On Kant, Contempt, and our Buddhist path(s) forward

Karen Stohr, associate professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and senior research scholar at Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics, wrote a thoughtful piece for the NYTimes this week titled, “Our New Age of Contempt.” Her article concludes:

Privately expressed contempt may be cathartic. Publicly expressed contempt, however, is perilous. As Kant recognized, it threatens the foundations of our political community by denying the central moral idea on which that community is based — that everyone has a right to basic respect as a human being. Contemptuous political discourse, with its pernicious effects on mutual respect, should never have become mainstream. For the good of our country, we must make every effort to push it back into the shadows where it belongs. Let us hope that our new president will cooperate.

As I wrote recently, Buddhists have just as much a place in the social discourse going on in America today as anyone else, and just as much responsibility to avoid such contempt. As I live mostly among “the left” I speak mostly to friends on that end of the political spectrum. But contempt and its corrosive effects are all too well known on the right – so allies or friends there would do just as well to think about, call out, and eliminate such contempt when they see it.

In fact, as Stohr points out, contempt is most odious when it comes from a place of power, as with Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” statement or countless cases from Trump against people with disabilities, women, Mexicans, Muslims, and more. As such, it is all the more important for those in power to be repudiated in each instance of contempt.

In his essay, “Freedom and Resentment,” P.F. Strawson described it as the difference between a participant attitude and an objective attitude. When we view others with a participant attitude, we regard them as fellow moral agents, accountable for what they say and do. When we view them with an objective attitude, we see them not as agents, but as objects to be managed or perhaps obstacles to be overcome. Contempt functions by shifting the targeted person from a participant relationship to an objective relationship. It aims to alter someone’s status by diminishing their agency. This is how contempt accomplishes its dehumanizing work — by marking its target as unworthy of engagement and thus not a full member of the human community.

Contempt is also easy in times like these, especially in the online world. But it goes against the ideals of morality, for both Kant and Buddhism. For morality demands that we engage the human as human, deeply flawed as they might be (and acknowledging our own flaws and inconsistencies along the way). Again this is not necessarily easy, and I write this in full knowledge of my cis white male privilege.

The goal of restoring humanity is not a shift to the political right or ‘letting them off the hook’ (them being Trump voters). The goal is to see the complexity of such people (again, like us), and welcome them when they do speak out against Trump’s (or other) cases of contempt. The goal is to build a larger community, not a smaller one.

One hero in this effort worth noting is my friend Qasim Rashid, a lawyer and spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA. His editorial in TIME today echoes some of my recent sentiments finding gratitude in the midst of current politics. While not condoning Trump’s actions, we both find the silver lining. Qasim writes:

I must give credit where due and thank President Trump because inadvertently, he has chosen to lead the way and become what Muslims call a “Daee ilallah,” or a “Caller unto Allah.” Ever since word of his proposed Muslim ban spread, I’ve received thousands—yes thousands—of emails, messages, and tweets from Americans asking how they can support Americans who are Muslim.

And yes, many of the emails we get are from people who voted for Mr. Trump — they’re just as horrified by the rhetoric as those who voted for Secretary Clinton. The proposed ban on Muslims is not a political game. The overwhelming majority of Americans despise such hate…

So far Trump has also been a tremendous Caller unto Women’s Rights, a Caller unto Science, a Caller unto AntiCorruption. Terrible as all of this is, Trump is calling us all out to work, to form community, to listen. More than anything we need to listen to those targeted by those in power: the women, scientists and other federal workers, Muslims, Mexicans, and so on.

A success of the Women’s March is already in our hands: the knowledge that we can do it and that no one of these groups is alone. We will not be divided.

As I wrote three weeks ago:

And we can look into the eyes of everyone else and know that there is suffering going on under the surface. None is free but the awakened.

My own practice has taken me to this. To seeing each person as a holy being, perhaps awakened but likely not. Each one though is a participant in this path forward.

I will become more active in my local Unitarian Universalist fellowship. And I will become more available as a teacher at Mindful Montana and I will see what comes from that. And I will continue to meet with the local Ministerial Association, populated mostly by mainstream (conservative) church leaders, knowing (and experiencing for myself) that they are kind and caring members of my community.

I have no doubt that we have a war ahead of us. Much of that will be internal. Much more (for me at least) will be out on the streets with friends and strangers fighting for the rights of the weak and oppressed among us.

Let us be glad for where we are. Let us vow to make things better.

Since then I have participated in the Women’s March and found myself on the Board of Trustees for local Unitarian Universalist fellowship. Oh, and I completed (hopefully final) revisions on my PhD thesis. Onward and upward.

Buddhist solidarity with women. Buddhist solidarity with Muslims. Who’s next?

P.S. I just signed on as a #MuslimAlly at http://www.trueislam.com/. Join me.

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