All over the Interwebs, folks are calling out Hollywood’s terrible treatment of women in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal. Of course, this sort of thing has been part of the film industry ever since the film industry began. But maybe it’ll finally start to change.
The Internet as a whole seems to be a place where certain folks spend lots of time trying to change the world for the better. They spend a lot of time pointing out how other people are doing things that cause harm. No matter what you say on the Internet it seems like someone out there might be harmed by it, and so someone else is also out there to point that out and shame you for it.
On college campuses, there’s a growing trend to try to shield students from all sorts of potential harm. Not only are we trying to protect them from assault and rape, we’re also trying to make sure they don’t get exposed to ideas that might upset them.
There has been plenty of debate on this subject and if you’ve spent any time on the information superhighway you’ve already heard it all. But I don’t think this stuff is really anything that new. Rather, I see it as part of an ongoing overall trend in human society. It’s a trend that may go back hundreds of years.
The trend I’m talking about is based on the idea that we’d like to make life as nice as possible for as many people as possible. We didn’t always look at it this way. In the New Testament, Jesus says, “For ye have the poor always with you” (Matthew 26:11). For much of human history it was taken for granted that it was just the lot of most people to have a shitty life while a few others had it good.
But for the past few hundred years there’s been a growing notion that maybe things don’t have to be that way. Maybe we could create a world in which all of us are able to have a reasonably comfortable and reasonably safe life. The rise of the materialistic outlook combined with new technologies and scientific progress made it feel like such a world was just within our reach.
We in the developed West have it pretty damned good. I remember clearly the shock of moving to Kenya as a second grader and interacting on a day-to-day basis with people to whom I seemed impossibly wealthy, when back home in Ohio we were just normal, if not on the slightly lower end of what we call “Middle Class” — a class, I learned, that hardly even exists in much of the world.
Over here in our part of the planet, some of us seem practically obsessed with eradicating even the most minor irritations from our own lives and the lives of others. Not to say that Harvey Weinstein’s behavior was a minor irritation. Weinstein was a bad guy.
But you know what I mean. People are constantly being called out not just for crimes of the proportions that Weinstein committed, but also for using the wrong words, even accidentally, or for just for looking at people in the wrong way.
The motivation for all this stuff is hard to fault. We just want other people to have a good life. What’s wrong with that?
Nothing, really. Buddhist monks have been training to be almost ridiculously ethical in terms of words, deeds, and even thoughts for thousands of years. It’s good to be nice to others. Every little bit of good you can do for anyone else helps make the world a better place.
The problem arises when we start thinking that the only way to make the world a better place is to fix external conditions. We’ve already done a lot of that. A hundred years ago it was a luxury even in the US and Europe to have running water and electricity. But we made a lot of efforts to fix that, and now we take it for granted that everyone should have these things. We lament that there are still some among us who don’t. We also made efforts to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to learn to read and write. Again, this is pretty new. And we want everyone to have affordable health care. Which is great.
We are also starting to try and police everybody’s interactions to make certain nobody even has to feel bad. Or at least that’s what we seem to be hoping for.
Thinking about this makes me contemplate how Buddhist practice began, and what kinds of societies it emerged in.
Buddhism did not emerge in societies like ours, where the notion that everyone ought to have at least the opportunity for a good life was taken as a given thing. Buddhism emerged in societies that were much more like what I saw in Nairobi as a kid, where some folks had it really good, while almost everyone else just had to make do with whatever they could manage to get. Dogen said that one of the reasons he left Kyoto, then the capitol of Japan, was because the rivers were clogged with blood from the constant battles raging in the streets. That was just normal life in the city in those days.
Those early Buddhists weren’t trying to make life better by fixing external conditions, or by making sure nobody ever said the wrong thing to anyone else, or got exposed to ideas that would upset them. Such a thing would have seemed impossible to them. Rather, they were trying to come up with a way that people could have a decent and reasonably happy life even when their external conditions were pretty terrible.
They wanted to find a way to respond to a life that, by our standards, would seem intolerably awful. Not being able to fix the external world, they worked on a method to find a new way to respond to whatever conditions they encountered. And they refined this method over thousands of years of trial and error, and research and development.
So yeah, Harvey Weinstein sucks. In fact, the way human beings treat each other just in general kinda sucks a lot of the time. And yes, we should try to make it suck less. It actually seems our efforts in that direction have been pretty successful. Things still suck a lot of the time. But they’re less sucky for more people than ever before. Maybe someday life will be reasonably un-sucky for everyone.
Until then, I think we can still learn a little bit from the Buddhists and the ways they developed for living a decent life under conditions that were way more sucky than what most of us have to deal with today.
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