Practicing Compassionate Political Speech Through Deep Looking

Because of its emotionally charged nature, it is difficult to engage in political speech in a mindful, compassionate way. I often ask myself, How do I remain compassionate when criticizing others? Can we criticize others without disparaging or demonizing them, especially when we speak of them perpetuating injustices and other forms of harm to others? On a number of occasions, in sangha and on retreats and days of mindfulness, I have talked with other practitioners about these difficulties. On the one hand, some have told me that they deal with these challenges by simply not speaking of such contentious topics at all. While this may be appropriate for some people at some points in their practice, if none of us speak to these issues–to say nothing of working actively around them–changes for the better will not occur. On the other hand, I have talked to some practitioners who I felt were seeking for a Buddhist rationalization for speech that is not just angry but laced with ill-will by, for instance, making a distinction between anger and outrage, with the former to be avoided but the latter to be embraced as a mindful, positive reaction.

Here, I would like to reflect on my own attempts to find a middle way between these extremes. For me, the practice of looking deeply and then incorporating the insights gained from looking deeply into my own political speech has been very helpful.

This challenge has been central to my personal practice by virtue of my profession–I teach sociology and global studies at the college level, which means I am continually speaking about and facilitating conversations on major social issues with classrooms of students I cannot assume share my views on these issues. But it is not always easy to see what the path towards mindful, compassionate speech is in such contexts. For instance, the consensus among sociologists who study racism and sexism is that these forms of discrimination remain pervasive and institutionalized–the only debate is around just how bad these things remain, how difficult these problems will be to overcome and the best means to do so. So how do I respectfully engage with students who believe these things are largely a matter of the past and are resistant to considering that these problems still persist? Again, there is a good deal of evidence that conservative welfare reforms are driven–sometimes intentionally, sometimes subconsciously–in part by racist, sexist and classist stereotypes. But how do I talk about these things without demonizing conservatives? Or, even if I’m not doing so in my own head, speak about these issues in a way that doesn’t make conservative students nonetheless feel like I am?

Thay teaches us that an essential element of cultivating our compassion is looking deeply—trying to gain insight and understanding into the causes and conditions shaping people’s actions. Once we gain this understanding, it is easier to develop a sense of compassion for people whose actions we find repellant. In Western Buddhism, when we engage in the practice of looking deeply, we have a tendency to focus on people’s individual mental formations–their psychology. This is consistent with the individualism of Western culture, but sits uncomfortably with Thay’s emphasis on examining the interbeing of all phenomena. I want to suggest that trying to understand the social causes and conditions of people’s behavior, and not just the psychological ones, will allow us to look even more deeply, understanding people not in isolation but in the ways we are all socially interconnected with each other.

Some of the resistance to engaging in such a social analysis may be that, while Buddhism has a rich tradition of psychological analysis, it is much weaker when it comes to social analysis. Because Buddhism itself has few such resources, to develop a rich understanding of how social causes and conditions shape our behavior, we have to turn outside of Buddhism to Western traditions of critical social theory (anarchism, feminism, Marxism, post-structuralism, etc.). In some cases, approaches that rely primarily on Buddhist psychological analysis seem to be the result of a lack of familiarity with critical social theory, but in other cases, this narrow approach seems to be rooted in the idea that Buddhism must have all the resources necessary to engage in such an analysis. But Buddhism has borrowed from other traditions like Hinduism, Daoism and Confucianism throughout its history and, in the first three of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, Thay urges us not to set Buddhist beliefs up on a pedestal as an idol, but to be open to different sources of insight.

Call Me by My True Names Book Cover

Part of my inspiration on how to approach these questions comes from Thay’s poem “Please Call Me By My True Names,” where he attempts, among other things, to understand the pirates who attacked, raped and killed boat people. He looks at the grinding poverty the pirates grew up in and acknowledges that if he grew up in such conditions, it is possible he might have become such a pirate as well.

Another, non-Buddhist source of inspiration for me that has been the book More Power Than We Know (1975) by David Dellinger, one of the main leaders of the US New Left of the 1960s and who described himself as a revolutionary pacifist. He was one of the Chicago 8, a disparate group of left-wing activists charged by the US government with inciting the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. (A Congressional investigation later concluded the riot was largely instigated by the police.) More Power Than We Know describes, among other things, the trial of the Chicago 8, in which the judge, Julius Hoffman, openly sided with the government’s efforts to frame the defendants and send them to prison. I was struck when I read this book by the way Dellinger always remained respectful of others like Judge Hoffman who were openly hostile to him and the principles he stood for. Dellinger maintained his compassionate and non-judgmental attitude by always trying to understand what social forces had molded Hoffman and other members of the elite to act the way they did and believe what they did. (I have actually known two people who knew Dellinger personally when he was politically active–one was a close friend of Dellinger’s, the other new him more casually. Both said that he was like this in person as well, for which reason he was one of the few people all the factions on the US left of the 1960s trusted.) In this, his approach was very similar to Thay in “Call Me By My True Names.” While Thay looks down at those who are oppressed and how such oppression can lead one to harm others, Dellinger looked up at those in power and how having power can also lead one to harm others. It is not actually unusual for progressives to do the former, at least at a superficial level, but it is unusual for us to do the latter, cultivating compassion for the oppressor as well as the oppressed.

There are a number of tools I have developed over the years in the classroom, at protests and elsewhere, things I zero in on when engaging in the process of deep looking at social causes and conditions, in order to better understand why people take the actions they do that harm others.

One important aspect of this is to be aware of how other people make sense of things differently than we do, that is to try to look deeply into their culture or worldview, the system of meaning through which we make sense of the world and decide how to act. Many elements of our worldview we take for granted without being consciously aware of them, seeing them as “common sense” (a word that sets off alarm bells for any good social scientist). But people who have radically different worldviews than ours make radically different assumptions about how reality works. This means that beliefs and actions that can seem crazy or vindictively cruel to us make sense to the people who hold these beliefs and act on them. We need to be willing to step out of our worldview and to try to make sense of how other people’s actions make sense to them. For instance, if you are a Christian fundamentalist and start from the assumption that the Bible is the literal word of God and that God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for their sexual practices was an actual, historical event, then fearing that legalizing gay marriage will bring catastrophe to the country is perfectly rational. We need not agree with such beliefs, but we need to understand why they make sense on their own terms to those who believe them. When we do this, we can develop more compassion for those who act on these beliefs in ways that harm others, such as trying to restrict the rights of or even demonizing LGBT people–even as we act to stop them from doing such harm.

Related to this are issues of confirmation bias and stereotyping. Psychologists have documented what they call confirmation bias–we tend to take in information that fits with our existing worldview and filter out information that doesn’t, dismissing it as implausible, an exception to the norm, or the like. (And some evidence shows that liberals are just as prone to doing this as conservatives–it’s easy to see when those we disagree with filter out information that supports our point of view, but harder to see when we or people of similar beliefs are doing it ourselves.) One way this manifests is in how we stereotype various groups of people. Our stereotypes are shaped by our worldview and our confirmation biases reinforce them. Contrary to popular belief, meeting people from groups we are prejudiced does not normally reduce the degree to which we stereotype them. Indeed, our stereotypes may even be reinforced as our confirmation bias leads us to focus only on those aspects of what they say and do that fit with what we already believe–and to dismiss anything that clashes with our biases as an anomaly. Thus, part of looking deeply into someone else’s worldview is understanding how deeply resilient that worldview can be to those who believe it, however obviously flawed it may seem to us. And these can help us understand why people discriminate against others–because what they see is not a full person, but something filtered through their preconceptions. And the fact that we all do this should make us a little more humble in our criticisms of others for stereotyping (though hopefully our mindfulness practice makes it easier for us to see past our preconceptions–but we should not fool ourselves that are immune).

Another important thing to be aware of is the ways in which our place in the larger social structure can limit our perspective and our choices. In terms of perspective, we tend to think of things in terms of our own reference group, which usually consists of people that are like us. Thus, a CEO of a company is likely to consider things from the perspective of other members of the economic and political elite, but is unlikely to take into account the perspective of others, even people he or she may encounter every day, such as his or her administrative assistant. And progressive activists will tend to take into account the perspective of other progressive activists, but not those of the economic and political elite. This is what President Trump was doing when he advocated repealing financial regulations because they did not allow business friends of his to get loans they wanted. While perhaps more blatant than usual, almost all of us do this to some extent. It becomes particularly dangerous when the people doing this are in positions of power and are incapable of–or don’t bother to–put themselves in the shoes of others affected by their decisions. Thus they will focus on the benefits to other people like them, while remaining unaware to harm it may cause more vulnerable parts of the population. They may also hold beliefs that reinforce this narrow perspective, such as the belief that what is good for business is ultimately good for society as a whole. One of the goals of our practice is to increasingly be able to put ourselves in the shoes of those unlike us, ultimately encompassing all sentient beings.

Our place in the social structure can limit not only our perspectives but our choices. It is easy to see this in the case of people lower down in the social hierarchy. Someone who is poor and has little education is unlikely to have many choices about how they make their livelihood, perhaps working in a weapons-factory because they cannot find another job. But people in power often find that, while they may have access to more resources and more options, social structures nonetheless make it easier to make some decisions than others. Take, for instance, your typical factory-owner in the apparel industry. Chances are, they have little choice but to run the factory as a sweatshop if they wish to stay in business. In the apparel industry, the major firms own few or no factories of their own. All the money is to be made in marketing and retail, so they outsource the less profitable manufacturing to contractors, some of which are large, transnational operations themselves, but most of which are smaller in scale, with the owners often possessing only one or two factories. To get the contracts to produce the apparel for the major firms, these contractors are in a bidding war with each other, where they must promise to be able to maintain a certain level of quality and meet certain timetables, while keeping costs are low as possible. This means, if they want those contracts and to stay in business, they have to cut costs on the backs of their workers, meaning they must run their factories as sweatshops.

One could certainly imagine a sweatshop owner with a troubled conscience getting out of the business–but if they left, others would replace them. The problem is not a few bad apples abusing their power, but one of how the social structure is organized–the very inequalities in power themselves. Because the problem is systemic, it is not something that can be changed by individuals making different choices in isolation. This is not to say that the system cannot be changed–but it would require people working collectively at the global level to develop a new set of rules and organizing principles for the industry–something that both the lead firms and sweatshop owners have refused to do. While we can fault them morally for not supporting such changes, looking at the pressures they are under to make certain decisions and not others, combined with understanding how their place in the social structure narrows their perspective, can help us develop compassion for them. And speaking about these issues in terms of structural problems can get away from language that focuses on morally condemning them, which can all too easily fall into demonizing them.

In practicing mindful political speech based on these principles, teaching sociology and global studies has been very good practice for me. I am supportive of gay marriage, but I have on more than one occasion pushed a classroom full of students, all of whom could not understand why someone would oppose gay marriage, to try to develop such understanding. I would encourage to get them to move beyond ideas such as “they’re crazy” to see why some groups of people might find gay marriage threatening. And, because I am urging them to do so, I must do so myself.

One thing that helped push me to take this approach myself was the realization that I needed to be mindful in my own speech because I never know who I have in my classroom and who my own words might hurt. In one class, I explained to my students some of the problems with the World Economic Forum (WEF), a non-profit organization that holds annual conferences at which the world’s political, business, and philanthropic elite meet to network and informally, off the record discuss what social policies they want to pursue–something that gives this group great power and influence. As I walked around the class after the lecture, stopping to listen to and engage with the small discussion groups, one young woman simply said to me, in a somewhat distressed tone, “But my mother works for the World Economic Forum.” This really pushed me to find a way to critique the WEF that was not disparaging, but mindful and compassionate, something that would help her understand the criticisms without making her feel like she was betraying her mother. I explained to her that the problem was not necessarily the motives of those at the WEF–that many of them might be well intentioned, but that they represented a very narrow range of social groups, material interests, values, and life experiences. They might be trying to solve social problems, but their ability to do so was hobbled by their own limited perceptions. I don’t know what impact this conversation had on the student, but trying to mindfully choose the most compassionate, understanding wording has a big impact on me.

As I have practiced such mindful speech in the classroom, I find it begins to extend into other areas of my life. When I am readings the news and begin to become outraged by what I read, I am more likely to pause and breath, and then to mindfully try to understand why the people I am outraged by are doing what they are doing and thereby begin to feel some compassion for them. This is not to say that I always manage to practice mindful speech, especially when I am angry. After the most recent election, I found myself using very harsh speech for those I blamed for the election of Trump–not only those who voted for him, but also liberals and leaders of the Democratic Party who I saw as engaging in a style of politics that had also laid the foundation for Trump’s election. After some time, I realized what I was doing and stopped myself, looking for more mindful ways to express the concerns I had about the political strategy of many liberals and progressives. There are also cases where it is simply hard to find ways to articulate a particular point that does not sound like it is demonizing those I speak of. As I mention above, I still wrestle with how to make the case that the rollback of the welfare system in the US is rooted, at least in part, in racist, sexist and classist attitudes without sounding disparaging of those who support such policies. In such cases, I continue to reflect on what it is I want to say and how else I might say it to make the compassion I am trying to cultivate for those I criticize more manifest in my words. As with everything else in the practice, this involves an on-going process of experimentation.

Matt Williams
Truly Holding Peace
Lakeside Buddha Sangha
Chicago IL, USA

One Reply to “Practicing Compassionate Political Speech Through Deep Looking”

  1. With a deep bow to you Matt _/\_ ,
    Your article is both rich in content and enriching in tone
    thank you so, so much.

    I am a college professor and Interspiritual minister. I will be sharing your important offering to many, I am certain.

    May you know the beauty of your grace.


    Constance McClain

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

4 − four =