Over a year ago, now-President Obama delivered a speech on race relations in these United States. It was, of course, a political speech delivered in the middle of a presidential campaign, so there were a plethora of motivations behind it and policy positions within it. So, on matters of tone and substance, there was stuff in there I didn’t agree with, to say the least.
But it was brilliant, nonetheless. It was a brilliant speech, in my mind, because now-President Obama did something I can’t remember any national-level politician doing in decades: he treated the American people like intelligent grown-ups, able to grapple with complex and nuanced issues.
Most politicians spend most of their time “talking to the base,” using inflammatory rhetoric, and making broad, sweeping generalizations about inherently complex issues as if there really is one, single answer. Most politicians speak to the lowest common denominator. They think we’re stupid.
So what I found brilliant and refreshing in Mr. Obama’s speech was that he approached a particularly thorny issue as a teaching moment, like an opportunity to raise the level of discourse above the level of the lowest common denominator, if only very slightly. He assumed that people would be willing wrestle with complicated matters. In short, he treated us with respect.
Regardless of the overall merits of the speech, regardless of his subsequent successes or failures as our president, and regardless of whether or not you like Mr. Obama, you gotta respect the fact that he respects us.
This assumption that one’s audience is intelligent and willing to grapple with complex and nuanced issues, my dear readers, is at the heart of what I do around here. I assume that you’re an intelligent lot. I assume that this space is a space of learning. (Lord knows I’ve learned a helluva lot over these last six years of blogging, and have often been proved wrong). And I assume that you’re willing to do some work on your end, to rise above the regular level of discourse.
This means that when I talk about racism or prejudice, I am not talking about you. Racism or prejudice have nothing to do with you, as an individual, please lower your hackles. When I talk about racism or prejudice, I am talking about institutions, about sociological systems of meaning, systems of power. We, as individuals, participate in these systems, shape, nurture, subvert, create, and destroy these systems (i.e., we have a lot of individual power, and with great power comes…you know the rest). But I would never presume to tell you, as an individual, that you’re a bigoted snit or that what you’re doing, how you’re practicing Buddhism, is wrong. That’s not my place.
Assuming that my audience is full of intelligent people means that I am going to throw around concepts like postcolonial theory and orientalism, often without explanation. It means that when I talk about ritual (and practice), somewhere in the back of my head, I’m thinking about Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus. It means that I understand that whatever personally good feelings or benefits (even of the self-help variety) I may get out of my Buddhist practice, Buddhism is still a sociological reality that can been studied and talked about in terms of those aforementioned systems of meaning and power.
And I assume, rightly or wrongly, that you’ll get that.
If you hang around here long enough, chances are you’re going to get uncomfortable. Chances are you’re going get disoriented. That’s only because you’ve jumped into the deep end. I’m not going spend my time writing about how my Buddhist practice has made me more calm and less stressed out and nicer to puppies. That’s probably all true (I’d like to believe it is, anyway, that in the course of the last decade of practice I’ve become a better person). But that’s not why I blog.
So if you’re reading this, welcome to the deep end. Let’s try and to learn how to swim, together. It can be a little frightening, I know. But in the end, you’ll find that you’ve become stronger. (And possibly nicer to puppies.)