Friday, October 26, 2012

Liberating the Whale Within

I've made a number of bad choices in my life and have regrets to match. Sometimes the weight of my guilt feels like that famous whale with my old name (although I used to spell it "Willie" rather than "Willy"). I was socialized to accept the burden of free will (oh the irony!) and pay the consequences for any mistakes that were made.  We blame people for their faults, their errors in judgment.  But sometimes there are causes other than willful blunder when things go awry.

This was an important and anxiety-provoking issue during the years of dealing with my son's alcoholism.  What was the degree of his responsibility for the bad choices he made that ultimately killed him?  Did my absence as a father play a role, or his mother's addiction to valium and wine?  Were chemicals in the brain the prime culprit, or was it insufficient nurturing by parents who missed the cues provided by his youthful druggy misbehavior?

Guilt has long been viewed by our modern generation as an unproductive emotion, but it is not so easily abandoned.  In retrospect, our memories are rarely clear of it.  We all believe that had we done something else, somewhere, sometime, things would have turned out differently.  Free will is a cornerstone of our self image and the basis for morality and the law.  Without it, we lead lives directed by conditions and circumstance.  And if our choices are a mixture of determined and free, as some "compatibilists" in the field of neuroscience now believe, how are to we choose between them to apportion blame and praise?

A dilemma only for philosophers, you say.  And maybe you are right.  I've been stimulated by the revival of a group of Bangkok expats calling themselves "BuddhistPsychos" to explore connections between the latest psychological theories and Buddhist teaching.  This month the topic for our meeting was thinking, and I dove into a pile of online research to discover current thoughts about, well, thought. On the face of it, thinking is a mysterious process somehow related to the brain (which one  writer called a "meat computer").   How does sensory input, converted into electrical signals in the brain, become mental food for thought? I am quite familiar with the discursive chatter that goes on in my head (or my heart, as Thais would say), but it may be quite different from your experience.  A monk in our group claimed that he was able at will to replace ordinary thinking with thoughtless awareness, but I suspect he was playing with definitions.  Thinking, it seems to me, is coexistant with consciousness.

My friend Jerry echoes my wife who often says "you think too much."  He's a thinker as well but not about such lofty intellectual topics.  The subjects of the current book he's writing are "whore lovers" and this weekend he's attending a ladyboy volleyball tournament in Pattaya.  While I puzzle over the relationship between the brain and free will, the topic for next month's BuddhistPsychos meeting, he's thinking about the pleasures of the flesh.

The conflict between determinism and free will may simply be a category mistake, a misuse of language to speak about incompatible domains, an apples to oranges error.  This explanation is unlikely to sit well with those who cling to the belief of a "ghost in the machine," a homunculus who sits in the head (or heart) and drives the vehicle of our body.  For these believers, an eternal soul is obvious. Buddhist blogger Stephen Schettini posed the question "What if everything doesn't happen for  reason?"  This leads to some very interesting conclusions, such as a psychological chaos theory that eliminates humans as the center of creation.

It's the doldrums now between school terms so I have the time and inactivity to ponder such questions.  Despite a vow to withdraw from an obsession with U.S. news, I've timed my days to coincide with the campaign debates.  And I engage in Facebook disputes over the trouble caused by Israel in the Mideast and the tragedy of Burmese Buddhists killing Muslims in retaliation for Islamic violence against Buddhists across the border in Bangladesh.  I've been labeled an anti-Semite for my criticism by an old friend from high school as well as someone I once worked with in Hollywood forty years ago.  Another one-time friend blocked me after I wrote that it was nonsense to believe Jews and Arabs had equal rights in Israel.  Here in Thailand, cautioning against revenge and urging compassion for Muslim terrorists is not always welcomed.

The persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma is a good example of "otherisation," a term for the demonisation of the other proposed by Kathleen Turner in her book on cruelty which she discusses in a new three-part British TV series with Richard Dawkins, "Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life." Dawkins was at his best in the first program when arguing for a secular morality based on the human disposition of empathy.  We don't need a god and eternal reward or punishment to ground morality, Dawkins says, because humans are hard-wired for kindness.  All it takes is a widening of our circle to include empathy for others beyond our tribe.  The old tribal exclusions can be abandoned in a secular world.

Perhaps.  But I never thought the conflicts today were primarily about religious differences.  It's mostly fighting over land.  The establishment of the state of Israel was done at the expense of the previous owners and the residents of Palestine have struggled for 60 years to right this fundamental wrong.  At the last presidential debate, Obama and Romney argued over who loved Israel more.  Just as in the first debates, no one mentioned the poor, in the final debate no one defended the occupied and oppressed Palestinians, perhaps the key to why the Middle East remains a powder keg and Americans are universally hated there.

But that's the news junkie talking.  Here in Thailand the rainy season is almost over without any signs of the devastating floods of last year when Nan and I were forced to escape to Phayao for several weeks.  My wife has completed the internship required by her BA program and has only to submit a dissertation to graduate.  The ceremony will be sometime in the new year and family members from upcountry will come to Bangkok to celebrate with gifts of flowers and stuffed animals.  Nan was invited to participate in another ASEAN student exchange (she went to Brunei last December), but was bumped from the Bali list and then told that accommodations could not be found for the next choice in Penang, Malaysia.  So we have a month to gather warm clothes together for our Christmas trip to Seoul, Korea.

It certainly seems like I can choose from among the alternatives life presents.  Granted, the last divorce was not my choice, but probably my misdeeds made that inevitable. And the result was certainly favorable for me.  I chose to visit Thailand back in 2004, to move here permanently five years ago, and to marry the woman with whom I now share a life that is wonderful beyond my wildest dreams.  That our age difference has upset my children to the point where they no longer wish to stay in contact was beyond my control.  I cannot fathom why they fail to share my joy.  Choices that I made to neglect my knee and teeth are coming back to haunt me.  In general, aging is a downhill slide and it's futile to fight it.  It must be enough that I swim several times a week and that my wife feeds me healthy meals.  Living forever is not an option.

Nevertheless, I lean toward the view that will and the mind are imaginative byproducts of a brain that developed because humans who told satisfying stories of explanation were more fit to survive.  Plato was wrong.  It's the poets and storytellers (and we're all scribblers) who make life worth living.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Death of Tolerance

Despite predictions that globalization would break down the walls between different cultures and religions, the opposite seems to be happening.  In the West, conservative Christians charge that secular governments have declared war on religion, while in the East, Muslims and Buddhists are burning each other's houses of worship.  My position has always been that there are truths in the beliefs and scriptures of time-tested religions alongside errors that result from translation as well as the attempt to apply ancient dogma to present conditions.  The troublemakers are literal fundamentalists and extremists who believe their particular truth makes all other beliefs false.  These religious radicals want to unite the world under their banner.  The worst of them want to kill all heretics.

Some friends, however, believe that Islam is an inherently evil religion which wishes to dominate the world.  This is a position taken by the New Atheists who damn all religion but Islam in particular.  Tolerance even for moderates is rejected because it just enables the extremists.  I have long argued against them in defense of tolerance and moral relativism.  Live and let live is my motto, but it's under attack. At the end of last month, a mob of Muslims in Bangladesh burned four Buddhist temples and over a dozen homes because their religion had allegedly been insulted by a photo on Facebook.  At first, Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand, among them many of my students, protested peacefully. (Here is a video of the Buddhist temple burning from Al Jazeera.)

Last week, however, a mob of Buddhists in Myanmar’s Rakhine state burned down a mosque.  Whether in retaliation to what happened in Bangladesh or as part of the ongoing war against Rohyinga Muslims in their midst, the violence is a horrible tit for tat that can only escalate.  Last month, Muslim homes were burned and Rohyinga people killed by Burmese Buddhists after a rumor that a Buddhist woman had been raped by a Rohyinga man (facts are disputed and the central government has been accused of spreading the rumor in order to rid the country of the unwanted Rohyinga).  (Here is a video of the mosque burning in Sittwe.)

Then two days ago, the Taliban in Pakistan shot a 14-year-old girl in the head because she had been outspoken about the necessity of educating women in a country where Muslims routinely deny that right.  Optimists are hoping that this despicable act might be the turning point for moderate Muslims to confront the extremists in their midst.  (Read yesterday's New York Times editorial; here is a CNN update.) As for me, this attempted assassination of a courageous young girl has finally brought about the realization that Islamic fascists and terrorists are categorically different from extremists of other religious stripes.  Christian anti-abortionists burn clinics and kill doctors, but the only mobs I know of confine their activities to protesting movies like "The Last Temptation of Christ" or "The Da Vinci Code"; they haven't killed heretics for hundreds of years.  While I am not yet ready to agree with Samuel Huntington's thesis of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, I am now much less tolerant toward any Islamic teaching that divides the world between followers of Allah and heretics liable for beheading. (For an excellent discussion of the issues, view this video debate on the question, "Islam is a Religion of Peace.")

I've always thought freedom of expression must be universally protected, except for crying fire in a crowded theater.  Or hate speech directed against persecuted minorities ("nigger" or "fag," for example).  And I've even supported political correctness in the search for gender-neutral terms ("spokesperson," etc.)  On the other hand, I've been a moral relativist when it comes to protecting the cultures of groups threatened by global homogenization and the tyranny of the universal.  The toughest question here is what to think about female genital mutilation, a practice engaged in by northern African peoples even before they converted to Islam.  But if we declare FGM universally unacceptable, then must we also outlaw male circumcision, a more benign operation but one no less ardently advocated by Jews and others as part of their religion?

The problem with being even slightly critical of Islam and its history and current practices, like its treatment of women, is that it can be dangerous to one's health, as evidenced by these signs at a Muslim rally in Britain.  It's no longer adequate to argue, as I have in the past, that we must be tolerant of differences in beliefs and values; rather than criticize, we should seek to find common interests and goals (like economic wellbeing and world peace).  The public face of Islam, however (for which the media no doubt may be partly responsible), is of an intolerant and violent religion that seeks to silence differences of opinion through threats and mayhem.   While extremists may be relatively few, they have managed to stifle the moderates from speaking out against them. It took a Reformation to get rid of the Inquisition in Christianity.  Perhaps it will need an equally earth-shattering change for Islam to become a religion of peace.

How free can free speech be?  Here in Thailand, all speech about the royal family is strictly curtailed with severe penalties for any transgression.  There is a Thai Buddhist web site strongly critical of of manufacturers and companies that turn icons of the Buddha into commercial items.  My students, most of whom are monks, are very upset by the photos displayed widely on the web of Buddhist temples and statues destroyed by fire in Bangladesh.  They seemed not so disturbed by news that Buddhists had burned homes and a mosque in Burma or that monks in Yangoon were demonstrating in favor of expelling Rohyinga Muslims from their country.  The killing of tens of thousands of Hindus in Sri Lanka during the civil war there is out of sight, out of mind, as is the blessing by Japanese Buddhists of suicide planes during World War Two.  Christianity has the medieval Inquisition to live down, not to mention the persecution of gays by Christian leaders in Africa who advocate the death penalty for homosexuality.  Intolerance has been the rule down through history.

The books of authors from Henry Miller and James Joyce to Salman Rushdie have been banned for saying what some believe should not be said, although none had to live in hiding for ten years like Rushdie when a sentence of death was issued by an Iranian cleric after the publication of his novel Satanic Verses.  Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was assassinated by a Muslim for criticizing treatment of women in Islam. Cartoons critical of Muhammad were printed in a Danish newspaper and violent demonstrations irrupted all over the world.  And most recently, a deliberately provocative film about the Prophet that never got farther than YouTube sparked hundreds of protests by Muslims which resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya. It's easy, from the perspective of the west, to believe that "sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me," a rhyme I chanted as a child when others were hateful.  If you're white, the word "nigger" can have no sting, nor are you bothered when the languages of minorities, native Americans and immigrants, are banished from public discourse.  Was the Russian group Pussy Riot insulting religion by singing and dancing in an orthodox church or were they just protesting what they thought was an unholy alliance between church and state?

I don't know what the limits of free speech might be, or if there should be any at all.  As a white man from America, I have rarely experienced any restraints on my ability to speak my mind, although I have often tried to be both polite and diplomatic where my views might cause distress in a listener.  Unlike my friends during the free 1960's, I have never felt that honesty and outspokenness should be absolute. I once asked an overweight woman when her baby was due and was shamed into watching my words more carefully.  Viewing the Edwardian reticence on display on "Downton Abbey" and the occasional challenges to social verities in the aftermath of World War One is instructive.  Now that I'm an oldtimer, my received values are challenged daily by several generations of young and even middle-aged people who utter "fuck" without a thought, even though it often continues to be spelled "f*ck" in print.

For me, the ultimate moral value is to avoid hurting others, in deeds and even in speech.  This makes criticism of Islamic absolutism difficult.  But if Muslims shared my prime value, then perhaps there would be less sensitivity and violence, and more tolerance.  At the moment, this does not seem likely.

Here is a 2009 documentary by Adam B. Ellick who profiled Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl whose school was shut down by the Taliban.  Ms. Yousafzai was short by a gunman on Tuesday.  Her outspokenness and courage made her a target for the Islamicist fanatics.