout the whole test. You would be exerting a little more mental effort and might perhaps experience more fatigue than those for whom these syntactical pattens and cultural references are intimately known and immediately recognizable.

If you are a native speaker of English or even a person who was raised in a household that speaks Standard American English or Academic English, and you came across these types of sentence constructions on a test, it is reasonable to say that your results will likely be compromised by your lack of immediate, effortless access to the syntax and cultural references in the sentence.

Here is the Spanish version:

“Me pongo deprimido a causa de que algunas personas tienen los pájaros en la cabeza cuando contempla la legitimación de los exámenes de IQ.”

And here is the modified English translation I came up with:

“I become depressed when some people go nuts when they contemplate the legitimacy of IQ tests.”

Even the word contemplate isn’t a perfect translation. It’s more likely that people go nuts [have birds on their head] when they consider all of the factors that determine the legitimacy of IQ tests.

Another interesting factor is that a Puerto Rican student might never have heard of the expression “tiene las pajaros en la cabeza”, which is a Central American expression, which literally means “birds on the head” but figuratively means “has mental illness” or “is crazy”.

It gets even more interesting when you consider that when Central Americans say “birds on the head”, they really mean “birds on YOUR head”, as the “you” is often understood (but not directly spoken) in many Spanish language constructions. A deeper investigation into the linguistic barriers would reveal that body parts are often spoken of without the appropriators “my”, “his” or “their”, which brings in an entirely new layer of inquiry into the relationship between language, the body and the conception of the physical self for cultures that speak a different language or have different linguistic constructions within the same language as the language (or discourse) that is spoken and written on the standardized test.

So, the political “Left”, which includes an educational component that strives for what we educators call “cultural literacy” has something to offer in the examination of where we might be marginalizing whole groups of people by not acknowledging -and adjusting for- the differentials that exist between majority/dominant groups’ access to certain discourses and cultural referents includes in some standardized tests and the lack of these portals of access experienced by minority groups and all those who do not speak the same discourse in the household.

And, when some tests are used to identify intellectual competency, then the lack of access to the “dominant discourse” becomes a troubling problem because then we are incorrectly assigning a level of intrinsic competence and even intelligence, that is likely to be incomplete or inaccurate.

We could call this “systemic racism”, but, where I part with the “woke” ethos is the more practical approach of simply naming a pattern, pointing to its outcomes and potential moral error, and advocating for a policy change.

So, there is a good deal of truth to the idea that privileged access to certain discourses can determine access to equal opportunity, which then impacts the life circumstances and outcomes in the lives of individuals who belong to groups who have considerable distance from the majority’s discourse.

Hopefully, over time, a more emotionally moderate and intellectually rigorous approach to examining education policies and equity issues (like the one I’m modeling here) can be recognized, embraced and practiced by us all.

Societal harmony, justice and peace may very well depend on it.

* This writing is Part I of a 2-part series. The other piece is called “Support Black Lives. Reject Racial Essentialism” and can be found here:

Support Black Lives. Reject Racial Essentialism

Balanced Perspectives

I support Black Lives Matter as a movement that is drawing much needed attention to specific structural disadvantages faced by Black Americans and other People of Color in the United States.

But, I do not support some of the ideas and philosophical positions that are becoming popular in some of the other movements that are adjacent to Black Lives Matter.

One of the most popular philosophical positions that I reject is *racial essentialism* -the idea that individuals of any race share a single, over-arching character trait that is said to belong to their group. Throughout history, we have seen how racial essentialism has offered justification for slavery, war, and genocide. But, it can also cause a more subtle outcome in more advanced civilizations… It can create an ever-present cloud of suspicion and a smoldering, slow-burning resentment between groups, undermining the collaboration, mutual trust and sharing of networks and skills that is necessary for a society to function in the most optimal way.

Here are two of the most popular racially essentialist ideas that have been advanced in recent years:

1. The idea that White people are permanent oppressors 
2. The idea that People of Color are permanent victims.

These and similar ideas come from a specific set of beliefs found in an ideological framework called Critical Race Theory, and although this framework has been embraced by academics and has the appearance of moral authority and scientific respectability, some of its central ideas has neither of those things. When we consider the deeper dimensions of CRT’s chief beliefs and the implications of a society that has embraced those beliefs, we can even say that some of these ideas can contribute to a perpetual and unnecessary spiritual war within our ourselves and between entire demographic groups for generations to come.

Here’s a brief simple history of the development of some of these ideas.

In the 1970’s anti-oppression manuals were passed out to workshop facilitators who were just beginning to hold anti-racist workshops that were based on Critical Race Theory’s beliefs about human nature and power and conflict, including the belief that all social, economic, political, and interpersonal relationships are governed by the pursuit of power and domination. With this ideologically-derived belief in mind, these manuals gave the facilitators instructions to intentionally inflict feelings of guilt and shame in the White workshop participants so that they could be freed from their junkyard dog grip on the idea that they were the cultural default and that Black and Brown people were just satellites forced to circle around the margins of a supposedly White world.

Over time, the central theme of these workshops (and the framework of Critical Race Theory itself) began to morph from the deep explorations into patterns of cultural domination and marginalization into advancing the twisted idea that all groups have permanent, unchangeable positive or negative traits. In short, these workshops and the published literature began to teach that all White people are racist oppressors and that all People of Color are permanent, innocent victims.

It’s important to understand that most people we see out on the streets protesting and most advocates who work on behalf of people of color, social justice and civil rights do not hold these extreme beliefs. But, we also have to be aware that these beliefs are becoming more popular in certain areas of civic life and that we are likely to see more evidence of this as time goes on.

One idea that seems to be gaining a great deal of ground is the idea that all White people have a permanent condition of internalized racism deep inside them (that cannot be gotten rid of) and that they must learn to live with this condition almost like a chronic disease that has to be managed. This idea is accompanied by the idea of the exceptional access to wisdom that people of color are claimed to have due to their lived experiences as victims of oppression.

There are aspects of these ideas that can be said to have value, but ultimately, they have little practical value in any meaningful way. While it’s true that White people have often benefited from generations of accumulated wealth, property and access to language discourses and power networks, it does not follow that all White people are intrinsically and permanently racist. And while it’s true that victims of oppression should always be regarded as having the most insight into the impact of oppressive policies and systems on their own bodies and minds and the bodies and minds of their families and communities (their lived experiences), it does not follow that individuals who belong to oppressed groups, including People of Color, are permanently and intrinsically more wise than all other groups or that they themselves are somehow incapable of inhuman and oppressive behaviors (which even a cursory study of history can confirm).

So, now a question arises.

Should we reject all ideas associated with the specific CRT framework currently called anti-racism?

I don’t think we can.

Like all political ideologies and religious cults, there are some good ideas mixed in with the bad ones. Some ideas and understandings found in anti-racist teachings, in fact, have enormous value.

For example, if we replace the word “Whiteness” with “Majority-ness”, we can see what anti-racist literature is getting at. Growing up as a member of a majority group causes people in majority groups to consider themselves as the default stand-in representative group for all people. This is the idea that a majority group’s experiences (in this case White people) can be considered the universal experience that all other groups must relate to as a reference. One of the artifacts that results from this attitude of default-ness is an indifference to the suffering and inequities faced by those who exist on the margins of society, which means that systems and policies we have built often to not take into account the specific contexts and experiences faced by marginalized groups.

It’s important to acknowledge these things if we want to do the difficult work of building sustainable relationships in a multicultural society and if we want to clear the way for equal rights for all races and ethnicities.

But, to be truly effective in our aims towards an inter-culturally harmonious society, we also need to free ourselves from the idea that the attitude of majority default-ness or cultural supremacy is somehow permanent and unchangeable. The idea that people who belong to majority groups cannot become more deeply accepting of the intrinsic preciousness and equality of other groups is simply not accurate and is unsupported by scientific evidence and real life experience.

Another helpful way to look at this is to see that these ideas are not *sociological discoveries* observed through empirical investigation, but *ideological equations* designed to achieve specific political goals. And while we may support some or all of these political goals, indulging the psychodrama of guilt and absolution based on these designed equations is a pointless distraction that does nothing to advance those goals. It simply does not compare with the rigors involved in the serious analysis of problems and the actionable policy-making that can make a real difference in the lives of millions of people of color.

And it risks the deepening of the grooves of separation and inter-group hostility that can stifle the forward movement that all thinking people with a conscience desperately want.

Racial essentialism must go.

* This writing is Part 2 of a 2-part series. The other piece is called “Black Lives Matter Everyday” and can be found HERE:

The Buddha was not on the left… or the right

Balanced Perspectives, Psychology, Spirituality

The Buddha was not on the Left: A balanced perspective

In 2020 without warning, Facebook flagged and then banned an article called “The Buddha Was Not on the Left”, which was written from a balanced perspective by Patrick Stinton, a Buddhist practitioner who maintains the view that there are aspects of wisdom in both leftist and rightist thinking. At the time of this blog entry (5/28/20), this exceptionally thoughtful essay cannot be seen on Facebook.

Included in this image below is an excerpt of the essay that has been re-published in its entirety below.

Summary of “The Buddha Was Not On the Left”

In recent years, two of the most prominent theories in modern social justice belief systems -Intersectionality Theory and Critical Race Theory- have become increasingly influential in Western religious and spiritual communities, including churches, mosques, and temples. With the formal adoption of these theories by the American Southern Baptist Convention and by various schools of Buddhism in the United States and parts of Europe, it seems clear that these theories have been embraced to some degree as an extension of these traditions’ teachings.

In the essay, The Buddha Was not on the Left, clinical psychology doctoral candidate and longtime Vipassana meditation practitioner Patrick Stinton offers some insights that can provide balance to the perspectives and practices that have become increasingly commonplace in some spiritual practice communities, including practices related to group identity, teachings presented within the frames of ideologically driven oppression narratives, and the gradual embrace of the belief that one can know the inner lives of entire demographic groups based on the unchangeable sociocultural characteristics of individuals who belong to those groups.

The essay also explores the theme of what the ancients called “idiot compassion”, which wisdom traditions have rejected as sentimental and lacking in insight into the unadorned and sometimes harsh realities of life and human nature. By embracing personal responsibility, a healthy respect for boundaries and form, and the spirit of open-ended curiosity and inquisitiveness in place of victimhood consciousness, Stinton reminds us, a higher moral perspective and authentically powerful sense of self based on objective consciousness might be possible.

Ultimately, this work admonishes us to consider why the Buddha and the ancient teachers from other non-dual wisdom traditions would have rejected the one-sided approach to living our realization in the world.

Below, is the full text of the essay.

Political Polarization

November 1, 2018
By Patrick Stinton

Natural systems thinking has something to offer the assimilation of Vipassanā into the West, which in its pure form should decrease the social polarity we currently suffer.

In my estimation, a pro-borders/tradition/hierarchy/stability, i.e. “conservative” view and a pro-openness/revolution/equality/creativity, i.e. “progressive” view are two sides of the same coin. In fact, I am convinced that they represent natural forces or patterns found in all living things. This is a very strong, and maybe even unpopular claim in some contexts.
I would say that “Buddhism” is overrepresented and over identified with “progressives” and “the left.” I would also say that this produces an inaccurate and dangerously limited representation of vipassanā meditation, which is the practical system that the historical Buddhā taught. I believe that this limited representation over-emphasizes one part of a highly complex, total system while destabilizing another part. However, if there is any validity to this claim, then it should be no surprise when the natural forces that represent “the other side” react in kind to such a unidimensional, polar-progressive view with its own unidimensional, polar-conservative opposite.
It is important to note that this claim is based on the assumption that reactions in one side of a political polarity occur in response to reactions in another side of a political polarity. Not everyone will agree with this assumption, particularly people who are angry at democrats or angry at republicans, or just angry at the President, whatever “side” he actually represents. But what I am proposing is a heuristic which provides a new and possibly more productive way to look at a very complex problem. It suggests that the functioning of “the left” and “the right,” to grossly oversimplify that dialectic, are intrinsically interdependent and comprise a whole in which each cannot exist without the other. As reactivity and anxiety increases, some indications for this relationship might include; 1) that each side is equally hyper-focused on their own strengths and hyper-focused on their opponent’s weaknesses, and 2) that each side uses the same class of argument against the other to push their own particular message, such as “they are irrational, they don’t care about the facts,” “they are ignoring the research,” “get out and vote to save our democracy!” etc. When I see political arguments on the air, in the streets, and on the net today, I see the same class of combative message on both sides no matter the content of that class of message. Once I was able to “see” this for the first time, there has been no going back.
If, in fact, reactions on one side occur regardless of the intentions on the other side and visa-versa, then you might say the behavior of the total system is “natural,” i.e. it is not “constructed” by humans because it occurs regardless of their constructions. So I am suggesting that this behavior I start of a “natural system.” Murray Bowen (1978) suggested that the family is a [natural] “system” in that a change in functioning in one part automatically necessitates a change in another. I am extending this idea to the collective political level, saying that a change in one area automatically necessitates a change in another area. And so as the Buddha said, the wheel of dukkah (suffering) spins faster and faster, fueled by mutual avijjā (ignorance) of the reciprocal actuality of the total amalgam. Just like an escalating argument with a loved one, it never deescalates until someone decides to stop spinning the wheel.
What the Buddha Did
Now let’s be clear about the achievement of the historical “Buddha.” Like the Dali Lama, he was first a bodhisattva: an ordinary, unenlightened living thing who was a small step away from reaching enlightenment himself. But he set that opportunity aside to perfect his enlightenment which would allow him to perfectly teach others as a samāsambuddha, or “perfect Buddha.” This decision immeasurably increased the effort required to reach his final goal. He then went out on his own without a teacher and (re-)discovered Vipassanā, also known as Satipathannā, or the “path leading to the way out of suffering.” This singular achievement is illustrated as the enactment of a perfect synthesis of counterbalancing forces. He literally sat down with absolute determination to withstand his endless reactions to his own sensations in order to scientifically examine the entirety of his own physical and mental structure. That is the practice vipassanā. He then described, and acted in line with, the compensatory forces that govern all living things as highly complex, integrated, and interdependent systems. A hallmark of his “perfect” enlightenment was the ability to teach that total complex in singular form to all kinds of students with all kinds of learning styles. His ability to enact the total view allowed him to maintain a following that did not divide into factions. However, his students who became enlightened by merely following his instructions could only teach a partial view of the total complex. This is why his once-united followers split into ideological factions shortly after his death. These factions continue to split and split into modern times. There was not one of them that could singularly represent all perspectives of the total view on the nature of suffering and the way out of suffering simultaneously. They split because each had a proclivity and probably an aptitude to teach a certain part, and all of these parts are important.
This “total view” is called the Middle Path. Enacting the Middle Path did not make the Buddha a “Centrist,” or a “Moderate.” If the left/right, progressive conservative dichotomies have any basis in nature, then the Buddha was simultaneously progressive, centrist, moderate, and conservative. This is what “Middle” means in the Middle Path. It does not merely mean equidistant between two points. He often said something like “work ardently for the benefit of all by practicing compassion.” He also said “only you can liberate yourself by your own efforts,” and “only a country that maintains its original principles and traditions will endure.” Of course, he also said many other things. The former statement represents principles of openness, progress, and creativity, like those traditionally found on “the left.” The latter statements represent principles of reducing, defining, and stabilizing, like those traditionally found on “the right.” Together they do not represent a contradictory view. Both are fundamental. He exemplified all of them when appropriate.
Endless volumes have been written in attempt to articulate the simultaneous synthesis of all aspects of a Middle Path in singular form, but it is not possible. The only singular articulation of the Middle Path is a person who develops and enacts it. There are no words for that.
This is not a complete technical description of the historical Buddha’s attainment, but it is one important aspect of his attainment that “progressives” on “the left” have to contend with so long as this so-called “Buddhism” remains their brainchild. Actually, everyone has to contend with this, not just the left. But I believe it is self-evident that “Buddhism” currently belongs to “the left.” I am arguing that this “left” has appropriated this so-called “Buddhism” from the practical tradition of vipassanā, and often uses it as an axiomatic justification for a new atheist-sectarian fight against the right. The Middle Way is not exemplified by “compassion,” as I my ears certainly first heard it and my mind first integrated it. The goal of vipassanā is pañña, or “wisdom.” Specifically bhavana-maya pañña, or “wisdom from your own direct experience,” not suta-maya pañña (“merely heard/followed wisdom”), or cinta-maya pañña (“intellectualized wisdom”). Bhavana-maya pañña is the development of “Right View,” the final product of the Eightfold-Noble Path. The perfection of the total view in its entirety; moving beyond all polarities.
This is a difficult thesis to support, of course, because I am suggesting that the implicit assumptions used to support a particularly left-leaning hyper-moral position are rooted in this so-called “Buddhism” we have created. Implicit assumptions are invisible by definition so you can’t prove or disprove their existence or influence. But this is a blog, and I will continue.
What Vipassana Is
So why am I making these strong claims? Because vipassanā is something you do, not something you think. A “Buddhism” which does not practice vipassanā is as real as a birthday sentiment manufactured by Hallmark Cards, Inc. Actual, serious, diligent, twice daily practice has a way of balancing the mind that reading, chatting, and FaceBooking cannot provide. Vipassanā is a dynamic, systems practice which must be taught over a long period of time by experienced teachers. It must be taught in ideal conditions which support each of its many integral features simultaneously. It can only be practiced after making a commitment to a certain degree of morality, which is only possible when taught in ideal, prepared conditions over an extended period of time. It cannot be reduced to a symptom-focused therapies which exclude that base of morality, and must be given away for free as an act of friendship (Fleischman, 2016).
Vipassanā without each of the integral features of the practice can only create another sectarian ideology to be exploited by the idle, reactive interests of one tribe against another. Vipassanā is an equalizer, not a divider. It is the unbelievably difficult act of confronting our basic, biologically reactive processes by learning to sit still, systematically training unbroken attention on our own concrete, physical and mental structure. It is building up to making this a one-hour effort twice daily, and at least one sustained 1-2 week effort every year. It is giving up the search for “something special” in favor of a total understanding of the ordinary, mundane aspects of Nature. This can often be really boring. Like science, it requires hours upon hours of objective observation to discover the basic, natural laws which govern our bodies and minds; not just on the cushion but in every moment of our lives. It just so happens to be the most difficult thing we can do, especially within the context of our most intimate relationships, and it never gets any easier. Vipassanā doesn’t generate “equality” through ideas, it equalizes through the direct, hard-won experience that all things that live face the same challenge that we face when we try to meditate: a living mind’s intrinsic, unending, automatic reactivity to our own sensory-perceptive system at every level of analysis. It perfectly demonstrates to us that absolutely zero of our suffering comes from others, it comes from the universal reactivity to our own material and mental selves as we co-exist with others. This suffering is generated by a partial, inaccurate view of our own total amalgam. We literally generate ignorance by ignore-ing what is not represented in this partial view of ourselves. We then call this inaccurate view “I,” and it becomes the primary heuristic through which we organize our lives.
Vipassanā is taught as the tool to complete this partial, inaccurate view. But it takes hard work to experience this directly and not just talk, think, or argue about it either directly or indirectly. Vipassanā is the humble act of discovering the reciprocal reality of our own functioning through ardent, systematic, continuous observation. Among other things, it helps us discover that blaming others for our discomforts is as illogical as blaming the painful sensations in our back for the painful sensations in our leg, and visa versa.
Conversely, I argue that “Buddhism” is a partial view appropriated by the West to fit one value system of many which does not represent vipassanā in its entirety. If “Buddhism” were actually balanced in this regard, then the most conservative Christians and Muslims lining up to learn how to better observe themselves along side all the rest of the “progressives.”
I am not promoting the progressive “equality” of representation here as in affirmative action hiring. I am implying that vipassanā is automatically attractive to all when it is transmitted in its complete form. There is nothing that is simply “progressive” or “conservative” about Vipassanā. It is simultaneously both, and everything in between.
Implicit Values
Just as Nietzsche predicted, scientism and atheism have torn our old religious/axiomatic roots from under us, and for good reason. Just look what wonderful good those European Enlightenment values have done for everyone on the planet. The sovereignty of the individual, bend over backwards to prove yourself wrong, and so on. The human world has since achieved an increase in global wellbeing that accelerates exponentially on so many dimensions that any rudimentary glance through our ancient and classical histories alike reveals this as an absolute miracle. But the universal, non-sectarian practice of vipassanā must not be as become a weapon of the sectarian, atheistic left against the sectarian, theistic right. If it remains appropriated as “Buddhism” by the fleeting shelf-lives of the Barnes and Nobles and Amazons to promote a tribal left that fights the tribal right, we will all suffer even more in the long run as we move further away from the universal, uniting aims of vipassanā.
Vipassanā is only vipassanā when it is non-sectarian. It is as far away from “Buddhism” or any other “ism” as you can get. It has to be universal. It is a practice which enables a person to better see the total integrated view, not an ideology to embolden one part of a social system over another. I am arguing that Western popular literature has created a “Buddhism” which over-emphasizes the “left” and “progressive” side of the coin to fill the axiomatic void created by the European Enlightenment; One that is partially a make-believe ideology exclusively organized around equality, welcoming, caring, forgiving, providing, and selflessness.
Yet this is entirely as it should be, at least for a time. Progressives who are interested in radical new ideas obviously possess the temperament necessary to seek out and assimilate such radical novelty. I myself am the temperamental equivalent of a radical progressive so far as the Big 5 personality traits are concerned; high in trait “agreeableness” and very high in trait “openness,” sometimes to a fault. This objective assessment matches my own subjective opinion. For the record, I am not a registered democrat or republican, and make every effort to move between all sides of the political spectrum. I still enjoy a strong position on one or another issue, and I retain many biases. But let it be known that I am not suggesting yet another layer of blame, this time aimed at progressives. This is not an indictment from outside the circle, but a momentary call for more coordinated progress from within.
Further, the ideas of equality, welcoming, caring, forgiving, providing, and selflessness are essential ideas in vipassanā. But they are not the only essential ideas in vipassanā. All of these ideas have their respective counterparts which are required to form a balanced, integrated system. We also have to promote inequality, denial, dissociation, selfishness, not just sometimes, but just as often as their seemingly more desirable counterparts.
“Sacrilege!” any self-respecting progressive might say.
But no! We all appreciate the advantages of not equalizing across every social dimension, denying a stranger at the gate when there truly is no room within, ignoring another’s suffering when our own is simply too much to bare, and so on. I am arguing that so long as a person’s implicit atheistic or progressive assumptions are pulled from a partial view of this so-called “Buddhism” in a “fight” against a theistic or traditional right, our problems will only increase. No matter how hard any one person “fights” another without developing the total view, the system will always find a way to balance itself out and no one will like how it manages to do that. We will only drive its polarization, its regression, the intensity of our remarkably functional society’s auto-immune response that will eventually devour us all.
If we are all standing on a circular table balanced on a single point in the middle, you have to take a step to the edge for every step I take to the edge, lest we both fall off. If I want you to step toward the center, I must step toward the center. But we can’t both stand right in the center, and so we assume our positions respective to our temperaments and aptitudes. As in family, as in society.
But my thesis relies on the assumption that we are balancing on the same table to begin with. If we don’t share that assumption, then we will always miss each other like ships in the night.
But if we do share that assumption, then both sides of that coin are not merely important opinions owned by some people or others, something to be considered, and then rejected as accurate or inaccurate. They represent natural and fundamentally counterbalancing forces that hold societies together. The literally positive terms “equality, diversity, and inclusion” may sound great for a time, but that mantra destabilizes societies when left unconstrained by their natural, compensatory opposites. Equality of opportunity becomes equality of outcome and people die in scores by the socialist systems required to enforce it. Diversity of competence becomes diversity of representation, and we are unable to make use of our precious few experts for the benefit of everyone. Inclusion across boundaries becomes dilution of the central organizing structures required to organize a society, or simply exhausts the basic resources we all need to survive.
Progressives can’t simply vote for gun control and against the prohibition of abortion or react in outrage at every hint to someone denied at the border, as if their axioms represent self-evident truths that are being ignored and spat on by evil “others.” And so also for conservatives. The answers to these problems are not self-evident. If they were, there would not be an equally potent conservative outrage which immediately and automatically rises in opposition to the progressive outrage every single time. Though by all accounts polarized, the voting distribution in the US has proved to be an incredibly stable system over the last decades as presidential elections remain perfectly divided among democratic and republican candidates. One can easily make the case that the idea that one side represents “the end of our democracy” is delusional at best. Everyone has something to offer the discussion, but almost none of us appear to actually be very good at representing our contribution in a way that isn’t either a reaction to an opposing view or one that indicts another faction.
Redefine each term however you like, but “equality, diversity, and inclusion” do not provide a stable collective ethos. They represent only one side of the total view. We need openness and progress, but without borders and stability we will be consumed by chaos.
I would say that it doesn’t matter if one practices “vipassanā,” per se. But I am certain that the less each of us utilizes ways to balance our minds as individuals, the less we are able to see more than one side of things. Our biases will consume and destroy us just as we purport to confront them. Rowing on one side of the boat just sends us in circles. Get the total view and row forward. The only way is to stop blaming republicans, or democrats, or men, or women, or any other group, or president, or family member, or mental or medical disease, and start developing the individual capacity to function up on as many sides of the total view as possible simultaneously. This is the product of vipassana as the Buddha taught it. That is, to see each challenge for what it is: a single symptom of a greater collective process in which we participate. To be a solid self within a fluid yet coordinated group, to learn exactly what it means to function simultaneously “100% for self and 100% for others.”
The Buddha taught vipassanā. “Buddhism,” so it is called, is not vipassanā. If the vipassanā that we know today is what the Buddha actually taught, then the Buddha was simultaneously progressive and conservative, left, center, and right, creative and stable.

I’ll end with a passage from Our Best and Most Tasing Gift: The Universal Features of Meditation by Vipassana teacher Paul Fleischman (2016):

We have all come to wish that meditation effloresces into both personal equanimity, and also into harmony, that is, interpersonal and social good will. Today, meditation is promoted as part of wistful attitudes, like “Peace Now,” “War is Not the Answer,” or “Coexist.” Meditation has become blurred with the cultural matrix of the sixties, within which it emerged into the Western World. Anecdotes from the hazy mountains of the past circulate as if they were historical documentation about the peaceful accomplishment of mythical meditators, once upon a time, long ago. Almost everyone confuses Gandhi and the Buddha and imagines that meditation made the Buddha into a pacifist, which he wasnʼt. Even the Buddha did not claim to have solutions to the widespread violence and war that were present in his own time and that press onward into ours.We all want to believe that the good feelings we can locate in ourselves during meditation will suffuse around us with social blessings. You can count me in as one among the hopeful. But I am a meditator who questions the objectivity of my own beliefs, so I want to ask whether meditation really has a significant benign social impact.Certainly, in our minds as we meditate, or as we get up from meditation, we feel the great embrace. We feel not only greater self integration, and self acceptance, but greater appreciation and empathy for others. The relatively enhanced homeostatic regulation of our thoughts, feelings, nervous system, blood flow and other psychosomatic processes has optimized our sense of peace and wellbeing. We feel more understanding and forgiving. And we feel surges of gratitude for our opportunities, primarily, meditation itself. We feel pervasive love. Many of us will at that moment practice “Metta,” as we believe that the Buddha taught it, radiating all beings and all directions of the cosmos with our grandparental hearts, (whatever our age), with our feelings of love, joy, peace and compassion. This is meditationʼs glow, our harvest moon, our own light in the dark.

But is that feeling durable and socially significant?

Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York, NY: Jason Aronson.

Encouraging a more generous activism to reflect who we are

Balanced Perspectives, Bullying & Mobbing, Social Justice Ideology

Many of us who work for social justice have learned to be silent in some communities for fear that we will called out, labeled with reputation-compromising epithets or accused of something we have not done.

In 2016, Frances Lee published a well-known essay around this phenomenon called “Why I’ve Started to Fear my Fellow Social Justice Activists”. This was one of several watershed pieces that have been coming out over the past few years in response to “cancel culture” and the increasing patterns of bullying, ideological fixation, and de-platforming that has occurred in social justice movements.

In the recent essay, titled “No Justice without love: why activism must be more generous”, Lee goes further into their understanding of what really matters in our pursuit of a just world and why we need to operate out of love and humility rather than reducing our activism to outrage, cruelty and contempt.

What makes this piece particularly powerful is that Lee, a transgender intersectional activist and cultural studies scholar, has identified the unproductive elements that have crept into many of today’s social justice movements with more precision. The following passage about how information and dogmas are sometimes shared in these movements sums this up:

“But the way they [ideas for change] are presented, re-shared and absorbed into activist culture as infallible gospel truths removes people’s agency to think for themselves. I want to be a member of a thriving and diverse social movement, not a cult or a religion.”

“Furthermore”, they continue, “I worry that identity is being deployed as a way to separate people rather than to create coalitions to work together en masse.”

Lee’s new book, Toward An Ethics of Activism: A Community Investigation of Humility, Grace and Compassion in Movements for Justice, addresses the “relational aggression” that is common in some of the communities that form around these movements and explores some of the ways in which the inevitable conflicts can be surfaced, understood, and healed.

If the book reflects the basic decency and humanistic outlook of this essay, it could make a big difference in bringing more people in alignment with movements for social change.

For a similar treatment of how we can build a sense of welcome, authentic solidarity and a spirit of generosity in human rights/social justice movements, please read Starhawk’s essay on “How to Build a Welcoming Movement”.


Graduate Student Explains Why We Need More Standpoint Theory

Balanced Perspectives, Social Justice Ideology, Social Theory

Sonia Zawitkowski, a graduate student in applied social psychology, has written an interesting essay arguing for the positive aspects of Standpoint Theory.

Put in the simplest possible way, this is one of the main theories in modern Social Justice Ideology (SJI) that asks who is in power and who stands to gain more power by holding a specific position on an issue. It is a higher resolution justification for the beliefs and behaviors of those who practice what some call “identity politics”

But, as to be expected from the Electric Agora online philosophy forum founded by philosopher, Daniel A. Kaufman, this essay presents a more subtle perspective that is worthy of consideration. 

This site hosts essay writers from all persuasions who present deep perspectives on issues, which makes its tagline ” a modern symposium for the digital age” earning of its name. Not surprisingly, the site has been awarded as one of the top 100 philosophy blogs.

Below are a few notable titles:

All Philosophy is Activist Philosophy by David Ottinger

Postmodernism as Truth in Advertising by Kevin Currie-Knight​

Random Reflections on Intellectual History, Abstraction and Social and Political Values by Mark English

Adolph Reed Jr. Critiques AntiRacism™ Ideology

Balanced Perspectives, Social Justice Ideology

Dr. Adolf Reed Jr., a noted scholar and professor of politics and the history of race, published a paper in the Dialectical Anthropology Journal in June of 2018. While the writing and citations is highly academic and erudite in its expression, the insights and critiques of the ideology known as AntiRacism™ and its parent ideology, Critical Race Theory are an important contribution to the conversation around the impact of hardline ideologies on the solving of society’s problems.

Social Justice Ideology’s Introduction into K-12 Schools.

Education & Social Justice, Social Justice Ideology

In recent years there has been a wealth of proposals for uprooting the Eurocentric curriculum that has undergirded the American educational enterprise for decades. The basic idea is that we need to center the voices, experiences, narratives, and ways of life of people who have lived their lives at the margins of American life due to either negligence, oppression, or both. 

But, the important project of building a multicultural approach into teaching and learning environments and correcting imbalances in the stories we choose to tell about our country has begun to appear more like indoctrination into a specific ideology rather than a systematic implementation of more inclusive perspectives.

Real Clear Investigations has just published an interesting article that details some of the ideological artifacts that have made their way into the proposed curricula for K-12 education in California and many other states in recent years.

This article’s title unfortunately contains the word “woke” which appears pejorative. But, it’s a worthy read in that it examines the different reasons why several different groups of people object to (or wish to reform) this proposed curriculum.

Helen Pluckrose and What Social Justice Gets Right

Balanced Perspectives, Social Justice Ideology

Helen Pluckrose, editor of Areo Magazine has written a balanced essay, inviting the reader to consider the genuine insights and important contributions to social harmony and justice in the concepts and practices that social justice scholarship has advanced in recent years.

In What Social Justice Gets Right, a case is made that we can work to structure our systems, design public policy, and treat others in all the ways that social justice theories encourage without falling into the trap of extremism, dualistic thinking, or ideological fixation.

Here is an excerpt:

“Liberal critics of the postmodern conception of the world, currently most visible in Social Justice activism, don’t claim that these ideas have no validity. They do. Given the choice of believing that culture strongly influences what a society accepts as true and believing that it has no impact, rational people who value evidence and reason must conclude that it does. The idea that recognition of this belongs to postmodernists or Social Justice activists, while the rest of us wander around in a comfortable haze of common sense waiting for them to make us woke to it is simply false. Humans in general have been aware of the existence of culture, the power of narratives and the tendency of humans to hold biases they are not fully aware of since long before Social Justice came into existence. Where liberals with progressive aims disagree with the Social Justice scholars and activists is on how to understand these biases and address them. It is essential to be clear about this if we are to make any kind of balanced and fair critique of Social Justice, and if we are to do so confidently en masse.”