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The State We Are In

The Role of Civil Disobedience

Civil Disobedience

In the tempestuous climate of personal attack politics, xenophobia, and the global resurgence of tribalism under the moniker of “nationalism,” civility has been maligned in books and articles, social media, and so forth.  Seen only within the context of the first level of compassion, “pacifying or peaceful,” to those who overtly protest or act in indignant response to the forces which seem oblivious or non-responsive to sickness, poverty, and warfare, civility is seen as a form of social control; a way of keeping the masses in line, compliant. 

That civility can be expanded to include the expressions I have thus described is, therefore, unthinkable, revolutionary – not really in keeping with the way in which the conventional mind wishes to keep civility in the “ play nice” box.  In a recent Facebook tet-a-tet, I was called to defend my expanded view of civility and its place in social and cultural change and transformation.  For civility to be only defined as an affect, a benign response clearly does not do the term justice or reveal the power it has when applying the Five Steps of Wise Action and a more appropriate, dynamic form of compassionate speech or action.  This brings us to the topic of civil disobedience.

Civil Disobedience falls under the last category of compassion – wrathful.  To explain this more fully, let us break this phrase down, first.

Obedience involves the following of rules, laws, someone, or something because they are expected to be followed, by those creating the rules, the laws, the pecking order or such, sometimes by those who think they should or feel compelled to do so, or both. 

In this respect, there are three levels of obedience.  First and the form where there is the greatest power disparity is that of submission; where following the rule, the law, the ideology, the lord of the manner is not only expected, but there are proscribed consequences for not doing so.  Then there is an obedience where the rational or justification for following such or being under the banner of an ideology, or leader is that one sees merit or something of value in obedience to such.  In this there is a subtle line between and sometimes a combination of submission with a willful abdication of personal responsibility.  Although this may create social harmony and a general sense of pacifying-type civility, whenever there is a power differential or a deference based on social or cultural norms, things do change.  Furthermore, rarely do those whose power or mandates, which have been legitimated by fitting the times, give up their advantage when change is needed for the general good.  Thus abdication of personal responsibility can slide into unwilling submission.  Finally, there is obedience that comes from a mutual, “on the level” understanding.  Thus, like the paramita or perfection of discipline, there is actual joy and benefit that comes from adherence to such.

 If the time and circumstance we find ourselves in is no longer one of mutual benefit, where obedience becomes coerced or demanding of submission, then the civil approach that which speaks to our basic goodness, must lead us to distance ourselves from such adherence.  As stated previously in different ways, civility is dependent upon being on the level, where there is mutuality – or at least respect  – even when there is a social, cultural, or spiritual disparity to which people subscribe.

What is the consequence when your position is “I regret to inform you that…” when you do not comply with the norms or legitimated laws, edicts, or rulers of which or to whom you have been – up to this point – obedient?  Consider Nelson Mandala; imprisoned. An Sang Suchi – imprisoned.  Martin Luther King -assassinated.  Mohandas Gandhi – assassinated.  In the disparity of power, denial or disregard of the civil rights or benefits that create for a more just society, it becomes inevitable that those challenging to these structures or rules become vilified, become seen as dissidents, malcontents, even terrorists, regardless of whether their actions and words are peaceful or confrontational.  Then again, when coercion and force are used to suppress these malcontents, at what point can we say that reciprocal force is not unwarranted?  In this, I am reminded of the words of the late Tibetan Buddhist Master, the Thirteenth Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche, who spoke of the necessity to sometimes wage what he called a “white war.” (Footnote 2)

Does this mean, therefore, that if the underdog or the righteous side of a “white war” proves victorious over the short or long term, that there will not be consequences? After all, we see that in the working of relative reality situations, there is always a variation of hell to pay.  The champions we have highlighted above were eloquent, charismatic, and demonstrative of propriety in a straightforward way.  Their actions and words did catalyze or at least contributed to significant cultural and societal change.  But other than their own trials and tribulations, there were many in their ranks that likewise suffered similar fates.  And the results sought remain works in progress.  Consider “Black lives matter,” the “Me Too” movement, the time it takes to root out greed, corruption, and power mongering.  That is why, for the changes sought to become more real and lasting, there needs to be an awareness of those qualities or traits that can undermine, slow down, even subvert the course of basic goodness envisioned in the world; greed, self-righteousness, revenge, and so forth.

In the case of America, we know that George Washington was an ardent believer in and aspiring practitioner of civility.  And, yet, he was also a soldier, a general, and eventually the President of a country he supported in disobedience to what he and other defined as a tyrannical regime. As we reference President George Washington, with all the flaws, omissions, and unintended consequences of the American Revolution, and acknowledging that the very formation of this country had its own bloody history of conquest and slavery, many contend as do I that there was a genuine attempt to envision a different future.  The men and women, the Founding Mothers and Fathers of America, were striving for a “more perfect union.”  Otherwise, the provisions of the First and Second Amendments of the American Constitution would not have been the first and second principles upon which to form the United States; a nation that to this day is still aspiring to be a true democracy.

Amendment ONE: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and

to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

This Amendment embodies a civil way of engaging in promoting truth and seeking to express grievances to elicit dialogue and change.  And, our first three forms of compassion, Peaceful, Enrichment, and Magnetizing are the methodologies that can help in the processes of maintaining civility in the change process.  It is important to note that Enriching Compassion, dependent on education was a major feature of what the formers of America felt to be needed for “true” democracy to prevail and be sustainable.  Thus we see Washington being a champion for primary school education and a general agreement that there needs to be an availability of classical education in order to build an informed, civil electorate.

     Amendment TWO: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

This Amendment is more in line with the final form of compassion – wrathful.

Thomas Jefferson once commented that any country that wished to promote freedom and democracy needed to have a periodic revolution in order to avoid the resurgence and the inevitable slide back into tyranny.  For civil society to be maintained, there need to be watchdogs, the soldiers of wrathful compassion, to ensure that the principles and practices “of the people, for the people, and by the people,” be safeguarded.  Hence, a separation between church and state and the independent functioning of branches of government are fundamental.  But, just in case those of legitimated authority or in ruling positions in representative government get too full of themselves, there are always the people – and their guns. 

This aforementioned option is a last and regrettable resort.  For civil disobedience in both normal or extraordinary forms (i.e. revolutions) to be carried out in the most civil way possible, due diligence should be made to temper the heat of rising passions by employing the Five Steps of Wise Action, the civility as exemplified in the first three forms of compassion, and then step forward into this wrathful expression with a clarity of mind and heart that especially guards itself against self-righteousness.  For this latter expression, self-righteousness is the poison that makes one anesthetized to vengeful actions, which, inevitably, spawn the most heinous reactions.  In the chapter on “Mind Training” there will be a further explication on this point.

*  *  *

     There are many aspects of wisdom and levels of compassion, so civility demonstrates itself effectively in different guises, all rooted in the same basic goodness, all intended from the same altruistic outlook.  A “one size fits all” civility cannot meet the challenges of all the different ways in which people act as individuals or groups when the Three Poisons fuel reactivity and division.  The goal of this chapter has been to point to action steps and approaches that will make civility dynamic and effective.  Civility thus demonstrates itself as an essential rather than merely affective tool for change.

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Civility in Hunkertown #5

Constructive Criticism in Close Quarters

Being with and seeing the same people day in and day out may, at times lead to a difference of opinion. No doubt. Rather obvious. So, how do you work through thorny issues, etc.? In The Path of Civility, I share a perspective from the Buddha’s Pali Canon presented by Bhikku Bodhi.

“What may be considered the most challenging form of speech to render civil is what Bhikkhu Bodhi touches upon last in his section devoted to proper speech.  The issue is the reproaching of another.  In the Anguttara Nikaya, rather than the Buddha himself speaking, the words uttered come from one of his disciples, the Venerable Sariputra.  Although Sariputra is addressing monks, the same five points regarding the admonishing of another apply as the most civil way to do so in any circumstance.

“(1) He should consider: ‘I will speak at a proper time, not at an improper time; (2) I will speak truthfully, not falsely; (3) I will speak gently, not harshly; (4) I will speak in a beneficial way, not in a harmful way; (5) I will speak with a mind of loving kindness, not while harboring hatred.’” (Footnote 6)

But what if one is at the receiving end of being reproached?  Here, the Buddha says that regardless of how that reproach is delivered, listen to it with no malice and assess the truth of what is being said on the merit of the facts.  If you find what is said to be true, take heed and work to overcome what is unskillful in your own speech and action.  If you act accordingly, more than likely the fact that you heeded the reproach will, in the future, make the one who did so unto you, an ally.”

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Civility in Hunkertown #4

Civility May Shock, but is NEVER Shocking

We are use to and even somewhat numb to the ongoing sensationalism that seems to be the manner in which news and news commentary tries to get our attention. “If it bleeds, it leads” is a sad slogan in the news industry. To shock or attempt to shock does not engender civility. A person or group intent on such means seeks to disadvantage others.

In this light, consider Washington’s 3rd rule…

  1. “Show Nothing to your Friend that might affright him.”

Commentary: Fright or shock of this nature has its place in the spectrum of communication.  “Shock value” can have its place in marketing or stopping a transaction, or moving it in a new direction.  But, it has no place in civility, especially with those who you are either friends or want to cultivate as such.  Whereas civility is a process of smoothing a continuum of communication, shock or fright is disruptive and will, in fact, create greater uncertainty in the transactions that may follow. 

We must be cautious and guard ourselves against those who would use such means to keep us off balance and dis-empowered.

Conversely, how shocking it may be to us when someone approaches and communicates with us in an on-the-level, compassionate manner.

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Civility in Hunkertown #3

Thoughts that Revolutionize the Mind and Engender Civility

The Buddhist teacher, Atisha, created slogans for training the mind so that people can wake up to their true potential, as well as be a source of inspiration and compassion to others.  Without these basic thoughts in place, civility is more stilted, if not a bit better than lip service. (Quotes of the actual slogans, thanks to the Nalanda Translation Committee)

Four Thoughts that Revolutionize the Mind.”

These four thoughts are classified together as the first slogan and are…

  1. Maintain an awareness of the preciousness of human life.” 

COMMENTARY: How much do you appreciate your own life?  If you cannot engage the world with this appreciation, then civility is hard to embody and if feigned, will be shallow at best.

2. “Be aware of the reality that life ends; death comes for everyone; Impermanence. “ 

COMMENTARY: Without a notion of impermanence, it is impossible to relax or let go.  Thus, desperation and insistence become more fanatical.  And, life becomes humorless.  Civility is then tainted with desperation or resignation.

3. “Recall that whatever you do, whether virtuous or not, has a result; Karma.”  COMMENTARY: In keeping with the Biblical, “What you sew, so shall you reap;” that how you engage a person or a situation will eventually come back to you in some reciprocal way.  Therefore, the adage of civility in this light is “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”  And, if you don’t then remember, “what goes around comes around.”

4. “Contemplate that as long as you are too focused on self-importance and too caught up in thinking about how you are good or bad, you will experience suffering. Obsessing about getting what you want and avoiding what you don’t want does not result in happiness; Ego.”

COMMENTARY: Without an altruistic spirit, civility is not possible.  Self-importance or only looking out for your own advantage or success will bankrupt the situation.

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Civility in Hunketown # 2

Insiders and Outsiders – What Washington learned…

President Washington’s “Rules of Civility” were what the young Washington copied from a book, entitled, Youth’s Behavior, Or, Decencie in Conversation Among Men, by Francis Hawkins, published in 1668.  The original material for Hawkins’ book came from a 1595 French Jesuit text, entitled   “Bienseance de la conversation entre les homes.”  Apropos for clergy and laymen, no doubt, as those who were literate at this time were of an upper class within society, this work was intended for young men of privilege.  Thus, in civil society, it would have been presented to them by their parents, mentors, or teachers with the sole intent of helping their young men become pleasing, to advance, and be respected and influential.  The chapter that grabbed young George’s attention was “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.”  The manuscript of rules that he copied down was simply entitled, “The Rules of Civility,” with his original being preserved at the Library of Congress.

  1. “Every Action done in Company ought to be with Some Sign of Respect to those that are Present.”

Commentary: To accomplish such action requires that you know yourself and know the company you are in.  If you practice some form of mindfulness discipline, then, being in a higher level of integrity within yourself, not only will that present an aire that is pleasing, but you will naturally be more attentive to the responses of those around you. At the same time, if the social or political dimensions of the encounter require a higher level of decorum and/or sensitivity to social or cultural nuances of those present, then it is good to have knowledge of these aspects and/or be informed accordingly.

      In general, try not to let people feel left out, even if you are not talking to them specifically.  We all know what it feels like when there is an insider feeling and we are on the outside.

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Civility in Hunkertown

Civility in Hunkertown: Staying Civil and Sane in Close Quarters

I do not know when the term, “to hunker down” began.  It has a reasonable etymological background.  “Hunker” is close to the German and Dutch for to squat or crouch.  But with “down” it is about staying in one place for a duration of time.  In the Cambridge dictionary, it also says that this “hunkering down” should be done “comfortably.”

But, we are not in a “comfortable” time.  Although life is, as the Buddhist saying explains, “fragile as a bubble,” we tend to want to live our lives with some sense of permanence, despite what the reality is.  But in the reality of COVID 19 and the massive shutdown of commerce, hence our livelihoods, the precariousness of it all is looking at us up close and personally.

Within just a few weeks more of us are living in the way our ancestors did – in nuclear or extended families or cadres, with the exception of – sadly – many of our elders.  Beyond our elders, there are some who live in isolation – like hermits.  But, the majority are now in their own homes or apartments, “hunkered down.”  Not going to work or working from home, doing school online, sharing the bathroom, the kitchen, the living spaces with greater frequency and duration than any time in their lives.  And many of our distractions and forms of entertainment are out of reach – and shutdown as well.

Our domiciles are now the main walls or boundaries in which we live.  And so, I would like to suggest that the space be given a proper name: Hunkertown.

This reality, living in Hunkertown, is just settling in and we may continue to live in such close quarters for a time far beyond what is comfortable.

Getting use to each other, communicating in person rather than virtually require the resurrection of old skills or the building of new ones.  If this is to be done for the greatest peace and cooperation, we need to develop skills to stay sane within ourselves and civil to each other.

In my book, The Path of Civility, I look at the teachings of the Buddha as they pertain to communication and communal and community living and the lessons employed by American President George Washington, who used a book written in the 1600s that focused on “The Rules of Civility.”

The purpose of these messages will be to use the quotes of the Buddha or the rules by which Washington lived and offer my commentary for these times in order to make your lives and the lives of those around you more harmonious and fulfilling.  Civility is not about playing nice.  It is about helping people to work and interact with others to support healthy, productive relationships and collective action.

That will be my job.  So, I’ll keep you posted often.  You’re in the loop.