By Joe Loizzo, MD, PhD
I write this sickened by what has come to feel like a new normal: each week another outbreak of the epidemic of gut-wrenching violence that has been eating away at our body politic, increasingly in recent years. The latest blow: thirty one innocent people killed in El Paso and Dayton—including the people of color, women and Mexican nationals targeted—by two young white men infected with the violent ideologies of white nationalism and toxic masculinity. How can such tragedies happen here and now? How can families back-to-school shopping and couples on date nights be unsafe in twenty-first century America? While the voices of white blindness point the finger at mental illness or video games, mental health professionals, women, gender non-conforming individuals and people of color—for very different reasons—know better. This kind of violence is directed every minute every day at people with black or brown skin, couples of mixed race, all women, the LGBTQA+ community, refugees, immigrants and at those who practice non-Christian faiths such as Judaism, Islam and Hinduism.
Many of us—especially privileged white men like me—are late in waking up to this epidemic, some seeing it as simply a case of Trumpian nationalism gone viral. Others see it as a function of the uniquely American cult of gun violence that defies not just common sense and the most basic civil imperatives of public health and safety, but worse still, the will of the people. Of course, the political and economic corruption blocking gun reform have brought our social immunity to an all-time low, but the sad fact is that they are just symptoms of a far more insidious and prevalent ailment. Why are we as a nation more protective of guns than of lives? The more the sanity of our nation declines, the more I see the wisdom in the sobering diagnosis I heard forty years ago from the Dalai Lama’s former physician Dr. Yeshe Donden, “America is infected by a mix of all three poisons—delusion, greed and hate.”
As most school kids now know, our country was born of hopes and dreams tainted by three original sins—the genocide of indigenous peoples, the crushing systemic exploitation of slavery and the sanctioned sexual violence of patriarchy. Why do terrorist acts based on the hateful delusion that the lives of indigenous people, people of color and women don’t matter surprise us when that same delusion was foundational to our nation and remains so despite abolition, universal suffrage, the civil rights movement, and the ERA? Why does the outbreak of this toxic fever—spread by social media and fanned by Trump’s inflammatory hate speech—shock us when it’s only the relapse of a chronic disorder, embedded in the civil and psychic constitution of our nation? While many of us who feel allied with the struggles of the marginalized or whose ancestors arrived here long after the civil war may want to distance ourselves from our nation’s legacy of genocide, slavery, and patriarchy, all Americans who can pass as white benefit from the protections and privileges built into that identity, and knowingly or not are caught up in a system that still violently oppresses, deports, imprisons, and kills our vulnerable neighbors. In the long view, our recent shooters are simply the latest carriers of an ugly American disease with which we are all infected in different ways.
Of course, our nation didn’t invent racism, sexism, or the violence they drive. Ours is a local form of a global disorder, an especially virulent case of a universal human condition. While rarely conducted in the face of an ideology of equality as promising as America’s, racial and gender violence is symptomatic of the colonialism, imperialism, national and tribal warfare that have been endemic to all human history. But if such bias and violence are so insidious and pervasive, they must somehow be rooted in our collective karma or innate human limits; and if that is so, what hope do we have of ending them once and for all?
However allied we think we are as individuals with those who are and have been most oppressed, we must recognize whatever privilege our position in that matrix has offered us and use that to center the suffering of those who have been targets of the worst, most systemic, and most inhuman violence and oppression.
From a Buddhist point of view, although rigid identities and the biases they maintain lie alongside our destructive instincts at the root of all the individual and social ills of humanity, each and every one of us also has the innate potential to break free of them individually and collectively. The rub is, given our default survival bias, that higher potential is not realized without conscious intention, experiential learning and persistent effort. It will take a global culture and community of non-violence, an ethos of unconditional inclusiveness, and a practice of radical compassion to guide and sustain our personal and communal liberation.
Instead of this, most human societies for most of history have chosen to reinforce our archaic us-vs-them instincts with ideologies and institutions that fabricate social cohesion by dividing an in-group that deserves kindness from an out-group that deserves violence. This strategy has served to rationalize the racial and religious violence behind colonial and imperial powers, as well as the repressive political, economic and social structures built into such powerful societies to support their organized violence—structures like American slavery, genocide, and patriarchy. According to Buddhist social theory, based on Shakyamuni’s critique of the Indian caste system and its organized oppression, such violent cultures are ethically impoverished and psychically underdeveloped. Rejecting the orthodox claim that soul (atman) and duty (dharma) were fixed by one’s location within a divinely ordained system of race (varna) and class (jati), the Buddha taught that all human and non-human beings are equal (sama), free of any given identity (anatma), and free to form counter cultural communities (bhiksu-sangha) that empower us to seek personal and social liberation (moksha). In Buddha’s progressive vision of history, as rival cultures of conquest vie to dominate the earth, a universal, inclusive culture of non-violent contemplative science and civilization must spread to all people the world over.
As people of all races, religions, gender orientations, nations, and communities become increasingly interconnected, we are now at the global tipping point the Buddha and humanity’s other great sages foresaw. Given how interdependent all humans and all life on this planet are, we can no longer concoct a false sense of communal identity by clinging to invented in-group/out-group constructs that pit “us” against “them,” much less employ those violent constructs to rationalize and reinforce our fear-based biases and reptilian survival instincts.
Given where we are as a nation and as a planet, it is becoming increasingly clear that humanity can no longer afford or even tolerate such violent delusions, much less the repressive lifestyles and social systems they rationalize. The resurgence of white nationalism and toxic masculinity evident in the rise of hate speech and hate crimes we face now around the world is both tragically brutal and historically inevitable. It reflects the violent death-throes not just of such archaic ideologies of violence, but of a whole system of unconscious biases and destructive instincts that drive violent oppression and cannot simply be reasoned, elected, invented or consumed away.
Our resistance must begin with seeing the struggle for what it is—not just personal, racial, sexual, political, economic or even spiritual—but a fundamental human challenge. We need to confront and resist the hate and harm as it manifests in the world around us. Yet the nature of our work is not just an individual matter but critically depends on our collective location within the social system. Those of us who inherit the privileges of “whiteness” or “maleness” must own those privileges and use them to wake up to the oppressive system we are heir to. We must call out whitewashing and gaslighting claims to “color-blindness,” “gender-blindness,” “racial equality” and “gender equality,” de-center our own personal wounds and traumas and center the incalculably greater personal and collective harms done to people of color, indigenous and LGBTQ communities, non-mainstream religious communities and to women. We must hear and learn from our marginalized sisters and brothers, and humbly ask for guidance about how we can stop harming and begin helping them in their struggle for safety, healing, dignity and empowerment. We can only celebrate our common humanity when we can first own and undo the collective karma of systemic oppression we inherit simply by passing for “white” or “male” in American society. Only when we are able to help our targeted brothers and sisters resist the fever not just in others but in ourselves as well will we be able to call out the bias and violence within and around us with awakened presence and radical compassion.
We must take inspiration from the leaders of liberation movements throughout history—from Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Christ and Mohammed to Simone de Bouvoir, Gandhi, Mandela, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Bell Hooks, and James Baldwin. As contemplatives, we must be guided by our indigenous, black, brown, queer and feminist sisters and brothers—like Jasmine Sayedulah, Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, Ruth King and John Powell—who urge us to cultivate what Shakyamuni called the arts of solidarity: equality, inclusivity, teaching compassion, and embodying compassion. Last but not least, as we develop ourselves as agents of change, we must co-create communities, movements and institutions that promote the transformation of human science, culture, technology and civilization towards non-violent, radically inclusive, universally liberating and sustainable paths—paths all of our children and the planet we share can live with going forward.
To give way to resignation, resentment, and cynical delusions that what ails us is too congenital or advanced to heal—however natural—is to blind ourselves to the light our ancient sages and living heroes have shown us again and again: the example of unconditional, unwavering faith in the innate basic goodness, openness, and altruism of the human nature we all share. If we need an end to the madness, we must get to its root. That root runs deep in each one of us and it also connects us all in a cultural and natural pandemic of us-them bias and self-protective overkill. We must stay ever-mindful and aware that we are not all in the same position within our sociocultural matrix of violent ideology and systemic oppression. However allied we think we are as individuals with those who are and have been most oppressed, we must recognize whatever privilege our position in that matrix has offered us and use that to center the suffering of those who have been targets of the worst, most systemic, and most inhuman violence and oppression. So to get to the other side of our collective illness, to tap into the field of awakened community that is our birthright as the most social of animals, we must combine the inner medicine of contemplative self-transformation with the outer medicine of compassionate world-transformation. We must pray for the courage to go deep within our selves and deep with others, trusting that our mentors and our neighbors and children are there for us, on the healing side of our lives, waiting for us all to wake up together, and put our fever out.