This weekend, Salon ran a piece called “The dangerous American myth of corporate spirituality.”
The piece, written by Shawn Van Valkenburgh, is a take on corporate America’s co-option of Eastern spirituality. Using Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella’s suggestion that female tech employees should “trust ‘faith’ and ‘karma’ to reward them appropriately” for their hard work, Van Valkenburgh launches into a critique of what he calls “spiritual meritocracy.”
The implicit idea here is that our professional and financial growth depends on our spiritual merit, not on the presence or absence of social structures and biases. We are told that if we are grateful enough, if we put enough happy energy into the universe, then we will be rewarded with material wealth and earthly pleasures…. We are told that we actually can have it all: a rich spiritual life, leading to a rich material life.
Of course, this is just the new-agey equivalent of the same old meritocracy myth that’s been floating around America since at least the 19th century…
Van Valkenburgh does not go so far as to say that we should write off all of Western Buddhism. Instead, he considers this a cautionary tale against about the risks of co-option:
Every religion can get appropriated by the West’s consumerist ideology, and Buddhism is no exception. When we cultivate gratitude for our material wealth and ignore compassion for those less fortunate, comments like those of Nadella are a natural consequence.
In traditional forms of Buddhism, there are bits and pieces of teachings on karma that capitalism loves to pick up on. Our society emphasizes an interpretation of Eastern spirituality that does not threaten its own internal logic. It’s true, for example, that the Buddha taught that money was a blessing, and that one effect of an ethical way of life would be material prosperity. But it is hard for me to believe the Buddha would say that wealth inequality is solely the result of karmic patterns, and that we should ignore its hidden histories of slavery, colonialism and patriarchy.
From here on, Van Valkenburgh’s piece gets a bit muddled. He argues that the solution to this problem lies in a deeper spirituality, and that more compassion is what is needed to combat climate change denialism, the prison industrial complex, and the gender pay gap.
While the concept of “spiritual meritocracy” is fascinating, that’s not what this issue is about.
Buddhism has little to do with Nadella’s statement. Although it is true that he used the word “karma,” that term has taken on a life of its own in the Western world. Its mere presence in a sentence does not prove much. So let’s look at the context in which the word was used (from Politico):
“It’s not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith the system would actually give you the right raises as you go along. And that I think that might be one of the additional superpowers that, quite frankly, women who don’t ask for a raise have. Because that’s good karma, it will come back.”
As Annalisa Merelli notes in Quartz, this is a pretty stereotypically Western use of the word “karma”:
Out of its religious connotation, the concept of karma came to represent life as a cycle where ethical actions are to be rewarded—and unethical ones punished. Or in the words of Justin Timberlake, “what goes around, comes around.”
Add the fact that we don’t have any reason to believe that Nadella is a Buddhist, and that the sentence before the one Van Valkenburgh analyzed to death talks about women who don’t ask for raises as having “additional superpowers.” I think we can be safe in saying that Van Valkenburgh’s seizing of the opportunity to talk about spiritual meritocracy feels contrived.
This would be fine, except that it distracts us from the real issue: Microsoft’s CEO seems to believe that women who keep their heads down and work hard get the raises they deserve, and this sentiment is no less disturbing. As far as I can tell, the takeaway from this interpretation is either that these women are not working hard enough (if they were, they would have gotten their raises already), or that they are kept from raises and promotions because of attitude problems.
Now, I happen to agree with the author that “spiritual meritocracy” is a real thing, and that it is a problem. But this is a pretty straightforward case of sexism. Co-opting it for one’s pet cause (which, ironically, happens to be co-option), really doesn’t help.