- Created on 08 December 2005
- 22 October 2010
By David Cromwell
One of our readers wrote to us recently quoting historian Mark Curtis’s accurate observations that:
“Britain is a major, systematic contributor to much of the world's suffering and horrors and this contribution arises from the basic economic and political priorities that governments pursue at home and abroad. These fundamental policy stances are the result of planning broadly determined by the domestic structures of society which define ‘national interests’.” (Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p. 4)
But, sadly, our reader suggested that such horrors were unsurprising, even inevitable. His reasoning ran as follows: “in our highly ‘civilized cultures’ our predatory nature manifests itself in theft, murder, manipulation, abuse, and other sociopathic behavior.” There is a strong innate tendency, ran his argument, for governments to prey on each other as well as individuals; a tendency that stems directly from the predatory instinct in humans. In short: “We are hopelessly enslaved to our DNA's predatory urges.”
This is the classic depiction of our species as “killer ape”. Richard Davidson and Anne Harrington note that this has been “the dominant note of the biobehavioral sciences in the West”. It is a “tragic-machismo” approach that focuses on “our potential for violence, explor[ing] the genetic and biochemical bases of our capacity for selfishness, depression, and anxiety.” (‘Visions of Compassion. Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature’, edited by Richard J. Davidson and Anne Harrington, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002, page v)
But, as careful investigators have pointed out, we have to be cautious not to make categorical statements on human nature; particularly such a flawed and sweeping thesis of humans as predatory “killer apes”. The German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980) wrote:
“Human nature is not fixed, and culture thus is not to be explained as the result of fixed human instincts; nor is culture a fixed factor to which human nature adapts itself passively and completely.” (Fromm, ‘Man for Himself’, Routledge, 2003, p. 15)
It is dubious practice to identify attributes of society, such as rapacious capitalist behaviour, with supposed fixed characteristics of the human species, such as innate aggression. Fromm cautioned:
“Human nature can never be observed as such, but only in its specific manifestations in specific situations.” (Ibid., p. 17)
Human nature is dynamic, displaying considerable variations according to circumstances and context, rather than being fixed, predetermined or static. Our reader’s depiction of homo sapiens as “predatory” is therefore one-dimensional; or worse, plain wrong.
The Multidimensional Human Being
Predatory urges +are+ part of humanity’s makeup; but so too are cooperation, empathy and love. Psychologist Steven Pinker, who emphasises the importance of our DNA in ‘explaining’ human nature, notes that there is “an evolutionary basis for altruism.” He observes, too, that “sociobiology shows that a sense of justice has a deep foundation in people's minds.”†(Pinker, ‘The Blank Slate’, Penguin, 2002, p. 111)
Pinker goes on:
“evolution endowed us with a moral sense, and we have expanded its circle of application over the course of history through reason (grasping the logical interchangeability of our interests and others'), knowledge (learning of the advantages of cooperation over the long term), and having sympathy (having experiences that allow us to feel other people's pain)." (Ibid., p. 188)
In a similar vein, evolutionary expert Elliott Sober points out that:
“biologists now universally acknowledge that altruism can evolve and actually has done so. The picture of nature as thoroughly red in tooth and claw is one-sided. It is no more adequate than the rosy picture that everything is sweetness and light. Kindness +and+ cruelty both have their place in nature, and evolutionary biology helps explain why.” (Sober, in Davidson and Harrington, op. cit., p. 54)
Sober points out the evolutionary success of cooperation:
“Groups of altruists do better than groups of selfish individuals, so altruism can evolve, even though selfish individuals do better than altruists in the same group.”
(Ibid., p. 53)
This may have been the evolutionary seed for the development of compassion, even if altruistic behaviour was at first directed towards one’s offspring only. But how was compassion later extended to much wider circles in human society, even encompassing complete strangers? Sober puts the question thus: “it is not puzzling why +some+ compassion should evolve and replace the trait of having no compassion at all; what is puzzling is how +extended+ compassion could evolve and replace +limited+ compassion.” (Ibid, p. 62)
He offers the possible explanation that the capacity to feel extended compassion is +correlated+ with the capacity to feel compassion toward one’s offspring. There was an adaptive advantage in parents being moved by the cries of their children. A side effect of this “evolutionary event” is that the cries of +any+ baby can move us.
To emphasise what Sober is saying: the development of extended compassion, which may confer no adaptive benefit of its own, is, nonetheless, consistent with the theory of evolution. If this still seems puzzling, consider an enlightening argument that Charles Darwin had with Alfred Russel Wallace, the scientist who independently proposed the mechanism of natural selection.
As Sober explains, Wallace’s view was that “natural selection cannot explain mental abilities that provide no help in surviving and reproducing.” For example, keen eyesight is useful in hunting, but why should natural selection favour the ability to devise new scientific theories, write symphonies or paint masterpieces? Wallace argued that natural selection could explain practical skills, not “higher” abilities. But Darwin countered that the separation of “practical” and “higher” abilities is an illusion; the same mental abilities that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce now allow us to pursue intellectual activities that may have no practical benefit. (Sober, ibid., p. 64)
Extended compassion likely developed as such a “higher” ability. There is, however, a growing body of evidence that developing and practicing compassion also has practical benefits, both for others and for oneself. See, for example, David Edwards, ‘Happiness is Dissent – The Truth About “Looking After Number 1” ’
Escaping Our Hardwiring
The influential American black activist Malcolm X once observed that we can become locked into static patterns of thought and behaviour that cut off options for individual growth, renewal and empowerment:
“Children have a lesson adults should learn, to not be ashamed of failing, but to get up and try again. Most of us adults are so afraid, so cautious, so ‘safe’, and therefore so shrinking and rigid and afraid that it is why so many humans fail. Most middle-aged adults have resigned themselves to failure.” (‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’, with Alex Haley, Penguin Books, London, 1965/2001, p. 37)
A major finding in neuroscience in recent years is the extent to which our brains display advanced levels of ‘neural plasticity’. We are not forever ‘hardwired’ for rigid modes of behaviour; we are not static ‘slaves’ to our DNA. There is a remarkable degree to which we can change ingrained patterns of thought, intention and practice.
Psychologist Daniel Goleman addresses this in an inspiring book, ‘Destructive Emotions’ (Bloomsbury, London, 2003). In the first chapter, Goleman presents remarkable results from experiments into the mental traits of a Buddhist monk who focused on generating a state of compassion during meditation. The monk’s brain patterns were monitored during this meditation. The research, conducted by Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, revealed high levels of activity in the monk’s left prefrontal cortex – the region of the brain associated with positive states of mind such as zeal, enthusiasm, joy, vigour and mental buoyancy. It appears that such enhanced levels of positive emotions can be attained by conscious effort and discipline over years of meditation practice. (See David Edwards, ‘Animal Rights: The Case for Kindness’, August 4, 2004)
Thus, the notion that we are “hopelessly enslaved to our predatory urges” is unfounded.
As well as insights into human nature from evolutionary science, psychology and neurobiology, we can look at human history. There are, of course, plenty of examples of horror, cruelty and violence. But consider, too, the fundamental desires of people everywhere, throughout history and across all cultures, for peace and freedom. As Howard Zinn, author of ‘The People's History of the United States’, puts it:
“People are not naturally violent or cruel or greedy, although they can be made so. Human beings everywhere want the same things: they are moved by the sight of abandoned children, homeless families, the casualties of war; they long for peace, for friendship and affection across lines of race and nationality.” (Zinn, 'You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train', Beacon Press, 2002, p. 208)
The reader who wrote to us about humanity’s “predatory urges” was right in one respect, however: that people can, and do, combine to create oppressive institutions and structures in society. The transnational corporation is one prominent example, as are the powerful governments who act as agents for corporate interests.
But there are people around the world who are resisting these organs of brutal, illegitimate power. Zinn, once again, offers wisdom and hope:
“Only the corrective of historical perspective can lighten our gloom. Note how often in this [20th] century we have been surprised. By the sudden emergence of a people's movement, the sudden overthrow of a tyranny, the sudden coming to life of a flame we thought extinguished. We are surprised because we have not taken notice of the quiet simmerings of indignation, of the first faint sounds of protest, of the scattered signs of resistance that, in the midst of our despair, portend the excitement of change.” (Ibid., p. 10)
In short, there is an integral link between “lighten[ing] our gloom” and the potential for societal improvement. Just as we, as individuals, are not hardwired for selfishness and aggression, so are injustice and oppression not necessarily fixed features of human society.
- Created on 11 February 2006
- 22 October 2010
By David Edwards
Pain Is Pain
In his remarkable eighth century treatise, The Way of the Bodhisattva, originally delivered as a lecture (some of it, we are told, after he had vanished from the hall!) Shantideva permits himself only one form of anger in response to the awesome suffering of our world - anger at his own selfishness, at his own self-serving bias.
How dare he, he asks, put his own selfish needs ahead of the needs of others? What right has he to consider his happiness more important than the happiness of any other individual? Moreover, by what calculation does he presume that his personal suffering is of greater consequence than the suffering of all other people and animals - beings numbered, literally, in their billions?
Because, clearly, no one person’s welfare is more important than any other’s, it is quite wrong for us to lead our lives on the basis that our own needs should take priority. And so Shantideva declares with an all-embracing humanity almost unimaginable in this self-obsessed world:
“Mine and other’s pain - how are they different?
Simply, then, since pain is pain, I will dispel it.
What grounds have you for all your strong distinctions?
”Thus the suffering of everyone
Should be dispelled, and here there’s no debate.
To free myself from pain means freeing all;
Contrariwise, I suffer with the pain of beings.” (Shantideva, The Way Of The Bodhisattva, Shambhala, 1997, p.124)
The practical implications are clear:
“Just as I defend myself from all unpleasant happenings, however small,
Likewise I shall act for others’ sake
To guard and shield them with compassion.” (p.125)
And the cause of suffering is equally clear:
“All the harm with which this world is rife,
All fear and suffering that there is,
Clinging to the ‘I’ has caused it!
What am I to do with this great demon?” (p.129)
These are the words of someone who is not only +not+ determined to cling to the prejudiced priorities of self - of the “I” - as most of us are, he is determined to reject such prejudice as a “great demon”. This is someone who is willing to side with others in compassion and love, not just against the injustice of others, but against the injustice of his own tendency to favour himself! If there is a choice between self-interest and the interests of others - he will take their side, not his own.
As a child, I always surreptitiously took the largest piece of cake on offer (I was foiled by my older sister's suggestion that I divide the cake and then allow her to choose!). Shantideva vows to take the smaller piece. If he finds a £20 note on the ground, Shantideva leaves it for someone else to find. If he is offered power, prestige and profit at the expense of others, Shantideva sides with the victims against his own advantage.
If this sounds neurotic, destructively self-mortifying, psychologist Erich Fromm argued exactly the opposite is the case:
“Whatever complaints the neurotic patient may have, whatever symptoms he may present, are rooted in his inability to love; if we mean by love a capacity for the experience of concern, responsibility, respect, and understanding of another person and the intense desire for that person’s growth.” (Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion, Yale University Press, 1978, p.87)
Or as Shantideva says (and Fromm agreed):
“Living beings! Wayfarers upon life’s paths,
Who wish to taste the riches of contentment,
Here before you is the supreme bliss -
Here, O ceaseless wanderers, is your fulfilment!” (p.53)
Here it is! says Shantideva, here is the great irony of human happiness - it is this simple and this difficult: true self-interest lies in concern for others, not in self-concern. Who would have thought it?!
The “Externalities” Of Greed
This insurrection against self-obsession is, as Shantideva says, a “flash of lightning” to illuminate the darkness of the ordinary way of things. It indicates the stunning human capacity to reverse the apparent order of nature “red in tooth and claw”. It is a glimpse of what it might mean to wake up from the “nightmare of history”.
It is not that Shantideva has been overwhelmed by sentimental naivety. He recognises that he, too, is a victim of his “great demon” of selfishness. What is it that powers the suffering in our hearts - the incendiary anger, hostility, resentment, vengefulness, jealousy, hatred; the fathomless avarice, dissatisfaction, boredom, despair; the bloated arrogance and pride - if not the fierce focus on what we want, what we need, what we must have? And what has the power to gently disperse this suffering, if not compassion, kindness, generosity, love, patience, tolerance and justice - that is, concern for others?
Self-obsession is not only unreasonable; it brings disaster to ourselves, to our society, to our entire planet. What motive force drives the storms of climate change, if not the “great demon” of unrestrained, all-consuming selfishness? Who can not find the source of infinite misery in the insatiable, psychopathic greed of corporate profit-seeking? In his book, The Corporation, Canadian law professor Joel Bakan explains the bottom-line for corporate executives:
"The law forbids any other motivation for their actions, whether to assist workers, improve the environment, or help consumers save money. They can do these things with their own money, as private citizens. As corporate officials, however, stewards of other people's money, they have no legal authority to pursue such goals as ends in themselves - only as means to serve the corporation’s own interests, which generally means to maximise the wealth of its shareholders.
“Corporate social responsibility is thus illegal - at least when it is genuine." (Bakan, The Corporation, Constable, 2004, p.37)
This astonishing ban on compassion has been established in legal judgements over hundreds of years. In a key 19th century court case, Lord Bowen declared: “charity has no business to sit at boards of directors +qua+ charity. There is, however, a kind of charitable dealing which is for the interest of those who practise it, and to that extent and in that garb (I admit not a very philanthropic garb) charity may sit at the board, but for no other purpose”. (Ibid, pp.38-39)
The inevitable consequence, Bakan writes, is what are known as “externalities“: “the routine and regular harms caused to others - workers, consumers, communities, the environment - by corporations‘ psychopathic tendencies”. (Ibid, p.60)
The same tendencies sacrificed the people of East Timor to Western business relations with Indonesia. They sacrificed millions of Vietnamese lives to the three magic words - tin, rubber and oil. They motivated the lies that took young British and American men to die, and to kill and injure civilians in their hundreds of thousands, in oil-rich Iraq.
Isn’t it obvious that centuries of self-interest have generated a runaway greed effect, so that avarice entrenched in the form of state-corporate power is now almost (but in fact not) beyond human control - manipulating us to smile and shrug away its madness even as it destroys us?
We all know from personal experience how greed gives little thought to costs and consequences. In his book, Emotions Revealed, psychologist Paul Ekman defines a “refractory period” in our minds as a state in which “our thinking cannot incorporate information that does not fit, maintain, or justify the emotion we are feeling”. (Quoted, Alan Wallace, Genuine Happiness, John Wiley & Sons, 2005, p.86)
Refractory periods occur when we desire and hate intensely - then our loved one is without fault, our enemy is without the tiniest redeeming feature. They occur when professionals cling to the rewards and status of their jobs. Upton Sinclair explained:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." (http://classiclit.about.com)
But what, then, do we expect of unlimited greed entrenched in self-perpetuating political and economic systems over centuries?
Did Shantideva exaggerate when he talked of “this great demon”?
An Unmistakeable Odour
Shantideva argues that we should change places with others:
“I indeed am happy, others sad;
I am high and mighty, others low;
I am helped while others are abandoned;
Why am I not jealous of myself?” (p.133)
Why are we not cast down by the prospect of a single individual - ourselves - savouring abundant joys while so many are in complete despair, perhaps precisely because of our success?
Consider the example of the professional media. Mainstream journalists consistently side with their “great demon”. Why else do they focus endlessly, emotively, on the tragedy of 100 British military deaths in Iraq, while mentioning 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths as a cold, footnoted statistic (if that)? What is it that renders the thought of mentioning Iraqi +military+ deaths all but unthinkable, unworthy of even a single sentence? Why is the version of events presented by the powerful - people with the power and influence to help or hinder journalistic careers - always the benchmark for ‘neutral’ reporting? Is it not Shantideva’s “great demon” - self-interest - that has us conform to these carrots and sticks?
Journalists participate as cogs in a military-media killing machine that consumes hundreds of thousands of lives. The bland soundbites echoing what our leaders ‘hope’, what our leaders ‘sincerely’ believe, what our leaders are ‘genuinely’ trying to achieve, are quite as vital for the killing as the bullets and bombs. Most of the tankers, troopers and air force pilots don’t actually have blood on their hands, either.
The novelist Norman Mailer once remarked:
"There is an odour to any Press Headquarters that is unmistakeable... the unavoidable smell of flesh burning quietly and slowly in the service of a machine." (Norman Mailer, The Time of Our Time, Little Brown, 1998, p.457)
The “flesh”, in fact, is our conscience - it burns slowly, malodorously, when journalists accept machine-pay at others’ expense.
There are ironies here. With our consciences charred, in thrall to self-interest, we all but guarantee a suffering future for the children we adore as part of ‘me’ and ’mine’. All around us loving parents do nothing whatever to safeguard the future of their children and the planet on which they will depend. And yet these are the same children they would give their very lives to protect from immediate harm. Of course we have to buy big, consume hard, fly cheap and work regardless of the consequences - anything else is literally inconceivable, isn’t it? The “great demon” of self-obsession has blinded us to our unthinking, conformist folly. Thoreau wrote:
"Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” (Thoreau, Walden, Penguin, 1986, p.56)
One would think the political and economic conventions of modern man were more immutable, less amenable to challenge, even than the laws of a God. Self-interest has persuaded us that change is impossible, that alternatives are impossible. Why? Because maximised short-term self-interest +does+ indeed lie in cooperation with the powerhouses of state-corporate greed. If self-interest is everything, then there really is no other way - there is only one path to take.
But that is an illusion. The required revolution lies in challenging the greatest prejudice of all - the prejudice of self. What are the costs of selfishness? What are the deepest causes of suffering in ourselves and in the world? What are the benefits of shifting focus from our own needs to the needs of others? What happens when we make experimental changes in this direction? Is everything as clear-cut as it seems - or are we victims of the ultimate propagandist?
Across a gap of more than one thousand years, Shantideva calls on us to throw off obsessive self-concern and instead wage war on the causes of suffering. And he makes a promise:
“You’ll see the benefits that come from it.”
- Created on 26 August 2006
- 19 October 2010
The Hidden Power Of Compassion, Generosity And Self-Restraint
By: David Edwards
The Fire Of Discontent
The 4th century poet Aryasura described nothing less than a revolution in human understanding when he wrote:
"The only beauty that truly pleases is the beauty of virtue." (The Marvelous Companion, Dharma Publishing, 1983, p.305)
Aryasura was specifically contrasting human physical beauty with what he considered to be human moral beauty. The contemporary Chinese thinker Hsing Yun indicates what the poet had in mind:
"When we begin to desire something, we feel dissatisfied because we do not yet have it. If we get it, we feel dissatisfied because it has not yet lived up to our expectations or because we now fear that we may lose it. After we have lost it, or after it has grown old, we feel dissatisfied again." (Master Hsing Yun, Being Good, Weatherhill, 1999, p.36)
The 19th century French composer Hector Berlioz adds some emotional colour with this description of his reactions on seeing Irish actress Henrietta Smithson for the first time:
"I became possessed by an intense, over-powering sense of sadness... I could not sleep, I lost my spirits, my favourite studies became distasteful to me, I could not work, and I spent my time wandering aimlessly about Paris and its environs." (Quoted, Frank Tallis, Love Sick, Century, 2004, p.123)
To make the point clearer still, consider the words of the contemplative, Ajastya, whose fathomless generosity, we are told, attracted the attention and admiration of no less a celebrity than Shakra, Lord of the Gods. By way of a reward, the awestruck deity offered Ajastya anything his heart desired: "whatever you wish. Ask what you will." The sage responded with words that resonate thunderously 2,000 years on:
"If you wish to grant me what will truly please me, grant me this: May that fire of discontent which burns in the hearts of people the world over - even after they have won spouse, children, power, and riches beyond their wildest dreams - may that inexhaustible and all-consuming fire never enter my heart!" (Aryasura, op., cit, p.57)
Is it true? Does the fire of discontent rage on even after we have won everything we might conceivably desire? Is the whole thrust of modern civilisation rooted in utter folly?
The point, for our present purpose, is that the satisfaction of desire does not and cannot extinguish the fire of discontent. Physical beauty, for example, inflames the heart, sets the pulse racing, but it does not +truly+ please for the simple reason that fire burns - we suffer.
The Smiling Autumn Moon
So what did Aryasura mean by 'virtue'? Many of us associate the term with appearance rather than reality - with someone making a show of pious, 'holier than thou' behaviour in order to feel, or be considered, superior. Or with someone giving in order to get. Or with Machiavellians like Tony Blair professing moral belief precisely to obscure his lack of scruples as he bombs the world better. Or with someone desperate to find order and meaning in a meaningless world - hair-shirted 'goodness' securing passage to some 'better place' after death.
But Aryasura's idea of virtue has nothing to do with any of this. It has to do with the human capacity for self-awareness, empathy and reason. I, for example, know what it means to feel jealous, angry, abandoned, confused, afraid, alone and sad. I also know what it means to be happy, encouraged, relieved, hopeful, joyful and ecstatic. I have an idea of what other people are suffering and enjoying when they experience these emotions. I am therefore able to empathise. I cringe at the sight of a dog being kicked because I know the suffering of a blow to the body. I smile at the sight of a toddler laughing in a paddling pool because I know that happiness.
I am also able to reflect that my suffering is not more or less important than anyone else's. I cannot rationally argue that my pain matters more than yours - it might matter more to me, but that is mere bias. I take it to be an empty argument at best leading to shameful consequences at worst. After all, it would be shameful to steal food from a hungry child simply because I was able to do so. Wanting the food doesn't make it right, nor does being able to take it - such behaviour cannot be defended as reasonable. From a simply rational point of view I know that placing my own interests above those of others is unfair; there is no justification beyond self-serving prejudice.
But who cares if it's unreasonable? Who cares if it isn't fair?
The answer is: everyone else does! I am not an island, an isolated individual - I am deeply connected to, dependent on, my family, friends and society. From my earliest days I have learned that I need the help of others to survive and flourish. Everything I possess, even my name and body, has been given to me either by others or with their assistance. Like it or not, I really do need to be liked, supported and loved. And I know that people tend to like and love those who respect the needs of others, who act as though the needs of others are at least as important as their own.
I also find that caring for others is conducive to my own sense of well-being. When I am overcome with selfish greed and anger, I feel isolated, anxious and unhappy. One of the fundamental bases of ethics is simply that the human heart is happier when it is well-disposed towards others.
So my concern for others is rational, fair, in my own interests, and conducive to my own happiness.
But when Aryasura talks of virtue being the only beauty that "truly pleases", he is talking of a specific variety of concern for others - the kind that is sincere. In other words, the times when we are generous, restrained and loving, not because we are focused on the benefit to us, but because we are focused on the benefit to others. That is our goal, we really do have their welfare in mind.
Which is not to say that all, or even many, actions are entirely without a selfish component. Even someone hurling themselves into an icy river to save a drowning person may be risking his or her life with some thought of prospective glory. But that hope may be a small factor beside the overwhelming concern that someone is dying and should be saved - as we know, the impulse to save other life can be sufficient to risk our own.
Despite this ability, we are of course profoundly biased in our own favour. Many thoughts are taken up with what we want, what we don't want. Our self-concern is on a hair-trigger; it takes very little to make us greedy, determined to put our interests first.
The reason we are so selfish is not simply that we are 'fallen' or evolutionarily hard-wired - many cultures have been, and are, far less self-centred than our own - it is because society has persuaded us that a self-focused life offers the best hope for happiness. Our ad-packed, profit-driven, corporate culture is structurally deaf to what Ajastya had to say. It is all too easy to believe that we've got to push and shove, to beat everyone else, to get what we want.
But there's already an interesting contradiction here. As discussed above, we tend to like and admire people who really do care about others. I once knew an elderly gentleman, Fred, who was quite unabashed about declaring: "I take care of myself first." But, he added: "Once I'm okay, I try to do what I can to help."
In reality he spent most of his time taking housebound pensioners on "runs" in his car to the seaside, bingo, shopping and so on. He took food for elderly disabled friends and visited any number of people who were alone and isolated. All of this was done without fuss - he waved away expressions of gratitude and was not interested in being admired, paid, or otherwise rewarded. He helped me, too, and seeing all this made me feel I would do anything to help him if ever he needed it. And this is the extraordinary charm of moral beauty - it generates deep admiration, even love, in others. Aryasura put it perfectly:
"For so it is that the brilliance of the virtuous attracts the peoples' love as strongly as does their most beloved friend or relative - just as the smiling autumn moon in the heavens, showering its beams freely in all directions, wins the love of all." (Aryasura, ibid, p.333)
But isn't this exactly what we hope to achieve by launching ourselves on self-focused careers to the summit of personal success? Don't people become music, TV and sports stars to be loved in just this way?
I know another person, a director of studies at a language school where I used to work. His special delight lay in supporting teachers and students as far as he was able. He went to great lengths to give teachers the time off they requested and to keep them working for as much of the year as possible, student numbers permitting. Whereas many in positions of authority often take pleasure in turning down requests, in confronting people with power, he clearly found great satisfaction in using his power to help.
One might question the practicability of this kind of attitude in hierarchical management. And yet I never thought, for example, about taking unwarranted sick leave, or of taking advantage of the school in any other way, because I was treated so well by this one sincere and well-intentioned individual. The idea of causing him unnecessary problems was unthinkable. I know many other teachers felt the same. In this way, his attitude of generosity and respect spread throughout the entire school making it extremely popular with students.
The 'Slingshot' Effect
In a recent Media Alert, I cited the case of Vietnam veteran Claude Anshin Thomas who in his book, At Hell's Gate, described how the horrors of war had left him all but psychologically ruined. Thomas had witnessed, and participated in, appalling violence:
"I don't sleep very much at night. I haven't been able to since an early experience in the war... At some point either late in the night or early in the morning, the Vietcong overran our perimeter, the protection that surrounded us. Of the 135 or so Americans present, only 15 or 20 were not killed or wounded. I happened to be one of those few.
"In the course of this night the fighting became very intense, hand-to-hand. I had to take lives with my hands. As the fighting subsided, I then had to listen to the screaming of the wounded and dying." (Thomas, At Hell's Gate - A Soldier's Journey From War To Peace, Shambhala, 2004, p.62)
Thomas described the psychological consequences:
"I was trapped in the prison of self, confined by guilt, remorse, anxiety, and fear. I became so tormented that I was unable to leave my house. Physically and emotionally, I was under siege, bunkered in." (p.37)
A turning point came when Thomas attended a meditation retreat with the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Than. Towards the end of the retreat, Thomas spoke to a Vietnamese nun, Sister Chan Khong, to ask her forgiveness, to atone for his part in the killing of her people. Chan Khong's response was to invite him to Plum Village, Thich Nhat Than's monastery and retreat centre in France:
"If you come in the summer, many Vietnamese people are there - refugees, boat people - and you can learn to know the Vietnamese in another way. Come to Plum Village; we can help you. Let us help you!" (p.43)
Thomas wrote of the impact of this generosity of spirit and of his experiences in Plum Village:
"I was overwhelmed by this offer of help. No one in my own country had made such an offer to me, an offer of support and help to live differently, to find peace.
"At a very deep and profound level I understood the truth and sincerity of this offer... What the Vietnamese community did is love me. They didn't put me on trial. They offered me an opportunity to look deeply into the nature of my self, to walk with them in mindfulness and begin the process of healing and transformation." (pp.43-45)
This indicates the power, and beauty, of what we call 'virtue' - here of generosity, compassion and forgiveness in the face of what many would consider unforgivable crimes. No amount of drugs, drink, hatred, or even courage, had the power to liberate Thomas from his torment. What did have that power was unconditional kindness offered by members of the same people he had fought in war.
It was not just the generosity and kindness that helped Thomas, but their contrast to what he might have expected to receive - hatred, damning judgement, even revenge. Much as a judo wrestler uses an opponent's weight to his or her advantage, so the practice of restraint in the face of anger and violence gains strength from the anticipated, but absent, hostile reaction in a way that can startle and inspire. This 'slingshot' effect happens every time we respond to someone who harms us with restraint rather than retaliation.
This has the capacity, not merely to neutralise a negative event but to transform it into something positive. For example, if someone inconveniences us in some way - by blocking our path in the street, arriving late, forgetting to return a possession and so on - they will likely expect, and brace themselves for, some kind of hostile response. We can instead confound this expectation by responding with generosity and kindness. Expecting a negative outcome, our antagonist experiences, not merely a neutral, but actually a highly positive outcome. This is all the more powerful because it is so unexpected.
None of the above should be taken to suggest that it is primarily the task of the weak to forgive the crimes of the powerful. Nor am I advocating passivity in the face of violence. The point is that there is a hidden power in generosity, compassion and restraint that makes a nonsense of the reigning 'common sense' presumption that choices are often black and white, with "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" being the only 'pragmatic' response. All else, in fact, is +not+ naïve.
In truth, retaliatory violence is often advocated as the only 'credible' solution, for example in foreign policy, precisely because advantages through violence, rather than peaceful and just solutions, are being sought. Thus the "war on terror" is a war. Terror is involved. But the goal is not at all to rid the world of terror.
Media Alert = Garbage!
We at Media Lens occasionally receive quite heated emails in response to our work. Some of this, it has to be said, we bring on ourselves. Our philosophy is in part inspired by abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison, who was also accused of being a 'trouble maker' and of seeking to generate controversy and 'excitement'. His response:
"Sir, slavery will not be overthrown without excitement, a most tremendous excitement." (Quoted, Howard Zinn, 'History is a weapon,' http://www.historyisaweapon.org/defcon1/zinnslaem10.html)
It is often obvious that hostile emailers are angry and intent on punishing us for some perceived egregious error or failing. The senders are often well-motivated and believe they are standing up for what is good and right. They often clearly believe anger is a valuable, empowering force.
They are also aware, at some level, of a number of issues. They are aware that they are heated or angry. They are aware that they are arguing on an emotional rather than a purely rational level. They know that they are being harsh or abusive and are likely to cause offence. They surely expect to receive abuse or at least cold dismissal in response. From their perspective it's reasonable that someone would reply to their anger with abuse - they have themselves, after all, responded to irritation with abuse in just this way.
Something interesting happens, then, on occasions when we are able to respond calmly and rationally (not always the case!), without anger and retaliation.
The first thing that happens is that the emailer knows that we are responding reasonably by not retaliating with abuse in kind. This throws their own angry email into sharp relief. As discussed above, we have a powerful need to view ourselves as fundamentally reasonable - it is vital to be seen as such if we want to be accepted and liked, much less loved. While our emailers may have believed it was reasonable to respond aggressively to the latest Media Lens 'nonsense', how reasonable is it for them to respond angrily again to a polite and restrained reply?
Of course some do respond with contempt and anger. But in my experience, the strength of their need to see themselves as fundamentally reasonable means they are far more likely to match a restrained, non-aggressive reply with something similar.
After all, their anger was initially motivated by our 'unreasonableness'. But a restrained response may well provoke the thought, 'This is actually quite a reasonable reply - maybe these people aren't as mad as I thought.' Secondly, it is unreasonable of them to continue being angry at +us+ for being unreasonable, if they are willing to be less reasonable than us by sending further abuse!
Alternatively, if they really are too angry to match a restrained response with an answer in kind, then they may well feel unable to reply at all because they know they will appear unreasonable and irrational, not just in our eyes, but more importantly in their own. In my experience, enraged emailers can occasionally manage a second venting of abuse in response to restraint, but rarely a third. They just cannot convince themselves that further abuse would be justifiable - and the whole basis of their outrage is that they see themselves as reasonable people making a stand for what is right and just in the world.
My co-editor, David Cromwell, responded to one fiery reader who sent the following email:
"What was the garbage I just was sent as a 'media alert'? Along with the recent 'people ask, what can I do about..' diatribe that was sent by the 'Davids' I am wondering why I signed up for this rubbish. I want to hear them challenging the media when they blatantly lie and deceive (as with the Iraq massacre).
"Instead I am being lectured to by communists about how 'property is theft' oh puuuuurleeeese! and other crap.
Stick to 'Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media' which you are good at..."
Cromwell wrote back:
"Thanks for your feedback, even though I suspected what was coming when I saw 'media alert' in inverted commas. :o)
"I don't know how long you've been signed up for media alerts, but most of them are indeed straightforward analyses of media deceptions, omissions and distortions. Every once in a while, though, we do like to send out something a little bit different. Often these will address issues of humanity that underpin the approach of Media Lens. A lot of people respond very warmly to these; but we realise they may not be for everyone!
"It might be worth reminding folk that these media analyses and essays are offered for free. Apart from the very occasional 'guest' alert, they are written by just two people who have other major commitments (don't we all?!) and who are not earning a living doing this.
"Thanks again for writing. We do appreciate feedback!
Our correspondent then wrote again:
"Just to re-iterate. I love your genuine media alerts. When you see lies all around and shout at the news broadcast for blatant lies, the alerts and an oasis.
"In that respect I think you are doing a superb job. I just don't want to be lectured to in emails. If I did I'd go over to znet mag and sign up there or read marxism today.
"I agree there haven't been many emails of this type. I've been on for about a year and only two that I can remember were 'off-topic' but both were very recent.
"Of course it's your time but I think it would be better spent attacking the lies and ommissions of the corporate media. Perhaps that is why I don't like them, I think the time would be better spent elsewhere. Just my 2p..
"p.s. I love the way you keep calm and respond politely. It's hard to be annoyed at someone like that hehe ;-)"
What is so remarkable is that, swayed by what amounts to a national religion of anger in our society, we believe that the most powerful way to respond to anger is in kind or worse. Determined to silence our abuser, we demand: "Don't you dare talk to me like that!" One of the favoured, end-of-show moments in soap operas involves someone angrily reducing some miscreant to stunned silence through the sheer force of their verbal assault.
The irony is that, in the real world, the opposite strategy of self-restraint has exactly the calming and/or silencing effect we might hope to achieve through anger.
In fact, thanks to the 'slingshot' effect discussed above, patience, generosity and compassion achieve far more than this. When the anticipated retaliation does not come, the irate are effectively released, not just from their existing anger, but from a painful cycle of tit for tat abuse. Helping to dissipate a hostile mood in this way really is a great kindness - anger is one of the most painful and destructive emotions to endure.
The real surprise, then, is that the angry person can respond actually with gratitude, even warmth, to someone who was recently the target for intense hostility. This truly is the power and beauty of virtue.
- Created on 27 May 2006
- 22 October 2010
By: Matthew Bain
Media Lens is a UK media watch service which has just published a new book ‘Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media’. In this interview Media Lens discuss with computer network consultant and Buddhist practitioner Matthew Bain how they have been strongly influenced by the Buddhist ideal of compassion and the role model of the Bodhisattva – the hero who practices six great virtues known as ‘perfections’.
Bain: Please can you explain what Media Lens is?
Media Lens: Media Lens is an online, UK-based media watch project, set up in 2001, providing detailed and documented criticism of bias and omissions in the British media. The Media Lens team consists of two editors (David Edwards and David Cromwell) and a webmaster (Oliver Maw). Through our free email Media Alerts, we provide detailed analysis of news reporting in the UK media, concentrating on the ‘quality’ liberal print and broadcast media. Our aim is to expose bias, inconsistencies, inaccuracies, omissions and untruths. We challenge journalists and editors by email and invite their response. We then collate and analyse the material and distribute a Media Alert to members of the public who have signed up for the service. We urge our readers to adopt a polite, rational and respectful tone when emailing journalists – we strongly oppose all abuse and personal attack.
We often then follow up our alerts with updates containing analysis of and commentary on mainstream responses to our alerts, our readers’ emails, and so on. Media Alerts are archived at the Media Lens website (www.Media Lens.org). We also send out Cogitations to a separate list of subscribers – these explore related themes from more personal, psychological and philosophical perspectives.
Bain: How much success has Media Lens had?
Media Lens: This isn’t really for us to say. We try not to worry too much about results. The veteran Australian journalist and film-maker John Pilger wrote this in the foreword to our new book, Guardians of Power (Pluto Press, 2006):
“The creators and editors of Media Lens, David Edwards and David Cromwell, have had such influence in a short time that, by holding to account those who, it is said, write history’s draft, they may well have changed the course of modern historiography. They have certainly torn up the ‘ethical blank cheque’, which Richard Drayton referred to, and have exposed as morally corrupt ‘the right to bomb, to maim, to imprison without trial …’. Without Media Lens during the attack on and occupation of Iraq, the full gravity of that debacle might have been consigned to oblivion, and to bad history."
On the other hand, the BBC's Andrew Marr said (when he was still political editor):
"I'm afraid I think it is just pernicious and anti-journalistic. I note that you advertise an organisation called Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting so I guess at least you have a sense of humour. But I don't think I will bother with 'Media Lens' next time, if you don't mind."
So take your pick!
Bain: You have said that you intend compassion to be the basis and motivating force behind the Media Lens project. How does this work in practice?
Media Lens: We try to do whatever we believe is most likely to relieve suffering. There are several aspects to this. We try to focus on the most urgent issues of the day. If our government is trying to persuade the public to support a war against Iraq, we try to publicise arguments against mass violence as a solution to human problems. We point out the costs of violence and the benefits of responses rooted in restraint and compassion. Before the March 2003 invasion, we referred readers to credible estimates of the likely disastrous consequences for the civilian population of Iraq.
We indicated the deep flaws in US-UK government arguments to show that war in fact was not at all necessary, that genuine peaceful alternatives existed. Basically, we tried to encourage peaceful opposition to our government's determination to wage war for profit. The same with climate change – it now threatens unprecedented catastrophe, the destruction of billions of human and animal lives. So we encourage readers to challenge newspapers on their promotion of cheap flights and mass consumerism generally.
But in discussing specific issues we are hoping to raise awareness of deeper systemic problems inherent to political and economic systems rooted in the pursuit of unlimited profits. For example, how honest can a newspaper really be about the root causes of climate change when it depends for 75% of its revenue on big business advertising – on precisely the companies selling the cheap flights, the new cars and so on – in its own pages?
We believe that we all need to acquire the tools of intellectual self-defence so that we can resist propaganda provoking hatred of foreign and domestic ‘enemies’, and adverts stimulating greed, so that we can trust our own capacity for independent, critical thought. Our society encourages passivity and childlike dependence on authority. We encourage people to challenge authority, to have faith and confidence in themselves. We encourage people to challenge us, too – nothing should be taken on blind trust.
A third theme is that we encourage people to seek confidence and rationality in compassion, rather than in anger, say, or conformity. We emphasise peaceful challenges to authority. We reject not only violence, but also anger. Given that compassion, tolerance and patience are great virtues, then leaders promoting violence and greed are ideal objects for meditation. We can use them to strengthen our compassion and wisdom.
Bain: Why are leaders promoting violence and greed ideal objects for meditation?
Media Lens: In our view, Tony Blair, for example, has consciously deceived parliament and public in pursuit of a war of aggression – the supreme war crime according to the Nuremberg tribunals. Blair’s actions have resulted in the deaths of several hundred thousand innocent people, as well as almost limitless pain, injury, anxiety, grief and other physical and mental torments. The motive, we also believe, is rooted in Western greed for control of natural resources in Iraq and in the Gulf. Is it possible to feel compassion for this man?
We can reflect that Blair is a product of conditions – he sees the world in a way dominated by his education, upbringing, friends, family and colleagues. Would he think and act the same way if he had been exposed to different conditions? Is he to blame for the conditions that influenced him? Is he the sole destructive actor or condition, or is he merely one tiny link in a vast chain of cause and effect that precedes and transcends him? We can argue, for example, that what has been done to Iraq is actually the culmination of billions of selfish thoughts in limitless individuals over decades, even centuries. After all, where does corporate greed for oil come from? Where does militarism come from? Does it come from Blair? Hardly.
We can reflect on Blair’s lack of inherent existence – who or what actually is Tony Blair? Is he his mind? Which part of his mind – which thought? Is he any particular thought? Is there a creator of thoughts that we can call ‘Blair’, or do thoughts merely arise from conditions beyond the control of some creator in the background (and would the ‘creator’s’ decisions and thoughts simply arise from conditions?), like bubbles forming and rising in a glass of lemonade? We can imagine the suffering Blair will undergo as a result of his uncompassionate actions and as a result of ageing, sickness and death. We can reflect that if we can muster some compassion for him then this strengthens our compassion for other people who appear less guilty of terrible crimes, less harmful. We visit a gym to lift weights to become stronger, do we not? If we can compassionately ‘lift’ Blair in our minds, then our compassion will surely be untroubled by most other tests in life.
Bain: Your compassionate approach is inspired by Mahayana Buddhism, which offers the role model of the Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is anyone who, motivated by great compassion, continuously wishes to achieve the enlightened state of a Buddha in order to benefit all living beings without exception. The way of life of the Bodhisattva is the six perfections, the great virtues of generosity, moral discipline, patience, effort, mental stabilisation and wisdom. You have said that you aspire for your Media Alerts to embody these six perfections. Is such an aspiration achievable?
Media Lens: The aspiration is certainly achievable although even to aspire to attain an enlightened state is an awesome achievement. Can we actually embody the six perfections in our work? Definitely not, at present. We are complete beginners who are far, far away from being able to embody these exalted mind states. However, we do aspire to value compassion, generosity and patience; and we do try to be motivated by concern for others rather than concern for our own welfare.
We feel it is appalling for any journalist to compromise what he or she writes out of concern for career, status or the health of a bank account when real people like us are being killed in their tens of thousands, for example, in Iraq. Particularly when one reflects that if the media had done their job in 2002-2003, war would not have been possible. We believe that by aspiring to be more compassionate it is possible to make some small improvement and perhaps help others. But we are constantly aware that we may even be doing more harm than good – making people more angry, more critical of others and less compassionate – we keep this possibility very much in mind.
Bain: One of the aspects of the perfection of generosity is giving fearlessness, in other words protecting other living beings from fear or danger. Your Media Alerts point out that mainstream news organisations cover some of the world’s most serious problems while obscuring their causes, and that as a result media consumers find themselves filled with feelings of anxiety and fear, not to mention powerlessness and apathy. Are you deliberately trying to release people from this state – to give fearlessness?
Media Lens: As you know, the roots of fearlessness also lie in a realistic appraisal of the situation we are in. If we think it’s safe to abuse, exploit and kill other beings, it is no bad thing to be made aware of the terrifying consequences of such actions. This dis-illusionment can lead from ignorance through fear to fearlessness. Similarly, we are quite happy to discuss the terrifying realities of climate change, war, and the compromise that makes these possible.
But a major aim of what we’re doing is to address people’s confusion. The media is deeply bewildering – the reality is summed up by the title of media analyst Danny Schecter’s book The More You Watch The Less You Know. Providing rational frameworks for understanding specific issues – Haiti, Kosovo, East Timor, climate change – and broader issues – how the media works, the motives driving foreign policy – surely gives people greater confidence that they can make sense of the world, and that they can therefore rely on their own judgement. We also try to explain the advantages of concern for others over self-cherishing. We don’t want people to feel dependent on us, we want them to feel that the issues are really not that complicated, and that anyone can form sensible judgements with a modicum of hard work.
We also try to promote fearlessness by encouraging compassionate rather than angry responses to problems. We believe that anger is deeply demotivating, in fact crippling, whereas great compassion provides an inexhaustible, and in fact increasing, source of energy and inspiration.
Bain: One of the aspects of a Bodhisattva’s moral discipline is not to criticise others, but to focus on his or her own faults instead. The Buddhist master Atisha said: “Do not look for faults in others, but look for faults in yourself, and purge them like bad blood. Do not contemplate your own good qualities, but contemplate the good qualities of others, and respect everyone as a servant would.” (Quoted, Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Tharpa Publications, 2000, p.261). Some of your Media Alerts are very critical of the work of individual journalists. Aren’t you breaking the Bodhisattva’s moral code by criticising others in this way?
Media Lens: This is a question that concerns us greatly. We try to make clear that our focus is on faults in the arguments of journalists rather than in the journalists themselves. Typically, we will present a mainstream journalist’s arguments, contrast these with an alternative range of arguments based on verifiable facts and multiple credible sources, and invite readers to decide which arguments are more or less credible. Often we point out that an erroneous argument is actually part of a pattern that stretches right across the media, so that we are pointing to institutionalised bias rather than individual ‘bad apples’.
We often point out that the vast majority of journalists are not deliberately deceitful – it’s not that they’re bad people, liars and so on – there is no wicked conspiracy. We encourage readers to understand the systemic factors behind individual performance: journalists are selected because they have been educated to hold the right views by corporate media that are designed to maximise profits. The whole cultural, political and social system puts immense pressure on privileged journalists to hold ‘the right’ views about the world – it is not their fault that they have little or no access to alternative arguments. On another level, one can even argue that it is not really their fault that they believe it is ‘realistic’ to prioritise their own self-interest above the interests of others – that’s what the whole culture tells them to do.
There are a couple of other considerations. Journalists who advanced arguments for war against Iraq in 2002-2003 were vital parts of a media-military machine that resulted in the deaths of well over 100,000 (perhaps as many as 300,000) Iraqi civilians and the devastation of an entire country. By themselves promoting mass violence as a solution to human problems, by persuading others to take those arguments seriously, they were causing immense harm to themselves and others. In his book, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, Peter Harvey writes:
“Asanga says that a Bodhisattva will lie so as to protect others from death or mutilation, though he will not lie to save his own life. He will slander an unwholesome adviser of a person, and use harsh, severe words to move someone from unwholesome to wholesome action.” (Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.139)
In the Commentary on Dharmaraksita's The Poison-Destroying Peacock Mind Training, Geshe Lhundub Sopa writes:
“If you should encounter some erroneous teaching that leads other beings into great suffering, such as rebirth in hell, you should not be indifferent. Rather, you should take action to combat such a harmful teaching. If you do this, you will be acting with a form of jealousy. This is not like ordinary jealousy, which is just the desire to ruin someone’s happiness, rather it is the desire to root out the wrong teaching so that the correct teaching will endure. While it appears to be jealousy, it is actually different; it is motivated by the concern that the source of happiness will be destroyed if the correct teaching disappears.” (Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Peacock In The Poison Grove, Wisdom Books, 2001, pp.254-5)
In The Six Perfections, Geshe Sonam Rinchen writes:
"The tenth [way of assisting others] consists of giving support by castigating those who are engaged in detrimental activities. This may entail taking stern measures to stop them, since one should not condone or indulge others’ fondness for harmful actions." (Geshe Sonam Rinchen, The Six Perfections, Snow Lion, 1998, p.40)
So although it is unpleasant to criticise journalists, and is risky both for their psychological welfare and our own – it’s easy to become habitually negative, cynical and even angry in this work – we believe it is important to do so.
Bain: One of the aspects of the perfection of patience is not retaliating. Some of the journalists you have singled out for criticism have responded harshly – basically they have retaliated. Isn’t this a natural response? Have you retaliated in return?
Media Lens: If it was a natural response it would occur invariably in all people and cultures around the world. This is not the case. In her book, Ancient Futures, the linguist Helena Norberg-Hodge reported a remarkable absence of retaliation in the Buddhist culture of Ladakh, even amongst children. We believe that Buddhist practitioners meditating on the benefits of patience, the faults of anger, and the lack of inherent existence of the targets of anger, can completely remove the impulse to retaliation.
We worry very much that by generating anger in journalists we are inadvertently causing harm. This may well be exacerbated by our encouraging members of the public to write to journalists. At the end of every email we append these words:
“The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.”
People do not always heed these words and sometimes send angry abuse to journalists. This is a source of real concern to us; it’s something we strongly discourage. Is it outweighed by the fact that receiving large number of mostly polite and rational emails can persuade journalists and newspapers to reconsider their stand on war, on the impact of rampant consumerism on climate change, as we believe has sometimes happened to some extent? We hope so.
We do occasionally get angry, but generally we try to respond to abuse without anger, with restrained and polite emails. This emphasis on self-restraint is unusual in left-leaning political debate. We’ve noticed that this seems to have had quite an impact on both journalists and readers. Even journalists who have to deal with large numbers of emails – which is not something anyone enjoys – have responded positively to our work. In recent months senior journalists like Peter Barron (editor of Newsnight), Peter Wilby (former editor of the New Statesman) and film-maker John Pilger have all commented on our restraint and politeness. This is not normally something senior players in the rough and tumble world of journalism would focus on – this is encouraging. For example, the Newsnight editor, Peter Barron, wrote on the BBC’s website last November:
“One of Media Lens’ less ingratiating habits is to suggest to their readers that they contact me to complain about things we’ve done. They’re a website whose rather grand aim is to “correct the distorted vision of the corporate media”. They prolifically let us know what they think of our coverage, mainly on Iraq, George Bush and the Middle East, from a Chomskyist perspective. In fact I rather like them. David Cromwell and David Edwards, who run the site, are unfailingly polite, their points are well-argued and sometimes they’re plain right.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/4426334.stm)
Bain: One of the aspects of the perfection of effort is overcoming discouragement. Do you ever get discouraged and, if so, how do you overcome it?
Media Lens: Discouragement is often a sign that a compassionate motivation has given way to some kind of self-centred concern – perhaps anger, or frustration at the lack of some kind of reward (recognition or praise, for example).
We also sometimes feel discouraged when we read the latest news indicating that climate change has already reached the point of no return – that we are guaranteed environmental catastrophe on a massive scale regardless of any actions we now take. We try to put that out of our minds and just keep going. We tell ourselves that human beings are amazingly resourceful – maybe we can do something unexpected. Maybe the lessons we’re receiving in terms of the consequences of selfishness can shatter our conceits about inherent existence, the exaggerated value of selfishness, the under-rated value of compassion, and so on.
The wider point, though, to reiterate, is that discouragement is often a sign that compassion has given way to self-cherishing, particularly to anger. Then we need to reflect that our job is to work for the benefit of others – anger is an indulgence neither they, nor we, can afford.
Bain: Traditionally the perfection of mental stabilisation means meditation. In your work you quote stories of Buddhist meditators who spend years meditating on compassion. Would they be better off campaigning like you, or would you be better off meditating like them?
Media Lens: We can’t think of a more remarkable or important achievement than being willing and able to meditate single-mindedly on compassion for years. In our opinion, people able to do this are a real cause for hope. If political activism has any meaning, it is because it is rooted in compassion. But that compassion must be rooted in an authentic, profound and living tradition – something that requires the realisations of individuals able to travel to the far reaches of understanding and to return with the personally experienced truth of the power and importance of compassion.
This is really vital work. No one able to devote themselves to this kind of thing should abandon it for the kind of work we’re doing. We see our work almost as an attempt to make use of the compassionate raw materials mined by these people.
On the other hand, we feel we need to do as much as we can to develop compassion and wisdom in ourselves. There are two ways of doing this: first, our political activism should be rooted in compassion, it should be an expression of compassion, not something separate. Second, activism should be supported by a serious commitment to developing compassion and wisdom in ourselves through meditation, reading, discussion, study and so on.
Should Buddhists spend more time in understanding the insitutionalisation of greed, hatred and ignorance in modern society? Stephen Batchelor writes:
“The contemporary social engagement of dharma practice is rooted in awareness of how self-centred confusion and craving can no longer be adequately understood only as psychological drives that manifest themselves in subjective states of anguish. We find these drives embodied in the very economic, military, and political structures that influence the lives of the majority of people on earth.” (Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs – A Contemporary Guide To Awakening, Bloomsbury, 1997, p.112)
We agree. While we understand that Dharma traditionally focuses on removing the obscuring afflictions in individuals, the problem today is that institutionalised psychological ‘pollution’ is making it extremely hard for individuals to even +consider+ the need to work on such issues – quite the reverse. As Noam Chomsky has observed, the corporate goal “is to ensure that the human beings who [it is] interacting with, you and me, also become inhuman. You have to drive out of people’s heads natural sentiments like care about others, or sympathy, or solidarity... The ideal is to have individuals who are totally disassociated from one another, who don’t care about anyone else... whose conception of themselves, their sense of value, is ‘Just how many created wants can I satisfy?’” (Quoted, Joel Bakan, The Corporation, Constable, 2004, pp.134-135)
How can that not be an issue for anyone who cares about human suffering? If it’s for strategic reasons – Buddhists know they will be labelled as ‘political agitators’ and ‘troublemakers’ and targeted by the propaganda system – that’s one thing. If the issue isn’t even acknowledged or discussed, that’s something else again. We can’t imagine how that can be justified.
Bain: The perfection of wisdom means understanding the ultimate nature of reality. It is the supreme attainment of a Bodhisattva and can only be achieved by abandoning attachment to wealth, reputation, praise and pleasure. Although you are a writer and journalist, your Media Lens project means that you have little chance of ever making a living from or having a position of respect within the mainstream media. Is the sacrifice worth it?
Media Lens: Remarkably, exactly the opposite is the case. You've probably heard this famous story:
“I used to hold up people by day and rob villages at night; but even so, food and clothes were scarce. Now that I practise Dharma, I am short of neither food nor clothing, and my enemies leave me in peace.” (Quoted, Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, Pabongka Rinpoche, Wisdom Books, 1997, p.336)
When we started Media Lens, we both had fledgling careers in the media – we had both published books, had both published articles in a few mainstream newspapers and smaller magazines. It’s possible we could have developed careers as freelance writers or as media journalists. The question behind Media Lens was this:
‘What happens if we no longer give any thought to being published, being paid, being respectable, being liked by commissioning editors? What happens if we just tell the truth as we see it about suffering and the causes of suffering?’
It seemed to us few media analysts had ever really tried it – people are generally hoping to make money from this kind of thing – and before the internet they couldn’t reach anyone anyway. So we thought this would be a great experiment and it fitted perfectly with what is, for us, the absolutely central proposal of Mahayana Buddhism. Here are two versions that have inspired us greatly:
“Come to an understanding that no matter how it may seem, the root of all suffering is in actuality the desire to accomplish our own benefit and our own aims, and the root of all happiness is the relinquishment of that concern and the desire to accomplish the benefit of others.” (Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche)
“As much as you can, cherish all the beings – human and animal – around you with a good heart, and try to benefit them by giving them whatever help they need. Give them every single thing you can to make them happy: even a few sweet words or some interesting conversation that benefits their minds, that stops their problems and makes them happy. Use every opportunity, every action of your body, speech, and mind, to increase your virtue.” (Lama Zopa Rinpoche)
We also had an increasing sense of outrage at the fact that journalists, ourselves included, would be willing to subordinate the welfare of others to career concern. How can we be willing to cooperate so meekly with this compromised, corporate system of media power when the consequences are so horrendous for living beings? It seemed so cruel, so narrow-minded – even if the attempt was a laughable failure, it felt like a good idea to at least try to rebel against the selfishness in ourselves and as entrenched in the media system itself.
The satisfaction of writing out of this motivation is incomparably greater than that of writing in hope of respectability, status and financial reward. Everything we send out is free, it’s intended as an act of generosity and support. The responses we’ve had have been amazing – messages of love (there’s no other word to use) from all corners of the world. It’s been really astonishing. We’ve had criticism too, of course, but people are clearly very eager to read media analysis uncompromised by corporate control, career concerns, and the like. And of course the irony is that because they appreciate what we’re doing we have received financial support that has helped us keep going.
On respect, the curious thing is we do seem to have won some respect in the mainstream. A very credible media insider told us that there is an undercurrent of impassioned dissent in the BBC – journalists who are deeply unhappy at the way they are being used as a mouthpiece for government propaganda – for whom Media Lens acts as “a rallying point”. Journalists who care about honesty in the media, who recognise the massive constraints on freedom of speech, strongly support what we’re doing – they have often sent us private messages of support. They are frightened to speak out, much less to be associated with us, but they do respect what we’re doing. One journalist working for the Observer (a paper we have heavily criticised), told us:
“Thanks very much. It goes without saying, many thanks for providing the inspiration/facts and for all your and DC’s [David Cromwell] good work. You are a constant needle, comfort and inspiration. Great stuff.”
Bain: The ultimate reality understood by the perfection of wisdom is that everything is empty of inherent existence. In this discussion you have talked of the importance of “shatter[ing] our conceits about inherent existence”. Yet the passage from Stephen Batchelor which you quote above implies that negative states of mind ‘inhere’ in our political and economic institutions, making them inherently bad. Traditionally, kindness is the main quality that Buddhists are encouraged to see in economic and political institutions – or at least in the people who work in them – because they provide us with vital services or because they give us problems which enable us to develop such virtues as non-attachment, patience and compassion. Do you think that our present economic and political system is inherently bad?
Media Lens: The Canadian lawyer, Joel Bakan, describes how corporations are abstract concepts that are legally obliged to subordinate the welfare of people and planet to profit. Because charity and compassion are illegal under corporate law, except insofar as these increase profits, Bakan argues that corporations are essentially psychopathic in nature. Bakan quotes a key 19th century pronouncement by an English law lord, Lord Bowen: “...charity has no business to sit at boards of directors +qua+ charity. There is, however, a kind of charitable dealing which is for the interest of those who practise it, and to that extent and in that garb (I admit not a very philanthropic garb) charity may sit at the board, but for no other purpose”. (Lord Bowen, quoted, Bakan, The Corporation, Constable, 2004, pp.38-39)
According to The Body Shop founder, Anita Roddick, the corporation “stops people from having a sense of empathy with the human condition”; it “separate[s] us from who we are... The language of business is not the language of the soul or the language of humanity. It’s a language of indifference; it’s a language of separation, of secrecy, of hierarchy”. (Ibid, pp.55-56)
So what should our response be? Insofar as this system benefits us, we can recognise its kindness, as you say. Insofar as it harms us, we can practice patience. This isn’t so hard. It is far easier to understand that a corporation is an abstract, non-inherently existent entity than it is to understand the same of an individual person. It’s clear that a corporation is just a label applied to a large number of buildings, constantly changing personnel, bank accounts, business principles and so on. We know General Motors isn’t a person with a personality that we can hate. People might hate the chairman or CEO – although their hands are tied by shareholders, corporate law, and so on – but we can’t hate a label.
But insofar as the corporation is harming others we should work with all our might to prevent that harm. We need to raise awareness amongst the public of the extraordinary costs of the unlimited pursuit of corporate greed for people and planet. We need to work to rein in the worst destructiveness and then work to reform the political and economic systems that make this possible. This means democratic movements rooted in compassion and respect for life, movements that promote freedom, equality and justice. All of this should be rooted in compassion for suffering, not anger.
Our guide in reforming the system can be our awareness that selfish greed is inherently harmful. We need only reflect that corporate law enshrines not just greed, but infinite, unrestrained greed as a legal principle that must not be compromised. This is the cause of many of the problems facing us today. The root of that, in turn, is that selfish individuals have created these laws to protect their interests. As ever, positive change begins with a recognition of the negative consequences of self-cherishing and the benefits of caring for others.
- Created on 01 December 2006
- 19 October 2010
By: David Edwards
"Our complex global economy is built upon millions of small, private acts of psychological surrender, the willingness of people to acquiesce in playing their assigned parts as cogs in the great social machine that encompasses all other machines. They must shape themselves to the prefabricated identities that make efficient coordination possible... that capacity for self-enslavement must be broken." (Theodore Roszak - The Voice Of The Earth)
Few tasks are more challenging than that of attending to our subtle, internal responses to the world against the deafening roar of what is deemed 'obviously true'. Writing in the 1930s, the anarchist Rudolf Rocker made the point that the state is not a disinterested spectator on the issue of freedom of thought. In his classic work, Culture And Nationalism, Rocker wrote:
"The state welcomes only those forms of cultural activity which help it to maintain its power. It persecutes with implacable hatred any activity which oversteps the limits set by it and calls its existence into question. It is, therefore, as senseless as it is mendacious to speak of a 'state culture'; for it is precisely the state which lives in constant warfare with all higher forms of intellectual culture and always tries to avoid the creative will of culture." (Rocker, Culture and Nationalism, Michael E. Coughlan, 1978, p.85)
The stakes, Rocker noted, are high:
"If the state does not succeed in guiding the cultural forces within its sphere of power into courses favourable to its ends, and thus inhibit the growth of higher forms, these very higher forms will sooner or later destroy the political frame which they rightly regard as a hindrance." (Rocker, p.83)
If this strikes us as implausible (as it should), it is for a very good reason. It seems incredible to us that individuals working for the state - in government, education, local government - could be eagerly working to "reduce all human activity to a single pattern". Are they not human beings like us? Do they not seek freedom of thought, independence of mind, for their own children?
It is a very reasonable argument and applies equally to the media. Dissident analysts claim, and in fact demonstrate, that truth is filtered, depleted to a dramatic degree by the corporate media. But surely the men and women of the press - again, human beings like us - are not eagerly striving to oppress humanity.
The answer is found in the way the performance of an organisation is shaped by its primary, bottom line goals. As I have discussed elsewhere, the process is similar to the mechanisms underlying crystal formation. The near-perfect, symmetrical shapes of snowflakes and other crystalline structures are no accident but flow from the founding conditions around which the crystals form.
If we pour a stream of marbles into a square framework, they will inevitably form a pyramid. In accounting for the perfect conformity on every side of the structure no one need propose eager participation on the part of the marbles. In organisations for which profit-seeking, say, is the bottom line - the equivalent of the wooden framework - facts, ideas, values, policies and individuals are naturally selected that fit the structure, that act in structure-supportive ways, and that do not challenge the founding framework.
In the absence of the overt, big Brother-style control of past history, we imagine we are at last free. Erich Fromm thought otherwise:
"Anonymous authority is more effective than overt authority, since one never suspects that there is any order which one is expected to follow. In external authority it is clear that there is an order and who gives it; one can fight against the authority, and in this fight personal independence and moral courage can develop... It is like being fired at by an invisible enemy. There is nobody and nothing to fight back against." (Erich Fromm - The Fear Of Freedom)
In our society, education policy, schools, curricula, professional training, cultural presumptions, media output, our deepest notions of what is true and important in life, are all filtered by the founding frameworks of profit and power.
Where does the capacity to think for ourselves, to take ourselves seriously, fit into this framework? Rocker explains:
"Education is character development, harmonious completion of human personality. But what the state accomplishes in this field is dull drill, extinction of natural feeling, narrowing of the spiritual field of vision, destruction of all the deeper elements of character in man. The state can train subjects... but it can never develop free men who take their affairs into their own hands; for independent thought is the greatest danger that it has to fear." (Rocker, p.190)
And what a price we pay for the averting of this human threat! As children, it means we must be persuaded to defer to external judgements - to feel sure they must be superior to our own; for then we will learn to disregard our internal disagreements. We must be made to mouth prayers that mean nothing, to wave meaningless flags at meaningless ceremonies; to bow low to people born into a particular family - for then we will learn to accept confusion as our lot, to accept unreason with a shrug.
How many of us recognise the appalling oppression implicit in the simple fact that schools are named according to this or that religious tradition? What does this tell us about our commitment to protecting, rather than defeating, the precious independence of mind that exists in the new minds that we welcome into our society?
I am always startled by the gleaming intelligence, sincerity and openness of young children. As Freud commented, they are intellectually far superior to us adults. It is vital that young human beings quickly learn to understand, realistically, the nature of the world around them with all its demands and dangers. Children seem superbly evolved to discover the truth, to think for themselves, to work things out. No wonder societies have to work so hard to mould these dangerous minds into workable conformists.
School - Sculpting The Pyramid
In his book, Dumbing Us Down, teacher John Taylor Gatto described the seven real lessons taught by modern schooling.
The first lesson is confusion - the child is presented with a multitude of unrelated facts; meaning is not sought and so presumed not to exist. We know that there was a war in Vietnam, but we don't really know why. We know people are starving, but we don't know why. Failure to understand deeply is presented as an irrelevance - the key is to memorise facts and reproduce them on demand. This obsessive focus on retention of information is a monstrous trivialisation and betrayal of the human need to understand.
The second lesson is class position - the child is told his or her place in the hierarchy. We are taught to envy the 'brighter' and revile the 'slower'. Offered a choice between 'success' on the terms of authority, or 'failure', we naturally choose 'success'. The A-level students shown leaping in delight at their results on the news every year are celebrating their submission to conformity. They have been judged a 'success' by authority and have accepted that judgement as real. By inevitable implication, they have accepted that authority as legitimate. They are now surrounded by an electric fence of conformity - to later 'fail' by society's standards will be exquisitely painful.
After joining a new primary school as a child, I came 14th out of 18 in my end of year exams. Some of my best friends came second and third. I felt keenly that I was an imposter, that I didn't belong in their company - they were 'up there', exalted; I was a failure. The shame was intense.
Later in my academic experience, I was labelled "lazy", then "average", then "above average", then "not academic", and then "bright". My 'brightness' appeared to be on a dimmer switch dependent on where I was and what I was studying. I cringe when I hear a child labelled 'bright' or 'dim'. It seems to me that a lot of 'dim' children are too 'bright', or at least too true to themselves, to tolerate the trivia imposed on them as 'education'. To be indifferent to what is of minimal human significance is not a sign of stupidity.
The point is that a child who accepts the label 'not very bright' will, in his or her own mind, deem risible the notion that he or she might seek to understand the world, much less to challenge the assumptions accepted by the society by which he or she has been labelled. For a 'failure' who has been successfully undermined in this way, to reject the labelling system itself will seem like the most obvious and wretched sour grapes. How can this one individual be right against a whole world of opinion? And from where can we gain the confidence that has been stripped away from us by the very system we are presuming to challenge?
On the other hand, the 'bright' child will feel a sense of affirmation and belonging that will make him or her disinclined to challenge the fundamental legitimacy and wisdom of the source of his or her own self-esteem. These are the 'winners' who populate our public schools, Oxbridge universities and corporate media offices.
The third lesson, Gatto tells us, is indifference - the child is taught to care, but not too much. When the bell rings, enthusiasm makes way for timetables - learning and passion are subordinated to strict routine. This makes understanding the world a kind of hobby or game - it is important and interesting but it shouldn't get in the way of 'real life'.
In the second term of my third year at university, a lot of my fellow students quickly turned their attention away from their studies towards organising career jobs for the following autumn. Where once the concern had been Rousseau's description of the social chasm separating human beings from their real needs, now it was selling chocolate for Cadburys and biscuits for McVitees. The irony and absurdity, the casual betrayal of what was supposed to be important, were painful for me to witness.
I was not a fanatical bookworm, but I felt deeply that the issues I was studying - the nature of human happiness and the implications for political theory - really did matter. And yet it was clear that these subjects were not deemed of any great merit in themselves, but were merely a means to an end, a resource to be crammed for exam passes into high-paid conformity. It seemed that this game was somehow psychologically and ethically walled off from reality. So, for example, we read J.S. Mill's words:
"Where, not the person's own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress." (J.S. Mill - On Individuality).
This was quoted in exams, but was not deemed remotely relevant in considering the value of the exams themselves, or of the corporate work so eagerly being sought.
This was one of my first experiences of a phenomenon I have encountered very often in my work with Media Lens. Erich Fromm explained:
"Modern man exhibits an amazing lack of realism for all that matters. For the meaning of life and death, for happiness and suffering, for feeling and serious thought. He has covered up the whole reality of human existence and replaced it with his artificial, prettified picture of pseudo-reality, not too different from the savages [sic] who lost their land and freedom for glittering glass beads." (Erich Fromm - The Sane Society).
This, actually, is where the Media Lens project might be said to have started for me. Even before I read the likes of Fromm, Chomsky and Rocker, I was already astonished, and fascinated, that so much that so clearly matters could be suppressed in so many people.
Eight years later, I read this description of Glaxo chairman, Paul Girolami, by David Jack, Ex-Head of Research at the same company:
"I can tell you quite frankly he doesn't have any great regard for scientists, or for science as a way of living. His whole purpose is to make money. I don't think there is much folly in his mind about doing good." (Quoted, Matthew Lynn, 'Prudence and the pill pusher,' Independent on Sunday, November 3, 1991)
This, again, contained a sense that all of life - compassion, suffering, moral responsibility, life and death - was a kind of game to be subordinated to some higher reality. But what was that 'higher reality' exactly? Career success? Wealth? Corporate greed?
When I started trying to make sense of the world, I noticed that both I, and the people around me, found it strange that anyone would seriously make the attempt: 'If there were answers to be found,' I was repeatedly told, 'they would have been discovered years ago and we would all know about them.' What I didn't realise then was that many answers +had+ been found but that they conflicted with the interests and goals of people who control what we come to know about the world. One of the most important and liberating realisations I gained was the awareness that even our most painful certainties rooted in a sense of meaningless, alienation and despair, were actually favoured by a system that profits from the absence of sanity and hope.
Taylor Gatto's fourth lesson is emotional dependency - stars, ticks, frowns, prizes and honours manipulate children into judging themselves as they are judged by authority. When I began writing political and philosophical articles, a constant question running through my mind was: 'Who on earth do I think I am to be writing this stuff?' My own question was reflected in the nonplussed, embarrassed looks of friends and family. (Mouth agape, I once made the mistake of telling my dentist what I was doing: "I'm writing a book about thought control in modern society.") Who was I - mere me - to be doing that? The answer is I am no more nor less qualified than anyone else in asking questions and seeking answers to these questions.
Society had persuaded me that there was something deluded, absurd about creatures called 'ordinary people' presuming to comment on the world. We are here to be judged - selected or rejected, rewarded or punished - by the institutions of society, are we not? Who are we to judge the judges?
In the social sciences, at least, it turns out that 'expertise' is very often a label bestowed by people with power. Similarly, to be a 'professional journalist' - someone declared a competent commentator on current affairs - is merely the result of some corporate editor awarding a contract. But the title 'journalist' - a media version of the famous white coat worn by doctors - is used to suggest profound specialist knowledge where, often, very little exists.
In an article on Media Lens earlier this year, Peter Beaumont of the Observer asked:
"... what is the aim of these self-appointed media watchdogs?" (Beaumont, 'Microscope on Media Lens,' The Observer, June 18, 2006)
This was interesting because Beaumont had thereby unwittingly revealed that he considers us lacking in credibility because we are +not+ appointed by authority. But one might ask where exactly the authority resides that is qualified to confer respectability on individuals evaluating media honesty? Are we, as individuals, not able to judge the rationality of the evidence, of the arguments, for ourselves without appealing to external authority? Compare the gulf separating Beaumont's worldview from that described by Rocker:
"Only when man shall have overcome the belief in his dependence on a higher power will the chains fall away that up to now have bowed the people beneath the yoke of spiritual and social slavery. Guardianship and authority are the death of all intellectual effort, and for just that reason the greatest hindrance to any close social union, which can arise only from free discussion of matters and can prosper only in a community not hindered in its original course by external compulsion, belief in a supernatural dogma or economic oppression." (Rocker, p.143)
The fifth lesson is intellectual dependency - good people wait for teacher to tell them what to do. Successful children are those who accept and reproduce what they are told with a minimum of resistance. A stubbornly questioning child will be met with exasperation and told that, in the end, the course is about preparing to take and pass exams, not about endless debate. Later, at work, the employee will be met with the same sighs and told that the project is about making money, not about discussing the rights and wrongs of business.
In an interview, Harold Pinter told me about two American journalists who insisted to their editor that it was the moral responsibility of their TV station to cover a story on GM food. The editor's response?:
"'Listen, what is news is what we say it is! That's it! And for us that's not news, right!'"
"And then they were fired." (www.Media Lens.org/articles/the_articles/
The deeper lesson is that intellectual and ethical freedoms are allowed, but only within certain parameters - the parameters themselves are +not+ up for discussion. We are trained, in other words, to accept our lot as intellectual and ethical jailbirds. To seek to be anything more is to be dismissed as 'a troublemaker'. To challenge the whole version of 'success' and 'failure' is not even to be a failure - it is to be, by the standards of the accepted framework, mad.
The sixth lesson is provisional self-esteem. Self-respect is taught to be dependent on 'expert' opinion.
Finally, the seventh lesson is that we cannot hide: we are always being watched. There is no private space or time in which non-conformity can flourish. This is a useful preparation for work where our every move is often monitored to see that we are not wasting company time.
Conclusion - Three Small Points
The real point of Rocker's analysis was to suggest that only when we break free from the chains of anonymous external authority - from the sense that we need to defer to and seek approval from, such authority - can we learn to take seriously and develop our own powers of reason, our own critical thinking and compassion for others:
"Only in freedom does there arise in man the consciousness of responsibility for his acts and regard for the rights of others; only in freedom can there unfold in its full strength that most precious social instinct: man's sympathy for the joys and sorrows of his fellow men and the resultant impulse toward mutual aid in which are rooted all social ethics, all ideas of social justice." (Rocker, p.148)
A few hundred years earlier, the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna said much the same thing:
"Not doing harm to others,
Not bowing down to the ignoble,
Not abandoning the path of virtue -
These are small points, but of great
(Nagarjuna and Sakya Pandit, Elegant Sayings, Dharma Publishing, 1977, p.12)
In the modern age, with the greed-driven state-corporate system all but unavoidable, these three points present the supreme challenge to all who would live as fully human beings.