Alex Blaze

Is Getting Angry in the Face of Oppression Productive?

Filed By Alex Blaze | October 10, 2011 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: America, buddhism, Vietnam War, war

I'm reading Thich Nhat Hanh's Miracle of Mindfulness right now, and came across this story from when he was traveling around the US speaking against the war in Vietnam.

thich-nhat-hanh.jpgIf I were reading this book before I started to follow politics, I would have just thought it was about some jerk trying to make a stupid point. But now the relevant details jump out.

Specifically: the incoherent rage of a conservative when told the consequences of his preferred policies, and the fact that this occurs in a wealthy, suburban church. (I grew up in wealthy, Christian suburbia, and I'm pretty sure a large percentage of the angry comments on newspaper websites come from there.)

Here, a man questions Thich Nhat Hanh's commitment to the Vietnamese people because it's apparently contradictory to care about a people and to ask the country that's bombing them to stop. But the man could have just as easily been talking about how African countries engage in slavery or how the gays never complain about Muslim homophobia - the knee-jerk response to being told that your politics are garbage is to call other people names. (The story is told by a different writer, James Forest):

But there was one evening when Nhat Hanh awoke not understanding but rather measureless rage of one American. He had been talking in the auditorium of a wealthy Christian church in a St. Louis suburb. As always, he emphasized the need for Americans to stop their bombing and killing in his country. There had been questions and answers when a large man stood up and spoke with searing scorn of the "supposed compassion" of "this Mr. Hanh."

"If you care so much about your people, Mr. Hanh, why are you here? If you care so much for the people who are wounded, why don't you spend your time with them?" At this point my recollection of his words is replaced by the memory of the intense anger which overwhelmed me.

When he finished, I looked toward Nhat Hanh in bewilderment. What could he - or anyone - say? The spirit of the war itself had suddenly filled the room, and it seemed hard to breathe.

There was silence. Then Nhat Hanh began to speak - quietly, with deep calm, indeed with a sense of personal caring for the man who had just damned him. The words seemed like rain falling on fire. "If you want the tree to grow," he said, "it won't help to water the leaves. You have to water the roots. Many of the roots of the war are here, in your country. To help the people who are to be bombed, to try to protect them from this suffering, I have to come here."

This reminds me, bizarrely, of a time when I invited a straight, American friend to Alberto's cousin's apartment to have dinner with us. Alberto and I kissed at one point, and my friend verbally expressed his disgust. I was ready to get angry, but Alberto instead just engaged in discussion. Is it also gross for a straight couple to kiss in front of you? etc.

There's no pretty ribbon to tie that story in about how my friend learned to overcome his homophobia at that instant. There was no resolution, he soon moved away and we lost contact.

Nhat Hanh's story continues:

But after his response, Nhat Hanh whispered something to the chairman and walked quickly from the room. Sensing something was wrong, I followed him out. It was a cool, clear night. Nhat Hanh stood on the sidewalk beside the church parking lot. He was struggling for air - like someone who had been deeply underwater and who had barely managed to swim to the surface before gasping for breath. It was several minutes before I dared ask him how he was or what had happened.

Nhat Hanh explained that the man's comments had been terribly upsetting. He had wanted to respond to him with anger. So he had made himself breathe deeply and very slowly in order to find a way to respond with calm and understanding. But the breathing had been too slow and too deep.

"Why not be angry with him," I asked. "Even pacifists have a right to be angry."

"If it were just myself, yes. But I am here to speak for the Vietnamese peasants. I have to show them what we can be at our best."

Nhat Hanh discussed this concept in more depth before this story is presented in the book. It's an oversimplification to say that anger would make Vietnamese people look bad and therefore he couldn't get angry while in the US. It's an approximation, but it misses the point.

Instead, what I think he's referring to is the idea that expressing anger - acting with spiritual violence - hurts everyone, not just the object of that anger. He likened insulting people in another book to throwing hot coals at someone with your bare hands; you might hit your object sometimes, but you're sure to burn yourself in the process.

Violence causes people to close up, to stop listening, and to circle the wagons with their perceived allies while shunning people who either need to be convinced or should be doing the convincing. Defensiveness prevents change, and putting other people on the defensive is a way to ensure that won't convince them. On the other hand, not putting others on the defensive guarantees no results either.

It was an idea central to Martin Luther King's nonviolence as well (which is probably why King nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967), that violence only creates violence, that war - of all kinds, even the verbal kind - hurts everyone involved by pitting human beings against each other instead of promoting cooperation and healing.

That requires a great deal of spiritual maturity, and we're living in a particularly immature time. Corporations are the antithesis of spiritual maturity - they're legally required to only be concerned with their own material gain at the expense of all other considerations. They're greed made manifest. With all the power they have in the US, one can only expect their values to seep into and dominate our culture.

And the bottom line, from an economic progressive standpoint, is that the rich usually profit from war, while the poor end up paying for it. Of course the rich and powerful are going to want to promote tribalism and violence.

The culture war model that many social movements have followed since the 70's necessarily builds up people's defenses to calls of oppression and makes it harder for everyone to actually listen. That's the entire point and why the right has such an investment in that model - a war between Christians and gays makes it a lot harder for us to win than making an argument for everyone to favor the freedom to organize one's sex and relationship life as one sees fit. The success of that strategy, even as it will ultimately fail, is something I think about every time I hear a permutation of the "gay rights violate my rights" argument.

Nhat Hanh's story is from the 60's and not much has changed since then - the entire story could involve a, say, Afghan activist speaking to a suburban church about ending our occupation of that country. The man in that story felt anger at being confronted with the consequences of his political beliefs, and his instinct is to make the argument a war. Who does this person think he is, insulting my people and their generous actions this way? If I get mad and he gets mad, then we're all just as bad and I don't have to listen to his experiences or reconsider the limitless goodness of my country.

We're not any closer to ending global superpowers' desire to rob poorer countries and then justifying their theft with the language of freedom and charity, nor are we any further away from seeing violence (of all kinds) as the appropriate response to violence (of all kinds). I suppose it wouldn't require maturity, though, if the benefits of following the nonviolent path were immediate.

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More Buddhism. Less everything else! :)

Wilberforce1 | October 11, 2011 4:52 PM

I agree, but for a different reason.
I think that getting emotional hurts our ability to argue. Whether it's anger or joy or love. Emotion can short circuit logic. And when confronting our enemies, we need every shred of logic we can muster.
But you're right also. We do need to show calm and maturity. That helps in the PR war.

Anger in the face of oppression is human. The actions that follow beg the real question.