Responsibility v Fragility

white liesI don’t believe in free will. We can argue that another time. Right now I’d like to briefly discuss what this means when confronting issues of white supremacy and racism.

Denying free will does not mean denying responsibility. Certainly, one could choose to use it in that way, but that’s not my bag. Within the given framework that my actions are the culmination of everything – universally, politically, genetically, environmentally – that has led to the moment in which the action was taken, I still acknowledge some kind of “me” who understands ethics and feels compassion and has a history and as such, I am responsible for my actions. I am where I am because of the circumstances that have led me here, but now that I’m here, I am part of everything that has contributed to my current state. If this doesn’t make sense to you, I get it. I can’t explain it in a way that even I can fully defend, but it is what I believe.

Similarly, White people must accept responsibility for racism, even though their position of power, their privilege, and their ignorance may not be consciously chosen. We are where we are because of white supremacy, and we have hurt people with our words and our actions, inevitably. Taking responsibility means different things for different people, but I do think it must include recognition of current, pervasive, devastating and dangerous racism, and our complicity in it. For most of us, that means talking about it.

The White producers of the podast White Lies say that in their home state of Alabama, all the White people they tried to interview about racism and the Civil Rights movement said they’re tired of talking about all that. When asked when they did talk about all that, what deep, soul-searching conversations led to all this exhaustion, of course there was no answer. Because they have never talked about it. White people are worn out from all the conversations they’ve never had.

I’m not mocking them. It is exhausting. Carrying the collective knowledge of the shared White guilt of centuries of oppression is fucking exhausting. But the weight isn’t lessened by avoiding it. Talking about it, accepting our participation in racial injustice, actually does help. I have been talking about race for a while now, and I am here to testify, folks, that you can build White Racial Stamina. Can I get a witness! I’m not as fragile as I used to be; I can (sometimes) accept responsibility and recognize my complicity without emotionally devastating shame. It’s an endless journey, but I’m definitely further along the trail than I was even a year ago.

I am a living part of a living world, and just as there is no impenetrable barrier between my organs and the environment that keeps them functioning with Oxygen and water, there is no impenetrable barrier between my actions and the actions of the history that led to me. Breathe it in, clean it up, exhale the waste.


Anger (The End of Empathy, pt. 2)

rageAh, Anger. It’s the hip vibe of the Trump era. Friends and acquaintances and annoyances and feminists and proud white supremacists all sing the praises of anger. It’s the caffeine of activism: perceived as necessary to wake up.

Trying to categorize sensations or psychological states as feelings or emotions is about as difficult as trying to distinguish between Empathy and Compassion. Just so we’re on the same page, though, let’s agree to this: emotions are uninterpreted physical sensations: they start in your body and often are almost instantaneously translated into something else (one of the things meditation tries to slow down), but they are real things, no matter how you interpret or indulge in or ignore them. Feelings or secondary emotions (don’t ask me to distinguish between them), are emotions interpreted on a very quick and base level: maybe fear or anger or attraction. I used to be a proponent of the Two Emotions: Love and Fear theory (pretty, isn’t it?), but now I buy into four: pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal, and calmness. These are vague and hard to describe, but I think that’s the point. Meditation in the back yard on a lovely summer day: calmness; light breeze: pleasantness; neighbor’s dog growls menacingly: arousal; dog bite: unpleasantness; your neighbor calls you an asshole for bothering their dog. Anger is the most obvious next step, right? Probably. The neighbor’s reaction is unjust, and you have been done wrong, which typically leads to anger. And that’s fine and natural and all that.

Here’s the thing: the anger may be caused by the injustice, but it isn’t necessary to address the injustice. The most gut-level, emotional reaction would be to punch the person or kick the dog or both. Most of us would agree that this is not the ideal reaction, however, and few of us would do it. Maybe we know the neighbor’s going through a rough time, or the dog is sick, or maybe now that you think about it, you might have accidentally hit it in the face when it startled you. There are reasons why you don’t act on your anger.

And yet, people love to talk about how anger is necessary to social justice work. I simply don’t believe that the most effective actions that have been performed in the name of reform and progress are actions of anger. The anger may well have helped the recognition of the social ill, but acting in anger, instead of assessing the situation, looking at the history, finding an appropriate organization through which to organize, or a creative way to call attention to the issue, is typically feckless and often disastrous.

I used to love the saying, “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” but now I find it offensive. No one should judge or police anyone’s feelings. You can be informed and aware and active and mindful. You don’t have to buy into anger activism. At best, the anger clouds the message of the activism. Did the marchers in Selma act out of rage? No. Were they angry? Fuck, yeah, but that was not how they chose what to do. They marched because of a reasoned decision that this action would bring attention to the cause and have the greatest national impact and likelihood of changing the law. Nonviolence itself is a suppression or redirection of anger. Action in anger leads to riots.

Maybe you like riots; maybe you think they’re effective. I can’t say you’re wrong, I can only say my heart hurts when a single innocent (no one is innocent, yeah yeah) person is hurt in blind anger. Not only is it immoral (the forces that led to it are immoral, yeah yeah), it makes those in the right look like they’re in the wrong. It’s a terrible recruiting strategy. It is true that the organizations working for civil rights in the South in the sixties knew that white kids would have to die before the national media would pay attention to what was happening, but they didn’t kill those white kids. Riots are understandable, and they may sometimes lead to indirect positive action, but the pain caused is deep and awful.

My father was extremely angry, and did not hide it. He did a pretty good job of not expressing it in the form of physical abuse, which his parents did, but the threat of violence was always there nonetheless. I wasn’t really allowed to be angry around him, so I suppressed it or let it out in short bursts of screaming to punk music. And then when I got out of the house, I exploded with anger all over Los Angeles.

When I was in college, anger was my #1 go-to secondary emotion, by a longshot. And it suuuuuuucked. Yes, there was something invigorating, something exciting about it, but at the same time I could feel it eating away at me, depriving me of sleep and joy, draining me of energy and focus. I chain smoked and cut myself to release some of the stress of that raging rage, but my main outlet was on the streets of LA, where I could drive recklessly and aggressively and yell at people from the bubble of my car without consequences (usually), and lay on my horn and speed on the freeway at 3:00am. But none of it made me feel better, and some of it was truly dangerous.

I am now a recovering rageaholic. If you catch me on a bad day, I don’t look like I’ve recovered much. (My partner would agree.) But the bad days happen less since meditation, and even better is my ability to move on when I am overtaken. I used to cling to anger, because it is energizing and it feels purposeful. It can be a kind of hot, thrilling mania. But I have never made good decisions while I was angry. Most of the really embarrassing moments in my life have been born in anger.

I know there’s a popular book about the power of women’s rage. I don’t need to read it, but I’m sure it has value. Black people have historically been pressured to stuff their anger because of the manufactured stereotypes of primal, unbridled emotion; and because it could sometimes get them killed. And of course that’s horrific and of course women and Black people have the right to be angry. Anger and rage are a part of life, but sanctifying rage or dwelling in it is always destructive to the rager, and often to others. Maybe I’ve put too much weight on this – it’s the longest post I’ve written in months – but a central tenet of the great Claw to Enlightenment is not acting on my base instincts, my raw emotions, the bullshit behavior that’s fucked up humanity for centuries. I’d like to better. I think we all can do better, but we first we have to know what we’re doing.

The End of Empathy, pt.1

(Unnecessarily dramatic title brought to you by the allure of alliteration.)

invisibiliaInvisibilia is one of my favorite podcasts. Given, I only listen to half a dozen podcasts, but that’s because I’m picky, dammit. They recently did an episode on empathy, that left me with at least as many questions as answers, which is, in my view, doing things right.

Before I get into this, I’d like to try and distinguish between empathy and compassion (something the Invisibilia ladies did not do). You can disagree with my conclusions, but good luck trying to find definitive definitions. I’ve read half a dozen interpretations online and no two of them agreed. Even my trusty Shorter Oxford dictionary couldn’t help, for the simple reason that English just doubled up on the term by pulling it from two different languages. Empathy is Greek; Compassion is Latin. As much as I’d like to believe that every word in our ridiculously large lexicon is unique and necessary, it’s simply not true.

But I do think there is an important distinction in the definitions applied to the two words. When they are distinguished, one is taken to mean something like co-feeling: actually experiencing the pain, etc. of another. This is also referred to as Affective Empathy. The other is more like relating to, or understanding, or being able to identify with another. That’s called Cognitive Empathy, but I’m going to refer to it as Compassion, because that’s the word typically used in (metta) meditation, and I’ll use Empathy as co-feeling (except where I’m forced to do otherwise by the language of my sources). Compassion seems to have a level of useful detachment to it, which also aligns with Buddhism; whereas empathy gets you deep in the shit.

You may have heard that empathy is on the downslide in our youth. This conclusion is mostly based on self-assessments that have been administered to college students methodically over the past 50 years, with some cohort-wide behavioral changes tossed in for validation. Most of the guesses as to the why of it all have to do with decreased personal interaction with others due to technology, highly competitive schools and sports, and an emphasis on “success.” I’m interested in why it’s there, but more in our capacity to right the course going forward. And that ties nicely into the “punching a Nazi” culture that has compelled and repulsed me ever since Trump got elected.

The Invisibilia episode hinges on a clash of values – those of host Hanna Rosen, and producer/job applicant Lina Misitzis. Hanna fully admits that her goal, the show’s goal, is to help listeners feel empathy (either definition) for people who they might typically write off. When Lina asked her “Why?” I was stunned, but impressed. To me, compassion is an inherent good. Compassion increases connection and decreases conflict and isolation. It’s what we should be aiming for as a species. The most horrifying thing about terroristic acts is not what they do, it’s that they do not care about the people they perform these acts upon. Religious extremists are terrifying in their absolute assurance that they are correct, and that others are not worth correcting or worth giving a shit about.

(I was impressed with the Why because I think questioning any assumptions is a wise move.) Anyway, Lina’s position is that empathy is not healthy because humanizing people you are opposed to weakens your resolve to fight them. She said she had listened to an interview with the guy who organized the racist Charlotte rally, an interview that let him express himself like a regular person, and it started “fucking with my conviction.” I guess it’s natural that this worried her, but it ties into a couple things that I’ve heard a lot the last few years, and that I disagree with.

First, that anger is a great motivator, or that it is necessary to fuel action.

Second, Don’t Know Thy Enemy.

Third, Compassion is a limited resource.

To be continued soon. Sorry for the delay on this one, dear reader/s.


top 10I struggle with lists. Two of my best friends love lists. They try to get me to make my ranked lists and compare them to their ranked lists. Top five movies of all time. Top ten novels. Three best fruits.


Lists are hard for me because I take them too seriously. The most recent challenge was contributing my list of 10 to the top 893 songs of the aughts. (Our indie music station is at 89.3 on the dial.) Specifically, the Essential songs. Meaningless. Is it the songs that most move me? The “objectively” best songs? The songs that are most musically representative of the era? Most lyrically aughtian? Should I cover the broadest range of music? Of performer types? It was too much. I think I wound up with a tidbit of each of those descriptions, and after several hours of analysis typed it up quickly and sent it in. Regretting all the breathtaking great songs I left out.

Some of you addicts are drooling to hear my list now. I get it. I would be, too. I truly don’t remember what was on it, but I know I included Amanda Palmer, Missy Elliot, TuNeYaRds, Elliott Smith, Lizzo, Rufus Wainwright, Kanye, and Sufjan Stevens. Sorry to disappoint.

But it’s not just making lists that’s hard; it’s the addictive yet disturbing assessment of the lists of others. I judge others according to how their lists compare to mine, judge myself by how my list compares to theirs, and judge their lists on a scale of my esteem for their creator. A song can theoretically drop a few clicks in my worst of list if someone I artistically respect makes a good argument for it, but I’m more likely to think less of a person for liking something I loathe.

Lists! The easiest clickbait on the internet. Top 10 most gruesome ways to die this year! Top 10 ugliest child stars! Why do we love them so much? It’s not just the thrill of having strong opinions about something insignificant. It seems to fall into that realm of human specialty: categorization. It’s one of our greatest strengths as a species. Evolution has blessed us with exceptional categorization skills. Safe and dangerous, while often ill-defined, are clearly important to survival. I’m sure if I weren’t rushing to finish this I could come up with a handful of others, and most of the unnecessary ones are at least innocuous. The ones that concern me are when we create a list based on a narrow set of characteristics, then label the list with a much broader title, then believe that title and apply those characteristics to the items we’ve decided to put in that list.

What am I talking about? I think my generalizations are no longer serving me.

You smile and say hello every morning. You tell me I have a wonderful dog. My dog likes you. I put you in the “nice” category. You mow my lawn after I break my leg and I upgrade you to “good.” Now that you’re in the good category, everything you do is colored by that label. The longer you stay in the good category, the harder it is to get booted from it. You say something that might be sexist and I attribute it to your age. You say something that might be racist and I attribute it to your homogenous surroundings. You say you’re a Republican and I have to wrestle with cognitive dissonance. Because Republican = Bad.

This has been brewing in my brain for a long time, and I’m not going to tackle it all here, but when we categorize people – good or bad; Democrat or Republican – we do it to make things easier on ourselves. And it somewhat necessary. For fuck’s sake, we can’t be expected to make a decision on the righteousness of every policy. We choose a side and trust that they’re making the right decision. We categorize people as good or bad so we don’t have to reassess them every time we meet. But “good guys” have gotten away with literal and figurative murder because we let the category define the individual, instead of taking the person’s actions on their own merit or lack thereof. Democrats have done horrible things. Republicans are sometimes right. We are so wedded to our lists that pulling a well-established someone or something out of one is worse than pulling teeth. It makes us question our ideology, our judgment, our perceptions. It’s horrifying. And liberating. And probably necessary.

I think one of the reasons I’m so reluctant to make lists is because I know how committed I am to them. What if I’m wrong? What if Jason Isbell is more worthy than Rufus Wainwright? I have to be willing to make that switch if I’m proven wrong. Rufus will forgive me. Or, more likely, he will flamboyantly not care.


Sitting in the Shit

headAnd sometimes you just have to accept that you’re in a bad place, and try not to spread it around. The compulsion is to try to justify it with the things you’ve failed at, the ways you feel you’re not supported by your partner or community, the demands of your job, the horrors of the government, your kids, climate change. It is all of that and none of it, but addressing any of it while in this state is downright dangerous. You can justify anything – any outburst, any insult, any rebellion – but that’s just because you’re clever, not because you’re right. And the outcome of any reactive interaction in this state will likely hurt you or someone else.

So maybe you bike it out, or drive around yelling with songs on the radio, or have a few drinks or some weed, or play video games for hours, or watch a pointless film, or ideally, just sit with it and meditate; but don’t blame it on anyone, including yourself. If you decide that anyone’s actions can significantly worsen your wellbeing, you’re reinforcing the idea that you have no choice in how you react to the world, and if you believe that, then why bother meditating, anyway? If you decide that, well, this one time it really was Joe’s fault, or Trump’s fault, or my fault, then you will also feel compelled to keep defending that position, which again reinforces the idea of your own passivity.

It is as much everyone’s fault as it is anyone’s fault, and as much no one’s fault as anyone’s. You are constantly touched by everything you interact with, but that touch doesn’t have to knock you down, and it doesn’t force you to push back. If you make up some excuse for the present state, it’s just going to prolong it. Accept the shit, try not to say too much, and know that, like everything, it will change. The less you attach to it, the easier it is, and the sooner you’ll move past it.

Now you’re going to publish this piece, have a shot of cucumber vodka, and quietly watch Game of Thrones with the partner and the dog. Then sleep. And see where you are tomorrow.

Cops & Fear

policeWhat does it mean to be afraid?

You’ve probably heard about the recent murder verdict in Minnesota. If not, here are the facts: a cop was convicted of second degree murder in the shooting of a civilian. It is the first time a police officer has ever been convicted of murder in Minnesota. Of the 98 officers in the US arrested for on-duty fatal shootings in the last 15 years, only 4 have been convicted of murder. And here is the context (you saw it coming): the cop convicted of killing Justine Ruszczyk, a White woman, in Minneapolis, was Mohammed Noor, a Muslim, Somali, Black cop.

Both Noor and Yanez, the cop who killed Philando Castile in 2016, said they feared for their lives and shot to defend themselves. I don’t doubt that for a second. Have you heard the video of Yanez? He’s clearly terrified. I have no particular reason to think either of these men had any desire to kill anyone, ever. But why is fear a justifiable excuse for shooting a civilian while on duty? And why only sometimes? Prosecutors in fact mocked Noor’s fear on the stand, asking, “The whole blonde hair, pink T-shirt and all is a threat to you?” Kind of sickening, right? Implying that a black man in a do-rag would have been a real, or at least a reasonable threat.

I’m not saying cops shouldn’t be afraid. They should be human. But they should also be held to a higher standard. Anyone licensed to carry and discharge a deadly weapon on the job should be held to an incredibly high standard. Every attempt should be made to draw out and minimize all implicit biases. Extensive mindfulness training should be mandatory, to keep them from reacting on base, baseless instinct. Instinct itself should stop being treated like some kind of gift and recognized for what it is: a reaction based on a lifetime of accumulated experiences, traumas, observations, and media input, supplemented with evolutionary impulses and only occasionally informed by the reality of the given situation. Is it okay to be afraid of a black man shooting a gun at you? What about a black man holding a gun? A black man? A black child? A black child running away from you? When does it stop being acceptable to justify violence with fear? Why is violence accepted as a reaction to fear? I could be scared walking down a dark street at night in what I perceive to be a bad neighborhood, but that doesn’t give me the right to kill anyone who approaches me. A black man could be scared when he’s pulled over by a police officer because he sees people like him being killed on the news with horrifying regularity, but that doesn’t give him the right to kill the officer when he approaches his window. It doesn’t even give him the right to run away from him.

I don’t pretend not to understand the elevated circumstances in which cops work, the unimaginable stress in dangerous areas, and the threats they often do encounter, but this fear defense is so fucking grey it seems to have no precise meaning at all. If they’re that afraid, they shouldn’t be cops. Or they should be treated for that condition before they’re on the street. If their training itself is telling them to be that afraid, the training is fucked. Maybe my barely thought out alternative is ridiculous, but it’s not unprecedented. Mindful police training is quietly happening around the country. It has the potential to help the officers live better lives and improve the outcome in all of their interactions.

I’m going to call toxic masculinity out in this one. What else could be the source of the belief that compassion and reason and equanimity and thoughtfulness are bad qualities in a person for whom a deadly weapon is an office supply? Or is it capitalism? The American Way? So many destructive ways of thinking.

I like the idea that there are only two emotions: love and fear. I don’t know if that’s accurate, but it makes sense that the more you love, the less you fear. If law enforcement can stop seeing love and compassion as enemies of the job, there might be less enemies of the job, and they might be able to actually, effectively, serve and protect all the people in their community.

The 1A, Lizzo, Jordan Peele, and other things that scare white supremacists

key & peeleWhen we were asked, in our April Unpacking Whiteness circles, to talk about the ways in which white supremacy had hurt us (White people) the first thing that came to mind was my favorite NPR shows. I didn’t share that the group, in part because I was determined to let my answer be spontaneous once the circle came round to me and in part because, let’s face it, Capitalism is a more impressive answer than “Joshua Johnson.”

But I love Joshua Johnson. The 1A Friday news roundup has become my favorite news show, because of him. He brings on excellent reporters, from a variety of backgrounds, and they have real discussions about issues that matter to me. What sets it apart are Joshua’s humor and facilitation skills, his incorporation of cultural events, and the fact that he’s Black. A lot of the issues most prominent in my purview today are issues I’d just rather hear broached by a Black journalist (police shootings, reparations, Trump, economic inequality). And honestly, it makes me feel better hearing a Black man calmly discuss and laugh at the insanity of the world than it would a White man. It’s essentially meaningless when a White man laughs at the state of the world, because White men have pretty much always benefitted, whatever the swirling chaos around them. (I’m sure some of you believe we should not allow ourselves to laugh at the world, but I am not engaging with you on this. I get it, but you are not going to seduce me over to your side of the fence.)

But it’s not just Joshua Johnson, or Sam Sanders of It’s Been a Minute, or even the “Barbershop” segment on Weekend All Things Considered, where Michel Martin bounces the news of the week off of knowledgable POCs. It’s also the pure, off the chain joy of Lizzo, the cinematic depth of Jordan Peele, the all-around genius of Donald Glover, the breathtaking, brutal honesty of Claudia Rankine.

We have been fucking ourselves, people.

We’ve been looking at ourselves and our world with one eye closed for so long. The oppression of Black people has deprived all of us of inestimable riches. Some have always managed to claw their way through the muck and shine against all odds, but what would we have been privy too if all odds weren’t against them? What would we be blessed with now if the playing field had been equal?

We can’t just blame those who’ve shamelessly, openly worked to keep Black people down, whether through racial covenants, incarceration, strict White social standards, general dehumanization, etc. The “see no color” philosophy that was a big part of my childhood culture implicitly excused the exclusion of Black voices because we were “all the same.” You could have (and some definitely have) done the same with race theory: concluding that since race is a construct (true), drawing distinctions between races or calling attention to race as it exists today is meaningless (not true). Hell, everything we know is a construct. From the Buddhist perspective, there is no difference between me and the chair I’m sitting on. We draw distinctions because we need them to function (if I am the food, can I eat the food?) and we draw more and more complex identities in order to function in a human society. And the final, most visible glaze in that creation is the identities that society imposes upon us. They may not be permanent, but they are absolutely real.

My background is in theatre & literature, but I have never thought arts & culture so important as I see them today. So much of that is because of the way life as a Black person, particularly a Black person within a Black culture embedded in a White country, is being artistically expressed today, and particularly in popular media. What might have changed if Atlanta, Insecure, Blackish, and Empire (created by Black people) were all on TV when I was a kid, instead of just Sanford & Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons (created by White people)?

William Faulkner wrote this in a piece on desegregation in 1956:

The white man knows that only ninety years ago not one percent of the Negro race could own a deed to land, let alone read that deed; yet in only ninety years, although his only contact with a county courthouse is the window through which he pays the taxes for which he has no representation, he can own his land and farm it with inferior stock and worn-out tools and gear — equipment which any white man would starve with — and raise children and feed and clothe them and send them North where they can have equal scholastic opportunity, and end his life holding his head up because he owes no man, with even enough over to pay for his coffin and funeral.

That’s what the white man in the South is afraid of: that the Negro, who has done so much with no chance, might do so much more with an equal one that he might take the white man’s economy away from him, the Negro now the banker or the merchant or the planter and the white man the sharecropper or the tenant. 

Segregation, racist policies, and the history of slavery are still defining features of the United States, and POC are still thriving in spite of it. It’s hard to imagine how much farther along we might be as a country and a species if we had extended full citizenship to everyone, ever. That’s the funny thing about white supremacists. If they really believe in the superiority of the “White Race,” they should be the biggest advocates for levelling the playing field, in order to prove their point. I don’t see a whole lot of that going on.