Saturday, March 25, 2017

Identity Politics and Zen Buddhism

I'm using almost the exact same title of this post as one by Brad Warner, because a) it's roughly about the same topic, b) there isn't one single viewpoint on this, as you might expect, and c) Ven. Warner has of late posted a couple of rather strange things  (e.g., reposting this bit of creationist claptrap), that, in my view,  merit a response.  Regarding the creationist stuff, see my response to Ven. Warner on the comments section there.  This post, and Ven. Warner's post on identity politics,  should be read in light of the comments on Brad Warner's posting of a video of Jordan Peterson, who, with flimsy arguments, denies the existence of trans and intersex people in his refusal not to use non-traditional  3rd person singular pronouns.

I have written quite a bit on this site about identity politics before, and privilege.   Whatever I've written in the past few years, I generally still affirm as my views, although I freely admit that those posts probably adheres to Mumon's rule: In 20 years, posts about race, gender, sexuality, privilege and class will likely be cringe-worthy demonstrating some kind of form of disrespect. 

I've also written quite a few posts on this site indicating that I agree with Ven. Warner on a number of issues, and I do, and continue to do so, but here a critical response is merited. 

Ven Warner writes:

But what is identity anyhow? Lately a certain faction has emerged who believe that society has an obligation to accept and affirm whatever identity an individual has chosen for him / her / them / zem / em / hum / pehm / per / thon / ver / xem / yo / hir / mer / zhim-self (ref: But is that how identity actually works? 
For example, is Brad Warner an Enlightened Zen Master? Or is he a transphobic piece of shit who never should have been given a set of Buddhist robes? Or is he the bassist for Zero Defex (his preferred definition)? Is he white as most people assume? Or is he of mixed race, which he knows to be true given his family history? Is he an angry rebellious punk, like in his books? Or is he kind of a goofball, as he often comes across when you see him in person?

My first response is that while written language has evolved to where gender is expressed pretty much universally, it isn't uniformly so with spoken forms of the language; e.g., in Chinese, "He" is rendered  "他"  and "she" is rendered "她," and both are pronounced, in Pinyin encoding, "Tā."  For this reason native Chinese speakers speaking English often mix up "she" and "he." (The hànzì BTW, are a little sexist there, as happens in several hànzì/kanji but I digress.)  Chinese speakers mean no disrespect when they do this; they have to consciously remember to assign the right word to the right gender.  However, it's one thing to make a language error of this kind; it's another thing to be in-your-face about not calling someone as they wish to be called, because you fundamentally deny who they are as people "in the relative sense," in their flesh-and-blood quotidian existences.  I'll come back to that point.

Ven. Warner also writes:

What I think I am is often at odds with what other people think I am. Who is right? Is it useful to try to make everyone I encounter agree with the identity I have chosen for myself? Should there be a law requiring them to see me the way I see me? Or is that just a lot of wasted effort?

Ven. Warner, despite being Sōtō and all that, ought to be familiar with Bodhidharma's famous reply to Emperor Wu when he asked Bodhidharma who he was:  不識  - No knowing, often rendered in English as "I don't know."  Of course he's familiar with what Suzuki-roshi said: When you become you Zen becomes Zen.

Both Bodhidharma's and Suzuki-roshi's responses to "Who are you?" in effect point to the Absolute - Emptiness, as a response to the question, as to "keep the question" "Who are you?" is to affirm and express in a certain sense the Absolute or Emptiness.

But...I agree with these folks more or less.  It is a cop-out, a shirking of responsibility to appeal to the Absolute when there are things that need a response in the Relative world.  It is "banging the law" when one cannot bang the facts.   

I could cite a number of other kōans in this regard, which Ven. Warner must surely be aware.

But let me get to the point,  in particular regarding people who are in-your-face not calling someone as they see themselves, because you fundamentally deny who they are as people "in the relative sense," in their flesh-and-blood quotidian existences.  Ven Warner also writes:

Whenever I was unsuccessful at convincing someone else to see me as I saw myself I felt a terrible need to fix the situation. This often proved impossible and so I was left wondering if maybe I really was whatever they said I was, and if I was, in fact, wrong about myself. For me, the first step toward a more Buddhist sort of understanding of identity was seeing how much of a waste of effort it was to try to convince others to see me the way I saw myself. 

What Ven. Warner is doing is implying the appeal to the Absolute I mentioned earlier, as though the answer to the question  "How do I refer to Brad Warner's gender identity colloquially?" is 不識.  That's bullshit in the Relative sense.

We are being polite when we address people by the conventions of polite language. We are impolite when we refer to someone with profanities instead of by their names.   Ven. Warner or I may like some things a certain pundit might say, but if that pundit uses language to deny the existence of or otherwise denigrate an entire class of people then we fall short in not responding to such denigration,  and we fall even further short if our response is 不識.  

This is not to say that those who engage in identity politics don't make this same error; as noted on this blog, the folks at the Portland Buddhist festival have made the same error with respect to Falun Da Fa.   It's something we as Buddhists have to constantly be aware of: Are we shirking some view or responsibility by conflating Absolute and Relative?