Sandy Hook: What to say

I don’t know. I feel a deep sorrow over the loss of lives in Connecticut.  Over the grief that the living will have to endure.

I feel it deeply because my own son is in first grade, age seven, the same age as the children who died. I imagine losing him and every single classmate and his teacher and all his aides and principal and having find a way to endure.  The last time I felt such sorrow was after 9/11; the stories then were of children losing parents.

One difference between then and now is Facebook. There was no such thing in 2001. I am amazed at the range of reactions among Facebook friends.

Some are calling for more gun control.  Some are calling for more guns. Some are posting statements about God being kicked out of schools. Some are calling for mental health reforms.  More school security.  Something.  Anything to think that this could be prevented from happening again.

This microcosm of the un-famous in social media is playing out on a larger scale among the famous and infamous. Morgan Freeman, Victoria Jackson, Mike Huckabee, Jaime Foxx, have all weighed in, all over the map.

I tend to think that times of desperation make us cling harder to our existing beliefs. We want someone to blame, something to cling to, something to reassure us, someone or something to hate.

My own wish is to go back to basic belief in mindfulness.  I am a Buddhist, in outlook at least.  I’ve never been to a temple or meditation group, unless you count Second Life. But I agree with the basic outlook.

The starting point for Buddhism is that everyone suffers.  It is a basic condition of human existence. Rather than wallow in nihilism, though, Buddhists use common suffering as the wellspring of compassion. Compassion is understanding and genuine concern for others.  The basic formula for compassion is that because everyone suffers, everyone is like me in that regard.  As I have suffered, so has everyone else. The external circumstances of our suffering are less important than our reactions.

Like everything else in my life, I am sporadic with my mindfulness practice.  When I am on track with my practice I act with wisdom and compassion.  When I’m not, I am gossipy, I tend to isolate myself, and I am crabby and overly sensitive to criticism.

My basic worldview doesn’t change, though.  Way back during one of my failed Ph.D. attempts I was immersed in critical theory as it applied to education. I could work the theory as well as any of my fellow students, but I felt wrong. Even though the theory used the tools of intellect and reason, much of the practice relied on anger and hatred. The villains were powerful people.  The whole experience felt like a melodrama, and the characters were the evil oppressors and the innocent oppressed.  Most of the practice was couched in confrontational, even militaristic terms.  Everything was an outrage.  Some of the seminar classes even devolved into arguments about “you’re silencing me,” and “no, you’re essentializing me!”

I couldn’t hack all the parts of the Ph.D. because of my AD(H)D, but I also felt that I could not live my life in a permanent state of outrage.  While I tend toward liberal politics, I do not tend toward those who would fight intolerance with their own intolerance.  While I do not share the socially conservative point of view in America, I do not participate in the demonizing that goes on among many of my acquaintances of that point of view.

During those Ph.D. years, I also learned about “othering,” and use that as a teaching tool in a course I do on justice and literature. It goes like this:

The Other is that which is not the same. On a personal level, the Other is about who is different from the self, and on a group level, it explains the difference between our in-groups and out-groups. What separates the self/same from the Other is “difference.”  How we account for that difference is a political statement,  in that it empowers certain ways of thinking or being and disenfranchises other ways.  Exploring this thinking is one way to define critical thinking, and some people call it identity politics (though that word’s come to be used negatively).

An example I use in class is to ask the question “Why are poor people poor?”  Simple answers are always deeply political.  If one says because they are lazy, then it follows that one would be against social safety net sort of programs.  If one says because they are disciminated against, then it follows that one is in favor of such programs; that answer attributes the reason to circumstances rather than character.

The truth is always more complicated than any simple answer. When we provide a simple answer, though, we are essentializing, or reducing a complicated and varied situation to a simple “essence.”  That’s the basic mental mode of stereotyping and discrimination.  The “essence” of being poor in the above examples is either laziness or discrimination.  A more honest view would say that some of both are true.  There are poor people who are lazy (just like in any other class of people) and it’s hard to deny that there is systematic discrimination as well. There are a thousand other factors too.

Anyway, one flaw, as I see it, in much of critical theory is that it always employs this critique in defense of the powerless at the hands of the powerful.  While that’s an important area of work, the equation is almost never reversed.  In other words, few people who do this work ask “Why are rich people rich?” with the intent of providing a complete answer. (The pejorative for this contradiction is the Mercedes Marxist).

Put another way, plenty of people I know who would go to great lengths to defend oppressed groups against discrimination, stereotyping, and simplistic representation are perfectly willing to employ those same tactics against their villains.  Villains are denied their basic humanity.   I’m not a fan of Donald Trump, but as a human being, he suffers.

In fact, something the Dalai Lama wrote about compassion sticks in my mind. I’m paraphrasing, but he basically says that compassion for our family and friends and those we identify with closely is easy, almost built in. Compassion for our despised Others is harder, and perhaps a more true test of one’s compassion.

So I deal with this tragedy in fairly predictable ways.  I read about it until that becomes too unbearable, and then I distract myself with games. I have flashes of anger against things people are posting, but those quickly turn to sorrow.  I write about it, draw on intellectual resources and theory, which ironically provides comfort. I hug my kids more.  Sometimes, there are advantages to having autistic children; my kids are unaware of the shooting.

I feel tempted to lash out against Facebook postings that cause me anger.  I feel it is important, though, not to add more aggression to the world right now.


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