Apramāda

Buddhist perspectives on society and culture

Reactionary White Buddhists?

Posted in: Politics
White people

In June 2021 Ann Gleig and Brenna Artinger1 published an article called #Buddhist Culture Wars: Buddhabros, Alt-right Dharma, and Snowflake Sanghas, in which they castigated a number of American white male Buddhist teachers for what they considered to be reactionary right-wing sentiments, which are ‘a reaction to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in these communities.’

More recently Gleig has written another article called Reactionary White Buddhists Have Joined the Fight Against Critical Race Theory, in which she continues this theme, and has included those of us who produce the online magazine Apramāda, referring to us as reactionary white Buddhists “who have attempted to delegitimate [sic] and derail racial justice work.”

Referring to the article that she and Artinger wrote, she says that they categorised the (white male) Buddhists who challenged Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Racial Justice (RJ) as belonging to one of three (overlapping) positions: Reactionary Centrists, the Buddhist Right, and alt-Right Buddhists. You might wonder what a reactionary centrist is. The term was coined by Aaron Huertas who defines it as ‘someone who says they are politically neutral but who usually punches left while sympathizing with the right.’ Gleig explains: ‘Reactionary centrism, in other words, is a conservative ideological stance that sees and presents itself as transcendent of ideology.’

Apart from being a ‘political theorist’, as Gleig calls him, Huerta is also a left-wing commentator, and has set up an organisation called Swing Left, which, he says “is building a lasting culture of grassroots participation in winning elections for the Left”.2 So his characterization of those who say they are politically neutral but are really right wing is, I would suggest, to be treated with some scepticism. Perhaps he thinks that anyone who doesn’t subscribe to left-wing views must therefore be of the right. As Steven Pinker once humorously put it, just as, from the North Pole, all directions are South, so the Left Pole is a mythical spot from which all directions are Right.3

Not all critics of CRT and RJ are right wing though. I’ll mention just one who isn’t – John McWhorter, an American linguist with a specialty in creole languages, sociolects, and Black English. McWhorter is also the author of books on race relations, hip-hop, and African-American culture. He has just published a new book called Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. He’s a Democrat. And he’s  black. I shouldn’t really need to tell you that, but if he were white… well, I’ll let him explain:

I know quite well that white readers will be more likely to hear out views like this when they are written by a black person, and I consider it nothing less than my duty as a black person to write this book.
A version of this book written by a white writer would be blithely dismissed as racist. I will be dismissed instead as self–hating by a certain crowd.
[Emphasis McWhorter’s]

If non-Buddhist critics of CRT/RJ can be left wing, presumably Buddhist ones can be too, just as they can be actually centrists (and not ‘reactionary centrists’). Isn’t it possible that at least some of the Buddhists that Gleig and Artinger denounce are, as some of them claim to be, not right wing at all, but opposed to CRT/RJ for what they consider to be other legitimate reasons? I can’t answer that question because I don’t know the Buddhists that Gleig and Artinger denounce. But to name one of them, Brad Warner, the author of Hard Core Zen, denies being right wing. They quote him as saying ‘I want nothing at all to do with Marxist political movements, or, indeed, political movements of any kind—this goes for right-wing movements as well as left-wing ones’, yet they confidently proclaim that ‘Warner’s positions on race and transgender issues are clearly locatable on a right-wing spectrum’.4 Why do they refuse to believe him? Because, to repeat a point, they think anyone criticising CRT/RJ must be right wing, so as much as he may profess his innocence, they know he is guilty.

Criticism of Apramāda

Having given some background to Gleig’s new article, let’s move on to her opinions of Apramāda. Returning to her thesis that white male Buddhist teachers who reject CRT/RJ are right-wing, even though they say they’re not, she says

Such an approach is clearly at work among white Buddhists who claim to be apolitical while mobilizing conservative assumptions and strategies to delegitimate anti-racist work in Buddhism as “ideological.” A good example here comes from the transnational Buddhist Triratna community [sic].

Gleig’s criticism of Apramāda here is not new. One member of the Triratna Buddhist Order warned us recently that it is ‘gathering a reputation as an organ for conservative intellectualism’ and ‘if not careful it will be easily dismissed in caricature as the Wight Wing Watchdog.’ Which of course is what Gleig has done in her article. In response to this warning we collectively replied

… with regard to the ‘culture wars’, as with any other issue, we do not see ourselves as on the ‘right’ or the ‘left’, but on the ‘side’ of facts, logic and the Dharma. If we go astray on any of these three grounds, anyone is welcome to challenge us… If in some people’s eyes, our position looks ‘right wing’, that perception is true only to the extent that our position is not left wing. In any case, there are many different ways of being both ‘left’ and ‘right’ wing, and these categories no longer capture much of what is at stake in ‘culture war’ issues.5

Reactionary White Buddhists

Gleig characterises us as ‘reactionary white Buddhists’. Reactionary means, according to the Dictionary Online, ‘opposing political or social progress or reform’, and its synonyms include ‘conservative, right wing, rightist, ultra-conservative, ultra-right’. As we’ve stated above, we are not right wing, nor do we oppose political or social progress and reform. What we oppose is the CRT vision of reform, which we consider to be regressive. That is, it divides rather than unites whites and people of colour, and has made race relations worse wherever it’s had an influence. Some black commentators also think that CRT/RJ is not helping but harming blacks.6 John McWhorter, for instance, writes in his book Woke Racism

I write this viscerally driven by the fact that the ideology in question is one under which white people calling themselves our saviors make black people look like the dumbest, weakest, most self-indulgent human beings in the history of our species, and teach black people to revel in that status and cherish it as making us special.

But advocates of CRT, such as Ann Gleig, assume that anyone who opposes CRT/RJ opposes all social progress and reform.

Gleig also thinks that we at Apramāda are just one example ‘of a broad spectrum of “anti-woke” white Buddhists who have attempted to delegitimate [sic] and derail racial justice work.’ What is ‘racial justice’? Here is one definition, from Williams College, USA:

Racial justice is the systematic fair treatment of people of all races, resulting in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all.7

I wholeheartedly support the first part of this definition, up to and including equitable opportunities, but the idea that we should strive to bring about equitable outcomes is, I think, a mistake. In his recent article Was the Buddha an Anti-Racist? Subhamati writes:

The push for equity [of outcomes] assumes that all racial or ethnic groups within a country are comparable and will achieve similar outcomes in the absence of racism on the part of the dominant group. But this is a simplistic assumption. In relation to any single socio-economic measure, there are a variety of reasons why two racial or ethnic groups may have different outcomes.8

Next, Gleig compares Apramāda unfavourably with Triratna’s work in India:

Given their strong links to the Ambedkar Buddhist Dalit community, an engaged Buddhist lineage that has combatted caste violence and discrimination in India, one might expect to find a similar commitment to justice for other marginalized populations.

I’m delighted that she praises Triratna’s work in India and refers to it as an engaged Buddhist lineage, because it is just that. It’s not based on CRT or RJ, but is based on Buddhist values. Gleig then implies that we at Apramāda oppose ‘justice for other marginalised populations’. There’s that word ‘justice’ again, which, as I explained above, has a very particular meaning in woke circles. If I say that I’m not committed to justice (in the particular way CRT/RJ defines it), people are likely to think that I’m opposed to justice in the way the word is ordinarily defined. This is just another instance of Gleig’s assumption that, because we oppose CRT and RJ, we are opposed to social progress and reform.

Seven White Men

Gleig is correct when she says Apramāda is produced by ‘seven white males’, but our being white and male carries much more significance for Gleig than it does for us. For her, white males are an ‘identity group’, which is, according to CRT, an oppressor group. And if she holds fast to her identitarian doctrine, which is highly likely, she will think that we should have women and people of colour in our team. Not to do so can only be due to our sexism and racism. For us though, the fact that we are white and male is irrelevant. What has brought us together is not our colour or gender but our shared concern about, amongst other things, the deleterious effect that woke doctrine is having on our society, and also on the Triratna Buddhist Community. Women and people of colour who share our concerns are very welcome to join us.

When you enter the temple, leave your politics at the door

Gleig then turns her attention to an article written by me for the first edition of Apramāda, called When you enter the temple, leave your politics at the door. She claims that for me

it’s not politics per se but rather a certain type of politics that aren’t welcome. To give a hint: as the author explains, “diversity, like social justice, is one of those words that sounds innocent and good, but is informed by a political ideology that is not so innocent and good”. [Emphasis Gleig’s].

The first sentence in this quote is untrue. I am against any kind of political ideology being brought into the Buddhist community, but I don’t see conservatives doing that. If I did I would protest just as loudly. In my article I didn’t say what the political ideology informing ‘diversity’ was, but both of Gleig’s articles are pure expressions of it. When I say that this ideology is not innocent or good, by the way, I don’t mean to imply that everyone who subscribes to it is a bad person. I don’t doubt that Gleig, for instance, is sincere in her commitment to making the world a better place. I just think the attempt to create the world she envisions will result in one that will be considerably worse than the one we’re in now. One hint as to what this world would be like is reflected in Gleig’s very judgemental attitude towards those whose opinions differ from hers, and her refusal to entertain the possibility that those who disagree with her may do so in good faith. She doesn’t simply say that she thinks we’re wrong, she makes it clear that she considers us to be bad people: whilst we say we’re doing one thing (trying to bring Buddhist perspectives to bear on questions facing the world today), we are really doing something else (promulgating reactionary right wing views dressed up as Buddhist doctrine in an attempt to halt any social progress and reform, specifically racial equality).

Next, she writes

One wonders why the author sees the call for racial justice in his community as “ideological” rather than as reflecting the lived experiences of his PoC sangha members. Why did he not include any of the first-person reports  by Triratna members of color who have experienced racism within and beyond white dominant Triratna spaces?

This is a non-sequitur. In this quote and the preceding one Gleig is referring to a couple of paragraphs in my article in which I make two points. Firstly, the word ‘diversity’, like justice, is underpinned by a political ideology, and secondly, this ideology promotes diversity of  race, ethnicity, sexual orientation etc, but not of social and political opinion. This seems to be largely true of the Triratna Buddhist Community in the West. So the reason I didn’t include first-person reports by Triratna members of colour is because it wouldn’t have been relevant to the points I was making.

Reactionary Reverse Victim Strategy

Continuing Gleig’s criticism of my article, she writes

… in a commonly employed reactionary reverse victim strategy, the only identity group he does name as vulnerable in Triratna are conservatives.

This is curious. It puts me in a false position because I don’t think in the terms that Gleig does. She considers people’s group identity to be the most important thing about them (hence it’s important to Gleig to mention that Apramāda is produced by white males, because that, to her, is significant). Because she looks at society in terms of ‘identity groups’, some of which are oppressors while others are oppressed, she assumes that I see the world in that way too. So she imagines that I was employing what she calls a ‘reverse victim strategy’, as if I were engaging in a game, the rules of which were written by advocates of identity politics. But I don’t conceive of society in that way. I just see people. Of course, everyone ‘belongs’ to various groups, but that isn’t what defines them. In my article I was simply saying that I know a few people within Triratna who describe themselves as moderately conservative, and who find it difficult being in a sangha in which the majority are left wing/woke. Why is it difficult? Because those of a woke persuasion consider their ideology to be perfectly compatible with the Dharma, even an expression of it, and so bring it into their teaching of and discussions about the Dharma. And because, like Gleig, they regard anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their ideology as being right wing, and thus immoral, some non-woke members’ ‘first-person reports’ tell of being kept at a distance, subtly shunned, politely (or not so politely) dismissed. What this means is that, to the extent that woke ideology enters the sangha, it ceases to be a sangha.

Gleig rounds off her critique of my article by rhetorically asking how I reconcile my ‘apolitical call’ with some of the articles written by my co-editors, specifically one written by Advayacitta, Politics as Cognitive Anti-Therapy, and another by Subhamati, Was the Buddha an Antiracist? This is a misunderstanding on her part, but I’m glad she mentioned it, because it gives me the opportunity to clarify a point that I know some members of the Triratna Buddhist Community have also misunderstood. I was not saying that Buddhists should have nothing to do with politics, or that there is no place for the discussion of politics in a Buddhist movement. Nor was I saying that Buddhists shouldn’t have any opinions on political matters, or try to work out how the Dharma applies in the political sphere, or in relation to any specific political matter. What I meant is named in the title of the article: When you enter the temple, leave your politics at the door. The temple is a metaphor of course, which points towards the sacred space where the Dharma is taught and heard in its purest form. In trying to understand the Dharma one should do so on its own terms, having left behind all presuppositions from the political realm. Then, when one is back in the realm where politics is inevitable, one is in a better position to apply the Dharma to it in a way that actually helps, and doesn’t distort the Dharma. That’s what Advayacitta and Subhamati were doing in those articles, and indeed what all of our writers attempt to do.

Critical Race Theory is a wrong view

I haven’t been able to discover whether Gleig is a Buddhist, or simply an academic with a particular interest in (American) Buddhism. Whether or not she is a Buddhist, she may be aware of a list of ten ethical precepts members of the Triratna Buddhist Order observe. 9 The tenth of these is abstention from false views. In his paper The Ten Pillars of Buddhism Sangharakshita writes of this precept

The Pali term for which `false views’ is the generally accepted rendering is miccha-ditthi. Miccha means simply wrong or false, while ditthi means `view, belief, dogma, theory, esp. false theory, groundless or unfounded opinion.’ Thus miccha-ditthi… means in the first place a wrong or false view, in the sense of a wrong or false way of seeing things, and in the second place a wrong or false view as expressed more or less systematically in intellectual terms in the form of a doctrine.

What makes the view, or the doctrine, wrong or false is the fact that it is an expression, not to say a rationalization, of a mental state contaminated by covetousness and hatred, as well as by delusion (moha).

He goes on to say that a false view is usually held with a “conviction of its absolute rightness … such pertinacity and conviction are themselves unskilful mental states”. [Emphasis mine].

It’s clear that Gleig views Buddhist teachers and communities referred to in her articles through the lens of Critical Race Theory, which is a false view in all of the above senses. As long as she regards them through this lens, it’s unlikely she will ever understand them.

Footnotes

  1. Gleig is an Associate Professor of Religion and Cultural Studies at the University of Central Florida. Artinger describes herself as an independent Buddhist Studies scholar and journalist.
  2. About Swing Left | Swing Left
  3. (52) Steven Pinker – The left pole – YouTube
  4. The #BuddhistCultureWars: BuddhaBros, Alt-Right Dharma, and Snowflake Sanghas. 357-1001-1-PB (2).pdf
  5. A Burning House? – Apramada Comments section.
  6. See Our Founding Letter – Don’t Divide Us (dontdivideus.com) and read the signatories of that letter. See also The Equiano Project. Both of these projects are based in the UK. There are plenty of American blacks who also think that CRT is bad for black people. For instance, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Jason Riley, Wilfred Reilly, Coleman Hughes, Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell.
  7. Racial Justice – Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (williams.edu)
  8. Was the Buddha an Antiracist? – Apramada
  9. See, for instance Sevitabba-asevitabba-sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 114.
Ratnaguna

Ratnaguna has been a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order for 45 years. He is a well-known teacher and has written four books - The Art of Reflection, Great Faith Great Wisdom (with Dharmachari Śraddhāpa), Kindfulness (in Spanish, with Dharmachari Dharmakirit), and, under his civil name, Gary Hennessey, The Little Mindfulness Workbook.

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