Saturday, December 10, 2005

Is Bigotry a Mental Illness?

This is the question the psychological community is asking itself. The problem with the question they are asking is that they are not making distinctions in the degree of dislike people experience. Here is an example from the article:
The 48-year-old man turned down a job because he feared that a co-worker would be gay. He was upset that gay culture was becoming mainstream and blamed most of his personal, professional and emotional problems on the gay and lesbian movement.

These fixations preoccupied him every day. Articles in magazines about gays made him agitated. He confessed that his fears had left him socially isolated and unemployed for years: A recovering alcoholic, the man even avoided 12-step meetings out of fear he might encounter a gay person.

"He had a fixed delusion about the world," said Sondra E. Solomon, a psychologist at the University of Vermont who treated the man for two years. "He felt under attack, he felt threatened."

This isn't bigotry--it's a phobia, a rigidly held false fear. The case cited here is an example of an irrational fear that intrudes into the individual's life in unwanted ways. This man is not a homophobe.

I feel I need to make clear, based on what I am about to say, that I abhor hatred in all its forms--race, gender, religion, body size, or sexual status. It is never, under any circumstances, acceptable to treat anyone as a lesser person based on some form of hatred or bigotry.

That said, I think it's a mistake to pathologize hatred. To do so is to set up situations where KKK members will get therapy instead of prison for violence against groups they don't like. To declare racism a disorder is to absolve the individual of responsibility for his/her actions. The skinhead will be able to stand in the courtroom and say to the judge, in all seriousness, "I'm sick, judge, it's an illness. Please--I need help."

I hope I never see that day.

As human beings develop, one of the stages everyone must pass through has "fear of the other" as one of its components. If adults also hold this viewpoint, then the "other," in all its forms, is to be shunned, feared, hated, or killed. This is the foundation for tribal warfare, nation-states, gangs, racial identity groups, and all other forms of us-versus-them thinking. Most nations on the planet are still largely homogeneous, so nationality can still be a form of ethnic identity.

In the United States, however, we don't have that homogeneity. Further, we don't recognize ethnic separation as a tolerable stance any longer--even though it still exists in some areas of the country. This poses problems for people who live their adult lives within that ethnocentric developmental level, which for them is a worldview.

Some therapists aren't looking at the bigger picture and argue against a new DSM classification on anti-PC grounds.
Darrel A. Regier, director of research at the psychiatric association, said he supports research into whether pathological bias is a disorder. But he said the jury is out on whether a diagnostic classification would add anything useful, given that clinicians already know about disorders in which people rigidly hold onto false beliefs.

"If you are going to put racism into the next edition of DSM, you would have enormous criticism," Regier said. Critics would ask, " 'Are you pathologizing all of life?' You better be prepared to defend that classification."

"I think it's absurd," said Sally Satel, a psychiatrist and the author of "PC, M.D.: How Political Correctness Is Corrupting Medicine." Satel said the diagnosis would allow hate-crime perpetrators to evade responsibility by claiming they suffered from a mental illness. "You could use it as a defense."
I agree with both these doctors. Yet I think they are missing the point I was trying to make above. We cannot pathologize an entire developmental stage or its corresponding worldview.

Most adults pass through this stage in childhood, but not everyone does or we wouldn't have racists, homophobes, sexists, and so on. These various -isms of hate are extreme forms of "fear of the other," but they should not be seen as pathological in a clinical sense. They do not require medication to cure. They develop as a result of isolationist thinking, which results in segregation and apartheid. They can be cured with information, reframing, and experience.

Racists in their twenties or thirties tend to outgrow that worldview by their fifties and sixties. Here is one view that explains this process in more detail.
[I]dentity development is influenced by personal experiences during the lifespan. For example, encounters in childhood may influence the kind of views that are construed about one's ethnic identity at an early stage. However, as the person develops through the lifespan and is exposed to numerous other encounters, these views may change as the person adapts his/her values, beliefs and attitudes. The qualitative differences generated through these encounters reshape the cognitive, emotional and attitudinal aspects of identity formation. Some aspects of early identity perception may be reinforced and become an integral part of the person's ethnic/cultural identity, whilst other aspects may be given to changes over time and through acculturation.
This quote allows, as I maintain, that people can outgrow hatred. The authors also suggest, however, that ethnocentric beliefs can be reinforced and become permanent. While this may be true if left unconfronted--and assuming the individual(s) remain isolated from experiences that may trigger change--it is not reasonable or responsible to pathologize a behavior that can be reformed. However, the behavior should not be accepted or encouraged any more than one accepts a child throwing a tantrum whenever s/he wants attention.

Rather than pathologizing bigots, they should be given the opportunity to grow beyond their limited worldview--providing they have not committed any hate crimes. By providing an opportunity to gain new experiences and new understandings, many people who hold hateful views can learn to reject such narrow perceptions of the world.

Adding racism to the DSM is not going to do much for changing things. We need to think much earlier in the developmental process. Children are not naturally hateful. Adults turn a natural fear of "the other" into hatred by teaching hatred. If we want to eliminate bigotry, we need to start with children.

U2 Wins Amnesty International's 2005 Ambassador of Conscience Award

Seems like U2 is a constant presence here these days. Bono didn't make it to the finals of Beliefnet's poll, but U2 has been recognized by Amnesty International as its 2005 Ambassador of Conscience Award winner.
Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan said: "From Live Aid in 1985 and Amnesty International's 1986 Conspiracy of Hope tour, through to Live 8, U2 has arguably done more than any other band to highlight the cause of global human rights in general and Amnesty International's work in particular."

She continued: "Their leadership in linking music to the struggle for human rights and human dignity worldwide has been ground-breaking and unwavering.

"They have inspired and empowered millions with their music and by speaking out on behalf of the poor, the powerless and the oppressed."

Art for Amnesty founder Bill Shipsey said U2 would be worthy candidates of the award for their music alone.

"With songs like Pride (In The Name of Love), MLK, Miss Sarajevo, Mothers of the Disappeared, Walk On (written for Burmese political activist Aung San Syu Kyi), and of course the song that has become an anthem to Amnesty, One, U2 has helped spread the human rights message of Amnesty International to a global audience," he said.

"They have brought the issues of debt, aid and trade, particularly as they affect Africa, to the world's attention."

The award recognises exceptional individual leadership in the fight to protect and promote human rights. It is inspired by a poem written for Amnesty International by Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney.

I've written about U2 and Bono here.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Beliefnet's Most Inspiring Person Poll

Beliefnet is running a poll for the most inspiring person of 2005. It's down to three pairs of semifinalists. Today's vote is Bono (of U2) vs. Capt. David Rozelle. The soldier is brave, but Bono is working to change the world--in a good way, not in a GW Bush way.

If you agree with me, let's get out the vote and move Bono to the final round. The only person left more deserving (in my view) than Bono (my post on him is available here) is Rosa Parks (featured in tomorrow's vote).

You can read about each of the candidates remaining in the vote.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Richard Dawkins: The Master of Flatland has a new interview with Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and Climbing Mount Improbable and fervent anti-creationist. Dawkins is certainly one of the most brilliant advocates for science, but he is also the leading proponent of scientism, the elevation of science to the status of absolute, unparalleled truth.

Dawkins only gives legitimacy to the upper right quadrant of human experience, reducing the entire buzzing chaos of creation to the immutable laws of nature. The idea of divinity is, to him, absurd. In fact, the idea of placing value in the interiority of experience is absurd. Here is a quote from the interview [emphasis in Dawkins's answer is mine]:
You're concerned about the state of education, especially science education. If you were able to teach every person, what would you want people to believe?

I would want them to believe whatever evidence leads them to; I would want them to look at the evidence, judge it on its merits, not accept things because of internal revelation or faith, but purely on the basis of evidence.

With this answer, Dawkins has effectively dismissed both of the interior quadrants, individual and collective. He seems unable to comprehend that one can apply the scientific methods of truth acquisition to the claims of interiority in the same way that you can to exteriority.

For example, Buddhism makes a truth claim that if one meditates in a certain way for a given period of time, that one will have certain experiences. There is a very precise prescription and a very precise expected outcome. This is testable. Dawkins could follow the prescription, note his experiences, and then compare his results to those of others who have undertaken the same experiment.

Ken Wilber gives the following definition of the scientific method (The Marriage of Sense and Soul), insofar as one specific method can be said to exist:
1. Instrumental injunction: this almost always come in the form of "If you want to know this, do this." It can be a practice, an exemplar, an experiment, and so on.

2. Direct apprehension: "An immediate experience of the domain brought forth by the injunction; that is, a direct experience or apprehension of data." This applies even if the data is mediated, for example, computer generated data on the movement of stars or variations in lightwave frequency for which we rely on machines.

3. Communal confirmation or rejection: This is where one checks the results against those of others who have undertaken the same experiment.
This method allows one to test the interiority of experience to determine its truth claims. One of the main objections some scientists give for rejecting all interiority as purely subjective is the inability to test its claims. It simply isn't true.

This also opens the possibility of separating scientific inquiry into three broad domains, rather than the single domain now considered the realm of science. Instead of "science," there would be sensory empiricism (the upper right quadrant), mental empiricism (both upper right and upper left), and contemplative empiricism (upper left quadrant). More precisely, there would be a monological science (the science of sensory experience), a dialogical science (a science of mental experience), and a translogical science (a science of spiritual experience).

Adopting this understanding would take a lot of the wind out of Dawkins's arguments against anything other than a flatland conception of the universe.

We might also move toward an understanding that evolution is not random or based solely on the survival of the most efficient genes. All of the world's great mystic traditions perceive creation as coherent, meaningful, and self-guided. They arrived at these understandings through contemplative science. Some offer God as an explanation; others do not. Many modern mystics intuit the Kosmos itself to be consciousness and evolving toward full awareness of itself.

I'm not advocating for intelligent design. ID is creationism dressed up for a walk through the mall. I don't think the world is so complex that we need a creator God to explain it all. This isn't a testable hypothesis.

One of the things I do like about Dawkins is his insistence that people should understand the basics of science. Roughly 100 million Americans believe that a God directly created human beings completely independent of evolution. Dawkins calls these people names. That probably isn't the best way to convince them that your own point of view is correct.

If you understand the developmental Spiral, it's clear that people have differing worldviews depending on where they are along the Spiral. Using Orange logic (evolution, scientism) isn't going to convince someone whose spiritual developmental line is centered in Blue, Green, or higher. Even the majority of Orange-centered people do not reject the notion of divinity--they simply define it differently depending on where they are on the Spiral.

A poll taken a few years ago confirmed that 92 percent of Americans believe in "God." The difference is in how they define what that God is in their lives.

I firmly believe in evolution, even if I quibble with some of the details. However, I also believe that the Kosmos is not random, indifferent, and without purpose. To Dawkins, I am traitor to science. To me, Dawkins is cut off from half of what it means to be human.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Men Don't Cry, or Do They?

When I was growing up, I was told that boys don't cry. I was told that no matter how tired I was, I should suck it up and keep going. I was told that emotions are for girls. I was told that men are tough. I was told that real men don't give in to pain. I was told that success comes through sacrificing myself for my team/family/job. I believed what I was told.

I think many millions of other boys were told the same or similar things. I think many of us have grown up to be driven by success, estranged from our emotions, and unable to define ourselves outside of what we do. Few of us know how to be.

I firmly believe that many of us who were raised with those ideas suffer from a blunted or distorted emotional developmental line. This major element of what makes us human was stunted in its development or distorted by faulty beliefs we inherited from our families. We suffer from this absence.

I have been working on regaining access to the emotional element of my identity. Without it, I am an incomplete person. My own story is complicated by the loss of my father as a thirteen-year-old, at which point I shut down emotionally in the absence of any support for working through my feelings. But even before his death, I lived by the cowboy, tough guy, superhero ethos: show no pain, show no weakness, and show no feelings.

Working on this issue, for me, has been a process of moving backward through my life, experiencing and integrating all the grief and pain I repressed at its origin. It's like peeling off the layers of an onion. It seems endless. It involves tears. In fact, I seek out opportunities to cry, knowing that each time I do I am releasing a lifetime worth of repressed feelings.

I hate it--every damn minute of it. I'd rather stand naked in front of an audience and give a speech for which I haven't prepared. It sucks that much.

I was recently reading a Pema Chödrön book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, and found in the first pages an answer to my distaste for this process. She briefly mentions how we often talk about spiritual awakening (and the process I am working with is a form of spiritual awakening) as a journey to the top of a mountain. The implication is that we leave our loved ones--and everyone else--behind in our quest. At the top we have escaped pain and suffering. The only problem, she says, is that "their suffering continues, unrelieved by our personal escape."

There is another way.

On the journey of the warrior-bodhisattva, the path goes down, not up, as if the mountain pointed toward the earth instead of the sky. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move toward turbulence and doubt whenever we can. We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away. If it takes years, if it takes lifetimes, we let it be as it is. At our own pace, without speed or aggression, we move down and down and down. With us move millions of others, our companions in awakening from fear. At the bottom we discover water, the healing water of bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is our heart--our wounded, softened heart. Right down there in the thick of things, we discover the love that will not die. This love is bodhichitta.

How different would our lives be if our fathers and mothers had taught us the way of the warrior-bodhisattva? How different would our lives be if we were taught that the only way out of an emotion is through it? How different would our lives be if we were taught that the true warrior is not the strongest or toughest one, but the one with the soft, open, tender heart?

It's not too late for us to learn this path. We have to be willing to experience all the things we have repressed, buried, and avoided. We have to learn to be comfortable with pain, with fear, with doubt, and most of all, with grief. We have to do more than be comfortable--we must embrace these misplaced parts of our lives if we ever hope to be whole.

It's a slow process. Chödrön mentions that we must do it at our own pace, without aggression. I forget this sometimes. I want to push through it and be "healed." I don't want to be patient and let it unfold at its own pace. During weeks when very little moves, I meditate more, spend more time in my journal, or read more books in an attempt to shake things loose. But the psyche is smarter than we are--it only gives us as much as we can handle. When more comes up than we can handle, defense mechanisms shut us down.

If we can master our emotions, learn to embrace our condition as human beings in a chaotic world--if we no longer shield ourselves from our suffering, then we can become warrior-bodhisattvas.

We train in the bodhichitta practices in order to become so open that we can take the pain of the world in, let it touch our hearts, and turn it into compassion.

What if the true measure of a man was not his strength, or his success, or his toughness? What if the true measure of a man is his compassion, his softness, his tender heart?

What if that is how we raise the next generation of young men? What might the world look like when they are making the decisions and running the government?

Sunday Poem: Denise Levertov

The Depths

When the white fog burns off,
the abyss of everlasting light
is revealed. The last cobwebs
of fog in the
black firtrees are flakes
of white ash in the world's hearth.

Cold of the sea is counterpart
to this great fire. Plunging
out of the burning cold of ocean
we enter an ocean of intense
noon. Sacred salt
sparkles on our bodies.

After mist has wrapped us again
in fine wool, may the taste of salt
recall to us the great depths about us.

Denise Levertov (1923-1997) is one of the giants of modern American poetry (she was, however, born in England), often regarded as a Beat Generation poet. The innovation of her work and her affinity for mysticism certainly contribute to that perception, but she did not claim identity in any movement or school--she was uniquely herself.

Levertov lived in Massachusetts for many years before settling in Seattle in 1989, where she wrote, taught, and enjoyed life along Lake Washington, in the shadow of Mount Rainier. I lived in Seattle during the final years of her life, and despite health issues (including lymphoma, which eventually killed her), she gave many public readings that I was fortunate to attend.

Her poetry was shaped by her religious heritage (a Russian Jewish scholar father who became an Anglican priest, and a Congregationalist mother) and her association with the Black Mountain poets Robert Creeley, Charels Olson, and Robert Duncan. The result was a verse that looked for and revealed the natural form and meaning in things, upheld the things themselves as a worthy subject, and still showed the hand of its maker in its precision and craft. She also brought a powerful sense of justice to her life and poetry, actively writing and demonstrating for peace during the Vietnam War.

Levertov's best poems combine a profound attention to craft with a spiritual curiosity in the nature of things, which produces poems rooted in personal experience, allowing their meaning to dictate their form. An example is the poem above, which is, on the surface, about the lifting of fog from a coastal scene and the fog's return in the evening. The lines are short and the imagery is sparse, which serves to carry the mood of the poem.

However, the middle verse of the poem reveals much more, and we might see in these lines an almost beatific experience of swimming in the ocean (the unconscious, the womb, the emotional realm, unmanifest form--recall "Diving into the Wreck"), or quite possibly the depths of a human life. The central symbols are the ocean and the salt--an element that throughout history has been both a spice and a source of life. Without salt we die; with salt, we both savor its taste and live through its gift.

In this small, personal poem, Levertov has created a statement on the human condition that is revealed in simple images capable of carrying the weight of her insight. Few poets have the skill to work such magic, and fewer still can do it in such a way that any person can find in this poem a confirmation of faith, no matter which tradition s/he comes from.

Denise Levertov won several awards during her lifetime, including the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Frost Medal, the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Lannan Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant.

Levertov remained rooted throughout her life in a mystic version of Christianity (what might be seen as a transpersonal experience of divinity), but was also interested in Eastern religions--she even translated some Hindu work into English.