By Tim Hjersted
Jan 10, 2017
One "piece of the oppressor" that I have found in myself during my inner activist journeys is my use of shame as a method of engaging with the world's problems. Having learned that "shame" is a tool that has been used by the world's oppressors for so long, I strive not to use it whenever my best self has the resources not to go that route.
Once this became my goal, it became clear how hard it is not to use it and how frequently it is used by everyone in our culture. It's been a couple years since I really took this lesson to heart and I still catch myself doing it often enough. It's easy to do when encountering really toxic comments on the internet, or when discussing those "really bad" people, whether they are in positions of power, or are merely influenced by them.
With people so desensitized by the violence and meanness of our culture, shame sometimes feels like the only way to engage people who seem so indifferent to how they are harming others with their speech or actions. In those cases, when love nor reason nor civility seems like it would do any good, shame feels like a last-ditch effort to throw at a lost cause. It's also easy when everyone else is doing it and we probably have plenty of friends that give us positive feedback for it.
Shame-based activism has grown rapidly with the rise of internet activism - and we can see a great deal of the activist energy expended today involves the use of shame as a tool of persuasion or short-term justice.
But to me, more and more, it feels like a trap. It feels like a self-destructive habit that is strengthening the internalized oppression within ourselves and our culture, and is leading us farther away from personal and collective liberation, not closer to it.
Being a radical to me means going to the root of our deepest problems and solving for the roots. It means looking at the matrix of oppressions in our culture like an onion and always striving to understand and see deeper and deeper layers of that oppression both within and without.
Everyone that strives to be a radical has different views about what that means, and I'm not here to tell folks they're wrong. I can only speak to what being a radical means to me, and for me, being radical means striving for radical understanding - how oppression is inherited and passed on, within ourselves and within everyone to various degrees. Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Thich Nhat Hanh are 3 people among many others who have helped to teach me that.
Because from a radical understanding of people and situations, radical compassion is born. And I believe it is radical compassion - not shame - that has the power to transform and liberate society without perpetuating the old and invisible forms of oppression we've inherited. Internalized oppression is real. If we were born into this world, then we've all got it to some degree.
Shame-based consciousness, directed both within and without is something I am working to root out of my subconscious. One of the first instincts of someone new to this framework is to shame or blame the folks that use shame and blame. Or perhaps to direct such criticisms inwards. But shame, anger and blame exist where understanding is absent. Let me offer an example, excerpted from this interview with Thich Nhat Hanh:
Martin Doblmeier: But over the years of war you were witness to so much suffering and tragedy. How could you not be overcome with anger?
Thich Nhat Hanh: If you are filled with anger, you create more suffering for yourself than for the other person. When you are inhabited by the energy of anger, you want to punish, you want to destroy. That is why those who are wise do not want to say anything or do anything while the anger is still in them. So you try to bring peace into yourself first. When you are calm, when you are lucid, you will see that the other person is a victim of confusion, of hate, of violence transmitted by society, by parents, by friends, by the environment. When you are able to see that, your anger is no longer there.
Doblmeier: When that anger begins to subside and your thinking becomes clear, is the foundation in place for forgiveness to begin?
Nhat Hanh: Forgiveness will not be possible until compassion is born in our heart. Even if you want to forgive, you cannot forgive. In order to be compassionate, you have to understand why the other person has done that to you and your people. You have to see that they are victims of their own confusion, their own worldview, their own grieving, their own discrimination, their own lack of understanding and compassion.
Doblmeier: In a practical way how can we enliven that understanding and compassion within our own communities and families?
Nhat Hanh: Suppose you are angry at your father. Many people are angry at their father, and yet if they don’t do anything to change it when they grow up, they will repeat exactly what their father did to them. They will do that to their own children. That is why we have a wonderful exercise of meditation that has helped so many angry sons and daughters who come to Plum Village:
Breathing in, I see myself as a 5-year-old child. Breathing out, I hold that 5-year-old child in me with tenderness. Breathing in, I see the 5-year-old child in me as fragile, vulnerable, easily wounded. Breathing out I feel the wound of that little child in me and use the energy of compassion to hold tenderly the wound of that child.
But then you continue—breathing in, I see my father as a 5-year-old boy. Breathing out, I smile to my father as a 5-year-old boy. Breathing in, I see how as a 5-year-old child my father was fragile, vulnerable. Breathing out, I feel compassion for my father as a 5-year-old boy.
When you are capable of visualizing your father as a 5-year-old boy, fragile, tender, full of wounds, you begin to understand and feel compassion. When the son is capable of practicing understanding and compassion, he no longer suffers and the father in him is also transformed. That moment, compassion is born in your heart. Now it is possible to forgive."
Doblmeier: Patience is something you have learned in your own life. You endured 40 years in exile for the chance to return to your home in Vietnam, and finally the moment came in 2005. I saw pictures of the throngs who greeted you at the airport, and in your eyes I could see you embrace the moment.
Nhat Hanh: The government has done many wrong things—a lot of injustice. When they allow you to go home, that does not mean they have understood you or that they look at you now as a friend. But they do it politically because they are gaining something by allowing a person like you to come home. And you know that. But you go home with the intention to help, with the intention to help not only innocent people, victims of violence, of injustice, but you have the intention to help those who have done injustice to other people. You don’t carry any anger and you are capable of looking at them all as friends and friends-to-be.
Doblmeier: But not everyone there was interested in being your friend?
Nhat Hanh: In the hotel there were secret police watching us at all times. We encountered a lot of difficulties, but we always remained calm. The secret police found out we were true practitioners. At first we were only allowed to speak in temples, but after a time we were able to change their attitudes and they allowed us to hold public talks. We were able to address hundreds of Communist Party members and government officials. It was the first time these Communist officers were exposed to the teaching of the Buddha, the teaching of loving-kindness and compassion. So not only did we help the people who wanted us to help, but we helped the people who didn’t want us to help.
With understanding, it is possible to see that the person who has spouted such hateful or hurtful comments is a victim of their own hate, discrimination, and delusion which was transmitted to them by their cultural environment, and their suffering is spilling over onto others.
People in this culture are poisoned by the seeds of anger, hate and discrimination at a very young age. All sorts of violence is directed at every young person that grows up in this world. Such violence is verbal, emotional, physical, and spiritual. This sort of violence kills off the empathy part of a person's brain, justifies that lack of empathy and makes it easy to want to hurt others.
When we can see this clearly in others, we then might start to notice that the quality of discrimination we see in others, the lack of empathy, is something that is also within ourselves.
We get mad first at those who show so little empathy for the whole of humanity, who discriminate based on nationality, race, gender, politics or religion. Then we see the lack of empathy in ourselves. We see agents of oppression without seeing how they are merely products of an oppressive culture - how it was by chance that they were born into the situation they were born into, while we were born into another circumstance.
I can tell you - it is only by chance and luck that I was born into the environment I grew up in, which has led me to write these words today.
I could have just as easily been born into a family with many delusions, many prejudices, and a very toxic and anemic definition of love. Just as easily, I could have been born into a family that led me to become one of the people spouting racist or sexist rhetoric on the internet.
Many radicals have a well-known love for hating cops and politicians, racists and misogynists. Such hatred is understandable, but it is not very radical to me any longer, because the uncomfortable truth is - those people could have been me.
I could have been born into a situation where I wanted to become a cop or join the military. I could have been born into a family and situation where killing people feels righteous - either with a home-made bomb or bombs deployed by the state with buttons. I could have been born into a situation where buying a gun and shooting or robbing someone just as poor as me makes sense. I could have been born into a situation where becoming a cop and shooting unarmed people in the streets makes sense. I could have been born into a situation where becoming the president of a major corporation and making money while poisoning the water and air and killing people from cancer far downstream just seems like a matter of doing business.
It was by pure chance and good luck that I was not born into any of those situations. But most of us are not born into the extremes; we're born somewhere in the middle of this toxic culture.
Because we are born in the middle of these extremes, it is very easy to shame and blame those on the extremes for their individual deficiencies, rather than the systems and environments that created them. Likewise, we may credit our "inherent" goodness for our own better behavior rather than the better environments that created us. But this is a mistake - our own form of respectable prejudice - that I am learning to un-see.
I can't credit myself, naturally, for this insight. Let me share with you the story that affected me so deeply.
Again, from Thich Nhat Hanh:
In Plum Village, where I live in France, we receive many letters from the refugee camps in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, hundreds each week. It is very painful to read them, but we have to do it, we have to be in contact. We try our best to help, but the suffering is enormous, and sometimes we are discouraged. It is said that half the boat people die in the ocean. Only half arrive at the shores in Southeast Asia, and even then they may not be safe.
There are many young girls, boat people, who are raped by sea pirates. Even though the United Nations and many countries try to help the government of Thailand prevent that kind of piracy, sea pirates continue to inflict much suffering on the refugees. One day we received a letter telling us about a young girl on a small boat who was raped by a Thai pirate. She was only twelve, and she jumped into the ocean and drowned herself.
When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that. In my meditation I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, I am now the pirate. There is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I cannot condemn myself so easily.
In my meditation, I saw that many babies are born along the Gulf of Siam, hundreds every day, and if we educators, social workers, politicians, and others do not do something about the situation, in 25 years a number of them will become sea pirates. That is certain. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we might become sea pirates in 25 years. If you take a gun and shoot the pirate, you shoot all of us, because all of us are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs.
I often think about this story when I think about the kind of activism I would like to bring into this world. I want to help build a world that no longer produces sea pirates, or murderers, or war profiteers, or criminal cops, or abusive partners, or damaged human beings of any kind.
While addressing the sea pirates that already exist in our world is an enormous challenge, there is also so much to be done to ensure that no more sea pirates are created.
How can we do this? This can start in many ways.
First, it starts with myself - to see all the inherited forms of suffering and discrimination in my own self, and strive to not pass on that suffering to my children, my friends, those around me, and the rest of society. Whatever forms of prejudice I learned from my culture - all that ends with me. I will not pass it on. That is my personal vow, and the ideal that I want to put into practice and re-affirm when I fall short.
On a broader level, we can do this through our projects, our activist organizations, and our educational efforts at the local level. But the big solution that I always come back to is political - it involves how are we, as a society, going to orient our cultural systems so that the sea pirates of our own country are no longer created?
This would partly involve a cultural shift - which can be accomplished by all of us, using all of the forms of communication we have available. But it would also heavily involve new systems - new governmental policies, guided by what we know about human psychology and the roots of harmful behavior.
The root of most crime, for instance, is poverty and a lack of education. It arises from a lack of security. Those who are not cared about learn to not care about others.
When I have tried to put myself in the shoes of a robber, I have thought - no one has ever cared about me. I have always had to fend for myself, so why should I care about the person I'm robbing? The society I've grown up in has taught me to value competitiveness and individuality - to look after me and mine and not care about anyone else. After all, everyone else is doing the same.
By the same logic as our society, it makes sense to rob someone to get your needs met - because there is a certain implicit ethic in being self-sufficient, even if it's by illegal or harmful means.
Business leaders are often applauded for their "ruthless" business sense because "that's what it takes" to get ahead and succeed in a world designed that way.
Crime, ruthless business practices - they exist in our society by design, both culturally by the values we promote and physically, by the way our economic and political systems are set up. As long as poverty, insecurity, and a wretched existence awaits the least fortunate in our society, and society fails to properly care for them, we can expect more sea pirates in another 25 years, both with business suits and without.
So what's the alternative? How can we solve for the root of these problems rather than constantly throw more money dealing with the effects, as our police and prison systems do now? Here's one idea. It's not new.
A second bill of rights, as first outlined by FDR in 1944. The specifics could use some updating for the 21st century - but the essence of the idea is simple enough: a lack of security is fundamental to the vast number of problems in society, and the greatest detriment to human happiness and potential.
People cannot meet their higher needs and potentials as long as their lower needs for security, food and shelter are not met. When these needs are not met peacefully and in an egalitarian and just way, it should not surprise us that these needs will be met through violence, crime and other harmful behavior. But when these needs are met, people become freed to reach their highest potentials - to share their untapped gifts and creativity with the world.
If freedom is one of our greatest values, the freedom to ensure we can all reach our highest potentials should be one of our biggest goals. Freedom from insecurity - that is a kind of freedom that truly has the power to liberate us all.
That is why I think it is time for a new movement to make this dream of "security for all" a reality.
A guaranteed right to a home.
A guaranteed right to healthy food and clean water.
A guaranteed right to education, including free college.
A guaranteed universal basic income.
Such things could be "easily" paid for if our society was prepared to engage with our political systems until they were re-made to prioritize these things. Currently, our collective pool of funds are being used to fund the machinery of war, to give tax breaks to corporations, and hand out subsidies to large oil conglomerates (among other things). That's what our political system values today.
We all know who is running that show. It's not, we, the people. We've been disengaged and apathetic about politics for a long time. But I'm ready for a change of heart.
I would like to see our society pool it's collective resources in such a way that every child born into this world has a home, good food to eat, parents who are not overly stressed out due to debt and poverty, and free educational resources to draw on. Cradle-to-grave security. That's the goal.
I believe such a dream is possible, and where there is a will there is a way.
Let's do it.