TV cartoon character Hank Hill, undisputed King of the Hill and Man for All Seasons, targeted the problem with his customary insight. "What is this country coming to when we're only allowed to hate white people?"
A disagreeable fellow had moved next door to Hank, and because this new neighbor was a member of an ethnic/racial minority whose not unwarranted claims for equality and justice had become a cause celebre, Hank, for fear of being charged with prejudice, was not free to complain about the man's rudeness.
For, as is often the case with celebrated causes, this one had attracted to itself many of those opportunistic vigilantes who always seem to appear, to use the Buddha's Diamond Sutra simile, "as mysteriously as mushrooms or gods." The sight of them is always startling. So is the demonic swiftness of their attack.
Nothing prepares us for the experience. People we thought we knew, perhaps only casually but well enough to feel at ease with, suddenly transform into thought-police paladins who hear in our most innocuous criticism bold and reprehensible exclamations of bigotry. Hank Hill was wise to be circumspect in his response. These crusaders for love and tolerance can be vicious.
Let's be clear about this. The problem was not one of rhetorical exaggeration. Hank was not making a small racial slur which the Champions of the Abused could magnify into egregious dimensions. No, the problem was one of kind and not degree. Nobody was nipping racism in the bud for there was no racism there. Hank was complaining as one member of the human family might complain about a sibling. We may call our brother many things, but seldom do we attack him on matters of race. The neighbor was unneighborly, and that was all Hank was complaining about.
What is really happening here? What is it that causes such unprovoked attacks of righteousness? Who are these latter-day Protectors of the Oppressed that cast themselves, without audition or previous experience, in such heroic roles?
Always it seems that whenever prejudice against a given class of people ceases to be fashionable, the magnetic pole of condemnation magically reverses from con to pro. Individuals, who in former times might readily have hated the despised minority or worse, might have remained stolidly indifferent to their plight, suddenly direct a lively malice against anyone whom they perceive to be prejudiced against that formerly despised minority. In short, the movement goes from identifying with those who would lynch to identifying with those who would lynch those who would lynch. There is no alteration in the irrationality.
Of course, Hank Hill was merely trying to make a point. He is too wise to suppose that the only safe targets for such venom are white people. Target sets and subsets are constantly being formed and scrambled quite irrespectively of race. No one is beyond the range of such venom's trajectory and there are no null sets. A child's innocent kiss provokes a criminal indictment for sexual harassment. A woman's Samaritan kindness in putting a nickel in somebody else's parking meter causes her to be fined five hundred dollars. A mother lightly slaps her errant son for speaking abusively to his school principal and is herself arrested for child abuse. No, to zealous Champions of Justice, there are no null sets. We're all at risk.
Last week, I went a few rounds with one of these Champs.
I was walking through several acres of parked cars on my way to the supermarket entrance when my path casually converged with another woman's. Just as we approached the handicapped zone, a car swerved into one of the reserved spaces. Though the license bore the requisite handicapped logo, the driver - were we to judge from the way he burst out of his vehicle and deftly negotiated some rolling shopping carts - was about as handicapped as Elvis Stojko. He all but did a quad shooting past us.
I confess I was grousing. My guard having been let down by the woman's soundness of limb, I confided, "This handicapped parking privilege is being abused," then I imprudently added, "There are more parking places reserved for handicapped drivers in this city than there are handicapped drivers in the Western Hemisphere."
She gasped. "Don't deprive these unfortunate people of this small accommodation! They suffer enough as it is! I know! My best friend is handicapped. She regards these parking places as a godsend." The look she gave me was terrible to see. I groaned.
"I was addressing the abuse issue," I protested. "That man was not handicapped!"
"You wouldn't feel that way if you were in a wheelchair," she snarled in a rather loud voice as we entered the store and providentially separated. I shook my head a few times as I watched her march away. Store clerks and customers within earshot gave me a cold look; and I could respond only with a dumb shrug of my shoulders. "That'll teach you not to criticize the handicapped," I whispered to myself, flexing my new cowardice.
Did I believe that this woman truly cared about the handicapped? Not for a moment.
One of the first lessons we learn in the religious life is how to distinguish the true evangelist from the phony. The true champion is rational, egoless, and too secure in his devotion to God to be fearful of enemies. He vents no venom for he has none, and the wares he advertises are the appurtenances of salvation: love, joy, peace, truth, justice, and freedom from fear, all neatly catalogued in Scripture. This woman was merely huckstering herself as a person who cared. She was a salesman for her own high-minded virtue, and she, like any door-to-door salesman, was seizing the opportunity to jam her foot in the door. The buzzword was "handicapped" pronounced in any adversarial context. The buzzer sounded and she responded. Yes, she was far too passionate in her righteousness and far too eager to triumph over me, an imagined adversary, to have been sincere. Yet, I don't believe that she was aware of her true motives. Passion does not condescend to share brain space with reason. It is a cuckoo in the nest.
Those of us who remember the Viet Nam war's Zippologic - ingenuous GIs explaining to TV cameras that they were "burning down the village in order to save it" - and those of us who yet marvel at the anti-abortion strategy of preserving the sanctity of human life through the murder of physicians and the judicious placement of explosives, have grown wary of zeal.
Shakespeare, in Hamlet, probably said it best: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." Yes, immoderate zeal is the symptom of this strange, hidden hypocrisy. We know that Gertrude was right to be suspicious of the Player Queen's excessive enthusiasm. The lady did protest too much. All that spousal fidelity she was declaring was in fact a prologue to scripted widowhood.
"The neurotic symptom is the negative of the perversion," said Freud. His exponents, among other psychologists, studied the peculiar affliction which causes us to advertise a virtue precisely because we are guilty of its opposite. Freud called the condition "sublimation" - the conversion of disturbing impulses into more socially acceptable forms.
What precisely constitutes a more acceptable form of behavior is a matter of individual choice, one which is as variable as the degree to which the conversion is completed. Bluntly put, how we lie to ourselves and how thoroughly we believe that lie are difficult to qualify or calibrate.
Sometimes the sublimation is considered complete as in the often cited, though seemingly simplistic, "G-String Complex", the case of striptease dancers who, financial considerations aside, respond to their own feelings of sexual inadequacy or inversion, i.e., their own frigidity or lesbianism, by finding in the ogling of male aficionados reassurance that if there is a problem, it surely is not theirs.
While it might surprise some of us that stripteasing could be more socially acceptable than harboring guilt over a lack of enthusiasm for sexual intercourse, it should surprise none of us that those who, in a manner of speaking, "take off the cloth" are no more prone to this affliction than those who "take up the cloth." No category of persons is so self-deluding as religious professionals.
Here again we confront an entire rank and file of sublimates. At one end of the range are those who consciously affect piety but who sincerely believe that if they "practice" the insincerity, it will, by force of repetition, grow into something genuine. At the other end are those who are thoroughly immersed in their convictions. Like so much sugar in water, they dissolve into their cause. It is painful, if not outright dangerous, to watch them try to reestablish their individuality, to separate themselves from their identifying project as when, for example, a cure for the disease they are championing is found, or funding for their "ministry" is cut off and they, unable to continue their quest without financial reward, must boil down that syrupy concoction and reinvest the residue. Unattended, it ferments. To our consternation we discover what remarkably nasty drunks these people truly are.
Sometimes the sublimation is only partially achieved, and the person oscillates between the poles of righteousness and villainy so rapidly that his disease resembles nothing so much as moral motion sickness. Freudian Psychiatrist A.A. Brill tells us of a patient who had achieved fame as a lover of animals, whose love was in fact so great that if anyone brought him an animal that was sick or abandoned, he would actually pay the person. But when this patient took his pony alone into the woods, he would sometimes beat the animal mercilessly; and not until he was physically exhausted from striking it, would the beating cease. Then, his fury spent, he would give his pony sugar and other goodies and, out of consideration for him, walk him all the way back to town. Brill believed that the horse represented the patient's mother and that his alternate bouts of love and abuse represented his ambivalent feelings towards her. The pathology is interesting, but of little help to those of us who have to survive unpredictable encounters with Life's pony beaters.
Zen's literature, too, gives us a gentle warning about this bizarre malady: Two young monks are walking down the road when they come to a river. A frail young lady, dressed in silk finery, wishes to cross the stream but she and her garments are too delicate to attempt it. The first monk sees her distress and offers to piggy-back her across. She climbs up on his back and puts her arms around his neck. As her legs straddle his waist, he hooks his arms under her knees to hold her securely. The two monks ford the river and once safely on the other side, the first monk gently sets the lady down. As the monks resume their journey, the second monk expresses his indignation. "Do you not care that you have violated our rules of decorum?... that you have compromised your modesty by holding a woman in such an intimate way? Can you not imagine how scandalous this appears?" On and on he berates the first monk until finally, weary of hearing the unfounded complaints, the first monk says, "Brother, I put that lady down back there at the river. Why are you still carrying her?"
Most Zen masters forbid their subordinates to engage in political disputes or to crusade for any temporal causes. Their reason is not that they hold themselves above political or social causes or that they fear they will lose the support of one faction or another if they take a controversial stand, or even that they have no extra time to spend on non-clerical duties. It is simply that the opportunities for mischief are so great, that the crusaders can be so easily sidetracked, so identified with the struggle that they lose sight of the cause. (Working for justice is tedious and tiring; but fighting for justice is fun - especially when one is safely draped in the impervious raiment of righteousness.) Masters mostly fear that their disciples, by sublimating an unsavory desire, will not root it out, expose it to reason, seek its correction, and achieve spiritual wholeness.
The curse of the religious life is that for the sake of our own souls we are compelled to practice what we preach. It is always so much nicer to tell other people how to live while, of course, exempting ourselves from the rules. We can eloquently preach non-violence against all living creatures and crusade for the rights of innocent animals; but when the innocent animals that are being threatened are worms in our belly or malarial protozoans in our bloodstream, we lace up our leather boots and stomp all over that message. The handwriting on the wall is just so much graffiti.
The Buddhist Way is the Middle Way. Extremism is, by definition, not an option in our spiritual programs. The Dharma is for sentient creatures, i.e., conscious creatures who have self-knowledge and the ability to think rationally and fairly. Whenever we find ourselves responding emotionally to anything, we are obliged to examine our responses, trace them back to their roots, recognize and deal with the archetypal force that has generated the emotional response. Love must be unconditional and hate must be replaced by love. Being a Buddhist does not consist in "belonging" to any religious organization. It consists in living out the life of the Buddha Self. We are each a network of One.
And the fact is that justice for all cannot be achieved unless there is justice for one and that that "one" is the one we are at any given moment encountering. So, if a man wishes to accommodate the handicapped, let him be friendly to each handicapped man he meets, let him treat him with dignity, as a man much like himself, as simply another honorable human being who deserves consideration and respect. If he wishes to help more actively, let him quietly build a ramp, modify a bicycle, teach a lamed child to swim or a disabled person how to defend himself. Let him exploit his own talents and skills to assist the handicapped. Let him write letters to an editor or to a congressman in support of needed legislation. Let him teach himself the virtuous act of dispensing justice.
What we shouldn't let him do is to demand that we demonstrate a virtue that he does not sincerely possess.
Hank Hill made peace with his neighbor. He made a conscious effort to understand and to forgive, and to take responsibility for his own part in the misunderstanding. He gave his neighbor the right to be a human being, a human being who happily turned out to be rather like himself.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts